Mention ‘Avvaiyar’, and a portly grandmother, slightly bent and carrying a stick, comes to our minds. Probably, the outcome of watching K.B. Sundarambal as Avvaiyar.

‘Avvai’ refers to a wise old woman. But who was Avvaiyar? Was it one person or many? Contrary to general belief, Avvaiyar is not just one person. There have been at least three Avvaiyars at various periods of Tamil history. The earliest Avvaiyar is believed to have lived in the Sangam period and her poems are found in the Purananuru, Kurunthogai and Natrinai. The second Avvaiyar lived in the 12th Century and was a contemporary of Kambar. Many poems and the Avvai Kural, comprising 310 kurals in 31 chapters, belong to this period. The third Avvaiyar is the most widely known for her ‘Vinayagar Agaval’ ,‘Aathi Soodi’, ‘Kondrai Vendhan’, ‘Nalvazhi’ and ‘Moodhurai’.

According to legend, Vinayaka bestowed young Avvai with the looks of an old woman, as she did not want to be entangled in marriage. With her poems pregnant with common sense, she could easily impress kings and commoners. Kings valued her wisdom and wanted her to stay in their courts, but she refused to be bogged down. She was always on the move. Her moral uprightness gave her the courage to talk to kings on equal terms and correct them when they were wrong.

Athiaman Neduman Anji, the ruler of Thagadoor (Dharmapuri) was particularly fond of Avvaiyar. Once, he got a rare gooseberry that when consumed would give the eater a long life. Instead of eating it himself, he offered the fruit to Avvaiyar because he felt she would be of greater use to society. (Some attribute this to Avvaiyar’s presence across centuries.)

Once, weary with hunger and thirst, Avvaiyar stood under a jamun tree. Lord Muruga, as a shepherd, sat on its branches. Avvaiyar asked him to shake the tree and give her some fruits. He asked her whether she wanted ‘sutta pazham’ or ‘sudaatha pazham’. The wise old lady did not understand. She asked him to give her ‘sutta pazham’. There was a shower of ripe jamuns. As Avvaiyar picked them, she blew on the fruits to remove the mud. The shepherd laughed and said, “Grandma! Are the fruits so hot that you are blowing on them?” Avvaiyar was stunned. She realised she had become complacent. Here was a boy who taught her the difference between ‘sutta pazham’ and ‘sudaatha pazham’. As she looked up, she saw a smiling Muruga in all his glory.

The ease with which Avvaiyar approaches Lord Ganesha with a tempting offer, is endearing. She says, “I will give you four things (Paalum, theli thenum, paagum, paruppum), “you give me only three things” (Sangaththamizh moondrum). The same Avvaiyar pours out her gratitude in Vinaayagar Agaval using the choicest phrases in Tamil. The 72-line long poem has just two sentences. In the first 15 lines, she calls him ‘Arputham Niraintha Karpagakkalirey’ (the wondrous elephant that sanctions all prayers) after painting a verbal picture of his beautiful form. In the rest, she expresses her gratitude for guiding her with motherly love.

Many of Avvaiyar’s poems are quoted widely in everyday conversation, either fully or in parts. ‘Katrathu Kaimmannalavu, Kallaathathu Ulagalavu’, ‘Nallaar Oruvar Ularel Avar Poruttu Ellaarkkum Peyyum Mazhai’, ‘Kettaalum Menmakkal Menmakkale’… Avvaiyar’s tone is pleasant in Aathi Soodi ( 109 lines) and Kondrai Vendhan ( 91 lines), as she is addressing children. But she turns stern while warning young adults about the dangers of being extravagant — ‘Aaana muthalil athigam selavaanaal….’ . She can’t stand stupidity. Addressing the miserly as ‘Kedu ketta maanidare’ (wretched people) and ‘Paavigaal’ ( sinners), she asks them if they bury all their earnings, who will enjoy them after they are gone.

According to Avvaiyar, there are only two castes — the high and the low. Those who are generous belong to the high caste; those who do not give anything to anyone belong to the low caste. (Ittaar Periyaar, Idaathaar Izhikulathaar).

Such simple logic. If only, everyone followed it.

B. Ramadevi is a teacher and writes music reviews. She regularly blogs on http://rewindwithramadevi.blogspot.in/ Contact her at ramadevi1951@gmail.com