Tamiḻtteyvam: Portrait of a Goddess
So what are the various ways in which Tamiḻttāy has been constituted as primeval deity, the beloved of the gods, and the most bountiful of all beings?
“You were there, even before the mighty Himalayas emerged, and Kumari Nadu submerged!”
A fundamental strategy for establishing the antiquity of Tamiḻttāy is by placing her in the company of the gods, as their companion, confidante, and friend. For some of her pious following, she, like the gods themselves, has no beginning. Sundaram Pillai hinted at this by comparing her with the primordial Shiva. Somasundara Bharati, too, referred to her as mutalilaḷōr, “one who has no beginning,” and mūppumilaḷ, “she who is ageless” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 23). Abstracted from the vagaries and contingencies of secular time, Tamiḻttāy thus lives in cosmic time. Yet, being a modern himself and very much aware of the power of historical memories, the pious devotee also links her to ancient historical personages of the Tamil-speaking countryside. So he fashions for her a biography assembled from stories and legends of the Shaiva canon and from the newly emerging “facts” of ancient Tamil history. Tamiḻttāy was created by Shiva (sometimes with the aid of the goddess Earth, but at other times single-handedly), and delivered to the world (through the intervention of that paradigmatic Tamil god, Murugan, in some versions) by the mythical sage Agastya. From his abode in the Potiyam mountains (in the Western Ghats), Agastya adorned her with her very first “jewel,” the legendary grammar called Akattiyam. Subsequently, she matured as a child in the antediluvian academies of the Pandyan kingdom, which flourished under the benevolent patronage of Shiva himself. She slowly moved out of cosmic time into history as she came of age in the last of the academies in Madurai, proudly fostered by the “triumvirate” (mūvēntar), the famed Pandya, Chera, and Chola kings celebrated in the Canḳam poems. From then on, as an ever-virginal maiden, she enjoyed the patronage of various Tamil rulers. During this time, she was gifted with some more spectacular “ornaments” which adorn her body—the five great epic poems (paņcakāviyam), the Tirukkuṟaḷ, the Tiruvācakam, and so on. This is, of course, a biography with no end, for, being a deity, she has no end.
“There is no one like you! This is indeed the truth”
Not only is Tamiḻttāy the most ancient and primordial of all beings, she is also incomparable. “O goddess Tamil! There is no other deity like you,” declared Somasundara Pulavar (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 87). Incomparable she may be, but the pious devotee does invoke her likeness to the five elements (fire, water, earth, air, and ether), to the everlasting karpaka tree, to the sun and the moon, and so on. He also compares her to tasty fruits, beautiful flowers, and flavorful foods. So, Tamiḻttāy is hailed as “the sea of ambrosia,” as “the golden creeper, ripe with sweetness,” as one “who shames the sweet sugarcane.” In early medieval religious poetry where gods are routinely praised thus, it has been suggested that such visual and taste-oriented metaphors exemplify the devotee’s intimate sensory experience of the divine presence (Cutler 1987: 199). This may also be true for Tamil’s pious devotee, who yearns to capture Tamiḻttāy’s wondrous qualities and present these to his fellow speakers in terms both familiar and desirable. But more often than not, he declares helplessly that words are inadequate to capture her greatness, her fame, and her beauty. “O mother, who will find it easy to talk about all your excellent virtues?” asked A. Venkatachalam Pillai (1888?-1953), chief poet of the Karanthai Tamil Sangam and first editor of its Tamiḻp Poḻil. And Thudisaikizhar Chidambaram (1883-1954), who worked for a while in the colonial police service, a job he gave up to dedicate himself to Shaiva revivalism, wondered plaintively, “Is it even possible for someone like me to sing your greatness?” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 11, 66).
“She encircles the resounding world”
Flourishing as she has from remote antiquity, Tamiḻttāy is also sovereign of the world, and of all the peoples who live in it, and of all the languages they speak. For had she not preceded all of them, and indeed, was she not responsible for their creation? So, the eight cardinal directions echo to the sound of her victorious drums and the songs of her fame (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 78-80). In picture posters produced by organizations like Kampaṉ Kaḻakam in Karaikkudi (henceforth Kamban Kazhagam) and by notables in Annamalainagar, as well as on the covers of magazines like Tamiḻ Vaṭṭam (1967), Tamiḻttāy thus appears seated on a globe, her “throne” (figs. 1-3). From early in the century, tamiḻppaṟṟu had claimed that since Tamiḻttāy had formerly ruled the world, there was little doubt that she would reign supreme, once again, in the future. For her devotees seeking to mobilize their fellow speakers around the cause of Tamiḻttāy, such an imagining of Tamil as an ecumenical language of the world served to keep alive the aura of its ancient sovereignty in an age of disenchantment and decline.
“You are sovereign of the fine Tamil world”
In the spirit of divine and kingly cultures of the region in which gods are kinglike, and sovereigns are godlike, Tamiḻtteyvam is also imagined as Tamiḻ Araci, the queen of the fine Tamil world (naṟtamiḻulakam), the empress of the entire Dravidian land (Vedanayakam Pillai 1879: 285). Poems composed in the tirutacānḳam (the auspicious ten limbs) genre enumerate the ten “royal limbs” of her kingdom—her sovereign title, land, capital city, river, mountain, vehicle, army, drum, garland, and banner. Tamiḻttāy’s “army” is the might of her poetry; her “royal mount,” the tongue(s) of her glorious poet(s). The three branches of Tamil—literature (iyal), music (icai), and drama (nāṭakam)—make up her “royal drum” she wears Tamil poems around her neck as her victorious “garland” her “royal banner,” appropriately enough, is the flag of knowledge made up of all the goodness of the incomparable Tamil; and so on (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 83-84). Yet Tamiḻttāy is clearly conceived by her admirers to be more than a goddess of learning and knowledge. The Herderian notion circulated through colonial knowledges, that language provides the legitimate foundation for distinctive nation-states, is enrolled into her constitution as a goddess of polity as well, as a queen who rules over the Tamil land and community. Most typically, Tamiḻttāy’s “kingdom” extends from the Venkatam (Tirupati) hills in the north, to Cape Kumari in the south, and from coast to coast, the traditional tamiḻakam (Tamil home) of the ancient Canḳam poems. Some devotees, especially of contestatory classicist inclination, were more ambitious and maintained that she was queen of all of India. Thus in the Kamban Kazhagam poster (fig. 2) as well as in the frontispiece of the 1947 edition of Velayutam Pillai’s anthology, Moḻiyaraci (Queen of languages), Tamiḻttāy is seated on a map of (prepartition) India. In such visuals, she clearly challenges the authority of Bhārata Mātā, who is generically shown standing on a map of India with her arms stretched out to encompass the east and the west, her head in the Himalayas, her feet resting in the South (fig. 4). For contestatory regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu, it is Tamiḻttāy, however, who should legitimately occupy the land now appropriated for Bhārata Mātā.
At the same time, her pious devotee also takes care to establish Tamiḻttāy’s intimate connections with the Tamil-speaking landscape. So, rivers like the Tamaraparani and the Kaveri are imagined as ornaments that snake their way across her body; the two mountain ranges (Western and Eastern Ghats) are visualized as her arms; the cool and fragrant southern breeze (teṉṟal) is likened to her sweet breath; and so on. A sacred geography thus emerges around her persona: Potiyam, the mountain home of the sage, Agastya, is hallowed as her “birth” place; Madurai, that seat of Tamil learning, is where she reigned as queen; the Vaigai River is where she performed many of her miracles that demonstrated her supernatural powers; and so on. Like Tamil itself, the land where it is spoken and over which Tamiḻttāy rules is sacred as well (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 73-98).
“You are knowledge itself”
Her pious devotee also insists that Tamiḻttāy’s “kingdom” is not just the earthly spread of the Tamil land (or India, or the whole wide world). Instead, she is queen of something even more superior, the kingdom of knowledge. In the words of R. Raghava Aiyangar, a leading member of the Madurai Tamil Sangam and the first editor of its journal, Centamiḻ:
O sweet Tamiḻttāy! May you flourish forever here and offer grace to your devotees! You produced the poetry of Kapilar and other poets of the good academy in the southern land. You fed the world with the Kuṟaḷ of Valluvar. You destroyed darkness with mighty Kamban. ...... You stand as source of all learning. ...... You caused learning to grow among women. ...... You created scholars to nourish our minds. ...... O fine Tamiḻttāy! Look at all you have accomplished! (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 41-42)
The world’s best knowledge, of course, is in Tamil; its poets are the finest, and so is its literature. The more contestatory devotee insists that Tamiḻttāy’s learned productions are far superior to anything that other languages, especially Sanskrit, can offer. Sundaram Pillai himself set the tone in his paradigmatic 1891 hymn when he asked polemically why should the (Sanskritic) Manusmṛti, which advocated a different norm for each caste, be forced upon Tamil speakers when they have their own Tirukkuṟaḷ? Why do we need the Veda when we have the Tiruvācakam, which melts the stoniest of hearts (Sundaram Pillai 1922: 22-23)? Since his time, of course, others have continued to declare that their Tamiḻttāy’s auspicious words are more glorious than the words of the Veda, the Vedānta, the BhagavadGītā, and other such hallowed texts of Sanskritic Hinduism.
For the less contestatory devotee, however, Tamiḻttāy appears to have been a Saraswati-like figure. Indeed, that paradigmatic Sanskritic goddess of learning and wisdom is sometimes portrayed as Tamiḻttāy’s friend, who commands poets to sing to her in Tamil so that she, too, may enjoy that wondrous language (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 89). At other times, Tamiḻttāy is herself referred to as kalaimakaḷ (= Saraswati), and in many a visual and iconographic representation, the similarity between the two goddesses is quite striking. Given the antagonism towards Sanskritic Hinduism that characterizes so many of the regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu, Tamiḻttāy thus appears to displace Saraswati in the affections of many a pious devotee. As such, she, and not Saraswati, was the fount of all learning, the mother of all languages, and the inspiring muse for scholar and devotee alike.
“She is the goddess who commands the gods who guard us”
Nothing more clearly suggests the desire of her pious devotee to move Tamiḻttāy into the space occupied by his traditional gods than the many verses in which she is credited with performing various miraculous deeds conventionally attributed to Shiva, Vishnu, and other deities of the Hindu pantheon. So Chidambaram declared that Tamiḻttāy, too, performed the three cosmic deeds of creation, maintenance, and destruction for which Shiva is famed (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 66). C. Venkatarama Chettiyar (b. 1913), who taught Tamil at Annamalai University, wrote that the three branches of Tamil embodied “this precious world which was formerly spanned by the three steps of that lofty Lord of Lakshmi [Vishnu]” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 44). That her pious devotee could go to great lengths to make such claims is clear from a long poem in which Chidambaram addresses Tamiḻttāy:
You dispatched the Lord of all devotees as messenger! ...... Is there anything more to be said of your greatness? ...... You transformed poison into ambrosia! You made the rock thrown into the ocean to float as a raft! You coaxed the murderous elephant to bow down to that great devotee! You transformed a mere pile of bones into a woman! ...... You caused palm-leaf manuscripts to float on the floodwaters! you protected them from being scorched by the worst of fires! ...... You opened the doors [of the temple] of Tirumaraikadu! You cured the hunched back of the great Pandyan! You taught the heretical Jains to learn the wonders of the great Shiva! ...... My! My! What greatness! What wonder! (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 66-67)
These lines may sound arcane and esoteric, but they remind us, once again, that the power of Tamiḻttāy in this modality is constituted by deliberately archaizing her, by placing her in another time, in a world of mysterious but wondrous acts and beings. They also confirm what every pious devotee would like to hear, that his goddess would do anything for those who were devoted to her—quench the anger of a murderous elephant who was threatening to kill one of her adorers, cure the chronic fever of another, even play the role of a lowly messenger so that the love life of one of her worshippers would thrive. Indeed, this is a fundamental aspect of the structure of piety that is constituted around the divine Tamiḻttāy: in return for services rendered to her by her devotees, she would protect them, grant them miraculous favors, and shower wealth and grace on them. In short, she would do anything for those who were truly her adoring dependents.
But most crucially, these lines recall incidents from the life stories of famous devotees of Shiva in which the latter tests the devotion of his followers to punish those who were cruel to them, to reveal to them his compassion, and to grant eternal bliss to his truly devout (Peterson 1989). And yet, these same incidents are invoked in the modern discourses of tamiḻppaṟṟu with a significant, even cosmic, difference. For here, Tamiḻttāy is the inspiring force behind Shiva’s activities, the true author of these wondrous deeds, and the paradigmatic savior of the world.
“The supreme one who has no beginning and no end, ardently desires you”
Although her pious devout, especially orthodox Shaivites, are careful to not let Tamiḻttāy’s powers overtly challenge Shiva’s, some of them do not hesitate to point out that not only Shiva but also Vishnu and the other gods are at her bidding, enthralled as they are by her beauty, virtue, and learning. They declared that “in order to see [her], the lord Vishnu himself, with the northern Vedas in tow, followed [her],” and they reminded each other that Shiva’s cosmic weariness flees when Tamil sounds fill his divine ears with pleasure. Shiva may be Tamiḻttāy’s father-creator, but that great lord may also desire her. So filled was he with longing to hear her words that he left his celestial abode and came down to earth to preside over the Tamil academy of Madurai. So eager was he to have her near him that he ordered the recital of Tamil hymns every day, not finding comfort in the Sanskrit Vedas (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 4-6, 66-68, 108-15).
Because she is the beloved of the gods, her pious devotee calls upon the more established divinities to protect her, or prays to them to grant grace so that he himself could serve her better. Thus the opening invocatory verse to the Moḻiyaraci anthology declares, “I pray to Murugan who dwells in the grove, so that I may be born in the Tamil land where words flourish.” The pietistics of tamiḻppaṟṟu thus appears to have a curious contradiction. On the one hand, her pious adorer imagines Tamiḻttāy as a supreme, omniscient being who is not just the beloved of the gods, but even commands them and inspires them to perform their various godly deeds. On the other hand, because many who participated in this modality were also for the most part quite religious themselves, they never do totally abandon their faith in the established gods of the Hindu pantheon. Instead, they continue to pray to them so that their own personal goddess, Tamiḻttāy, may also benefit from the good will of those great beings.
“I am your devotee; you are my refuge”
For the pious devotee for whom she is his personal deity, Tamiḻttāy is the source of everything in this world—of knowledge and happiness, of wealth and prosperity, of bliss and light, indeed of life itself. She is the destroyer of darkness and of false illusions. She cures her followers of anger and jealousy, and grants them true vision. She cures them of afflictions and weeds out their troubles. At her feet, even the worst sinners find salvation. By her very presence, she destroys the sins of her devotees. She is indeed their ultimate refuge. A. Kantasami Pillai (1885-1969), a professor of Tamil, declared:
O Tamiḻttāy, may you flourish blissfully as a sovereign queen! You gave birth to us, and embracing us, fed us nectar from your beautiful breasts; You taught us to speak as infants, and also the full meaning of numerous words; You caused our evil habits to flee, and firmly established in their stead good conduct that is dearer than life and fame. . . . You taught us to respect ourselves, and teaching us about the experiences of the past and the present, You have shown us the road to eternal release! (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 4)
Similarly, R. Raghava Aiyangar wrote eloquently that “with the help of [your] divine ladder of priceless books, we can climb straight up to the heavens” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 41). Even more dramatically, for Somasundara Pulavar there was only one cure for the endless disease that is life, and it lay at the feet of his noble Tamiḻttāy (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 93). The pious devotee is indeed convinced that Tamiḻttāy may be the most omniscient of gods, and the most powerful of sovereigns, but she has the compassion and the tenderness of one’s own mother. She therefore never forsakes even the most humble and most lowly of her adherents. She is infinitely forgiving—even overlooking the faults of those who turned their backs on her, so benevolent and compassionate a being is she (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 12). There is little doubt, therefore, as A. Varadananjaiya Pillai (1877-1956), a member of the Karanthai Tamil Sangam and author of several praise works on Tamiḻttāy, insisted, that it was she who was going to abide with them for ever and ever, even accompanying them to the world beyond the present one (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 26-28).
Tamiḻttāy is thus both the means to their salvation and salvation itself. By constituting her in such terms, these pious devotees were only expressing in religious terms the foundational message of tamiḻppaṟṟu that Tamil is everything to its speakers—their body, their life, their spirit, and, ultimately, their soul itself.