Andal, the poet-saint of Srivilliputtur, deserves to be celebrated for her evocative songs composed in praise of Vishnu, sung to this day during December in Tamil Nadu.

December marks the beginning of the Tamil month of Margazhi, sacred to the memory of poetess Andal. Andal's verses on Vishnu continue to inspire devotees but lovers of literature around the world may not savour them as much as they should.

The 170 verses strike the reader for their simplicity of thought and the several nature related metaphors. They could potentially become great tools to engage children with, to increase their level of environmental consciousness.

Culled from nature

Andal's favourite metaphor seems to be sending messages through birds or complaining to trees and plants about her unrequited love. In this context, the Punnai (Calophyllum inophyllum), Kurukatti (Hiptage madabiota), Nalal (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), Serundi (Ochna obtusata), Kodal (Gloriosa superba, white), Mullai (Jasminum auriculatm ), Kantal (Gloriosa superba), Kovai (Coccinea grandis), Kaya (Memecylon sp.) are mentioned. Her simile of the water lily closing as the lotus blooms, for the end of night and the beginning of day is also enchanting.

Many of her songs are on the Alagar temple in Thirumaliruncholai, a hill near Madurai. In a verse she lashes out in envy at all the wildlife in the hill that has the colour of dark blue colour of Vishnu. Andal's most evocative verses are those addressed to one of Vishnu's attributes, the conch. In each verse, she asks the conch how the lips of Vishnu taste for it is the conch that contacts his lips the most often. Andal is revered as divinity in Srivilliputtur, a temple town near Madurai. The grand entrance tower of this temple is also in the emblem of the Tamil Nadu Government. Also called Puduvai, the town continues to be an important pilgrimage spot and a superb example of Nayak architecture. Several of the inscriptions from the 10-15th centuries also give us a clear idea of the role the temple played as an employer in the local community.

One metaphor Andal uses, in the context of asking women to wake up and join her in prayers, is that of Jupiter setting and Venus rising, in her Tirupavai (v 13). She also adds that this is in the early morning in the month of Margazhi. In the first verse she mentions that in that year, the first day had a full moon as well. This gave two scholars a definite line of research to find out when the cosmological calendar witnessed this phenomenon. November 27, 850AD was one option, the other being a date in 731AD. This is a very rare occurrence of literature, that too, devotional in nature having a definite factual position.

Historical backing

These dates also coincide with another piece of evidence from the verses of her father, Vishnu Chitta, also a revered saint. He mentions a king Nedumaran (Maravarman) and to Abhimanatungan, which could be a title. We also know that Vishnuchitta was able to convert a Jain Pandya king to become a Hindu. Sadly religious texts give us no reliable evidence, but scholars like M. Raghava Ayyangar, extend the argument with the belief that Maravarman Rajasimha I who lived in the first half of the 8th century could have been the Pandya king Vishnuchitta talks about.

An added evidence is that the Pandya kings of these times, in Anaimalai (near Madurai) and elsewhere made grants to Vaishnavaites and Vishnu temples, possibly under the influence of these two saints. The Annual Report of Epigraphy for 1926-27, discusses this in greater detail. It also hopes that more data will be available for the question to be decided. Several decades later, with more of our inscriptions vanishing from the walls of the temple, the chance seems remote.

The 30 days of Margazhi will see the temple celebrating each day in splendour with many rituals and food offerings (many mentioned by Andal in her verses and still enjoyed by us today) that are an under exploited tourist draw. Those who love the verses for their metaphor and devotion may not worry about such prosaic matters such as dates. Andal however remains a poetess, who deserves to be celebrated not only for her mastery of the Tamil language but for also for giving us a small clue to explore the joint partnership between divine saints and historians with a fetish for fixing dates.

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