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MĀIKKAVĀCAKAR (ninth century ce), Tamil poet-saint devoted to the god Śiva. Māikkavācakar ("he whose speech is like rubies") is generally acknowledged to have been the greatest poet of Tamil Śaivism. For at least the past thousand years he has also enjoyed the status of a saint in South Indian temples consecrated to Śiva, where one frequently sees his image and hears his hymns sung by professional reciters (ōtuvārs ) as part of the regular temple ritual.

Māikkavācakar probably flourished about the middle of the ninth century. He was born in the brahman settlement at Tiruvātavūr, a village near Madurai. According to the Tiruvātavūrar Purāam, a fifteenth-century hagiography, he was a precocious child and at an early age entered the service of the Pandya king at Madurai; there he soon became prime minister. His high position notwithstanding, Māikkavā-cakar harbored religious longings that remained unfulfilled until, while on a trip to Peruntuai (modern-day Avadayarkoyil in Pudukkottai District), he unexpectedly met and was initiated by a guru who was none other than Śiva himself. This abrupt change led to a series of bizarre and amusing incidents revolving around the interactions of Māik-kavācakar kar, the Pandya king, and Śiva in various guisesall counted among Śiva's "sacred sports" as narrated in the Tiruviaiyāal Purāam, the sacred history of the great Mīnākī-Sundareśvara temple in Madurai.

After gaining release from the king's service, Māik-kavācakar is reputed to have visited several shrines of Śiva in the Tamil country, composing hymns as he went. He eventually settled in Chidambaram, site of the Naarāja temple. Here he composed more poems, defeated Buddhists from Lanka in a debate, and finally, according to the hagiography, disappeared into the inner sanctum of the temple, having merged with the god.

Two works are ascribed to Māikkavācakar. His premier poem is the Tiruvācakam (Sacred speech), a collection of fifty-one hymns addressed to Śiva. The Tiruvācakam displays a rich variety of poetic forms skillfully utilized. Some of the poems are based on women's folk songs that accompany certain domestic activities or village games. In these instances, form and theology coincide, for in the Tiruvācakam Māikkavācakar typically casts himself as a female who is in love with Śiva. The hymns of the Tiruvācakam have long been venerated by Tamil speakers not just for their musicality but also for their paradigmatic expression of devotion. These hymns frequently give voice to the intense emotions of longing for, separation from, and union with the deity. They celebrate a god who overwhelms his devotee, resulting in an experience of melting and surrender. Viewed historically, the Tiruvācakam forms a bridge between early Tamil devotional poetry with its inheritance of forms and images drawn from the Cakam period, and the later systematic treatises of the Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta school of philosophy.

Māikkavācakar's other work, the Tirukkōvaiyār, is a poem of four hundred quatrains modeled on Cakam akam ("inner," i.e., love) poetry. Ostensibly an erotic poem, the Tirukkōvaiyār has traditionally been interpreted as an allegory on the relationship between Śiva and the soul. Along with the far more popular Tiruvācakam, it comprises the eighth section of the twelve-part Tirumurai, the canonical poetry of Tamil Śaivism.

In addition to the deep reverence many Tamils have for the Tiruvācakam, the cult of the saint is still prominent at several locations in modern Tamil Nadu. Especially noteworthy is the Śrī Ātmanātacuvāmi temple in Avadayarkoyil, marking the site of Māikkavācakar's initiation. Here the saint is ritually identified with the god, for only the saint's image, decorated to look like various forms of Śiva, is carried in procession at festivals. Also, both major annual festivals of this temple conclude with a dramatic ritual reenactment of Māikkavācakar's initiation by Śiva.

See Also

Śaivism, articles on Nāyaārs, Śaiva Siddhānta; Tamil Religions.


Besides numerous Tamil editions of the Tiruvācakam, there have been several translations of the text into English and German. The first English translation was that of G. U. Pope, The Tiruvaçagam or "Sacred Utterances" of the Tamil Poet, Saint and Sage Manikkavaçakar (1900; reprint, Madras, 1970). While Pope's translation is in a late Victorian style of English poetry that is now outdated, his work contains the Tamil text and a lengthy introductory "appendix" that is still useful. A translation into more modern English by a Tamil devotee of Śiva is Pathway to God through Tamil Literature, vol. 1, Through the Thiruvaachakam, translated and edited by G. Vanmikanathan (New Delhi, 1971). The translator's 100-page introduction interprets the Tiruvācakam as a "handbook of mystical theology." A recent study that discusses Māikkavācakar and the religio-historical context of his major work is my own Hymns to the Dancing Śiva: A Study of Māikkavācakar's Tiruvācakam (Columbia, Mo., 1982).

New Sources

Sivapriya. True History and Time of Manikkavasaghar from His Work. Delhi, 1996.

Glenn E. Yocum (1987)

Revised Bibliography