Tamil poet-saints of the seventh through ninth centuries CE offer an important perspective on the south Indian worship of key Hindu deities. Their devotional perspective is known as bhakti. These saints and devotional poets wrote numerous hymns dedicated to Hindu gods, especially Shiva and Vishnu. Written in Tamil—as opposed to Sanskrit, the language used in Brahmanic Hindu ritual—the poems were performed throughout the region, generating deep devotion and even inspiring the construction of temples. A number of poet-saints were from the lower classes. Without access to temple worship, poems—suffused with affection and awe for the deities—were their primary way to express devotion and establish personal relationships with the divine.
Rich in visual imagery, these hymns were later used by the Cholas to inform sculptures of Shiva and Vishnu. An excerpt from a devotional poem to Shiva by Saint Appar—a poet-saint of seventh-century Tamil Nadu—includes the visual attributes that would become characteristic of Shiva Nataraja in the Chola period:
If you could see
the arch of his brow
the budding smile
on lips red as the kovvai fruit
cool matted hair,
the milk-white ash on coral skin,
and the sweet golden foot raised up in dance,
then even human birth on this wide earth would be a thing worth having.
Later in the poem, Appar writes of Shiva’s dance in the Chidambaram forest (described as the “hall of Tillai”):
The very foot he raised
to dance the dance
in the little hall of Tillai—
it claimed me as a slave.
Saint Sundarar, who lived in the eighth century, also produced hymns to Shiva replete with similarly vivid imagery:
The Lord who holds fire
and bears the broad river on his head
dances, trailing strands of fire-red matted hair.
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