Manikkavacakar was born in a Brahmin family in Thiruvathavur, a hamlet near Madurai, his original name was Vathavuran. He became a learned scholar at a very young age and served as the minister of the king Arimardana Pandya It is said that he lived during 9-11th century CE.
Though he performed the duties of a minister with tact and integrity, he had no desire for material happiness. His mind was always absorbed in spiritual matters. Feeling convinced that for the attainment of jnana, the grace of a Guru was essential, he kept on making enquiries about it.
Once the Pandya king ordered the minister to purchase some good horses and bring them to him. As he was already in search of a Guru, Manikkavacakar felt that it was a good opportunity and started with his followers carrying with him the required amount of gold. As his mind was intensely seeking a Guru, he visited all the temples on the way.
While doing so he reached a village called Tirupperundurai. Realizing this, Lord Shiva assumed the form of a schoolteacher and for about a year before that had been teaching poor children in the village seated on a street near the temple. He was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Manikkavacakar. By the time Manikkavacakar actually came, Iswara assumed the shape of a Siddha Purusha or realised soul with many sannyasis around him and was seated under a tree within the compound of the temple.
Manikkavacakar came to the temple, had darshan of the Lord in it, and while going round the temple by way of pradakshina, saw the Siddha Purusha. He was thrilled at the sight, tears welled up in his eyes and his heart jumped with joy. Spontaneously his hands went up his head in salutation and he fell down at the feet of the Guru like an uprooted tree. Then he got up and prayed that he, a humble being, may also be accepted as a disciple. Shiva immediately gave him jnana upadesa which took deep roots in his heart, and gave him indescribable happiness.
Manikkavacakar totally forgot the purpose of him coming to the village and immersed himself in the Bhakti of Shiva. His heart was not in the affairs of the world and was focused on obtaining Lord Shiva’s grace only. Due to this he incurred the king’s anger on many occassions. Lord Shiva saved him from the wrath of the Pandiyan king on several occassions. It was on Manikkavacakar’s behalf that Shiva unleashed flood in the Vaigai river when Manikkavacakar was punished by king Arimarthana Pandiyan and made to stand in the dry sands of Vaigai in the hot sun.
Later, Shiva visited Madurai again to correct flood damage to the city. He chose to help an old woman by name Vanthi who had none to assist her to seal the river banks to stop future flooding. This famous incident is celebrated every year as the “Bittukku mann sumandha leelai’ which means Manual labor in exchange for a sweet riceflour cake, on the Moolam star of the Shravan month.
In a second incident, Lord Shiva transformed a set of jackals into attractive horses temporarily to save Manikkavacakar from his imprisonment. It showed the extent that Lord Shiva was ready to influence Nature to release His beloved devotee from jail by temporarily satisfying the king’s demand for horses through this event celebrated as ‘Nariyai Pari Aakiya Leelai’ which means ‘Transformation of Jackals into Horses’.
In the end, in order to ensure that Manikkavacakar’s work was not lost forever, Lord Shiva Himself assumed the guise of a Brahmana scholar and wrote all verses of Thiruvaachagam as Manikkavacakar recited it to Him at Chidambaram. Soon after this, Manikkavacakar was absorbed into the effulgent flames with Lord Shiva inside the Chidambaram Natarajar temple.