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 Samayak Kuravarkal (nalvar) of Shaivism 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 Alvars,  (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 Shaiva hymns known as Tiruvacakam. He was an Adi Shaiva Brahmin servitor who wore the top tilted knot to denote his servitorship to Shiva as a part of profession, like other servitors. 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 Manikkavacakar’s life comes from the Tiruvilaiyatal Puranam, a text that narrates the divine events that are associated with the 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. Because of that people used to call him Vaadavurar [The man from Vaadavur]. He was put to school very early. He read all the religious books, absorbed the lessons therein, and became noted for his devotion to Shiva, as also his kindness to living beings. 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 a minister with tact and integrity, he had no desire for material happiness. His mind was always absorbed in spiritual matters. Feeling convinced that for the attainment of jnana, the grace of a Guru was essential, he kept on making enquiries about it.

Once the Pandya king ordered the minister to purchase some good horses and bring them to him. As he was already in search of a Guru, Manikkavacakar felt that it was a good opportunity and started with his retinue carrying with him the required amount of gold. As his mind was intensely seeking a Guru, he visited all the temples on the way. While doing so he reached a village called Tirupperundurai. Having realised the maturity of the mind of Manikkavacakar, Parameswara [Shiva, had] assumed the form of a schoolteacher and for about a year before that had been teaching poor children in the village seated on a street pial near the temple. He was taking his meal in the house of his pupils every day by turn. He ate only cooked green vegetables. He was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Manikkavacakar. By the time Manikkavacakar actually came, Iswara assumed the shape of a Siddha Purusha [realised soul] with many sannyasis around him and was seated under a kurundai tree within the compound of the temple. Vaadavurar came to the temple, had darshan of the Lord in it, and while going round the temple by way of pradakshina, 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 up his head in salutation and he fell down at the feet of the Guru like an uprooted tree. Then he got up and prayed that he, a humble being, may also be accepted as a disciple. 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 his heart, and gave him indescribable happiness. With folded hands and with joyful tears, he went round the Guru by way of pradakshina, offered salutations, stripped himself of all his official dress and ornaments, placed them near the Guru and stood before him with only a kaupina on. 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 itself worshipping him. Then he vanished.

Fully convinced that He who had blessed him was no other than Iswara Himself, 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?’

The villagers were very much surprised at this and began a search for the person who was till then working in their village as a schoolteacher, but could not find him anywhere. Then they realised that it was the Lord’s leela. Sometime later, Manikkavacakar got over his grief, decided to act according to the injunctions of Iswara, sent away his retinue to Madurai, spent all the gold with him on the temple and stayed there alone.

Hearing all that had happened, the king immediately sent an order to Manikkavacakar to return to Madurai. But how could he go to the king without the horses? If he wanted to purchase them then, 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 at that vision he opened his eyes but the Lord was not there. Manikkavacakar was however overjoyed at what had happened. He put on his official dress and went to Madurai. He gave the gem to the king, discussed the auspicious time when the horses would be arriving and then was anxiously waiting for the day. He did not however resume his official duties. Though his body was in Madurai, his mind was in Tirupperundurai. He was merely biding his time.

The Pandyan king, however, sent his spies to Perundurai and found out that there were no horses there meant for the king and that all the money meant for their purchase had been spent in the renovation of the temple. So he immediately put Manikkavacakar in prison, making him undergo all the trials and tribulations of jail life.

Meanwhile, as originally arranged, 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. The king was astonished at this, took delivery of the horses and according to the advice of the keeper of the stables, had them tied up at the same place where all his other horses were kept. He thanked the horseman profusely, and after sending him away with several presents, released Manikkavacakar from jail with profuse apologies.

The same night the new horses changed into their real forms, killed all the horses in the stables, ate them, created similar havoc in the city, and fled. The king grew very angry, branded Manikkavacakar as a trickster and put him back in jail. Soon, in accordance with Iswara’s orders, the waters of the River Vaigai rose in floods and the whole of the city of Madurai was under water. Alarmed at that, the king assembled all the people and ordered them to raise the bunds of the river. For the purpose, he ordered that every citizen should do a certain amount of work with a threat of dire consequences should he fail to do his allotted work.

There was in Madurai an old woman by name Pittuvani Ammaiyar. She was a pious devotee of Lord Shiva. She was living alone earning her livelihood by daily preparing and selling sweetened powdered rice (pittu). She had no one to do her allotted work on the river bund nor had she the money to hire a person to do it. She was therefore greatly worried and cried, ‘Iswara! What shall I do?’

Seeing her helplessness, Iswara came there in the guise of a coolie with a spade on his shoulder and called out, ‘Granny, granny, do you want a coolie?’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but I don’t have even a paise in my hand to pay you. What to do?’

He said, ‘I do not want any money and would be satisfied if you gave me some portion of pittu to eat. I shall then do the allotted work on the river bund.’

Pleased with that offer, she began making pittu but they did not come out in the full shape but were broken. Surprised at this she gave all the bits to the coolie. He ate as many of them as he could and went away, saying that he would attend to the bund-raising work. Surprisingly, the dough with the old woman remained intact even though she had prepared and given bits of the pittu to the coolie. The coolie went to the work spot but instead of doing the work, lay down there idly, standing in the way of others doing their work.

The king went round to inspect the progress of the work and found that the portion allotted to Ammaiyar remained unattended to. On enquiry, his servants told him all the pranks of that coolie. The king got 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 a cane he had in his hand. The blow recoiled not only on the king himself but on all living beings there and all of them suffered the pain on that account. The king immediately realised that the person hit by him was Parameswara himself in the guise of a coolie. The king stood aghast.

Parameswara vanished and soon 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.’

Soon after hearing that voice, the king went to see Manikkavacakar and on the way he stepped into the house of Pittuvani to see her. By that time she had already got into a vimanam [a heavenly chariot] and was on her way to Kailash. The king was greatly surprised and saluted her and from there he went straight to Manikkavacakar and fell at his feet. Manikkavacakar lifted him with great respect, and enquired of his welfare.

The king entreatingly said, ‘Please forgive me and rule this kingdom yourself’.

Manikkavacakar, looking at the king, said with kindness, ‘Appa! as I have already agreed to serve the Lord, I cannot be bothered with the problems of ruling a kingdom. Please do not mistake me. Rule the kingdom, looking after the welfare of the people. Henceforth you will have nothing to worry about.’ So saying, smilingly, he put on the dress of a sannyasin, and went about visiting holy places, singing the praises of Shiva.”
[Abridged version from Suri Nagamma]

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.


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.