Lord Skanda-Murugan

Tiruppukal as classical music and its role in the cult of Murukan

Saint Arunakirināthar, poet-composer of the vast Tiruppukal collection

by Ponnaih Jeyālaki Arunagirinathan

Tiruppukal songs have been closely associated with Murukan worship since the 15th century and play a vital part in Murukan worship to this day. This study will look at Tiruppukal and the impact they have had upon Murukan worship.

Tiruppukal songs were composed by Arunakirināthar in the 15th century as 1,367 discontinuous songs. They can be described as lyrical hymns interwoven with the doctrines of Saiva Siddhanta philosophy1 and are also based on the hymnal tradition of Saiva and Vaishnava bhakti. The combined elements of all-India mythology2 with indigenous Tamil myths and legends concerned with the cult of Murukan give a feeling of harmony for people who belong to both cultures. In this way Tiruppukal songs also play an important part in bringing harmonious integration of two cultures, Sanskritic and Tamil. This total penetration of elements Sanskritic and Tamil are happily blended together in Tiruppukal.

Tiruppukal songs can be divided into three main categories:

  1. lyrical poetry of personal experience with autobiographical materials;
  2. lyrical poetry with elements of philosophy; and
  3. straightforward hymns praising Lord Skanda-Murukan.

Apart from the last category the first two contain teachings from which human beings can attain salvation. There are guides to humanity leading to perfect life, but the whole beauty is that they are blended with resonant music.

For Arunakirināthar, Tamil and Murukan are the same. In one of his Tiruppukal songs he praises Lord Murukan as Muttamilvitva, vinota, kita "Oh wisdom of three-fold Tamil,3 Oh beauty, Oh song!" This line alone brought an inspiration to the present study, making me to think about the interconnections within it. It led me to analyse Tiruppukal's place in Murukan worship as well as its influences on classical music. In connection with the former theme: the antiquity of Murukan worship and Tiruppukal's place in it, the application of Tiruppukal to temple worship and whether Tiruppukal has a ritual significance or is simply a complementary devotional practice, will be analysed. In favour of the other issue of the technical aspects of Tiruppukal and how it is a form of classical music will also be considered. In the concluding part of the study the question of how these songs undergo or face problems when sung in different places by different professionals will be analysed.

Tiruppukal's significance in the cult of Murukan

The antiquity of Murukan worship dates form the Cankam period. Scholars believe that Murukan worship began in South India around the Cankam period. One should perhaps ask what the word Cankam means. One definition says it is "The Cankam or Academy in Madurai (which) shaped and controlled the literary, linguistic and cultural life of the ancient Tamils"4 According to Nakkīrar, one of the Cankam poets, there were three academies.5

Tolkāppiyam, the oldest extant Tamil grammar of 2nd Century BC, divided the rhetoric of the subject matter of literature into two categories: akam represents the subjective aspects of life such as love with its emotions and incidents while puram deals with the objective aspects of life such as one's relationship with the outer world, with the community and the state. The word tinai, literally 'genus', denotes the main subdivisions of both categories of subject matter. In akam the tinai are the five aspects of love. In puram the tinai represents aspects of warfare and the praise of heroes. One would assume that in Cankam literature the references to Murukan worship mainly come under the category of akam literature. Murukan's association with akam would seem to be confirmed as he is regarded as the patron of the hilly tract, Kuriñci.6
Arunagiri worships Lord Murugan who had just rescued him from certain death by suicide
Arunagiri worships Lord Murugan who had just rescued him from certain death by suicide. Painting from Tiru Avinankudi Tirukkovil, Palani.

In the early Cankam period bards and poets would go from court to court, sing to the king, praise him and receive some recompense. There are references in Puranānaru, one of the anthologies: one bard tells another whom he meets on the road that he should visit a king to become rich. Such a poem of recommendation on the road is called Arruppatai seemingly in the same category as Tirumurukārruppatai or Guide to Lord Murukun, one of the Pattu Pāttu suggests that those who need spiritual guidance should go to the god Murukan.7 This was possibly written by Nakkīrar.

Paripātal, another anthology belonging to the Cankam period, is our main Cankam source for Murukan worship. The whole anthology as extent is divided into praise of Visnu, Murukan and the river Vaikai. The poems 5,8,14.17,18,19 and 21 are in praise of Cēvvel in Paripātal as we have it. For example Paripātal 5 dedicated to Cēvvel mainly describes the birth of Murukan8 and his heroic actions. Finally in line 76 the poet says that 'Those who doubt it shall not attain the feet of Murukan'. This line alone is testimony of Murukan bhakti of that time.

These anthology poems in praise of Murukan show the antiquity of his worship. The way in which they praise Lord Murukan show the importance of Murukan or Muruka bhakti at that time; one may say those poems laid the foundation for Muruka bhakti in the first place. Even in the very ancient period Murukan worship existed, but it achieved its peak in medieval times and was popularised from Arunakirināthar's Tiruppukal period onwards.

In addition to Tiruppukal's popularity in Murukan worship, one way ask how Tiruppukal hymns contributed to Murukan bhakti and what caused Arunakirināthar to compose these songs in the first place. In order to answer these questions firstly it is important to look at Arunakirināthar's life in brief.

Several versions of the life of Arunakirināthar have been told, but it has to be stated that in the absence of clear evidence people draw their own conclusions. It has been said that Arunakirināthar was born into a family of Ruttirakanikaiyar, women who were devoted to temple service of dancing and singing before the deity at pūjā time. His birthplace was Tiruvannāmalai. When he was young he lost both his parents and was brought up by his sister.

A parallel belief is that young Arunakiri led a licentious life and was affected by leprosy. But Śrī Kumāra Gurudāsa Swami, one of the biographers of Arunakirnāthar, suggests that he never led such a life. Confusion may have arisen due to elaborate descriptions of attractive women in Tiruppukal. Scholars may put forward different views but it is evident that the first part of Tiruppukal condemns worldly pleasures and the latter past praises Lord Murukan.

Such an ardent devotee as Arunakirināthar, one might say, would not have led such a proligate life. Arunakiri realised the illusion of life and surrendered himself to Murukan. The more he surrendered himself, the more he was anxious to see Murukan. But his desire was never fulfilled and out of depression he flung himself from a Tiruvannāmalai temple gōpuram. Murukan came to the rescue, commanded Arunakiri to sing, and gave him the lead as 'muttaitaru'. From that moment onwards Arunakirināthar composed thousands of Tiruppukal hymns. His Tiruppukal are so fluent and melodious that they are called nectar. Through his songs he said many things which are relevant to humanity for attaining moksa 'salvation'.9

There is no clear evidence for Arunakirināthar's life and the incidents in it are matters of legend. But even if things happen according to the present day belief, one should take his life as an fine example for bhakti marga. In bhakti marga the fundamental principle is that all human beings are born with certain weaknesses; when they do something wrong they need somebody to correct and guide them and assure them that they can overcome their failings. Only in bhakti marga one could see such hope, and the story of Arunakirināthar remains a good example. Through his songs he also made Murukan bhakti accessible for ordinary people as the Nāyanmār and Alvār did.

From his period onwards the Tiruppukal became popular in temple rituals. Temples played a vital part in peoples' lives in Tamil nadu from at least the period of the 6th century onwards. Temples and pilgrimage became very special elements of Tamil culture from the time of the nāyanmār Saiva saints. Following the same tradition, Arunakirināthar also went around the shrines of Murukan and composed Tiruppukal on those sthalas. Songs on the Arupataivītu, 'Six Divine Armouries'10 of Murukan were and remain popular. By praising the Lord in connection with the nearby landscape of those sthalas he also made ordinary people feel proud of their terrain and brought them closer to the Lord. In this way the bhakti marga was propagated by Arunakirināthar.

Tiruppukal hymns were and are usually sung by otuvār, the community of 'reciters' of sacred hymns in temple worship. When temples became popular there started rules and regulations for temple worship and its rituals. As its basis is the Saiva Agamas system of philosophy telling the method of Siva worship, twenty-eight in number. The Kamika Agama, which rules most of the temple rituals of South India, suggests that hymns in Tamil should be sung immediately after the daily worship in temple rituals. In this way, songs differ from temple to temple according to their deities. In Murukan temples, otuvār mainly sing Tiruppukal.

In temple rituals, the otuvār normally sings Pañca Purāna11 'five special hymns' which are included in the Panniru Tirumurai. At the end of this they sing Tiruppukal as a complimentary song to Murukan and this practice still continues. Tiruppukal hymns are not included in the twelve canon Panniru Tirumurai, but one may ask how Tiruppukal is included in the concluding part of the Pañca Purānam in the temple worship.

An answer is that Pañca Purānam hymns are sung to cuttānkam or viruttam, without tāla type (except for Tēvāram). After that arrhythmic singing, Tiruppukal sung in fast tempo may give a touch of active feeling or satisfaction to the listener. In this way Tiruppukal imparts rhythmic mood to the singing: The songs are composed in rare tālas and are popular for their unusual style called cantam, 'syllabic rhythmic pattern'. e.g.tana, tanana, tantana etc., Even though they are not part of the Tirumurai and are supplementary songs to Lord Murukan when they are included in the Pañca Purānam, they are regarded very highly and have ritual significance.

Tiruppukal as classical music

In connection with this theme are Tiruppukal's technical aspects: cantam or syllabic rhythmic patterns, its rare tālas and ragas, and how it became a forerunner of krti and kīrtana and a constituent in Carnatic music concerts - these will be analysed briefly.

Almost everybody knows Tiruppukal as a highly sophisticated form of classical music composed by Arunakirināthar. But only some may ask whence did Arunakirināthar draw his inspiration for his Tiruppukal, with its highly sophisticated syllabic rhythmic patterns or cantam.

Tamil cantam is drived from Sanskrit chandas, metres, one of the six Vedāngas: Siksā, Kalpa, Vyākāranam, nirukta, Chand and Jyotisa. Tese are associated with pan, for poetry in early times was connected especially with devotional singing. From around 6th century AD onwards poetry, devotional songs set to fixed pans or ragas existed in Tamil Saiva and Vaisnava texts. The poets who first employed metres of the cantam type were Tiruñānacampantar and Tirumalicai Alvār. The structures of Kalippa and Paripātal12 were superseded after the 6th century AD by such Pāvinam or auxiliary metres. These were used in epics and prapantams but this style achieved its supremacy in Arunakirināthar's Tiruppukal. Astapadi songs of Gita Govinda by Jayadava and many Sanskrit compositions: such as Sivastuti of Patañjali set in popular metres also inspired Arunakirināthar. Another striking example is one of the Tirumurai saints' works. In the eleventh Tirumurai, the Koyil nanmanimalai of Pattinattār (10th cent. AD) and a classical Tamil epic, Takkayakamparani by Ottakūttar (12th cent. AD) also contained cantam metres which may have inspired Arunakirināthar.

The Sanskrit candas classified long and short syllables in vedic metrics and singing. Rg and Yajur vedas are in verse, measured by syllables. Later they were adopted into Tamil prosody to use in metres sung without tāla or cuttānkanga. There are two types of candas which were found in Sanskrit classical poetry: Aksarachandas and Mātrāchandas. In Tamil poetry Aksarachandas came to be in use from the Tēvāram period and songs combined with cantam are called cantappā.

The Tiruppukal songs also interwoven with cantam are thus called cantappā and the composer of Tiruppukal is therefore referred to as Cantappāvala Peruman. Example below shows how cantam, tāla and songs are interwoven.

Taka dimi Taki Ta : Ta Ka Taka Tadimi
Akara mu. Mā. Ki : .. Panu mā. ki
Timi dimi Toku : Dimi To .. ku
Atika mu. mā. ki : Aka mā .. ki

Here the rhythmic structures comes as 4 + 3, thus it is in a Mis&215;ra or seven aksara grouping. normally the rhythmic structure comes as 3 + 4 Takita-Takadimi but here it comes in a viloma, reversed structure: instead of 3 + 4, 4 + 3.

Another unique device found in Tiruppukal is known as tōnkal, which is an extension appearing in the end of each verse or kandikai. This is rhythmically different as well as a help in differentiating the second verse from the first, the third from the second, etc., The yati or caesura is an important unit in Tiruppukal. In the particular Tiruppukal that was mentioned earlier, the yati connected with tōnkal comes as Murukone, vekukoti perumale etc., The tōnkal present in a Tiruppukal usually follows the same rhythmic pattern, as a rule throughout the piece. For instance:

"Ikaramu mā. ki : Ivika lu mā. ki//
Inimayu mā. ki : Varu vō. ne//

Here varu vōne is a tōnkal. The same metrical arrangement comes with the rest of the lines as vativōne, utaiyōne etc.,

The function of tōnkal is adding an additional beautiful touch to the poetry. Originally, tōnkal in Tamil, meant endant' or 'medallion'. As a pendant gives extra beauty to a chain, in the same way Tiruppukal as a chain completes its beauty with tōnkal. Rajagopala Iyar. (JMA Vol. LI, 1980) describes its function as "tōnkal affords free elbow room for slight elongation of the type to the exigency to the particular tāla, to round up the avarta".

Talas which used in Tiruppukal are called canta tālas, a combination of jatis and aksarās. numerous laya phrases or jatis are used in Tiruppukal. Many of these are not used even in South Indian dance forms. Arunakirināthar mentions some of the tālas which were used in his period; Puta vetāla vakuppu, a composition which tells about the battle between Lord Murukan and Surapadma.

Here he gives an account of rare tālas such as caccaputam, caccaputam, satpita, putirikam, urgatitam, tarppanam, carccari, kokilapriya, kankalam and utsava. Here, the first five tālas are believed to derive from the five faces of Lord Siva and are called Mārgi Tālas and the rest of them belong to the 108 Desi Tālas.13 Both are considered among the rare tālas of Carnatic music. Herein, the 108 tālas use the caturasra laghu of four beats only in addition to the other five tālāngas, of 1,2,8,12 and 16 beats. But in Tiruppukal, 3,4,6,7 and 9 aksara varieties and their variations are used abundantly14.

In Puttavētāla vakkuppu he mentions how devils and ghosts performed a terrible dance on the battlefield in order to scare the gods' army. Besides telling the story, he mentions the pans and tālas current in his time. It is interesting to note that Arunakirināthar composed his work just before Venkatamakhi (1635).

Arunakirināthar mentioned few ragas and pans; nowadays Tiruppukal songs are sung to pan that are identified with ragas popularly used in Carnatic music and that came into use just after Arunakirināthar's period. It is worth observing that in Arunakirināthar's time even foreign ragas were used but pan (like Janaka or parental scale) and tiram (janya or child) scalar patterns were used. There were altogether:

4 Pans (Kaicikai, Sikārmaram, Kuriñci, Pañcamam)
3 Tiramas (Vipañci, Cikanti, Varati)
1 Janaka rāga (Bhairavi)
6 Janya rāgas (Mōhanam, Gaulai, Bauli, Varāli, Rañci, Patamañjari)
2 Bhasanga ragas (Kauda, Lalitai)

which were mentioned in Putuvētāla vakkuppu.

It has been frequently mentioned that Arunakirināthar composed Tiruppukal in the style known as citra kavita, 'artistic poetry' similar to prabandhas, but without pallavi, anu pallavi and carana sections. Prabandha types of composition disappeared gradually with the appearance of modern forms. In Carnatic music the forms kīrtana and krti already in use e.g., by Purandaradāsa (1494-1564), were brought to perfection by Tyāgarāja, Muttuswami Dikshitar and Syama Shastri.

Following Arunakirināthar's footsteps in the cantam structure Tyāgarāja and Muttuswami Dikshitar are to some extent indebted to the cantam style. Muttuswami Dikshitar adopted the cantam structure as Madhyakāla prayōga and composed many krtis with this style. Similarities between Cantakulippu15 and Madyakāla prayōga portrary the adaptation of cantam style in Dikshitar's krtis clearly.

In connection with Tiruppukal's impact on Carnatic music, another important element can be pointed out. Arunakirināthar in many of his Tiruppukal uses the mudra or ankitam, effectively his signature. This is a feature of devotional poetry seen long before, e.g. in Tiruñānacampantar's Tēvāram and Jayadeva's Gita Govinda. This tradition has been popularly used by the musical trio and the other composers later.

Another important point that is worth observing here is the supreme skill of Arunakirināthar, both in vannam 'colour of sounds' and ocai, the basic tone and rhythmic flow of Tiruppukal, yet further concepts inherited from Cankam literature. Kamil Zvelebil states "vannam is the prevalent phonaesthetic quality of a stanza, determined by the quantitative relations and structural positions of bocoid and contoid phonemes" (Smile of Murugan p. 244). Tiruppukal songs have been accepted as a constituent in Carnatic music concerts for their rhythmic words rare rāgas and tālas in fast tempo that give a feeling of action to the singers and audience, combined with a vivid sense of devotion.

Without difficulty Tiruppukal songs gained popularity from both religious and musical perspectives. They are popularly sung by different professionals in different places. When songs are recited by otuvār, their treatment is subjective. As Tiruppukal promote bhakti in Murukan worship, the community of reciters of sacred hymns believe that the words should be understood properly; without understanding the words of the text, people cannot approach the feet of Murukan and thereby the final goal of moksa. It is very important to understand the words of the songs in devotional practice. Thus the otuvāra place emphasis on words and reduce musical ornamentation in their singing during temple worship. For this reason, it is believed that musical elaboration should be restricted to a minimum.

On the other hand, classical musicians use musical elaboration in Tiruppukal in concerts. The rāgas and tālas with syllabic rhythmic variations are a real treat for classical musicians. These allow them to express their musical imagination and thereby to explore much appreciated improvisational talents. In stage performances one could handle a Tiruppukal as one of those krti or kīrtana and be appreciated by the audience easily.

To summarize, in devotional practice, words remain important to promote bhakti. The otuvār has to observe the rules in handling words without damaging the actual meaning of the text, so music takes the second place. In contrast to this, in stage performances the music remains very important and the text's importance counted as secondary.

Finally, from the Cankam period until today in South India, Tamil music and religion, whether Saivism or Vaisnavism, are interrelated. The connection has been embedded in South Indian minds since age after age. The reason is that Saiva Siddhānta philosophy shows an easy path to moksa through music. And classical music is a form of worship of God Siva in particular, as the divine origin and embodiment of music and its fulfilment. In the same way that the divine beings and their attributes are outside human intellect, music too acquired and esoteric and well-nigh mystical significance.

End Notes

  1. Saiva Siddhānta includes the sastras which are relevant to South Indian Saivism. The philosophy of Saiva Siddhānta mainly enumerates 'Mupporul'; pati, 'Lord', pasu, 'soul' and pasam 'the three-fold bondage'. The twenty-eight Saiva agamas and other texts such as Civa˜anapotam, Civa˜anacittiyar and Irupa Irupattu all formed the origin of Siddhānta philosophy.
  2. What Milton singer tended 'great tradition'.
  3. Three-fold-Tamil is known as iyal, isai and natakam.
  4. Kamil V. Zvelebil: The Smile of Murugan p.45
  5. The first Cankam which was situated in 'Southern Madurai' lasted 4,400 years. Members who took part in it included gods and sages such as Siva, Skanda, Kubera and Agastya and it was submerged into the sea. The second Cankam situated in Kapatapuram lasted 3,700 years and was also submerged into the sea. Finally the third Cankam was situated in present-day Madurai and lasted 1,850 years.
  6. Tolkappiyam. Porul - 5. line 2: "Ceyon meya mai-varai y-ulakam-um" The mountain region presided by Murukan.
  7. The difference in the application of the term arruppatai as between Tirumurukārruppatai and others such as Perumpan arruppatai has been discussed many times. It is suggested that this represents a medieval re-use of a Cankam term: it will be recalled that Tirumurukārruppatai is also included in Tirumurai XI.
  8. J.R. Marr: The Eight Anthologies p.382 op.cit. "There Indra requests Siva no more to unite with Uma and the embryo already in her womb is removed by Indra and given to the seven sages. Theses gave it into the care of their wives but Aundati refused to share in looking after it. It was cut into six and cast into fire and six wives consumed the pieces. Each gave birth to one god. They were all on a lotus raft and the children were playing when Uma saw them. She joined them into one God, the six faced Skanda": Arumukam.
  9. In the sense understood by Saiva Siddhānta.
  10. The six are: Tiurverakam, Palamutircolai, Tiruttani, Tirucentur, Palani and Tirupparankundram.
  11. Tevaram, Tiruvacakam, Tiruvicappa, Tiruppallantu, and Periyapuranam. These five main texts and some other form the Panniru Tirumaurai or 'twelve-fold sacred wry'.
  12. "Paripatal poems may be composed in a number of metres. Tolkappiyam the oldest grammar in Tamil, states that the four parts of Paripatal are Koccakam, Arakam, Curitakam and Eruttu. The commentary explains that Koccakam is a part where in short lines recur like pleats in a garment. Arakam is characterised by a rapid succession of short syllables, Curita Icam is the closing portion and Eruttu is the same as Taravu". J.R. Marr, op. cit.pp.3740375. Taravu is the same as the verse-component of Kalipattu.
  13. An interesting variant of the used interpretation of these as the 108 classical talas by reason of their names at least going back to such medieval texts as Sangitarantakara and beyond.
  14. P. Sambamurthi was of the opinion that the analogues capu talas have their origin in folk music.
  15. In Indian music seven swaras S-R-G-M-P-D and N form the scalar pattern there are seven jati syllables to-dhi-tam-nam-ta-lan and dhin that form the tala pattern. Among the basic seven syllables cantams are selected, introducing the concepts of vallinam 'hard' and mellinam 'soft' consonants, viz the plosive and nasal series. Also utilised are the itaiyinam middle letters: y, r, l, v, l and l. From these combinations thousands of different patterns can be woven. This process is called cantakkulippu.


  1. Arunachalam, M. An Introduction to the History of Tamil Literature. Gandhi Vidyalayam Tiruchitambalam. 1974.
  2. Jayalakshmi, S. "Saint Arunakirinathar - the rhythmic patterns of his compositions" Journal of Asian Studies, Madras 1984 Vol. 2 no.1. pp.175-214.
  3. Zvelebil, Kamil. The Smile of Murugan. Leiden: E. J.Brill. 1973.
  4. Zvelebil, Kamil. The Smile of Murugan. pp. 237-246.
  5. Marr, J.R. The Elight Anthologies. Madras: Institute of Asian Studies, 1985.
  6. Parthasarathy, T.S. "The Music of the Tiruppugazh". Madras: Journal of the Sangeet natak Academy, 1986 Vol.39, pp. 5-14.
  7. Raja Gopala Aiyar, P.K. "Some aspects of the rhythmic beauties of Tiruppugazh', The Journal of the Music Academy, Madras, Vol. LI, pp. 120-128.
  8. Sankaran. "Rhythmic analysis of some selected Tiruppugazh songs", Madras: Journal of the Music Academy, 1989 Vol.LX, pp. 92-102.
  9. Somasundaram Pillai, J.M. "St. Arunagiriar, XV Century" in Two thousand years of Tamil Literature. 1959.
  10. Subramanya Pillai, Tiruppukal. Annamalai University Isai Tamil Series, Trichy: City Press, 1959 Vol. XIX,
  11. Tyagarajan, K.C. "Arunakirinatar in Tirupukal Patalkalil kanum natai Amaippukal", Journal of the Music Academy, Madras, 1971 Vol. XLII, pp. 70-83.
  12. Vaiyapuri Pillai. History of Tamil Language and Literature. Madras: new Century Book House, 1956.
  13. Venkataramaiah, K.M. Civan Arul Tirattu. Durban: Natal Tamil Vedic Society, 1984.

Jeyālaki Arunagirinathan can be contacted at: JArunagirinathan@tower.ac.uk.

See also these related resources:
"Tirumurukarruppatai's place in the Saiva Canon" by Jeya Arunagirinathan
"Was Arunagirinathar a Shakta?" by Sadhu Ram
Index of articles from the First International Conference on Skanda-Murukan