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Andal – Embodiment of Bhakti, Sringara and Feminism

The month of Margasiram otherwise cherished as Maargazhi, is the Tamil month of religious austerities and devotional singing. It corresponds to the December -January period culminating in the harvest festival of “Pongal”. Maargazhi Thingal is hallowed all over the Tamil Nadu in India, as the most appropriate time in the year when people, old and the young, rise up at dawn, go around the streets singing the bhajans and particularly two celebrated devotional hymns, the TIRUPPAAVAI, sung by the legendary ANDAL (in the highest state of Bhakthi & Bhavam ) – one of the twelve Alwars, and the Tiruvempaavai, sung by Saint Maanickavaacharkar, one of the 63 nayamars.

Andal’s first song, the famous thirty verses of the Tiruppavai/ The Path to Krishna was composed when she was about thirteen. It is a congregational hymn of devotion. Her second and last work, the less known but eroticised and stunning Naachiyar Tirumoli / The Sacred Songs of The Lady was composed when she was no more than sixteen; she is said to have merged into god’s idol in Srirangam temple soon after..’

The verses of Thirupavai and Nachiyar Thirumozhi are sung commonly in all the Srivaishnavite households and temples during the month of Margazhi. Thirumozhi literally means “Sacred Sayings” in a Tamil poetic style and “Nachiar” means goddess. Therefore, the title means “Sacred Sayings of the Goddess.” 


Andal and her father Periyalwar belonged to Srivilliputhoor in the Pandyan Kingdom during the ninth century. Andal was the foster child of Vishnuchitta or Periyalwar who found her as a child beneath the Tulsi plant, in his garden. The father brought up the girl with great care and love. His own overwhelming devotion to Lord Vishnu (known in the shrine of Srivilliputhoor as Vatapatrasaayin) led to Periyalwar’s encouragement of Andal in her participation in the worship of the Lord. Andal thus grew up in a religious ambience and soon began to show a rapturous devotion to Lord Krishna.
Andal, also known as Kothai, was believed to be the avatar of Bhoo devi, Mother Earth. It is said that one day, Andal decked herself with the garland which her father, Periyalwar, had kept for adorning the Lord. On discovering this, Periyalwar was filled with remorse and decided not to offer the garland to GOD. GOD Vatapatrasaayin appeared in Periyalwar’s dream that night and told him that he would be delighted to wear the garland which Andal had worn (soodi kodutha sudarkodi ). Periyalwar was thrilled that the Lord himself had attested to the great devotion of Andal.
In the course of time Andal’s bhakti knew no bounds and she took to Margazhi Nombu (austerities) in expression of her earnest desire to have none other than Lord Krishna as her husband. It is said that later, Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam appeared in a dream and asked Periyalwar to bring Andal to his abode. It was there that Andal, the saint-poetess, merged with the divine form of Lord Ranganatha.

‘Every Sri Vaishnava bride is dressed like Andal and during wedding rituals, a particular set of songs in which Andal describes her dream in which she gets married to Lord Vishnu is recited. Vaaranam Ayiram (‘A Thousand Elephants’), a set of evocative verses detailing her dreams of marrying the Lord, is still a standard issue hymn for unmarried Brahmin girls.

In one sense, the human bride is likened to Andal; but the theological explanation is that all human beings- the bride, the bridegroom, and the guests- ought to be like Andal, all devotees of the Lord.

  While it was not uncommon to find sexual undertones in the poetry of male saints (eg., Nammalvar first and Jayadev later), who used the Nayaki bhava (imagining themselves as the God’s lover) to give form to their emotional expression, Andal was the first woman saint to give words to her bodily needs and sexual desires. Her desire to wear the garland before offering to the god suggests that in her mind, she was already in a physically intimate relationship with her lord, as exists between married couples. Andal’s poetry thus expresses her constant longing and yearning to unite with her divine lover.

Andal was one of the first women poets in the long Indian tradition of the Bhakti movement. Several other women saints like Akka Mahadevi from Karnataka, Janabai and Sakkubai from Maharashtra, Lal Ded and Rupa Bhawani from Kashmir echoed similar sentiments of devotion.

Her poetic talents were extraordinary and she composed the Tiruppavai consisting of 30 hymns and the Naachair Tirumozhi in 143 stanzas, both of amazing lyrical felicity and rich imagery besides puranic allusions evocative of the great epic literature of ancient India. 

However, in terms of their theological and mystical content, these poems constitute a veritable repository of devotional themes and motifs that help illuminate Andal’s (and by extension, the Sri Vaishnava tradition’s understanding of devotion, separation from and union with God, and the place of the erotic in devotional  expressionThis poem fully reveals Andal’s intense longing for Vishnu, the divine beloved. Utilizing classical Tamil poetic conventions and interspersing stories from the Vedas and Puranas, Andal creates imagery that is possibly unparalleled in the whole gamut of Indian religious literature. 

Her poetry is intense, abidingly intimate, drenched in longing, visionary, wild and compassionate. It sings of freedom from the self and, indeed, when reading fine translations one forgets the narrow confines of the self. For the most part it is fabulous poetry. Radical in thought and language usage. Bhakti utterances are verbal expressions of intensely personal experiences that are unlike human love and follow markedly different protocol, with room for miraculous self-transformation on the part of Bhakta.

Andal’s is an extraordinary literary oeuvre, unique in its intensity, fragility, knowledge of mythology, youthful eroticism and deep spirituality. She speaks to each one of us intimately; she’s as close as one’s breath. At the same time her imagination is fantastic, she crosses all boundaries in her search for the sacred.

Jon Higgins, in his book defines love as the “…Hindu conception of love as both passion and freedom from passion. When the tide of unfulfilled passion threatens to overwhelm her, the heroine seeks refuge in a state of spiritual tranquility altogether free of distress. The implication seems to be that one may acquire real knowledge of god by first undertaking the tortuous search for human love. “Mutual ecstasy of impassioned lovers is the only experience comparable to final union with the God.” In the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the whole world — everything both within and without”. Thus, Krishna’s sporting with Gopis has two sides. He appears as the one who experiences romantic love, “the most exalted experience in life”, and who gives experience of romantic love in its highest and the moxst intense form.”

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