The first Ula, known as the Atiyula, was composed in the 9th Century AD. Tirukkaiiaya Nana Ula by Cheraman Perumal
Nayanaar is the earliest extant work among this type of Tamil Literature. According to traditions in Tamil Nadu
, the presiding deities of temples are decorated and are taken out in procession with their entourage around the four wide streets surrounding the temple called Mada streets. The poets and authors generally praised the deities at all phases of the procession, from it initiation to its finish. The ancient folk songs narrated the magnificence of God and his amazing deeds chanted at the commencement of the procession. This mentioned about the followers who were part of the parade and also gave an account of the love of the Devadasi for the Lord, while the procession was in progress. Different shrines had different variations of this type of hymns and songs. The ancient poets analysed the temple festivals and endeavoured to compose literary works similar to the existing folk songs. This form of Tamil literature is known as Ula. Tirukkailaya Nana Ula is devoted to Lord Shiva
Theme of Ula
The theme of the Ula consists of various stages and aspects of the procession. It initiates with all the gods in heaven requesting to Lord Shiva to appear before them in procession, to which the Lord approves. Goddess Parvati adorns Shiva with many jewelleries and Manmatan, god of love, provides a garland of flowers. Shiva joins the procession, ornamented with ear rings with other ornaments and smeared with sandal paste. Then he passes through the gateway of Mount Kailash, which is guarded by celestial beings and his sacred bull Nandi
. He is greeted and blessed by the 12 Atittars and the 7 hermits. The god of fire, Agni
burns incense and the god of rains, Varuna
, bears the fortunate vessels filled with the waters of sacred rivers. While the god of air, Vayu sweeps the streets and clouds sprinkle water. The god of wealth spreads alms and Ganga
fan him. Lightning and thunder are appointed as the flags and drums of Lord Shiva. All gods in the heaven provide some help to make the procession an exciting occasion.
Lord Shiva comes out after crossing the 7 gates of the Mount Kailash. Lord Kartikeya
(Murugan) rides on a peacock and moves ahead of Shiva; Lord Indra
is behind him riding an elephant. Lord Brahma
rides a swan on right side of Shiva and on the left Lord Vishnu rides on an eagle. The army of Kaman leads the procession and various musical instruments are played. The procession moves through the streets and maidens admire the elegance and exquisiteness of Lord Shiva.
The Ula also mentions about 7 kinds of women who are categorized according to their age and their adoration for the Lord. These 7 kinds of women are known as Arivai, Petal, Matantai, Petumpai, Perilatnpen, Mankaia and Terivai in Tamil
. Distinctive features of the women are narrated while explaining the various types of love of women, their experiences, games and expressions of love.
The hero of the procession is described a striking personality, competent of charming the minds of women of all ages. It is the custom of Ula literary works to depict the procession of such type of a hero.
Literary Works of Ula
Based on the model set by Cheraman Perumal Nayanaar in his composition of Tirukkaiiaya Nana Ula, many of the later authors and poets composed several works in the Ula form. Even the Ulas created in the later periods described the hero, his country and the entourage in different manners, the descriptions of other features and aspects of the procession remained the same. Other than Tirukkailaya Nana Ula, some of the other literary works in this genre includes Alutaiya Pillaiyar Tiruvula Malai composed by Nambiyandar Nambi
in the eleventh century and Muvar Ula composed by Ottakkuttar in the thirteenth century. Later works of Ula were also devoted to Kings as there was tradition of attributing qualities of God to noble rulers. Kings were considered as representatives of Lord Tirumai. There are many literary works of Ula devoted to presiding deities of Tiruppuvanam, Tiruvanaikka, Tiruvarur, Madurai, Tirukkalukkunram, Tirukkalatti and Kanchipuram.
The custom of composing works of Ula was practiced up to the epoch of the 18th century. As there was stagnation in Ula literature, by the 19th Century and the 20th Century the Ula lost its significance in literature as new kinds of literary works were accepted and admired.