This is post is partly a response to several comments I received on my posts related to the Ram Sethu project. The greater part, however, is my education, an attempt to trace the Rama (and Ramayana) consciousness in Tamil Nadu.
The Sangam corpus is typically used as a reliable source for a lot of historical information about Tamil Nadu. Its historicity spans 200 BCE to 200 CE. It is therefore reasonable to start tracing the Rama tradition in Tamil Nadu from this source. In general, the Sangam Literature contains numerous references to Lord Vishnu (for example, in Paripaatal) and his prominent avatars like Narasimha, Rama, and Krishna. Purananuru, a collection of about 400 poems contains a reference to Ramayana.
Post-Sangam, the Alvars were the true pioneers of the Vaishnava bhakti movement. In a way, they were the spiritual progenitors of Ramanuja, founder of Sri Vaishnavism, who held them in reverential esteem. The term Alvar means one who is immersed. Between the twelve of them, they composed what is known as the Natayira Divyaprabandham (4000 Divine Veses) dedicated to all forms of Lord Vishnu. References to Rama are abundant in the Alvar literature, most notably in the poetry of Kulashekara Alvar , who dedicated his life to worshipping Rama. Most notable is that in an age where the caste system had reached deplorable levels, Thiruppan, an untouchable was elevated to an Alwar by the sheer force of his devotion.
Kambar’s Ramavatharam–popularly, Kambaramayanam–is the next definitive epoch-making work that helped spread the Rama tradition throughout the Tamil land. Inspired by Valmiki, Kambar retold the epic in about 10,000 verses. This work contributed not just to classical Tamil literature but over time, became inseparable from routine Hindu religious worship. To date, the entire Ramavatharam is recited in the Aadi month of the Tamil calendar. It is also part of regular worship, chanted alongside Sanskrit mantras.
In general, the Sri Vaishnava movement holds Rama in special reverence. It spread its wings really wide to spread the message of Rama in Tamil Nadu and beyond. A key defining concept of Sri Vaishnavism is Sharanagati or complete surrender. This in turn has its roots in Vibhishana’s surrender to Rama. From Nathamuni to Yaamunacharya to Ramanuja, every major Sri Vaishnava saint and philosopher composed an array of elaborate literature on Rama and helped build Rama/Vishnu temples across Tamil Nadu.
The next saint-philosopher to greatly propagate the Rama movement was Sadashiva Brahmendra or Upanishad Brahmendra, who lived in Tiruchinapalli in the 18th century. He initiated the concept of Rama Parabrahma or Rama as Brahman. The most famous nay, celebrity-follower of Brahmendra was Thyagaraja whose entire life centered around Rama. The Tanjore-Cauvery belt in Tamil Nadu came under the Rama-bhakti spell owing to these influences.
Other stalwarts of the Rama bhakti movement include the legendary Vedanta Desikar, who wrote a thousand verses on Sri Rama’s Paaduka (sandals/footwear), Sridhar Sastry Aiyyaval, C.Rajagopalachari, whose Chakravarthi Thirumagan is an acknowledged modern classic, the Kanchi Paramacharya, and Ahobila Jeeyar.
The Rama bhakti movement also showed manifestations in several areas such as art, music, dance, drama, and folk. To this day, art forms such as Oothakadu, Sulamangalam, Terukoothu, and Bhagavata Melas focusing on the Ramayana theme are performed in various parts of Tamil Nadu. These have an unbroken existence of about a thousand years. Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandanar Charitram, popular even today is based on Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam. Nandanar Charitram has been adapted, revised, and customized several times over by eminent artists like Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar, and more recently, Balasaraswathi.
The fact that one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage spots, Rameshwaram, is in Tamil Nadu speaks volumes. No less than Rama had himself installed two lingas, which are housed in the magnificent Ramanatha Swami temple.
The Rama tradition also finds its expression in the names people give their children. Raman, Rameshwaran, Ramaswamy, Ramabhadran, Sitaraman, Sivaraman, Sivaramakrishnan, Ramasubramanian, et al . That more than anything, testifies the continuing significance and Rama-consciousness in Tamil Nadu. This, despite state-sponsored denigration of everything Hindu and rampant conversion activities.