A passionate poet, Andal's origins bear similarities to that of Sita's in the Ramayana.

The lone woman among the Alvars Who was Andal
Features Literature Friday, February 02, 2018 - 17:50

Andal has been in the news in recent times but not many seem to know who she was and why she is celebrated.

Andal was a Tamil poet and Bhakti saint, like Meera of the north, or Akka Mahadevi of the Kannada region.

As a young woman, she fell in love with Lord Vishnu and refused to wed any mortal man. In her songs, she asks for His embrace, demands His caress. She rejects everything and everyone else.  A woman with agency around the eighth century! Andal was devoted, yet audacious. A fascinating woman! One can know her only through her works. Language may be a barrier though, and literal translations fall short. 

Who were the Alvars?

The Alvars were medieval Vaishnavite poets who composed hymns in Tamil, making the essence of the Vedas accessible to more people. Four thousand songs written by the Alvars, compiled as the Nalayira Divya Prabanadham, are considered the equivalent of the Vedas. Even today, the (Tamil) Divya Prabanadham is chanted by those leading temple processions, while the (Sanskrit) Vedas are chanted by those following the deity.

Andal was the only woman among the twelve Alvars. Another of the twelve Alvars, Periyalvar, is said to have found Andal as a baby in the tulsi garden at the Srivilliputhur temple, and adopted her.

Theories abound – that Andal did not exist and was a pseudonym used by her father, Periyalvar. To form our own opinions, we must go into the backgrounds of the other Alvars. Most of the Alvars were not born into the brahmin community. 

Thiruppana Alvar was from the Panar community. Kulasekara Alvar was a Kshatriya, a Chera king. Thirumangai Alvar came from the Kallar community and had been a highway robber before turning devotee. Nammalvar was from a Vellala family. He supposedly did not have speech for the first sixteen years of his life and did not open his eyes either.

Thirumazhisai Alvar, like Andal, was a foster child. Born to a sage as a lifeless lump of flesh with no arms or legs, he is said to have been raised by a tribal couple. He studied Buddhist and Jain scriptures, and became a staunch devotee of Shiva, before his initiation into Vaishnavism. In one of his verses, Thirumazhisai has said he was Avarna – not of the four varnas – and untouchable. 

The Mudhal (first) Alvars – Poigai, Bhutha and Pey – are believed to have been born miraculously. Thondaradipodi Alvar was a Vaishnavite brahmin, who is said to have vehemently opposed the caste system. 

The Alvars were chosen to bring people across social divides into the fold. To include marginalised communities. To demonstrate that anyone with devotion would be accepted. And Andal was the lone woman.

Parallels between Sita and Andal

Andal's origins bears similarities to that of Sita's. In the Ramayana, Janaka finds Sita in a furrow while ploughing the land as part of a yagna. According to the 'Balakanda', the first chapter of the Valmiki Ramayana (considered to be a later addition to the epic), Sita was born not from the womb of a woman, but from the womb of the earth itself.

In the 'Uttarakanda', the final chapter of (and another later addition to) the Valmiki Ramayana, Sita asks that Bhudevi take her back, and is swallowed by the earth, never to be seen again.

Andal, too, is said to have disappeared in the Sri Ranganatha/Vishnu temple at Srirangam. Legend goes that she reached the doors of the sanctum sanctorum, where she merged into her god.

By the sixteenth century, Andal was worshipped as a goddess. Along with Shridevi (Lakshmi), Andal appears beside Vishnu as his consort, Bhudevi – the personification of earth. Sita, too, is associated with Bhudevi.

Andal’s life and work

Andal was found as an infant by Vishnuchittan, also known as Periyalvar (the Elder Alvar). She was called Kodhai – garland/given by the lord. She grew up in the temple town of Srivilliputhur and became known as Andal - she who ruled. The Thiruppavai (The Path to Krishna) and the Nachiyar Thirumozhi (The Sacred Songs of the Lady) are her two works.

Thiruppavai, her first work, is a 30 verse song. Spirited, energetic Kodhai calls out to the lazy ones to join in the prayers and seek His grace. The song continues to be recited by young women in Tamilnadu in the month of Margazhi (mid-December to mid-January).

Nachiyar Thirumozhi is lesser known. Understandably. Andal sings passionately, unselfconsciously, longing for spiritual and sexual union with her lord. She sees the physical and the divine as one.

Andal is said to have been around sixteen when she composed the Nachiyar Thirumozhi. Much longer than the Thiruppavai, it is a set of 143 pasurams (stanzas of poetry set to music) organised as fourteen poems. Of the fourteen, only the sixth – the wedding hymn Vaaranam aayiram – is well-known; it is now part of the Tamil Vaishnava wedding ceremony. Not surprising, considering the other songs have an abundance of female desire.

In the first song, Andal entreats Manmatha (Kamadeva, God of Love), saying her breasts have been pledged to Lord Vishnu and are not for the pleasure of a mere mortal. In the seventh song, she addresses Vishnu’s conch in a voice dripping with scorn, for it is in intimate contact with His lips.

In others, a lovesick Kodhai gets desperate and explicit, asking monsoon clouds and birds to be her messengers. With each song, there is a perceptible change in her state of mind. We witness her love and longing, her various moods ranging from playful to passionate and pining.

Andal rages and rants against the creatures of the grove. She becomes morose that the monsoon has come and gone and yet her lord hasn’t appeared. Along with her anguish, we sense her increasing frustration against her beloved. She implores and orders. The tone then changes to one of fury: “I shall pluck out my useless breasts and fling them at his chest.”

But Andal remains devoted even when wrathful: “If he won’t embrace me, then at least let him look me in the face, speak the truth and allow me to leave. My breasts swollen with love cry for his grasp. I only wish to serve in all the ways that please.” 

Then, in the fourteenth and final song, Andal turns composed, wise, steeped in devotion, devoid of desire. There is a feeling of calm, understanding, surrender. If you don't know to read Tamil,  the translation of the Thiruppavai and the Nachiyar Thirumozhi by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar, Andal — The Autobiography of a Goddess published by Zubaan Books, is a good resource. 

King Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara composed Amuktamalyada, an epic poem in Telugu on the story of Andal. Penguin Randomhouse brought out an English translation, The Giver of the Worn Garland, Krishnadevaraya’s Amuktamalyada by Srinivas Reddy. To introduce children aged 8+ to the tales of the Alvars, there is Poorva by Lakshmi Devnath, published by EastWest Books. 

Arundhati Venkatesh is the author of Bookasura and the Petu Pumpkin books for children (6-10 years). More here.