One of the greatest losses of the so-called Dravidian discourse in Tamil Nadu is the loss of Hindu Gods in the civilizational consciousness of the Tamils. More specifically, the cultural and heritage-loss that accompanied this God-loss has in many cases been irreversible. Most ancient and medieval temples in Tamil Nadu today have become dens of corruption, pettiness, filth, and rapid degradation that continues unchecked. The Government-appointed administrative heads of these temples are not only ignorant of the sthala puranams, the oral and even written history but dismiss it with a contempt that has to be seen to be believed. This is the visible, physical aspect of this God-loss in the people’s consciousness. That which nobody cares about will be ignored, and this ignorance will lead to stagnation, decay and eventual death. Government control of temples is only one of the causes—the real loss has really occurred at the soul level.
Perhaps nowhere is the loss of Hindu Gods more visible, greater or more damaging than in the case of Rama. “Damaging” is a mild word: the most accurate word is destructive. From the likes of writers who intentionally named themselves Ravanan all the way up to Karunanidhi whose coolness quotient derives from questioning the Engineering qualifications of Rama, this destruction has traversed a truly bloody path.
Thankfully, for those who still care, there is still enormous material available in the form of books, ancient manuscripts that speak. This essay is a very brief survey that traces the Rama (and Ramayana) tradition and consciousness in Tamil Nadu as it was handed down from the ancient to the medieval period, and parts of it which still survive.
The Sangam corpus is typically used as a reliable primary source for much of the historical information about Tamil Nadu. The Sangam era’s historicity spans 200 BCE to 200 CE. It is therefore reasonable to start tracing the Rama tradition in Tamil Nadu from this source. In general, the Sangam Literature contains numerous references to Vishnu (for example, in Paripaatal) and his prominent avatars like Narasimha, Rama, and Krishna. And then Purananuru, a collection of about 400 poems contains references to Ramayana.
Post-Sangam, the Alwars were the true pioneers of the Vaishnava bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu. In a way, they were the spiritual progenitors of Ramanuja, founder of Sri Vaishnavism, who held them in reverential esteem.
The term “Alwar” means one who is immersed. Between the twelve of them, the Alwars composed what is known as the Natayira Divyaprabandham (literally, 4000 Divine Veses) dedicated to all forms of Vishnu. References to Rama are abundant in the Alwar literature, most notably in the poetry of Kulashekara Alwar who dedicated his life to worshipping Rama. What is even more significant, a fact that our history books conceal, is that in an age where the caste system had reached deplorable levels, Thiruppan, an untouchable was elevated to an Alwar by the sheer force of his devotion, and was carried on the shoulders by the Brahmin priest of the Ranganatha temple at Srirangam. A moving account of Thiruppan’s devotion is narrated by the legendary Kannada poet, dramatist, and writer, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar in his play, Tiruppani.
And then there is Kambar’s Ramavatharam, popularly known as Kambaramayanam. This is the definitive, and epoch-making work that helped spread the Rama tradition throughout the Tamil land. Inspired by Valmiki, Kambar retold the epic in about 10,000 verses in Tamil. This work contributed not just to classical Tamil literature, but over time, became inseparable from routine Hindu religious worship. To date, the entire Ramavatharam is recited in the “Aadi” month of the Tamil calendar—typically between 15 July—14 August. Reciting the Ramavatharam It is also part of the regular worship, chanted alongside Sanskrit mantras.
In general, the Sri Vaishnava tradition holds Rama in special reverence. It spread its wings really wide to spread the message of Rama in Tamil Nadu and beyond. A key defining concept of Sri Vaishnavism is Sharanagati or complete surrender. This in turn has its roots in Vibhishana’s surrender to Rama. From Nathamuni to Yaamunacharya to Ramanuja, every major Sri Vaishnava saint and philosopher composed an array of elaborate literature on Rama and helped build Rama/Vishnu temples across Tamil Nadu and in various parts of South India. Nathamuni remains immortal for recovering, collecting, organizing, collating, disseminating and popularizing the Nalayira Divya Prabandham of the Alwars, which had been lost.
The next saint-philosopher to greatly propagate the Rama movement was Sadashiva Brahmendra or Upanishad Brahmendra, who lived in Tiruchinapalli in the 18th century. He initiated the concept of Rama Parabrahma or Rama as Brahman. And the celebrity-follower of Brahmendra was Thyagaraja whose entire life centred on Rama. The Thanjavur-Cauvery belt in Tamil Nadu came under the Rama-bhakti spell owing to these influences, a civilizational and cultural inheritance that still reverberates in this region.
Other stalwarts of the Rama bhakti movement include the legendary Vedanta Desikar, who wrote a thousand verses on Sri Rama’s Paaduka (sandals/footwear), Sridhar Sastry Aiyyaval, C.Rajagopalachari whose Chakravarthi Thirumagan is an acknowledged modern classic, the Kanchi Paramacharya, and Ahobila Jeeyar.
The Rama bhakti movement also manifested itself in several areas such as art, music, dance, drama, and folk. To this day, art forms such as Oothakadu, Sulamangalam, Terukoothu, and Bhagavata Melas focusing on the Ramayana theme are performed in various parts of Tamil Nadu. These have an unbroken existence of about a thousand years. Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandanar Charitram, popular even today is based on Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam. The Nandanar Charitram has been adapted, revised, and customized several times over by eminent artists like Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar, and more recently, by Balasaraswathi.
The fact that one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage spots, Rameshwaram, is in Tamil Nadu speaks volumes. No less than Rama had himself installed two lingams, which are housed in the magnificent Ramanathaswami temple.
The Rama tradition also finds its expression in the names Tamil people give their children. Raman, Rameshwaran, Ramaswamy, Ramabhadran, Sitaraman, Sivaraman, Sivaramakrishnan, Ramasubramanian, and so on. But sadly, this long, rich, and vibrant tradition of Rama in the Tamil country has today largely remained only there—in the names of people.