Shaivism has been one of the dominant sects of Hinduism in India in general and South India in particular. A group of Tamil saint poets who lived between the 6th and 8th centuries and who were devotees of Shiva were known as Nayanmars (alternatively called Nayanars too). These saints played an important role in spreading the Bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu along with the Vaishnava saints called Alvars. There are a total of 63 Nayanars who composed hymns in praise of Mahadev. It was Sundarar who compiled the list in his poem Tiruthonda Thogai initially. However, the list was neither chronological nor did it have details of the lives of the saints. This task was taken up by the chief priest of Raja Raja Chola I during the 10th Century.
Nambiyandar Nambi began the task of collecting all hymns composed by the Nayanmars into a work called Tirumurai. The entire work was divided into 11 books. The first seven books are collectively called Tevaram. They contain the works of Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar. Manikkavachakar’s works and 28 hymns of nine other saints were compiled as the eighth and ninth books respectively. While the tenth book consisted of Tirumoolar’s Tirumandiram and 40 hymns by 12 other saints; the eleventh book was a compilation of 89 verses with a verse dedicated to each of the 63 saints. Later in the 12th century, a twelfth book was added to the compilation by Sekkizhar, poet and contemporary of Kollatunga Chola II. He compiled a book called Periya Puranam which consists of not only the compositions by the 63 Nayanmars but also gives details about their lives and stories.
Nayanmars belonged to various castes and professions and rose to become saints through their single minded devotion towards the Lord. They proved through their actions that Bhakti is the highest form of devotion and it is only through Bhakti that one can get the blessings of the Lord. Kariakal Ammeiyar, a woman saint who lived in the 6th century, is the earliest known female Nayanmar. Sundarar, Amaraneedi, Appar, Sambandar, Tirumular, Cherman Perumal, Kannappa, Pugal Chola, Mangyakkarasiyar and Sengenar (Kochengat Chola) are some of the well known Nayanmars.
These saints not only differed in their castes and professions but were also different in terms of the lifestyles they led. The one thing that bound them all was their intense love for Lord Shiva. When we look at the kind of lifestyle they followed we realise that to attain God we need not isolate ourselves from the world. The same can be achieved by remembering God while carrying out our daily chores. It is the love and spirit of surrender that matter much more than anything else. This was the message of the Bhakti movement in itself. At a time when rituals and dogmas had plagued Hinduism and threatened to take people away towards Jainism and Buddhism, Bhakti saints all over India did the noble task of spreading the message of love and devotion towards God being the apt path to achieve Moksha. The contribution of Nayanmars, like other Bhakti saints, cannot be covered in a single post. Each of their lives in itself is inspiring and worth studying. But suffice to say here that we must follow the path shown by them and choose the path of Bhakti to move up the spiritual ladder.