Karaikkal Ammaiyar

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KARAIKKĀL AMMAIYĀR (c. a.d. 550), mystic, early poet-saint of the bhakti movement. Karaikkāl Ammaiyār, or the Lady of Karaikkāl, was a mystic devoted to Shiva, the dancing lord of Tiruvālankādu, Tamil Nadu. As one of the earliest of the sixty-three nayanārs (Shiva saints) and a contemporary of Pūdam, the first ālvār (Vishnu saint), Karaikkāl Ammaiyār helped to usher in the Tamil bhakti (devotional) movement, which spread from this region across India. Bhakti saints represented the folk voices of many castes, and their hymns in the local languages proclaimed the supremacy of a personal love for God above priestly ritual. Although bhakti mystics did not overturn caste hierarchies, their cultural imprint on India has been profound.

Karaikkāl Ammaiyār's songs are among the earliest bhakti compositions for Shiva in the prabandha mode, which became popular among the medieval saints. The hymns and hagiographies of the nayanārs are recorded in the twelve Tirumurai, the scripture for the Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta school; Karaikkāl Ammaiyār's three long hymns are recorded in the eleventh Tirumurai. Her work is inspired by the literary styles of the classical Tamil Sangam era (1st–5th centuries) and the evocative tone of fifth-century early bhakti texts like Tirumurukārrupatai, a guide to god Murukan's sacred sites, and Paripātal, in praise of Murukan and Vishnu-Tirumāl. Karaikkāl Ammaiyār's three hymns are Mūtta-tirup-patikañkal, twenty-two verses in classical melodies; Tiru-irattaimanimālai, twenty verses of two alternating styles; and Arputat-tiru-vantāti, one hundred one verses in the antāti genre, a sonorous web of praises in which the last word of each verse is echoed in the next.

Unlike the ninth-century bhakti saint Āndāl, who resisted marriage on Earth for love of Vishnu, Karaikkāl Ammaiyār was married to a merchant when she was a young woman called Punitavati. The myth of her transformation from chaste wife to chaste yogi is recorded by the sage Sēkkilār in Periya Purānam, a thirteenth-century hagiography of the nāyanārs. One day, Punitavati's husband handed her two mangoes, which he had received as the gift from a sage. She fed a poor Shiva devotee with one fruit; and she magically produced more mangoes for her husband at mealtime by praying to Shiva. Frightened by this display of divine powers, her husband fled and remarried. On practicing severe yogic austerities, Punitavati came to be addressed as Karaikkāl Ammaiyār. In a rare example of reversed spousal roles, her husband returned to prostrate humbly at her feet. The myth highlights the auspicious power of both the chaste, faithful wife (pativrata) and the chaste yogi who renounces sensuality. This follows the Tamil tradition of the pativrata Kannaki, who is transformed from a meek wife to a powerful, semi-divine heroine in the Sangam epic, Shilappatikāram.

Karaikkāl Ammaiyār sang of her ironic, joyful bondage to Shiva, whose grace would free her from earthly bondage in the cycle of birth and death (samsāra). In another poem, she begs that Shiva at least grant her the boon of always remembering him. Sēkkilār states that Shiva respectfully addressed her as "Ammaiyār," or Mother, when she achieved enlightenment and moksha, or freedom from saṃsāra. A thirteenth-century Chola bronze provides a visual representation of the ghoulish yet gleeful yogi who described herself as a pey (ghost), "a female wraith of shriveled breasts, swollen veins, protruding eye-balls, white teeth, sunken stomach, fiery red hair, two protruding fangs," according to Sēkkilār (Vanmikanathan, p. 537). Frescoes depict her life on the walls of her modern shrine at Karaikkāl; and young women today offer mangoes to the icon of this venerable woman saint.

Sita Anantha Raman

See alsoBhakti


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