Maran, later known as Nammalvar and by other names like Satagopa, Parankusa, etc., was born as the avatara of Senai Mudaliar (God’s Chief of Hosts). His father Kariyar belonged to Tirukkuruhur on the banks of the Tamraparni in the Tirunelveli district. For the first sixteen years of his life, Maran remained without food and drink, with his eyes closed, under a tamarind tree (the avatara, it is believed, of Adisesha, the serpent on which God, Sri Narayana, reclines), near the temple of Lord Adinatha at Tirukkuruhur. He opened his eyes and spoke for the first time when one Madurakavi, who later on became his disciple, put a question to him: “When what is little is born in the dead, what will it eat and where will it lie?” Nammalvar answered the question thus: “It will eat the dead and lie on it.” Even after this, Nammalvar never left the shade of the tamarind tree. He remained there singing his hymns. All the deities of the hundred and eight divya desas (the divine shrines) came to Tirukkuruhur, it is said, to give him “darsan”. When he had finished the four works attributed to him, the call came and he joined the feet of the Lord for which he had yearned all his life.
It will be seen from this brief account that Nammalvar’s life as it was lived in the light of common day, with all the details of the earth that he touched, is not available to us. The first account of it in Sanskrit was written a few centuries after him, and according to its claim, more than nearly forty centuries after him. It is no doubt a theological if psychologically true version, for by the time it was written, Nammalvar had been accepted by Vaishnavas of the south as a saint, as the saint of saints at whose word the transcendent state opens to man.
Modern biographical and historical research trying to get at what it would call the facts of Nammalvar’s life stands baulked. Time has swallowed the factual details and what is now presented is the idealised account given in Divya Suri Charitam and Guru Parampara Prabhavam. This account, though it may not satisfy seekers of Boswellian documentation, is true to the inward life — and that is what matters — so variedly and movingly recorded in Nammalvar’s words. The long years of his silence and his detachment from all things earthly which are the most significant points in the traditional account of Nammalvar conform to the experience of mystics the world over. The first years of his life were spent, we may well believe, in the search for the `God within’ in a single-pointed contemplation that by a divine dispensation came to him from birth. The miracle of his life lies here. When he emerged from this in-drawn state, he had touched the Ultimate. His works chronicle this as also the various stages of his journey to God. That journey, as his words reveal, is marked by the initial alienation from the earth, the beginning of the search for significance, the darkness that sets in on the way, its sudden removal and as sudden return, the passion and agony of the seeking and the joy of realisation, in fact all the states through which one passes.
“When that which came from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.”
Since Nammalvar spoke only after the first sixteen years of his life, if we consider this period of silence as occupied by his search for Reality, we have to infer that portions of his works were a turning back and a recollection, a fresh experience, to change Wordsworth’s phrasing, recollected in the tranquillity of realisation