The Siddhars of Tamil Nadu

The Siddhars present themselves as the greatest masters of yoga, medicine and alchemy in the history of Tamil Nadu and southern India. However, compared to the bhakti saints, many of whom were their contemporaries, they remain relatively unknown, unresearched and unsung. Some portray them as mystics and tantrics. Others, particularly European scholars, compare them with Rosicruceans of the early 17th century, who militated against Roman Catholicism. Others compare them with alchemists, whose focus was on the transmutation of base metal into gold and discovering the elixir of life.

The Siddhars present themselves as the greatest masters of yoga, medicine and alchemy in the history of Tamil Nadu and southern India. However, compared to the bhakti saints, many of whom were their contemporaries, they remain relatively unknown, unresearched and unsung. Some portray them as mystics and tantrics. Others, particularly European scholars, compare them with Rosicruceans of the early 17th century, who militated against Roman Catholicism. Others compare them with alchemists, whose focus was on the transmutation of base metal into gold and discovering the elixir of life.


About Siddhars
Historically, Siddhar refers to people were early-age wandering saints who dominated ancient Tamil teaching and philosophy. They were knowledgeable in Science, Technology, Astronomy, Literature, Fine Arts, Music, Drama and Dance, and provided solutions to common people in day-to-day matters.

A classical definition of Siddhars is given by one of the eminent Siddhars, Thirumoolar: “Those who live in yoga and see the divine light and power through yoga are the Siddhars”.

Typically Siddhars were saints, doctors, alchemists and mystics all at once. They wrote their findings in the form of poems in the Tamil language, on palm leaves which were collected and stored as palm leaf manuscripts. These are still owned by some families in Tamil Nadu and handed down through the generations. Some of them are kept in public institutions.

Siddhars developed, among other branches of a vast knowledge-system, what is now known as Siddha medicine, practised mainly in Tamil Nadu as a type of traditional native medicine. Even today, a rustic form of healing similar to Siddha medicine is practised by experienced elders in the villages of Tamil Nadu.

Siddhars are also believed to be the 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 different results, such as disabling an attacker in self-defence, or balancing a physical condition as an easy first-aid medical treatment.

It is believed that Tamil Siddhars were the first to develop pulse-reading (“naadi paarththal” in Tamil) to identify the origin of diseases. This method was later used in Ayurveda

Eminent Siddhar saints
There is a debate as to who was the first Siddhar. Prevailing tradition refers to Agasthyar as the first Siddhar, one of the seven sages (or Saptarshis) as mentioned in the Vedic texts. Agasthiyar is considered to be the author of a substantial number of the first Siddhar literature. He was supposed to have lived as far back as the 7th century BCE. About 96 books are attributed to him including writings in alchemy, medicine and spirituality. Apart from references in legends, the beginnings of the Siddhars are lost in time.

Another famous Siddhar was Tirumular, who was a Tamil mystic and writer in the 6th century AD and was also one of the 18 Siddhars according to the Tamil Siddha tradition. His main work is named “Tirumantiram”, a 3,000-verse text, which is the foundation of the Southern Shaiva Siddhanta school of philosophy. He accomplished this magnum opus at Chidambaram, in Tamil Nadu, considered a sacred spot where Shiva performed his cosmic dance.

Karuvoorar, an architect as well as a yogin-alchemist, played a major role in design and construction of the Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur. Construction of this temple is comparted to construction of the pyramids. A popular tour guide describes this as one of India’s greatest temples:

“This superb and fascinating monument is one of only a handful in India with World Heritage listing and is worth a couple of visits. On top of the apex of the 63-metre high temple, a dome encloses an enormous Shiva Lingam. Constructed from a single piece of granite weighing an estimated 81 tonnes, the dome was hauled into place along a six-km earth work ramp in a manner similar to that used for the Egyptian Pyramids.”

Another Siddhar, Bhogar (Bhoganathar), who lived between the 3rd and 5th century AD is said to have discovered the elixir of immortality – one of his main works is in area of pharmacognosy – the study of medicines derived from natural resources.

These mystic poets represented different communities. Pattinathar was born into a rich family of merchants in the sea-town of Kaveripoompattinam and he, himself, was a successful merchant before giving up his materialistic way of life. Badhragiriyar who became a disciple of Pattinathar was king of a province in Thanjavur. Idaikkaattu Siddhar was a goat-herd according to the available meagre records of literary history. Thiru Moolar is said to have come from Varanasi to meet Saint Agasthiar of the South. Another mystic is a Muslim by birth known by the name of Beer Mohammed. Roma Rishi might have had connections to the Rome of his time. Some like Paampaati Siddhar wrote treatises on herbal medicine and were reportedly capable of small miracles in real life. Boghar is believed to have visited the Roman Empire to study the herbs of that country for the purpose of medicine. Boghar was born into a family of potters in China as the legend goes. Pulasthiar is Sinhala by birth. Idaikaattu Siddhar is said to be the author of “Saareeram”, a book on medicine. Some consider him to be the disciple of Boghar1.

The Siddhars were a class of popular thinkers in Tamil Nadu in scientific, literary, artistic and cultural realms and almost all of them were stridently opposed to formalities of life and religion, religious practices and beliefs of the ruling elite and against generally accepted social and religious doctrines. They were particularly opposed to the notion of caste. They were puritanical and – for the most part – monotheistic.
According to Kamil Zvelebil, a contemporary scholar on the Siddhas, there are some features which are typical for all or almost all Siddhars as a body of thinkers:

  • First, in sharp opposition to the bhakti tradition, they refuse to allow themselves to be carried away by idol worship in particular temples.
  • Second, in contrast to bhakti which emphasises passionate devotion to God, the Siddhars emphasise knowledge, yoga practice, character, moral behavior and right conduct. Anger, lust and egoism are the worst sins for them.
  • Third, almost all Siddhars raise protest against caste and casteism.

The whole premise of Siddha thinking is empirical and experimental. Their writings do not pretend to be clear-cut formalised statements of any well-defined doctrine. Hence, it is difficult to derive a philosophical system out of their writings, from the present state of our knowledge of their works. However, it is possible to deduce a few essential features. Sometime in the future, when their writings are better known, it should be possible to present their philosophy more explicitly.

According to their writings, for someone to be recognized as a Siddha, that is “one who is accomplished”, he should have transcended the ahamkara (ego) and subdued his mind. This is usually accomplished only by persistent meditation.

To be known as a Siddha, a yogin should have mastered eight powers called ashta siddhis:
1. To become tiny as the atom within the atom (Anima)
2. To become big in unshakeable proportions (Mahima)
3. To become as light as vapour in levitation (Laghima)
4. To become as heavy as the mountain (Garima)
5. To enter into other bodies in transmigration (Prapti)
6. To be in all things, omni-pervasive (Prakamya)
7. To be lord of all creation in omnipotence (Isatvam)
8. To be everywhere in omnipresence (Vasitvam)

Many scholars have attributed supernatural powers and scientific knowledge far ahead of their times to the Siddhars, based on these ashta siddhis. But, these ashta siddhis should be considered more as qualities required for the sharpening of mental and spiritual powers than purely physical powers.

Siddha literature
Most works by the Tamil Siddhars are not well known outside of scholarly circles, but a few are very popular among the general Tamil public. There are hundreds of Siddha works dealing with alchemy, black magic, medicine, yoga and tantric rites. Some scholars tend to doubt the genuineness, or at least claimed antiquity of these works. Many academics believe the oldest Tamil works to date between the first century BCE and 250 CE.

Siddha medicine
“Medicine means the prevention of physical illness; medicine means the prevention of mental illness; prevention means to avert illness; medicine therefore is the prevention of death.”
This is a quotation from Tirumular – regarded as the greatest and one of the earliest Tamil Siddhars.
The traditional medical system established by the Siddhars is almost totally unknown outside of southernmost India. It is confined to the states of Tamil Nadu and a few parts of Kerala. The bulk of written works on Siddha medicine is exclusively in the Tamil language; and on occasion in Malayalam. Very little has been translated into other Indian languages, English or other Western languages. The reason why many of these works have not yet been studied, is that they still remain the closely guarded property of a few families who feel that their secretive and symbolic content should not be put in the public domain. Many of their works are in poor condition and difficult to access. Answers to questions such as: when and where Siddha medicine originated, why or how it was developed, and why it has not become as popular as Ayurveda, have not been conclusively established yet.
“A Short Introduction: The Tamil Siddhars & the Siddha Medicine of Tamil Nadu” by Marion Zimmerman is an attempt to answer some questions related to Siddha medicine. In this book, she attempts to explain what the notion ‘siddha’ means and what kind of person Siddha practice seeks to create. She provides a short introduction to the fundamental principles of the Siddha medicine, its legendary founders and revered practitioners, its history and course of evolution, and some of the problems that Siddha medicine must contend with to be established as a scientific and credible medical system2.

Poems of Siddhars
Poems of Siddhars form an important corpus of Tamil poetry, but are not revered as much as the poems of bhakti saints. It is not hard to conjecture the reasons for this. Their poems were considered quite off-beat for their times. They were hard to interpret perhaps because of their esoteric nature. Many scholars equated their philosophy and way of life to mysticism and the occult. Some were turned off by the offending imagery. The poetry of Siddhars were so full of metaphor and imagery that they often presented themselves as puzzles that need to solved. Their poems often questioned the assumptions and basics of accepted Tamil theology3.

The Siddhars rejected poly-theism, which was the prevailing orthodoxy of their time, and dared to speak of “One Indivisible God”. They criticised the empty and meaningless rituals practised by brahmins of their time.

Kamil Zvelebil, outlines the common features of Siddhar poetry in his book “The Smile of Murugan”: “a protest, sometimes expressed in very strong terms, against the formalities of life and religion; rough handling of priests and Brahmins in general ; denial of the religious practices and beliefs of Brahmanism, and not only that: an opposition against the generally accepted pan-Indian social doctrine and religious practice; protest against the abuses of temple rule; emphasis on purity of character; claims made by the authors of these poems that they have achieved certain psychokinetic powers and other capabilities which belong to the sphere of parapsychological phenomena; use of imaginative and ambiguous language, rather puzzling though strongly colloquial; no systemic doctrinal exposition. Finally, all these poems are ascribed to a body of sages known as the Siddhars4.”

As an illustration, one of the most well-known Siddhars Sivavakkiyar sang:
“You consider an erected stone as god and you adorn that stone with flowers, go around it muttering some mantras! Will that erected stone talk to you when the Almighty is within? Will the cooking pot and spoon realize the taste of food being cooked?”.

All Siddhars wanted to subjugate the senses. For them, winning over the five senses offers absolute control of the body leading to control of the wandering mind. One of them refers to the five senses as “five thieves”.

They were existentialists in another sense. They lived a mendicant’s life and slept in temples when they wanted to stretch their body. They were misunderstood in their own time since they repudiated the materialistic view of life and claimed that there could be only one supreme God. Very little has been on record about their personal life, except for meagre details of their places of birth and death.

The history of the Siddhars is incomplete, shrouded in mysticism and myths. Research on their contributions is inadequate at the best. Their writings remain uncollated awaiting the scholarly treatment they definitely deserve. Some attempts are afoot however. The central government has established a “Siddha Central Research Institute” under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. A Siddha Medical Council has been set up by the Tamil Nadu government. But these scanty efforts have not done justice to the rich contributions of the Siddhars.

The task of separating the complex mythical and actual historical biographies of these sages is a difficult task but is sure to provide rich dividends.


  2. Review provided by William Courson, BVSA, D. Ayur., an Ayurvedic Practitioner, faculty member and the College Dean of Institutional Development at Sai Ayurvedic College & Ayurvedic Wellness Center
  3. Siddhar poems from Tamil-An introduction,


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