Procession of the Tamil deity Perumal, identified with Vishnu

Tamil mythology refers to the folklore and traditions that are a part of the wider Tamil pantheon, originating from the Tamil people.[1] This body of mythology is a fusion of elements from Tamil culture and the parent Indus Valley culture, both of which have been syncretised with mainstream Hinduism.[2]

Tamil literature, in tandem with Sanskrit literature and the Sthala puranas of temples, form a major source of information regarding Tamil mythology. The ancient epics of Tamilakam detail the origin of various figures in Hindu scriptures, like Agathiyar, Iravan, and Patanjali. Ancient Tamil literature contains mentions of nature-based indigenous deities like Perumal, Murugan, and Kotravai. The Tolkappiyam hails Vishnu as Brahman, Murugan as Seyyon (the red one), and Kotravai as the goddess worshipped in the dry lands. There is no mention of Lord Shiva in this book. By the eighth century CE, Tamilakam became the springboard of the Bhakti movement, invoking devotional poetry composed by the poet-saints called the Alvars and the Nayanars,[3] propagating popular worship of Vishnu and Shiva throughout the subcontinent.[4]



Main article: Perumal (deity)

See also: Divya Desam and Pancharanga Kshetrams

Perumal (Tamil: பெருமாள்), also Tirumal (Tamil: திருமால்), is the Hindu deity venerated in the Sri Vaishnavism sect of Hinduism.[5] Perumal is considered to be another name of Vishnu, and was traditionally the deity associated with the forests. Mayon is indicated to be the deity associated with the mullai tiṇai (pastoral landscape) in the Tolkappiyam.[6][7] He is regarded to be the only deity who enjoyed the status of Paramporul (achieving oneness with Paramatma) during the Sangam age. He is also known as Māyavan, Māmiyon, Netiyōn, and Māl in Sangam literature.[8] A reference to "Mukkol Pakavars" in Sangam literature indicates that only Vaishnava saints were holding Tridanda and were prominent during the period. Tirumal was glorified as "the supreme deity", whose divine lotus feet could burn all evil and grant moksha. During the post-Sangam period, his worship was further glorified by the poet-saints called the Alvars.[9][10]

Perumal (Vishnu) was the only deity who enjoyed the status of Paramporul during the Sangam age. The reference to Mukkol Bhagavars in Sangam literature indicates that only Vaishnavaite saints holding Tridanda existed during the age and Perumal was glorified as the supreme deity, whose "divine lotus feet can burn all our evils and grant moksha" (maru piraparukkum maasil sevadi).[11]

Pillars and bas-reliefs of people and animals
Pillars and bas-reliefs based on Mahabharatha and Harivamsa
Krishna and many other figures
Krishna holding Goverdhana sculpture at Mahabalipuram dating 6th century AD
Srirangam temple complex across the river on left.

Mentions of Vishnu in Sangam literature

Tamil Sangam literature (200 BCE to 500 CE) mentions Mayon or the "dark one," as the supreme deity who creates, sustains, and destroys the universe and was worshipped in the mountains of Tamilakam. The verses of Paripadal describe the glory of Perumal in the most poetic of terms.


Main article: Kartikeya

See also: Arupadaiveedu

Other names: Arumugan, Sanmugan, Singaravelan, Kathiresan, Karthikeyan, Senan, Subramaniyan and Kandhan.

Murugan, also known as Kandhan, Kumaran,[13] Kartikeyan, and Subramaniyan, is the Hindu god of war and victory.[14][15][16] He is the son of Parvati and Shiva, brother of Ganesha, and a god whose life has many versions in Hinduism.[17] An important deity around South Asia since ancient times, Karthikeyan is particularly popular and predominantly worshipped in South India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia as Murugan.[14][17][15]

Murugan is an ancient god, traceable to the Vedic era. Originally a god of the Kurinji hillfolk of Tamilakam, this Dravidian deity of Murugan was syncretised with the Vedic god known as Subrahmanya. Archaeological evidence from 1st-century CE and earlier,[18] where he is found with Hindu god Agni (fire), suggest that he was a significant deity in early Hinduism.[14] He is found in many medieval temples all over India, such as at the Ellora Caves and Elephanta Caves.[19]

The iconography of Murugan varies significantly; he is typically represented as an ever-youthful man, riding or near a peacock, dressed with weapons sometimes near a rooster. Most icons show him with one head, but some show him with six heads reflecting the legend surrounding his birth.[14][17][15] He grows up quickly into a philosopher-warrior, destroys evil in the form of asuras Taraka, teaches the pursuit of ethical life and the theology of Shaiva Siddhanta.[15][16] After defeating the asura Surapadman, Murugan marries the two daughters of Vishnu, Devasena and Sundaravalli. He has inspired many poet-saints, such as Arunagirinathar.[16][20]


Main article: Ayyappan

See also: Sabarimala

Ayyappan (Malayalam: അയ്യപ്പന്‍),(Tamil: ஐயப்பன்) (also called Sastavu, or Sasta) is a Hindu deity predominantly worshipped in Kerala, an erstwhile region of Tamilakam. Ayyappan is believed to be an incarnation of Dharma Sasta, who is the offspring of Shiva and Vishnu (as Mohini, the only female avatar of Vishnu) and is generally depicted in a yogic posture, wearing a jewel around his neck, hence earning him the moniker Manikandan. Ayyappan may bear a historical relationship to the tutelary deity Ayyanar in Tamil Nadu.[21] According to tradition, the asura princess Mahishi was enraged at the trick the gods had pulled on her brother, the asura king Mahishasura. As Mahishasura was blessed with invulnerability against all men, the gods had sent goddess Durga, to fight and kill him. Thus, Mahishi began performing a fearsome set of austerities, and pleased the creator god Brahma. She asked for the boon of invulnerability, but Brahma said it was not possible. Mahishi hence instead asked for invulnerability to all men, except by the son of Shiva and Vishnu. This was believed to be ingenious since both the aforementioned deities were males, and thus incapable of bearing offspring. He granted her the boon of ruling the universe and being invulnerable to all, but the son of Shiva and Vishnu. Since such a person did not exist, she thought that she was safe and began conquering and plundering the world.

The gods implored Shiva and Vishnu to save them from this catastrophe. Vishnu found a possible solution to the problem. When Vishnu had taken on the Kurma Avatar, he also had to manifest himself as Mohini, the enchantress, to save the nectar of immortality, amritam, from the demons who were not willing to share it with the gods. If he were to take on the form of Mohini again, then the female Mohini and the male Shiva could have the divine child who would combine their powers and vanquish Mahishi.

Some versions give a slightly more detailed version of the union of Shiva with Vishnu. One version tells of the asura Bhasmasura, who had so pleased Shiva with his austerities that the latter offered him a boon of anything he wished. So, Bhasmasura asked for the ability to burn to ashes anything which he placed his hand over. No sooner had Shiva granted this, than Bhasmasura ran after the god, threatening to turn him into ash.

Shiva called on Vishnu for help. He hid himself in a peepal tree as Bhasmasura followed him, and there began to search for the destroyer. Vishnu became aware of these events, and decided that he would take the female form Mohini, "the enchantress", to neutralise the asura's powers. When Bhasmasura saw Vishnu in this form, he was bewitched by her beauty. He earnestly tried to court her. Mohini instructed Bhasmasura to hold his hand over his head, and vow fidelity. With this act, Bhasmasura was reduced to ashes.

Vishnu found Shiva and explained the whole affair to him. Shiva asked if he too could see Vishnu in this female form. When Vishnu appeared thus, Shiva was overcome with passion, and the two engaged in intercourse. The two gods thus became "Harihara Murthi", that is, a composite form of Shiva and Vishnu as one god.

From this union, Dharma Sastha was born. He combined in himself the powers of both Vishnu and Shiva. Ayyappan is an incarnation of Dharma Sastha and is a visible embodiment of their essential identity. Vishnu gifted the new-born deity with a little bejeweled bell necklace, and so this god is called Manikandan.[22] He is also known as Dharma Shasthavu, and Kerala Putran.

Veneration in Tamil Nadu

During the post-Sangam period, his worship was further glorified by the alvars and Vaishnava acharyas. The veneration of Perumal is primarily performed in Tamil Nadu in sacred ceremonies and temples by the Iyengar community.[23]


Main article: Nataraja

See also: Pancha Sabhai

The story of Chidambaram begins with Shiva strolling into the Thillai Vanam (vanam meaning forest and thillai trees – botanical name Exocoeria agallocha, a species of mangrove trees – which currently grows in the Pichavaram wetlands near Chidambaram). In the Thillai forests resided a group of sages or 'rishis' who believed in the supremacy of magic and that God can be controlled by rituals and mantras or magical words.[24] Shiva strolled in the forest with resplendent beauty and brilliance, assuming the form of Bhikshatana, a simple mendicant seeking alms. He was followed by Vishnu, as Mohini. The sages and their wives were enchanted by the brilliance and the beauty of the handsome mendicant and his companion. On seeing their womenfolk enchanted, the rishis got enraged and invoked scores of serpents (nāgas) by performing magical rituals. Shiva lifted the serpents and donned them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist. Further enraged, the sages invoked a fierce tiger, whose skins and dons were used by Shiva as a shawl around his waist and then followed by a fierce elephant, which was devoured and ripped to death by Shiva (Gajasamharamurthy).

The rishis gathered all their spiritual strength and invoked a powerful demon Muyalakan – a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. Shiva wore a gentle smile, stepped on the demon's back, immobilized him and performed the Ánanda Tandava (the dance of eternal bliss) and disclosed his true form. The sages surrender, realizing that Shiva was beyond magic and rituals.[24]


Main article: Meenakshi

See also: Meenakshi Amman Temple

One of the Gopuram of Meenakshi Amman Temple at Madurai

Once Indra killed a demon, even though the demon did not harm anyone. This act brought a curse upon Indra that forced him to continue wandering until he was walking around looking for a way where no one would tell him which way to go will redeem him from his sin. After much wandering, Indra was freed from his suffering through the power of a Shivalingam in a forest, and so he built a small temple at that site.

It so happened that at that time in South India there was a Pandyan king called Malayadhwaja Pandiyan[25] ruling a small city by the name Manavur, which was quite near to this Shivalinga. He was the son of Kulashekara Pandyan. He learned about the Shivalinga and decided to build a huge temple for Shiva in the forest Kadambavanam (vanam means forest). He also developed the region into a fine princely state called Madurai.

The king was childless and sought an heir for the kingdom. Shiva granted him his prayers through an Ayonija child (one born not from the womb). This child was three years old and actually the incarnation of goddess Parvati the consort of Shiva. She was born with fish-shaped eyes. It was said that the extra breast would disappear when she met her future husband. She was named Mīnakshi, (meaning fish eyed) from the words mīna (meaning fish) and akṣi (meaning eyes). Mīnakshi also means "the one who has eyes like that of a fish". Fishes are said to feed their younger ones with their eyes, similarly goddess looks after her devotees. Just by her sight our miseries disappear.

Shiva the Nataraja performing the tandavam

She grew up to be a Shiva-Shakti personification. After the death of the king, she ruled the kingdom with skillful administration.

In one of her expeditions she went to the Himalayas and there, on seeing Shiva, her extra breast disappeared. Many of the gods and goddesses came to witness their marriage.

At the wedding celebrations the gods refused to have the served food unless Shiva performed a majestic dance for everybody gathered at the place. At this there was the dance of Chidambaram, the cosmic dance in front of his wife Minakshi. It epitomised and merged all life force and beauty into one whole. In the end Minakshi was merged with the shivalingam and became the representation of life and beauty.


Main article: Kannaki Amman

Further information: Silappatikaram

Kannagi (Kannaki), a legendary Tamil woman, is the central character of the South Indian epic Cilappatikaram (100–300 CE). The story relates how Kannagi took revenge on the early Pandyan King of Madurai, for a mistaken death penalty imposed on her husband Kovalan, by cursing the city with disaster.

Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple was built to commemorate the martyrdom of Kannagi. It is said that sixth avatar of Vishnu, Sage Parasurama built this temple for the prosperity of the people. According to the old chronicles, this Bhagavathi temple was created in the heart of the town many centuries ago to serve a special purpose.[26]

Deity of Kodungallur Bhagavathy in the temple

Legend says that, after the creation of Kerala by Parasurama, he was harassed by a demon called Daruka. To kill this evil demon, Parashurama prayed to Shiva for help. As advised by Shiva, Parasurama constructed the shrine and installed the Shakti Devi as Bhagavathi. The deity in the temple, it is believed, is Parashakthi herself. According to legends, it was Bhadrakali who killed the demon Daruka. She is worshipped as goddess Pattini in Sri Lanka by the Sinhalese Buddhists, Kannaki Amman by the Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus (See Hinduism in Sri Lanka) and as Kodungallur Bhagavathy and Attukal Bhagavathy in the South Indian state of Kerala.[27]

Kannagi is also viewed as a brave woman who could demand justice directly from the King and even dared to call him "unenlightened king" in the Cilappatikaram.


Further information: Mariamman

Mariamman is a Hindu goddess of rain, predominant in the rural areas of South India. Mariamman's worship originated in the traditions of Tamil folk religion, the faith practised by the inhabitants of the south before its syncretism with Vedic Hinduism. She is the main Tamil mother goddess, predominant in the rural areas of South India. Mariamman is usually pictured as a beautiful young woman with a red-hued face, wearing a red dress. Sometimes, she is portrayed with many arms—representing her many powers—but in most representations she has only two or four.[28]

Mariamman is generally portrayed in the sitting or standing position, often holding a trident (trishula) in one hand and a bowl (kapala) in the other. One of her hands may display a mudra, usually the abhaya mudra, to ward off fear. She may be represented with two demeanours—one displaying her pleasant nature, and the other her terrifying aspect, with fangs and a wild mane of hair.

Other deities

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (September 2022)

Other deities that fall under the scope of the Tamil pantheon include:


Tamil mythology, while heavily influenced by mainstream Hindu mythology, offers a number of variations in the existence of regional deities, divergences in legends, and relationships in the overall pantheon.


Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana, an album painting on paper from Tamil Nadu, ca 1820.

Further information: Alvars

The Alvars (Tamil: ஆழ்வார், romanized: Āḻvār, lit.'The Immersed') were Tamil poet-saints of South India who espoused bhakti (devotion) to the Hindu god Vishnu in their songs of longing, ecstasy, and service. They are venerated in Vaishnavism, which regards Vishnu as the Ultimate Reality.[32]

The devotional outpourings of the Alvars, composed during the early medieval period of Tamil history, were the catalysts behind the Bhakti movement through their hymns of worship to Vishnu and his avatars. They praised the Divya Desams, the 108 divine realms of deities affiliated to Vaishnavism. The poetry of the Alvars echoes bhakti to God through love, and in the ecstasy of such devotions they sang hundreds of songs which embodied both depth of feeling and the felicity of expressions. The collection of their hymns is known as the Naalayira Divya Prabandham. The bhakti literature that sprang from Alvars has contributed to the establishment and sustenance of a culture that deviated from the Vedic religion and rooted itself in devotion as the only path for salvation. In addition, they contributed to Tamil devotional verses independent of a knowledge of Sanskrit. As a part of the legacy of the alvars, five Vaishnava philosophical traditions (sampradayas) developed over a period of time.

Traditionally the Alvars are considered to have lived between 4200 BCE and 2700 BCE,[33][34] while some texts account for range between 4200 BCE and early 10th century. Traditional dates take them to the age of Shuka from the period of the Bhagavata Purana, the first four (Poigai Alvar, Bhoothathalvar, Peyalvar and Thirumalisai Alvar) are from Dvapara Yuga, while Nammalwar, Madhurakavi Alvar and others belong to Kali Yuga.[35]


Main article: Siddhar

Siddhars (Tamil: சித்தர்) are saints in India, mostly affiliated with the Shaiva denomination in Tamil Nadu, who professed and practised an unorthodox type of Sadhana, or spiritual practice, to attain liberation. Yogic powers referred to as Siddhis are believed to be acquired by constant practice of certain yogic disciplines. Those who acquire these Siddhis are called Siddhas.[36] These Siddhars can be compared to mystics of the western civilization. Siddhars are people who are believed to control and transcend the barriers of time and space by meditation (yoga), after the use of substances called rasayanas that transform the body to make it potentially deathless, and a particular breathing-practice, a type of Pranayama. Through their practices, they are believed to have reached stages of insight which enabled them to tune into the powers hidden in various material substances and practices, useful for the suffering and ignorant mankind. Typically, Siddhars were saints, doctors, alchemists, and mystics all at once. They wrote their findings in the form of poems in Tamil language, on palm leaves that are collected and stored in what are known today as the palm leaf manuscript, today still owned by private families in Tamil Nadu and handed down through the generations, as well as public institutions such in universities all over the world (India, Germany, Great Britain, U.S.).[37]

In this way, Siddhars developed, among other branches of a vast knowledge-system, what is now known as Siddha medicine, practised mainly in Tamil Nadu as traditional native medicine. A rustic form of healing that is similar to Siddha medicine has since been practised by experienced elderly in the villages of Tamil Nadu. (This has been misunderstood as Paatti Vaitthiyam, Naattu marunthu and Mooligai marutthuvam. While paati vaitthiyam or naatu marunthu is traditional Tamil medicine and mooligai marutthuvam is ayurvedic medicine.) They are also founders of Varmam – a martial art for self-defence and medical treatment at the same time. Varmam are specific points located in the human body which when pressed in different ways can give various results, such as disabling an attacker in self-defence, or balancing a physical condition as an easy first-aid medical treatment.

Tamil Siddhars were the first to develop pulse-reading ("naadi paarththal" in Tamil) to identify the origin of diseases. This method was later copied and used in ayurvedha.[38]

Siddhars have also written many religious poems. It is believed that most of them have lived for ages, in a mystic mountain called Sathuragiri, near Thanipparai village in Tamil Nadu.

One of the best-known Siddhars was Agastya, who is believed to be the founding father of Siddha culture.

Abithana Chintamani states Siddhars are either of the 9 or 18 persons enlisted, but sage Agastya states that there are many who precede these and follow 9 or 18 persons. Many of the great Siddhars are regarded to have powers magical and spiritual.

There are 18 Siddhars in the Tamil Siddha tradition:

  1. Nandeeswarar
  2. Tirumular
  3. Agastya
  4. Kamalamuni
  5. Patanjali
  6. Korakkar
  7. Sundaranandar
  8. Konganar
  9. Sattamuni
  10. Vanmeegar
  11. Ramadevar
  12. Dhanvanthri
  13. Idaikkadar
  14. Machamuni
  15. Karuvoorar
  16. Bogar
  17. Pambatti Siddhar
  18. Kuthambai

See also


  1. ^ Shulman, David Dean (1979). Tamil Mythology: An Interpretation of a Regional Hindu Tradition.
  2. ^ Leeming, David (24 May 2001). A Dictionary of Asian Mythology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-976149-4.
  3. ^ Pillai, P. Govinda (4 October 2022). The Bhakti Movement: Renaissance or Revivalism?. Taylor & Francis. p. 70. ISBN 978-1-000-78039-0.
  4. ^ Leeming, David (24 May 2001). A Dictionary of Asian Mythology. Oxford University Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-19-976149-4.
  5. ^ Jayaraman, Dr P. (2019). A Brief History of Vaishnava Saint Poets : The Alwars. Vani Prakashan. p. 39. ISBN 978-93-89012-69-9.
  6. ^ Hardy, Friedhelm (1 January 2015). Viraha Bhakti: The Early History of Krsna Devotion. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 156. ISBN 978-81-208-3816-1.
  7. ^ Clothey, Fred W. (20 May 2019). The Many Faces of Murukan: The History and Meaning of a South Indian God. With the Poem Prayers to Lord Murukan. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. p. 34. ISBN 978-3-11-080410-2.
  8. ^ Padmaja, T. (2002). Temples of Kr̥ṣṇa in South India: History, Art, and Traditions in Tamilnāḍu. Abhinav Publications. p. 27. ISBN 978-81-7017-398-4.
  9. ^ Ramesh, M. S. (1997). 108 Vaishnavite Divya Desams. T.T. Devasthanams. p. 152.
  10. ^ Singh, Nagendra Kr; Mishra, A. P. (2005). Encyclopaedia of Oriental Philosophy and Religion: A Continuing Series--. Global Vision Publishing House. p. 34. ISBN 978-81-8220-072-2.
  11. ^ "In praise of Vishnu". The Hindu. 24 July 2014.
  12. ^ Kamil Zvelebil (1974). Tamil Literature. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 49. ISBN 978-3-447-01582-0.
  13. ^ Lochtefeld 2002, p. 377.
  14. ^ a b c d Parpola 2015, p. 285.
  15. ^ a b c d Lochtefeld 2002, pp. 655–656.
  16. ^ a b c Clothey 1978, pp. 1–2.
  17. ^ a b c Jones & Ryan 2006, p. 228.
  18. ^ G Obeyesekere (2004). Jacob Kẹhinde Olupona (ed.). Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity. Routledge. pp. 272–274. ISBN 978-0-415-27319-0.
  19. ^ Gopinatha Rao 1993, p. 40.
  20. ^ Lal 1992, p. 4339.
  21. ^ "Ayyappan." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 23 Dec. 2011.
  22. ^ "Why Ayyappa is called Manikandan".
  23. ^ Mother India: Monthly Review of Culture. Sri Aurobindo Ashram. 2007.
  24. ^ a b Anand 2004, p. 149
  25. ^ Pandya Kingdom#Pandyas in Kurukshetra War
  26. ^ "Kodungallur Kurumba Bhagavathi Temple". Temples of Kerala. Retrieved 5 December 2010.
  27. ^ Shankar Radhakrishnan HAI Bubbling over with devotion The Hindu news.
  28. ^ Neuenhofer, Christa (27 November 2012). Ayyanar and Mariamman, Folk Deities in South India. Blurb, Incorporated. ISBN 978-1-4579-9010-6.
  29. ^ Narayan, M. K. V. (April 2007). Flipside of Hindu Symbolism: Sociological and Scientific Linkages in Hinduism. Fultus Corporation. p. 80. ISBN 978-1-59682-117-0.
  30. ^ Belle, Carl Vadivella (14 February 2018). Thaipusam in Malaysia. Flipside Digital Content Company Inc. p. 196. ISBN 978-981-4786-66-9.
  31. ^ Dalal, Roshen (18 April 2014). Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Penguin UK. p. 1190. ISBN 978-81-8475-277-9.
  32. ^ "The Alvars" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  33. ^ "Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Āl̲vārs", by S. M. Srinivasa Chari, publisher = Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 9788120813427, p. 10
  34. ^ "Śrībhāṣyam: Catuḥsūtryātmakaḥ", by Rāmānuja, Raghunath Damodar Karmarkar, p.18, original from = The University of Michigan
  35. ^ Jean Filliozat. Religion, Philosophy, Yoga: A Selection of Articles. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 23.
  36. ^ "The Science of Pranayama" (PDF). Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  37. ^ V.Jayaram. "Study of siddhas". Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  38. ^ Dr.J. Raamachandran, Herbs of Siddha Medicines Herbs of Siddha Medicine/The First 3D book on Herbs, pp.iii