Karaikkal Ammai in Tamil Temples

For the reference of readers : Meanings of a few repeatedly used Tamils words in this article –

  • Adiyar/Thondar – Ardent devotees or Servants of God
  • Thiruthondar – ‘Thiru’ is the reverential prefix to Thondar or the servants of God
  • Peyaar – the Demon Devotee

The iconography of Karaikkal Ammai, Shiva’s Demon Devotee, is a skeletal figure, mostly in squatted position, always sitting beneath Shiva, as the Lord of Dance – Adalvallan/Nataraja. The sculpture of Ammai was introduced by the Chola Queen, Chembian Madevi in the temples she built and in the previous temples she reconstructed or restored, during the 10th century CE. These have already been discussed in the previous post in detail.

Ammai belonged to 5th – 6th century CE. The history of her life was composed by Chekkizhar in his Thiruthondar Puranam or Periya Puranam in the 12th century CE.  From Ammai’s era until the era of Chekkizhar, there is an interesting time gap of almost 7 centuries. It couldn’t have been possible to directly write the history of a saint, after such a long interval, without the spread of her spiritual story in Thamizhagam, throughout the centuries that lay in between.

The fact that Chekkizhar’s literary portrayal of Ammai’s life came after 7 centuries of her existence, inspired the search for more literary evidences between the Saint and the Biographer’s eras.

Karaikkal Ammai

The highest in the ranks of all 63 Nayanmars are the Trio – Thirunavukkarasar, Thirugnanasambandhar and Sundarar. Thirunavukkarasar lived in the 7th century CE (during the reign of Mahendravarma Pallava (Mahendra -:615-630 CE), Sambandhar lived in 7th century CE (during the reigns of Mahendravarman and son Narasimha Pallava (Narasimha :630-668 CE), and Sundarar lived in the 9th century CE (during the reign of Nandivarman III (Nandi III:840-865 CE), according to literary and historic sources.

There have been 17 Adiyar/Thondar or ardent devotees of Shiva, who lived before Navukkarasar and Sambandar, according to Maa. Rasamanickanar in his Periya Purana Aaraichi.  Among the 17, one is Karaikkal Ammai and the first among the three women Thondar.

Though Ammai lived before Navukkarasar and Sambandhar, neither of them seem to have mentioned about Karaikkal Ammai in their verses. We come to know from Chekkizhar’s Periya Puranam that, when Sambandhar went to the temple of Thiruvalangadu, the place of emancipation of Karaikkal Ammai, where she walked on her head and not her feet to worship the Lord, he restrained himself from entering the temple. He felt, he shouldn’t enter the temple with his feet, where Ammai walked on her head. Such was the reverence he paid to the Saint, who saw the Almighty with motherly affection.

Sundarar’s Thiruthondar Thogai – 9th century CE

Sundarar’s Thiruthonda Thogai is the first literary description of the devotees of Shiva – Adiyar/Thondar. The selfless devotee can be called a Thondar or the servant of the Lord, but after learning about the lives of these amorous followers, Sundarar gave them the valuable status of being Shiva’s dearest and most revered  devotees – with the prefix of ‘Thiru’ – as Thiruthondar. 

The first direct mention of Ammai is seen in Sundarar’s Thiruthondar Thogai, in the 9th century CE, almost after 4 centuries of her life. In his list of 60 Thiruthondar, Ammai is mentioned as Peyaar – the demon devotee of Shiva.

peru-nambi – kula-chirai-than – adiyār-kum – adiyën 

peru-mila-lai – kurum-bark-kum – pëyār-kum – adiyën


Nambi Andar Nambi’s Thiruthondar Thiruvanthathi – 10/11th century CE

The next literary mention of Ammai comes from Nambi Andar Nambi, in his Thiruthondar Thiruvanthathi. 

Nambi, on the behest of his Emperor, Rajaraja, the Great, compiled the countless verses of the devout followers of Shiva, into 11 Thirumurais.  Nambi’s Thiruthondar Tiruvanthathi, an expansion of Sundarar’s Thiruthondar Thogai,  is included in the 11th Thirumurai.

He mentions Ammai as –

‘நம்பன் திருமலை நான்மிதி 

  யேன்’என்று தாள்இரண்டும்

உம்பர் மிசைத்தலை யால்நடந் 

  தேற உமைநகலும்

செம்பொன் உருவன்’என் அம்மை’ 

  எனப்பெற் றவள் செழுந்தேன்

கொம்பின் உகுகாரைக் காலினில் 

  மேய குலதனமே.  


The last two verses say – Karaikkalinil meya kuladhaname.

In these verses, he praises Ammai, as the one introduced by Shiva as his mother to his consort – Umai. This forms the base for the biography of Ammai by Chekkizhar, where he mentions –

‘Varumival Emmai Penum Ammai Kaan’

O’ Parvathi…The one who comes here, is the mother who nurtures me – are Shiva’s verses according to Chekkizhar, on Karaikkal Ammai.

Hence, after Sundarar in the 9th century CE, Nambi scripts a brief description of Ammai in 10-11th century CE, by including her in the list of Thiruthondar. Nambi makes the list of 60 Thondar to 63, by including Sundarar and his parents – mother  Isaignaniyar and father Sadaiyanar.

Ammai’s literary works- Thiruvalangattu Mootha Thiruppathigam, Thiruvirattai Manimalai and Arputha Thiruvanthathi are included in the 11th Thirumurai, among other poets.

The 12th Thirumurai – Chekkizhar’s Thiruthondar Puranam

Panniru Thirumurai or the Twelve Thirumurai – the compilation of works of the Twelve Thirumurai, constitute the Grand Saiva Canon of Tamil Bhakti Movement, from 4th until 12th century CE. 

Next literary mention of Ammai, comes in Thiruthondar Puranam by Chekkizhar.  This is one master piece on the life history of the Thondars – the devotees of Lord Shiva who lived between 4th – 9th century CE, introduced in order by Sundarar and reiterated by Nambi.

Chekkizhar, the author of Thiruthondar Puranam, brought to light the historical evidences of the Saiva Cult through the life of the revered devotees of Shiva. His elaborate documentation of the love and devotion of the Thondar, showcases different facets of the Tamil Bhakti Movement- 

  • the prominence of Shiva worship during the period of the lives of the 63 Thiruthondar
  • connecting with the Lord- especially through one’s mother tongue- Tamil
  • Bhakti, a Sanskrit word- the Tamil equivalent is ‘Anbu’ which translates as Love and Love alone; the strong chord that united all the 63 nayanmars with the Lord was limitless Love and ultimate surrender that comes out of Love.
  • God’s reciprocal connect with the devotees- irrespective of caste, creed, work, gender and other divisions 
  • Devotion across geographical boundaries – in the territories of Pallava, Chola, Pandya and Chera, and in the Lands of other feudatories of yesteryear’s vast Thamilagam and beyond Thamilagam too.

Chekkizhar travelled far and wide to gather details and write on the lives of Thiruthondar. But, it is not to be missed, that Nambi Andar Nambi had already provided an extensively researched, yet brief literary portrayal of their lives in his Thiruthondar Andhathi. 

With Thiruthondar Thogai (Sundarar) in the 9th century CE and Thiruthondar Thiruvanthathi (Nambi) in the 10/11th century CE, as Guiding Lights, Chekkizhar, in the 12th century CE, enhanced the lives of Thiruthondar – the exceptional and the foremost among the Devotees of Shiva, into comprehensive Biographies. Chekkizhar’s original Thiruthondar Puranam was rightly termed ‘Periya Puranam’ by scholars, such voluminous is his account of the Thiruthondar and their love for God – hence immortalising them, into the vast arena called Tamil Bhakthi Era. 

The ardent followers, 60 as per Sundarar and after Nambi included Sundarar and his parents – 63 of them, not only accentuated Shiva worship in the Tamil Land during the 4th century CE until 9th century, but also emphasised on the unconditional Love for God and the reciprocal Love of God towards his devotees. 

Hence, it is clear that literary evidences of Ammai, as per evidences till now, was first known in 9th century CE, then 10/11th and 12th centuries CE. It would have been a satisfying norm if sculptural evidences fell in place, after an elaborate portrayal of the life of the saint, such as Periya Puranam. But, what is surprising, and sometimes astonishing, is that before Chekkizhar could present the life of the Nayanmars in his Periya Puranam, during the reign of Kulothunga Chola II, and even before Nambi could give a brief description of the Thondars in his Thiruthondar Thiruvanthathi, at the behest of the Chola Emperor, Rajaraja, the Great, Rajaraja Chola’s grandaunt – the Grand Old Lady of the Chola Empire, chose to portray the sculpture of Karaikkal Ammai, in the temples constructed and previous temples reconstructed by her.

It is worthwhile to mention here, about an inscription in Rajarajecharam Temple or Thanjavur Periya Kovil. According to the inscription, in the 29th reignal year of Rajaraja I the Great, 7 copper images were installed by Adittan Suryan alias Thennavan Muvenda Velan- headman of Poygai Nadu, who carried out the management of the temple of the Lord Rajarajeshwara. (https://indianhistorybooks4.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/5010010003009-south-indian-inscriptions-vol-ii-part-2-136p-multilingual-1892.pdf)

The inscription describes that seven images – those of the Reverred Trio of Saiva Bhakthi clan – 1. Thirunavukkarasar, 2. Thirugnana Sambandar and 3. Sundarar, along with 4. Paravaiyar – one of Sundarar’s consorts, 5. Rajaraja himself mentioned as Periya Perumal and his Queen 6. Lokamahadevi – both worshipping 7. Lord Chandrashekar were installed. (Pg 51, Thirumurai thoguppu/periya purana aaraichi/sii vol 2- 38)

Rajaraja I, began a new era of worship of the images of the Saiva Saints, alongside the presiding deity Shiva. The interest that Rajaraja I showed in the compilation of Thirumurai by Nambi, seems to have transformed into keen adoration for the primary devotees of the Lord, that he institutionalised reverence into deification. That singing of the hymns or Thirupathigam of the nayanmars was already prevelant from the period of the Pallavas, and continued before Rajaraja’s organised compilation, is not to be forgotten. Additionally, reverence for the hymns as well as the devoted lives of the Tamil Saints, seemed to have had a huge impact on the Spiritual Lives of the Tamils, during the period of the Thiruthondar, that stretches approximately from 4th century until 9th century CE. This Spiritual Impact that the Tamil Saints had already created during the Pallava reign, was rightly channelised by the succeeding Cholas. This channelisation reached its Apex, with Rajaraja I, making a master stroke, with the compilation of the Thirumurai, and building his Magnum Opus Thanjavur Periya Kovil/Brihadeeswara Temple. This path was successfully carried forward by his successors.

Chembiyan Madevi

Therefore, before Chekkizhar’s Periya Puranam, before Rajaraja’s installation of images of the most revered Trio among the Nayanmars, before Nambi compiled the Thirumurai and wrote a brief history through Thiruthonda Thogai, but after Sundarar mention of ‘Peyar’ in his Thiruthonda Thogai,  Chembiyan Madevi, the Queen Mother,  chose to portray Karaikal Ammai in her temples.  As she is most respectfully mentioned – Madevadigal’s temple works extended during the reigns of six consecutive Chola Kings. The Grand Old Lady of the Cholas, was determined to portray another Pioneer Saint, who  wilfully transformed herself from a beautiful young lady to a skeletal being, demanding the boon from Shiva to watch his dance, beneath his feet. One is always exclaimed by the power of the mind to forgo the beauty of the young. She exclusively sung hymns on the Lord in the Grave, dancing on dead bodies.

Chembian Madevi’s innovations in Chola Temple Architecture have already been discussed in previous posts. But, her introduction of the sculpture of Karaikkal Ammai, and the inclusion alongside Dancing Shiva,  needs in-depth research to bring out more astounding facts. 

Madevi takes complete credit to have authored the deification of Karaikkal Pei to Karaikkal Ammai in stone in her temples, even before the great poet Chekkizhar could sculpt her life in words in his ‘Thiruthondar Puranam’ or Periya Puranam in the first half of the 12th century CE. This was aptly understood by her grandson Rajaraja I and great grandson Rajendra I. Their temples stand evident of the legacy of Dancing Shiva with Ammai having been taken forward from 10th century CE into 11th century CE.


Hence, not only Sundarar’s Thogai and Nambi’s Anthathi, it was also the sculptural inclusion of Karaikal Ammai by Madevi, that must have supported Chekkizhar in scripting the story of the Demon Devotee of Shiva.

This is an interesting as well as a fascinating occurrence, not only in the history of Bhakthi Literature, but also in the history of Tamil Bhakthi Movement. 

Several direct sources that helped Chekkizhar sketch the memoirs of the Thiruthondar were discussed above. Apart from these, the common man always knew the stories of the Adiyar for centuries.  From the period of Pallavas, when all the Nayanmars lived, the stories of Thondar were popular through hear say stories, singing of hymns in temples and documented hymns of Nayanmars such as Thirunavukkarasar, Sambandar and Sundarar. These indirect sources, play an important role in not only influencing the religious mindset of the people of the era, but also in showcasing the spiritual inclination of the ruling class that dominates the theological arena of their times.

So tremendous must have been the influence of Karaikkal Ammai on Chembiyan Madevi, that her sculptural portrayal is exactly what Ammai wished for. The story of Ammai was so magnetic in the several centuries that followed her era, that her wish to be the Demon Devotee, sitting beneath Adalvallan/Dancing Shiva, is fulfilled in stone too. Additionally, Madevi’s sculptors  have displayed immense bliss and contentment in Ammai’s. expressive face.

Precisely, Chembiyan Madevi, by her depiction of Karaikkal Ammai in her temples, has provided a smooth passage for the travel of the Life of Amma, from the era of the Nayanmar into the era of celebrating the Nayanmar. With her contributions towards architectural innovations in temples, and here especially with the introduction of Ammai beneath Adalvallan, she has been a catalyst towards the historical continuity of the Shaivite Bhakti Movement from 5/6th century to the 12th century.

The stories that travelled through the centuries would have helped Madevi. in the portrayal of Ammai in her temples. But, how Ammai’s own poetry could have left behind enough clues for the innovative Queen Mother, to carve her in stone, would be discussed in the forthcoming posts.

Before a detailed analysis of Madevi’s sculptures of Ammai, in accordance to the hymns of Ammai herself, these are a few temples  of Chembian Madevi that this author had visited, where Ammai sits gloriously watching the celestial dance of Shiva. 

Kailasanathar Kovil, Chembiyan Madevi Gramam

Adavallan – ammai sits to the right of Dancing Shiva




Adavallan – ammai to his right




Adavallan – ammai sits beneath to his right



Adavallan – ammai sits on the right of Dancing Shiva



Adavallan – ammai to the left of Dancing Shiva



Adavallan – ammai sits beneath to his left


Ammai in Rajaraja I’s temples


Adavallan – ammai is sculpted on a panel, placed below Dancing Shiva, amongst Ganas


Thanjai Periya Kovil

Adavallan – ammai to his left



Rajendra I’s Gangai Konda Cholapuram

Adavallan – ammai on a panel below dancing shiva



Rajaraja II’s  Darasuram Airavateswara temple

ammai in sitting position

Darasuram Temple- ammai in a row of panels, amongst thiruthondar, walking on her head


A rare panel with Adavallan and consort Sivakami together; sculpture of Adavallan unfortunately missing

ammai in a panel with Ganas


Adavllan – ammai sitting below his feet

ammai sitting below Adavallan’s feet –  a rare sculpture where the Lord’s feet too close to touch Ammai’s head

Government Museum, Chennai



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