‘Caste did not exist in early India’, many today like to affirm. Then I remember the story of Nandanar, who is known because of his devotion to the god Shiva. There were many others who lived along with him, unknown, and unsung.
Nandanar’s exact date is not known, but he probably lived in the seventh or eighth century. The story of Nandanar and his devotion appears in the Periya Puranam of Sekkilar [12th century], which is the Tamil account of the sixty-three Nayanar [Shaivite] saints. Nandanar’s story was made famous by Gopalakrishna Bharati in his Nandanar-Charitra. In the nineteenth century this was sung in every village in Tamil Nadu. Gopalakrishna’s version, which added a few details to that of Sekkilar, is given below.
Nandanar was born in village Merkattadhanur (now Melanallur) in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu in a low caste (Dalit) family. He worked as a bonded labourer for a land owner of the Vedhiyar caste. As an untouchable, Nandanar was not permitted to enter the village temple, but yearned to visit it, and used to play the yazh (an instrument) and sing devotional songs from some distance away. He desired to go to Tiruppungur to worship the deity Shivaloganathaswami in the temple there, and one day managed to reach there. He stood outside the temple and attempted to look at the linga within, but a large image of Nandi blocked his view. It is said that at Shiva’s command, the Nandi moved a few feet to the right, so that Nandanar could view the linga. Returning to his village, filled with joy, Nandanar was determined to go to Tillai (Chidambaram). Everyday he would say, ‘I will go tomorrow’, and thus he earned the name Tiru Nalai Povar, ‘one who will go tomorrow’, and is still known by that name. Finally he approached his Vedhiyar landlord for permission, who told him to worship the gods of his own caste. His own community members too, told him to leave the high caste gods alone. Nandanar did not give up. Once again he asked the landlord, who said he would permit him if he transplanted paddy in 40 velis of land (250 acres) in one day, an impossible task. By the grace of Shiva this was done, and Nandanar set off for Chidambaram. Here too he could not enter the temple, but it is said that the Lord appeared to him and to the temple dikshitars (priests) in a dream and said that after purification by a ‘fire bath” he would be permitted to enter. The dikshitars built a Vedic fire which he entered, and is said to have emerged from it with a tuft of hair and sacred thread, like a brahmana. He then entered the temple and merged with Lord Nataraja.
Historians believe that Nandanar was actually burnt to death and never entered Tillai, but today his image is in leading Shaivite temples along with those of the other Nayanars. He has been praised by Ramalinga Swami, Narayana guru, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Sivananda, and several others, and is perhaps the most well-known of the Nayanars. In 1910 Swami Sahajananda established the Nandanar School and Nandanar Matha at Chidambaram in his memory.