In the Vaishnava Bhakti traditions of South India, with particular reference to Tamil Nadu, there are 12 Aazhwaars (Poet-Saints), who dedicated their entire lives to Lord Narayana or Maha Vishnu. ‘Aazhwaar’ in Tamil means ‘one who immerses himself in’- here, the one who is forever immersed in the thoughts of the Lord. Worldly life and its tantalizing charms never mattered to them. They travelled all over India by foot, visiting Vishnu temples, singing the praise of the presiding deity in such places. Among the Aazhwaars, only one is a lady-saint. She is Andal (pronounced Aandaal).
In the erstwhile Pandya Kingdom of Tamil Nadu, in the period 8-9th Century AD, in a place called Srivilliputhur (near Madurai), lived a Vaishnavite Saint, and Vedic scholar by the name of Vishnuchittar (the person whose ‘chit’- mind is nothing but Lord Vishnu) (later on, he was reverently called Periyaazhwaar-one of the 12 Aazhwaars referred above). Reciting poems and singing hymns on Lord Narayana (Maha Vishnu), he used to do pujas at the nearby Vishnu temple. In a wordly way, there was a longing in him for a child, as he didn’t have one. One day in the nandavanam (garden) of the temple, surrounded by Tulasi plants, he saw one female infant lying on the ground, playing with itself moving its arms and legs in the joy of innocence. Vishnuchitthar was thrilled beyond belief. He felt it was the Lord’s gift for him and lovingly lifted the child and took her home. He gave the infant the name ‘Andal’ (Aandaal) and she, as time passed by, grew into a lovely child.
Childhood: Andal was brought up by Vishnuchithar in very religious, pious surroundings. From a tender age, she started listening passionately to the hymns and songs soulfully sung by her father. As there were a lot of references to Lord Krishna or Sriman Narayana in the songs, she got curious and asked her father many intriguing questions about the most charming Lord. Vishnuchithar was quite happy to tell innumerable stories from Srimad Bhagavatam and Puranas about the leelas of Krishna and his captivating lifestyle. Andal was glued to the stories of Krishna and the Lord grew in her tender heart blissfully. She was so mesmerized by the thoughts of Krishna, soon she started visualizing Him as her lover and dwelt in His thoughts all day.
Andal as a child, was also learning from her father, ancient scriptures and puranas. Remaining glued to her father at home, she assisted him in the nithya karmas, especially in regard to his pujas at home and the Lord Vadabhadrasayee (Lord Krishna) temple nearby. Vishnuchithar used to pluck fresh Tulasi leaves from his garden everyday and weave a nice garland for the Lord in the temple. As she was a child, he did not take his daughter to the temple.
Looking at the lovely green garland, Andal was in the habit of wondering how nice this garland would be on the Lord. As she started imagining herself as the bride for Lord Krishna, she wanted to see how beautiful she would look in the eyes of her Lord, with a garland around her neck! Without her father’s knowledge, she used to take the garland, wear it herself and look at her in the mirror. She was amused and delighted with her looks with a fragrant Tulasi garland on her tender figure. Before her father returns from his daily core, she would put the garland carefully back in the flower basket meant for the temple and move away. This was happening everyday. Vishnuchithar, without any knowledge of the happenings at home, carried the garland to the temple and offered it to the Lord. The Lord was accepting the garland as gracefully as ever. One day, Andal was adorning the garland and was looking at herself in the mirror. For a moment, she thought, she saw her Krishna only in the reflection. Her eyes became wet and she was engrossed in the thoughts of her Beloved.
At that time, Vishnuchithar entered the room and saw what his daughter was doing. He became furious and shouted at Andal: ‘This is meant for the Lord! Stupid girl, how did you dare to wear this yourself!’ Startled, she at once removed the garland and kept it aside and ran towards a corner of the house. ‘Don’t ever try to touch such things in future!’ thundered Vishnuchithar and left. Andal was badly shaken, as she had never ever heard her father shout at her. Sitting in a corner, keeping her face down on her knees, she uncontrollably sobbed in silence.
Vishnuchithar himself became very disturbed. He thought something had gone terribly wrong that day. He had no other Tulasi maalaa for the Lord, for that day. How would he go to the temple and stand before Him? He did not touch his food for that day and went into a long meditation praying for the Lord’s forgiveness.
Lord’s intervention: In the disturbing night that followed, he could hardly get a wink of sleep. Before early dawn, when he dozed off for a while, Lord Krishna appeared in his dream and asked him rightaway: ‘Why didn’t you bring the garland for me yesterday?’ As Vishnuchithar fumbled and mumbled knowing not what to say, the Lord said: Vishnuchitha! Listen. I want only the garland, Andal put on herself! And I would prefer it like that everyday..Do not stop what she is doing. And don’t ever think, she is just a mortal!’ The Lord disappeared.
On waking up the next morning, Vishnuchithar could not believe what transpired in the dream. That was surely no ordinary dream! It was so vivid in his memory and he knew it was his Lord who graced him, showing the way to come out of his agony. He was in tears. Wiping his tired face, he got up and went around looking for his flower-like daughter. Andal who also got up early, was there somewhere in the house. He found her exhausted, eyes downcast, trying to avoid her angry father. As Vishnuchithar remembered what the Lord has told him about her, he trembled a little. Still he thought, Oh, she is my dear daughter.. He slowly approached her and touched her head softly. He said : ‘Andal, my baby, had I frightened you? I scolded you too much, I shouldn’t have..I regret it my child..’ Andal broke in tears and sobbed in his affectionate arms. Vishnuchithar consoled her and told that he wouldn’t be annoyed with her anymore and she can try the garland on herself, before he takes it to the Lord. Andal was pleasantly surprised by the development. She smiled at her father and went around happily.
Vishnuchithar went to the room where Andal had left the garland, the previous evening. To his bewilderment, he saw the garland had not faded a bit, but appeared fresher and greener than ever, dazzling in sight. It is all His leela! – he explained to himself. At the same time, he began to understand the divine power residing in his tender daughter. After his daily chores at home, he took that garland happily to the temple and dutifully offered it to Lord Krishna who gave his nod in the form of a blissful smile.
Andal’s eternal love: As the days passed by, Andal grew lovelier and attained the marriageable age (In those times, for girls it was anywhere between 10 to 14 or 15 years of age, in general). As a father, Vishnuchithar was worried that he should find a suitable groom for his adorable daughter. When he opened the subject with Andal one evening, she made it clear to her father that there was no one for her in this world, other than Lord Krishna Himself! Vishnuchithar tried hard to explain and pleaded with her about the reality of this world. ‘No!’ she said firmly. ‘If at all there is a wedding for me in this life, it will only be with Him!’ Her father was baffled, but by then knew how stubborn his daughter could be. Alas, he didn’t know what to do.
After long wavering thoughts, Vishnuchithar called his daughter and told: ‘Lord Narayana has manifested himself in various forms in many places. In 108 Divya Desams (Holy Vaishnavite shrines, sung in hymns of praise by the Aazhwar saints) all over the country. I would describe, to the best of my knowledge, all the Kalyana Gunas (beauteous divine qualities) about the deities residing in such places of pilgrimage. From these, you choose that one form – that is for you!’ She nodded in agreement and started listening. Her father started narrating the divine stories of Lord Vishnu, one by one, in 108 Vaishnava Kshethras. When at last, he commenced describing the divine grace and extraordinary beauty of Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam (near Trichy in Tamil Nadu), tears started slipping down from the eyes of Andal. She understood. She at once prayed to Lord Krishna in the form of Lord Ranganatha to accept her in wedlock and take her with Him at the earliest.
Divine union: It became clear to Vishnuchithar also. But how to go about this extraordinary situation? He, as a devotee of the Lord knew that He alone can solve this. Vishnuchithar meditated and earnestly prayed for the Lord’s kindness in accepting his innocent daughter as his bride. In the following night, Lord Ranganatha appeared in his dream and told him: ‘Vishnuchitha! Andal is not only your daughter but she is Bhooma Devi herself. Please bring her in royal style in a palanquin to my temple. I will accept her as my Devi’. Similarly, He also appeared in the dreams of the sthanikas (temple officials in charge) of Srirangam temple to go to Srivilliputhur and bring Andal in a royally decorated Pallakku (palanquin).
Arrangements were made accordingly in Srivilliputhur and Srirangam. Periyaazhwaar (Vishnuchithar) was delighted beyond description. He was all praise for the Lord. On an auspicious day, Andal was taken in a palanquin (pallakku in Tamil, palki in Hindi) to Srirangam with a lot of pious devotees accompanying. It is believed that King Vallabha Deva of that region, who was a staunch devotee of Lord Ranganatha, on hearing about this from his Minsters and advisers, rushed to Srivilliputhur to accompany Andal in a colourful royal procession to Srirangam. He ordered the route from Srivilliputhur to be fully guarded and elaborately decorated.
On arrival in Srirangam, the holy shrine where Lord Ranganatha resides, Andal was taken ceremoniously into the temple with full temple honour. She was greatly excited all along, feeling the Blissful Grace of the Lord, her adorable Krishna, her Narayana as she entered the Garba-graha.(Sanctum sanctorum of the temple). Emotionally charged, she took the breath-taking beauty of Lord Ranganatha in her teary eyes, in her heart of innocence and gracefully bowed before her Lord. As others kept a respectful distance and watched in silence, Andal in great eternal love for the Lord, moved gracefully towards the Lord. As she neared Him, a sudden burst of indescribably pure, lustrous light engulfed the space for a period of timeless wonder. Nothing existed except the Divine Grace itself. When the blissful bright light slowly withdrew itself after a while, the devotees in the temple could see only Sri Ranganatha smiling at them with all His eternal splendour. Periyaazhwar’s(Vishnuchithar) daughter Andal had merged with her Lord to be one of His divine consorts.
Ever since, Sri Andal is worshipped in Tamil Nadu as the incarnation of Mahalakshmi. Apart from Srivilliputhur, there are separate sannidhis for her in some of the important Vishnu temples. The Hoysala Kings had also built a temple for Sri Andal in Belur in Karnataka.
Bhakti poetry: Before her divine wedlock and eternal union with the Lord of her heart, that is, before she was hardly 13-14 years old, Andal, who was revered later on as an Aazhwaar herself, had written two wonderful collections of Bhakti Poetry in Tamil. They are also well-known in the literary world for their high-quality poetry. One is called Thiruppaavai, consisting of 30 paasurams (divine verses). In this, Andal portrays in beautifully written poems, her heart-felt desire to serve Lord Vishnu. She also describes elaborately the religious vows (thiruppavai) she and her friends should observe to achieve their divine goals. Thiruppavai refers to the importance of moral and ethical values and dwells in pure love and un-erring devotion for the Lord to reach His lotus feet. It is sung in Vishnu temples in Tamil Nadu in the early mornings of the holy month of Maargazhi (Dec 16- Jan 14). A song is assigned for each day and sung in front of the Vishnu deity throughout the month, seeking the Lord’s blessings.
Her other Bhakti work is titled ‘Naachiaar Thirumozhi’ (Sacred Sayings of the Goddess) (143 verses). This poetic collection portrays the agony of separation and the eternal longing of Andal for her beloved. Drawing stories of Krishna from the Sasthras and Puranas, Andal weaves powerful landscapes of imagery and beauty, which is perhaps unheard of in Indian divine writings. Her sensational writing explores the depth and sensitivities of the heart of a young woman in unbearable love for her celestial lover.
These divine masterpieces of Sri Andal penned elegantly in Tamil, have been translated into Kannada, Telugu, Gujarati, Hindi, English and French.
Other masters on Andal: Sri Ramanuja, the greatest among Vaishnava Acharyas, has written a commentary on Andal’s Thiruppaavai in Sanskrit.
Sri Vedantha Desika, the revered poet-saint of the Tamil Vaishnavite tradition and an erudite Vedic scholar of the 13th Century had written ‘Goda Sthuti’ in Sanskrit in praise of Sri Andal. He refers to Andal’s Thirupaavai as ‘Goda Upanishad’ in his works. (Goda Devi, Naachiyaar being other names for Sri Andal).
King Krishna Devaraya of Vijayanagara Empire (16th century) who, inspite of being a powerful warrior and King, was also a devotee of Lord Vishnu. He was well-versed in Sanskrit and Telugu and had written a treatise on Andal’s life in poetic form titled ‘Amuktha Malyatha’ (the one who adorned the garland before offering it to the Lord) in Telugu.