Frog in the mouth of a Snake: Tamil Saints’ Simile


By London Swaminathan
Post No. 897 Dated 9th March 2014

Appar alias Thirunavukkarasar is one of the Four Tamil Saivite saints who lived around seventh century. He, along with Sambandar and Sundarar, sang thousands of hymns in praise of Lord Shiva. All the three saints visited over 225 temples and sang about the glory of Lord Shiva and the greatness of his devotees. The hymns are grouped as Thevaram in Tamil. Appar alone composed 4900 verses. They became popular because of its devotional content and the use of apt similes. Though Sangam age Tamil poets who lived before him used lot of similes in their 2300 poems, Appar as a single poet is far superior to them in handling apt similes. While other poets used the similes in different contexts such as describing the beauty of a woman or a tree or a king, Appar used it with a single purpose of glorifying Lord Shiva. One who reads his similes will be reminded of the greatest poet of India, Kalidasa.

Appar was given the name Thiru Navukku Arasu by Lord Shiva. It means the King of Speech. He lived true to his name. He was king of words, similes and language. During his time there lived the Boy Wonder of the Tamil speaking world, known as Thiru Jnana Sambandar. He lived just 16 years and composed 4000+ verses from the age of three! He did a lot of miracles during his 16 year life on earth. He also used lot of pen pictures and word pictures.

Both of them stood for the words of William Wordsworth:
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Than all the sages can!


I am giving below only a few word pictures –depiction of nature– through which they teach us great truths:

“Oh! Lord of TiruVotriyur! Look at me. I am looking after this body which is useless like a ladle without a handle. So I am unable to scoop your ambrosia of mercy. My thoughts are like the fearful thoughts of a frog in the mouth of a snake. I take refuge in you. Please remove my fears. (454,Fourth Tirumurai)

Sambandar gives us an improved picture of the same scene. Probably he used a camera with a more powerful lens to give us a close up shot. His poem was an apostrophe to his mind:

“Oh!Mind! This body is capable of doing blunders and liable to become sick. You try to derive pleasure from such a body. It is like a bee stuck in the mouth of a frog, which is caught in the mouth of a snake, is trying to taste the honey it gathered from the flower! But don’t worry; Lord of Tiruvarur is worshiped even by the heavenly angels. You also worship him and get freedom ( 860,Second Tirumurai)

Here we see a snake with five heads. One of its five mouths has a frog struggling to escape. That frog has a bee in its mouth it wants to taste. That bee has some honey from a flower and wanted to drink it! All of us are going after such imaginary and temporary pleasures like this without realising the danger and disaster that is going to strike us next minute.

Nature can teach us a lot!

Appar saw another scene along his travel route. In a village he saw people boiling turtle for their food. It was a big vessel with cool water. The turtle is swimming happily, but below the vessel firewood is just lighted. The flames are growing bigger and bigger. The happily swimming turtle is going to be boiled and eaten in an hour. Stupid turtle does not know the danger to its life and enjoyed the momentary pleasure. Such is our impermanent life, he says.


We have lot of scenes which he saw in his day to day life. But everything he saw reminded him of only one thing—Lord Shiva. He did not waste a single minute in singing his glory. Hundreds of his devotees followed him and recorded whatever he said. Thanks to them we have a few thousands of his verses even after 1300 years!


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