Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Andal is arguably the most celebrated female poet of the alvar tradition of Tamil Bhakti. As the only female poet included among the alvars, she is immensely important to the Srivaisnava community. She wrote 173 verses and two texts namely Tiruppavai and Nachiyar Tirumozhi. Her legacy is that of a woman who was liberated in thought and did not believe in institutions like marriage, considered god her equal and was successful in attaining a union with Him. Her poetry is rife with violent images of desire and bold portrayals of sensuality. Yet today, she is considered a goddess, is portrayed as the ultimate embodiment of chastity and all women in the community are expected to embody her, both in conduct and devotion. This raises the question of how this shift in image happened. This paper primarily explores Andal’s legacy and her impact on the identity and conditioning of the modern Tamil woman. Using the methods of textual and historical analysis, this paper explores her importance among the alvars, her relationship with god, the interpretations of carnality in her poetry, and its reception. The paper will trace developments from the ninth century (when she wrote her poems), to the 12th century (when the Srivaisnava identity was being formulated), and further into the 20th and 21st centuries, when Tamil Nadu’s three most powerful political parties undertook the projects that defined the Tamil woman’s identity. This expansive analysis concludes with an understanding of how Andal’s legacy was used to define the Srivaisnava community as an inclusive group. However, in modern times her legacy has been reduced to a chaste goddess who is a mediator between man and god. Patriarchal systems have exalted her identity as a mother-goddess obfuscating the idea of liberation she espoused in her poetic expressions. Through highly motivated political movements like Periyar’s self-respect movement, this identity has been imposed, sometimes unknowingly, on every Tamil woman.
Keywords: Tamil, identity, Srivaisnava, Andal, Bhakti