In the seventh to ninth centuries AD there appeared in South India an upsurge of devotional fervour that completely transformed the religious inclinations and practices of the region. Vaishnava and Saiva
bhaktas became infused with a religious spirit that emphasised ecstatic devotion to a personal deity rather than the more sober rites and rituals of vedic Brahmanism. It was both a populist Hindu revolt, since it expressed the people’s dissatisfaction with the hierarchies of
caste,(1) and a demonstration of contempt for the alien philosophies of Jainism and Buddhism which had by then permeated large areas of South India.
The movement’s leaders were the various saints who toured the countryside singing songs in praise of their personal God. The language of these songs was deliberately simple, for they were intended to be sung by ordinary devotees, either alone or in groups. While it is true that the deities addressed were ones such as Vishnu and Siva, who were prominent components of the North Indian pantheon, the mode of expression and the philosophical content of the poems were unique, being an expression of the indigenous Tamil spirit and culture. This was the first of the great
bhakti movements that were to invigorate the Hindu tradition throughout India in the succeeding centuries. It was so successful in transforming the hearts and minds of the South Indian population, one commentator has gone so far as to say that these poet-saints ‘sang Buddhism and Jainism out of South
The Saiva revival of this era owed much to four poet-saints who are often collectively referred to as ‘the four’
(Nalvar). Appar, the first to emerge, flourished from the end of the sixth century until the middle of the seventh. Tirujnanasambandhar, the next to appear, was a younger contemporary of his. They were followed by Sundaramurti (end of the seventh century until the beginning of the eighth) and Manikkavachagar, whom most people believe lived in the ninth
Appar the earliest of the Nalvar explained in the following famous verses the essence of this new approach to religion and how it differed from the conventional prevailing ideas on the subject:
Why bathe in Ganga’s streams or Kaveri?
Why go to Comorin in Kongu’s land?
Why seek the waters of the surrounding sea?
Release is theirs and theirs alone who call
in every place upon the Lord of all.
Why chant the Vedas, hear the sastras’ lore?
Why daily teach the books of righteousness?
Why the Vedangas six say o’er and o’er?
Release is theirs and theirs alone whose heart
From thinking of the Lord shall ne’er depart.
Why roam the jungle, roam the cities through?
Why plague life with unstinting penance hard?
Why eat no flesh and gaze into the blue?
Release is theirs and theirs alone who cry
unceasing to the Lord of wisdom high.
Why fast and starve, why suffer pains austere?
Why climb the mountains doing penance harsh?
Why go to bathe in waters far and near?
Release is theirs and theirs alone who call
at every time upon the Lord of all.(4)
The spontaneous songs of these early Saiva
bhaktas were eventually collected and recorded in a series of books called the
Tirumurais. The first seven (there are twelve in all) are devoted exclusively to the songs of Appar, Tirujnanasambandhar and Sundaramurti, while the eighth contains Manikkavachagar’s two extant works. These twelve
Tirumurais, along with the later Meykanda Sastras, became the canonical works of the southern Saiva branch of Hinduism. This system of beliefs and practices is still the most prevalent form of religion in South India.
Biographical details of the lives of Appar, Jnanasambandhar and Sundaramurti can be found in the
Periyapuranam, the anthology of the lives of sixty-three of the early Saiva saints that was composed about a thousand years ago. The life of Manikkavachagar was not included. For information on Manikkavachagar’s life one has to turn to two other sources: the
Tiruvilaiyatal Puranam, which records divine and miraculous events that are associated with Madurai and its temple, and
Tiruvadavur Adigal Puranam, a poetical rendering of Manikkavachagar’s life that was probably written around 1,400 AD.
The Tiruvilaiyatal Puranam contains four chapters (58-61) about Manikkavachagar, and the oldest version is believed to date from the twelfth century. However, the text is clearly based on a much older oral tradition since Manikkavachagar, writing in the ninth century, refers to several stories that were later recorded in this
Puranam. The Tiruvadavur Adigal Puranam expands on this earlier narrative by adding further elements that seem to have been part of an oral tradition. It also makes use of material from the
Tiruvachakam, Manikkavachagar’s most famous work.
The Tiruvachakam is, and has been for more than a thousand years, one of the most well-known and best-loved works of Tamil devotional literature. It is so highly regarded that parts of it are chanted every day in many South Indian temples. Parts of
Tiruvachakam were chanted regularly during the early days of Sri Ramanasramam, and on the evening that his mother died, Ramana Maharshi asked all the assembled devotees to spend the night chanting the whole work. Manikkavachagar’s justly deserved fame and reputation rest almost exclusively on the eminence of this one devotional work.
I should mention in passing that Manikkavachagar came to Tiruvannamalai during an extended pilgrimage, and while he was there, he composed
Tiruvembavai, the seventh hymn of the Tiruvachakam collection. This poem – tradition holds that it was composed at Adi-Annamalai while the author was doing
pradakshina – is one of the most famous literary works in the Tamil language. It has been extensively written about and commented on, and in recent times its popularity has been enhanced even more by the activities of the former senior Sankaracharya of Kanchipuram, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swami.
Tiruvembavai was a particular favourite of his and during his lifetime he did much to encourage its popularity. Nowadays, as a result of the Sankaracharya’s enthusiastic efforts, the poem is sung throughout the length and breadth of the Tamil-speaking world during the Tamil month of Margazhi (mid-December to mid-January) and during this period conferences and meetings are held all over the state to discuss and expound on the meaning of this one poem.
The text that I am posting here is a complete translation of
Tiruvadavur Adigal Puranam, the more elaborate and detailed of the two Manikkavachagar biographies. The translation has been done by Robert Butler, some of whose work appears elsewhere on this site. This is the first time that this work has ever appeared in an English translation. A summary of the work is given below, along with the corresponding verses in the text.
The story begins with an account of Manikkavachagar’s birth and childhood. After demonstrating himself to be a child prodigy who excelled in all branches of knowledge, he was appointed chief minister of the Pandyan kingdom at the age of sixteen. Though he was given all the accoutrements of worldly power, he realised the emptiness of worldly life and secretly longed to meet a teacher who would bestow on him true knowledge. An opportunity to meet such a Guru arose when the Pandyan king, hearing that valuable horses were available at the port of Perunturai, sent Manikkavachagar there to buy them on his behalf.
The chapter begins on Mount Kailas with various gods paying their respects to Siva. Siva then announced that it was time for him to go to the world of men in order to become Manikkavachagar’s Guru. He ordered many of the celestial beings to come with him, disguised as earthly devotees, and headed for Perunturai, the port on the Tamil coast where Manikkavachagar had been sent to buy horses for his king. Siva waited for his arrival in a grove of trees.
When the advance guard of Manikkavachagar’s escort informed the chief minister that a great sage was sitting under a kuruntham tree in that grove, he immediately went there in the hope that this teacher could grant him liberation. Manikkavachagar paid his respects and asked Siva to bestow true knowledge on him. Though Siva was disguised as an earthly being, Manikkavachagar knew intuitively that it was Siva himself who had taken the form of a human Guru. Siva agreed to accept him as his disciple, and preparations were made for a great initiation ceremony. Manikkavachagar performed an elaborate ritual worship, after which Siva placed his feet on Manikkavachagar’s head and granted him liberation. Manikkavachagar profusely expressed his thanks and gratitude. Siva then gave a long speech in which he summed up Saiva philosophy and when the explanation was concluded, Manikkavachagar expressed his love and gratitude by handing over to him all the treasure that the king had given to him to buy horses. He declared that he would stay with Siva and not return to Madurai. Manikkavachagar’s party returned home to inform the king of what had happened.
The king was, quite naturally, very angry with Manikkavachagar. He sent him a written message, demanding that he return to Madurai immediately. Manikkavachagar refused to read the message himself, but he allowed one of the emissaries to read it out to him. Once he had heard what the king had written, Manikkavachagar took the message to Siva and asked him what he should do. Siva undertook to bring the horses to Madurai on a particular day. He also gave Manikkavachagar a very valuable ruby as a present to give to the king and asked him to return to Madurai. On his arrival in Madurai, Manikkavachagar gave the king the ruby and promised that the horses would arrive on the day that Siva had specified. The king initially accepted his story. However, some of the people who had accompanied Manikkavachagar told the king what they had witnessed in Perunturai, saying that they had seen Manikkavachagar give away all the king’s treasure to a spiritual teacher. The king sent messengers to Perunturai to see if there really were any horses that were due to come to Madurai, and when these emissaries reported that there were not, he ordered Manikkavachagar to be thrown in jail. As a further punishment he was made to stand outside in the fierce heat of the sun, from where he launched a passionate appeal to Siva to save him.
On the day that the horses were due to be delivered, Siva converted all the local jackals into horses and herded them towards Madurai. Siva and his entourage disguised themselves as horse traders in order to deliver the horses personally. When the king was informed that the promised horses had arrived, he released Manikkavachagar from prison and restored him to his former position. The king, after rewarding Siva by presenting him with a very valuable silk cloth, embroidered with gold, ordered his experts to examine the horses. They all pronounced themselves satisfied with them.
Later that evening, after Siva had handed over the horses and departed, all the horses turned back into jackals, which terrorised the city. Then, the numbers of jackals multiplied until there were millions of them, all of which attacked the people and the animals of Madurai. Shortly after the king had been informed of this latest development, Siva made all the jackals disappear. The king arrested Manikkavachagar again and resumed the former punishment of making him stand outside all day in the hot sun. The chapter ends with Manikkavachagar again appealing to Siva for help.
Siva responded by causing the Vaigai River to flood Madurai. When the king’s prayers to make the flood subside went unheeded, he asked his advisors if there was anything he had done that might be the cause of this catastrophe. The ministers advised releasing Manikkavachagar from prison, and the king agreed, saying that he too had been thinking of this remedy. When Manikkavachagar was brought before him, the king apologised and asked him to solve the flooding problem. Manikkavachagar prayed to Siva, and Siva responded by making the flood waters subside. In order to prevent subsequent floods, Manikkavachagar ordered an embankment to be built. All the citizens of the city were allocated a portion of the river bank and were told to construct an earthen barrier that would prevent future floods.
An elderly woman called Vanti was too feeble do her allotted work. She appealed to Siva, saying that she could not find any able-bodied workers to help her. Siva decided to appear before her in the form of a worker and do her work for her. When he appeared, Vanti offered him sweet rice cakes as payment, and Siva agreed to take the job. However, once Siva began to do the work, he performed in a very erratic manner, and very little of the work actually got done.
Manikkavachagar asked his subordinates to inspect the river bank to make sure that all the work was being done properly. When one of these inspectors discovered that Siva’s section had not been done properly, he was dragged off to the next person up in the chain of command. This overseer struck Siva with a stick as a punishment for not working properly, but when the stick fell on Siva’s back, he vanished into thin air, and simultaneously everyone in the world and in the heavens felt the pain of the blow at the same time.
As the overseers rushed to Manikkavachagar to tell him about this latest development, Manikkavachagar immediately understood what had happened. He went to the spot where Siva had manifested and lamented that he had been unable to have Siva’s
darshan while he was working on the dam. While Manikkavachagar was expressing these sentiments, Siva caused the Vaigai River to dry up completely.
The king finally realised that all these events had just been a divine sport of Siva. He summoned Manikkavachagar and apologised for having treated him so badly. He offered to reinstate him in his old job, but Manikkavachagar declined, saying that he preferred to be with Siva. He left Madurai and went back to Perunturai, where he found Siva and his devotees sitting under the same tree.
Siva informed Manikkavachagar that he would return to Kailas alone, and that everyone there should stay on earth for some more time. He told them that they should stay near the kuruntham tree, worshipping him, until a great fire appeared in a nearby sacred tank. When this occurred they should all jump into the fire.
As Siva began to walk away, Manikkavachagar followed him. Siva told him that when the fire appeared in the tank he should not jump into it along with the other devotees. He should instead go to various famous Siva shrines. He was promised that in each place he would have a vision of Siva. Manikkavachagar was also told that it was his destiny to vanquish a Buddhist scholar in a debate in Chidambaram, after which he could rejoin Siva.
When Manikkavachagar queried these instructions Siva told him that he would obtain his final deliverance in Chidambaram where the latter performs his cosmic dance. Siva then gave him a brief lecture on the meaning and significance of the cosmic dance. When Siva departed, Manikkavachagar rejoined the celestial beings who were worshipping Siva under the kuruntham tree. While he was there he composed some of the hymns that appear in the
Tiruvachakam. After a few days, as Siva had predicted, a large fire appeared in the nearby tank. All the devotees of Siva, except for Manikkavachagar, jumped into it, chanting Siva’s name. The celestial beings who had taken on the form of earthly devotees resumed their usual heavenly form when they emerged from the fire and rejoined Siva. As they emerged Siva explained to them that he had asked them to remain on earth a little longer to lessen the pains of separation that Manikkavachagar was feeling. He added that the fire had been necessary to burn up any contamination that might have occurred as a result of their brief visit to the world of men.
Manikkavachagar started meditating under a tree and had a vision in which he saw all that Siva had done on his visits to Madurai and Perunturai, and all the deeds that Manikkavachagar himself was destined to do in the future. When he resumed his usual consciousness, he composed several more
Tiruvachakam hymns. He then followed Siva’s instructions and began to visit all the shrines he had been asked to go to. He continued to compose
Tiruvachakam hymns, and in each place he visited he had a vision of Siva. His pilgrimage ended in the temple of Chidambaram where Siva appeared to him yet again. When he had visited all the places in Chidambaram associated with Siva and his devotees, and after composing several more
Tiruvachakam hymns, he settled in a small hut on the outskirts of the city.
The chapter begins with a devotee of Siva going to Sri Lanka and singing the praises of Chidambaram and its Golden Hall where Siva resides. The king of Sri Lanka heard about him and summoned him to appear in his court. The
sadhu went and gave a speech to the king in which he extolled the greatness of Chidambaram. A Buddhist scholar who was present became angry and said that he would travel to Chidambaram, convert all the Saivas there and install a statue of the Buddha in the temple. The king, who had a daughter who was dumb, decided to travel to Chidambaram as well in the hope that she might be cured there.
On their arrival, the Buddhist scholar challenged the devotees of Siva to a debate, saying that he would defeat them in argument and prove that their beliefs were wrong. His challenge was accepted and it was agreed that the debate would take place in the presence of the two kings.
On the night before the debate Siva appeared in the dreams of all the temple priests and told them that they should go to Manikkavachagar’s hut and ask him to be their representative in the debate. Manikkavachagar agreed to come the next day and refute the Buddhist’s arguments. When the debate got under way both the Buddhist scholar and Manikkavachagar severely criticised and ridiculed the other’s point of view.
At one point Manikkavachagar grew angry with what he said were the lies coming out of the Buddhist’s mouth. He called on Saraswati, the goddess of speech, to leave the Buddhist’s tongue so that he could no longer utter any falsehoods. When Saraswati complied with this request, the scholar and his associates were all struck dumb. The Sri Lankan king, impressed by this performance, prostrated before Manikkavachagar and informed him that his own daughter was dumb. He added that if Manikkavachagar could cure her, he himself would convert and become a Saiva.
Manikkavachagar called the daughter and asked her to give a public refutation of all the arguments that the Buddhist scholar had propounded. The daughter obliged and, speaking for the first time in her life, gave an erudite lecture that refuted the Buddhist position. The king, overjoyed, became a Saiva and requested Manikkavachagar to cure the dumbness of the Buddhist scholars. Manikkavachagar obliged, and the Buddhists, after acknowledging their erroneous views, also converted to Saivism.
The final chapter begins with Manikkavachagar living in Chidambaram, singing the remaining hymns of the
Tiruvachakam. Siva then took the form of a learned brahmin and came to Manikkavachagar’s hut. He told Manikkavachagar that he had come to learn the
Tiruvachakam hymns from him and asked Manikkavachagar to recite them all while he wrote down the words. When Manikkavachagar had completed his recitation, and Siva had written everything down, Siva asked him to compose another work, the
Tirukovai, which would express the journey towards Siva in the form of a poem whose superficial theme was the love between man and woman. Manikkavachagar composed this second work on the spot, and Siva wrote it all down. Siva disappeared, taking the poems with him. Manikkavachagar then realised that it was Siva himself who had come to make a record of his poems. Siva, meanwhile, took the poems to his heavenly realm and read them out to all the assembled gods. At the end of
Tirukovai he wrote: ‘This work, spoken aloud by the true devotee Vadavurar [Manikkavachagar], is written in the hand of him who dances in the Golden Hall.’
Siva then placed the whole manuscript on the steps outside the inner shrine of the Chidambaram Temple, where it was found the next day when the priests unlocked the temple and went in to perform their morning rituals. They realised immediately that Siva had left this manuscript there for them to read. They went through the work, and when the end was reached, they read the portion in which Siva stated that he had recorded Manikkavachagar’s words.
The people of Chidambaram all came to Manikkavachagar’s house and asked him to narrate all the stories that dealt with Siva’s intervention in his life. Manikkavachagar told them the full story. Then they asked him to explain the inner significance of the poems that Siva had written down. Manikkavachagar agreed to do so in the Golden Hall itself. When he entered the Golden Hall, with all the devotees crowding around, he pointed to Siva and said, ‘He alone is the meaning of all the words’. Manikkavachagar then vanished and never reappeared. This was his final union with Siva’s feet.
(1) In the Periyapuranam, which chronicles the lives of sixty-three of these Saiva
bhaktas, at least thirty were non-brahmins, and one was an outcaste.
(2) Hymns to the Dancing
Siva by Glen Yocum, 1982 ed., p. 40. Adi-Sankaracharya, who taught in South India in the ninth century, successfully vanquished the Jains and the Buddhists in philosophical debates, but at the grass-roots level it was the singing saints who reconverted the masses back to Hinduism.
(3) I am aware that many competent scholars will disagree with some or all of these dates. In my defence I will say that I have taken them from K. V. Zvelebil’s
Handbook of Tamil Literature, which is now widely regarded as being the most accurate and reliable chronicle of Tamil literary history.
(4) Verses 2, 4, 6 and 8 of
patikam 99 from the fifth Tirumurai, translated by F. Kingsbury and G. E. Philips in
Hymns of the Tamil Saints, 1921, p. 57. Though the translation is a loose one, its lilting rhyming style captures the spirit of the original.