The Thiruvempaavai, a collection of twenty hymns in which he has imagined himself as a woman following the Paavai Nonbu and praising Shiva. The twenty songs of Thiruvempaavai and ten songs of Tiruppalliezhuchi on the Tirupperunturai Lord are sung all over Tamil Nadu in the holy month of Margazhi (The ninth month of the Tamil calendar, December and January). Manikkavacakar’s festival is celebrated in the Tamil month of Aani.

“There is a festival in winter in which devotees go to their Shiva temple very early in the morning to sing songs to Shiva in order to wake him up. In ‘Thiruvempaavai’ young girls move from house to house, waking up their friends, and encouraging them to come to the temple to perform this rite. Though, ostensibly, it is merely a poem about young girls encouraging each other to go and worship Shiva, their trips to the temple are interpreted to be emblematic of the soul’s journey towards union with Shiva. It is thus a poem which encourages enthusiasm for the ultimate pilgrimage that culminates in the experience of Shiva. There are also more fanciful interpretations that see in its lines various allegories for the Saiva view on how the world is brought into being.

The ‘Thiruvempaavai’ is one of Manikkavacakar’s most famous poems. Indeed, judging by the number of commentaries that have been written on it and from the number of meetings that are held to expound its meaning, it can justly be regarded as one of the most famous poems ever written in Tamil. Part of its fame can be attributed to its mystical obscurity, which has inevitably prompted a large number of differing explanations, but one cannot ignore the contribution made in recent times by the former Sankaracharya of Kanchipuram, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swami. The poem was a particular favourite of his, and he did much to encourage public awareness of it. Sri G. Vanmikanathan, who was personally encouraged to write commentaries on the Tiruvachakam by the Sankaracharya, has written that, each year, in the Tamil month of Margazhi, the Thiruvempaavai poem is sung throughout the length and breadth of the Tamil-speaking world and ‘conferences and meetings in hundreds are held in that period to expound it’.”
[Pathway to God through the Tiruvaachakam, by G. Vanmikanathan]



Thiruvempaavai

Even after hearing us sing
of the unique great Effulgence
without beginning or end,
O damsel with bright wide eyes,
do you still sleep
or are your ears hard of hearing?
On hearing the sound of the paean of praise
of the anklet-girt feet of Madevan
come echoing down the street,
sob after sob tearing her frame,
her body in a trance,
This damsel has rolled off her flower-strewn bedstead
and lies here helpless!
What, what is this condition, O my chum?

“My Passion to Paranjothi”,
you would say day and night
when we used to talk.
When did you set your love
On this flower-strewn bed,
O bejewelled one?”
Tut tut, is this the behaviour
Of handmaidens of the Lord!
Is this the place for badinage, even as a joke!
The Effulgent One, He of the Land of Bliss,
Who graciously comes to bestow on us,
   In His grace,
the blossom feet which shy away
from the praise of the heavenly Ones –
to that Eesan in Thillai’s dance hall,
who are we to say
that we are filled with love?

O you with pearl-like white teeth,
who used to come forward in the past
and talk sweetly till your mouth drooled
Of Aththan, Aanandan, Amudhan,
come and open your door.
O devotion-filled ones!
O Eesan’s ancient devotees!
O decorous ones!
Is it wrong if the Lord enslaves new devotees,
Ridding them of their baseness?
How great your love is, don’t we all know?
Wouldn’t people of pure minds sing of our Civan?
This is all we want of you.

O you with shining pearly teeth!
Has it not yet dawned for you!
Have all my companions
Of colourful parrot-like speech come?
We shall count and tell you the true tally.
Meanwhile, do not close your eyes in sleep
and spend your time wastefully.
But as our heart is softening,
thawing and melting with singing
of the unique Medicine to the heaven dwellers –
the Subject par excellent of the Vedas,
the Delight to the eyes –
we will not do it.
Come yourself and count;
and if the number falls short,
Go back and sleep!

O you crafty one
with milk and honey-exuding tongue,
who speak such fairy tales as
that people like us will come to know
The Mountain Whom Brahma and Vishnu did not see,
open your door.
Even if we yell “O Civan! O Civan!”,
singing of the form of Him
Whom the earth,
the heavens and all the rest do not know,
and of His nobleness in ridding us of our faults
and graciously enslaving us,
you will not comprehend, comprehend you will not,
O you with cardamom scented tresses!

O Fawn! Yesterday you said;
“I myself will come tomorrow and wake you all”.
Tell us where those words have gone shamelessly.
Has it not yet dawned for you?
To us—
    who have come singing
    about the anklet-girt far-reaching lovely-feet
    of the One unknowable by heaven or earth or others,
    Who of His own accord comes
    and, conferring signal honour on us,
    enslaves us –  
you do not open your mouth,
you do not melt all your body over,
Such conduct befits you only.
For us and the rest of the word
it befits to sing of our King.

O Mother, are these the acts
of a handmaiden of the Lord?
(In the past), on hearing the fanfare announcing Him
Who is impossible of being known
by the manifold immortals –
the unique One, He of great magnificence –
 you  would be the first to open your mouth saying:
“Lo, there is Civan coming”.
Before one could say “O Southerner”,
You would become like wax fallen into fire.
Listen, now all of us are severally saying:
“My Beloved! My King! My delicious Ambrosia!,
yet you sleep!
Since you lie inert like a hard-hearted scatter-brain,
what kind of a sleep is this?

On the cock crowing
birds have begun to chirp everywhere.
On the sounding of the seven scale music pipes,
white conches have begun to sound everywhere.
Of the peerless transcendental Effulgence,
of the peerless transcendental Mercy,
of peerless subjects par excellence
we sang. Did you not hear us?
Bless you! what a sleep is this?
Open your lips!
Is this the way to become love-filled
towards the Sea of grace?
Do sing of Him Who stood as
the first in every aeon –
the Partner of the frail One.

O earliest ancient Thing
of all earliest ancient things!
To all latest novelties,
O You Who are in turn of same nature!
We, Your esteemed devotees,
who have gained You as our Lord,
will pay homage to the feet of Your devotees only.
Likewise, to them alone will we belong;
the very same will become our husbands.
In the manner, they are pleased to ask us to serve,
we shall, as their slaves, serve.
In this manner, if You, our King,
would bestow grace on us,
nothing would we lack.

For beneath Paathaalam,
the nethermost of the seven nether regions,
and ineffable are His feet;
His flower-laden crown is all knowledge’s end.
A Lady by Him in His form, but not the only one!
Though the Vedas, the heaven-dwellers
and all the world sing His praise,
praises fall far short of Him, our unique Companion –
Dweller in His devotees.
Therefore, O you damsels of blameless lineage,
handmaidens of Haran’s shrine,
What is His city? What His name? who His kin?
who are not? how sing we His praise?


Diving noisily into the wide tank
hovered over by bumble bees,
and churning the water with our hands
     (as we swam about),
O sire, we, Your servitors since generations past,
have lived singing of Your anklet-girt feet.
O You of rosy hue like roaring fire!
O You drenched with white ash!
O Treasure! O Bridegroom of the Dame
With narrow waist and collyrium-glistening eyes!
We have experienced and one with every move
Which those who would be redeemed experience.
Do, therefore, save us that we may not get wearied!

He is the sacred waters in which we bathe
   with ardour
That the sorrow of shackling birth may cease,
He is the Dance Who dances in good Thillai’s hall
    With fire in his hand.
He is the Prankster Who creates,
Protects, and withdraws this heaven and earth,
and everything indeed.
Speaking words (of praise about Him),
with bangles jingling and jewels tinkling,
and with bumble-bees humming over jewelled tresses,
let us splash about in this tank flourishing
with flowers,
and, lauding the golden feet of our Owner,
bathe in this vast spring water.

INTO THIS  seething deep POOL
of lotus-abounding sweet water,
WHICH
    by the fresh blue-lotus’s dark flowers,
    by the blossoms of the fresh red-lotus,
    by the families of beautiful (water) birds,
    by the snakes besides, and
    by the presence of those
    desirous of washing away their malam (dirt),
CLOSELY RESEMBLES OUR LADY AND OUR KING,
let us dive and sport about,
    with bangles jingling
    and cilambus tinkling in unison,
    and breasts swelling,
Setting the churned waters asurging.

With ear-pendants adangling,
with the pure gold ornaments aswinging,
with the chaplets on our tresses atossing,
with the swarm of bumble-bees swaying in unison,
LET US BATHE IN THE COOL WATER,
    singing of the dance hall (in Thillai),
    singing of the Veda’s Content,
singing how the Content He becomes,
    singing of the glory of the Effulgence,
    singing of the encircling garland
        of kondrai flowers,
    singing of the manner of His becoming
        the source of all things,
    singing of how He becomes the end too,
    singing of the qualities of the feet
        of the Bangled One
    Who, separating us (from the common herd),
    cherished and brought us up,
AND SPORT about in the water.

Now and then crying; “Our Lord! Our Lord!”,
She will never cease speaking
the glories of our Lord.
With her mind brimming with joy,
and her eyes wet with an unceasing
long stream of tears,
she resembles Her Who comes down to earth
    from time to time.
The heavenly ones’ feet she will never worship.
Whoever is capable of thus enslaving a person,
making her mad with love for the Great King,
singing of that Adept’s feet to our mouths’ content,
let us dive in this lovely water
teeming with blossoms, and sport about.

O Cloud of
Come forward and shrink the sea, and rise up,
    parade in the hue of Her
    Who owns us,
    break out in lightening flashes
    like the slender waist of Her
    Who has sway over us,
    reverberate like the golden Cilambu
    on the holy feet of our Mistress,
    display a bow like her eyebrows,
AND POUR AS RAIN
    like the very grace
    which She Who lords over us
    rains on the devotees of our King
    Who is never separated from Her.

O damsel of fragrance-impregnated dark tresses!
LET US SING, that prosperity may flourish in us,
ABOUT THE KNIGHT, our King with beautiful eyes –
Ambrosia rare to us devotees, our Great Lord –
Who, making ours a bliss not found
in Vishnu or Brahma or the Devas
or anywhere else,
and Who, ridding us of our faults,
steps, in His grace,
into each of our homes and bestows on us
His red-lotus-like golden feet
AND JUMP into this lotus-abounding water
and sport about.

Just as the clusters of gems
on the crowns of the heavenly ones
lose their lustre when they bow at the lotus feet
of Him abiding in Annamalai, the stars,
their cool sharp brilliance becoming dulled,
   have faded away
on the eye-dazzling sun’s ray coming up
and dispelling the darkness.
O damsel, let us sing of the anklet-girt feet of Him
Who is the females, the male, the neuter,
the well-lit heavens, the earth,
something apart from all these,
and eye-satisfying ambrosia as well,
and jump into this blossoms-abounding water
and sport about.

In our fear, we say afresh that (well known) adage;
“The child in Your arms is Your own protégé”.
Our great Lord, we will tell you something, listen!
Let not our breasts join in an embrace
    With the shoulders of anyone
           but Your devotees.
Let not our hands do any work except for You.
Night and day let our eyes not see anything
    but You.
If, here and now, this boon You would grants us,
what does it matter to us where the sun rises?

Obeisance to You! graciously bestow on us
Your feet-blossom – the beginning of all things!
Obeisance to You! graciously bestow on us
Your pink leaf shoots – the end of all things!
Obeisance to the golden feet –
   the source of manifestation  to all beings!
Obeisance to the flowery feet –
   the savour of life to all beings!
Obeisance to the twin feet –
   the last resort to all beings!
Obeisance to the lotus (feet)
   not seen by Vishnu or Brahma!
Obeisance to the golden flowers which enslave us
   that we may be redeemed!
Obeisance to You!
Let us now have our Maarghaszhi bath,
Oh Paavaai.