Life of Manikkavacakar

Manikkavacakar was one of the poets of the Hindu bhakti revival and his work forms one volume of the Tirumurai - the key religious text of Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta. His work is a poetic expression of the joy of God-experience, the anguish of being separated from God.

This great saint who aided the spiritual and religious revival is revered as one of the four Nalvars (lit.'The Four') of Shaiva Siddhanta who took birth in the world to show the path of elevating oneself to the Supreme Shiva. There is a well known statement that declares that these four great ones, (Jnanasambandhar, Appar, Sundaramurti and Manikkavacakar) had differing relationships with Shiva: Jnanasambandhar saw himself as the son of Shiva, Appar as his servant, Sundaramurti as his friend, and Manikkavacakar as his beloved.

Manikkavacakar (the name means, "words like jewels") was a Tamil poet whose most famous composition was a book of Saiva hymns known as Tiruvacakam. He was an Adi Shaiva Brahmin servitor who wore the top tilted knot to denote his servitorship to Shiva. He was born in Vadhavoor near Madurai on the banks of river Vaigai. The exact date of his birth is subject to controversy. The oldest record of his life comes from the Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam, a text that narrates the divine events associated with Madurai Temple. Four chapters from this work, fifty-eight to sixty-one, are devoted to the story of Manikkavacakar.

Manikkavacakar was born in a village called Vaadavur (Vaatapuri) in Pandya Desha - and people called him Vaadavurar [man from Vaadavur]. He read many religious books, absorbed the lessons therein, and became noted for his devotion to Shiva and for his kindness and compassion towards all living things. Having heard about him, the Pandya king sent for him and made him his prime minister and conferred on him the title of Thennavan Brahmarayan, i.e., 'Premier among Brahmins of the South'. Though he performed the duties of minister with tact and integrity, he had no desire for material involvement. His mind was always absorbed in spiritual matters. Feeling convinced that for the attainment of jnana the grace of a Guru was essential, he continued his search for a spiritual master.

Once the Pandya king ordered the minister to purchase horses and bring them to him. Vaadavurar felt that performing this mission would give him an opportunity to search for his guru and as his mind was intensely seeking a Guru, he visited numerous temples.

Having realised the spiritual maturity of Vaadavurar, Parameswara assumed the form of a schoolteacher and for about a year taught poor children in the village of Tirupperunturai seated on a street pial near the temple awaiting the arrival of Vaadavurar. When he came, Iswara assumed the shape of a Siddha Purusha [realised soul] with many sannyasins around him and seated under a Kurundai tree within the compound of the temple. Vaadavurar came to the temple, had darshan of the Lord, and while performing pradakshina around the temple, saw the Siddha Purusha. He was thrilled at the sight, tears welled up in his eyes and his heart jumped with joy. Spontaneously his hands went to his head in salutation and he fell down at the feet of the Guru like an uprooted tree. He then arose and prayed that he, a humble being, might be accepted as a disciple.

Vaadavurar taking blessing from guru

Having come down solely to bestow grace on him, Iswara, by his look, immediately gave him jnana upadesa [initiation into true knowledge]. That upadesa took deep roots in Vaadavurar's heart, and gave him indescribable happiness. With folded hands and joyful tears, he performed pradakshina of the Guru, offered salutations, stripped himself of his official dress and ornaments, placed them near the Guru and stood before him dressed only in a kaupina. As he felt like singing in praise of the Guru, he sang some devotional songs, which were like gems. Iswara was pleased, and addressing him as 'Manikkavacakar' [meaning 'one whose speech is gems'] ordered him to remain there worshipping him. Then he vanished.

Fully convinced that He who had blessed him was no other than Iswara, Manikkavacakar was stricken with unbearable grief and fell on the ground weeping and saying, 'Oh, my Lord! Why did you go away leaving me here?' Sometime later, Manikkavacakar acted according to the injunctions of Iswara; sent away his retinue, and instead of purchasing horses for the king, spent all the money he had on the Temple.

The king immediately sent an order to Manikkavacakar to return. But how could he go to the king without the horses? If he wanted to purchase them - where was the money? Not knowing what to do, he prayed to Lord Shiva for help. That night Lord Shiva appeared to him in a dream, gave him a priceless gem and said, 'Give this to the king and tell him the horses will come on the day of the Moola star in the month of Sravana'. Startled by the vision he opened his eyes but the Lord was not there.

On the day of the Moola star, Iswara assumed the guise of a horseman, transformed the jackals of the jungle into horses, and brought them to the king.

Lord in disguise delivering horses to King

The king was astonished and took delivery of the horses and had them tied up at the same place where all his other horses were kept. The same night the new horses changed into their real forms, killed the other horses in the stables, created havoc in the city and fled. The king grew angry, branded Manikkavacakar as a trickster and imprisoned him.

Again the Lord came to the rescue of his devotee, and made the River Vaigai rise in flood and soon much of the area was under water. The king ordered his people to send one man from each family to raise bunds to contain the flood waters. One old woman, a seller of steamed rice rolls, had no male member in her family nor could she hire anyone, as every available man had been engaged already by others. The Lord in the guise of a coolie came and offered to work for her provided she gave as wages the crumbs fallen off the rolls she had cooked..

She agreed and the Lord in the guise of a coolie went to the work-spot and busied himself with loafing about, dozing off on a sand bank or playfully demolishing the work of others under the pretence of helping them. The king arrived to inspect progress and found that the portion allotted to the old woman's hired coolie remained undone. On enquiry, his servants told him of the pranks of the coolie. The king infuriated, called the coolie and said, 'Instead of doing the allotted work, you are lying down and singing'. So saying, he hit the coolie on the back with the cane he had in his hand. The blow recoiled not only on the king but on all living beings and all suffered the pain of the king's blow. The king immediately realised that the man he had beaten was Parameswara in the guise of a coolie. The king was aghast.

Parameswara vanished and a voice from the sky said, 'O King! Manikkavacakar is my beloved devotee. I myself did all this to show you his greatness. Seek his protection.' The King went to Manikkavacakar and requested he accept the rulership of the kingdom. The saint refused and asked to be permitted to go to Perunturai. Both went to Madura to worship the Lord. Manikkavacakar then left for Perunturai. The king renounced everything soon after this and reached the Lord's Abode.

At Perunturai, Manikkavacakar sang highly inspiring songs and prayed that he should see the Lord in the form of the Guru. On the way he visited many shrines and by stages reached Chidambaram. He stayed in a garden near the temple and sang the famous Tiruvacakam. The people of Tillai heard the hymn and enjoyed its bliss

It is at Chidambaram that the Lord takes the Form, of Nataraja, the divine dancer, for the welfare of the world. The object of His dance is to free souls from the fetters of Maya. Inside the temple there is a tank called Siva Jnana Ganga tank. In this tank Hiranyavarman, the son of Manu, took his bath and was cured of leprosy. It is believed that those who take a bath in this sacred tank and then worship Lord Nataraja are purified of all sins.

The Buddhist Gurus declared they would go to Chidambaram and defeat the Saivite in debate and convert the temple into a Buddhist shrine. So saying the Buddhists left for Tillai accompanied by the King and his mute daughter. The Buddhists opened the debate. Manikkavacakar explained the principles of Saivism. The Buddhists could not offer counter-arguments but continued to repeat their arguments! Manikkavacakar prayed to the Lord for help and Devi Saraswathi withdrew Her grace from the Buddhists - who became dumb and were defeated in argument.

The Buddhist king understood Manikkavacakar's greatness and said: "You have made my teacher and all his disciples dumb. If you can make my dumb daughter speak, I and my subjects will embrace Saivism." Manikkavacakar asked him to bring his daughter. He prayed to the Lord for His help and then asked the girl to give proper answers to the questions on Lord Siva. The dumb daughter not only began to speak but gave fitting answers to the questions asked. All were wonder-struck at this miracle and on recognising the superiority of Saivism - embraced it.

One day Lord Siva desired to hear Tiruvacakam from the lips of Manikkavacakar and bestow Moksha on him. He went to Manikkavacakar in the disguise of a Brahmin. Manikkavacakar welcomed the guest with respect and enquired of his needs. Lord Siva in the guise of a Brahmin, told Manikkavacakar: "I want to hear Tiruvacakam from you. I shall write it down, so that I can learn it and with its help free myself from the shackles of Samsara." Manikkavacakar recited the Tiruvacakam. The Brahmin (Lord Siva) wrote it down on palm leaves. Then he suddenly disappeared! At once Manikkavacakar knew that the Brahmin was the Lord Himself.


The Tiruvacakam is the celebrated collection of hymns by the Tamil Saivite poet-saint Manikkavacakar. Together with the shorter poem Tirukkovaiyar, it forms the eighth book of the Tamil Saivite canon Tirumurai. Tiruvacakam contains 51 hymns comprising a total of 3,414 lines. The hymns range in length from eight to 400 lines and show a significant variety of metrical forms, with 14 sub-varieties of meter. The hymns are usually rhythmically recited or sung rather than read.

The work includes some unusual themes. Some have a woman in the role of devotee to the Lord, singing songs appropriate for playing games or doing village chores. One interesting poem is meant to be sung to awaken the divinity in the temple in the morning (a common part of Indian temple ritual). Because of its sacredness, Tiruvacakam has no traditional commentaries attached to it.

Manikkavacakar's most important theme is the shadow of karma, which hovers over all as a spectre. The poet calls to God to remove the bonds of karma and free him. He also speaks of impurity that takes him on the long road; when impurity has been removed, he becomes a slave to Lord Shiva. Most importantly he asks for Shiva's grace to escape the hold of the senses, which lead one to impurity and destruction. Manikkavacakar was wary, as are many renunciants, of the pull of the unrestrained senses.

"When He abode in state in Idaimaruthu and planted thereat the imprint of his Divine feet (on my head)"
Keerththithiruvahaval lines 75-76

The history of the great Manikkavacakar is told in Thiruvadhavur Puranam and Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam. His compositions are Tiruvacakam and Thirukkovaiyar. The day he immersed himself in the Supreme and became one in Lord Shiva is Ani Magam Day.

Manikkavacakar's visit to Tiruvannamalai

Manikkavacakar had been specially commissioned by Shiva to tour the Tamil region and sing songs in His praise. One of the places he visited was Tiruvannamalai, which even in those days was a major Shaiva pilgrimage centre. Manikkavacakar composed two of the Tiruvacakam poems, 'Thiruvempaavai' and 'Thiruvammaanai', on his visit to Tiruvannamalai.

There is a tradition in Tiruvannamalai that both poems were composed while Manikkavacakar was doing pradakshina of Arunachala. A small temple on the pradakshina road in the village of Adi Annamalai is supposed to mark the spot where the two poems were composed and sung.

Manikkavackar Temple, Adi Annamalai

To read the Thiruvempaavai go to this link here

To read the Thiruvammaanai go to this link here

The Tiruvadavuradigal Puranam, a poetic retelling of Manikkavachakar's life, includes the following verses that describe his visit:

After worshipping at that shrine [Tiru-Venney-Nallur],
with love in his heart he departed,
following the righteous path,
passing through the middle lands,
traversing tall forests and mountains,
where lions and fearsome elephants dwelt,
until he drew near to enduring Arunai's city.

When he saw the palaces and gopurams,
the strong walls, decorated with jewels and pearls,
the great gateways festooned with banners,
towering up in the midst
of a cool densely wooded grove,
in a forest of tall areca trees,
he joyfully made obeisance,
experiencing great bliss.

'You [Shiva] who abide in the form of a mountain
which appeared on that day as a column of flame
for the two to seek!
Blissful life which fills our hearts!'
Thus did he worship the Supreme Mountain Lord,
receiving His grace, before proceeding forth
to enter Arunai's prosperous city.

Leaving behind the groves, the city walls,
the streets decorated with many beautiful banners,
and the various shrines of the gods,
and taking the path which led to the holy presence,
he bowed down before the temple of the One
who wears in His locks a kondrai garland,
datura flowers, the moon and the snake,
and then did he perceive the form of Him
who on that day had enslaved him.

'Praise be to the dark-throated One
who swallowed the poison halahala
when Brahma, Vishnu and the rest of the gods,
crying out in distress, appealed to Him for protection!

Praise be to the Mountain of cool ambrosia,
mixed with the milk of green-hued Unnamulai,
which men and gods alike drink down
to cure the overpowering malady of their birth and death!

Praise be to the great ocean of grace of Him
who placed His feet upon my head,
the feet which tall Mal could not see,
though he burrowed deep into the earth
in the form of a powerful boar!

Praise be to the Mountain of burnished gold,
at whose side sits the slender
green-hued form of Unnamulai,
who is the earth's protectress!

Praise be to Him who granted His grace
to the victorious Durga,
when She worshipped Him and begged Him
to absolve Her from the sin
of killing the powerful buffalo-headed demon!

Praise be to the beauteous Lord Annamalai,
who came to me on that day and held me in His sway!'

Thus worshipping and praising the Lord
out of heart-felt love,
he dwelt there for some days.
It was the month of Margazhi,
when, in the ten days before the ardra asterism,
the beautiful maidens go from household to noble household
calling each other out in the early dawn,
just as the darkness is dispersing, and, banding together, go to bathe in the holy tank.

On observing their noble qualities he sang the immortal hymn 'Thiruvempaavai' which is composed as if sung by the maidens themselves. Later, seeing them dance and sing

Thereafter Manikkavacakar moved from one place to another, singing and composing devotional songs. Finally, he settled in Chidambaram. His Tiruvacakam is placed near the idol of Shiva there. Several verses of Tiruvacakam are also engraved in the walls of the Chidambaram temple.

Margazhi Month of Bhakti and Music

The Tamil Month of Margazhi is known as one of bhakti and music during which there are recitations, chanting, singing and spiritual readings conducted at Arunachaleswarar Temple and throughout Tamil Nadu. In particular the music of Manikkavasagar's Thiruvempaavai is celebrated during this month.

Listen to Tamil Nadu music maestro Ilaiyaraaja's rendition of the Tiruvacakam performed by the Philharmonic Orchestra.

"There is a festival in winter in which devotees go to their Shiva temple very early in the morning to sing songs to Shiva in order to wake him up. In 'Thiruvempaavai' young girls move from house to house, waking up their friends, and encouraging them to come to the temple to perform this rite. Though, ostensibly, it is merely a poem about young girls encouraging each other to go and worship Shiva, their trips to the temple are interpreted to be emblematic of the soul's journey towards union with Shiva. It is thus a poem which encourages enthusiasm for the ultimate pilgrimage that culminates in the experience of Shiva."
[G. Vanmikanathan]

Ladies praying at Navagraha outside Mother's Shrine, Big Temple

Ladies lighting Deepam outside Mother's Shrine

Pundit giving recitation at Big Temple compound

Prayers and Recitations throughout Margazhi Month

Joyful Song of the Lord

Manikkavacakar led a life dedicated to Shiva worship and visited shrines of Shiva throughout what is now Tamil Nadu. His devotional Tamil songs, praising his Guru, Lord Siva and His Grace which changed his life from worldly to divine were compiled into a single form and named as Tiruvacakam.

There are many autobiographical remarks in the Tiruvacakam with reference to the Guru-disciple relationship. This relationship turned afterwards into that of lover and beloved - with Manikkavacakar as the bride of Lord Siva and where he speaks of the stripping of his soul when united to Siva.

"The Tiruvacakam relates an autobiographical story of the different stages of Manikavacakar's spiritual life and experience which ultimately enable him to attain bliss ineffable and eternal. It is a torrential outflow of ardent religious feelings and emotions in rapturous songs and melodies. The work may be regarded as a convenient handbook on mystical theology."
[Ramachandra Deekshithar]

There is a common saying that "Those hearts melted not to Tiruvacakam would melt to no other Vachakam". Tiruvacakam, particularly, the very first decad 'The Civapuranam' is daily sung in Temples and homes throughout Tamil Nadu.

Thiruvathirai Festival at Arunachaleswarar Temple

Thiruvathirai ('sacred big wave' which refers to the creation of the Universe by Lord Siva) is yearly observed in Tamil Nadu Saivite temples. The Festival takes place on the full moon night of the Tamil month Margazhi (December - January) which is the longest night of the year. Historical evidence show that the Festival has been observed on this day for more than 1500 years and celebrates the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva as is represented by the form of Nataraja. Arudhra (Thiruvathirai in Tamil) signifies 'golden red flame' and Lord Shiva performs the dance engulfed by His red-flamed light.

For the first nine days of the Festival the statue of Saint Manikkavacakar is taken from its place near the Siva Sannidhi Shrine, and brought out in procession around the Big Temple's maha veedhis (four perimeter streets).

Manikkavacakar was a poet of the Hindu bhakti revival movement and his work forms one volume of the Tirumurai, the key religious text of Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta. His hymns are a poetic expression of the joy of God-experience and the anguish of being separated from the Lord. This great saint aided the spiritual and religious revival of Hinduism and is revered as one of the four Nalvars of Shaivism who took birth in the world to show the path of elevating oneself to the Supreme Shiva.

Manikkavacakar's hymns of the Tiruvacakam (particularly the hymn Thiruvempaavai) are chanted in temples.

Gods exiting 1000 Pillar Hall

Lord Nataraja to perform procession around Temple

On the very day of Thiruvathirai the idols of Nataraja (Lord Shiva) and his consort Shivagami (Parvati) join Manikkavacakar in a procession around Arunachaleswarar Temple. It is one of the major events in almost all Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu.