Saturday, December 11, 2021

Adi Annamalai - where Tiruvempavai was born!


The Adi Annamalai Temple in Tiruvannamalai

Come Margazhi - Tamil Households, temples and sabhas come alive to the hymns of Thirupaavai and Thiruvempavai, songs that sing the glory of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva respectively. While the former was rendered by Andal, the latter is to the credit of Saint Manickavasagar, one among the quartet of Shaiva saints who sang hymns in praise of Lord Shiva. 

Thirupaavai and Thiruvempaavai have a couple of similarities - the singer along with female friends is observing the "Paavai Nonbu", a ritual followed by unmarried girls during the month of Margazhi in order to obtain virtuous husbands. Manickavasagar is believed to have taken the "Nayaki Bhavam" to render the Thiruvempaavai.

Saint Manickavasagar

Born in Thiruvadhavur in the 9th Century, as Vadhavooraar, Manickavasagar was minister to King Arimarthana Pandian (Varagunavarman II). The king entrusted him with a large amount of money to buy horses for the army. When the Minister set out on his task, he was met with by Lord Shiva in Thiruperunthurai (Avudaryarkoil) and upon receiving enlightenment, spent all the money on renovating the temple. When the king asked Vadhavoraar to present the horses, he did not know what to do and sought the help of  Lord Shiva who played a divine drama (Thiruvilaiyaadal) and converted all the foxes around Madurai into horses and sent them to the King's stables. At dawn, the foxes turned into their original selves and ran away.

(Photo Courtesy: Adbh266 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

On hearing this, the king imprisoned Vaadhavooraar. In jail, he rendered several hymns that would melt even the heartless, in praise of the Lord. Finally, the Lord made the King realise the truth. Freed from prison, Vadhavoorar who had received the title Manickavasagar from the Lord himself, for each of his verses was like a precious gem,set out on a pilgrimage, visiting several shrines, before coming to Adi Annamalai in Tiruvannamalai.

Adi Annamalai is known by other names such as Aadhi Annamalai (as sung by Arunagirinathar in his Thirupugazh - Aadhi Arunachalam Amarndha Perumaane and Ani Annamalai, a jewel decorating the foothills of Annamalai. The deity here is believed to have been installed by Lord Brahma. 

Lord Brahma and Adi Annamalai

Brahma and Thilothama
When Brahma created Thilothama, a celestial being, with the finest particles of heaven, earth and the underworld (another version says Brahma asked Vishwakarma to create her) he was smitten by her beauty. Faces evolved in all directions of his head just to see her, as she circumambulated him after being created. Overcome by lust, Brahma asked Thilothama to be his. However, she was shocked, as by virtue of creating her, he was her father. She started running away in fear. With Maya shrouding his intellect, Brahma took the form of a male deer and started following her. 

When she could run no longer, Tilothama took the form a female pigeon and started flying towards Thiruvannamalai, where the Lord had risen in the form of a pillar of light when Brahma and Vishnu were unable to find his feet and tresses. Brahma also took the form of a male pigeon and tried to catch up with her. On Tilothama entering the holy land of Thiruvannamalai, that provides mukthi to those who merely think of it, Lord Shiva took the form of a hunter, and shot down the male pigeon . Brahma was brought out of Maya as soon as his body touched the holy ground. He realised with shame, the foolishness and impropriety of his behaviour and was very repentent. He sought the forgiveness of Thilothama. In order to atone his sins, he installed a Shivalingam on the foothills of Annamalai, to the West of the main shrine, at the spot where he had been relieved of Maya. He created a Brahma theertham next to it and a tank known even today as Ayyankulam (Ayan is another name of Brahma).

Brahma Theertham, now known as Manickavasagar Theertham

It was on the banks of the Ayyankulam that Ramana Maharishi reached on arriving at Thiruvannamalai. He bathed in its holy waters and when he stepped out, he knew his calling. It was the time to renounce all that he had. He threw away the food he had carried from home, and discarded his clothes, but for a piece of dhoti to be worn as a loin-cloth. On seeing this, a barber asked if he wanted his head to e tonsured . He gave up his hair and was ready for his sadhana. A shrine for Arunagirinathar is also found on the banks of this tank.

Ayyankulam Tank

On arriving at Adi Annamalai, Manickavasagar set himself up a few metres from the temple, bathed in the Brahma Theertham which came to be known as the Manickavasagar Theertham and worshipped the Kuzhumani Vinayakar and the Lord every day. The 8th Century Thirupaavai has thirty hymns of Andal calling out her friends to wake up, bathe, observe the paavai nombu and serve/worship the Lord.

Kuzhumani Vinayakar worshipped by Saint Manickavasagar

Manickavasagar, sang twenty songs grouped together as the Thiruvempaavai, in the month of Margazhi urging the young girls to bathe in the Brahma Theertham and serve the Lord of Adi Annamalai. This along with the ten songs of Thirupalliezhuchi make up the Thiruvempaavai. All verses end with the word "Empaavaai", giving it its name. Pleased with his devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before Manickavasagar. The Manickavasagar Matam (Mutt) stands at the place where this happened. 

Manickavasagar Mutt (Photo Courtesy:

This Margazhi, let us attempt to read and enjoy the essence of Thirupaavai and Thiruvempaavai.

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