Life of Svami Nammalvar


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Svami Nammalvar is the most celebrated and prolific mystic saint of the Srivaishnava tradition. However, very little is known about his personal life. What little we know is shrouded in mystery. According to traditional accounts, he was born at a place called Tirunagari (Srinagari in Sanskrit), also known as TirukKurugur. This town is now popularly known as “Alvar Tirunagari” because of its association with the birth of Svami Nammalvar. This is on the bank of the river Tamraparni, located on the Titunelveli-Tiruchendur Railway line. The nearest temple town is Srivaikuntham, which is about 3 miles away. It is also about 20 miles from Tirunelveli and17 miles to the West of Tiruchendur. This place is well known as one of the “nine Tirupatis” (Nava Tirupatis) resorted to by the devout. The word Tirupati means “a holy place”.

The leaves of the tree do not close even at night and hence it is also called “UrangaaPuli Maram” (“The unsleeping Tamarind tree”). It has seven branches. It is in the hollow of this tree that Svami Nammalvar sat in meditation for sixteen years.

The temple and deities:
The presiding deity at the temple here is Adinatha. Standing, facing east, he is in the company of Adinatha Valla. The Tirtha is called Brahma Tirtha. The Sthala Vriksha (treeassociated with the place) is theTamarind tree (Puliyamaram in Tamil). The leaves of this tree do not close even at night and hence it is also called “Urangaa Puli Maram”(“The unsleeping Tamarind”). It has seven branches. It is in the hollow of this tree that Svami Nammalvar sat in meditation for sixteen years, according to hagiology. It is believed that the tree is an incarnation of Adi Sesha, the Divine Couch of Lord Vishnu.

AadhiPiran - Alvar Thirunagari

The manifestation of Svami Nammalvar:
History has always been a weak point with our country. We have traditional accounts, pushing the dates of all the Alvars and Acharyas to the era before Christ. Modern historical records are of course meagre and weak. It is still reasonable to believe that Svami Nammalvar was born in this temple town sometime between the 6th and the 8th centuries A.D. tradition states that he was born at the beginning of the Kali Yuga on the 42nd day after Lord Krishna’s ascendance to SriVaikuntha. This correspondence to Tuesday (some say, Friday) the 14th day in the bright fortnight of the Vrishabha month, in the year Pramaadi, when Cancer was in the ascendant. According to the hagiography, Svami Nammalvar was a manifestation of Vishvaksena, the Commander-in-Chief of Lord Vishnu. Svami Nammalvar was born to a pious couple Kariyar and Udaiya Nangai, as a result of prayers made to the presiding deity Nambi of Tirukkurungudi. It appears Kariyar was the chieftain of the town. Nammalvar was born on the day when the full moon was in conjunction with the asterism Visakha. His genealogy, according to traditional accounts is:

Tiruvazhudi Valanadar
Arandaangiyar (alias Dharmavarma)
Sendamarai Kannar

Nammalvar passing Bavisyadacharya vigraham to Sriman Nathamunigal

Names of Svami Nammalvar:

The word Nammalvar is a combination of the two words, ‘”am+Alvar” (“Our Alvar”).It is the name given to him by Lord Ranganatha according to one tradition. Nammalvar is known by several names:

Maran – one who was different from the rest, because of his total absorption in meditation on Lord;

Parankusa – one who was like a goad to the rivals i.e., the worldly minded people; or one who controlled the senses which always distract one from the path of righteous conduct; and

Sathakopa (“Satha + Kopa”) or Sathaari (“Satha+ari”) or its synonyms in Sanskrit like Satha+ Vairi; Satha +jit (one who conquered thewind called Satha) – one who became angry with “Satha”. Satha is the name of the air outside which hits the aperture on the skull (called “fontanelle”) as a child is born, making it forget its past thereby. It is said that Svami Nammalvar angrily commanded that wind to stop touching him at the time of his birth. In other words he was fully aware of whom he was prior to this incarnation.

The different names of Svami Nammalvar include SathSathajit, Sathari, Maran, Magizhmaran, Kurugur Sathakopan and so on. The great Tamil poet Kamban in his poem ‘Sathakoparantadi’ has hailed Svami Nammalvar as the King of Verse.

The word “Satha” also means a “rogue”, one who is adamant and material minded. Svami Nammalvar was an enemy to such people. That is to say, he changed their way of life. The spelling of the word “Sathakopa” is a bit misleading. Some spell it as Sathagopa which will then mean, Lord Krishna, the “one who appeared in the guise of a cowherd”. He is also known as Vakulabharana since he is said to have been fond of the Vakula flowers (magizhampu in Tamil). Since he was the son of Kaariyar, he is also known as Kaarimaaran.

An unusual child:

Svami Nammalvar, it is said, did not cry or open his eyes or did anything like a normal child from the time of his birth: The shocked parents took him tithe temple of Lord Polindu Ninra Piran (Adi Natha) on the 12th day of his birth. It is said that the child opened the eyes and crawled on to the tamarind tree and continued to meditate on the Lord. This went on for sixteen years.

“If in the womb of a dead thing, a subtle entity is born, what will it eat and where will it rest?” Pat came the reply: “It will eat that and rest there itself.”

The riddle and the answer: Thereafter one Madhurakavi who was attracted by a bright light from the south started in search of it source. In the course of his journey from Mathura in the North, he came to Tirunagari and saw Svami Nammalvar under a tamarind tree. When he neither opened his eyes or mouth after repeated entreaties and enquiries, Madhurakavi threw a stone in the presence of the Alvar and produced a big sound. It was then that the Alvar opened his eyes. Madhurakavi did not lose a moment. He asked: “If in the womb of a dead thing, a subtle entity is born, what will it eat and where will it rest?” Pat came the reply: “It will eat that and rest there itself”. Madhurakavi’s joy knew no bounds. His riddle was answered. The dead thing referred to is Prakriti or material nature since it has no life. The subtle entity that is born in its womb is the individual soul (jiva). A living being is conceived in matter and is born there from. The living being eats matter and lives in it. Pleasantly surprised at the cryptic and quintessential reply of the Alvar, Madhurakavi accepted him as his guru. Later on he composed a beautiful hymn of eleven verses opening with the words, “Kanninun Sirittambu”, highlighting the glory of the saint. This hymn is the most outstanding instance of what is called “Acharya Nistha” (Faith in one’s spiritual teacher).

Nammalvar and Madhurakavi Alvar

His Works:

Svami Nammalvar composed four works in Tamil – Tiruviruttam in 100 stanzas (which is said to be the essence of the Rg veda), Tiruvasiriyam in 7 verses (essence of the Yajurveda),

At Alwar Tirunagari, and during Svami Nammalvar Jayanthi , the flag bearing the insiginia of the legendary ‘Hamsa’ is hoisted. It is significant that the symbol of the Sri Ahobila Math is also the Hamsa.At Kanchipuram, one can witness Svami Nammalvar having the ‘cin mudra'(the thumb and the index finger of the right hand touch each other and they are kept close to the chest}. This rare sight of Svami Nammalvar cannot be witnessed anywhere eke. It is said that Tirumangai Alwar, KaIiyan, consecrated this id01 of Nammalvar here and he sang hundred pastramis beginning with ‘Thuyararu sudaradi’, and hence this posture.

Perilya Tiruvantadi in 87 verses (essence of the Atharvaveda) and the Tiruvaymozhi in
1102 stanzas (essence of the Sama Veda). The word “Bhagavadvishayam” is very often
used in the Srivaishnava circles. It is the name given to the vast body of literature
comprising the Tiruvaymozhi and the five commentaries thereon.

The word Sathari also means Svami Nammalvar. It is believed that Svami Nammalvar incarnated as the Lord’s sandals. Therefore the practice ofplacing the traditional Sathari, in temples, on one’s head is to be followed only in the temples of Lord Narayana and his Consort.

Tirumangai Alvar commenced the Adhyayana utsava, at Srirangam, in honour of Svami Nammalvar.

Svami Nammalvar lived for only 32 years in this world and attained to Sri Vaikuntha. It
is said that since he was all the time absorbed in deep meditation on the Lord, he could
not go to any holy place (Divyadesa) to sing his praise on the deities there. All the deities
of different holy places came and presented themselves in his yogic vision. The total
number of Divyadesas sung by the Alvar in all his works combined together is 36. It is
said that Madhurakavi, his disciple, arranged for the installation of the Arca image of
Svami Nammalvar at Tirunagari and for the regular conduct of festivals there.

In the galaxy of teachers held in high esteem by the Srivaishnavas of South India, Svami
Nammalvar occupies an important place. It is in this order: Sridhara, Sri , Vishvaksena, Svami Nammalvar, Nathamuni, Pundarikaksha (Also known as Uyyakkondar), Sriramamisra (Manakkal Nambi), Yamuna (Alavandar), Periyanambi, Ramanuja.

It can be seen that Svami Nammalvar acts as the connecting link between Vishvaksena and Nathamuni, the first Srivaishnava Acharya. Traditional scholars state that Svami Nammalvar by virtue of his depth of devotion and range of compositions comparable to the four Vedas, is the “angin”(the body) while the other Alvars are the “angas” (the limbs).

Prapanna – Jana – Kutastha:
Svami Nammalvar is known in tradition as the ancestral forbear for those who have surrendered to the Lord whole-heartedly. In all the Srivaishnava temples in South India one can see a crown-shaped metallic objection the top of which is to be found the replica of two sandals. After the Archaka performs the worship to the deity in the sanctum sanctorum, he will, after giving sacred water, Tulasi leaves etc. to the devotee, place the crown-shaped object on the head and shoulders of the devotee. This object is called “Sathaari” or “Sathakopa” which is the name of Svami Nammalvar.

The devotee can hope to receive the grace of the Divine Couple only through the medium and good offices of Svami Nammalvar. Once the “Sathaari” is placed on the head, the devotees go away with the satisfaction of having received the grace of the Lord. All the works of Svami Nammalvar are replete with his ardent love for God. He is said to have insatiable “Thirst for Krishna”(Krishna-Trishna). He, in his lovelorn mood, sometimes considers himself a bride, sometimes the mother of the bride, sometimes her friend and appeals to the Lord to take pity on the girl and comfort her. This attitude is called “bridal mysticism”.

Many other Alvars like Kulasekhara and Tirumangai also have given expression to such feelings. The world of Srivaishnavas is forever indebted to Sri Nathamuni, first in the line of the Srivaishnava Acharyas (9th century A.D.). It is said that he “discovered’, “recovered” and “retrieved” the entire Divyaprabandha (the collection of all the works of the Alvars.) He was also responsible for setting it to music and introducing it as an integral part of temple worship in South India.


SrI Nrisimha Priya 2003

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  1. rare revelations about nammalvar. you have given me more opportunity to mediate on nammalvar and his works. myself is a retired clinical psychologist from tamil Nadu medical services.
    le me pray that nammalvar will shower his blessings.

  2. Dear Sir,
    I am very much thankful to you for this priceless article. I am expecting the full story of Namalwar. Where I will get it. Especially if it is in our tamil language it will help me to understand atonce. You have done a wonderful work. Undoubtedly you can get the grace and blessings of Namalwar and Maha Vishnu.
    with regards


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