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Andal’s mystic counterpart – Maanikkavaachagar :

Tiruvempaavai is the Tiruppaavai’s twin

By Vamanan

There’s another important component to Madras in the month of Margazhi, apart from
the music season and Andal’s Tiruppaavai…it is the Tiruvempaavai. You will hear all the
Shiva temples in the city and all over Tamil Nadu waking up all through the month to the
Tamil hymns of the Tiruvempaavai, ‘The Maidens’ Song of the Dawning’.

The added charm of the hymn is that they will be sung by the Odhuvaars, temple
singers with a tradition that goes by to the great Chola Emperor Rajaraja. The emperor
who built the magnificent Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur made endowments for
musical offerings of the Tamil Thevaram to the Lord, thus setting off a millenial musical
tradition that continues to this day.

The irony however is that even in these days of militant linguistic chauvinism, the
Tamil musical tradition only gets lip sympathy from the powers that be. Most Odhuvars
are poor cousins who lead insignificant lives in the shadow of the temples, big and small.
Channels like Makkal TV provide some opportunities to perform, bringing a few some

In our times, Dharmapuram Swaminathan, the bearded and tough-looking singer who
died recently, achieved somewhat of a star status as an Odhuvar. Prior to him,
Dhandapani Desigar (1910 – 1972) started life as a temple singer but become a film star
and then an acclaimed classical singer and thinker of the Tamil isai iyakkam – the
movement that spearheaded a campaign for the inclusion of Tamil songs in the classical
music podium.

The pity was that the movement and the response to it took casteist overtones, like
everything in Tamil Nadu does…When the limpid pools of creativity get poisoned by the
cesspools of division and complexes both of superiority and inferiority, and all power
flows from the barrel of governmental authority sullied by partisan considerations,
culture becomes the first casualty. Caste and Language, apart from being the identity
politics of the day, have turned into malicious monomania.

Just as Andal and her Tiruppaavai spell magic for the devotees of Vishnu,
Tiruvempaavai and its author Manikkavachagar ring sacred bells in the minds of Shiva
worshippers. Tiruvempaavai and Tiruppaavai are basically in the same genre of poetry,
which involves a ritual called ‘Paavai Nonbu’ for unmarried girls to worship the Lord at
the crack of dawn.

‘Maanikkavaachagar’ may seem somewhat of a tongue-twister to unfamiliar ears…but

the name actually means, ‘One whose words are as Rubies’. Those who require European
testimony that this was no vain boast can turn a leaf from the life of the persevering
Scotsman, G.U.Pope. The Reverend, who came for increasing Christ’s flock among the
Tamils, ended up translating Manikkavachagar’s ‘Tiruvaasagam’ as the summit of his
life’s labour. (Tiruppaavai is one of the 51 hymns of Tiruvasagam). As for native Tamil
tradition, the regard for the work is crystallized in the statement that it is the ultimate
when it comes to melting hearts in divine emotion (Tiruvasagathirkku Urukaadhaar, Oru
Vaasagathirkkum Urugaar).

Such a response is attributed to Pope too, though one cannot be sure of the
authenticity of the anecdote. A friend who asked for a comment on Tiruvasagam, is said
to have received a bare paper from Pope…the paper was stained by just two teardrops--
The only ‘comment’ possible in the case of Tiruvasagam. Minimalism at its extreme
perhaps…But Manikkavachagar did write to God – ‘I can reach You through my tears’.
(Vinaiyaen Azhudhaal Ninnai Peralaame…)

If Andal, through her empathy for Krishna, transformed the environs of Srivilliputtur,
in the deep south of Tamil Nadu, into Brindavan…Manikkavachagar had a vision of
Shiva as infinite light in Tiruvannamalai, and burst out in Tiruvempaavai song in the
streets : ‘The Splendour rare and great that knows nor first nor end, We sing’ (Aadhiyum
Andhaamum Illaa Arum Perum Jothiyai Yaam Paada….).

Tiruvannamalai, also known as Arunachalam (the hill of light) is of course the famous
pilgrim centre associated with the Shiva legend of Infinity….the manifestation of Shiva
as a immeasurable pillar of light. Today it has become something of an international
centre of spirituality…somewhat of a Rishikesh of the South.

The important difference is that while Rishikesh is cool on the banks of the Ganga,
Tiruvannamalai is an Agni Sthala (fire centre) that is scorching hot most of the time.
Except of course during Margazhi when the Fire Hill gets enveloped in fog and mist and
cool dew drops rest their soft tresses on green shrubs and trees.

That is the time when foreigners make a beeline for Tiruvannamalai and most
ashrams, like Ramanashram for example, are fully booked. And coming to think of
coolness, who could have been cooler than Ramana whose Silence touches you like a
shower of the Kuttalam falls – fragrant with the scent of medicinal herbs. Even today you
can touch the peace at Ramana’s place…but if you take Ramana’s word…Every place is
his place…Only thing is that you have to be there!

Like Andal’s life, Manikkavachagar’s life too is fascinating. Again, we see life
through the prism of legend…hark to the ‘Uses of Enchantment’! (Bruno Betteleheim’s
‘The meaning and importance of fairy tales’). There are some personal elements of day-
to-day reality though. The sacred poet was born at Vaathavoor on the Vaigai, and near
Madurai. He was a Brahmin of the Amaatya (councilor, minister) caste. Somehow the
original name of the poet who was to become famous the world over in the millennia to
come is lost to us! He is either known as Vaathavoorar, based on the place of his birth, or
Manikkavachagar, which is an epithet describing the power of his poetry. He is also
known as Manivachagar, which almost means the same as the other name.
The most interesting part of his tale has to do with his ministership under the Pandya
king (which king this was we don’t know). The King had given him a sum of money for
the purchase of horses for his army, but in between, Siva, verily the ‘robber’ of many a
heart, stepped in. It is the doctrine of the Saiva Siddhanta that when devotee attains a
state of spiritual ripeness, Shiva Himself descends in the form of a Guru and initiates
him. In Manikkavachagar’s case, not only did he descend and give initiation but also an
order – ‘Spend the money given by the King to build a temple’. A classic case of the
clash between temporal and divine power.

(Jesus, never a diplomat with words, skirted the issue with something like ‘Render
unto God what is God’s and to the King what is his’ ; He knew that it was not the ruling
Roman who was the adversary but the hypocritical Pharisee. Thomas Becket fell foul of
King Henry II when he refused to subordinate the rights of the Church to the King. This
was picturised with the legendary pairing of Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton in
the unforgettable film ‘Becket’. The clash between king and Church was played out again
in ‘A Man for all Seasons’. King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More are the characters in
conflict…An extraordinary film….Here you have a man who wishes to live but is
prepared to die when his pivotal convictions are tested!)

Manikkavachagar’s plight is no less poignant, torn as he his from his earthly loyalty to
his king and the spiritual affliliation to his God. The King has him tortured on the hot
sands of the Vaigai. But Shiva does have the horses delivered at the royal stables - the
only catch being that the horses get transformed into jackals leading to equestrian
mayhem! One can imagine the future saint’s predicament! Finally Shiva sends a deluge
to inundate Madurai. The King orders all the citizens to take part in building a dam to
arrest the enveloping waters. A decrepit old widow, a seller of rice-cakes, is also ordered
to do her bit for this all-out effort of the townspeople. A labourer clad in rags (Shiva
himself) offers to help her if she will feed him with her rice-cakes!

And when he does engage in the efforts for the dam, he is making a spectacle of
himself, throwing a bit of earth here, then singing a snatch of song like a mad man and
dancing wildly, by which time the repast of ricecakes gets to his head and he goes for a

The vigilant king hears of this, and quickly comes to the spot and punishes the culprit
with canings. When the first blow lands, all creation shudders, and the Pandya too feels
the swipe….Poor man…not only the river of his kingdom, his own cup of woe is
overflowing. But in the contest between temporal and divine authority, fie that country
which cannot even dream of the latter winning.

It is a wonderful tale…and as Pope observes, so full of the most extraordinary fancy

that it is well nigh impossible to sift out any grains of historical fact (Those who would
want to delve into it must go to the Tiruvilaiyadal Puranam, which is a wonderful book
on the sports of Chokkanatha (or Sundaresa), the Lord of Madurai ; and the ‘legendary’
poem Vathavoorar Puranam).
But read the Tiruvasagam…linger on it…and you will find that there is agreement
between legend and sentiment. Go to a Shiva temple, preferably in the evening (Shiva’s
hour), more preferably on Pradosham evenings (the thirteenth day of the waxing and
waning moons) and you will find devotees lisping Manikkavachagar’s ‘Shiva Puranam’
like God’s own word. What an extraordinary poem this is…a tribute to Shiva that reads
like a Upanishadic chant full of mystic intimation and rapture. In fact, the Tamil lines,
‘‘Because He, Shivan, within my thought abides, By his Grace alone, I bow before his
feet’’ calls attention to the Kathopanishad mantra : ‘Atma can be known only those
chosen by the Atma’.

Manikkavachagar’s poem is rife with such wonderful epigrams… ‘‘Father, Lord, who
drewest and madest me Thine, Eye of the minds that see by keenest glance of wisdom
true, Hard to be eyed! Subtle Understanding that none can scrutinize’’.

While plumbing the import of this great mystic’s verses is itself an awesome
pilgrimage of the soul, following him to the sacred places of his worship can be a
fascinating adventure of the spirit.

We began with Manikkavachagar’s hymn celebrating the infinite light in

Arunachalam…I have teenage experiences both with Tiruvannamalai, where my parents
took me to Ramanashram, and Skandashram, which is in the shadow of a cluster of trees
in a hollow towards the centre of the hill. Skandashram is an oasis of coolness in a hill of
heat…with a mountain stream waiting to quench your thirst.

Later I returned to Tiruvannamalai with a video crew, shooting an episode for

Doordarshan! I donned the role of Arunagirinathar, a prolific saint-poet of the 14th
century, and climbed up to the summit of the main gopuram, of course through its inner
steps, and some peaks of the hill. It was a great experience re-living some facets of
Tiruvannamalai’s ancient past.

We can gauge how strong the hill town’s spiritual attraction is from the life of the
recent saint, Ramsurat Kumar. He had come all the way from Kashi, the holiest of ancient
Indian cities, and found his spiritual axis at Tiruvannamalai. He has left a great ashram
and the assurance that no one who comes to it will go empty handed.

And the other good thing is that there have been attempts to make the hill green for
more than a decade…The hill which in the seventh century had waterfalls and elephant
herds moving around (boy poet Gnanasambandar’s testimony in verse) was but a blazing
rock in the recent past.

Tirupperunthurai (sacred great harbour), the place where Shiva is said to have
revealed himself to Manikkavachagar under a ‘Kurundha’ tree with 999 of his disciples,
is identified as the present-day Avudaiyarkoil, near Aranthangi town (Pudukkottai
district). A temple of extraordinary beauty, ostensibly built with the money that the
Pandya king gave for the purchase of horses, stands there. It is an architectural marvel of
South India with its wonderful pillars, halls and stone chains. It has been called poetry in
stone, indeed a fitting tribute to a poet of monumental dimensions (the sculptural wealth
of the temple is due to accretions down the centuries)

But in the case of the deity only the pedestal is there!, even the bare linga is absent…
signifying the union of Shakti and Shiva. The name of the Lord is Atmanatha…the
Master of the Soul. The offering is the steam that comes from freshly cooked rice (with
bitter gourd and greens) which is spread before the pedestal! You can see the effort to go
to the limits of formlessness through form. Though the sanctum of the deity is deep inside
manifold enclosures, the rays of the evening sun fall on it – another notable aspect of
architectural design.

Much of Manikkavachagar’s superb poetry is directed towards this deity.

My frame before thy fragrant foot
Quivers like an opening bud
My hands above my head I raise
Tears pour down, My melting soul
False renouncing, exalts Thee
With songs of triumph praises Thee
I rest not my adoring hand
O Master, look at me! (Mostly Pope)

The poet’s ultimate destination is Chidambaram, to the Cosmic Dancer. The poetry
that flows from him at Chidambaram brims with feeling and ecstacy.
To me, untaught, most ignorant, the lowest cur
In mighty grace He came, with heavenly beauty me to clothe
And loosed my servile bonds of sense, in sight of many men
His form I have seen in Tillai’s court, where all bow down!

One day the poet is said to have shown the Cosmic Dancer in the Golden Hall as the
meaning of his work, and himself vanished into the sanctum. A suitable ending to a life
whose sum and substance was union with the Transcendental. In this again he was like
Andal. Two poets, both seeking union with a Higher Self....both mystics…yet how
different in colour and form their poetry is! Andal takes a bold confident leap to the
divine and clasps it in assured embrace. Manikkavachagar has to go through inferno and
purgatory before achieving final illumination. The Tamil language is indeed fortunate to
have had two such superlative poets…so similar, yet so different. But when they are
labelled as devotional or religious poets and set away, a whole horizon of spendorous
cultural beauty and light disappears.

In the centuries that followed the Tiruvasagam, it was raised from the level of mystic
poetry to sacred scripture…it became part of the eighth book of the Saiva cannon.
Ramalinga Vallalar, a mystic poet and social reformer nearer our times, considered it his
scripture and is said to have spent the first night of his short-lived marriage reciting it to
the bride. (I do pity the lot of our woman…Lord give them shade…Lord come to their
Dhuraimangalam Sivaprakasa Swami, a Virashaiva saint of the 18th century, with due
respect to the Veda, pointed out that Tiruvasagam was more suited to bring tears of joy in
the eyes of devotees.

In contemporary times, music maestro Ilayaraja, going about his magnificent

obsession of writing a symphony, finally took recourse to a musical mounting of the
Tiruvasagam in the form of an oratorio….The Tamil saints and their devotional
outpourings are among the influences that shaped his life and thinking.
Legends from Life of Manickavachagar….
G.U.Pope’s story of how it occupied his ripe years…
Questions…Naalvar…why he is not included in the 63 saints group …his date…
…The evocative nature of Tiruvasagam…Naalvar Naan Mani Maalai…Thuraimangalam
Sivaprakasa Swami….
Vallalar…Tiruvasagam..was his favourite scripture…
…Kanchi Periyavar…Siva Vishnu…Tiruppaavai-Tiruvempaavai…unity…