IN SRIVILLIPUTHUR, A temple town 80 km south of Madurai, a young Tamil maiden, in a fine white- and-red silk sari and oversize jewels, her long hair wreathed in luxuriant flowers, a gossamer shroud not quite hiding her beauty, journeys to meet her lover. She is proud of her youthful body, of her arching brows and her perfect breasts. Her anticipation is palpable even to her palanquin bearers, who race to unite the couple in love as the whole town fondly looks on, spilling on to the streets. It is a temple procession. And the deity is Andal, an unlikely saint and poetess worshipped as an incarnation of Bhudevi. The most non-conformist member of the Tamil Brahmin pantheon, she has many names—Paavai, Kodhai, Goda. A foundling of unknown provenance, raised in Srivilliputhur by Vishnuchitta, aka Peria Azhvar, sometime in the 8th century, she authored two works that are part of a hallowed anthology of 4,000 poems called Nalayira Divya Prabandham, often referred to as the Dravida Veda: the 30-stanza Thiruppavai which is recited in Iyengar homes and temples every day, and a meandering, often erotic, 143-stanza poem called Nachiyar Thirumozhi. The only woman mystic in the canon of the 12 ‘Azhvars’—Vaishnavite saint- poets of the Bhakti movement whose works are strung together to form the Prabandham—she is the most revered, certainly the most loved, of the dozen. In the Tamil Brahmin psyche, Andal, like Krishna, has a dual personality, one a divinity and the other, a symbol of love, sexual union, marriage and fertility. At Iyengar weddings, brides still dress up as Andal, sporting her characteristic tika and off-centre topknot. Vaaranam Ayiram (‘A Thousand Elephants’), a set of evocative verses detailing her dreams of marrying the Lord, is still a standard issue hymn for unmarried Brahmin girls.
Should you happen to be in Srivilliputhur during the Tamil month of Margazhi—starting mid-December and ending with Pongal, it is Krishna’s favourite month by his own admission in the Gita—and depending on whether you know the story of Andal’s life, and her literature, you may feel like an interloper to the spectacle. A month-long concatenation of events at the temple, coinciding with a festival of ritual bathing for gopis described in Thiruppavai, leads up to Andal’s union with her beloved—Rangamannar, Lord Vishnu himself. This year, however, a shadow has been cast over the celebrations, with popular Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu referring to Andal, in a speech in Rajapalayam, as a ‘Devadasi’— a not entirely unfamiliar theory—based on a research paper he had studied.
It was a stray sentence in a laudatory tribute to Andal, her dazzling precocity and her contribution to Tamil literature, but it has incensed a community not known for taking to the streets in protest. The Brahmins of Srivilliputhur were the first to take umbrage at a non- believer’s blasphemous suggestion that Andal could have been a temple prostitute. Brahmins in Chennai, Bengaluru and other south Indian cities followed suit. In the agraharam in Srivilliputhur, it is all anyone can talk about. S Srimathi, 45, who rushes out of her home in time to fold her hands in prayer in front of Andal on her procession around the temple, quickly recites an invocation in Tamil— anyone who does not know the 30 stanzas of the Thiruppavai is a burden on this world, it goes—and says, “We have all been very disturbed. Why would a so-called Tamil scholar want to hurt the feelings of Tamils?” She looks forward to the afternoon, when Andal will be taken to a mandapam for an oil bath—ennai kappu in Tamil—as part of Margazhi festivities. “The whole town needs an oil bath to cool tempers,” she says.
At Thirumalai Vinjimoor Srinivasa Venkatachariar’s cavernous home, a stone’s throw from the temple, only the sound of an old swing stirs the air as he fishes out WhatsApp messages from friends and family condemning Vairamuthu’s ‘attack on Hinduism’. Venkatachariar, a Vedic scholar and priest, says his family has lived in Srivilliputhur for at least 500 years. “We are descendants of one of Ramanujacharya’s four main disciples, Arulala Perumal Emperumanar. He was a Shaivite scholar and he challenged Ramanuja to a long debate in Srirangam, where he was beaten on the 18th day of the competition. He turned follower, learned the Prabandham from Ramanuja and settled down in Srivilliputhur to spread Srivaishnavism,” he says. Emperumanar had disciples from 400 villages in the vicinity of Srivilliputhur, he adds. “This town has been a cradle of civilisation for us. Even now, life here revolves around the temple and its activities. To question this legacy is like questioning your own mother’s character,” he says.
While Andal's poetry cannot be interpreted to imply that she was a Devadasi, what is true is that men have tried to control the narrative of Andal's life and squeezed her into the 'respectable' slot of a goddess
The brightly-painted temple gopuram, which famously features on the state emblem, towers over narrow streets lined with palkova shops. Srivilliputhur sells thousands of kilos of the milky confection every day. We wait at the temple, as Andal is readied for her bath, and watch devotees in zari-lined nine-yard saris and pristine white veshtis file in and out of the shrine to Vadapathrasayi (Vishnu) with flowers and coconuts, lighting lamps, chit-chatting, queueing up for curd rice and pongal. Only the tourists and out- of-towners seem to head to the garden where Peria Azhvar is supposed to have found Andal and adopted her.
There is a well-loved story about Andal as a young girl madly in love with Vishnu, and how she would secretly try on garlands that her father had strung for the deity. Peria Azhvar once caught her in the act and chastised her for defiling an offering meant only for God. That night, Vadapathrasayi came to him in a dream and told him that he missed the fragrance of Andal on his garland today. And then it struck Peria Azhvar, who had been chiding his daughter for refusing to marry, that Andal and Perumal were meant to be together.
Today, it is hard to imagine that an Andal would be forgiven for trying on a garland meant for a god, much less for refusing to settle for domestic bliss.
Andal’s intensely strung passion, socio-religious defiance, pride and self- assured verse make her stand out among women mystics like Meerabai, Akka Mahadevi and Lal Ded. Andal’s is arguably the strongest feminist voice among them all. In one stanza reminiscent of Kannagi’s fury at the end of Silappadikaram , Andal threatens to rip apart her breasts and fling them at her Lord for ignoring her. In another, she asserts her right to choose her own husband:
‘Manmatha, my breasts swell
for that lord alone
who holds aloft flaming disc and
If there is even talk of offering my
body to mortal men
I cannot live.’
Her poems of unrequited love, dripping with shringara, are largely left out of the communal chanting of her relatively chaste Thiruppavai every morning in the month of Margazhi, when Iyengar men and women gather at the temple at dawn in their rustling silks and fall into the calm, primitive cadence of the Kalippa meter. Surpassingly sexual passages where she begs the Lord to enter her and grant her release have been interpreted by commentators as a superior being’s craving for metaphysical union with God. While her poetry cannot be interpreted to imply that she was a Devadasi, what is true is that men have tried to control the narrative of Andal’s life and squeezed her into the ‘respectable’ slot of a goddess. Besides, by situating her in the rigid Iyengar tradition, they have deprived her of a legion of non-Brahmin followers who may have found her inspiring. Says A Kanimozhi, a 24-year- old who runs a palkova stall near the Srivilliputhur temple, “She is a Brahmin deity we know cursorily; we don’t take part in the temple festivities. We don’t understand all of that.”
An army of male priests surrounds the deity onstage and begins to anoint her with medicated oils, chandan, kumkum and flowers as a largely female audience looks on. A young veena player strums an auspicious tune as a priest proceeds to undo Andal’s hair, letting it fall in waves around her small, golden frame. By elevating her to a goddess and de-sexualising her, they may have defended her honour, but they have all lost sight of the woman she was: a free- thinking adolescent who could make every Iyengar in Srivilliputhur blush.