History & Culture

The mystic bride

A lithograph of Andal in her bridal finery.  

Andal. She was so special to Lord Ranganatha that people gave her the name ‘Andal,’ the one who ruled over the Lord of Bhooloka Vaikundam or Srirangam. Her story is a fine example of bridal mysticism. She was found by Vishnuchittan, a temple priest, under a basil bush and named Godha (Given by the earth). She is one of the 12 Azhwars or saint poets who together composed the ‘Naalayiram’ or the 4,000 sacred hymns and poems on Lord Vishnu.

So important is this girl-saint that every Vaishnavite temple has a special sannidhi (sanctum) for her. With her tilted kondai (head gear), vaira naamam (diamond caste mark) and nose-ring, Andal is worshipped by parents of unmarried girls for ‘mangalya’ blessings. In fact, among Vaishnavites, it is common belief that singing or reciting Andal’s dream song, ‘Vaaranamayiram’, which details her marriage rituals to Lord Ranganathar, will culminate in marriage. And thus the song survives and lives on.

Recently, while teaching this song to students of music, I was struck by the vivid wedding rituals and scenes as described by Andal. And I realised that the rituals from the 8th century are being followed even today in Hindu wedding ceremonies.

Change in Maapillai Azhaippu style

In her dream, Andal begins with her Lord arriving in style along with 1,000 elephants – ‘Vaaranamaayiram.’ These days, with elephants banned in the city, the groom arrives in a horse-drawn carriage (a ritual borrowed from North India). In days gone by, the bridegroom would arrive in an open, flower-bedecked car, with an English band, a nagaswaram ensemble and gaslights carried by koravas or gypsies, and friends and relatives would follow the procession. The hapless groom would be dressed in a formal suit - complete with a tie and a bouquet in his hand. Noisy little boys and girls would sit next to him and fight for space. This style of ‘ maapillai azhaippu’ is obsolete now. The car has now been replaced by a horse-drawn carriage, with Bollywood dancing by youngsters.

Back to the song… The ‘thoranams’ mentioned are still very much in vogue. But now, event managers give them a fashionable twist. The holy water – ‘ Naatrisai theertham’ - is still prepared by the priests with saffron, cardamom and herbs. Indra and other Gods are assembled - but on earth, elderly relatives and a group of learned priests are present. The bride is garlanded and the mother ties the ‘kaappu’ just like in the song — ‘Kaappu naan katta.’

Next, Andal details a number of young dancers – Sadir ila mangaiyar – who bring ‘deepams’ (lamps) placed on ‘kalasams.’ (The term ‘Sadir’ for dance was in vogue those days). Now, women relatives carry pots with lamps placed inside them – they hold them and circle the bride and groom who sit on the ‘oonjal’ (swing) . As in the song, the entry of the groom causes a flutter, especially among women and girls. ‘ Maddalam kotta varisangum nindroodha…’. The drum and the conch raise loud and bold sounds. These days, the nagaswaram and thavil proclaim an auspicious event.

Next, there is a description of the pearl-decorated ‘pandal.’ Half-a century ago, I have seen colourful pandals made of coconut leaf fronds, paper and mango leaf decorations, expertly raised in a jiffy and lit up with tube-lights. There were exclusive ‘pandal’ contractors who were much in demand. Inside the pandals, we never ever felt the heat… so cool were the eco-friendly materials. Nowadays the kalyana mandapams need air-conditioners and fans,

Having come under the decorated ‘pandal,’ Andal says, “I dreamt that Madhusudhanan held my hand.” Even in our weddings, the first touch – ‘sparsham’ -- of hands, guided by the priest, is unique for the couple. At that very moment, the ‘getti melam’ heralds that the bride and groom have held hands in holy union. In another line, Andal talks about ‘ Semmai udaya thirukkai’ (the divine hand of Narayanan holding hers) and they do the ‘ ammi’ (grinding-stone) ritual — ‘ Ammi midhikka kanaa kanden thozhi naan.’

Erimugam’ arimugan achyuthan…’ The Lord makes Andal stand in front of the Fire, and places his hand over hers as -- ‘Porimugam Thatta’ – the ‘pori’ is put into the fire… this tradition is still followed now. ‘Kumkumam appi kulir chandam mattitthu,’ she continues. Here, the couple is decorated with sandal paste and kumkum.

In the last verse, Andal says all this is a dream -- and it is a garland of chaste Tamil words – ‘Thooya Tamizh-maalai,’ which she composed for the good of the people. She mentions that she lives in the famed Srivilliputhur and is known as Kodhai. A beautiful song which has been in circulation for centuries and is undiminished in its appeal.

Even as Andal’s father Vishnuchittan chastises her for dressing up as a bride -- with garlands belonging to the Lord -- Ranganatha appears in a dream and summons her to Srirangam. Resplendent in silks, jewels and garlands, Andal sets off in her pearl-encrusted palanquin. At the corner of the Srirangam temple, she sees the Lord in His gem-encrusted pallakku – she gets down rushes to Him, enters the holy temple… and merges with Him. Andal’s dream comes true.

(Charumathi is a Carnatic vocalist and musicologist. charumathiramachandran@gmail.com)

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 6:30:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/the-mystic-bride/article5003195.ece

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