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Andal (also Antal) was an Alwar saint-poet of the Bhakti movement writing in Tamil, the oldest Indian language barring Sanskrit. The Alwars were great Tamil Vaishnava poet-saints. Her origins are shrouded in mystery as she was a foundling. Her most famous work is the Tiru-p-pavai.

The legend of her birth goes like this. A famous Bhakti poet named Periyalwar Vishnuchitta, whose duty it was to grow and collect flowers for the local temple in Villiputtur, found a baby under a tulasi plant in his garden and decided to bring her up. He gave her the name ‘Godai’, or gift of the earth. Godai was so devoted to the Lord that early in the morning she would creep out and secretly twine the flowers meant for the worship of the Lord around her limbs, fantasizing that she was thus married to him. One day Vishnuchitta found a hair among the flowers, and demanded to know what she had been up to. She confessed, and Periyalvar was forced to throw away the flowers as polluted. However, the Lord then appeared to him and said that only flowers that had adorned the girl were acceptable to him. Periyalvar then realised that Godai was a true bride of the Lord. He gave her the name ‘Andal’ meaning ‘she who rules’ and married her to Lord Vishnu in his avatar of Sriranganatha at the temple of Srirangam. She is said to have disappeared into the image while her marriage was being solemnised. She is still worshipped as the wedded wife of Narayana or Vishnu. She died young, hence there are few ascertainable facts available about her.

Andal has left two works: Tiru-p-pavai (30 stanzas) and Nacciyar Tirumozhi (143 stanzas). The quality of her work is comparable to the best by poets of the period. In Nacciyar Tirumozhi she narrates to her friends the wonderful dream she has had of her marriage to the god Krishna. Her description of the rituals are so vivid, elaborate and in such sensuous colours, that they are generally sung at Vaishnavite weddings. Her passion for her divine lover is that of a voluptuous woman for a man, not the ethereal longing of a lost soul in search of the eternal. Yet, there is a delicacy in her handling of the love theme. ‘What is the fragrance of Krishna’s lips?’ she asks his flute, ‘Smell they of myrrh? Or do they smell of lotus flowers?’ Her description of nature is vivid and shows extreme sensitivity to beauty.

Rita Dalmiya
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