Tiruvadhavoor is a village near Madurai. In this village was born to a pious couple, a son, whom we know as Vadhavooran (born in Vadhavoor- hence). Vadhavooran’s father belonged to the saivite temple priest clan.
Vadhavooran was a very bright child who mastered various subjects, scriptures of various religions and arts before he was sixteen years of age. The King of Madurai, at that time, Varaguna Pandian who was also known as Arimardhana Pandian chanced to witness the brilliance of Vadhavooran’s knowledge and acumen. Impressed, he immediately appointed him as his minister. Vadhavooran discharged his ministerial duties with elan and provided an effective administration in the kingdom, but his mind was focussed on getting salvation from this mundane life and he constantly prayed to Lord Shiva to show him the path or to show him a Guru (teacher) who would show him the path to salvation.
Once, Arimardhana Pandian came to know that good Arabian horses had been brought by traders to the Coastal towns in the Chola Kingdom and he was eager to acquire good horses to improve his cavalry. He gave gold coins to his trusted minister Vadhavooran and told him to go to the Chola Kingdom and acquire horses.
Vadhavooran accepted the assignment and commenced his journey to the Chola Kingdom. He had to pass by a place called Tirupperunthurai, which is in Pudukkottai district now. As he was passing by the place, he heard the chant of Vedic hymns and was drawn to it. He saw an old man (who was actually Lord Shiva in disguise) sitting under a Kurunthu tree. The very moment Vadhavooran’s eyes met the old man’s, he decided that he was the Guru he was seeking all these years. He forgot all about his mission and stayed with the old man learning about the glory of Lord Shiva. He realised that all the material things in this world were temporary and decided that the Lord was the only source of permanent bliss and therefore started to build a temple for the Lord there. He sang many hymns on the Lord and the most famous one was Tiruvachagam. On hearing it, the old man gave Vadhavooran the name of Manickavasagar – literally translated means gem worded or more specifically, ruby worded, that is, the words spoken by Vadhavooran were equivalent to rubies.
Meanwhile, Arimardhana Pandian, at Madurai was waiting eagerly for the horses to come but there was no news of that. He sent his spies in search of Vadhavooran and he got the shocking news that Vadhavooran had not gone any further than Tirupperunthurai and he was constructing a temple and feeding the poor with the money meant for buying horses. The King was furious and asked his men to immediately bring Vadhavooran to Madurai. Only when the men told Vadhavooran about the King’s order, he remembered his mission and panicked that all the money had been spent by him in charity and temple construction. He asked them for some time and went inside the temple to meet the old man and he surrendered to Him. He told Him about the mission of his and the dilemma he was facing now.
The old man patted Vadhavooran and said, “Do not worry. Go back to your king and tell him that the horses will arrive on Avani Moolam day. (Avani is the name of a Tamil month and Moolam is a star. Each day of the month is dedicated to a star in Tamil culture) The old man took out a diamond ring from nowhere and gave it to Vadhavooran and said, “Go and give this to your King as a token from the horse dealer”.
Vadhavooran was mesmerised and took the ring completely believing every word of the old man without even thinking how it would ever happen, and went back to his kingdom. He gave the ring to the King who was surprised and even suspected whether his spies had lied to him on the activities of Vadhavooran. He spoke kind words to Vadhavooran and was expecting the horses to come on the day promised by Vadhavooran.
Since hundreds of horses were supposed to arrive, the spies of the king were looking for clouds of dust from afar since the galloping of so many horses would have caused a dust storm, but everything was calm and clear. The spies went and told the King that what Vadhavooran told him was a lie since the very next day was Avani Moolam day and there was no sign of any horses coming.
“Be patient!” said the King. “Let us see till the appointed day!”
Lord Shiva wanted to play some mischief and see the fun. That very night, all the foxes in the jungles near Madurai got transformed into horses and suddenly out of nowhere, there were hundreds of horses, being led by some horsemen and they had a leader also. Early in the morning, the gatekeepers of the palace were surprised to see this extremely handsome man leading the other men and horses and they ran to the King to inform him. The King was puzzled but pleasantly surprised that Vadhavooran had after all not cheated him and therefore, he along with Vadhavooran came and received the horses. The horses were looking very high class and of a rare breed and the King was extremely happy and very much impressed by the leader of the horsemen. Vadhavooran somehow thought that the leader of the group resembled the old man he had met at Tirupperunthurai. The leader then explained to the King in a very detailed manner, about the method of upkeep of the horses, their feed etc. and took leave of the King. The King arranged for all the horses to be stabled and went to bed a very happy man, eager to try riding the horses the next day.
But Lord Shiva had other plans. That very night, the horses were transformed back into foxes and suddenly, there were packs and packs of them jumping out from the stables and pouncing on the horsemen and some real horses and injuring them. They ran hither and thither, howling away and the security guards were taken by surprise and it was chaos all around and the guards who were running for their life left the gates open and the foxes ran back into the jungles.
The King was told about the happenings and he was furious. He thought that Vadhavooran was practising some black magic and ordered him to be arrested immediately. It was a real hot day and the Vaigai river was fully dried up.
“Make him stand in the hot bed of the River Vaigai in the hot sun for the whole day!” the king thundered and immediately Vadhavooran was taken to the river bed. The white sand of the river looked beautiful but was burning hot. It was like the coal which looks harmless with ash over it, but really hot inside. Vadhavooran was pained at the turn of events. He was crying to Lord Shiva silently that such a thing had happened and was very disturbed as he could not figure out why and how this happened.
The hot sand of the Vaigai river bed was baking his feet and he was not able to stand still even for a second. But his mind solely dwelt on the Lord Shiva, and he surrendered himself to Him even though tortured by the heat of the sand and the pain.
Suddenly from nowhere thunderclouds gathered and there was heavy rain. It rained for two or three days together that Vaigai was in spate. The rain was gaining more and more momentum that it looked like the river banks would be breached very shortly.
The King ordered that one person from each house should come and help in strengthening the embankment by putting sand. An announcement was made in the streets of the city about this order of the King and all the citizens had to send one able bodied person from their house. The King’s order had to be obeyed at any cost.
Now, there was an old lady by name Vanthi in Madurai who eked out a living by selling a south Indian delicacy called “Pittu”. Pittu is a powdery sweet made from rice flour and jaggery. This lady Vanthi was an orphan and she sold Pittu and earned money. Every day when she made Pittu, she would first offer it to Lord Shiva and then commence her sales. She was very aged and also had nobody to send to comply with the King’s order.
As she was pondering what to do Lord Shiva appeared as a young boy at her doorstep.
“Hello is there any one inside?” cried the lad. “Does anyone have a job to give me?”
The old lady was surprised and happy and she came out hurriedly and saw this handsome young lad with a turban tied around his head and innocent looks.
“Who are you boy?” she asked him “and what do you want?”
“Patti”, he said (Patti is grandmother in Tamil); “I am on the lookout for a job. Do you have any odd jobs to be done Patti?” he asked very humbly.
“Hmmm” sighed Vanthi. “Well, I am in need of a person to carry out the King’s order”. She then went on to tell him about the King’s order for persons to come to help strengthen the embankment of River Vaigai.
The boy listened to her and said, “I will do the work on your behalf Patti, but what will you pay me?”
Vanthi’s face fell. “I do not have much money to pay you boy” she said sadly. “I earn my living by selling Pittu”.
“Aha, Pittu!” jumped the lad. “My grandma also gives me Pittu every day. It is alright Patti. You give me Pittu instead of money” he said.
Vanthi was happy and expected him to go for the job immediately, but he was standing there expectantly.
“What do you want?” asked Vanthi. “Go and do the job I have told you, go”
“Patti… hmm.. Patti… I want…. I want to have the Pittu before I go. I am feeling very hungry Patti” said the boy.
Vanthi, being an old woman was moved when this young lad was saying he was hungry.
“Wait a minute” she said, “I shall give you the Pittu. You go after eating” . She went in and brought the lad a good amount of Pittu in a banana leaf.
The boy looked at it eagerly and ate it with great relish. “This Pittu is great” he said. “Just like what my grandma makes”. And licking his fingers he did not leave a speck of the Pittu. “OK Patti”, he addressed her. “Give me a spade and I shall go and do the job as you wish”.
He took the spade and went to the river bank where everyone was busy struggling to put mud on the embankment. The rain had temporarily stopped. The boy looked around and found a big tree nearby with huge roots. He put the spade down and took of his turban and spread it on the roots of the tree and settled down reclining himself on the bark of the tree and in a few minutes was snoring away gently.
The people there were looking at him in awe for he was disobeying the King’s order so blatantly. Soon after, the King accompanied by his courtiers came on horseback to inspect the work that was being done. He was seeing the progress and suddenly, his eye caught the sight of this happy lad snoring away without a care. The king got very angry.
“Hey You!” he shouted at the boy. The boy did not wake up. “Are you deaf?” he yelled at the boy again. The boy slowly opened his eyes as if nothing had happened and stretched his arms and body with a loud yawn, “Aaaaww”. He just looked around and was about to settle down once again when the King came near him.
“Who are you?” the king roared. “And without doing work, how dare you sleep huh?”
“I am the servant of Vanthi” said the boy in a sleepy voice. I had lot of food and am feeling sleepy”. So saying, he turned to sleep again when the furious king took out his cane and in a moment, the cane snapped on the back of the boy. The very next moment, the pain was felt by all the living beings around including the king and a loud “Aaaah!” emanated from all the people around there and the horses writhed and neighed in pain and the birds around shrieked in pain.
The King was shocked by what had happened and his mind went blank for a moment and the very next moment he understood that the boy was none other than Lord Shiva and he also understood that this great drama unfolded only for the sake of Vadhavooran, whom he had punished.
The same time, the boy disappeared and the flood waters receded. The King rushed to Vadhavooran and sought his forgiveness. Vadhavooran accepted the apology but gave up his chief ministership and visited various temples of Uttarakosamangai, Tiruperunthurai, Tiruvannamalai, Kancheepuram and Chidambaram in Tamilnadu . He stayed back at Chidambaram which was close to his heart.
He composed many more hymns including Tiruvempavai , and Tiruppalliyezhuchi and one day again Lord Shiva came to him assuming the form of an old man and asked him to repeat the Tiruvachagam. He took some palm leaves and started to write down as Manickavasagar was reciting the Hymn. After the whole hymn had been written down, the man signed with his verse that “as Manickavasagar told, the Lord Tiruchittrambalam wrote this” and left the script on the steps leading to the sanctum sanctorum. The next morning, the script was picked up by the priests who were surprised to see the Lord’s signature. They asked Manickavasagar the meaning of the hymn for which he showed them the Lord Nataraja and said “he is the meaning of all that has been written” and then, Manickavasagar merged with the Lord as a flash of light. He was thirty two then.
The Tiruvachagam has been translated into English in by G.U.Pope in 1900 and again in 1921. Manickavasagar finds a place in the Nalvar (foursome) who are Thirugnanasambandar, Tirunavukkarasar, Sundarar and Manickavasagar.