This is the story of one of the three women Nayanmars out of the sixty three Nayanmars (saints who were devotees of Lord Shiva)
In the present day town of Karaikkal near Pondicherry, near about 6th century BC, there was a merchant by name Dhanadattan who lived with his wife Dhanalakshmi Ammal. They had a beautiful daughter by name Punithavathi.
Punithavathi was a beautiful and intelligent young girl who had lot of devotion to Lord Shiva right from an early age. She had a happy childhood and all the luxuries of life as her father was a rich merchant. As she grew into a beautiful young maiden, her father got a proposal from the family of another merchant by name Paramadattan seeking Punithavathi’s hand in wedding. Both the families were excited at the proposal for Paramadattan was equally handsome and rich and had noble qualities.
The wedding was performed with great pomp and splendour and Punithavathi went to live in her husband’s house after the wedding. Their married life went on like a dream as Paramadattan was a loving husband and Punithavathi was a dutiful wife who was liked by all.
One day, one of Paramadattan’s business partners gifted Paramadattan with two mangoes of an exotic variety. Paramadattan sent the mangoes through a messenger to his house. The messenger delivered the mangoes to Punithavathi who immediately washed them and placed them in front of Lord Shiva as an offering to Him. It was her habit always to offer everything to Lord Shiva first.
After a while, a devotee of Lord Shiva (Shivanadiyar) came to their house seeking alms. In ordinary circumstances, Punithavathi would have fed a full meal to the devotee, but as luck would have it, she had made only rice and so immediately, Punithavathi took one of the mangoes sent by her husband and gifted it to the devotee along with some curd rice. The Shivanadiyar took it, blessed her and went away.
It was noon and Paramadattan came home for lunch as was his usual practice. After eating his lunch, he called out, “Punithavathi, bring me the mango I sent in the morning. I want to taste it” said he. Punithavathi immediately took the one mango which was there and served him. “Hmmm… This mango tastes delicious. I would like to eat the other one also”, said he, much to the dismay of Punithavathi. Looking at his eagerness to eat the mango, she had not the heart to tell him that she had given it away. Further, she was feeling extremely guilty that she had given away the mango without informing him.
In a fix, not knowing what to do, she went to her Lord Shiva and prayed fervently with open palms and lo! A mango fell into her palms. Pleased with the grace of the Lord, she immediately cut the mango and served her husband. But the fruit was not just sweet, it was inexplicably divine and out of the world. Paramadattan was surprised. “Punithavathi” he said, “how come this mango is so…. divinely in taste, this is certainly not an ordinary mango. Where did you get it from?”
Punithavathi was thoroughly shaken. Trembling, she told Paramadattan the truth. Paramadattan refused to believe her. “Do you mean to say that Lord Shiva is at your beck and call?” he said scoffing at her. “I cannot believe a word of what you say. If what you say is true, then why don’t you call your Lord and ask him to give another mango?” he said to her angrily. Punithavathi believed solidly in her Lord Shiva and without a word of retort, she walked back to the Altar where the Lord was kept.
She closed her eyes and prayed fervently. “Oh Lord! you are my saviour. I have not spoken one word of untruth and if you do not come to my rescue now, people will lose faith in me and thereby in you” The very next moment, a ripe mango landed in her palms and she calmly took it to her husband. Paramadattan was surprised and held out his hand to examine the mango. The moment the mango landed in his hands, it vanished.
Awestruck, Paramadattan could not believe what he had seen. He fell silent and his mind was very disturbed at the thought that he had insulted such a godly being, his wife. He felt she was much superior and he did not deserve to be her husband. So, one day, he lied to her that he was going to foreign lands to trade, and went to another city in the south of India. There he married a merchant’s daughter and settled down. He had a daughter whom he named Punithavathi in memory of his earlier wife.
After some years, Punithavathi’s relatives came to know of this matter and took Punithavathi along to meet him and question him on the injustice meted out to Punithavathi. When he came to know that Punithavathi’s relatives had come bringing her along, Paramadattan, along with his wife and child went to meet them and straightaway prostrated at the feet of Punithavathi. To a shocked Punithavathi, he said that he did not deserve to be the husband of such a divine person like her and that he had named his daughter after her as he held her in high esteem.
Punithavathi broke down. But almost immediately recovered and prayed to her Lord. “O Lord Shiva” said she. “I have been taking care of this beautiful body of mine only for the sake of my husband. But now that he has disowned me, I do not want to be distracted or distract others with this body. I want to be in your service always. Hence, please take away my youth and beauty!” The very next moment she turned into an old ghostly figure. Her flesh dried up, her skin shrivelled and she looked fearful, almost like a skeleton. She had turned into one of the Shiva Ganas, or the ghouls who surround Shiva. The people assembled there looked at her with fear and respect and fell at her feet.
Punithavathi wanted to see the Lord dance at Kailash and went all the way to the Himalayas but when she saw Kailash, she felt the place was so sacred that she should not walk with her legs. So with great difficulty, she started moving on her head. Seeing her extreme devotion and urge to see His dance, the Lord addressing her as “Ammaye” (mother) asked her wish to which Ammaiyar replied, “I want endless bliss in being with you always. I don’t want to be born again. Even if I have any birth, I should not forget you. When you perform your holy dance, I want to be beneath in your feet and I want to sing your praise in joy.” Thereafter the Lord commanded her to go to Tiruvalankadu, a jungle in Southern India where he would bless her with darshan of his dance. So Karaikkal Ammayar as she came to be known, walked all the way back to Tiruvalankadu and lived the rest of her life there happily composing many songs on Lord Shiva. She has described herself as the Ghoul of Karaikkal in the signature verse of her poems. Among her works are the “Arputha Thiruvandadhi”, “Irattai Mani Malai” and “Tiruvalankadu Mootha Tiruppathigam”
She is believed to be blissfully singing under the Lotus feet of Lord Shiva forever.
Even today the “Mangani festival” is conducted in Karaikkal, on the full moon day of the Tamil month Aani (June- July), when curd rice and mangoes are distributed to all and mangoes are thrown on Bikshandavar when he comes in procession as he represents the Shivanadiyar.