of that priest,
chief of Puduvai,
city of towering mansions embellished with gold
strung a garland of a sweet song,
of the dark lord and his game with the girls.
-Excerpted from Nachiyar Thirumoli by Andal (translation by Archana Venkatesan)
The 7th to 9th century CE represents a turbulent period in the religious history of Tamil Nadu, with a great wave of religious fervour sweeping through the Tamil landscape. Unconditional devotion (bhakti) came to be recognised as an important way to serve the gods, and among the foremost proponents of the Bhakti movement were the 12 Vaishnavite Alwars. In Puduvai, the ‘city of towering mansions’, the Vaishnavite Bhakti movement reached great heights: Periyalwar and Andal, two of the 12 Alwars, lived in this city of ‘renown and fame’. Known today as Srivilliputhur, a temple town 80 km south-west of Madurai, Puduvai and its legendary Andal hold a special place in the religious history of India.
Legend and fact blend to tell us the story of Andal. According to the hagiography provided in the 14th-century Manipravalam work Guruparampara Prabhavam 6000 by Pinpalakiya Perumal Jeeyar, legend has it that Vishnucittan (Periyalwar), a priest at the Vatapatrasayi Vishnu temple at Srivilliputhur, longed for a child and prayed to Vishnu to give him one. One day, when visiting the temple garden to collect flowers for the Vishnu idol’s daily garland, he saw a baby girl lying under a Tulsi plant. Realising that this was Lord Vishnu’s way of fulfilling his prayer, Vishnucittan adopted the baby and named her Kothai.
Kothai grew into a great devotee of Lord Vishnu and wished to be married to him. Every day, she would wear the garland prepared by Vishnucittan for the Vishnu idol and imagine herself as Vishnu’s bride before returning the garland to its place. Vishnucittan, unaware of the garland’s ‘desecration’ at Kothai’s hands, would place the garland on the idol of Vishnu. One day, however, Kothai was caught in the act by Vishnucittan. Deeply disturbed at the violation of the shastric rules, Vishnucittan did not garland the idol of Vishnu.
That night, Vishnu appeared in a dream to Vishnucittan and asked him why he had not given him the garland worn by Kothai that day. This made Vishnucittan recognise the divinity in her and prompted him to name Kothai ‘Soodi-Kodutta-Nachiyar’ or the ‘Lady who gave what she had worn’. After this incident, Kothai, now fully intent on marrying no one but Vishnu, immersed herself in devotion to the god and penned two great literary works in Tamil: the Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumoli.
Kothai made Vishnucittan describe the various forms of Vishnu on earth, and upon hearing of Vishnu’s form and deeds as Lord Ranganatha in Srirangam, she decided that she would marry only him.
Once again, Vishnu appeared in a dream to Vishnucittan and conveyed to him his willingness to accept Kothai as his wife. A royal wedding procession was arranged by Vishnu himself to bring Kothai from Srivilliputhur to Srirangam, and upon entering the sanctum sanctorum of Lord Ranganatha, Kothai is said to have vanished and become one with the Lord! Vishnu then proceeded to address Vishnucittan as his father-in-law and requested him to continue serving him in Srivilliputhur. Kothai, meanwhile, became known as ‘Andal’ – ‘She who Rules the Lord’.
The starting point for a historical analysis of Andal, in fact, the Alwars as such, have been their literary contributions and the commentaries that have been written around them. Andal’s Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumoli are a part of the Naalayira Divya Prabandam, a 9th-century compilation of 4,000 Paasurams (verses) dedicated to Vishnu. The Thiruppavai is a collection of 30 Paasurams set against the backdrop of the Gopis of Ayarpadi (Vrindavan) undertaking the Pavai vow. The Thiruppavai describes the Pavai vow as a ritual involving pre-dawn communal bathing by unmarried women in the month Margali (December-January).
Undertaking the vow according to the Thiruppavai brings wealth and removes evil; the vow also helps the women attain liberation.
The first five Paasurams of the Thiruppavai describes the Pavai vow; the next ten Paasurams describe the group of Gopis urging their sleeping friends to wake up and take part in the vow. Paasurams 16 to 23 describe the Gopis gently waking up Krishna’s household, and the final seven Paasurams describe Krishna blessing the Gopis with the mystical “parai-drum”, which they reject in favour of serving Krishna forever.
The Thiruppavai has been a rich source of information for historians. Art historian Vidya Dehejia, for example, uses a reference to a rare Vaishnavite Pandyan king by Periyalwar (Pandyan kings were usually Shaivites), in combination with astronomical descriptions present in Thiruppavai to posit a mid-9th century CE date for Periyalwar and Andal. Of particular interest to historians is also the Pavai vow described in Thiruppavai. Historians believe that this vow has been modelled on a bathing ritual known as Thai Neeradal, which has been extensively described in Tamil Sangam literature, in the poem Paripadal 11.
Thai Neeradal literally means ‘bathing in the month of Thai (January – February), and the adaption of the Thai Neeradal into the preceding month of Margali by Andal has raised important questions for historians. Some scholars, like Archana Venkatesan (Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Religious Studies, Univ. of California Davis), posit that the appropriation of Thai Neeradal into the month of Margali could simply reflect the emergence of Vaishnavism: Margali is a holy month for Vaishnavites, and Andal could have appropriated the Sangam-era Thai Neeradal, wherein unmarried women pray for a handsome husband/lover, into a religious vow where unmarried Gopis pray to obtain Krishna. Other scholars like Norman Cutler (the late Chairman of South Asian Languages and Civilisations Department, Univ. of Chicago), however, believe that a shift of the vow from the month of Thai to the preceding month of Maragali could be due to the transition from a lunar calendar to a solar calendar!
The Nachiyar Thirumoli continues from the Thiruppavai, albeit with a major difference: from a third-person rendering of the mythical Aayarpadi, Andal moves to an intensely personal, first-person, rendering of her love for Vishnu. It is in the Nachiyar Thirumoli that we get to see a silhouette of the poet: we learn that the poet’s name is Kothai, that she is the daughter of Vishnucittan, and that she writes from Puduvai.
The intense, personal Bhakti of Andal is on display in the Nachiyar Thirumoli.
Addressing Manmatha, the God of Love, she says:
Manmatha, my breasts swell
for that lord alone
Who holds aloft flaming disc and conch.
If there is even talk of offering my body to mortal men
I cannot live
It’s equal in violence to a forest jackal
stealthily entering to sniff sacrificial food
learned Brahmins, the holders of the Vedas,
Offer gods in heaven.
– Excerpted from Nacchiyar Thirumoli – translation by Archana Venkatesan
Over centuries, the legends surrounding Kothai and the Alwars grew steadily, and from being devotees, they were elevated to divine status as different amsas or manifestations of Vishnu.
Kothai started being worshipped as a manifestation of Bhu Devi (Goddess Earth), a secondary consort of Vishnu (after Lakshmi). Archana Venkatesan points to this apotheosis of Kothai in the taniyans (laudatory verses written by later poets praising the Alwar and their composition) appended to the Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumoli.
While the taniyans to the Thiruppavai, attributed to Uyyakontar (10th century CE, composed in Tamil) and Parasara Bhattar (12th century, composed in Sanskrit) refer to just the legend surrounding Andal, the taniyan to the Nachiyar Thirumoli, written by Tirukannamangai Andan (12th – 13th century, composed in Tamil) refers to Andal as a manifestation of Bhu Devi. The spreading popularity and worship of Kothai over centuries can also be gauged by the fact that 16th century King Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara himself wrote Amuktamalyada (literally, ‘One who wears and gives away garlands’), a work dedicated to the legend of Andal and widely regarded as a classic of Telugu literature.
Ritual practices carry forward the legend of Andal to this day. Daily recitation of the Thiruppavai occupies a central place in Vaishnavite temple services, and during the month of Margali, recital of the Thiruppavai is commonplace in Vaishnavite households. In fact, the sixth section of the Nachiyar Thirumoli (Song of the Wedding Dream), is recited during Vaishnavite Brahmin weddings and the bride in these weddings is dressed like Andal.
Further, the temples central to the legend of Andal continue to be ritually linked. For the Chittirai festival, garlands from the Srivilliputhur temple are sent to the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam and the Kalazhagar temple in Madurai. In fact, the same is also done for the Brahmotsavam and Garudaseva of Lord Venkateswara in Tirupati!
Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumoli have also earned great appreciation for their literary value. Multiple artists have taken inspiration from these works: from movie names to song lyrics, lines from the Thiruppavai have been used repeatedly for their aesthetic value. In the 20th century, the Carnatic virtuoso Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar set the Thiruppavai to tune in Carnatic ragas, leading to their large-scale popularity and adoption in Carnatic music circles. Recently, the Carnatic fusion band Agam released its version of one of the Paasurams from Thiruppavai, to critical acclaim.
Some celebrate Kothai as a feminist icon, others worship her as a god. Yet others are content in enjoying her literary contributions. It wouldn’t be amiss to say that Andal has something for everyone; she lives on, woven as she is into the cultural fabric of South India.
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