The unique 63 Saints Festival

S Balakrishnan *

Chennai hosts a unique temple festival every year. The Saivaite ‘Shri Kapaleeswarar Temple’ of Mylapore locality in Chennai distinguishes itself by celebrating this unique festival.

This annual festival honoursLord Shiva’s 63 most pious devotees, all hailing from the ancient Tamil land. They are worshipped as “63 Nayanmars” of the Saivaite sect of Hinduism.

This is in contrast to Lord Vishnu’s 12 most devoted devotes, again all hailing from Tamil Nadu of yore, who are hailed as the “12 Alwars” of Vaishnavaite sect.

This is about the 63 Nayanmars Festival held year after year on thePanguniUthiram day of Tamil calendar (March-April). This year it falls on 5thApril 2020 (Sunday)Does it sound similar to the Christian All Saints’ Day!

These 63 Nayanmars are revered to such an extent that big Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu without fail have all their statues in a row in the inner prakara (circumambulatory path) of the temple. On their respective star birthday (janmanakshtra) special pujas are performed.

One such Nayanar, the Kootruva Nayanar, is from my native village Kalappal. He was a king ruling from that place, but unfortunately no such trace is found there now! Who knows, maybe we are sitting upon a ruined city!

Among the 63, women saints are just a three, a miniscule – Karaikal Ammayar, Mangayarkarasi (a queen), and Isai Gnaniar.

The 63 include all ranks of the society – from several kings to pauper – and all classes - hunter, toddy tapper, businessman, farmer, potter, householder, fisherman, cowherd, washer man, weaver, so on and so forth.

The character of these 63 Nayanmars also differs –
some were violently devoted that any one obstructing Siva’s worship was instantaneously killed;
on the other hand, some were self-sacrificing – their eyes and even their lives;
one even gambled to gain money to worship Shiva;
some merely served all Saivite devotees which is serving Siva Himself; the women saint Karaikal Ammayar transformed herself as an ugly figure so as to fully concentrate on worshipping Siva;
some composed songs that moved not only the humans but also the Lord Himself.

To disclose to the world of their immense devotion towards Him, Lord Siva had performed dramatic scenes (leela) in their lifeand had also shown his divine presence. Needless to say, they all attained his Lotus Feet.

Of these 63, three are most revered – Appar/Thirunavukkarasar, Sundarar and Sambandar. These three, along with another Saint, Manikkavasagar (who, however, is not included in the 63), have sung innumerable Tamil hymns in praise of Lord Siva, visiting all the Siva temples of the vast Tamil land of the past.

Such temples where the foursome had composed a song praising the presiding deity are held in high esteem as the ‘Padalpetrathalam’ (temple sites mentioned in their songs). Tamil film singing the praise of ThiruNeelakandaNayanar was made in 1939& 1972; I wasn’t born in 1939, so I got to see only the 1972 version.

Another movie Thiruvarutchelvar (1967) told the story of three Nayanars – Appar, Thiru Kurippu Thonda Nayanar and Sundarar. The immortal actor Sivaji Ganesan had lived as these three characters in the film!

During the Tamil month of Panguni, Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore, celebrates its annual festival (brahmotsavam) as spring festival. Starting with Dwajarohanam (flag hoisting), he nine day long festivity includes car/chariot festival, 63 Nayanmar festival and concludes with the celestial wedding of Kapaleeswarar & Karpagambal.

The temple gods are taken out of the temple in procession on various vahan (mount) on these days. The more important of the mounts are Athigara Nandhi on the third day and the Rishaba Vahanam on the midnight of the fifth day; on the seventh morning is the chariot (about 13 meters in height) pulling by devotees, and the 63 Nayanmar (Arupathimoovar) festival on the eighth day.

On the appointed day, the procession of 63 Saints starts by noon from Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple. The presiding deities, Kapaleeswarar (Siva) and His consort Karpagambal (Shakthi), decorated elaborately with garlands and jewellery, are carried on an open palanquin.

The bronze idols of all the 63 Nayanmarsare also carried in small palanquins; the most revered ones in individual palanquins and others groupedin several palanquins that are designed with applique works. The Nayanmars will move in reverse position, facing the Lord who will be at the tail end of the procession.

The whole procession takes a round of the temple and the vast temple tank. Lakhs of devotees congregate during the Panguni festival of Mylapore temple that brings alive our religious tradition being followed since centuries. Philanthropists generously and tirelessly offer food/drinks to the thronging devotees during the festival days.

You need thousand eyes and ears to take in the festive atmosphere, but beware of pickpockets and chain/mobile snatchers! Don’t say I didn’t warn you. See you at this year’s unique 63 Saints Festival!

* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is based in Chennai and can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on March 06 2020.

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