திருமழிசை (Thirumazhisai) Piran is worshiped as one of the twelve Alvars, the great Bhakti saints and scholars of Sanathana dharma. Some historians date the time period of the Alvars to 6th – 8th century CE, while other scholars state much earlier dates. The Tamizh songs of the Alvars comprise the sacred 4000 Divya Prabandham . The verses are suffused with Bhakti and compassion and speak of liberation through surrender of all ego to the lotus feet of Mahavishnu. Thirumazhisai Alvar’s life story is awe-inspiring and full of amazing incidents. He is considered an incarnation of the Sudarshana Chakra of Sriman Narayana. Hailing from a most humble family he became a towering Vedic seer. He studied the various dharmic schools of thought of his time before becoming a devotee of Vishnu. He surrendered all to the supreme being who in turn listened to his devotee’s words.
The principal references for this introductory article are the works of Dr. N. Ranganathan [1, 2]. The books are available here and here.
Thirumazhisai Alvar was born in the village of Thirumazhisai near Poovirunda Valli (present day: Poonamallee) located near West Chennai. One account says that he was born to Sage Brigu and his wife as an under-developed fetus and was abandoned in a field under bamboo trees. He was later found and adopted by a woodcutter family. However, due to divine intervention, life was breathed into this form and it grew into an infant who was graced by the vision of Bhagavan when he first opened his eyes. Later, when this vision disappeared, the child began to cry. Due to this transcendent vision, the child experienced little hunger or thirst. An old farmer and his wife recognized the divinity within this baby and brought milk for the child daily. One day, the farmer’s wife drank the leftover milk and regained her youth. The couple was blessed with a child, Kani Kannan who later became the Alvar’s disciple.
The divine child became a Yogi at a young age. He learned and explored different Hindu Sampradayas as well as Buddhist and Jain traditions. He was also a Shiva Bhakta before fully immersing himself in Sriman Narayana. It is said that Shiva was impressed by his complete devotion to Narayana and bestowed upon him the title of Bhaktisara.
In a parallel to Sri Krishna, the Alvar identified himself in his works with the humble woodcutter family who raised him. One story is worth recalling in this regard. Thirumazhisai Alvar was on his way to Kumbakonam when he came across a Veda-chanting group. They stopped chanting as they did not want the mystic chants to be heard by one, they felt, was not qualified to receive it. As the Alvar began to leave they realized they had forgotten the point at which they had stopped chanting, perhaps symbolizing their own confused state. The enlightened Vedic scholar Thirumazhisai Alvar guided them to the right verse through signs that helped them infer where they had stopped. They understood the greatness of Alvar who not only knew the words but also realized the meaning of the sacred chants.
Another related story starts with the local deity of the village where Alvar was staying. The deity’s head always turned toward where his devotee, Thirumazhisai Alvar was. When this was brought to the attention of the temple Dikshitar who was performing a Yagna, he was elated that such a great Atma had come to his village. He brought Alvar to the temple with all due respect and offered the first honors to him as part of the Yaaga. The conductors of the ritual were upset that a person of a ‘low’ background was being offered this privilege (again, we can see a parallel to Sri Krishna). The Dikshitar was anguished by this response and pleaded with the Alvar to reveal his inner form and open their eyes that failed to see what the deity himself saw. The Alvar addressed the lord living inside him and asked that he reveal himself. It is said that Mahavishnu along with Mahalakshmi, Adisesha, and all attributes immediately manifested in Alvar’s body to the amazement of everyone there.
Perhaps a most profound incident associated with Thirumazhisai Alvar happened when he was in Kanchipuram. The king was displeased with Kani Kannan for some reason, and in a moment of arrogance and anger, banished Alvar’s disciple from the kingdom. After the disciple informed Alvar of this punishment, a remarkable event happened. Thirumazhisai Alvar along with his disciple went to the Thiruvehka Vishnu temple and addressed the deity in simple Tamizh words “Kanikannan Pokinraan ..” [1, 2]:
"Kani Kannan is going. O' Sapphire hued Lord of the beautiful Kanchi, do not lie down. The courageous sweet tongued poet that I am also going to follow. You also roll up your serpent bed." .
The temple deity dutifully rolled up Adisesha like a mat and followed his Bhaktas. Sans Sriman Narayana, prosperity, and peace also naturally left Kanchi. After the city suffered a series of misfortunes, the King’s ministers made him realize his mistakes and he fell at the feet of the great Alvar who forgave him. Alvar requested the deity to return to Thiruvehka and rest on his serpent bed again, which Mahavishnu immediately accepted. Peace and prosperity returned to Kanchi.
“The Lord enshrined in Thiru Vehka temple is in an unusual lying posture with His head on the left side (to our right side as we see Him) to indicate the fact that He once got up at the bidding of His Bhakta.” .
Thirumazhisai Alvar composed many Tamizh works. Of these, two prominent poetic masterpieces containing many profound verses that bring to light the all-encompassing vision of Vishishtadvaita survive: Thirucchanda Viruttam and Naanmukan Thiruvandhadhi. Both works have been looked upon as Saranagati Prabhandhams by Sri Vaishnava scholars. The Thirucchanda Viruttam consisting of 120 verses is composed in the form of rhythmic poetry that extols Narayana the supreme cause and explains that a surrender of all our ego to this supreme cause is the path to Moksha. The Naanmukan Thiruvandhadhi is a garland comprising of 96 interlinked verse-flowers and firmly establishes the Parathvam of Narayana. Tamizhs from all over and devotees of Vishnu in particular dutifully learn and recite these sacred verses with Shraddha to this day. We briefly discuss these two works in the next section.
One of the most sacred locations associated with Alvar is the Sri Araavamudan temple in Thirukkudanthai (Kumbakonam) where he spent most of the latter part of his life in the mortal world.
One of the lessons from studying the lives of our great saints like Thirumazhisai Alvar and Thirunaalaippovaar Nayanaar (Nandanaar) is that in the present Yuga, birth and Kula-based qualifications can only take us so far; it does not guarantee enlightenment. It is critical in today’s context to revisit and study the unifying contributions of the Alvars and Nayanmars who ensured that the truth of the Vedas reached all sections of the society. In fact, it is simply not possible to fully understand Tamizh deep culture unless one reads and listens to the works of the great Bhakti saint-scholars of Tamilnadu, the land of Vedas.
"Thirucchanda viruttam captures the direct experience of the Azhwar of the simultaneous reality of the five-fold Divinity." - .
Sri Vaishnava scholars state that the most complete range of meanings in the Thirucchanda Viruttam is understood only when it is read along with authoritative commentaries. It expresses the deepest Vedantic truths about the ultimate reality of this cosmos through song and poetry. Sriman Narayana is worshiped in five different forms or modes: Para, Vyuha, Vibhava, Antaryami, and Archa (Pancharatra ). Two verses from this work are given below:
“Similar to the nature of the large ocean containing within itself the whiteness
and the waves which surge from and settles into itself,
all the non-moving and the moving entities and their worlds which rise and die,
rise from Thee and ultimately rest in Thee alone.” – Translation by Dr. Ranganathan .
Verse-17 worships Narayana as a five-fold divinity in all his wondrous forms and manifestations.
Mahavishnu is hailed as the primal cause. He is Vasudeva, and also takes the three forms (Vyuhas – Sankarshana, Pradyumna, Aniruddha). He is the basis of the four entities (Pradhaana, Purusha, Avyakta, Kaala). As Vibhavas, he manifests through Avatars to restore dharma, and also reclines on AadhiSesha in the Ksheera sagara. He is also the Archa Murthis as desired by devotees (brief summary of a translation in ).
"In Azhwar's own words, he found the proper and apt material for his poetry namely the Lord Himself... He further says that the Lord himself brought forth this garland of verses from his heart, seeding his mind with the faultless and beautiful Tamil language, by being the meaning of the words that he had learnt from his birth and becoming one with him." - .
This work is composed in the cyclical Andhadhi style wherein the word or syllable at the end of one verse is also the start of the next verse. Thus, no verse has an independent existence as it is connected to all the other verses and there is no beginning or end. We can see the same ‘endless’ cycle in the Kolams of Tamilnadu. When we sing and experience these sublime verses, we realize why Tamizh is also revered as a divine language by Tamizhs.
Verse 36 is cited in  to explain how Narayana is so easily accessible to his Bhaktas:
Thirumazhisai Alvar explains how the supreme deity resides on his serpent bed in different sacred spots including Thirukkudanthai, ThiruVehka, etc., and in Thirupparkadal (transcendental ocean of milk) only so that he can fill the minds of devotees and become one with their thoughts.
Contributions to Vedanta
Thirumazhisai Alvar’s scholarly contributions to Vishishtadvaita are too many to recount in this brief article. He is renowned for his study of all the major dharmic schools of his time period. A student’s perspective of some of the symbolism and meanings associated with events from his life and are presented next.
His birth in the form of an unformed foetus followed by a divine transition to a baby with all human features can remind us of the philosophical shift from an impersonal, Nirguna Brahman of Advaita to the fully attributed divinity of Vishishtadvaita. The differences between these two Vedantic schools have been summarized by Sri Rajiv Malhotra: “Ramanuja’s school of Vishishta-Advaita (‘differentiated non-dualism’) challenged Shankara by setting aside the concept of maya as the reason for the experience of separation and replacing it with the idea that all particular properties, qualities and possibilities are inherent in Brahman. Universals (‘samanya’) and particulars (‘vishesha’) are inseparable; the universal offers the all-encompassing view, and the particulars offer multiplicity within it.” .
An equally fascinating incident to study is the aforementioned event where the Guru (Alvar) heeds the words of the Shishya (Kani Kannan) and in turn, the deity of the Thiru Vehka (Sri Yathothkari) temple responds to the words of his devotee (Alvar) and leaves the temple. This sequence inverts the ‘top-down’ picture entrenched in our minds, namely, of the divine guiding the Guru who instructs the Shishya. Who is the leader and who follows here?! This situation has been beautifully captured using Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s ‘needle-magnet’ metaphor in the foreword to Dr. Ranganathan’s book by his brother N. Rajagopalan: “As a siddha, the Azhwar had a dynamic relationship with the living deities in the temples like “the attraction between the needle and the magnet”, to borrow sage Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s phrase to describe the relationship between a true devotee and the Lord. Only it was difficult to tell at times who was the needle and who the magnet. Such was the love of the Azhwar that the Lord could not but follow him at his call“. In one version of this incident narrated to this author, Mahavishnu, the all-powerful supreme cause of the universe, literally rolls up his (serpent) bed and leaves the Kanchi temple without the slightest pause and follows his devotee. When they return, the all-knowing Narayana does not remember whether he was facing left or right when he got up and departed. He reclines in a direction opposite to the conventional left-to-right that we see in other temples.
When viewed purely textually and intellectually sans Shraddha, the sacred works emerging from different schools of dharma can create ‘anxiety’ in the minds of the ‘analyst’ depending on the Sampradaya they associate themselves with. It also provides fodder to the outsider lens to exploit this anxiety via spurious interpretations. Practitioners of Sanathana Dharma who approach these works with Shraddha and mutual respect and fully immerse themselves in the verses of the Alvars and Nayanmars exhibit little anxiety. The different Vedanta schools attest to one ultimate reality (the Supreme Consciousness) even though their realizations regarding the nature of this unity differ. Sri Jiva Goswami later harmonized Adi Sankara’s and Ramanuja’s vision, where the divine manifestations experienced by the devotee are based on his or her capacity .
Thirumazhisai Alvar is an exemplar in this context who rose from a most humble background and overcame many obstacles to become a great scholar and earned the praise of Rudra himself for his devotion to Vishnu. The Thirupparkadal mentioned in Thirumazhisai Alvar’s Naanmukan Thiruvandhadhi is a sacred spot in Tamilnadu where one can find one of the great temples of the world. Here, Hindus can visualize and celebrate the oneness of Siva and Vishnu. Let us fold our hands and pay obeisance to this great Alvar.
References and Further Reading
Dr. N. Ranganathan. Sri Thirumazhisai Piran’s Thirucchanda Viruttam
(Text with a free translation and Commentary). Published by N. Rajagopalan. Chennai. 2003.
Dr. N. Ranganathan. Sri Thirumazhisai Piran’s Naanmukan Thiruvandhadhi (Text with a free translation and Commentary). Published by N. Rajagopalan. Chennai. 1999.
Rajiv Malhotra. Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. Harper Collins. 2011.
"அன்று இரவு கண் துயிலார்
புலர்ந்து அதற்பின் அங்கு எய்த
ஒன்றியணை தரு தன்மை உறு
குலத்தோடு இசைவு இல்லை
என்று இதுவும் எம்பெருமான் ஏவல்
எனப் போக்கு ஒழிவார்
நன்றுமெழுங் காதல் மிக
நாளைப் போவேன் என்பார்."
– Sekkizhar, Periyapuranam .
Nandanaar, the peerless Siva Bhakta is worshiped as one of the sixty-three Naayanmars (Naayanars) in Tamizh Nadu. His life story is recounted in 37 Tamizh stanzas in the திருநாளைப் போவர் நாயனார் புராணம் as part of the hallowed Periyapuranam of Sekkizhar (சேக்கிழார்) composed in the 12th century. These uplifting verses capture the deepest of human emotions and dharmic ideals and never fail to touch our Atma. The puranam of ‘Thiru Naalai-ppovaar Naayanar’ takes us to the very roots of Sanatana Dharma. Let us recall with reverence our Naayanars and Alvars who ensured that our Kalacharam, Dharma, and Tamizh Mozhi flourish in Bharatam to this day.
Sekkizhar’s verses on Nandanaar start by describing the prosperity of the town of Aaathanoor (ஆதனூர்) in Melkanadu (மேற்காநாட்டு) of the Chola country whose fertile lands are irrigated by the pristine waters of the Kollidam river. The Pulaiyar community lived in the outskirts of this town in thatched huts. They were farmers, agricultural workers, and leather craftsmen. Sekkizhar describes the different kinds of trees that grow there and talks about the daily activities of the men, women, and children who lived there. In this community was born Nandanaar. From a very young age, he continually meditated on Siva even as he engaged in the profession of leather craft he inherited.
"He came to be born with the continuum of consciousness
Of true love for the ankleted feet of the Lord;
He, the peerless one, called Nandanar, flourished
In that slum of Pulaiyas; he was entitled
To the hereditary rights of his clan."
- A translation of Periyapuranam .
Nandanaar met his basic needs from the money given by the town for his services as the ‘town-crier’ who beats the drum and makes announcements. He gave up all worldly desires and dedicated his life to the worship and service of Siva. His leather-work profession was performed entirely as a Seva to all the nearby temples. For their Pooja, he provided Gorochanai. For their drums and other musical instruments, he provided the leather covers, animal skins, and binding straps. For their Veenas and the ancient stringed Tamizh instrument, the Yazh, he produced the various animal ‘guts’ derived from their intestines.
When we perform actions selflessly, it will eventually result in a pure mind. Through this, the ultimate awareness “I am Siva” rises. Along with that, the harmony of Nature is also preserved. – #Ammapic.twitter.com/ncWF6fPJhj
Yet this enlightened and most humble devotee of Siva would not enter any of the temples he served with great devotion lest his ‘low birth’ desecrate the temple traditions. He would visit a temple carrying his leather straps on his back, and stand outside the entrance trying to catch a glimpse of the deity. He would then dance and sing songs in praise of Siva and return home to continue his seva.
Once Nandanaar meditated on the feet of Sivalokanathan, the deity at Tirupoonkur and drawn to that deity, he decided to visit the temple. There he sang songs in praise of Siva and pleaded with him so he could get a direct glimpse of the divine he had worshiped for long but had not yet fully seen. The large Nandi of the Siva temple there that faces the deity blocked his direct view. Sivalokanathar commanded Nandi to move aside so his devotee could have his darisanam. Overjoyed, the Siva Bhakta sang songs in praise of Siva. Next, Nandanaar eyed a depression in the land next to the temple, and proceeded to excavate a water tank for the service of the temple. He then performed a pradakshina (circumambulation) of the temple before taking his leave.
Since Nandanaar's visit, the large Nandi in Tirupoonkur sits slightly aside.
Saint Nandanaar eventually visited and served all the nearby temples in this manner. Over time, the desire to see and worship the magnificent Nataraja at Tillai (Chidambaram) with his own eyes grew. He contemplated this night and day and the intensity of his devotion and love for the deity grew. This most sacred of spaces was managed by the ‘three thousand servitors’ (தில்லை மூவாயிரம்) who bound themselves completely to Tillai in the service of the same deity that Nandanaar wanted to behold and worship. Sekkizhar’s Periyapuranam praises the Dikshitars, who are compared to the Ganas of Siva.
Every night, Nandanaar would remain awake and meditate on Siva as Nataraja and every morning, he would decide against going to Chidambaram that day. The Tamizh verses describing the inner conflict and anguish of the Bhakta will melt even the hardest of heart:
அன்று இரவு கண் துயிலார்
புலர்ந்து அதற்பின் அங்கு எய்த
ஒன்றியணை தரு தன்மை உறு
குலத்தோடு இசைவு இல்லை
என்று இதுவும் எம்பெருமான் ஏவல்
எனப் போக்கு ஒழிவார்
நன்றுமெழுங் காதல் மிக
நாளைப் போவேன் என்பார்." - .
He would not sleep during night; when day broke
He would think thus: “My low and inferior birth
Will not suffer my adoring at that holy shrine;
Even this thought comes to me by my Lord’s fiat.”
Thus thinking he would smother all attempts of visit;
Yet when nobly-bred love increasingly importuned him
He would say: “I’ll go to-morrow.” - .
Nandanaar’s distress regarding his birth and Kulam (clan/community) barring his spiritual union with Nataraja is brought out in multiple verses :
“ஒன்றியணை தரு தன்மை உறு
குலத்தோடு இசைவு இல்லை” – 21
“மடங்கள் நெருங்கினவும் கண்டு
அல்கும் தம் குலம் நினைந்தே”- 23
“இன்னல் தரும் இழி பிறவி இது” – 27
Through this unending tussle every night and day, he became known as ‘Thiru Naalaippovaar’ (he who would go tomorrow). And then one day, his love for his lord prevailed and he set out for Chidambaram and made it as far as the outskirts where he could see the smoke rising from the sacrificial fires of the Dikshitars in the town. He could hear them chanting the Vedas. He imagined the inside of the fortified town as it had been described. He knew the sacred mathams were nearby and remembered his kulam and ‘low’ birth and did not go further. He went around the town in circles for days and nights wondering when he could catch a glimpse of Nataraja. Nandanaar’s conflict had merely relocated closer to Tillai; his worldly identity could not move any further toward his deity and nor would the true enlightened self consider retreat. Finally, the Supreme deity of Chitrambalam reached out to his Bhaktas.
“This (my wretched birth) is sure the clog.”
Thus thinking he slept; the gracious Lord
Of the Ambalam sensed his distress and to end
All the miseries of the aeviternal servitor,
He appeared in his dream with a gracious smile. ” – 
“The gracious Dancing Lord now chose to allay all the sorrow of His devotee. With a gentle smile playing on His lips, He spoke: “To get rid of this birth, you may enter the flaming fire and emerge hallowed in the company of those wearing the three-stranded sacred thread.”” – .
The Vedic Brahmanas of Tillai were struck with fear hearing the command of Siva to prepare a fire for Nandanaar. With only Siva in his thoughts, Nandanaar entered their fire without hesitation and emerged unscathed to everyone’s joy. The apparent duality dissolved and the true self beyond limited identities was revealed. He arose from the fire as a ‘Marai Muni’, a self-realized Vedic sage who has experienced the truth of the Shruti. Everyone in Tillai bowed in reverence and adoration. Nandanaar, followed by the assembly, proceeded into the temple for the first time and worshiped the dancing deity and thereafter merged into Siva.
“Thus did the Lord out of His grace, cut asunder the bonds of all ‘karmas’ of the devotee and made him delight for ever in the bliss of His Lotus feet.” .
மாசு உடம்பு விடத் தீயின்
மஞ்சனம் செய்து அருளி எழுந்து
ஆசில் மறை முனியாகி
அம்பலவர் தாள் அடைந்தார்
தேசுடைய கழல் வாழ்த்தித் திருக்
குறிப்புத் தொண்டர் வினைப்
பாசம் உற முயன்றவர்தம் திருத்
தொண்டின் பரிசு உரைப்பாம் - 
Humbled was the ego of those among the guardians of Tillai who could not see Siva within Nandanaar. The final act establishes the inner fire of spiritual purity as supreme and brilliantly inverts the meaning of ‘untouchable’ in the case of Nandanaar who was beyond mortal desires:
“An unexampled exception in the mode of worship was made by the Lord in the case of Nandanar, the untouchable. Yes, he was an untouchable and no evil or pollution could ever touch him. The Lord demonstrated to the world the fact that he was even greater than the Tillai Brahmins“- .
Thus ends the mortal portion of the story of Thiru Naalaippovaar Nayanaar documented in the Periyapuranam. Nandanaar lives forever as one among the 63 Nayanmars whose Murthis grace multiple prominent Hindu temples including the Meenakshi Amman Kovil in Madurai.
The Periyapuranam is the twelfth among the twelve devotional Stotram canons (Panniru Tirumurai) in the Tamizh Saiva tradition and consists of 4253 verses. Its author Sekkizhar was a contemporary of Chola king Anapaya (Kulathunga Chola-2) who was a great devotee of Nataraja at Chidambaram. Sekkizhar authored the Periyapuranam in the 12th century and called it the Thiruthondar Puranam, the Sacred Anthology of the Servitors of Siva. The main purpose of reading or listening to these verses is the purification of one’s mind (Chitta Shuddhi). Sekkizhar expanded upon the prior work Thiruthondatthohai of Sundarar (one of the divine trinity of Saivite Saints that includes Appar and Sambandar) in the 8th century, followed by Nambiyaandaar Nambi’s Thiruthondar Thiruantadi in the 11th century.
As Sundarar’s original work only provided a brief summary of the Nayanaars, Sekkizhar visited all the locations associated with the Nayanaars and studied the inscriptions and other material to document an authoritative and more detailed account of their lives and contributions. Ramana Maharishi‘s spiritual journey was inspired by his reading of the Periyapuranam at a young age:
“Towards the end of 1895 (perhaps a few months after hearing about Arunachalam from a relation) he found at home a copy of the Periya Puraanam which his uncle had borrowed. This was the first religious book that he went through apart from his class lessons and it interested him greatly…. It transported him to a different world…. ”
The 63 Nayanmars in the Periyapuranam come from all sections of the society and include both women and men. Nandanaar was a leather worker whose raw materials were the carcasses of domestic animals, while Thiru Neelakanta Naayanar was born in a potter clan. The revered Saint Kannappan was a hunter, while several others were vendors, merchants, priests, kings, soldiers, etc. All are recognized as Jivanmuktas who had gave up all worldly desires to seek refuge at the feet of Siva . Each of their life stories are remarkable and teach us lessons in self-realization and dharma. In the case of Nandanaar whose Siva-Consciousness was evident from an early age, it was not only about Mukti but also about Nataraja imparting a valuable and timeless lesson to devotees.
Sri Gopalakrishna Bharathi, a great composer of Carnatic Sangeetam came up with an operatic musical version, the Nandana Charitram in the 1860s. This work is recognized for its highest musical and lyrical quality. However, Sri Bharathi introduced imaginary events inspired by the social-political churn in British-occupied India. Few doubted the reformative intent of Bharathi and this part-fictional version became popular all over India through Carnatic compositions, Bharatanatyam recitals, Harikatha, and feature films. An interesting story of Bharathi’s work and its critique by the renowned scholar, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai is recounted here .
It should come as no great surprise to contemporary readers that this version has been seized upon by western academia and politicians for its ‘Breaking India’ propaganda value. Using a western lens, Itihasa is dismissed as mythology and Periyapuranam is reduced to hagiography. In this framework, the spiritual context, the transcendental nature of the millennium-old story of dharma, the seva and tapas of Nandanaar, and the central idea of Siva Bhakti are either distorted or discarded. Instead, speculative and divisive commentaries totally contrary to the Periyapuranam are produced.
The life of Nandanaar as told by Sekkizhar brings to mind other sacred stories from our Itihasa and Puranas including Bhakta Prahalad who emerged from the fire unscathed while the ‘fireproof materialist’ Holika did not; we find parallels in the life of Bhakti saint Mira who overcame many barriers and ultimately merged into Krishna. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s book on The Untouchables is dedicated to a trinity of Hindu saints : Nandanaar, along with Sant Chokamela, the great devotee of Vithoba from Maharashtra, and Sant Ravidas the disciple of the Vaishnava Saint Sri Ramananda, and the guru of Mira.
The Chidambaram temple where Nandanaar Muni merged into Siva has endured many trials and violent attacks in the last millennium and has emerged stronger each time. The Dikshitars have protected the Tillai deity throughout history and many gave their lives defending the temple against a barbaric assault by Malik Kafur in 1310-11. The temple became one of the first to welcome people from all sections of the society to worship Nataraja. The Dikshitars continue their millennia-old hereditary tradition of serving the Tillai deity despite severe economic and social hardship .
Today, leather workers in India can not only set up thriving businesses, they are leaders of the Samaj who inspire and support others in distress. Such achievements have been recognized by the Indian Government, and by the Prime Minister’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ social media handle on Women’s day.
Rupali Shinde transformed her caste occupation of treating the carcass of dead animals into a thriving business in leather based musical instruments. She mentored 1,000 drought affected women to start their own ventures and is known as ‘Rural Digital Guru’. #SheInspiresUspic.twitter.com/ZVOQx0upx1
Vishnuchittar was born to Mukunda Bhattar and Padumavalli in Srivilliputtur (less than 100 Km from Madurai) in the Pandya Kingdom. A date range given for his birth is the 8th-9th century CE. The boy developed a sense of devotion and service toward Mahavishnu from a very young age, and he thought of the best way he could serve his deity every day. His natural affinity for the Krishna avatar reminded him of a story of Sri Krishna who sought out Kamsa’s garland maker in Mathura and wore his garlands with joy. Vishnuchittar thereafter created a beautiful flower garden in Srivilliputtur, and would pick a variety of flowers from there to prepare garlands and offer it to Vatapatrasayee, the deity of the temple there. Vishnuchittar continued this practice for long and it is clear from the amazing incidents in his life that Bhagavan bestowed his grace upon this ardent devotee.
A main reference for this introduction to the life and work of Periyalvar is the book by Thiru M.P. Srinivasan .
During this time, Sree Vallabha Devan was the Pandya king who ruled from the capital city of Madurai. He was a great and dharmic ruler like so many Tamizh kings and leaders who built Tamil Nadu, the land of the Vedas. While doing a round of the city one night, the king chanced upon a person sleeping alone outside and woke him up. After learning that he was a Brahman who’d returned after bathing in the sacred waters of Mother Ganga, the king requested him to share a dharmic truth with him. The Brahman’s reply was a simple yet amazing Shloka that said:
“search what you want during the rainy season in the previous eight months, what is needed in the night during day-time, what is required in old age during youthful days, and what is essential for the other life, search in the life now.” .
The king was lost in thought especially about the direction given in the last part of a shloka that seamlessly blends the earthly cycles and spiritual realm to make that transcendental point so natural. The King’s adviser suggested he invite the dharmic scholars in his kingdom to find a convincing answer to the nature of ultimate reality; regarding paratvam, which could also answer the King’s question- ‘what effort do we put it today, in this world, to attain transcendental bliss’. The King agreed, and offered a purse of gold to any scholar in the land who could debate this issue and convincingly answer this question. Vishnuchittar was directed by the Srivilliputtur deity, Vatapatrasayee, to proceed to Madurai. Vishnuchittar was able to debate and explain to the august gathering present that indeed, Vishnu was the ultimate reality, ‘the indisputable truth that cannot be surpassed by any reality’; surrendering to the feet of Vishnu, the one who grants the Purusharthas would bring Moksha. He was able to substantiate his response on paratvam, and the story goes that the golden purse tied atop the pole bent down toward Vishnuchittar.
The king was overjoyed by the words of Vishnuchittar that eloquently reflected the teachings of Vedanta and answered the question that had confounded him, and hailed him as ’Bhattarpiraan’. As the seer was being taken in an open procession around the city on an elephant, he experienced a divine vision of Bhagavan Vishnu and Mahalakshmi atop Garuda. The devotee of Vishnu was overcome with love and affection for his deity and sang the twelve great verses of ‘Pallandu’, wishing for the welfare and well-being of the infinite divine for many, many years. After this amazing event, he became known as Periyalvar.
Periyalvar returned to Srivilliputtur, dedicated the gold purse to the temple, and continued his service of preparing flower garlands for his deity. He immersed himself within the Krishna avataram and composed his profound Thirumozhi. Baby Andal (Godai Devi) was found near the Tulasi plant in his garden, and Periyalvar brought her up as his daughter. Andal as an ardent devotee of Vishnu, continued the divine service of Periyalvar. She learned from her father’s teachings of the Vedas and Vedanta and soon became an accomplished scholar of dharma. She composed great works, and is revered as one of the twelve alvars. You can read more about Andal in this sublime essay.
It is said that Periyalvar spent his last mortal years in Thirumaliruncholai and at age 85 reached the lotus feet of his deity he had served from birth. This is a brief biography of the peerless Periyalvar. Let us remember the twelve alvars who dedicated their lives to dharma and brought the genuine message of love and peace to the common people through their shraddha and sadhana.
The Twelve Alvars
The divine songs of the twelve Alvars form the Nalayira Divya Prabandam. The songs of the Alvars and Nayanmars sung in the native language of Tamizh cut across all classes of the society to touch all people of Tamilnadu. Eventually the Bhakti movement of Hinduism spread all over India and profoundly influenced Indic thought. The Alvars and Nayanmars are a major reason for the unbroken dharmika beliefs of Tamizhs and the prosperity of தமிழ் மொழி itself, which continues to this day. It is simply not possible to fully understand Tamilnadu’s dynamics until one comprehends the depth of its diverse dharma traditions.
A brief review of two important works of Periyalvar is presented noting that this can only be a layperson understanding of the profound ideas they contain. The references and recommended reading at the end of the post may guide readers deeper into these sacred works.
ThiruPallandu comprise the opening verses of the sacred Divya Prabandam and has 12 pasurams, each of which end with the words ‘Pallandu Pallandu’ (many, many years). In Tamizh, the prefix ‘Thiru’ signifies the qualities of divinity, sacredness, and respect. The first Pasuram has two lines and the remaining have four lines each.
Embedded within these verses are the deepest truths of Vendanta. A remarkable aspect of these verses is that the devotee’s plea to Mahavishnu is not for himself, but for the welfare of the supreme deity Vishnu. And since Narayana is the One, ultimate reality as Periyalvar explained with Pramanas in the Pandyan capital city, as a layman reader we can understand this plea as one that is automatically for the welfare of everything within and without the cosmos.
The linked video provides brief English translations for each of the 12 verses. A simple translation of the first verse is given below.
“Formany years, many years, many thousands of years, many crores of hundred thousands more, The Gem-hued One with mighty shoulders that defeated wrestlers, may your blissful feet (entire form) be well protected and safe.”
Scholars say that just like the Pranavam/Omkaram is chanted before and after the Vedas are recited, so too is the Pallandu, whose depth and meaning is like the Omkaram, chanted before the Divya Prabandam. Vishnuchittar, ardent devotee of Sri Vishnu since childhood, and then a celebrated Vedic scholar after his discourse in the Pandya King’s court, became revered as Periyalvar after reciting the Pallandu. It can be asked how and why this pride of place is given to Vishnuchittar, who was not the first Alvar. Dharma scholars have responded and shed light on a truly remarkable quality of Periyalvar:
When mere mortals and Bhaktas appear before their deity, the request is usually for the all-powerful Bhagavan to protect them and guide them along the path of dharma. But Vishnuchittar asked not for his own protection or guidance, but instead, asked for the welfare of the all-powerful. He is concerned about the well-being of his lord and sings the Pallandu. The thought does not cross his mind, even for an instant, about his ‘status’ and ‘propriety’ and ‘rationality’ behind his request to protect the One who is the supreme protector! Scholar Pillailokaachaariyyar  explains this apparent paradox, noting that in the Jnana stage, the protector-protege state remains, and is transcended in the Prema stage where this relationship is reversed by the overflowing love and immeasurable affection of the devotee for the lord. Periyalvar is doing his Mangalaasaasanamto the lord, just as in the Ramayana, the noble Jatayu blesses the divine and all-powerful Sri Rama. The Srivaishnava tradition recognizes Jatayu as Periya Udaiyaar and likewise, Vishnuchittar became Periyalvar and the wise elders accept the Thirupallandu completely.
Scholars note that this Thirupallandu tradition can also be seen in the pasurams of Thiruppavai composed by Periyalvar’s daughter, the divine Andal. They also state that within the twelve pasurams of the Pallandu , the “essence of the Vedanta has been concisely rendered and the meanings of the Thirumantiram and Arthapanchakam are also provided succinctly.” There exists a long tradition of the musical rendering of the Pallandu, and as mentioned in the Thiruppavai, the singers were known as ‘Pallantisaippar’ . Bhakta-scholars who experienced the depth and beauty of the Thirupallandu wonder if there is any art comparable to this work and if there is anyone comparable to Periyalvar?
Periyalvar’s work has a total of 461 pasurams (473, when we include the Thirupallandu) celebrating the young Sri Krishna starting with his birth and continuing through his divine childhood pranks and events of his early youth. There are 43 Patikams each with 10 or 11 pasurams, with each Patikam considered a Thirumozhi. There is a total of 5 decads (sets of 10 Thirumozhi). In these verses, Periyalvar’s affection for little Krishna, avatar of Mahavishnu, knows no bounds and such is his goodness, such is the integrity of Periyalvar’s devotion that he transcends powerful worldly identities including ‘Jati’ and ‘gender’ to speak of his blissful experiences of the childhood of Krishna as his mother Yashodha, and as the gopikas who adore Krishna. When we listen to the verses, we do not hear Periyalvar the towering scholar and accomplished poet; we simply behold mother Yashodha in front of us bathing little Krishna, singing to Kannan, pleading with him, in awe of her boy, admonishing the divine child for his mischief. It is difficult to find a parallel to this, as another great devotee of Sri Krishna, the Bhakti poet-saint Surdas would later sing: “jo sukh Sur Amar-Muni duralabh, so nandabhamini paavai” – This joy that Yashodha experienced is so special and rare, it cannot be attained even by the Devatas and Munis.
A refocus on these contributions of Periyalvar and Andal would greatly benefit a world that is increasingly divided by gender and class wars and losing itself in a maze of identity-driven dualities.
The above ‘Manikkam Katti’ verse is part of a cradle song (தாலாட்டு பாடல்) sung by mother Yashodha as she puts Kannan to sleep in an ornate gem-lined golden cradle. She sings a lullaby to the divine baby ensconced within this small cradle while recalling his Vamana avatar whose strides measure the cosmos! .
The verses are full of genuine ‘Krishna-consciousness’ and those fortunate enough to listen to the Thirumozhi without distraction will surely experience bliss too. Such verses could only have emerged from the deepest realized experiences of Periyalvar, and like we saw with Kavichakravarthi Kamban and his Ramavataram before, the literary artistry does not come across as a separate material addition, but could only have poured out of Bhakti and Consciousness.
Two examples from the Thirumozhi are given below to bring out some interesting literary aspects of its poetry.
This above verse is focused on Krishna the cowherd who is grazing the cattle and wearing a traditional pendant made of peacock feathers. It is but one of the many verses that is at ease with the folk language, rural themes and traditions, which is very different from the western ‘ivory tower’ erudition that is intended for an academic audience. The verses often include common dialect, and in other places introduces Sanskrit words that are understood and used by Tamizhs. Scholars found several Tamizh words that have no direct English equivalent and have to be retained as is the English translation as Tamizh non-translatables. The commentators note the clear influence of folk literature that makes this work accessible to everyone.
The part-verse shown above is an example of the use of simile by Periyalvar. He transforms an everyday, common creature like a lizard into poetic delight. He compares the effortless compactness and firmness with which Kannan wears the sword on his waist to the grip of a lizard on the wall without any gap. ‘To be so is the lizard’s nature’ .
Scholars note that Periyalvar’s work is of the highest caliber in skill, imagination, emotion, and poetic expression. Beyond aesthetics, scholars have also explained how the verses reflect Vendantic concepts and Srivaishnava philosophy. They note that this ending pasuram below brings out a profound concept of Vishishtadvaita, where Periyalvar ultimately places himself in the lord who also resides within him.
What is presented here is a mere glimpse of the contributions of Periyalvar. Let us listen to the Thirupallandu and Thirumozhi and recall Periyalvar whose enlightened thoughts and steadfast Bhakti continue to guide generations of Tamizhs and dharmikas all over the world.
The book by Thiru M.P.Srinivasan can be purchased here.
References and Further Reading
Makers of Indian Literature Series. Periyalvar. M.P. Srinivasan. English translation by Padma Srinivasan. Sahitya Akademi. 2014.
After having the privilege of publishing this sublime essay on Andal Devi, it is only appropriate to devote this post to Kamban, the emperor of poetry and devotee of Nammalwar.
Kamban was born in Thiruvazhundur in the Thanjavur area of the Chola kingdom. Multiple scholars and historians place him in the 9th century CE, while others trace Kamban to the 12th-13th century CE. A 9th century birth may locate Kamban after Adi Sankara and before Sri Ramanujacharya, while the latter date places him after the two great Acharyas. In any event, Kamban belongs to the third great wave of Tamizh literature that started with the Sangam period (dated before the Common Era), followed by the widespread impact of Bhakti literature of the Alwars and Nayanmars between the 6th-9th century CE  (noting that many trace the start of the Alwars to a few thousand years ago or to the early part of the 1st millennium). The are many popular stories about how Kamban got his name. It has been mentioned that Kamban’s father, Athavan was a priest, although some claim that he was a temple drummer. Growing up within a temple environment would have aided his learning of Hindu scriptures and contributed to his expertise in both Sanskrit and Tamizh. It is known without doubt that his patron was Sadayappan Vallal (possibly a landlord or chieftain) of Thiruvennainallur as he is acknowledged several times in Kamban’s works. Kamban was a devotee of Nammalwar and his Kula Deivam (family deity) was Sri Narasimha. It is said that he finalized his Ramavataram Mahakavyam in Srirangam and presented the கம்ப ராமாயணம் to the world. The story of how this divine poem came about is a quintessentially Indian one.
There were other literary luminaries in the Kamban era include Ottakuttan and Pugazhendi. The story  goes that Ottakuttan, a poet in the Chola court was a noted critic of poetry and a master of the prevailing norms of grammar, syntax, and prosody. None were able to challenge this ‘tyranny’ until Kamban emerged as a literary rival whose brilliance would transcend prevailing conventions. Kamban soon established himself as the leading poet in the royal court. Both poets were challenged with the task of putting the Ramayana to Tamizh verse. The days went by and Ottakuttan worked away industriously while Kamban appeared to be taking his own sweet time to get started.
One day, the King queried them about their progress and Kamban’s response was that he was now working on the Rama Setu story. Ottakuttan felt that this was impossible and challenged him to recite a verse from that portion, which Kamban did. Did Kamban’s genius produce that beautiful verse impromptu to stun the listeners, or was the entire Ramayana embedded in Kamban’s consciousness all the time? In any case, Ottakuttan challenged the use of the word ‘thumi’ for ‘droplet’ instead of ‘thuli’. Kamban’s response was that it was part of popular usage. To verify Kamban’s claim, the trio traveled to the town where they saw and heard a shepherd maid churning curd using ‘thumi’ to refer to a drop of curd, and vanish thereafter. Was ‘thumi’ already part of popular usage, or did, as Ottakuttan felt, Mother Saraswati arrive in the guise of a shepherd maid to support Kamban’s invention and protect the sacred work that he would soon be gifting to the world?
The legend has a beautiful ending. A frustrated Ottakuttan tore up his grammatically and syntactically perfect work. How could one hope to compete with Devi Saraswati’s son? Kamban arrives at Ottakuttan’s house to find his ‘Uttara Ramayanam’ intact. He gets Ottakuttan’s permission to include it as the final canto of his work. Their diverse literary approaches are harmonized, and this Tamizh unity dissolves any rivalry to serve the higher cause of dharma. Scholars mention that in addition to Valimiki’s Ramayana, Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa may have been the other Sanskrit source studied by Kamban to compose his masterpiece. Thus Kamban’s Ramavataram also embodies the unity of Sanskrit and Tamizh Kaviyam .
“Kamba Ramayanam was composed by him about the eight hundred and eighties and according to the procedure of those days was recited by him for approval to an audience of the literary elite — a sort of Academy of Letters — assembled in Srirangam in the month of Panguni (March-April) of the year 807 of the Salivahana Sakabda (885 a.d.) on the full-moon day when the star Uttaram was in the ascendant.” .
The original Ramavataram  contains more than 10,000 verses (40,000 lines) and is divided into six Kandams that are further subdivided into several padalams.
The composition uses nearly 100 variations of Tamizh metres: Kali, Viruttum, and Turai . Kamban’s composition ends with the return of Sri Rama and Devi Sita to Ayodhya after the victory over Ravana. It occupies the pride of place in Tamizh poetry and literature, and influenced Tamizh, Indian, and Asian art, aesthetics, and literature over centuries. For this monumental contribution, Kamban is rightly hailed as Kavichakravarthi, the emperor of poetry.
This brief post merely recalls some findings of many great Indian scholars of Sanskrit and Tamizh who immersed themselves in Kamban’s Ramavataram for decades.
At least four other works have been attributed to Kamban including Saraswati Antadi, Sadagopar Antadi, Silaiyezhupathu, and Aerezhupathu. Not surprisingly, his Ramayanam overshadows these contributions and the remainder of the post focuses on this work.
Indic scholars have noted the importance of context in the literary works of India . Kavyas were not secular poem fragments written in a top-down manner for ivory-tower intellectuals like it is in Europe. Kavyas are extraordinary multi-layered integral works that transcend the mundane and resonate with a variety of audiences , and the Kamba Ramayanam has to be viewed in this context. By the 9th century, Sri Ramachandra Murthi and Mother Sita of Adikavi Valmiki were beloved deities of the Tamizhs and all of India and parts of Asia. They are mentioned with reverence in Tamizh literature right from the ancient Silapatikaram and Manimekalai. Songs composed by Alwar Saints further elevated their place in the minds of the ordinary Tamizh. It would appear that Tamizh literature had already reached its peak. However, Kamban took Tamizh to a different level.
“It appeared as if all the potentialities of the language had been thoroughly exploited before Kamban’s arrival. But, in spite of these handicaps, Kamban’s genius gave to the language fresh powers of articulation and made it serve the pure perfection of poetry… whose intense poetic genius broke the accepted moulds of grammar and who invented patterns of verbal harmonics which far transcended the conventional scales..” – S. Maharajan.
The Ramavataram Mahakavyamis first and foremost a work of dharma. Starting from the latter half of the 9th century and until the 13th century, the Tamizhs were at the peak of their economic, cultural, and military prosperity during the long rule of the great Chola dynasty. The vast ocean space around the east coast of India, Sri Lanka, and South East Asia were coming under Tamizh suzerainty. Commentator and author A. S. Gnanasambandan’s views [6, 8] suggest that an unbridled material and artistic progress also brought along undesirable behavioral changes across the society, from king to commoner. Sita Devi was always the epitome of virtue and an exemplar for women and queens. Kamban’s work reinforced the need for kings and men to look up to Rama’s conduct and emulate Sri Ramachandra who was devoted only to Sita Devi. More generally, an excessive focus on Artha and Kama in the society has to be moderated by re-emphasizing Dharma and Moksha. A dry Tamizh translation of Sage Valmiki’s Sanskrit kavya was unlikely to produce the impact required to stir and elevate the consciousness of a people. Just as Mahavishnu’s avatar descends down to earth from time to time in diverse forms to restore dharma, so too, it seems, will the transcendental Kavya of Ramayana be recreated with Shraddha and retold for the spiritual benefit of many generations.
Kamban’s Kosala leaps out of the pages as they depict his vision of a dharmic Tamizh land; the king was guided by dharma; women were blessed with wealth and lasting education; everyone was a scholar there; the country was prosperous and its people were generous, and beautiful because their external beauty mirrored their inner culture. “The people of Kosala did not live illusory lives” – H.V. Hande . As India makes rapid material progress in the 21st century, it becomes doubly important to not lose its dharmic mooring. Tamil Nadu needs Kamba Ramayanam today more than ever.
Unfortunately, it (Shraddha) has nearly vanished from #India, & this is why v r in our present state.
What makes the difference between man and man is d difference in this #Shraddha and nothing else….
Ramavataram is not a translation of Valmiki Ramayana. Indeed, all the great poet-saints of India knew the ineffectiveness and loss in transmission that occurs when we try to translate prior works across languages . This is especially true of Sanskrit kavyas, which are rich in dharmic non-translatable keywords . Kamban’s work is an original masterpiece that is full of Rama Bhakti. It is built on and celebrates Rishi Valmiki’s work in Sanskrit, the devabhasha. Kamban’s Tamizh are the blessings of Mother Saraswati and therefore it is not surprising that a true seeker will be able to find embedded within its exquisite Tamizh, the nuanced concepts of enlightenment, the purusharthas and the wisdom of the Upanishads.
“[Kamban] has not merely taken his theme from the greatest of Samskrit epics but has followed it in almost every detail step by step. He has himself challenged comparison, though in all humility, with the first of Samskrit poets, and yet not one of the critics who have compared his work with that of Valmiki has ever denied him place among the greatest poets of the world. It is now for the larger critical audience of India and of the rest of the world to appraise Kamban’s work and adjudge to him his proper place among the sons of Saraswati.” – V Venkatesa Subramanya Iyer .
How does Kamban himself view his work and Sage Valmiki’s? Kamban’s preface verses translated below reveal the humility and Shraddha with which an enlightened master like Kamban approached the Ramayana in order to compose his own verses.
“My efforts to narrate the story of the flawless and victorious Rama can be compared to the efforts of a cat reaching the roaring ocean of milk and trying to drink it all up. Rama’s arrows are as infallible as the curse of the learned. The history of this great Rama was written by Sage Valmeeki. While his poem has been widely acclaimed as the best in the country, I, the humblest of the humble, have dared to compose my own verses. In spite of the worldly humiliation that I might suffer and the consequent blemish that I might attract, if I have composed these verses, it is solely because of my earnest desire to show to the world the greatness of the divine poem composed by Valmeeki, who has mastered the art of flawless poetic creation.”- H. V. Hande .
The entire cosmos joyfully and vividly participates in the Kamba Ramayanam. The very first verse contains a profound exposition of the Hindu dharmic worldview, invoking and surrendering to god (as cosmos and human) who in an endless divine play creates and resides in the universe, protects, and dissolves it. Popular commentator Suki Sivam notes here that Kamban does not use the word ‘padaitthal’ that would indicate an external agency, but the phrase ‘thaam ula aakkalum’ that is consistent with Vedic cosmology.
உலகம் யாவையும் தாம் உள ஆக்கலும்
நிலை பெறுத்தலும் நீக்கலும் நீங்கலா
அலகு இலா விளையாட்டு உடையார் அவர்
தலைவர் அன்னவர்க்கே சரண் நாங்களே -
This profound concept is discussed in different ways in various Kandams. For example, the responses of Rama are so human at times that it initially puzzles others. In the Yuddha Kandam, upon seeing the seemingly lifeless body of Ilakkuvan (Lakshmana) on the battlefield, Rama becomes agitated and overcome by a sense of failure and grief; he is rendered speechless and swoons. The Devas are distraught after witnessing this scene. Their response as they unravel this puzzle enlightens the listeners about god’s divine game (leelai) and the nature of ultimate reality.
அண்டம் பலவும்; அனைத்து உயிரும்,
அகத்தும் புறத்தும் உள ஆக்கி,
உண்டும் உமிழ்ந்தும், அளந்து இடந்தும்,
உள்ளும் புறத்தும் உளை ஆகிக்
கொண்டு, சிலம்பிதன் வாயின் நூலால் இயையக் கூடு இயற்றி,
பண்டும் இன்றும் அமைக்கின்ற
படியை ஒருவாய் பரமேட்டி!
“O Lord Vishnu, you had swallowed all the worlds and all beings and brought them out later. You had kept them within and without, measured them, dug them out and remained in and out of them. You emulate the spider which spins its web with a thin thread produced from its mouth. You keep on indulging in these acts perennially. O Lord, sorrow really never overtakes you. Your sufferings are only your pleasant pranks! To those who do not understand all this, your sufferings will cause agony which can be relieved only at your will. You have no beginning, middle or end. You appear as if you can be discerned by one’s senses, but in reality it is not so…” – translation .
Kamban’s use of the spider web metaphor brings home a fundamental Vedantic principle: “there is one Ultimate Reality that is Supreme Consciousness and that there is nothing independent of this reality. This Ultimate Reality is the raw material that turns itself into the universe…” – Rajiv Malhotra. Seers and Swadeshi scholars have used this metaphor for Ishwara or Brahman as the material as well as efficient cause of the universe .
Unless one is touched by the bliss of Rama Bhakti and realizes these truths in Kamban’s work, merely intellectualizing the Ramavataram, limiting its contribution to literary wizardry, or pulling verses out of context to prove the superiority or inferiority of some Sampradaya or language is an exercise in futility. The Ramayana is not just a socio-political text as seen by the materialist lens of western academia, but an integral, transmundane “magnificent work that is aligned to the ultimate purpose of life” .
Some favorite verses of the Tamizhs
A Verse from the Ayodhya Kandam
Kamban finds it impossible to express the infinite beauty and grace of Rama in a limited number of verses and expresses his anguish at this limitation .
வெய்யோன் ஒளி தன்மேனியில் விரிசோதியின் மறையப்
பொய்யோ எனும் இடையாளொடும் இளையானொடும், போனான்-
“மையோ, மரகதமோ, மறிகடலோ, மழை முகிலோ,
ஐயோ, இவன் வடிவு!” என்பதோர் அழியா அழகு உடையான். 
“Maiyyo, Maragathamo, Marikadalo, Mazhai Muhilo, Aiyyoo… ivan vaidivu!” – Is the dark Rama like the Mai (kohl) or the solid emerald, the ocean waves, or the dark vaporous clouds, alas, … no element in nature can completely express his beauty.
Hanuman’s first words to Rama after returning from Lanka.
Over time, many extraneous verses (about 2000) crept into the Ramavataram, and were later considered to be ‘Mihai Paadal’. Many of these verses are beautiful in their own right, such as this description of a key character of the Ramayana that is recited to this day in many Tamizh households. The simple and pleasant task of identifying this powerful deity is left to the reader.
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று பெற்றான், அஞ்சிலே ஒன்றைத் தாவி
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று ஆறு ஆக ஆரியர்காக ஏகி
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று பெற்ற அணங்கைக் கண்டு அயலார் ஊரில்
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்றை வைத்தான் அவன் நம்மை அளித்துக் காப்பான்
He who was born from one of the five crossed over one of the five
and made a path through one of the five for the noble prince (Arya)
to the city and find the one who was born from one of the five
where he ‘let loose’/’set’ one of the five. He will always protect us.
Kamban’s profound and exquisite verses naturally produced several generations of commentators and Tamizh scholars. It is said in Tamizh that even an inanimate object in Kamban’s house can recite poetry! Thousand years later, he inspired scholar-warriors from Tamil Nadu to selflessly participate in the Indian freedom movement of the 20th century. There have been many Ramayana works in Tamizh before and after, but it is Kamba Ramayanam and its lessons of dharma, karuna, prema, achara, and Bhakti that has remained in the Tamizh consciousness.
1910. Freedom fighter V. Venkatesa Subramanya Aiyar is in a London hotel, being tracked by the British police for his involvement in revolutionary activities aimed at overthrowing the colonial British Raj. To make a quick night escape to Amsterdam, he abandons most belongings, taking only the bare essentials. This includes a copy of the Kamba Ramayanam, a work he would later write a brilliant commentary on. -.
Kamban’s influence on Tamizh art and literature lasts to this day. The lyrical beauty of his verses, as well as the underlying Hindu cosmology are discussed. Reciting the verses from Kamba Ramayanam or a discourse is an art form that can be pleasing to the ear and spiritually healing and remains popular among diverse audiences from Madurai to San Jose, California, to Sydney, Australia.
“[Kamban] has been adjudged by his contemporaries, no mean judges of poetry, as the Emperor of the Realms of Poesy — a title which every succeeding generation in the Tamil country has been but confirming ever since.” – V Venkatesa Suramanya Iyer .
“with the birth of Kamba Ramayana the whole future of Tamil poetry was altered, and this masterpiece has been exercising the most profound impact upon the poetic sensibility of the Tamils during the last eleven centuries. A long series of learned men have been thrilling the masses, from the time of Kamban down to our own, with recitations from, and exposition of the Kamba Ramayana.”. – S. Maharajan .
Influence on Art and Culture
Dr R. Nagaswamy has studied Kamban’s impact on Indian sculpture from the 10th century CE : “his picturisation of Hanuman as the very incarnation of Vinaya, is a noteworthy feature of Kamban in his Tamil Ramayana. That this picturisation of Hanuman is found in all bronzes of 10th and 11th century A.D. shows the impact of Kamban’s concept of Hanuman on contemporary art and religious motifs. This also indicates that Kamban should have lived in 9th century A.D.”
Tholpavakoothu, the shadow-puppet play enacted in a few Kali temples in the Palakkadu District of Kerala is based on characters from the Ramayana, using the Kamba Ramayanam text as the basis for the performance. Similarly, the Nang Yai/Nang Talung shadow puppetry art of Thailand also includes scenes from the Thai Ramayana (Ramakien) that may have been influenced by Kamban’s work. One can also find the influence of Kamban’s work in Sinhala literature of the 19th century .
Kamban’s mastery over simile, metaphor, and delightful alliteration has left generations in awe. For example, in the Kishkinda Kandam, popular speaker Suki Sivam mentions how the words literally bound, leap, and skip inside a joyous Anjaneya as he announces the arrival of Rama and Lakshmana to King Sugriva after his first meeting with the brothers.
மண் உளார், விண்ணுளார்,
மாறு உளார், வேறு உளார்,
எண் உளார், இயலுளார்,
இசை உளார், திசை உளார்
கண் உளார் ஆயினார்;
பகை உளார், கழிநெடும்
புண் உளார் ஆருயிர்க்கு
அமிழ்தமே போல் உளார்…
Kamban’s Tamizh, like an intricately carved kovil, is an aesthetic delight that a superficial reader can get lost in, and thereby miss out on a darisanam of Sri Ramachandra Murthi, a primary purpose of Ramavataram . For example, a most talked-about ‘annalum nokkinaan, avalum nokkinaal’ verse in popular culture occurs in the Bala Kandam, vividly describing the meeting of the eyes and hearts of Sri Rama and Mother Sita in Mithila before the Sita-Rama Kalyanam. This and a few other events in the Ramavataram are not part of the Valmiki Ramayana but are included in the later 16th century Awadhi epic Ramacharitamanas of Sant Goswami Tulsidas.
எண் அரும் நலத்தினாள்
கண்ணொடு கண் இணை
கவ்வி, ஒன்றை ஒன்று
உண்ணவும், நிலை பெறாது
உணர்வும் ஒன்றிட, அண்ணலும் நோக்கினான்! அவளும் நோக்கினாள். 
This is not the materialistic “love at first sight” of Indian movies and teen novels. The verses are full of Sringara, and ultimately subordinated to the highest Vedic truth. Kamban draws in the listener, and the verses gradually transform and elevate their consciousness into successively higher realms, beyond sensory gratification and aesthetic delight, and finally, the transcendental nature of that meeting can be realized. This is a divine, cosmic reunion of Mahavishnu and Mahalakshmi .
மருங்கு இலா நங்கையும்,
வசை இல் ஐயனும்,
ஒருங்கிய இரண்டு உடற்கு
உயிர் ஒன்று ஆயினார்,
கருங் கடல் பள்ளியில்
கலவி நீங்கிப் போய்ப் பிரிந்தவர் கூடினால், பேசல் வேண்டுமோ. 
Multiple traditions in Tamil Nadu are attributed to the influence of the Ramayanam. After the victory over Ravana, Anjaneya is sent by Sri Rama to share the news with Mother Sita. It is said that even the most powerful and wise Hanuman was rendered speechless in his happiness and wrote ‘ஸ்ரீராமஜெயம்’ (Sri Rama Jayam) on the ground to convey the news of Rama’s victory to Mother Sita. To this day, many Tamizhs continue the practice of writing this sacred phrase several times in their notebooks. Upon hearing this news, Sitamma realized that she had no precious jewels to reward Hanuman; instead she plucked and presented some betel leaves to Hanuman, and this tradition continues to this day in the form of offering betel leaf garlands to Anjaneya Swami. The Sundara Kandam that describes the successful quest of Hanuman to locate Mother Sita has a special place in all our hearts and reciting it properly with devotion is of great benefit. As long as Kamba Ramayanam is recited, discussed, and listened to with Shraddha, Tamizh and dharma will never die in Tamil Nadu.
 கம்ப ராமாயணம். Kambar. Pustaka Digital Media. 2016.
 Kamba Ramayanam: An English Prose Rendering. Dr. H. V. Hande. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1996.
 Makers of Indian Literature: Kamban. S. Maharajan. Sahitya Akademi, 1972.
 Kamba Ramayanam – A Study. With Translations in Verse or Poetic Prose of Over Four of the Original Poems. Varaganeri Venkatesa Subramanya Aiyar. Delhi Tamil Sangam. 1950.
 The Ramayana Tradition in Asia. Papers presented at the International Seminar on The Ramayana Tradition in Asia. New Delhi. Edited by V. Raghavan. Sahitya Akademi. 1980.
 Kamba Ramayanam. Tamil Discourse by Sri Suki Sivam. Madurai. Circa 2001.
 Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins. 2011.
 A Reliable Guide to Kamban: Review of ‘Kamban—Putiya Parvai’ (Critical Study in Tamil) by A.S. Gnanasambandan. Prema Nandakumar. Indian Literature, vol. 29 (5). 1986.
 Reclaiming Ramayana: Disentangling the Discourses (Reclaiming Sanskrit Series Book 3). Manjushree Hegde. Infinity Foundation India. 2018.
Thanks to TCP and ICP authors and editor for their invaluable feedback.
Meaning of above pāsuram – “Dear girl, who is full of utsāha and dear to Śrī Kṛṣṇa, please come and join us. The eastern sky is light and it is dawn, the buffaloes are grazing on tender dewy grass. We and other gopī-s were on our way but have delayed our vratam and are here waiting for you, so that you too may join us. Please awake so that we can all sing of the greatness of Śrī Kṛṣṇa and when we approach Him, the One who destroyed the asura Keśi and the wrestlers of Kamsa’s court, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the God of Gods, will evince great interest in our welfare and through His dayā, will remove our deficiencies (so that we can attain mokṣa)”.
This beautiful verse is one of thirty pāsuram-s (sacred verses) spontaneously sung by Āṇḍāḷ (Gōdai or Godādevi) as part of her composition, the Tiruppāvai, when she was eight years old. This pāsuram is a call from gopī-s who are in a state of enlightenment granted by Śrī Kṛṣṇa. They are enlightened as to what true bhakti is, which is above bodily desires. Āṇḍāḷ visualizes the gopī-s in that state of pure bhakti which is a prerequisite for attaining moksha. Āṇḍāḷ shows concern for all devotees and exhorts them to awaken and join her and these enlightened gopī-s in the vratam that will culminate in receiving jñāna and dayā of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Furthermore, as Ācārya-s have stated, the gopī Āṇḍāḷ awakens actually represents one of the enlightened Āḻvār-s; Āṇḍāḷ requests this Āḻvār to join the vratam and share his Vedic knowledge with other devotees so that they too can benefit. Āṇḍāḷ sang these sacred pāsuram-s as a spontaneous outpouring of her supreme bhakti which ultimately culminated in her attaining mukti. These sacred songs are rooted in the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s and Bhagavad Gīta with the knowledge of these is embedded in each pāsuram.
Artwork and Copyright by P.N. Srinivas
As Āṇḍāḷ has stated, her sacred songs and the practice of the accompanying vratam are sāttvik in nature and are meant for those who wish to acquire sāttvika guṇa-s. Āṇḍāḷ achieved mokṣa around the age of nine years when she merged and became one with the mūrti of Śrī Raṅganātar at the Śrī Raṅgam Temple. She is honored by women and men, girls and boys who continue to fulfill her vratam and seva. Āṇḍāḷ is extraordinary because she had a pure, innocent, and sāttvik mind. She was born with great bhakti for Śrī Kṛṣṇa, her pāsuram-s are a reflection of her pure sāttvika bhakti that she experienced as an 8 or 9-year-old child and wished to share with devotees. In studying Āṇḍāḷ and her life, it is important that adults do not impose their own speculations, viewpoints, limitations, or wishes onto the child Āṇḍāḷ’s sāttvik works. As Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself states, everyone is born with different guṇa-s and differing levels of bhakti; and Āṇḍāḷ by all accounts was an extraordinary child and bhakte operating at a higher level than the laukika world and higher than the limited view of even other devotees.
Āṇḍāḷ has achieved an exceptional and reverential status in the hearts of Indians and within Hinduism. Though her works are in Tamiḻ, Āṇḍāḷ crosses the barriers of gender, language, regions, cultures, and varṇa-s, and cuts across social and economic distinctions. Āṇḍāḷ is often erroneously described as a woman, she in fact was a young girl. This important detail is significant because it facilitates understanding of her pāsuram-s from the correct viewpoint and also because it is a fact that is obscured and misrepresented in academia, media, and the general public. As a child, Āṇḍāḷ spontaneously composed two major sacred works dedicated to Śrī Kṛṣṇa and she initiated a month long vratam during the month of Mārgaḻi (Mārgaśīriṣa). Her most important contribution is the seva she did by sharing her knowledge of Vedānta with everyone so that they may benefit. The two compositions, the Tiruppāvai consisting of thirty pāsuram-s, and the much larger sacred work, the Nāciār Tirumoḻi, consisting of one hundred forty-three pāsuram-s, became part of the Nālāyiram Divyaprabhandam which is the works of all the Āḻvār-s (including Āṇḍāḷ) and recited in all Śrī Vaiṣṇava temples, festivals, and pūja-s. Āḻvār-s belong to the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya, which embraces the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta darśaṇa in Hinduism. Significantly, the Āḻvār-s came from different varṇa-s and many were not Brahmin. There are twelve Āḻvār-s, Āṇḍāḷ being the only girl. Though she belongs to the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya, followers of other sampradāya-s also practice the vratam Āṇḍāḷ established and recite her pāsuram-s. Because of her exceptional life and contributions, Āṇḍāḷ is considered an avatāra of Bhūdevi tāyār and thus, in temples her mūrti is depicted as a grown woman, though Āṇḍāḷ was only 9 years old at the time she achieved mokṣa at the feet of Śrī Raṅganātar.
Artwork and Copyright by Prakruti Prativadi
Though just a young child, Āṇḍāḷ commands both respect and adoration and she naturally attained a timelessness that few others possess. This status was not just accorded to her, she rightfully achieved this position through her ageless sacred compositions and through the example she set by living the principles illustrated in her pāsuram-s. Her life itself was a tapas, culminating in her gaining mukti from the eternal cycle of re-birth. Āṇḍāḷ was only around eight or nine years old when she finished her two sacred works: the Tiruppāvai and the Nāciār Tirumoḻi, and around the same age attained mokṣa at the feet of Śrī Raṅganātar in the temple at Śrī Raṅgam. Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s have nothing to do with the “coming of age”, which is a mundane dumbing down of her incredible contribution; nor can their meanings be taken literally. As seen in the above pāsuram, the compositions contain much symbolism and are pointers to deeper Hindu metaphysics.
As Āṇḍāḷ herself has stated in the Tiruppāvai, her works are meant for those who wish to become more sāttvik and attain sāttvika guṇa-s; thus, rendering the rajasik and laukika interpretations of the Tiruppāvai and Nāciār Tirumoḻi fallacious and deceptive. Many people erroneously think Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s are about worldly love, they often corrupt the meaning of Āṇḍāḷ’s compositions because they see it through their own limited worldly view. The pāsuram-s of the Nāciār Tirumoḻi and Tiruppāvai speak to an elevated state of consciousness; they were composed by a pure-hearted young child who was born with bhakti that was already far advanced of all others. It is difficult for the ordinary mind to really understand and experience her works, however, even to attempt an understanding of her compositions we must elevate our own state of consciousness and view Āṇḍāḷ and her works with the correct dṛiṣti. Arjuna could not experience the Viśvarūpa until Śrī Kṛṣṇa gave him divyadṛiṣti, the Paramātma can only be perceived through the antaścakṣu, and similarly, Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s cannot be experienced without the sāttvika state of consciousness. One ultimate purpose permeates throughout her songs: the jīvātma striving to unite with the Paramātma thereby attaining mokṣa.
Āṇḍāḷ is accorded the position of Āḻvār among the Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s. The Tamiḻ non-translatable word Āḻvār does not have an equivalent in English and means “one who is immersed in (the Paramātma)”. Āḻvār does not mean ‘Saint’. Her pāsuram-s contain the complex sacred knowledge of the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s, and Bhagavad Gīta in a manner that is accessible and understandable to the lay person. Āṇḍāḷ embodied Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and the yoga-s of bhakti, jñāna, karma, and further practices like śaraṇāgati and prappati are embedded in them.
In this vratam lasting thirty days, Āṇḍāḷ envisioned her entire village of Śrī Villiputtur as Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s village of Nandagokula in the Dvāpara yuga, and the Vatapatraśāyi temple as Nanda’s house where Kṛṣṇa lived. Such was her bhakti and pure, idealistic mind. Each pāsuram of the Tiruppāvai is dedicated to one day of the vratam, and each pāsuram’s meaning encapsulates profound kernels of bhakti yoga and Vedānta that ultimately lead to the feet of Śrī Kṛṣṇa and mokṣa. Significantly, the pāsuram’s are encoded with poetic language and charming imagery, however that is not the real meaning that Āṇḍāḷ is conveying; she has encoded the pāsuram-s with deep knowledge that one accumulates over lifetimes of tapas. These pāsuram-s also contain picturesque imagery as Āṇḍāḷ gracefully weaves the bustling activity of every day village life into the pāsuram-s. These descriptions represent deeper Vedic principles. Āṇḍāḷ describes the activities of the unpretentious village folk, the men, women, girls, and boys going about their daily activities, and this serves as an important link to our samskṛti and cultural history. Āṇḍāḷ ‘s love of cows is evident in the pāsuram-s; many verses of the Tiruppāvai contain the most striking descriptions of the cherished and nurtured cows of the village and how they generously and bountifully give rich nourishing milk on their own. The cows are lovingly protected and taken care of by the people of the village; cows are an important part of the Hindu ethos and metaphysics, cows symbolize many sāttvik guṇa-s and are a personification of the Veda-s and Upaniṣad-s. This reverence and affection for cows is natural and benign, however, this aspect of Hinduism too is a target for those driven by agendas of bigotry and hatred. Because these pāsuram-s are moving and beautiful, they have been described as poetry however, Āṇḍāḷ’s motivation was not to compose poetry but to share Vedic knowledge and inspire others to do kainkaryam through her songs. This point is significant, merely labeling Āṇḍāḷ’s works as poetry alone denies this visionary young girl her rightful place as a remarkable person and spiritual figure. One cannot comprehend Āṇḍāḷ through reading articles or books or as a mere observer, Āṇḍāḷ can only be understood through sādhanā and tapas under the guidance of a learned Ācārya. This write-up is a mere glancing introduction to Āṇḍāḷ.
Āṇḍāḷ from the natural innate lens:
Like many others, I cannot recall when I first learned of Āṇḍāḷ; just as one cannot recall being first aware of one’s mother, father, siblings, or grandparents. I’ve been aware of her from such a young age that she was simply a part of our family. As a child I thought Āṇḍāḷ lived somewhere nearby and eagerly looked forward to visiting her soon someday, a guaranteed certainty I never doubted – illustrating how seamlessly integrated Āṇḍāḷ and her pāsuram-s are in our daily lives and in our very identities – in a manner that is organic and unpretentiously genuine. Āṇḍāḷ cannot be understood through a worldly laukika viewpoint that even some Hindus employ, or by academic study, or by donning an outsider alien lens; nor can her pāsuram-s be viewed through 20th century lens of postmodernism or feminism. Āṇḍāḷ and her pāsuram-s are comprehended through an innate worldview that Āṇḍāḷ herself described and embodied. Over the years, one learns about her by learning her pāsuram-s and their complex beautiful meanings through the practice of the pūja-s and vratam she prescribed. As with any Hindu practice, and as reiterated by Ācārya-s, it is through sādhanā – the daily practice with śraddhā and bhakti of reciting and putting into practice the practical aspects of Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s, that one can gain insight and ātmānubhāva of Āṇḍāḷ and her compositions. And this was her dearest wish for the rest of us jīvātma-s, that like Āṇḍāḷ, we too would attain the Paramātma and her pāsuram-s would aid us in that ultimate liberation.
The most attractive characteristic of Āṇḍāḷ for me as a child, and for many Hindu children, is Āṇḍāḷ was a little girl, no more than eight years old when she started spontaneously singing her pāsuram-s to the Vatapatraśāyi (Śrī Kṛṣṇa in the form of an infant in yoga-nidra reclining on a Vatapatra leaf). Despite her extraordinary insight, I felt an instant sisterhood with Āṇḍāḷ, a young girl, like me, wearing tilakam, pāvāḍai, bangles, with dark black plaited hair adoring Śrī Kṛṣṇa and His activities, and practicing our everyday customs, gently nudging us to be something greater, to transcend this mundane world and our limited selves. I was amazed by her self-motivation and initiative to do seva and kainkaryam to Śrī Kṛṣṇa and to the ordinary people in her village on her own, selflessly. The details of her life, the happy imagery of her pāsuram-s, her genuine idealism, and all-involved concern for others to share the Vedic knowledge beyond her years instantly makes her a favorite role-model and an indelible part of Indian girlhood. And this is the most significant part of Āṇḍāḷ that is oftentimes completely missed by those who think they can dissect and analyze her through their own narrow viewpoint: Āṇḍāḷ is the essence and spirit of Indian girlhood- she is the quintessential Indian girl.
Understanding Āṇḍāḷ and her pāsuram-s requires an understanding of Āṇḍāḷ’s life story (the term hagiography does not apply to Āṇḍāḷ and should be eschewed). Āṇḍāḷ lived before Śrī Rāmānujācarya, probably in the 7th or 8th century, though some scholars place the date to several millennia prior. The village of Villiputtur (later named Śrī Villiputtur after Āṇḍāḷ) near Madurai, Tamil Nadu has an ancient and beautiful temple of the Vatapatraśāyi Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Viṣṇu Citta (Peri Āḻvār) was a devout and learned man who lived in Villiputtur and served the temple every day. Viṣṇu Citta is also an Āḻvār and has composed sacred works; during his lifetime he did seva in the temple. One day while digging in the tulasī garden, he found a baby girl and decided to raise her as his own daughter and named her Gōdai (Kōdai or Godādevi), this child would later be known as Āṇḍāḷ. Viṣṇu Citta noted the remarkable similarity of this child with Sita, who was also found in this manner; thus indicating that Āṇḍāḷ was no ordinary child; Āṇḍāḷ is known as ayonije – one who is not born of a womb. The tulasī garden where Gōdai was found still exists today in Śrī Villiputtur. Viṣṇu Citta thought of himself as the personification of Yaśoda and the child Gōdai as Kṛṣṇa, and in this manner, he embodied the Vātsalyabhakti toward the child. He showered her with affection and imparted the knowledge of Vedānta to her and lovingly raised her. Thus, Gōdai grew into a little girl all the while imbibing the knowledge of the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s, the Bhagavad Gīta, purāṇa-s, and śāstra-s from her father Viṣṇu Citta. She listened with rapt attention to the stories of Śrī Kṛṣṇa; and the precocious child Gōdai would draw pictures of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, his āyudha-s, and episodes from Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s life on the floor and walls of her home. As Gōdai grew she was immersed in the bhakti for Śrī Kṛṣṇa.
Viṣṇu Citta finds baby Āṇḍāḷ in the tulasī garden
A famous incident in Āṇḍāḷ’s life revolves around the mālai (flower garland) that Śrī Viṣṇu Citta would send to the temple every day to be adorned on the Vatapatraśāyi at that temple. Flowers are first offered to the Deity before anyone else can wear them, but unbeknownst to Viṣṇu Citta, Gōdai, with her innocent enthusiastic bhakti, would first wear the mālai meant for the Vatapatraśāyi before it was sent to the temple, thus Āṇḍāḷ is referred to as “Śūdikoḍuta Śuḍarkoḍi Nāciār” or the ‘the girl who offered the garland after having worn it’. However, one day, Viṣṇu Citta noticed a strand of hair in the mālai; he was dismayed and told his daughter that the garland must never be worn before it was offered to the Vatapatraśāyi. Later, Viṣṇu Citta had a vision in which the Vatapatraśāyi tells him that only the garland worn and then offered by Gōdai will be accepted. And thus, from then on Gōdai was known as Āṇḍāḷ – ‘the girl who ruled over the Lord’. This charming incident from Āṇḍāḷ’s life illustrates the remarkably oneness Āṇḍāḷ felt with Paramātma even as a young child, and is parallel to Śabari offering fruits, after having tasted them, to Śrī Rama in the Ramayana. Furthermore, this episode is not an example of mundane disobedience or rebellion as some revisionist historians and feminists zealously claim. Rather, the incident of Āṇḍāḷ wearing the garland illuminates several subtleties of Vedānta, one is that the Paramātma accepts the offerings of bhakta-s when these are made with śraddhā, love, and pure bhakti; secondly, Āṇḍāḷ so identified herself with Śrī Kṛṣṇa that, when she wore the garland it was as if she was garlanding Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself. Remarkably, this event lives on even to this day and is re-embodied in the custom of sending the garland that adorned Āṇḍāḷ in the Śrī Villiputtur Āṇḍāḷ Temple to the Tirupati Tirumala Temple, to adorn Śrī Venkaṭeśvara during the grand Brahmotsavam festivities. Additionally, during the month of Citra Pournami, the garland that adorned the Āṇḍāḷ mūrti in Śrī Villiputtur is sent to the Aḻagar Kōvil during Garuḍotsavam. These are not mere robotic rituals, they personify the union of the jīvātma and the Paramātma which Āṇḍāḷ embodied and shared with others and thus, she is honored today by bhakta-s re-embodying her experience and sharing it with other devotees in the manner she herself wished.
Āṇḍāḷ and the garland (Picture from author’s collection)
Starting at the young age of 8 years (per some scholars she was 5 years old), Āṇḍāḷ composed and sang sacred verses called pāsuram-s, which were replete with references to the Bhāgavataṃ, Bhagavad Gīta and directly refers to the knowledge in the Veda-s and Upaniṣad-s. These pāsuram-s of the Tiruppāvai talk of urging everyone (jīvātma-s) not to waste this precious life and to orient themselves to attain the Paramātma. The pāsuram-s are artistic and poetic. The Nāciār Tirumoḻi, which is a much longer work, also contains this knowledge wherein Āṇḍāḷ embodies the stages of bhakti that a serious sādhaka experiences, which finally culminate in attaining the Paramātma. In the Nāciār Tirumoḻi, Āṇḍāḷ, using much symbolism and imagery, expresses she does not want the body attained in this birth to be wasted in worldly materialistic and laukika pursuits but dedicates this birth to attain mokṣa. Here Āṇḍāḷ puts herself in the place of a bhakta and describes each stage of their tapas.
The Nāciār Tirumoḻi is a grand sacred opus, which is lyrical, mystical, and illuminating. Within it is the Vāraṇam Āyiram, a section describing a mystic vision of Āṇḍāḷ. In this vision, Āṇḍāḷ details how her jīvātma was united with the Paramātma, symbolized as a Vedic wedding. However, this does not mean that Āṇḍāḷ envisioned herself married to Śrī Raṅganātar as is often misinterpreted, and this vision should not be mistaken for a worldly marriage ceremony which would initiate the gṛhastāśrama. The vision described in the Vāraṇam Āyiram is of Āṇḍāḷ attaining mukti and her ātmā attaining the Paramātma; mokṣa is often symbolized in Hinduism as a marriage of the jīvātma and Paramātma. Incidentally, the Vāraṇam Āyiram is recited in the wedding ceremonies today as well, however the mystical ceremony Āṇḍāḷ describes is of her attaining mokṣa. The metaphor of mokṣa in Āṇḍāḷ’s vision in which she (jīvātma) is ‘married’ to Śrī Raṅganātar (Paramātma) is misconstrued as a worldly marriage especially by those donning the laukika or western lens. There is no doubt that the Vāraṇam Āyiram is really the final attainment of mukti by Āṇḍāḷ, who has achieved through her pūrvajanma puṇyakarma, a state of enlightenment which is required to qualify for mokṣa in this birth. This final attainment is often metaphorically described as marriage in other Hindu works as well, especially with respect to bhakti yoga.
Though her pāsuram-s contain abstract and difficult to understand Vedantic knowledge, Āṇḍāḷ encapsulates this knowledge in these pāsuram-s that are accessible to the lay person who sincerely wants to understand them. However, Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s cannot be interpreted by those who do not have a firm rooted ātmānubhāva and technical understanding of the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s and Bhagavad Gīta. One can only understand the pāsuram-s through an in-depth and consistent study guided by an Ācārya. Her contribution is, her pāsuram-s allow us to put into practice this Vedic knowledge and she shared this wisdom because of her infinite karuṅā (compassion) to her fellow beings so that they too might benefit from this knowledge and attain mukti. Indeed, this impetus propelled Āṇḍāḷ to compose these pāsuram-s – as a seva, a truly unselfish magnanimous act, in which she wanted to share her experience and knowledge with everyone regardless of their status in society and regardless of their gender.
In her young life, Āṇḍāḷ did attain the object of her tapas, with Viṣṇu Citta’s blessings, she arrived at the Śrī Raṅgam temple and stepped into the sannidhi of Śrī Raṅganātar and she disappeared, merging into the mūrti – thus attaining mukti; she was only 9 years old at that time. Āṇḍāḷ’s life story is remarkable due to her simplicity, her magnanimous seva for others, and her one-pointed tapas.
For more than 1200 years, Āṇḍāḷ has been honored by both men and women alike, she is considered an avatāra of Bhūdevi, the mūrti of Āṇḍāḷ as Bhūdevi adorns every single Śrī Vaiṣṇava temple including the temples of her hometown Śrī Villiputtur and in Śrī Raṅgam, and pūja is done to her per the śāstra-s. Śrī Rāmānujācarya, the acharya of the Viśiṣṭādvaita sampradāya followed by Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s, had great reverence for her and established that her pāsuram-s should be sung in the Śāttamurai and all major pūja-s. Indeed, all the major Ācārya-s have revered Āṇḍāḷ and her pāsuram-s.
Āṇḍāḷ’s life is one in which she seeks, without pause, mokṣa and for her ātmā to unite with Śrī Kṛṣṇa (Paramātma) during her life to break the cycle of birth and death. Āṇḍāḷ’s most significant contribution is the access she gave of the knowledge of the śṛti-s to everyone, and the example she herself embodied by showing us that these must be shared with others who have śraddhā, bhakti and who are willing to follow the procedures of this sādhanā without injecting their own selfish agendas or motives. Āṇḍāḷ followed the spirit of “eka: svādu na bhunjita”, which means – do not enjoy something by yourself alone. So Āṇḍāḷ’s motivation was to share the joy of Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s anugraha, and to let others also partake of that joy. She did this to help people overcome the sufferings of samsāra and ego and the bondage of karma. Her pāsuram-s are steeped in sattva and are for those people who want to be more sāttvik. In her pāsuram-s, she also describes different kinds of bhakta-s and their experiences. These pāsuram-s are not just capricious musings or self-centered thoughts of a young ‘woman’ as feminists and revisionists seek to make them.
Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s and vratam are not only limited to bhakti, her pāsuram-s are an in-depth exploration of para–bhakti, prappati, para–jñāna, paramā–bhakti and śaraṇāgati.
The 14th century scholar and Ācārya Śrī Prativādi Bhayankaram Aṇṇa has traced and identified the Vedic sources and references to smṛti in the Tiruppāvai and the Nāciār Tirumoḻi.
As the great Jīyar and Ācārya Śrī Manavāḷa Māmuni states about Āṇḍāḷ: – “emakkāga anṛō ingu Āṇḍāḷ avadarittāḷ” which means “She was born to rid us of the misery of the infinite cycle of birth and death – our trudging through the cycle of samsāra.
The great scholar and Ācārya Śrī Vedānta Desikar has composed the Godā Stuti, extolling the greatness of Āṇḍāḷ.
Śrī Rāmānujācarya himself completed a particular kainkaryam (nūrtada, which was mentioned in the Nāciār Tirumoḻi) that Āṇḍāḷ wanted to have done in the Śrī Raṅgam temple.
Śrī Vaiṣṇava Sampradaya and the Significance of Mahālakṣmi
The “bhakti movement” is an unfortunate moniker that only serves to gloss over the profound darśaṇa-s that espouse bhakti yoga as their primary method to mokṣa. The same is true for the term “Vaiṣṇava” which actually comprises of differing sampradāya-s that are all rooted in the śṛti-s but each have their own technical practices and approaches. Bracketing them all under the inelegant terms “bhakti movement” or simply “Vaiṣṇava” is reductionist and contributes to distortions of these rich sampradāya-s. For instance, the four so-called Vaiṣṇava sampradāya-s actually espouse different darśaṇa-s: Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s accept the view of Viśiṣṭādvaita, whereas followers of Madhvācārya, Vallabhācārya and Nimbārka adopt Dvaita, Śuddhādvaita, and Dvaitādvaita respectively. The point here is not that these are divergent, in fact they are all rooted in the Veda-s and Upaniṣad-s, but their unique methods and views should be appreciated and understood, thus preventing misrepresentation and erroneous interpretations. Surprisingly, the moniker ‘bhakti cult’ still sees use, a pejorative characterization first used by Indologists and still employed among some Indians and those adopting the western lens today.
Viśiṣṭādvaita (Viśiṣṭa Advaita – qualified non-dualism) has ancient origins in the Upaniṣad-s and was systematized and organized by Śrī Rāmānujācarya (1017CE -1137CE). Viśiṣṭādvaita has the Veda-s as its authority and reflects the metaphysics of the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s, itihāsa-s and purāṇa-s. Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s are concentrated mainly in southern India in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, but there are followers spread across northern India and many in the global Hindu diaspora as well.
As mentioned, Āṇḍāḷ belongs to the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya and her pāsuram-s indeed refer to many of the principles of the darśaṇa (view) of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. For instance, in the Tiruppāvai, Āṇḍāḷ metaphorically refers to the five manifestations of Brahman: para, vyūha, vibhava, antaryāmin, and arca.
Significance of Śrī
Of special note, is the status of Mahālakṣmi (Śrī) in Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya in which She holds a special and critical position. Nārāyaṇa and Lakṣmi are one inseparable entity and thus referred to as Śrīman Nārāyaṇa, which means Nārāyaṇa who is always with Śrī. Āṇḍāḷ’s works refer to the significance of Śrī extensively. Mahālakṣmi dwells permanently in Nārāyaṇa’s vakśasthaḷam (chest). This imagery embodies the significant role Lakṣmi has in the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya. Mahālakṣmi is the puruṣākāra i.e. it is only through Mahālakṣmi’s karuṅā and through Her as facilitator between the jīva-s and Nārāyaṇa that the jīvātma can attain mokṣa. Thus, Mahālakṣmi manifests supreme compassion, is the Universal Mother, and the anugrahaśakti of Nārāyaṇa. Mahālakṣmi has three aṃśa-s or manifestations: as Śrīdevi She is the kriyā śakti, as Bhūdevi She is the viṣva śakti, and Nīlādevi She is the icchā śakti. Śrīdevi, Bhūdevi and Nīlādevi are not merely the ‘wives’ or ‘consorts’ of Śrīman Nārāyaṇa, but are inseparable śakti-s. It is an unfortunate tendency of many Hindus to transform our Deities into solely domestic mundane laukika entities, resulting in the loss of understanding their true Vedic spiritual meaning.
The term bhakti has become ubiquitous, often used out of context, and misapplied. Bhakti does not mean devotion or love; the term bhakti seems to have become a catch-all word in describing any type of prayer or worship in Hinduism, especially as interpreted through the non-Dharmic lens. As Āṇḍāḷ’s has illustrated in her works, there are accompanying stages of bhakti that are analyzed by the Ācārya-s. In order to practice bhakti, one must be qualified and must practice the aṣṭāṅga yoga-s. The Viśiṣṭādvaita interpretation and practice of bhakti yoga is complex, vast, and esoteric and beyond the scope of this article. Per Viśiṣṭādvaita, jñāna – karma – bhakti is the natural order of the yoga-s of a sādhaka’s evolution. Therefore, we see that bhakti is not a practice devoid of jñāna and karma. The path to mokṣa per Viśiṣṭādvaita is fivefold:
Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s refer to these stages of bhakti. A practitioner of bhakti yoga also must observe the following:
viveka (purity and discrimination between right and wrong),
vimoka (inner detachment)
abhyāsa (unceasing sādhanā of the presence of the Paramātma as the indwelling Self)
kriyā (seva to others)
kalyāṇa (practice of right conduct)
anavasāda (cheerfulness in life, freedom from complaining and dejection)
anuddharṣa (not exulting about one’s virtues or achievements)
Most importantly, in these stages, the practitioner seeks to transcend their ego and obliterate it by becoming one with the Paramātma. One’s petty personal viewpoints and egotistic whims are naturally transcended as the jīvātma attains the supreme Self.
It is disconcerting to note the complete and utter dumbing-down of bhakti. Bhakti is not a catch-all phrase for ‘spiritual’ and a basic free-for-all in which one can do whatever one wants without any basic knowledge or adherence to rituals and the procedures laid down by the Ācārya-s. Bhakti is distorted by non-practitioners as a bizarre amalgamation of indistinct terms like devotion, love, and the vagaries of the individual.
There are erroneous assertions that parallels exist between bhakti yoga and ‘devotion’ that is practiced in Abrahamic religions. However, there is no real similarity here because bhakti does not mean devotion and the Śrī Vaiṣṇava ideas of prapatti and śaraṇāgati are non-existent in Abrahamic systems. Furthermore, bhakti is a sādhanā in which one acquires ātmānubhāva, and has stages that takes the bhakta toward the union with Paramātma. Bhakti is not an exchange system wherein one gets salvation in return. The reward of bhakti is bhakti itself – being immersed and losing oneself in the Paramātma, which might result in mokṣa. Mokṣa does not mean salvation. And bhakti does not require dogmatic doctrinal belief in order to gain mokṣa. Bhakti yoga intrinsically believes in an all-pervading Brahman present in every single living and non-living entity, a direct contradiction of the dogmas of the Abrahamic systems.
The Appropriation and revisionism of Āṇḍāḷ
The girls and women who love Āṇḍāḷ, venerate her, honor Āṇḍāḷ as she was in her own words, and have been engaged in their enduring practices now find themselves in a bizarre scenario wherein they are in the crosshairs of Indologists, history revisionists, and feminists. Even the benign and inspiring Āṇḍāḷ is now a target. It is quite impossible to understand Āṇḍāḷ without having performed the sacred vratam she initiated. Conducting pūja-s and observing vratam-s in Hinduism are a form of embodied knowing by which one gains a comprehensive understanding that transcends the emotional and intellectual levels. And performing the vratam every year brings new knowledge and insights of Āṇḍāḷ to the practitioner; it is indeed a life-long journey and sādhanā. However, feminists and postmodernists seek to impose their narrow lens and essentially want to erase Āṇḍāḷ as she was and, in her place, create a new entity who docilely reflects their ideology and agenda. This is not mere speculation, feminists admit that their wish is to remove Āṇḍāḷ from the Dharmika worldview and reinterpret and ‘re-imagine’ Āṇḍāḷ and her works in solely their own worldview. When one reads feminist’s interpretations of Āṇḍāḷ, one cannot help but notice that there is much anger and violence in their language. Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s have kept alive Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s and her legacy for over 1200 years, but feminists, who have only ‘discovered’ Āṇḍāḷ in the last decade or so, truculently accuse Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s of appropriating Āṇḍāḷ. The feminist attack on Āṇḍāḷ and Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s cannot just be laughed away or ignored as this echo chamber has not subsided. Some feminists have gone so far as to advocate changing the types of pūja-s done to Āṇḍāḷ and limiting Hindu devotees’ right to honor Āṇḍāḷ and her works as they have been for centuries.
The re-writing of Āṇḍāḷ’s story by feminists entails re-interpretations, speculative assertions, and also outright blatant falsehoods about Āṇḍāḷ, her life history, and the pūja-s conducted to honor her. For instance, Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s often refer to her detachment from her physical body she obtained in this birth and that her only goal in this life was to attain Śrī Kṛṣṇa. These beautiful pāsuram-s are deliberately distorted by feminists who falsely claim that Āṇḍāḷ was preoccupied with her own body and that her object was physical and material. Materializing the compositions of Āṇḍāḷ is an attempt to muddle and eventually completely distort the motivations of this great girl-Āḻvār. Āṇḍāḷ has stated her motivations herself in her compositions, however feminists seek to dis-empower Āṇḍāḷ and put her life’s work firmly in the realm of materialism. In effect, they seek to reduce Āṇḍāḷ to a mere instrument and seek to make her into a weapon against the very devotees who revere her. Āṇḍāḷ sought mukti of this physical world and of the bondages of the body, yet the postmodernist and feminist seek to imprison her in their mundane worldly lens. It is noteworthy that in the revisionism of Āṇḍāḷ, feminists have even sought the help of western male revisionist historians who are outsiders to the tradition and who do not even know Tamiḻ; this crosses the borders of irony into the realm of outright satire. The question arises: How can a male westerner, or for that matter a female westerner, with no knowledge of the language and a non-practitioner, understand the experiences of an Indian girl? How can a male or female westerner understand Indian girlhood, its experiences, joys, challenges, living its customs, traditions, and way of life? Śrī Vaiṣṇava women and girls are the main protectors of Āṇḍāḷ, through more than a millennium, these women have preserved, revered, and loved this little girl who shared her divine knowledge, but now feminists seek to bypass and relegate these women bhakta-s.
One of the most trenchant criticisms of Feminism even within academia is that it represents, for more than five decades since Feminism’s genesis as a movement in the 1960s, only the viewpoint of the white North American and European woman, leaving out the viewpoints of the rest of world’s women, especially indigenous women. Thus, it seems that feminists now are scrambling to make up for that critique by appropriating and, in many cases, fabricating accounts of Indian female historical figures.
Feminists claim to fight the hegemony of traditionally male-dominated societies and be the champions of women. Ironically however, there is a hegemony within feminism itself; non-western feminists themselves have objected to what they call ‘imperial feminism’ wherein so-called third world cultures are asymmetrically demonized by western feminists. Furthermore, non-western feminists in academia have pointed out that western feminists stereotype native cultures as more oppressive than western culture. Thus, it seems that it is Feminism which requires reform from its own oppressive one-sided theories and pigeonholes which stereotypically portray and trivialize women of other cultures. The demonization of native cultures by western feminists and their followers in India has become the norm and unfortunately, this hegemony of western feminism is espoused by most Indian feminists. Nowhere is this more evident in the speculative and misleading discourses of Hindu religious figures who are revered and whose memory and customs are kept alive by Hindu women themselves. In seeking to force-fit Āṇḍāḷ into the imperial feminist framework, Indian feminists do what they claim to fight against – they belittle and diminish the voice of native Hindu women and their experiences.
Āṇḍāḷ is a powerful unifying symbol for Hindus; she is an embodiment of Indian girlhood. Āṇḍāḷ is a powerful presence in the Indian psyche, so much so that feminists understand that the appropriation of Āṇḍāḷ into their worldview will strengthen their agenda. It warrants notice that many of these appropriators do not know Tamiḻ; and cannot understand the more complex older poetic Tamiḻ that these pāsuram-s are in.
Though some have claimed that there are parallels between Āṇḍāḷ’s sacred songs and those of some Abrahamic poets, this is actually not the case because Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s are firmly rooted in the Veda-s which reflect that Brahman and the jīva-s are without beginning or end, are unchangeable, are present everywhere, and the jīva-s can be in union with Brahman; these concepts are not available in the Abrahamic systems. These fundamental differences are glossed over by revisionists who seek to assimilate Āṇḍāḷ’s works into the Abrahamic one.
Bharatanatyam and Āṇḍāḷ
Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s are frequently embodied through Carnatic music and Indian classical dances such as Bharatanāṭyaṃ. This is due to the fact that Bharatanāṭyaṃ itself is an embodiment of Hindu metaphysics. The embodiment of Āṇḍāḷ and her works should be celebrated and nurtured within the Bharatanāṭyaṃ community. However, some feminist elitist dancers lament that Āṇḍāḷ is now being danced by everyone, thus making her pāsuram-s more widely known to the general Indian population, especially in southern India. This is rather strange, after all if one loves and admires something, one wants to share it with the world, not keep it in an inaccessible rarified circle. Just as Āṇḍāḷ wanted to share that glories and beauty of Śrī Raṅganāta with everyone, one who truly admires Āṇḍāḷ would want to share her with the world and not imprison her within the confines of a narrow point of view of feminism or postmodernism. Dancing the pāsuram-s of Āṇḍāḷ is a form of embodied knowing; the act of dancing her pāsuram-s with śraddhā is itself a pūja, a manifestation of bhakti. One can experience some of what Āṇḍāḷ herself speaks of through the dancing of her sacred works and can transcend and elevate one’s limited ego-centric state to something greater.
Āṇḍāḷ, a child with a purest heart is the epitome of pure sāttvikabhakti; her contributions are due to the unique characteristics she possesses. She represents Indian girlhood and speaks to that experience like few others can. Āṇḍāḷ, a young girl of 8 or 9 years whose manas was pure and sāttvik, was determined to attain mukti and finally did so at the feet of Śrī Raṅganātar in Śrī Raṅgam. Any interpretations of her pāsuram-s that are contrary to the sāttvika meaning are mere projections of the adults who want to impose their own laukika view onto this young girl’s extraordinary sacred works. As stated, reading about Āṇḍāḷ brings no understanding of her works and this post is only a cursory glimpse of Āṇḍāḷ. The Tiruppāvai, Nāciār Tirumoḻi, and Āṇḍāḷ can only be understood only through śraddhā, bhakti, and tapas guided by a qualified Ācārya. Āṇḍāḷ’s deep compassion for others and wish to share her knowledge are qualities that endears her to generations of Hindus for more than a millennium. Her works stand apart and hold a special place in sacred literature. Understanding and indeed experiencing Āṇḍāḷ’s sacred pāsuram-s requires śraddhā and a special dṛiṣti, just as Arjuna was granted a divine vision to see the Viṣvarūpa, and requires steady and unceasingly study and sādhanā. Anyone, literally anybody, could write about ‘coming of age’ as it is a common laukika experience that happens to everyone, this is not exceptional. Feminists and others even within the Hindu population erroneously characterize Āṇḍāḷ, her works, and seek to erase her individuality and exceptionalism by falsely mapping her songs to a ‘coming of age’. However, Āṇḍāḷ transcends this mundane world, she does not want to waste this birth, she seeks a divine union of jīvātma and Paramātma, that experience that supersedes all worldly experiences and is rare, unique, and requires a special state of consciousness. This is why Āṇḍāḷ has endured for over 1200 years and will for millennia to come.
Copyright: 2018 Prakruti Prativadi. All rights reserved.
About the Author:
Prakruti Prativadi, an aerospace engineer, is an award-winning author, Bharatanatyam dancer, and researcher. She is the author of ‘Rasas in Bharatanāṭyaṃ’http://hyperurl.co/nbg0nq which is based on her research of the Nāṭyaśāstra and other treatises.
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Kaplan, Caren et. al. (Editors). Between Woman and Nation, Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State. London and Durham: Duke University Press
I should prefer to hear "Hari tum haro" spoken by Subbulakshmi than sung by others - Mahatma Gandhi
Popularly known as ‘M.S’ or ‘MS Amma’, M. S. Subbulakshmi is not only one of the greatest exponents of an ancient vocal music tradition of India that can be traced back to the Samaveda, she is also a Bhakti saint of the modern area. Hers was an unselfish life completely devoted to Sangeetam, dharma, and danam. The divinity in her music transcended man-made limitations to touch the atmas of listeners all over the world.
M.S. Subbulakshmi was born on September 16, 1916 to Subramania Iyer, a Tamizh Brahman, and Shanmukavadivu Ammal, an immensely talented music artist hailing from the sacred Devadasi tradition of temple dancers and musicians. Her initials are derived from the ancient Tamizh city of Madurai where she was born, and her mother Shanmukavadivu. Her musical journey began at home and her mother was her first guru. She learned to sing and play musical instruments, and her amazing skill level was achieved not by mastering the formal music sheets employed in the west, but through the distinct traditional Indian method of ’embodied learning’ from Guru to Sishya. As MS recalls “My earliest interest in music was focused on the raga. I would try to reproduce the pipers as well as I could. My mother played and rehearsed constantly. No formal lessons, but I absorbed a whole wealth by listening and humming along with the veena.” Her approach to music practice and training was like that of a Yogi. She was a child prodigy who received the blessings and instant admiration of virtually every leading Carnatic vocalist of that era who heard her sing. Her first song recorded at age 10 was in Tamizh, devoted to Lord Muruga, with her mother accompanying her on the Veena.
Her first public performance the same year at her Madurai school included a Marathi song. She never looked back and went from strength to strength, her god-given voice and talent enthralling audiences eveywhere, transcending language barriers.
In the 1930s she met Thyagaraja Sadasivam, a freedom fighter and artist who co-founded the famous patriotic Tamizh weekly Kalki. Sadasivam, the son of Tyagarajan and Mangalam Iyer, was deeply influenced by the Indian freedom movement, especially ‘Lal-Bal-Pal’ and Sri Aurobindo. MS shared the dharmic and patriotic views of Sadasivam, and the two were married in 1940. By all accounts, her husband played a positive role in her successful career, a fact that MS recalled when she was awarded the Bharat Ratna.
MS was a devotee of Kanchi Mahaswamigal and most of her royalties and earnings from music were given to charity. She had great concern for the people around her, enquiring about their health and their family, and graciously donating the amount received for her concert to any good cause that needed financial support. Humility was her adornment. Once her husband Sri Sadasivam quoted that she did not know how many ciphers followed number 1 for one lakh! If a child asked her casually to sing a song for him/her, she would sing without any hesitation.
MS Subbulakshmi’s concerts all over India and around the world brought the sacred music of Carnatic to audiences that had heard mostly Hindustani classical from Indian musicians before. Some notable overseas concerts include:
Festival of Arts in Edinburgh (1963)
US fund-raising tour for the Flushing temple in NYC and the Pittsburgh temple (1977)
Carnegie Hall, New York City (1977)
Festival of India in London (1982) and Moscow (1988)
She started her movie career in 1938 with Sevasadanam, and acted in some memorable movies based on dharmic themes, including Sankuntalai and Savitri, where she played Narada Muni, which helped fund the nationalist magazine Kalki. She reserved the best for her last role in, and as the Bhakti saint Meera in Tamizh in 1945 (and later, in Hindi).
"In the Bombay Studio where the Meera score was recorded:, it was the same story. Artists who came for other recordings would stop by and become rapt listeners. A thin newcomer, two long plaits dangling behind, refused to record her song after the M.S. session." "Not now, not after that!" She went on to become a legend in her own right as Lata Mangeshkar, while continuing to remain a devoted M.S. fan" - Frontline (2004).
In 1963, the famous Venkatesha Suprabatam album was released, and this was soon followed by her famous concert in the UN. Her sublime rendering of Vishnu Sahasranamam and Bhaja Govindam were released as albums in 1970. The Tirumala Tirupathi Devasathanam began broadcasting her Venkateshwara Suprabhatam in 1975 forever uniting the sacred verse with her voice. The Annamacharya Pancharatna Album (Telugu) was released in 1980. She gave innumerable charity concerts with the proceeds going to noble causes. Her last concert was in June 1997 and she never sang in public after her husband passed away later that year. Her selfless service to India, her Bhakti, and adherence to dharma without expecting anything in return, elevated her to the position of a saint in the eyes of many. She left her physical body on December 11, 2004, but her nishkama karma will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.
Achievements and Notable Awards
Asthana Vidwaan of Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam
Bharat Ratna (1998, first musician to receive this award)
Padma Bhushan (1954), Padma Vibhushan (1975)
Sangeet Natak Academy Award (1956)
Ravindra Bharathi Cultural Academy’s Award (1967)
Isai Periaringar Virudhu, by Tamil Isai Sangam (1970)
Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Academy (1974)
Desikottama, Vishwa Bharati University at Shantiniketan (1981)
Kalidas Samman, Government of Madhya Pradesh (1988)
Swaralaya Puraskar (1997)
MS started and ended the daily cycle of activities in Southern India. Her Kaatrinile Varum Geetam is the earliest song in my memory, in a mother’s comforting voice as her child sleepily dozed off into the night, to wake up the next morning to Kowsalya Supraja Rama Poorva Sandhya Pravarthathe.. from her Venkatesa Suprabatam. MS Amma thus became an integral part of many Indian families in this endless cycle of night and day.
MS Subbulakshmi was universally recognized by admirers and critics alike as an outstanding singer of Carnatic music and devotional songs. She was noted for her precision in pronunciation; a crispness not only in Sanskrit, but any language in which she sung. While the aesthetic heights, Shruti Suddham, diction, and effortless genius of her singing have been explained by Carnatic aficionados and music connoseiurs, the sacredness and divinity in her songs can be experienced by everyone. What do I care of technical excellence when the bhava and depth of her Bhajans shreds through all my carefully acquired layers of false projections and reconnects to the divine latent within? For me, to hear MS Subbulakshmi sing is to feel a stirring sense of bhakti, but the voice i hear within me belongs to my mother.
"What is this almost transcendental quality behind the unfailing rapture? ... Many would attribute it to the Indian Bhakti tradition of poetry and song to which the singer belonged...The Bhakti polarities of seeking and finding, loss and conquest, desire and fulfilment are realised in their verses." -Frontline (2004)
*** Adi Sankara’s Bhaja Govindam ***
In the 1940s, MS retraced the journey of Meera before she enacted that role in one of the greatest Indian motion pictures ever made. When she sang in the praise of Giridhara Gopala, the listeners were thrilled, be they king, prime minister, or commoner. Those who heard MS Subbulakshmi sing in praise of Krishna during this pilgrimage regarded her as the reincarnation of Meerabai. I visited Chittorgarh earlier this year to pay humble tribute to the heroic Indian women and men who resisted the tyranny of invaders and conquered even death in that process. There is also a mandir of Meera, who, through her Bhakti, defeated the tyranny of ego and secular materialism that invades our sacred realm.
MS sang there too. ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy recorded the events that transpired that day: “Among the ruins a single structure stands unscathed, its loveliness undimmed. This is the Krishna shrine built by the Rana of Chittor for Meerabai, to grant her request during the (happy) days of their married life before he turned against her. When Subbulakshmi sat in the Lord’s sanctum and sang the songs of Meera, every one of us had the same thought: Meerabai had sung the same songs from the same spot in rapturous devotion! M.S. shed tears as she sang. Everyone had moist eyes. Most remarkable was the sight of the old, half blind temple priest, going off into a sudden trance, clapping his hands in rhythm to Meera’s songs.”
Thus when she was young, MS was already a living saint in the minds of many in Northern and Southern India. And that is a most simple and natural Indian way to ‘sainthood’, not by marketing and institutional certification post-mortem. Her mystical, youthful beauty as princess Meera was akin to a ‘Kovil Silai’, and captured on-camera by Ellis Dungan. She made famous the blue Kanchipuram saree, which became popular as ‘MS blue’.
Her fame spread far and wide after concerts all over the world. When she sang Maitreem Bhajata composed by Kanchi Mahaswamigal, at the United Nations during the height of the cold war in 1966, she shared Hinduism’s ancient and universal message of mutual respect and harmony with a global audience – perhaps the most powerful, sincere, and profound anti-war and dharmic message ever put to verse and sung on a global modern stage. When she sings Kurai Ondrum Illai.. composed by Rajaji: I have no regrets, O Lord Venkateshwara, even if you are in a place where my mortal eyes cannot reach…, the divinity and Bhava simultaneously overwhelms and comforts the Rasika.
The power of her singing is such, we feel that additional accompaniment or harmonies only detract from the pure, integral unity of the sacred song. This unity, which is a salient feature of Indic traditions, is a reason how a simple Tamizh girl from Madurai could authentically and confidently re-enact Meera of Rajasthan.
She was not acting like Meera. She was Meera reincarnated who bridged the north-south divide fabricated by colonialism. Questions like “Why are you making this film in the Madrasi language? Why not in Hindi?” quickly dissolved into admiration and wonder. The quintessential Tamizh song ‘Kaatrinile‘ in that movie, which is deeply embedded in the hearts of millions of Tamizhs is inspired by bhajans from Bengal.
The Bhakti movement that originated in the Tamizh land several centuries ago and reached Rajasthan and all other parts of India came back to Tamil Nadu via ‘Meera’. That was her last movie, and what a way to sign off the big screen. MS aged gracefully, her beauty undiminished, carrying herself with a charm and poise that only a true Yogi and Sattvic lifestyle can achieve. When MS finished her concerts, large sections of the audience, young and old, did their namaskarams to her, recognizing an enlightened atma – the youthful saint who became MS Amma.
**Documentary on MS**
"Every citizen of this great land is a Ratna." - MS Subbulakshmi