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Karaikkal Ammaiyar or the ‘great mother of Karaikkal’, was a poet and mystic. Her real name was Punitavati. She was the earliest saint-poet of the bhakti tradition.

Little is known of the facts of her life, but it is known that she came from a rich Vaishya family, and that Karaikkal was the home of her husband’s family. The story of how she renounced the world and became a poet is obscured in legend. It is said that her husband left her two mangoes, one of which she offered in his absence to a mendicant. On his return her husband demanded that both be served to him. She had only the remainder, so she prayed to the god Shiva, and another mango miraculously appeared in the cupboard. This tasted so sweet that her husband was convinced it could not be the one he had brought, so he demanded to know where she had got it. When he found out, he was overwhelmed with awe. Realising that his wife was no ordinary woman, he fled the house and immigrated to the Pandya country. There he took a second wife, by whom he had a daughter, whom he named Punitavati after his first wife. Ammaiyar followed him and pleaded with him and his new family to let her stay, but they prostrated themselves before her and worshipped her as a goddess. Thus rejected, Ammaiyar left home and totally dedicated herself to Shiva, practicing her devotion in the seclusion of the forest and finally obtaining grace. According to tradition, Shiva granted her two boons – one was that she would lose her beauty and become hideous, so that men would not molest her; the other that she might witness his celestial dance in person. In iconography she is depicted as a female demon with long unkempt hair like the goddess Chamunda.

Although only four of her compositions have come down to us, other great Shaiva poet-devotees have respectfully praised her. In two of these four, she describes Shiva’s dance competition with Kali, and how she herself witnessed this celestial incident as a female ghost in the retinue of Kali. Ammaiyar’s poems vividly demonstrate her filial devotion for Shiva, unlike saint-poets of later years whose devotion was erotic. She celebrates all aspects of the god, terrible and benign. The Shaiva community accepted her as a divine member of Kali’s entourage, with whom Ammaiyar naturally identified herself. Ammaiyar chose the extreme life of a Shaiva ascetic or kapalika (skull bearer) in deliberate defiance of the genteel society of the rich merchants of Karaikkal. She is counted as one of the 63 saints of Shaivism, and her verses are collected in the eleventh book of Tamil Shaivism, the Tirumurai.

Rita Dalmiya
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