The story of Andal(meaning one who attracts), the woman poet saint who lived in the 8th century in Tamil Nadu and whose love for the Lord reached exalted heights is one of the most poignant forms of ‘Bhakti Yoga’ in ancient India. Andal’s unwavering love for the Lord and her outpourings of longing and devotion are recorded for posterity in her unparalleled works of Thirupaavai and NachiyarThirumozhi, 2 great works of Tamil poetry. In fact she is considered one of the twelve Alwars(saints) of Tamil Nadu being the only woman Alwar among them and revered as an incarnation of Bhumi Devi, the Consort of Lord Narayana. The beauty and romantic simplicity of her love for the Lord touches a chord in the heart of every spiritual aspirant even today. Her pining and unwavering devotion is at the heart of the Bhakthi movement that prevailed in those times. She is the symbol of feminine strength and single mindedness of purpose.
The meaning of the word ‘Alwars’ in Tamil is’ those immersed in God’. They were 12 poet saints of Tamil Nadu who were devotees of Lord Vishnu who lived between the 5th and 8th centuries. Their songs of love, longing, devotion and service to Lord Vishnu and his various Avatars helped revive the Bhakthi movement and they composed thousands of songs with depth of feeling and ecstasy of longing. Though these saints had different origins and different castes, the one thing they all had in common was their deep love for the Lord thus going on to prove that the Lord cares not for caste, creed or gender but only purity of heart and an incessant longing for Him.
At a time when ritual based Vedic religion and the knowledge of Sanskrit was being propogated, the Bhakthi movement and literature of the Alwars rooted itself on devotion being the supreme path to salvation. This marked the beginning of the Vaishnava Bhakti path of devotion. Each of these saints were considered incarnations of some paraphernalia of Vishnu(Krushn, Rama) like Krushn’s conch, Vishnu’s mace, his sword, his discus, his commander, his eagle, his necklace, his garland, his auspicious chest mark, Rama’s bow, his wife Bhudevi. Thus they were never bound by their karma nor the dualities of this material world to be born on this planet. They were born for the sole purpose of making supreme spiritual knowledge accessible to the common man not through Sanskrit but through Tamil which was the language of the common man. The Alwars refer to 108 sacred places where the Lord has manifested in various forms which are referred to as DivyaDesams. All over the world, pious Vaishnavas try to visit these places as pilgrimage during their lifetime.
The religious outpourings of these saints in the form of 4000 verses are compiled as “DivyaPrabandham”. These verses are also referred to as the ‘DravidaVeda’. The Alwars are also considered instrumental in promoting theBhagavathPuran and the two epics of Ramayan and Mahabharat.
Childhood And Youth
Andal is believed to have been discovered under a Tulsi(basil) plant in the temple garden of Srivilliputhur which is 74 km south of Madurai in Tamil Nadu by a person named Vishnucitta who became in later years one of the most revered saints in Hinduism, Periyalwar.
Vishnucitta or Periyalwar
Vishnucitta as the name indicates ‘one who always has Vishnu in his mind’ was born in a Brahmin family but he rejected his staunch Vedic upbringing in favour of devotional outpourings of love for the Lord. The hymns that he composed explores a devotee’s love for the Lord through the metaphor of Yashoda’s love for her child Krushn. This love for the childhood exploits of Krishna made him ecstatic and he would sing songs with maternal love for Krushn. Like a series of moving pictures he would depict the various activities of the child Krishna like eating butter, opening His mouth when caught by Yashoda to show the whole Universe, breaking the pots of butter and so on. Imagining himself as Yashoda one of his couplets goes like this
‘He is my darling, He is my life,
He is my nectar sweet,
Oh moon, come if you want to play with my little one
Don’t hide behind the clouds,
He is considered to be the incarnation of Garuda the vehicle of Lord Vishnu.
As a child she was named Kodhai meaning one of fragrant tresses which is often Sanskriticized as Goda, ‘Go’ meaning earth and ‘dha’ meaning given by the Earth. Kodhai grew up in an atmosphere of love and devotion as Vishnucitta showered his love on her by singing songs about Lord Vishnu, teaching her all the stories about the Lord and sharing with her his inherent love of Tamil poetry. As she grew up, her love and devotion for the Lord grew to such an extent that she decided that the Lord and none else would be her husband. She began to live in a dream world, singing His praises and glory and constantly fantasizing about marrying Him.
One of the primary functions of Vishnucitta everyday was to deliver the flower garland woven by his daughter to the temple of Srirangam where the Lord in the form of Shri Ranganatha was the presiding deity. As Kodhai’s love for the Lord grew, she began the strange practice of wearing the garland herself before offering it to the Lord. This is considered a sacrilege in Hinduism. Catching her red handed one day, Vishnucitta was extremely upset and after rebuking her, asked her to make a fresh garland. That very night, the Lord appeared to Vishnucitta in a dream and told him that He had wholeheartedly accepted the garland worn by Kodhai everyday. This stunned Vishnucitta who immediately realized the great love that existed between Kodhai and the Lord.
Days passed and Kodhai blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Vishnucitta began making preparations to get her married. To his astonishment, she insisted that she would marry none other than the Lord. Vishnucitta was extremely worried and wondered how the Lord would marry a mere mortal. However the Lord appeared in his dream and informed him that He would marry Andal and Vishnucitta could shed all his worries. The Lord also through a dream instructed the priest of the holy temple of Srirangam to make all arrangements for the wedding.
Finally the day of the wedding dawned and as Andal in all bridal finery approached the temple, she jumped out of her palanquin and unable to restrain herself any longer ran into the sanctum sanctorum. As she embraced the Lord, she disappeared in a blaze of glory having joined her beloved Lord. Thus at the tender age of 15, Andal became one with the Lord, the One who had captured her heart, her body and her soul.
Her compositions of love and anguish (viraha) for the Lord are in the form of 2 great Tamil works of Thirupaavaiand NachiarThirumozhi which are recited by devotees in the holy winter month called Marghazhi in Tamil Nadu even to this day.
Andal’s Thirupaavai has thirty verses. Paavai means taking religious vow in the name of the Lord. They are the songs of the cowgirls of Krishna wherein Andal imagines herself to be one of them. There are beautiful descriptions of the lovely sunrise, the koels singing, the cock’s crowing heralding the breaking of dawn, the swish of the buttermilk, the water lilies unfolding, the maidens calling out to each other, taking their pots to fill it in the river, calling over to Krishna to come and join them, blessing them with His sweetness.
‘We humble cowherds roam in forests,
Grazing our herds,
Eking out our living
With not much learning
But great is our fortune
For you took birth in our clan’
In these verses she is just one of the many cowgirls depicting her love unlike her other work Nachiyar Thirumozhiwherein she is the main heroine.
These thirty verses assume special significance in the winter month of Tamil Nadu called Marghazi (Mrigashirsha) each day of the month getting its name from one of the thirty verses. Unmarried girls pray in this month to Goddess Parvati for a blissful married life. Vaishnavas sing these verses in this month to bring peace and prosperity.
In these verses she extols the glories of the Lord, calling out to the other maidens, inviting them to gather flowers, praising the incarnations of the Lord and reciting prayers to wake the Lord Krushn, pleading with his parents to allow them to have His darshan. She prays for everlasting bliss and joy and concludes that all those who follow this for the entire month of Marghazi will attain everlasting peace and joy.
Oh Lord, who is full of mercy
Oh Lord who is better than the best,
Oh Lord who is the light that began the world,
Please wake up,
Will not the sight of Your red eyes
Which is like the lotus
Fall little by little on us?
Nachiyar Thirumozhi where Nachiar means Goddess and Thirumozhi means sacred sayings is a long poem of 143 verses branched into 14 segments depicting a spirit of intense love for her divine lover the Lord. It depicts her various methods to achieve her union with the Lord. In one segment she prays to the God of Love to help her unite with her lover, in another segment she says that she cannot bear to marry any other human being other than the Lord. In another segment she imagines the Lord to be playing pranks with her and begs Him not to tease her.
‘His lovely eyes attract me and hold me
It follows me wherever I go,
And ensures that I cannot escape
With His cool glances He enslaves me
And I am completely under His control
The one who can relieve the world from sorrows,
When will I see Him?’
‘Have you seen my Lord go this way?
The One who has no mercy towards those who love Him?
If He leaves me I cannot live
Oh when will He come to me?’
This work has a deep inner spiritual meaning as to how a jivaatma who comes into this world should single pointedly dedicate his life to attain the Paramatma, the intensity of yearning to achieve this goal performing all actions only with this end in mind being the only aim in life.
Significance of the Month of Marghazi
The month of Dhanur Maasa or Margazhi (Dec 14th to Jan 14th), derives its name from the star Mrigashirsha and is considered a very auspicious month for religious services Even in Srimad BhagvadGeetha, a sloka says Masaanaam “Margaseershohum”. This means in the months, he is considered as Margazhi.
This Margazhi month has another specialty also. This month is considered and should be considered as the divine and highly spiritual month because in all the other months, there are lots of festivals and happy occasions. It is believed that the main reason why there are no festivals in this month is because the body and mind should completely turn only towards the Lord. This is the main reason why no festivals are celebrated during this month, as this month is highly sacred and divine.
In this very Margazhi month, Sri Andal has sung “Thirupaavai” – 30 verses and since she fasted in this Margazhi month – all the 30 days thinking completely on the Lord she was able to attain him.
There is also a scientific theory, which explains the greatness of the Margazhi month. During this month, the ozone layer is at a lower level compared to the other months and because of this, pollution reduces ensuring a healthy body and mind.
On the 27th day of Margazhi month the Thiruppavai starts with the words “Koodaarai Vellum”. It is dedicated to Andal and sung with all reverence before offering the sweet pudding (SakkaraiPongal, AkkaarVadisal, Ksheeraannam etc) to the deity. The festival is named after this verse.
The famous hymn in Tamil is as follows:
Koodaarai vellum seer Govidaaundhannai(p) | paadiparaikonduyaamperumsammaanam |
Naadupugazhumparisinaalnanraagha(ch) choodagamaethoelvalaiyaethoedesevippoovae |
Aadaiuduppoemadhan pinnae paarchoru | moodanaipaidhumuzhngaivazhivaara (k) |
“The benefit we get by observing this ritual is immense. On this festive occasion let us wear gorgeous silks, beautiful jewelry, colorful arm bands, decorate our tress with sweet swelling colorful flowers, dress in new clothes, enjoy the rich sweet pudding made of rice, milk, ghee and flavoring agents and take great delight in enjoying the limitless company of beloved Krushn and we together. The milk rice pudding should look like as if being taken out after dipping in a trough of ghee. While relishing it the ghee should drip down the wrist till the elbow. We should enjoy the supreme bliss with you here itself, Oh Govinda! Similar to what your regular and favorite devotees enjoy and also those liberated souls in Vaikuntha”.
On this day, in Srivaishnava Temples milk pudding (Akkaravadisil) is offered with devotion to the deity in 100 silver vessels etched with Conch and Discus (Sankha and Chakra), the symbols of Lord Vishnu and consecrated during the special Pooja (worship) as per the traditions set by Ramanuja and ordained for his devotees. This was also the wish of Andal who wanted to get married to Lord Ranganatha and attain Moksha. To signify this on this day a special puja (worship) is held at the temples for those desirous of getting married by the grace of God. On this day the idols of Sridevi and Bhudevi are taken in procession to their mother’s place. The lady devotees offer Kanu (rice mixed with turmeric, vermilion, sugarcane, sesame, cardamom and seasonal fruits) to deities of Nature.
“Shri Vishnuchhitha Kula NandanaKalpaValleem;
SriRanga Raja HariChandana Yoga Dhrusyaam ;
‘Bereft of any other refuge in God who is merciful like Goddess Mahalakshmi, has come in human form of Andal’. She is like a wish fulfilling creeper that makes the family of Periyaalvar happy. With her inner eye, she always sees and dwells on her Lord, the king and God at Sriranga.
SRI BHUDEVI: Goddess Andal, having been born to Mother Earth is also prayed to as Sri Bhudevi Herself. She is the personification of mother earth.
VishnupatniI namastubhyam padasparsh kshamasvame’ –
‘Salutations to You, consort of Lord Vishnu, Who dwells in the oceans, and is adorned prettily by the mountains, Pardon me Mother, for setting my foot on You’. This mantra is chanted before one places his feet on Mother Earth at dawn. One seeks forgiveness from Goddess Bhudevi for such disrespect and acknowledges her divinity.
Aashaadhe poorvaphalgunyaam tulaseekaananoedhbahavaam |
Paandyaevisvambharaam Godaamvandae Sriranganaayakeem ||
“I worship Sri Ranganatha’s consort (Aandaal) who was born in a Tulasi (basel) grove in the month of Ashadha (July-August) under the influence of the star Poorva-phalguni in the region of Pandyadesa; who is the manifestation of Bhudevi (supporter of the Universe) and popularly called as Goda.”
Srivilliputhur is an old historical town, 74 kms from Madurai. The town has a temple dedicated to the Lord of Srivilliputhur known as Vatapatrasayee. It is the birth place of 2 most important saints (Alwars) of Tamil Nadu, Andal and Periyalwar (Vishnucitta). In this temple, all Vaishnavaite traditions and festivals are followed regularly year after year.
A temple has been built for Andal at this site and she is revered here more as God than as a saint, such has her unparalleled devotion affected mankind. It has a tower measuring 102 feet and is the official emblem of the Government of Tamil Nadu. The place above the sanctum sanctorum depicts scenes from the works of Andal sung in praise of the Lord. Andal is always presented to her devotees as a beautiful bride, bedecked with glittering jewellery with flowers in her tresses.
The Aadi Pooram festival is famous here and is celebrated for 12 days. Pooram is the birth star of Andal and the chariot festival on the 9th day attracts thousands of devotees worldwide. Andal used to meditate everyday at the Vatapatrasayee temple, Vatapatra means the leaf of the banyan tree which is found on the head of the presiding deity Lord Vishnu here. In between the temples is the Nandavanam a small shrine where Andal was found and adopted by Vishnucitta. There is a well inside the temple where Andal used to see her reflection wearing the floral garland meant for the Lord. The temple has beautiful mandapams with exquisite carvings.
Andal is considered as a Divine mother by her devotees and thousands of people gather here to offer prayers, for wealth, marriage ,progeny as they believe that prayers offered here are heard and granted. It is specially believed that if the poems composed by Andal are chanted with faith and devotion by unmarried girls, they will be married very soon. The devotees offer Tulsi garlands, butter, clothes and lamps. Women offer glass bangles to Andal which is then later distributed as Prasad to the gathering devotees after prayers.
During festivals, people throng to partake the Abhishekham which contains the essence of 61 herbs and which is believed to have medicinal qualities. People apply this oil on their bodies which has many healing qualities.
The highlight of the 12 day festival is the annual car festival wherein after early morning pujas, the presiding deities Shri Ranganathaswamy and Andal are taken in decorated palanquins to the car.
It is said that even today a ceremony of taking the garland worn by Andal from Villiputhur temple to adorn Lord Venkateshwara in Tirumala is carried out.
Social impact of the saints
By their social behavior and practices the saints (Alwars) like Andal went beyond the taboos of caste and creed. They believed in a god of love and compassion for salvation to all men and women irrespective of their rank. The Bhakti movement thus was a triumph of emotion over intellect, of devotion over narrow dogmatic views and is gloriously exemplified by the life of Sri Andal.