The Legacy of Andal: Exploring the Impact of Andal’s Poetry on the Identity of the Modern Tamil Woman

Upasana Rangarajan
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.


Andal née Kodai is arguably the most celebrated female figure in the common Tamil household. She is most revered for her undying devotion to lord Ranganatha and her union with him. She is also the only female saint included in the prestigious alvar tradition – the canon of the Srivaisnavite strand of bhakti (a devotional cultural movement that emerged in medieval India, attempting to reform Hinduism into a more inclusive religion with regards to caste and gender). In her time, she penned 173 verses in the praise of the Lord. These verses are divided into Tiruppavai and Nachiyar Tirumozhi. Devotees recite these verses during the month of Margazhi (January) according to the Hindu calendar, in her praise. She is considered a consort to the Lord due to her position as one who has had a union with Him (Venkatesan, 2010, p.6). 

Beyond her works, Andal is posited to be the ideal woman and daughter – even by the most orthodox Tamilians. However, it is not common knowledge that she led a life that was exceptional and unconventional for her times. It is interesting to note that the woman considered chaste and most ideal for the entire community has in her times, spun violent and raw imagery of sensual desire for the Lord. She also circumvented the role of a homemaker and considered herself equal to her partner, contrary to what is expected of women in Tamil Nadu even today. 

There is much more to Andal than just her perceived divine chastity. However, it is her hagiographical status of mother-goddess that seems to have travelled down the ages, with political movements valourising the same to define the position of women. Over time, her original disposition as Tamil Nadu’s early feminist and the woman who attained union with the Lord despite her portrayal of explicit sexual desires. seem to have been buried deep in the echelons of history. Her legacy appears to have been altered to suit patriarchal convenience and political ambitions. 

This paper is an effort to reclaim that part of her legacy and look at the inspiration and impact it has had on the identity of the modern Tamil woman. The paper will first look at her verses for their meaning and imagery, and trace her legacy and messages in her own words. The paper will then move onto the treatment of this legacy through the ages, particularly focusing on the discourse in the Srivaisnava community in the 12th century and its inclusive position. Subsequently, the popularization of the idea that women are supposed to embody and satisfy their potential as mothers and the chastity accorded to them will be explored. This idea includes labelling the state and the language as mothers. This idea travelled from the 12th century to the Periyar movement in the 1920s up to the time of Jayalalitha – former chief minister of Tamil Nadu – who used this label to wield power right up to her death in 2016, spanning close to a decade and a half. 

Research Question and Methodology

The research question I want to address is the following: what is the impact of Andal’s legacy on the modern Tamil woman? I will address this question by first analyzing the poems and the life of Andal which in turn will lead us to understand the impact of the legend of Andal on the modern Tamil woman through different kinds of conditioning. This study is an explorative and descriptive study employing tools of historical and textual analysis. To understand her legacy and her impact on the modern identity, I will study her poetry in detail to extract the meanings, motifs, and imagery that Andal expressed through her poetry. Historical analysis is also used to study the Bhakti movement, the identity-building exercise of the Srivaisnava community and women of Tamil Nadu, and the political events to empower women in contemporary times to ascertain the socio-historical context required for this research. As a part of this exercise, these are the questions that I will try to explore: 

  1. How important is Andal to the alvar tradition? What is her relationship with god? How has her legacy impacted the Tamil image of modernity?
  2. What are the interpretations of carnality in her text and how has it been received and perceived in the Brahminical setup?

These questions are significant because despite previous research on the texts themselves, there is limited work undertaken in English to trace the longstanding impact of Andal’s work or the reception of her legacy through the years. In this paper, I argue that, since she is the only woman in the alvar Bhakti tradition and is as revered as she is, her legacy has had a profound effect on the construction of identity of the women of Srivaisnava community, how they are treated, and their role in the family and society. 

Literature Review

This paper is based on translations of Andal’s poetry in English (Venkatesan, 2010).

There is very limited accessible research in English on Andal’s poetry and her life. Venkatesan (2010) has written an authoritative exposition among the few works of translation that exists. Her work is relevant and thorough. By dedicating special chapters for commentary on the verses and the iconography and literary devices, Venkatesan’s work makes it easier for the uninitiated to understand Andal’s work. It includes not only translations but also provides a discussion contextualizing Andal’s position in the Bhakti movement. 

There is almost no work in English focusing exclusively on the impact of Andal’s legacy on the identity and conditioning of the modern Tamil woman. It is surprising that despite being the only woman to be part of the sacred alvar tradition, she is not prominently discussed in the literature on women’s position in the Tamil community. In fact, Young wrote an entire paper on the unintentional feminism in Srivaisnavism while managing to mention Andal only thrice, mostly in the context of her being a voice from “below” and how that contributed to the universal nature of the Srivaisnava movement (1983, p. 2). While that is an important assertion, it is equally vital to explore the uninhibited nature of Andal and her verses and how that could have induced unconventional ideas in the community. Young’s work is, however, important to trace the unintentional feminism that crept into the Srivaisnava community as a result of the positioning of all devotees as equal to god in the hope that it could be a worthy competition to other sects of Hinduism. Her emphasis on the Bhakti movement and the fact that the alvars and male devotees developed more appreciation for femininity as they had to embody it in their worship is an important one but she misses understanding Andal’s contribution to this development (Young, 1983, p.4).  

Dutta (2007) explains in detail how the Srivaisnava identity and texts were formulated following the oral tradition of the alvars. She traces a sociohistorical tradition that contextualizes tensions in the community (especially the conflict between supporters of Sanskrit and those of Tamil) and the treatment of the alvar texts later. However, like Young (1983) she refers to Andal only as a voice from “below”. Dutta (2007) focusses on Nammalwazh since his Tiruvaymozhi has been dubbed the Dravida Veda and he came from a lower caste. She also does not talk much about the identity of women and other minorities within the community other than the fact that the community was universal and inclusive.

There is also insufficient research on the long-standing effect of Andal’s legacy or the effect of exalting her as a mother-goddess. Lakshmi (1990) talks about the mother trope as an ideal for women in Tamil Nadu from classical literature to the writings and rhetoric of leaders like Periyar, Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran. She talks of classical literature but does not talk of Andal who was given the status of the mother before anyone else. She calls out this exaltation as an objectification and reduction of the woman and elimination of her agency by male leaders, to suit their goals (Lakshmi, 1990). She discusses former Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha, the only Srivaisnavite female politician of her time, in astonishing brevity for a person who was compared to Andal and was called Amma throughout her political career (Lakshmi, 1990, p.12). I suggest that the mother trope and its chastity, inspired by Jayalalitha and Andal inescapably brings power back to the term. Within the limited literature in English on feminism in Tamil Nadu, the notion seems to be that the “self-respect movement” under the aegis of Periyar was the most important primary attempt at a feminist movement in Tamil Nadu (Lakshmi, 1990). Lakshmi (1990) challenges this theory by exploring the various flaws in the movement. She argues that Periyar was most concerned with creating a movement that was anti-convention rather than meaningful reforms for women. 

The Story of Andal 

Andal describes her hometown of Puttuvai as a “wealthy metropolitan hub, overflowing with abundance, populated by perfect priests and incomparable mansions” (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 18). This town is presently called Srivilliputtur, a temple town near Madurai which is infamous for being the site of the birth of Kodai (Andal). The story of her unwavering love and the union of her and Lord Vishnu has lent the town its mystical landscape. 

Found under a tree by temple priest, Periazhwar or Visnucittan, Kodai was brought up with great love by him after he saw a dream in which the Lord instructed him to bring her up like his own. Kodai adorned herself daily with the sacred garland her father made for the Lord while playing the imaginary part of the Lord’s bride. Visnucittan discovered this fact one day and she was severely admonished for having made the garland “impure”. Lord Vishnu appeared in the father’s dreams again that night and revealed to him that he was very attached to the garlands that Kodai adorned. When Visnucittan, still perplexed and hapless, proposed the idea of marriage to the young woman, she said: “if there is even talk of (marrying) mortal men . . . I will not live” (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 19). It is at this juncture of absolute disappointment and yearning that Kodai composed the 173 verses of the two poems: Tiruppavai and Nachiyar Tirumozhi. Of all the forms of Lord Vishnu, it is the description of the Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam that caught her desire. The Lord appeared in Visnucittan’s dreams again and instructed him to bring Kodai to the temple in her bridal attire. It was in Srirangam that the Lord and Kodai wed each other when she climbed atop the image of the reclining Vishnu and then disappeared. From this point in time, she was known as Andal. This story sets the tone and the context for the texts and images that that will be analyzed in this paper. 

Situating Andal

It is important to analyse various women-saints who have written during the period of the Bhakti movement and their contributions to the broader sociological heritage. This will help to situate Andal’s legend in the context of the Bhakti movement. Andal charted a revolutionary course for the Tamil women of the times, the ripple effects of which can still be observed in our innate conditioning.

In Tamil literature, the Sangam tradition churned out the earliest female poets from the first to the third century CE. In this tradition, it is quite difficult to distinguish a male voice from the female’s because both genders are regulated by the rules of the Sangam poetics. The Bhakti ethos emerged only later, in the fifth century CE. 

The earliest woman poet was Karaikkalammaiyar, known as Andal’s Shaivite counterpart, who lived in the 6th century CE. She was part of the 63 Nayanars who are the Shaivite counterparts of the alvars. However, there are marked differences between the two. Karaikkalammaiyar was released by her husband when he was mesmerised by her mystic powers.  This allowed her to devote her entire being to Lord Shiva.  Her beauty is replaced by a disheveled and skeleton-like figure— the marker of her departure from social and material possessions. She also goes to extreme measures such as climbing Mount Kailasa on her hands to prevent it from being defiled by her feet. This is when Lord Shiva welcomes her to his abode by calling her his mother. In this case, one sees a clear dilemma between social obligations such as marriage, and service of the Lord (Venkatesan, 2010, p.8). Andal’s story, as one read before, is different because there is a rejection of social customs (such as marriage to a mortal), which means she is unaware of her material obligations. Andal’s aim is not to just to serve the Lord as Karaikkalammaiyar, but to be one with him. It is this understanding which allows for more sensual and romantic undertones in her poetry. By the end of her life on earth, Andal has achieved the status of a divine being considering it is beyond a mortal to marry the Lord, hence amassing the identity of Bhudevi (goddess of the earth) (Venkatesan, 2010, p.6). 

Another poet-saint that one is compelled to compare Andal with is Mahadeviyakka – the prolific Kannada poetess from the 12th century. Nearly a thousand poems are credited to her. Mahadeviyakka and Andal have a distinct place in their linguistic traditions for their unconventional ideas. Both are upper-caste women who decided to let go off worldly duties and dedicate their lives to attaining union with the Lord. It is, therefore, interesting to understand and compare their poetry and journey. Andal’s journey is made easier by the fact that she has the sanction of her father to absolve herself from worldly duties. Mahadeviyakka is married to a chieftain who touches her thrice against her will, forcing her to leave his side. “Only Mahadevi confronts the crucial problem directly. As someone who has not denied her sexuality but at the same time seeks the liberation that other bhaktas have, she adopts a radical measure, and wanders about naked” (Chakravarti, 1989, p.22).  She is supported by no one. Andal lies between Mahadeviyakka and Karaikkalammaiyar. Her poetry is unapologetic and, in a way, untouched by the material world, which makes it bold and novel. Hence, she is more comfortable with ideas of violence and eroticism. 

Both women have been in love with the Lord from the outset. However, Mahadeviyakka has more of a role to play in overturning models of femininity in that she abandons maya (the physical world) to the extent that she walks naked, to be completely open to the experience of the Lord. This is also symbolic of doing away with modesty-an enhancer of sexual attraction through mystery (Ramanujan, 1992). 

The lives of these two women suggests that the breakdown of the renouncer-householder divide that the Bhakti tradition boasts of is not true for women. The women saints still had to negotiate between love for the personal god and marriage (Chakravarty, 1989). While Mahadeviyakka had to break away from her marriage and deal with her husband being an impediment in her desire to attain union with the Lord, Andal does not try to work around the idea of marriage and uses it as a “direct resolution of the issue” (Chakravarty, 1989). Andal and Mahadeviyakka, unlike Avvaiyar or Karaikalammaiyar who deny their sexuality, turn their bodies and sexuality into a site of devotion with the trope of bridal mysticism. However, Andal has the social sanction to be more graphic in her eroticism due to the impending marriage she has been promised. For Mahadeviyakka, it may be perceived as adulterous. She does own up to her body like Andal and also takes it a step further by pushing people around her to witness her stripping off the conventions of modesty. She works with her body than around it — shedding all vulnerability of the woman’s body. This may be due to the realization that one can be violated in one’s home. She writes:

You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body’s glory?...
To the shameless girl...
there’s the need for cover and jewel? and, again: 

...O Siva
when shall I
crush you on my pitcher breasts
O lord white as jasmine when do I join 

you stripped of body’s shame and heart’s modesty? (Chakravarty, 1989, p. 21). 

Here, it is also important to acknowledge that the sanction of the male in the family becomes a determinant of the tribulations the woman has to go through. Andal’s father sanctions her desires, and hence her journey is visibly made easier. This is not the case for Mahadeviyakka, who has to face societal apathy and rebuke due to the denial of sanction from her husband. 

Andal is often compared to the 16th century poet-saint Mirabai. Mira was a high-caste woman who chose her duties towards Lord Krishna above her duties towards her royal husband. While one can draw comparisons between the lives of the two poetesses, there are marked differences as well. Firstly, one is not sure whether all the poetry attributed to Mira has been written by her (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 9). This is not the case with Andal as “the closed and canonical nature of the Nalayira Divya Prabandham (a compilation of the four thousand verses written by the alvars) disallowed the kind of organic production of poetry for Aṇṭāḷ, or any of the alvar poets” (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 9). There have been plenty of poems that have been composed in the name of Mirabai to further the legend of the princess. In Andal’s case there have been multiple verses called taniyans, separate from her two texts, that have been written in her praise. Mirabai’s poems take the tone of an “ascetic lover” who is more calm, meditative and mystical. The following stanza is a good example of this:

My dark one has gone to an alien land.
He’s left me behind,he’s never returned,
he’s never sent me a single word,

So I’ve stripped off my ornaments,
jewels and adornments,
cut the hair from my head,

And put on holy garments,
all on his account,
seeking him in all four directions.

Mīrā: unless she meets the Dark One, her Lord,
she doesn’t even want to live” (Venkatesan, 2010, p.10)

Andal’s poetry, on the other hand, is sensual and violent as seen below:

My breasts seek the gaze of the one whose beautiful hand lifts the discus.
Bound tightly in a red cloth, their eyes
shy away from the gaze of mere mortals
desiring none other than Govinda.
I cannot live here a moment longer
Please take me to the shores of the Yamunā.
Nachiyar Tirumozhi 12.4 (Venkatesan, 2010, p.10)

Tiruppavai and Nachiyar Tirumozhi

Andal’s poetic merit is embellished by the fact that her sparse contribution of 173 verses are included in the first thousand verses of the Nalayira Divya Prabandham (The Four Thousand Golden Verses). The poems are manifestations of the madhurya bhava in the Bhakti tradition.  

Tiruppavai has been written in the kalippa meter and talks of the pavainonpu (nombu) or the vow observed by young women during the month of Margazhi to find a virtuous spouse (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 12). In this text, the cowherd maidens (gopis) of Ayarpati (based on Puttuvai) are the women, and the object of their desire is Lord Krishna himself. Tiruppavai is a community-based poem intended to infuse joy and enthusiasm among the group of women who seek to awaken a sleeping Krishna. It is a poem that is compact in an eight-line-per-verse format and is divided into three sections. The first five verses talk about the vow (pavainonpu) and everything associated with it including why one must undertake it, who must undertake it, and what they stand to gain. In the next ten verses, the cowherd maidens move together in a chorus as they awaken their friends to join their mission to gain the parai-drum. The beating of the parai symbolises the fulfillment of the vow and the attainment of moksha. The final section entails everything the gopis do to evoke Lord Krishna and the fact that the vow has come to fruition. The last seven verses sing praises of the Lord.  In the 29th verse the poem takes an interesting turn when the girls reject the parai-drum, which seems to be their central objective through the poem, and assert their intent to serve Lord Krishna (Venkatesan, 2010, p.12). The enthusiastic poem ends on a positive note and the reader can conclude that the girls have been successful in their endeavour to complete the vow of finding the ideal man. 

The poem invites not only the girls but even the listener to join in on the quest to reach Lord Krishna. It serves as a guide to the path that leads to the Lord by depicting the way. In the final verses, the girls are close to their end goal when Nappinai, the wife of Krishna stops them. They must convince her to be the consort to the Lord. However, the Lord also resides within them and hence, they must find the way to him by undertaking a journey of introspection. When the gopis woo Lord Krishna and Nappinai, he finally awakens to listen to their pleas. The poem goes into the outer world or puram as he takes the role of a king who must attend to his subjects. The akam or the interior world is left behind. The gopis begin pleading to his position as a divine sovereign, to give them the parai-drum. In a twist, having taken the journey into their souls through the poem, the gopis take a tone of deference where they just want to serve the Lord. They realise that attaining the parai-drum is meaningless and they want to serve Lord Krishna, which is the true salvation (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 23).  

Tirumozhi is a worthy sequel to Tiruppavai as it continues from where the latter ended. The poem begins in the Tai month (February) of the Tamil calendar and Andal’s poetry transforms into an expression of solitude where other actors play the supporting roles. The tone of this poem is diametrically opposite to the delightful imagery of the previous poem. Nachiyar Tirumozhi is rife with sensual, lustful and violent desire. The change of tone from the teasing mischief in Tiruppavai to raw desire may be attributed to the fact that solitude does bring one face-to-face with their unbridled, unmasked desires that can be masked in the guise of playfulness among a group of girls. One can also infer that Andal’s desire is still blooming when she is conceptualizing Tiruppavai whereas her desire has taken root in Tirumozhi. This maddening desire is a solitary path where all supporting actors become bystanders, and perhaps even enemies, as they stand between the individual and their object of desire. 

There are many instances in the text where she condemns nature because it is closer to the beloved one and has taken the place that rightfully belongs to her. Using these elements is a very unique way of painting a worldly conspiracy where she is being separated from her lover and must pine in the sphere of maya. Her unsettling emotions may also be the reason why this poem shifts to a violent and sensual arena. It is not linear in narrative and depicts her restlessness and flustered mind. While it is one thing to have some violence as part of the text, Andal uses it as the principal means to emote how disappointed she is with her lover. The poem begins with an ode to Kamadeva (god of love) after which there are two sections dedicated to the praise of the Lord. There are eleven verses on divinity. In the sixth section, the poem narrates Andal’s dream in which she is talking to her friends about her marriage with the Lord. It reaches an emotional peak in the final section, where she threatens her “callous” lover. The poem ends on a mischievous note wondering about the whereabouts of Lord Krishna. One may assume that she has been united with her lover at this juncture but there is no definite conclusion. 

Unlike the Tiruppavai, this poem bounces between the first person and the third person making it very difficult to separate between the author and the subject. The second, third and fourth sections move into a chorus-like narration similar to Tiruppavai. She uses the chorus-like narration in an imagined reality of Vrindavan where Lord Krishna is closer to her, and when he is lost, she can share the grief with others. The material world, however, is hers alone to traverse and no one can share her pain. The chorus-like narration is used as a relief to counter her grieving. Two voices come together later when she asks the whereabouts of the Lord and the chorus points towards Vrindavan, to signify that this union is in the imaginary arena (Manasvrindavan)

As we go through the text, we come across tropes of violation and violence – Lord Vishnu’s violation of Andal’s person and his cruelty in not paying heed to her pleas. An example:

The master of Tirumāliruñcōlai,
whose broad shoulders are for Śrī’s pleasure
entered my home and wrested my beautiful bangles.
Is this right? (Venkatesan, 2010, p.14).

As a result of such treachery and violation, Andal goes on to paint a picture of the violence she has subjected herself to by renouncing basic necessities like food and sleep (Venkatesan, 2010, p.14). At the height of her maddening helplessness, in the 13th verse, she threatens to cut off her breasts– the root of her femininity, sexuality and desire – and fling them at her lover. In the next section, one might notice the allusion of this action to that of Kannagi – the protagonist of the Tamil epic Silapathikaram- who also attained the status of a goddess due to the power of her chastity.  It is undeniable that this text is very uncomfortable and begs the question- what was the impact of this text on the Brahminical structures of the time? As Dennis Hudson accurately suggests, while Tiruppavai is the more popular text, it is Nachiyar Tirumozhi that has the ability to stand as a testimony to the legend of Andal (Venkatesan, 2010, p.14). While Tiruppavai is clear in its motivation that it is an imagined scenery, Nachiyar Tirumozhi, blatantly enters the realm of autobiography where the poet and protagonist are indistinguishable from one another.

Interpretations of Carnality in Nachiyar Tirumozhi

While Tiruppavai is an overtly communitarian text where voices of gopis merge into one, Nachiyar Tirumozhi pushes all the other actors into the background and Andal’s desires take full force in madhurya bhava or “bridal mysticism”. This text is important to understand the carnal interpretations and the images of violence that have been omitted from the popular oral tradition. Periyavaccan Pillai is known as the authority of the commentary and analysis of these verses. In the penultimate verse of the second Tirumozhi, the Lord manifests in Andal’s house (her body) without her consent to make love to her or “break her sandcastles” (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 195). Pillai sees this union as futile, claiming that only the union that comes at the end of a long arduous wait is one that is fruitful (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 195).

The game of kutal (also translated as “coming together”) in the fourth Tirumozhi also signifies union where women stand in a circle and cast shells while keeping their eyes closed. Closed eyes and the patterns of the shells signify union. The verse operates on two levels considering the singular voice: the desires of one particular girl and Andal’s hope of succeeding at a union exclusively with Lord Vishnu (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 198). The seventh Tirumozhi is very unique as it is the first time a whole song is dedicated to Lord Vishnu’s conch. The conch works as a symbol of union in many ways:  Andal wants to taste the sweetness of Lord Vishnu’s lips just like the conch and thus demands that the conch describes them to her since she is pining to taste his lips; The conch is as inseparable from Lord Vishnu as the king and his woman in the bedchamber; and the conch never leaves Lord Vishnu’s side and the Lord brings it to his lips when he has use for it. Interrogating the conch also shows Andal’s envy (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 206).

Tirumozhi is set during the monsoon, the season of union, and shows Andal looking at the clouds that remind her of the Lord’s promise to come before the first rains. She interrogates the clouds about her beloved’s whereabouts. In these sexually charged verses, she asks, “to be touched, caressed and entered” (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 208).  In the 13th Tirumozhi, Andal’s desires, misery and fury reach a zenith and she threatens to pluck her breasts and throw it at the Lord alluding to the poem Silapathikaram. In the poem, Kannagi throws her breasts on the ground and sets them on fire causing the city of Madurai to go up in flames, after finding out that her husband was wrongfully executed by the king on the charges of theft. But instead of throwing it at the ground, Andal wants to throw it at the Lord himself, so that at least they can embrace the Lord as they are of no use to her (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 219). This, she believes, will help reduce her pain. 

An important question that keeps resurfacing in the interpretation of this text is: If Andal has already surrendered to Lord Vishnu in Tiruppavai as a sole refuge, then what could be the reason for her to invoke sentient and insentient beings alike? (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 190). The text begins by addressing Kamadeva (the god of love), which is puzzling. However, Pillai reasons that this might be a moment of temporary ignorance due to the pain of unrequited love. Unlike the previous poem, where the interior and exterior spatial relationships are carefully used, Nachiyar Tirumozhi manipulates these Sangam topologies where the gopis build sand-castles which the lord wants to destroy- “a metonym for the interior world of the heroine” (Venkatesan, 2010, p. 194). It is this interior world that Sangam poetry tries to externalize through its conventions (I. Chanda, personal communication, June 12, 2020).

In the fifth Tirumozhi, Andal chooses to use the kuyil bird as her messenger to the Lord. The verse marks a shift in the narrative to include a desperation that is evident in the urgent meter. Tirumozhi is rife with common stock motifs from nature that were used in Tamil Sangam poetry such as clouds, rain, bangles, birds, etc. The two important and recurring ones i.e. conch/conch bangles and the kuyil bird are introduced in this verse. The parrot that has been recurrently used in the poem is known to call out the hero’s name at inopportune moments as well as echo the cacophony of the women. It is also the carrier of Kamadeva. Andal’s iconography also includes a parrot in her hand. The symbolism of the conch has been discussed in the earlier section. In the 8th verse, Pillai makes the observation that the Sangam’s poetic devices return and Andal’s body has turned into “Thiruvenkatam” (a temple town of religious significance in Tamil Nadu) through her longing – with mountains (breasts) and waterfalls (her tears) (Venkatesam, 2010, p. 208).

Treatment of the Legacy of Andal 

According to AK Ramanujan (1992), one can look at Bhakti movements as a counter-system to the prevailing orthodox systems of the time, especially in terms of gender and caste.  Until the fifth century, Tamil poetry was secular (Ramanujan,1992, p. 3). It is only when god is addressed in the mother tongue Tamil that all familial and emotional constructs rush into the religious sphere. God becomes more than just a master in the vernacular expressions of the Bhakti movement. This movement brought god out from the temple to a common man’s home, not as a god but as a friend. Andal is a textbook example of this. She is one of the earliest poets of the Bhakti tradition and the Lord is her object of desire who she owns by her words. The Lord is no more the giver; he is someone she demands reciprocity from. One can see the immediate shift from reverence and obeisance to love and acceptance in Andal’s writing in contrast to the Sanskrit edicts. 

The Bhakti movement can be termed as a social movement- status, privilege and knowledge are replaced by emotional experiences. Being markers of elitism, status and knowledge created barriers between man and his true experience of god. Having said that, the privileged and the upper caste were part of this revolution. Andal was an upper-caste woman who had sanction from her father. This afforded her the opportunity to serve as a voice for the marginalised (here, gender) even if that was not her intention. Her poetry is so uncomfortable that it is refreshing. From the tradition of fearing god and being content, there is Andal who is so deeply in touch with her desires and clear in her aim, so much that it is almost believable that even god bows down to her resolve. She represents the ferocious protectiveness along with the ability to face the darkest depths of one’s emotions. Patriarchy has generally tried to impose the idea that a woman who silently sacrifices her whole life for her societal obligations must be put up on a pedestal. This is a disservice to Andal’s legacy and what she stood for, who, through her resolute invocation and perseverance, managed to achieve what is known to us as unattainable- a union with lord in her lifetime- while rejecting the established path of marriage to a mortal.

By not giving her due place among the alvars during festivities- such as during Karthigai (Tamil equivalent of Diwali) when all the alvars are bathed in oil and their hymns are sung- the Srivaishnaivites have reduced her to a consort of god, which was never her intention. She wanted to be one with him, not become a gateway for others to reach him. It is strange that the legend states that she is the Lord’s wife when her own poem ends with a semblance of union only in the imagined plane. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that she has been “exalted” to the position of a goddess while the alvars become reincarnations of Lord Vishnu. This way the dominating narrative is still controlled by men. Nammalwazh, a saint from a lower caste, espoused the idea of the ultimate surrender to god as a method to salvation. He also preached the idea of a personal god. These ideas gained universal appeal later on and prioritised devotees over caste. His Tiruvaymoli was bestowed upon the status of the Dravida veda. Hence, the Srivaisnava identity-building attempted to collapse caste identities, as a contemporary concern, and bring them under one lord – Vishnu, disregarding the question of women and their unique identity., The alvars also tried to bring legitimacy to Tamil as a devotional language, as opposed to the dominant Sanskrit (Dutta, 2007, p. 6). 

It is important to note that Andal is a problematic poet and therefore it is easier to make her a goddess. Deifying lends spirituality and an asexual tone to her work, which makes it easier to accept her poetry. The legends and hagiography, transmitted orally, around Andal, prefer to emphasize her devotion to god, spirituality, and beauty, thus creating an amnesia through revisionism. Women are advised to sing Tiruppavai without giving adequate emphasis to the work that was actually more personal and solitary i.e. Nachiyar Tirumozhi. Andal’s rejection of social customs and her father’s support of the same have been conveniently subdued in the new narrative. 

Andal’s legacy and the claim to call it as part of one’s tradition and community was called into question very recently when the prolific Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu spoke of her as the first feminist but more importantly, he cited a research paper that dubbed Andal a devadasi– a moniker for a prostitute in modern Tamil (Yamunan, 2018). This caused an immense uproar among Brahmin clerics and religious groups across Tamil Nadu. Vairamuthu apologized saying that he was referring to the word as a “servant of god.” However, figures such as TM Krishna opposed his apology saying it was sexist and casteist of him to be apologetic of the devadasi caste to which luminaries like MS Subbulakshmi belong and that they deserved respect (Yamunan, 2018). The debate took a Brahmin versus anti-Brahmin tone, fueled by the Hindutva spirit with BJP organizing mass protests as well. The debate revolves around whether it is right for Brahmins to invoke Andal’s legacy when their systems still remain so deeply patriarchal.  

The Identity of Women in Tamil Nadu – The Religious is the Political  

This paper is a modernist project that seeks to explore Andal’s legacy through a feminist lens to outline the impact of her life and work on the identity of the Tamil woman. Hence, it is important to distinguish between the intent and the impact of this legacy, and the unintentional perspectives that may emerge due to the contemporary reading of these texts. From the Srivaisnava community-building exercise all the way up to Tamil Nadu politics of the 19th and 20th century, the identity of women has been defined depending on the contemporary concerns of the time. This identity and its formulation starkly lack the voices of women and is dominated by the men and their concerns and notions.  

From the fourth to the ninth century, the alvars used their poetry to infuse a sense of community-identity, whereas Bhakti became the basis for identity and community-building of the Srivaisanava sect from the 13th century onwards. The themes of these poems revolved around caste, language, Vedic status to Tamil hymns and the guru-shishya relationship (Dutta, 2007, p. 6). Andal, Tirumangaialwazh and Nammalwazh represented the voices from below- a non-brahmin voice. Social hierarchies were questioned by one and all including the Thondaradipodialwazh, who was Brahmin by birth. The aim was to create a universal sect where caste could not be a barrier for devotees to join the community. 

In the 10th century, the Nalayira Divya Prabandham or the four thousand verses of the alvars were compiled and set to music by Nathamuni- the first attempt at creating a comprehensive text. Nammalwazh’s Tiruvaymoli assumed the position of the Tamil Veda. The reimagination of the Srivaisnava community and its consciousness began in full swing from the 12th century when these hymns were codified along with multiple interpretations. The temple remained the site for the dissemination of these hymns and devotional messages as singing in temples was still the primary medium of transmission to the masses. Hereafter, Ramanuja and other religious leaders focused on theological issues which led the way to the Visistaadvaita philosophy that is so entrenched in the community till date (Dutta, 2007, p. 4). However, the Tamil and Sanskrit traditions were still running parallel and these leaders wrote in Sanskrit. Attempts to merge these two took place in the 13th century. 

One can hence conclude, that the Srivasnava tradition was always preoccupied with creating a continuous thread to preserve the community consciousness and identity, which entailed multiple reconstructions and modifications by religious authorities or the acharyas. This is because of three reasons. First, the Visishtadvaita philosophy came up during a highly Sanskritised era when Ramanuja espoused his commentary. Second, the Nalayira Divya Prabandham (four thousand divine verses) were categorized to be the Dravida vedas. Third, the various sectarian splits and interpretations brought out a dual textual tradition – Sanskrit and Tamil – creating a broad divide with Vatakalai adopting the former and the Thenkalai taking up the latter (Dutta, 2007, p. 5). These events threatened the consistency, legitimacy and the overarching importance of a Dravida Tamil Srivaisnava identity, the correction of which became the contemporary concern of all acharyas. Finally, the community had to overcome the patronage given by the Chola royalty to the Shaivites (Dutta, 2007, p. 16). The voices of women, especially Andal’s, seem to have collapsed into these identity markers after their primary contribution in positioning the community as one without barriers. 

However, Young (1983) has explored the unintentional feminist nature of the community. Though there is no explicit debate on the question of the rights or the position of women in the Srivaisnava context, there is a strand that emerges which reflects that the women as a part of this community had the opportunity to access the Lord more easily than their other female Brahmin counterparts. Brahmin women of other traditions were resigned to a rebirth because they were not allowed to read the Vedas because it entailed living outside home with a guru. However, knowledge of the Vedas was a prerequisite to attain moksha (liberation), without which they were resigned to a lower status in society (Young, 1983, p. 1). That was not the case with Srivaisnava women. As one observed earlier, the Srivaisnava tradition and its acharyas were interested in positing this community as one that was not exclusively Brahminical. This also stemmed as a reaction to the accusations that their Tamil Bhakti heritage did not live up to the other Brahminical Sanskritised sects.

Using the three alvars who represented the voices from “below”, the acharyas promoted the universality of the tradition (Young, 1983, p. 1) Interestingly, because of the focus on Tamil as a devotional language, the texts became accessible to women and they fulfilled the condition required for moksha – of having knowledge of scriptures. The other condition was asceticism which was not a privilege afforded to women due to their role as homemakers. However, according to Srivaisnavas, prapatti or complete surrender was the way to liberation (Young, 1983, p. 2). Since the way to moksha was available to all, thinking of rebirth was discouraged and akin to a sin as it distracted the individual from serving god. This gave women the same status in the eyes of god. In fact, the position of the woman in the Srivaisnava theology is enviable because salvation has been perceived as a union between the lord and the devotee. Andal’s position as the consort to god becomes enviable and unique in this context, as the only female alvar. Perhaps this is why she is considered the ideal model for every bride. The male alvars and the male devotees had to immerse themselves in this role. According to Ramanujan (1992), women are better disposed to play the devotee as men get caught up with material markers of status, privilege, etc. (p. 55). This immersion, it is expected, would create a deeper appreciation for the feminine. But was this an intentional feminist stance? According to Young (1983), there is no evidence of an explicit debate on the rights of women other than as part of the conversation regarding the universalisation of the tradition. Hence, the unintentional equality was a by-product of the resolution of the concerns the community was facing rather than a concern relating to gender discrimination. 

Interestingly, the status of Sri who is traditionally regarded as the consort to the Lord and mediator has led to the exaltation of Andal to the status of a mother by acharyas – an idea that carries on till today. Pillailokacharya and others began to use the motherly experiences as a vehicle to answer theological questions for the community (Young, 1983, p.5). The “motherisation” of the ideal Tamil woman started here and pervaded the Tamil consciousness so thoroughly that it became the common trope among all political parties despite their differences (Young, 1983, p.5). After the establishment of the Srivaisnava identity, the question of women and their rights came in full force in the early 1920s s with the “self-respect movement” spearheaded by EV Naicker or Periyar. Lakshmi (1990) has explored the question of the mother in community and politics in great detail. 

The womb and the body, through classical Tamil literature even after Andal, were turned into sites of divinity and purity. In the Purananuru (Songs of Valour), the mother’s milk infuses valour in the sons to make them brave warriors (Lakshmi, 1990, p.2). Being barren was considered a great sin. The question of daughters in wombs did not arise at all. The mother was validated by the valour of her son’s deeds in the battlefield. The breasts and the womb became enabling tools and the body became the site for the creation of warriors and able men. The realization of womanhood further evolved into the concept of motherland which needed protection and vindication by its sons to such an extent that religious exponent Shankaracharya believed that daughters were the result of males with lower intelligence (Lakshmi, 1990, p.3). Interestingly as discussed earlier, similar to Andal, Kannagi from the epic Silapadhikaram plucks her breasts off after her husband dies, but as a symbol of her barren status (Lakshmi, 1990, p.3). 

By the late 1890s, women became pawns epitomizing the ideas of sanctity and virtue that neo-Tamils wanted to establish as part of the identity of women. “In this reinterpretation and elaboration of Tamil culture, the Tamil mother became the central element as guarantor of purity of progeny and authenticator of historical continuity” (Lakshmi, 1990, p.3). This idea that women are pure and spotless due to their nature as mothers pervaded the Tamil consciousness so strongly that it has remained an unshakeable notion for centuries, continuing till date. The mother-metaphor rendered a historical continuity to the role of the man as the protector and owner of the unchanging and pure mother. Mother became a prefix for the land and the language of Tamil, and the male became its owner and protector, whose manliness is demarcated by this ownership, and women were regarded as merely aids. The woman existed only as a mother – her natural vocation – and was exalted into a position of pure and chaste Tamil person, who had little choice to be anything else. Hence, ignoring the sexuality of women (including Andal) and exalting them to the position of a mother is a choice of convenience by men. This is indicated in their treatment of Andal as the ideal woman and goddess and yet the omission of the bold Nachiyar Tirumozhi as a text not to be transmitted down to further generations as opposed to the communitarian and more devotional Tiruppavai. This indicates a selective approach towards Andal’s legacy and positioning it in tandem to patriarchal notions of motherhood and ideal womanhood that male householders expected their women to embody. 

Exploration of the Modern Female Identity in Tamil Nadu

The “self-respect movement” started in the late 1920s in Tamil Nadu and sought to fight against the ritual of differentiation as practiced by Brahmins encouraging inter-caste marriage and widow remarriages, all without a priest – an attempt to tackle blind beliefs. Inspired by the symbol of Shakti, poet Bharati Dasan envisioned the “new woman” (Lakshmi, 1990, p. 5). But his ideation was limited to women fighting oppression of Hindu rituals and “uncultured men”, for which women did not need political rights, and were told to focus on bringing up strong sons (Lakshmi, 1990, p.5). While the women of the movement gave fiery speeches supporting Bharati’s views, they highlighted the need for women’s education to understand the needs of the husband and family better – or to make sure he does not bring home another “self-respecting” woman. 

The “self-respect” movement revolved around non-conventional weddings (without the sacred thread, etc.) and the desire to knock down pre-existing traditional structures. After women were married to boys outside the caste in a non-denominational wedding, they exited the political scene and went onto fulfil their family duties. Hence, the movement became about granting self-respect to women through non-ritual marriage. It is interesting to note that when it came to the self-respect of women, it could only be achieved in an atheistic and casteless setup, but a man’s self-respect was independent of all these labels. For Periyar and succeeding leaders, these women served as a means to make a political statement as well as a section that could be tapped for votes, through the display of minimum concern and empathy. He used the initial weddings to give speeches about self-respect and rationality. Moreover, Periyar’s second marriage to a much younger woman, went against his initial speeches against old men marrying young women. The tension between the emancipation of women and the mother-image that the movement was peddling became clear at this time. Periyar professed that the path to liberation for a woman lay in her refusing to give birth as pregnancy was a hurdle in their freedom. However, he failed to realise that the issue did not lie in the process of procreation but in the obsession with the womb as a site of divinity and the prejudgment of a woman as a “house of valorous Tamil sons” (Lakshmi, 1990, p.7). A contemporary feminist would probably accuse Periyar of mansplaining. 

It was around this time that the political party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) came up. From 1953, the DMK, under the aegis of Karunanidhi, used the medium of films to expound and integrate their ideas of an ideal and virtuous woman in the public consciousness. The most common trope was using the binaries of the mother-woman and the prostitute who was not capable of procreation. DMK positioned itself as a commentator and actor of daily familial problems. Hence, the good versus evil was shown through the trope of the mother who was a sobering influence on the son who became the righteous husband later as against the vamps who played the role of temptresses (Lakshmi, 1990, p. 11). Karunanidhi’s ace prowess as a scriptwriter served as an advantage to the movement. The importance of men in comparison to women of the time was highlighted since two male superstars ruled the film industry while no female actor was able to establish herself. However, this was the time when the DMK was still establishing itself. After they came to power in 1967, party leaders refrained from taking revolutionary stances on issues and propagated reform within the existing system rather than an overhaul. The issue of establishing Dravida identity as a counter to the dominance of Hindi resurfaced. Hence, it also became important to posit women as invincible mother-figures who, in reality, did not have the agency to participate in actual debates due to their “exalted” position. The women within the party occupied the position they would in a familial setup – the caretakers who facilitated the growth of the family under the leadership of the head of the family (Lakshmi, 1990, p. 11). 

MG Ramachandran, who founded the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), came to power in 1977, and developed a unique way to show women that he was concerned about their welfare. During his days as an actor, he had played everyday roles such as that of a rickshawala or a peasant who helped women in movies such as Rickshawkaran, Periya idutha penn and Vivasayee. This helped him posit an image of being one among the masses and a man who could protect women. In his films, he was a virtuous and abiding son and his mothers were ready to lay down their lives for their valorous son. His films usually had allusions to, or songs about, the veneration for a mother. And the rich women in his movies were shrews he tamed into becoming virtuous women. He brought women ministers to power, hugged old women on campaigns and revived the worship of goddesses. These tactics did not improve the lives or the status of women even though they remained supportive of MGR and later the AIADMK, and they had to struggle for essential items and water shortage. Moreover, the mother-whore yardstick was extended to Jayalalitha who had to position herself as MGR’s faithful confidant, after his death, even as the opposition and his wife were bent on proving her to be an unworthy opportunist. Party workers went to the extent of pushing her off the cart carrying his dead body. Jayalalitha managed to use this same obsession with seeing women as mothers as a means to erase her legacy as the “other woman” for MGR. The party workers and her supporters accepted this image wholeheartedly and very soon everyone in Tamil politics addressed her as “Amma” (mother) – a moniker she retained till her death. Both MGR and Jayalalitha used their larger-than-life image to create a political dynamic where they extended support to all cadres of the party, almost as an act of benevolence and blessing. This created a rhetoric that anything that went wrong was despite their support and attributed to the failure of the party workers (Lal, 2015). Jayalalitha’s acceptance as Amma is fascinating as she did not have any children of her own and the womb that was a site of power had no relevance to her image as a mother; she was venerated and exalted to the position of a mother without her losing agency to make decisions and set boundaries for herself; one sees the resurgence of the Srivaisnava identity and the mother-goddess tradition of Andal in that Jayalalitha was the only Brahmin woman  who was powerful in Tamil politics, party workers wrote poetry for her borrowing from the Bhakti tradition and she was also sometimes positioned as a reincarnation of Andal. 


I have traced the legacy of Andal through her poetry, analysing her poems for the messages and the ideas she espoused and her legacy as a woman who contributed immensely to the Tamil Bhakti movement. I have also looked at the formation of the Srivaisnava consciousness after her, up to the identity politics practiced by the most prominent Tamil political leaders until the 21st century to look at the treatment and the impact of her legacy on the identity of Tamil women. I have tried to look at the Srivaisnava community specifically but it became imperative to look at Tamil women in general as the Periyar movement included a huge mass of women who were part of it regardless of their caste and the movement had a huge impact on the subsequent attitudes towards women and their identity.

Undoubtedly, Andal is important to the alvar tradition as the only woman included and it is on her back, along with the other two alvars from “below”, that the Srivaisnava community could position itself as a universal and construct-independent space. It is Andal’s unabashed, personal and equal relationship with god that set an example for the male alvar to emulate the portrayal of the feminine role of the lover of the lord, contributing immensely to the alvar and the Bhakti tradition. The hagiographical tradition of exalting a woman to the position of a mother-goddess seems to have its earliest roots in Andal’s story. Hence, she has contributed in the identity assignment of women as mothers and the homeland and Tamil being regarded as the mother-goddess according to political leaders thereafter. However, the idea of a woman being a chaste mother in Andal’s legacy as Bhudevi seems to have been buried at the hands of Periyar’s anti-caste and anti-Brahminical movement.

Andal’s relationship with the Lord was very personal and intimate. She treated him not as a higher being whom she wished to serve, but a lover who was torturing her, by keeping her from her fate of uniting with Him. Her poetry, especially Nachiyar Tirumozhi, is very honest, and her imagery shows her desire, restlessness and sexuality in unpretentious language. Her words, therefore, are unrestrained. It is a relationship of equals that one sees and observes, between them. This paper has explored the interpretations of carnality in Andal’s poetry in detail. These desires have not been explored by the Srivaisnavites and I deduce that her exaltation as a consort to the Lord leads to the restriction on these discussions as she is subsumed as a “divine being”. In fact, Andal gets exalted to the position of a mother, to establish her chastity, adding a hint of discomfort to these conversations. It is this chastity that pervades the identity and role of Tamil women today as well. Due to the identity politics that the anti-Brahmin parties engaged in, and the lack of active debate or female voices in the assertion of women’s rights, this label has remained and chastity still remains the summit which women have to climb.

It is interesting that someone as liberated as Andal is pegged to be the ideal bride and woman, when the community members do not even acknowledge her openly expressed sexuality. However, elaborating on the idea of the ideal bride, can one then deduce that the husband is afforded the position of the Lord and hence, the duty of the woman is to obey and serve the man? Is the legitimacy of a woman derived only from her position as a wife just as Andal became exalted after she became Sri- the consort of the lord? 

It is important to reiterate that when a woman is pedestalized as a goddess or a mother, she seems to lose her agency as a human being with desires and rights; and yet, even as a mother, it is the woman who remains responsible for the man’s conduct. The “self-respect movement” and other concerns with women rights were resolved through a male perspective which suggested that exalting a woman would arm her with the power she needed to lead a dignified and independent life. These movements failed to fight for providing any legal, civil or political rights to these women. It is slightly surprising that women were accepting of these constructs, and even pushed and derided peers if they were found being unvirtuous. There is much more to Andal than just her perceived divine chastity. However, it is her hagiographical status of mother-goddess that seems to have travelled down across ages, down to the determination of the position of women by political movements. Her disposition and legacy as one of Tamil Nadu’s early feminists and the woman who attained union with the Lord despite her sexually liberated desires seem to have been buried deep in the echelons of history. The controversy relating to Vairamuthu’s statements suggests that a Tamil woman’s achievements and power are never enough to emancipate herself. A Tamil woman may be a goddess who managed to unite with the Lord by herself, a mother-goddess who is a mediator between the mortals and the Lord, or the sole female voice whose back on which the identity of a community rests. Nevertheless, when the need arises, it has become common practice that only mere mortal men will be the ones defining her legacy and identity – a statement that may be applied to any “virtuous” woman of the community.  


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