Sage Vyāghrapāda and the Tillai Nataraja Temple at Cidambaram

Śiva as Natarāja is shown dressed in a tiger skin, dancing the ānanda tāṇḍava (dance of bliss). On his left is his consort, Śivakāmasundari and on his right are Vyāghrapāda and Patañjali. Company School, c. 1820 Andhra Pradesh; British Museum.

“The foot raised to kill the Moon,
at Dakṣa’s sacrifice,
the foot which sent Death to his death,
the foot which Nārāyaṇa and Brahmā
sought in vain to see,
the foot raised in dance
in Tillai’s Little Ampalam hall -
that is the foot which possesses us!”

Appar (translated by Indira Vishwanathan Peterson)

The sthala purāṇa of the Thillai Nataraja Temple at Cidambaram is associated with the great sages Vyāghrapāda and Patanjali. Sculptures of Vyāghrapāda and Patanjali are found on all the gopurams except the West.

From the ‘Cidambara Mahātmyam’ (a part of Skanda purāṇa), the ‘Koyil Puranam’ (in Tamil) and ‘Kuncitanghristavam’ (in Sanskrit) of Umapati Sivacarya, we have details of the earliest saints, Vyāghrapāda and Patanjali, who are associated with the history of Cidambaram and who are said to have attained salvation here. Śiva performed his Ānanda Tāṇḍava or the dance of bliss to bestow divine grace on Vyāghrapāda and Patanjali and the devas, in the presence of His consort, Śivakāmasundari. The Pañcasabhā or Cit Sabha of the Tillai — one of the “five halls where Śiva is said to have danced” is described in Koyil puranam.

Vyāghrapāda was the son of Madhyandina Munivar, who taught him the Vedas, the śāstras, and the Śaiva āgamās. Vyāghrapāda searched for the sacred Tillai forest in which to conduct his penance. He found a Śiva liṅgā under a banyan tree near a sacred tank and set up his hermitage. The sage found that the flowers were spoiled by honey bees when gathered after dawn and so prayed to the Lord that he might be provided with the eyes, claws and feet of a tiger to fulfil his desire of collecting untouched flowers for worship. Śiva blessed him with the limbs of a tiger to climb trees without slipping and the ability to see in darkness, such that he could collect untouched flowers before sunrise, to offer to Śiva. The lord, after showering upon him these graces, named him Vyāghrapāda (one with a tiger’s limbs).

Since Vyāghrapāda (Pulikkal Munivar in Tamil: the saint with a tiger’s feet) devoted himself to the Lord of Tillai, the holy centre came to be known as Perumparrapuliyur — or Puliyur, in short whose praise Appar sang.

Śiva promised that Anantā would be born on earth with five hoods, as the son of Sage Atri and Anasūya. In due course, Ananta emerged from Anasūya’s hand as a serpent. The frightened Anasūya dropped the hooded serpent and so It came to be known as Patañjali (one who had been dropped from the palm). Patañjali went to Tillai through the Nāgaloka and joined Vyāghrapāda at Tillai.

References:

1. Tillai and Nataraja by B. Natarajan; Balasubrahmanyan Ramachandran

2. Poems to Siva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints, Indira Viswanathan Peterson

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