Andal was the only woman saint among the Azhwars, the Vaishnavite poet saints of South India. Azhwar literally meant “immersed” – in the love of the Lord. The twelve Azhwars were, along with the 63 Nayanmars (devotees of Lord Shiva) responsible for reviving the “Bhakthi” movement in Southern India. They established the truth that salvation can be achieved through pure devotion alone devoid of rituals. In this process, they contributed richly to Tamil literature and the language.
This is the story of Andal without whom we cannot imagine the Tamil month of ‘Margazhi’, which incidentally starts today.The period of Azhwars is believed to be between 4th and 2nd century BC and without going into the numerical dates, I will tell you the story of Andal.
In the southern part of India, in a place called Srivilliputhur, there lived a devotee of the Lord Narayana by name Vishnuchitthar. He lived a simple life and was always immersed in the service of the Lord Narayana. He took pleasure in collecting flowers from the garden and weaving them into a garland for the Lord. He took this job upon him and did it with great devotion and zeal. Every day, the Lord Narayana, known as Vatapatrasayee Perumal in the temple at Srivilliputhur wore the garland woven by Vishnuchittar.
Once when the king Vallabha Deva Pandya who was ruling Madurai was seeking answers to his spiritual doubts, the Lord appeared in the dream of Vishnuchittar and told him to go to the king and clear his doubts. Though a simpleton who considered himself incompetent to talk on such deep subjects, Vishnuchittar could not disobey the Lord and went to the court of the King. There to his utter surprise, words flowed out of his mouth like a spring and he answered all the spiritual doubts of Vallabha Deva Pandya, much to his joy.The king rewarded him well and sent him home with honour. Vishnuchittar spent the money to renovate the temple of the Lord.
One day, when, early in the morning Vishnuchittar was plucking flowers in the “nandavanam” or garden, for making the garland, he found a beautiful baby girl under a Tulsi plant. Vishnuchittar did not have a family but took the girl as a gift from the Lord and named her “Kothai”. He brought her up with great love and Kothai grew hearing the beautiful stories of Krishna and Rama, so much so that the little one was constantly thinking of only the Lord.
One day, as was usual, her father had made the garland for the Lord and had gone out leaving the garland. When Kothai glanced at the garland, a strange desire to wear the garland arose in her. The offering to the Lord is generally very sacrosanct and no one would dare to even imagine using something which is to be offered to the Lord. But little Kothai was an exception. “Let me see how I look with this garland “, thought she. She would have been all of four to five years then.
In a flash, she picked up the garland and wore it around her neck, with the long garland reaching the ground. She admired herself in the mirror there and kept it back as soon as she heard her father come.
“Kothai, I am off to the temple” said Vishnuchittar leaving with the garland, blissfully unaware that the garland had been ‘used’ by his own daughter. The garland then adorned the Lord.
Kothai then started doing the same thing every day, secretly wearing the garland and admiring herself in the mirror and then the same garland went to the Lord Vatapatrasayee.
One day the Lord decided to make public the devotion of child Kothai to the world.
That particular day, when the garland was handed over by Vishnuchittar to the priest for decorating the Lord, there was a strand of human hair sticking to the flowers. On seeing this, the priest got furious and chided Vishnuchittar. “What a grave offence this is!” he said. “How come there is a hair in the garland? Do you not know that only the purest of things are offered to the Lord? Take this back!”
Saying thus, he flung the garland back into the hands of Vishnuchittar who was trembling with shame and embarrassment. He could not figure out how a hair could have got into the garland when he was taking so much care to weave the garland.
With a heavy heart, he walked back to his home, mentally tired with the shock and shame he had faced in the temple.
That night, Vishnuchittar could not sleep. He could not figure out wherefrom a long hair could attach itself to this garland he made with so much of devotion and care. His questions had no answer and he spent the night with not a wink.
In the morning, as usual he collected the flowers and made them into a beautiful garland. That day too, he left the garland and went out but came back almost immediately when the sight he saw shocked him. The little Kothai was wearing the garland and admiring her beauty in the mirror.
“Blasphemy!” he cried out aloud, much to the shock of the little girl who was taken aback on seeing her father see her wearing the garland.
“Blasphemy! What can I do now?” Vishnuchittar lamented beating himself on his forehead. “I have committed a grave sin! There is no recourse for me! Narayana! Narayana!” The little girl unable to watch her father lament thus started to cry. Vishnuchittar was in no mood to pacify her. He threw away the garland and went and plucked flowers again and made a garland and left for the temple immediately.
That night Lord Narayana appeared in the dream of Vishnuchittar.
“Why have you discarded the garland worn by Kothai?” demanded he. “I will henceforth wear only the garland worn by her as it contains the scent of her pure devotion. Please do as I wish!”
As the Lord disappeared, Vishnuchittar got up with a start, realising that his daughter was no ordinary being but the incarnation of the Goddess. He was overwhelmed, and from that day, the garland for the Lord was first worn by Kothai. She became to be known as “Andal” or one who ruled the Lord. She was also known as “Choodi Kodutha Sudarkodi”.
As she grew up, Vishnuchittar was worried about her marriage and that he should find a good groom for her. Andal, on the other hand had her mind transfixed on Lord Krishna who was Narayana himself, whom only she saw as her bridegroom. “No mortal will I marry!” she said much to the surprise of all. “I will marry only Lord Krishna!”
She meditated upon the Lord, praying to him every day. Every morning in the month of Margazhi, she would wake her friends up and after having a bath in the cold waters, go about singing the praise of Lord Krishna through hymns known as Tiruppavai which was composed by her. She urged the other friends of hers also to pray to the Lord Krishna in the month of Margazhi to get a good bridegroom.
Vishnuchittar was getting more and more worried about the future of Kothai.
One day, Lord Ranganatha whose abode is Srirangam, appeared in the dream of Vishnuchittar and expressed his desire to marry Kothai. He instructed Vishnuchittar to bring Kothai to Srirangam bedecked as a bride where He would accept her as his wife.
Vishnuchittar, who was elated, at this dream of his, conveyed this to his patron and friend King Vallabha Deva Pandya who made all arrangements for Kothai to be brought in a palanquin bedecked in all bridal finery, accompanied by an array of elephants and horses which was a symbol of status, along with lot of gifts for the Lord.
All the people of Srivilliputhur were overjoyed to see the happenings to their darling Kothai and accompanied her with her father to Srirangam which is about 250 kilometres from Srivilliputhur.
The bride’s procession reached the temple of Srirangam and no sooner Kothai got out of her palanquin, she rushed to the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Ranganatha followed by her father and all others. The moment she saw her Lord, she ran into the inner precincts of the sanctum and there was an electric flash and Kothai had merged with the Lord Ranganatha body and soul!
All the people were spell bound by the miracle that happened in front of their eyes. Vishnuchittar was tearful, sad at the thought of losing his dear daughter at the same time extremely happy that his daughter had been accepted by the Lord as his consort.
Andal had become the Goddess.
Kothai is said to have been about fifteen years old when she merged with the Lord. Early marriages were the order of the day in ancient India.
Apart from Tiruppavai, Andal had composed ‘Nachiyar Tirumozhi’, a set of 143 verses. Even this day, Tiruppavai is chanted with great zeal and fervour in this month of Margazhi early in the mornings in all Vishnu temples and by the public in general.
‘Kothai’ is referred to as ‘Godha’ in Sanskrit.
Vishnuchittar was himself known as Periyazhwar (elder azhwar) and it is interesting to note that he has sung verses to bless the Lord to live long!!! – He had this privilege as the Lord was his son in law!!
An interesting thing is that the Tamilnadu Government has the tower (Gopuram) of the temple of Srivilliputhur as its logo!!