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Who is Andal?
|by Shernaz Wadia|
Was Andal the well-known South Indian Vaishnavite Saint, the only female among the twelve Alwars of Tamilnadu, someone real or a creation of Perialwar’s own poetic imagination?
'Alwar' means one who always loves God; Perialwar means the Great Alwar. Who was he? He was Vishnuchitta of Shrivilliputtur, a town near Madurai. A Brahmin priest immersed in boundless worship of Lord Vishnu, he was a Vedic scholar and a Bhakti poet in his own right, also one of the twelve Alwars. Amongst other duties, he tended his beautiful garden and lovingly wove floral garlands, for the temple idols.
One glorious morning, as he was tending a tulasi plant in his garden, he found a lovely baby girl lying under it. Having no family, he accepted her as a miraculous gift from the Lord and brought the girl home. He named her Godai – gift of Mother Earth. As such she is also considered as the incarnation of Bhumi Devi.
He fostered her spirituality as tenderly and devotedly as he nurtured his garden, constantly singing devotional songs and telling her stories about Lord Krishna. As his love for the Lord intensified in his love for her, she imbibed it from him and made up her little mind that she would marry none but Krishna. She imagined herself to be His bride, acted the part and so kept him ever present in her life. She was so madly in love with Him and so sincerely believed herself to be his bride even at a very tender age that she would wear the garlands prepared for His idol and put them back in the basket, before they were offered to Him. In her child’s mind she was his ideal bride.
Once, the story goes, her father found a strand of her hair on the garland and thus came to know about her little play. He was so mortified at what he believed to be a desecration that he not only scolded little Andal, he rejected the violated offering and made a new one with fresh flowers. He wept and repeatedly asked for God’s forgiveness. That night Lord appeared to Him in a dream and asked him “Vishnuchitta, why did you discard the garland worn by your daughter? Give me only those worn by her. Today I missed the scent of her body in the flowers.” An emotional Vishnuchitta, joyous and remorseful at the same time, awoke tearfully from this dream. He was awed by his daughter’s spiritual greatness and the realisation that her devotion was so immense, so pure that the Lord Himself was governed by her love and wanted her presence in the form of the flowers. From that day he named her Andal. One meaning of the name is the girl who ruled over the Lord.
Another meaning attributed to Andal is – that which attracts. And Andal was surely attractive not only in her total devotion to the Lord, but also in physical beauty as she attained womanhood. Now her father’s worry was to get her married, but Andal was adamant. Her husband could not and would not be a mere mortal. She was determined that she would wed only Shri Ranganatha, the Lord at the great temple town of Srirangam. Exasperated, her father wondered what would become of her. Again Lord Ranganatha himself came to his aid. He appeared to him in his sleep and directed him to take Andal to His temple, in all her wedding finery. Simultaneously, he also appeared to the priests at the temple and apprised them of Andal’s coming, so they would prepare for her.
Legend continues that as instructed, Vishnuchitta took his daughter in full bridal attire to Srirangam. Excited with breathless anticipation, Andal could no longer contain herself as they neared the temple. She jumped out of the palanquin, ran into the sanctum and exultantly embraced Lord Ranganatha. He sanctified their union by making her merge into Him in a blaze of glory. Once more it was a time of joy and sadness for Vishnuchitta. While his daughter’s attainment of her goal made him happy, he was sorry to lose her aged only fifteen.
“The hagiography of Andal is undoubtedly historically true in most important respects. Today, the tulasi garden in which she was found is preserved in Srivilliputtur. Vishnucitta’s house, adjacent to Lord Vishnu’s temple, has been converted into a temple in honor of Andal and contains the well in which she admired her reflection while wearing the Lord’s garlands.”
Today though, Andal is remembered mostly for her poetry. In her short life she composed two great works. Both are in Tamil and are unique in their literary, philosophical, religious, and artistic content. What makes her contribution most remarkable is that when she composed these poems as a teenager, there is no other record of Tamil women composing poetry. Far from being the amorous yearning of a youngster, Andal’s verses display a literary and religious maturity far beyond her years.
Tiruppavai, is a poem of thirty verses wherein Andal imagines herself to be a cowherd girl during the incarnation of Lord Krishna. She yearns to serve Him and achieve happiness not just in this birth, but for all eternity, and describes the religious vow (pavai) that she and her fellow cowgirls will take for this purpose. It is a song of wonder and love, of prayer and surrender; it sings of God's glory and man's devotion.She believed that it was not enough for the devotee to love God. He too must love the devotee
“May Lord Krishna rise from his bed; my heart is His throne;
and may He always shine on the throne of my heart!”
Tiruppavai, has so impacted the religious lives of people, particularly in Tamil Nadu, that it is recited with great religious fervor by women, men, and children of all ages, particularly in Tamil Nadu. The daily services in most Vaishnava temples and households include its recitation. Discourses on the Tiruppavai take place during the month of Margali (December-January), in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and English all over India.
Favouring January’s full moon is here –
Maidens bejewelled, keen on bathing, come out!
Darling girls of the cowherd clan
Whose hamlet brims over with beauty and wealth;
That cruel sharp spear Nanda’s son,
Young lion of Yasoda [ Krishna ’s foster mother] with her love – filled eyes
Cloud-hued, red-orbed, sun and moon for his face
Narayana [Vishnu] himself has offered his gracious drum all for us
To sing his praise and gain the worlds.
2) The Nachiyar Tirumoli, is a poem of 143 verses. Tirumoli, literally means “sacred sayings”. “Nachiyar” means goddess, so the title means “sacred sayings of our Goddess.” This poem fully reveals Andal’s intense longing for Vishnu, the Divine Beloved. It is a song of rapture - a song that can rise only from the joy of deep devotion to God. Her poems and songs are even sung at weddings.
A plant of fully bloomed jasmines evoked the following words, when she intensely felt the pangs of separation from her Lord and pined away for Him:
“O Jasmine damsel, shining in all your splendour in the prime of your life, I surrender to you and implore you not to hurt me with your smiles in my present state; but, if the words of assurance given by that Prince of Princes who cut the nose of that Demoness Surpanagai prove false, then can the fact of my birth too be proved false?”
She utilised classical Tamil poetic conventions and intermingled stories from the Sanskrit Vedas and Puranas, to create imagery that is quite possibly unparalleled in the whole gamut of Indian religious literature, making her contribution to Tamil literature invaluable. When and where Andal composed her verses is not clear but she is keen to impart the knowledge that it is she who is author of her immortal words. Indeed, throughout her verse, Andal teaches us that love for the divine Beloved can set us free:
Kodai whose brow no bow can match
Putter Vishnuchittan’s [Periyalvar’s] daughter
Made these verses in her passion
For that jewelled lamp of the cowherd clan
Who wrought mischief with his pranks.
Those who can recite them well
Shall never struggle in the sea of sorrows.
O famed and expert God of Love,
Take note of the penance I undergo –
My body unwashed, my hair unbound,
My lips without colour, one meal a day.
One thing I have to say, my Lord,
That my womanhood may not be a waste
Grant me this, my life’s aim,
That I become Kesava’s servant-maid.
With intense yearning she begs Krishna to reveal himself to her:
O lovely Koel [ Krishna ], through my greed to embrace
The one on the milky sea,
My surging breasts in their ecstasy
Melt and distress my soul.
What do you gain by hiding yourself?
If you will coo and bring to me
The one with the discus, conch and mace
You will get a place in heaven.
There is a beautiful temple dedicated to her in Shrivilliputtur, by the side of the garden. Andal is worshipped with the flowers of that garden. To this day, the Lord is presented the garland worn by her the previous day. Andal, an ordinary girl became a Goddess, a worshipful deity, through her unshakable veneration of and marriage to Lord Ranganatha.
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