In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nāyaṉmār

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Translations and Studies of Stories about the Nāyaṉmār
  • The Nāyaṉmār in Song, Art, and Film
  • Philosophical Interpretation of the Nāyaṉmār
  • Literary and Historical Contexts of the Nāyaṉmār
  • Translations and Studies of Vishnu-Bhakti Saints’ Compositions
  • Comparative Studies of Bhakti Poet-Saints

Hinduism Nāyaṉmār
Karen Pechilis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0127


The term nāyaṉmār (singular, nāyaṉār) is a Tamil-language word that today generally means “leaders,” but as the term is widely known and used it specifically refers to sixty-three exemplary human figures in the Hindu devotional path of Tamil Shiva bhakti (devotion to the god Shiva), whose lives are described in a 12th-century volume attributed to Cēkkiḻār, the Periya Purāṇam (Great story), also known as Tiruttoṇṭar Purāṇam (The story of the holy servants). Cēkkiḻār’s work was extremely influential and became designated as the twelfth and final volume of the canon of Shiva bhakti, known as the Tirumuṟai (Sacred collection), which included devotional works authored by some of the nāyaṉmār in praise of Shiva in its first through eleventh volumes. In compiling his list of the nāyaṉmār, Cēkkiḻār drew on a poem from the 8th-century poet-saint Cuntarar, as well as a brief biography of the nāyaṉmār from an 11th-century author, Nampi Āṇṭār Nampi. These precursors use the terms aṭiyar (servant) and tiruttoṇṭar (holy servant) to refer to the devotees. Cēkkiḻār’s biographical text uses the term nāyaṉār, but only in the singular, to refer to god Shiva himself, and not the paradigmatic devotees. The term nāyaṉār seems to have been first used in the 13th century to describe the three most famous male poet-saints (Campantar, Appar, and Cuntarar) in an inscription dated to the tenth regnal year of the Chola dynasty king, Rājendra III (1256 CE). The term nāyaṉmār may have been first expanded in the next century to refer to all of the devotees described in the Periya Purāṇam, in a text that purports to describe the making of the Tamil Shiva-bhakti canon. The canon seems to have been brought together by an important interpreter of Tamil Shiva bhakti from a philosophical perspective, Umāpati Civācāryār, who lived in the 14th century. In a text attributed to Umāpati that describes the making of the Tirumuṟai (the Tirumuṟaikaṇṭa Purāṇam [The story of collecting the Tirumuṟai]) he uses the term nāyaṉmār to refer to all sixty-three of the emblematic devotees (verse 29; see Prentiss 2001, cited under Philosophical Interpretation of the Nāyaṉmār). Umāpati’s use of the term and the biographical stories provided by Cēkkiḻār have contributed to the contemporary cultural understanding of the nāyaṉmār as saints. The nāyaṉmār have a prominent presence in Tamil religious history as well as the present, wherever Tamils have settled across the globe—through their own compositions; biographical stories about them; their rendering in images including song, art, and film; and their incorporation into the lineage of the Tamil philosophical school, Shaiva Siddhānta. The nāyaṉmār are also fruitfully understood within the wider context of other bhakti poet-saints from Tamil tradition, as well as bhakti poet-saints from across India.

Introductory Works

The best introduction to the nāyaṉmār comes from reading works authored by them. There are a growing number of translations and critical studies of the nāyaṉmār’s compositions available. Of the sixty-three named individual nāyaṉmār who are described in the 12th-century authoritative biography, the Periya Purāṇam by Cēkkiḻār, seven are understood to be authors of devotional texts. The most celebrated are three male poet-saints from the 7th–8th centuries who composed accomplished poetry in praise of Shiva, and their compositions constitute the first seven volumes of the twelve-volume Tamil Shiva-bhakti canon, the Tirumuṟai; as a group, their compositions have their own special name, Tēvāram. Tiruñānacampantar’s (Campantar) poetry makes up the first three volumes; the poetry of Tirunāvukkaracar (King of the holy tongue/speech), who is popularly known as Appar (father), constitutes volumes four through six; and Cuntaramūrti’s (Cuntarar) poetry forms the seventh volume of the Tirumuṟai and the Tēvāram. Peterson 1989, Dehejia 1988, and Prentiss 1999 offer translations of the hymns of these three most celebrated poet-saints; Shulman 1990 provides a translation of all of the poems of Cuntarar. A philosopher, Tirumūlar, authored the Tirumantiram, which explores Shiva’s mythology, philosophical significance, and cosmic dance, as well as practices such as yoga and mantra recitation; this text, which is variously dated by scholars from the 6th to the 10th centuries, forms the tenth volume of the Tirumuṟai. T. N. Ganapathy led a team of scholars to produce an updated translation of and commentary on the text (Ganapathy 2010). There are three women included in the sixty-three nāyaṉmār, but only one of them is an author: Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār is believed to predate the three male poet-saints by a century, and four poems attributed to her are included in the eleventh volume of the Tirumuṟai canon. Pechilis 2011 provides a translation of all of her poems, with critical discussion. Cutler 1987, an influential study of the poetics of Tamil bhakti poetry, includes translation of stanzas from Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. The celebrated poet-saint Māṇikkavācakar of the 9th century is not included in the traditional list of sixty-three nāyaṉmār, but his works were included in the Tirumuṟai canon as its eighth volume, and among Tamils he is thought of as “the sixty-fourth nāyaṉār”; translations of selected verses from his works can be found in Cutler 1987 and Yocum 1982. People who can read Tamil will benefit from consulting the Tamil editions and critical studies cited in these translations.

  • Cutler, Norman. Songs of Experience: The Poetics of Tamil Devotion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

    Essential reading to understand the poetics of Tamil bhakti. Identifies five rhetorical strategies in the poetics, and discusses commentators’ use of allegory to interpret bhakti poetry. Includes translation of stanzas from Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār, as well as poets such as Māṇikkavācakar from Tamil Shiva bhakti and Nammāḻvār from Tamil Vishnu bhakti. Includes lists of all authors in the canons of both streams of Tamil bhakti.

  • Dehejia, Vidya. Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1988.

    A useful introduction to Tamil Shiva and Vishnu bhakti, focusing especially on the personae of the saints in poetry, story, and art. Includes translations of selected verses from Campantar, Appar, and Cuntarar, plus Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār, as well as translations from Tamil Vishnu-bhakti authors. Provides a list of the sixty-three nāyaṉmār, with summary information on each.

  • Ganapathy, T. N., ed. The Tirumantiram. 10 vols. St. Etienne de Bolton, Canada: Kriya Yoga Publications, 2010.

    A team of scholars, including T. V. Venkataraman, T. N. Ramachandran, K. R. Arumugam, P. S. Somasundaram, and S. N. Kandasamy, has newly translated this text. Includes articles on Shaiva Siddhānta perspectives on the text, a glossary, bibliography, and index.

  • Pechilis, Karen. Interpreting Devotion: The Poetry and Legacy of a Female Bhakti Saint of India. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Theorizes bhakti as a devotional subjectivity that is created in the poetry of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār and contoured in an authoritative medieval biography of her, as well as present-day festival celebrations in her honor. Provides an annotated translation of all of her compositions and the medieval biography.

  • Peterson, Indira Viswanathan. Poems to Śiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

    An accessible introductory source for the study of the three famous male poet-saints: Campantar, Appar, and Cuntarar. Includes discussion of historical and contemporary context; graceful translations of a representative selection of their poems; and discussion of key aspects of their poems, including music, autobiographical references, and mythological motifs.

  • Prentiss, Karen Pechilis. The Embodiment of Bhakti. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Theorizes bhakti as embodied participation in the worship of Shiva through word and gesture, and traces its development in medieval times in South India in the realms of poetry, story, temple worship, and philosophy. Includes translation of a medieval text that grouped one hundred stanzas of the three famous male saints, as well as the philosophical text that provided the categories to group them.

  • Shulman, David Dean. Songs of the Harsh Devotee: The Tēvāram of Cuntaramūrttināyanār. Philadelphia: Department of South Asia Regional Studies, University of Pennsylvania, 1990.

    Provides a complete translation of all of Cuntarar’s poems, with notes. Of particular interest is Cuntarar’s hymn on “Tiruttoṇṭattokai,” in which the poet provides the earliest list of all of the nāyaṉmār and which was used as a model for Cēkkiḻār in composing his Periya Purāṇam biographies. Includes a brief introduction to the poems on topics such as hagiography, history, and authorship.

  • Yocum, Glenn E. Hymns to the Dancing Śiva: A Study of Māṇikkavācakar’s Tiruvācakam. New Delhi: Heritage, 1982.

    Discusses the poet-saint Māṇikkavācakar’s famous poem through an analysis of its perspective on the human condition, on Shiva, and on devotion (bhakti) as a means of transformation, supported by translations of selected stanzas from the poem.

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