Hinduism Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār
Elaine Craddock
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0059


Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār, the “Mother/Woman from Kāraikkāl” in the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, was probably the first poet to write hymns to the god Shiva in the Tamil language, in approximately the mid-6th century. Speaking to god in one’s mother tongue, rather than Sanskrit, was pivotal to the development of Hindu bhakti or devotionalism that arose in response to the religions of Jainism and Buddhism, which reached the apex of their popularity in South India during the 5th and 6th centuries. She is considered the author of 143 poems organized into four works of poetry that are included in the eleventh book of the Tirumuṟai, the Śaiva canon: Aṟputat Tiruvantāti (Sacred Linked Verses of Wonder), with 101 veṇpā verses; Tiruviraṭṭai Maṇimālai (The Sacred Garland of Double Gems), with 20 stanzas alternating in veṇpā and kaṭṭalaik kalittuṟai; and the two patikams called Tiruvālaṅkāṭṭu Mūtta Tiruppatikaṅkaḷ (First Sacred Verses on Tiruvālaṅkāṭu), which are ten-verse poems with an eleventh “signature” verse each and which are set to music (some texts call the first patikam Tiruvālaṅkāṭṭu Mūtta Tiruppatikaṅkaḷ and the second patikam simply Tiruvālaṅkāṭṭu Tiruppatikaṅkaḷ, or Sacred Verses on Tiruvālaṅkāṭu). Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār’s poetry reveals a fascinating portrait of the localization of the pan-Indian god Shiva in the Tamil country and the early formation of a self-conscious community of devotees dedicated to him. In several of her verses, Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār identifies herself as a pēy (demon or ghoul), a member of Shiva’s troupe of ghouls that dance with him in the cremation ground. In the state of Tamil Nadu, Śaiva Siddhānta developed over many centuries to become the dominant philosophical, theological, and ritual system associated with the god Shiva. The tradition was systematized between the 12th and 14th centuries but draws its devotional perspectives from the stories and hymns of the Nāyaṉmār (“leaders,” singular nāyaṉār), the sixty-three devotees of Shiva who were canonized as saints in Cēkkiḻār’s 12th-century hagiography, the Periya Purāṇam, and who continue to be venerated in the Tamil Śaiva tradition today; Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār is the only female poet among them. In Cēkkiḻār’s narrative, Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār is a beautiful, devoted wife and ardent Shiva devotee whose husband is frightened by the manifestations of Shiva’s grace she has earned and thus abandons her. Ammaiyār then asks Shiva to take away her earthly beauty and give her a demon form in which she can properly worship him.

General Overviews

Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār is included in many works on the Tamil Nāyaṉmār, the sixty-three devotees of Shiva who were canonized as saints in Cēkkiḻār’s 12th-century hagiography, the Periya Purāṇam, and in some works on the devotional movements in South India. Several texts also deal specifically with Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār’s life and work. Suriamurthy 2003 and Sasivalli 1984 provide a short overview of her story and an analysis of the poetry, Suriamurthy in Tamil; both include the full Tamil text of the poetry. Gros 2009 highlights the disjunction between the life story and the poetry. Pechilis 2012 and Craddock 2010 discuss the two temples associated with Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār in addition to the story and poetry. Jagadessan 1989 gives a brief overview of Ammaiyār’s life and work.

  • Craddock, Elaine. Śiva’s Demon Devotee: Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

    A comprehensive overview of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār, situating her work in the history of early Tamil devotional poetry and her story in the Tamil Śaiva tradition. Also contains ethnographic discussions of the Kāraikkāl and Tiruvālaṅkāṭu temples and their contemporary Ammaiyār festivals. Provides a full translation of the poems.

  • Gros, François. “Kāraikkālammaiyār: Between Her Legend and Her Works.” Paper presented at a seminar held on 30 July 2004 in Pondicherry, India. In Deep Rivers: Selected Writings on Tamil Literature. Edited by P. M. Kannan and Jennifer Clare. Translated by M. P. Boseman, 175–196. Publications hors Serie 10 (Institut Français de Pondichery). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

    An English translation of Gros’s postface to the second edition of Chants Dévotionnels Tamouls de Kāraikkālammaiyār by Karavelane (see Kāraikkālammaiyār 1982, cited under Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār’s Life Story). A concise but thorough and insightful discussion of the historical evolution of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār’s life story, central elements of her poetry, and the diffusion of her imagery into Southeast Asia.

  • Jagadessan, N. “The Life and Mission of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār.” In Medieval Bhakti Movements in India: Śrī Caitanya Quincentenary Commemoration Volume. Edited by N. N. Bhattacharyya, 149–161. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1989.

    A very brief overview of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār’s life and works as part of the bhakti tradition in Tamil Nadu.

  • Pechilis, Karen. Interpreting Devotion: The Poetry and Legacy of a Female Bhakti Saint of India. London: Routledge, 2012.

    A discerning, wide-ranging study that frames Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār’s devotion as a process of interpretations made by the poet, her biographer, and contemporary festival participants. Includes a full translation of the poetry and of Cēkkiḻār’s 12th-century biography, as well as detailed descriptions of the festivals at the Kāraikkāl and Tiruvālaṅkāṭu temples.

  • Sasivalli, S. Karaikkal Ammaiyar. Madras: International Institute of Tamil Studies, 1984.

    Detailed discussion of elements of the poetry, including Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār’s conception of Shiva, the role of ghosts or demons, and the setting of the Tiruvālaṅkāṭu poems. Includes a brief sketch of her life story and the full Tamil text of the poems.

  • Suriamurthy, Gomathi. Kāraikkālammaiyār. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2003.

    A short but incisive overview in Tamil of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār’s life story and analysis of the poetry and its connections to Śaiva Siddhānta; includes the full text of the four works of poetry.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.