-Dr. Prema Nandakumar
One of the most enduring and meaningful legends of India’s bhakti movement is the relationship between Perialvar and Andal, both of whom are hailed as Alvars (devotees immersed in the Divine). Apart from giving importance to the feminine voice in the realm of the yoga of divine love, the legend brushes aside all those differences based on caste, creed, status and gender that had been dividing the Hindu society in the ages since the Upanishadic times. Andal, the first woman to be identified as a bhakti poet of the Vaishnava stream is also the only poetess who has been elevated to the state of a goddess. The temples to Vishnu belonging to the Ramanuja Sampradaya whether located in Srirangam, Kanchipuram, Tirupati or Pomona in the United States, have the installed icon of Andal as Vishnu’s consort.
Andal (also known as Godai Devi) was found in a Tulsi bush by Perialvar. One day he was digging near the bush when his spade (khanitra) touched the body of a lovely child. This happened in the year Nala, in the month of Ashada on the day of the Pooram asterix which was a chathurdasi. The Divya Suri Charithram says that “Vishnuchitta foresaw that this child would speak in praise of the Lord; so he named her Godai in an auspicious moment.” The word signifies “one who helps one’s speech.” M.Raghava Iyengar who has conducted deep research in the hymns of Andal has remarked that she must have lived in the early 8th century.
When she became a dazzlingly beautiful young maiden, Andal rejected any suggestion of entering the married state. To the pleadings of elders she said firmly: “If you say that I should marry a mortal being, I shall not live.” Tradition avers that when she came to Srirangam, she became totally indrawn in love’s ecstasy when she came face to face with the image of Lord Ranganatha and merged in Him. One of the decads of Perialvar seems to allude to this circumstance. Written in the form of a mother’s lament that her daughter has chosen to follow the Lord to His residence, the verses refer to the house of Perialvar as having grown empty like “a lotus pond that has lost all petals due to an excessive shower of dew”. The Lord has done mischief by taking away the innocent
girl and would the mother-in-law bid a pleasant welcome to this darling maiden of hers?
“I had but one daughter; I brought her up as Lakshmi,
Famed all over the world. !e Lord with lotus-eyes
Has taken her away. Yasodha belongs to a superior tribe
And is the proud mother of a great son.
Would she be pleased with this daughter-in-law
And welcome her and decorate her?”
Andal’s verses numbering 173 in the Nalayira Divya Prabandham are full of autobiographical intimations, and each decad (sequence of 10 verses as a single theme) concludes with a reference to Vishnuchitta. Some also refer to the author as Kothai, daughter of Vishnuchitta of Srivilliputtur. The 143 verses in her Nachiar Tirumozhi have many charming revelations. Even when building sand castles using tiny
winnows and little pots, Andal thought of the Lord:
“Noble lion who smashed the pride
Of the elephant! One who sleeps
On the ocean with clear waves!
Don’t you frighten us with your eyes,
We who loved you at first sight!
We have sieved thin sand granules
And built these castles with care.
Don’t you break them down!”
A triveni sangam of poetic excellence, aesthetic joy and devotional ecstasy, the Nachiar Tirumozhi traverses the mystic’s path of aspiration, anxiety, dark night of the soul and the rapture of gaining the vision of the Divine in colorful diction. One of the verses describes her long vigil – spelt out in terms of despair and hope.
“In Tirumaliruncholai groves, mid Konrai blooms
!at droop as golden strings from trees
I am also lying down, in a swoon;
When will I be able to hear the sounds of conch
Blown by his lovely lips
And the twang of his Sarnga bow?”
Her vision of the Divine is brought to us as a ‘dream’ where each phase of her wedding with the Lord is embroidered with rich imagery in the course of eleven verses. This verse cluster is sung at the time of Vaishnava weddings even today and charmed Sri Aurobindo to give a summarized version:
There were beatings of drums and blowings of the conch; and under the canopy hung heavily with strings of pearls He came, my lover and my Lord, the vanquisher of the demon Madhu, and grasped me by the hand. I dreamed a dream, Oh, friend!
Those whose voices are blessed, they sang the Vedic songs. The holy grass was laid all round the sacred fire. And He who was puissant like a war-elephant in its rage, He seized my hand and we paced round the Flame.”
Nachiyar Tirumozhi concludes with a scene that has sustained us to this day. Andal comes face to face with the Flute-Player of Brindavan which marks the end of the mystic journey
“Did any one of you see my Lord coming this way,
The same who is all tricks galore,
One who is ever full of a million lies?
We saw him in the grove of Brindavan,
Coming under the veil of the wings
Of Vinata’s son, Garuda,
Shading him from the heat of the sun.”
Her lifetime’s sadhana for a yogic union with the Supreme has been crystallized into guidelines for aspirants in the thirty verses of Tiruppavai. In this wake-up call the cowherdesses rouse one another. It is beautiful Margasirsa month when Mother Nature is cool and sattwik and the everyday scenarios have an enchantment that seems to touch them with the gold-dust of Krishna experience. And the camaraderie of it all!
“Devil of a girl, don’t you hear the keech-keech noise
Of the Anaichathan birds everywhere?
Or the clanging of the kasu and pirappu necklaces
Along with the sounds of the churner
In the milk-pots of the gopis,
Famed for their fragrant tresses?
You are a leader! Still lying immobile
Even after hearing us sing of Kesava and Narayana!
Effulgent lady! Please open the door!”
While calling upon those who take up the rite to avaoid wastefulness and evil thoughts, the girls say that rare compassion should fill our hearts towards all creation. Once all the girls have woken up, they go to Krishna and ask for the materials (parai) for performing rituals which includes lamps and conches. What is the ‘parai’ referred to often in the poem? A drum? A winnow in which auspicious things are kept? Like the holy Grail of the Arthurian legends, the ‘parai’ defies our analytical mind and less has remained a teasing code from our devotional past. The Manipravala commentators assure us that ‘parai’ is Andal symbol for servitude (kainkarya) which is the desire of every sincere Vaishnava. The 29th verse makes this clear:
“This is significiance of our waking early
Coming to you and worshipping your lotus-feet;
Born in the Cowherd clan,
You must accept our humble services.
Not for immediate boons have come,
O Govinda! For seven generations seven,
We will be devoted to you and serve you alone.
Cancel all other desires in us.”
As the month of Margasirsa (December-January) reverberates with early morning recitations and special offerings in temples, serial lectures by eminent scholars and soul-enthralling dance and music performances on the stage, Tiruppavai retains its mystery when one tries to explain the verses. For each verse is a solid mAndAla by itself while it remains an inalienable part of the whole. Like Indra’s necklace of pearls, each pearl re$ecting all the rest, in Tiruppavai each verse relates to all the other twenty-nine paasurams. One or many, it is nothing but Ananda, the sheer Delight of Existence with Krishna as the centre of this Rasamandala.
Smt. Dr. Prema Nandakumar is the daughter of Prof. ICR. Srinivasa Iyengar, the first biographer of Sri Aurobindo. She obtained her PhD summa cum laude in 1961, at the age of 22, for her study of Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri. Dr. Nandakumar, who has been giving workshops on the writings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother for more than thirty years, is also an acclaimed critic and translator and has been recognized with several awards for her contributions to Indian literature.
* Translations from the Tiruppavai are by R.Bangaruswami.