As a child I’ve heard Nandanaar’s story, hardly realizing it had something to do with me, my family, my ancestors and probably my descendants too. Simply told, it is the tale of a pious man longing to see his beloved deity. His struggle to do so has survived as a story nine centuries since. This in itself is a miracle, and makes for an interesting reading. The initial historical and literary reference to Nandanaar is said to be just one sentence of four words, then at a later period a verse of 22 words was accorded to him, followed by a prominent place in Periyapuranam describing the 63 Saivite saints or Nayanmars of Tamilnadu. And finally ‘Nandanaar Charitam’ was written by the poet Gopalakrishna Bharathi.
Why the struggle to see a God in a land replete with Gods and temples? Why should the retelling of this story be a surprise?
Nandanaar was a Puliya, an untouchable on the banks of Kaveri in medieval Tamilnadu. The story clearly acknowledges the uncouth practice of untouchability by caste Hindus, who thrived on the labor of the condemned castes, while themselves finding the time and luxury to reflect. The story telling hardly seems to challenge the practice of untouchability, instead it gets told as a means of upholding the Kuladharma and Karma ideologies. The requirement of saintly qualities of the lower caste member to get a mere dharshan of a stone God is what gets emphasized in the retelling of this story, hence the eulogizing of the bhava of Nandanaar. This is more a lesson for the caste Hindus to be devout to the Gods and not a reprimand to their heinous practices.
Even today it is the piety of Nandanaar that gets sung, and with such devotion is the story’s ending rendered: The God moved by the grief of this Sivabhakta, appears in his dream saying that his agony will end in the morning, as he has asked the learned Brahmins of Chidambaram to prepare the Homa Kundum, in which he could purify his body and then be able to enter the sanctum sanctorum – Some God! Nandanaar in ecstasy enters the fire prepared by the Brahmans and the story beautifully concludes that Nandanaar emerged as a Brahmin sage, entered the temple and attained mukti, never to be seen again! Some redemption!
Why does this remind me of a contemporary religious mob trapping and burning to death a Reverend and his two young sons?
Anyway, here is one interpretation that seems more likely to be closer to reality in the reconstruction of a historical atrocity and the beginnings of a resistance –a rare glimpse of a Dalit from literary sources.
Nandanaar the puliyaa’s services of supplying skin coverings and leather straps for musical instruments for the temple was valued, but he was not. Nandanaar being very sensitive was determined to challenge the social system of his times. He wanted to enter the temple proper and worship Lord Shiva like any other Sivabhakta. He was determined to defy the religious prohibition at any cost. Thus Nandanaar first revolted against the very sastric injunctions, and then he translated his revolt into a concrete action by undertaking a pilgrimage to Tillai.
A further interpretation is that Nandanaar was unprepared to accept the cultural imperialism the caste Hindus imposed upon his community….. Nandanaar could not tolerate the idea that Lord Shiva was the God of the caste Hindus only and that only they had the exclusive right to worship such high Gods. At a time when even the very idea of untouchables having a dharshan of Hindu Gods in their abodes was not brooked by the Vellalas and Brahmins, Nandanaar was adamant in seeing the Lord Shiva first at Sivaloganandar temple at Tiruppungur and later at Chidambaram. The determined act of Nandanaar, against great social odds and religious opposition, was nothing short of a revolt. Nandanaar’s act was certainly a sharp reaction to the religious oppression of those days.
What Nandanaar attempted was a moral and a symbolic protest of an individual who lived in an age when mass movements were a thing unheard of. In any case there is no denial of the fact that the action of Nandanaar certainly contained the seeds of a revolt and an aroused conscience and a protest tradition recorded in a number of folk songs and folk myths.
This post is not to take pot shots at the caste Hindus and their merry carrying-on these illogical practices, maybe even into the next century. It is for the Dalits who read this blog, for them to ponder; is there a revolt that is ongoing? And if so what has it achieved so far? A ninth century story, a reminder that little has changed from Nandanaar’s time to yours and mine. I am not asking Dalits to have a moral and spiritual revolt, symbolic or otherwise, I want them to understand economics, not as it is told but by asking why? The rest will follow.
Here is a rendering of the famed song where the stone Nandi blocking Nandanaar’s view of Lord Shiva is being asked to move aside.
And here is the song where Nandanaar describes the viswaswaroopa dharshan to the taunting Dikshidars.
I also found the Hari Katha versions of Nandanaar Charitam in Telugu and Tamil, and I am looking for a Kannada version, I gathered that the Periyapuranam exists in Kannada so there must be other forms of this story available.
Sources: Nandanaar The Dalit Martyr by S. Manickam., Saint Nandanaar by A Padmanaban.