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Origin of the Bhakti Movement: The Alwars and the Nayanars (6th to 9th centuries CE)

Origin of the Bhakti Movement: The Alwars and the Nayanars (6th to 9th centuries CE)

O rain clouds
seeming like dark clay outside
liquid wax within,
rain down upon Venkatam
where the handsome lord dwells.
Help me to find within me
my beloved.
When he folds me in close embrace
melts my heart.
Then rain down upon us. 

(Translation by Vidya Dehejia)

These are the words of a teenage Tamil girl, Kothai, who lived 1,300 years ago. She was no ordinary girl. She was in love with Lord Vishnu and refused to wed any mortal man. Centuries before the 16th-century Bhakti poet-saint and devotee of Lord Krishna Mirabai, she composed songs reflecting her deep longing for god. 

The legend goes that her father, a priest at the Vatapatrasayi Vishnu temple at Srivilliputhur, 80 km from Madurai, once caught her wearing the garland prepared for the God’s idol, and severely chastised her. Kothai was pretending to be the Lord’s bride. But her devotion, or rather passion, was so strong that when she was about 16, Vishnu appeared in a dream to her father and conveyed his willingness to accept Kothai as his wife. A wedding procession was arranged from Srivilliputhur to the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam. Here, upon entering the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), Kothai merged with the idol of her God.

Kothai, popularly known as Andal, is a legendary figure in South India. She is the only woman in the group of 12 Vaishnavite poet-saints called ‘Alwars’. Their counterparts, the 63 Shaivite poet-saints, are called ‘Nayanars’. They all existed in different time periods (mostly between the 6th and 9th centuries CE) and came from different social backgrounds. But what connects them is that they all became the earliest proponents of the Bhakti Movement, a new wave that celebrated a person’s personal connection with God. 

It is very difficult to translate what Bhakti means. Derived from the Sanskrit word ‘bhaj’, which means to ‘to worship’ or ‘to revere’, the movement promoted an intimate relationship with a personal God, an intense love for the chosen deity.

This was a far cry from the prevalent orthodox Vedic faith, based on ritualistic stipulations and hierarchies.

To understand the origin of the movement, it is important to know the context in which it emerged. In Tamilakam, the area covering present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a base for Buddhism had already been built in the 2nd century BCE. Pandit Hisselle Dharmaratana Maha Thera, in his book Buddhism In South India (1968), says that there is evidence that Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, on his way to Sri Lanka, stopped in present-day Tamil Nadu and preached the Dhamma. In the 3rd century CE, with the end of the Sangam period, the curtain also fell on the influence of the Vedic religion in the region. 

Estimated origin of the Kalabhras | LHI

The Invasion of the Kalabhras

This was the time when a wave of ‘invaders’, the Kalabhras, made their way from beyond the northern boundaries of Tamilakam, to take over the once-prosperous city of Madurai. These invaders defeated a succession of princes from the ruling dynasties of the South, the Sangam-era Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas, who had dominated the land for centuries. 

According to historian Indira Vishwanathan Peterson, in her work Sramanas Against The Tamil Way – Jains As Others In Tamil Saiva Literature (1998), points to the fact that the Kalabhras likely patronised the Sramana religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikas), more particularly, the Digambara sect of Jainism. Under their patronage, Jain scholars formed an academy in Madurai and wrote texts in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Tamil. 

Two of the most remarkable post-Sangam epics, the Manimekalai and the Silappatikaram, also have clear Jain leanings. Besides, the Jain monks coming South from the Deccan must have also found a place in other royal courts and we have references to the early Pandya and Pallava rulers being Jain.

However, the practitioners of the Vedic-Puranic religion saw Buddhism and Jainism as alien to Tamil culture and a threat to their Tamil ‘roots’.

Bhakti was a grassroots-led reaction to this, pioneered by poet-saints who propagated the ‘back to the soil’ movement. These saints were champions of what later came to be known as the Hindu tradition and travelled from village to village singing songs of devotion to Shiva and Vishnu and their multiple avatars. 

These songs were not in Sanskrit, but in Tamil, and set to melodies already prevalent among the people, making them accessible to the masses. The saints came from all walks of life and also drew their followers from every section of society, cutting across caste, class, gender and other hierarchies. They went from temple to temple and embodied the idea that before God, everyone is equal.

And thus, with the origin of the Bhakti Movement, Indian society and its literature entered a new phase of evolution.

Idols of Nayanar saints in Kokarneshvarar Temple at Tirukokarnam | Wikimedia Commons

Bhakti Literature

Historian Burton Stein notes in his Peasant, State And Society in Medieval South India (1980) that the Bhakti Movement was a social reaction to the town-based and mercantile society of Jains and Buddhists. It may be seen as an expression of the largely rural population with emphasis on agriculture. 

Evening has come,
but not the Dark One.
the bulls,
their bells jingling,
have mated with the cows
and the cows are frisky.
The flutes play cruel songs,
bees flutter in their bright
white jasmine
and the blue-black lily.
The sea leaps into the sky
and cries aloud.
Without him here,
what shall I say?
how shall I survive?

(Translation by A K Ramanujan)

This is a verse by the Alwar saint Nammalvar, who is believed to have been born into a lower caste family. The poems by the Vaishnava saints were compiled by a theologian named Nathamuni in a text called Naalayira Divya Prabhandham in the 9th-10th centuries CE. It contained 4,000 verses in praise of Vishnu. Similarly, the compilation of Nayanar poetry and literature is called Tirumurai. It comprises 18,426 songs dedicated to Shiva.

Probably the most popular Nayanar saint, Appar, is credited with converting the great Jain Pallava ruler, Mahendravarman I (r.c. 600-630 CE), back to Shaivism. Interestingly, it is believed that Appar, who was raised by his Shaivite older sister, had left home and joined a Jain monastery in Tiruppatirippuliyur (in present-day Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu). But he returned home within a few years due to a painful stomach illness. 

As a cure, his sister gave him Tiruneeru (sacred ash) and the five syllable mantra ‘namaccivaya’ (Namah Shivaya). They also visited the Shiva temple in Atikai, where Appar is said to have spontaneously composed his first hymn of Tevaram. As he sang the second verse, he was miraculously cured of his stomach ailment. The story goes that that was when Appar renounced Jainism and became a devout Shaiva.

A palm-leaf folio of Tevaram manuscript copied in a Tamil Shiva temple in about 1700 CE. | Sarah Welch via Wikimedia Commons

Tevaram is a collection of works composed by Nayanar saints Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar. Partly hagiographies, these works talk of devotion leading to miracles. But these saints also write of cruelty imposed upon them by Buddhists and Jains. 

Those Buddhists and mad Jains may slander speak.
Such speech befits the wand’rers from the way.
But He who came to earth and begged for alms,
He is the thief who stole my heart away.
The raging elephant charged down at Him;
O marvel! He but took and wore its hide;
Madman men think Him, but He is the Lord
Who in great Bramāpuram doth abide.

(Translation from Hymns of the Tamil Saivite Saints by F Kingsbury and G P Phillips, 1921)

This is a verse by Sambandar, a child prodigy said to have mastered the Vedas by the age of three.

American Indologist John E Cort, in his book Open Boundaries: Jain Communities and Culture in Indian History (1998), writes that the hymns of Sambandar include criticism and allegations of persecution of the Shaiva community by Jain monks, along with a ‘bitter anti-Jain polemic.’ However, no historical evidence supports his allegation. So, such verses need to be seen against a background of a conflict of ideas, rivalry with non-orthodox sects and competition for royal patronage.

Although it might be difficult to separate fact and legend from the verses of these Bhakti saints, their literature provides a valuable window into the history and culture of the Tamil land of the period. They give us names of villages, crops grown, temple rituals, trade, music, etc. which modern historians may not find in inscriptions.

An important feature of the Tamil Bhakti was the institutionalisation of religion with temple worship. This point is supported by the significance given to the 108 divyadesams (holy places related to Vishnu) in the hymns of the Alwars.

Historian and social scientist Radha Champakalakshmi in her paper on Tamil Bhakti saints, titled From Devotion and Dissent to Dominance, writes, “The emphasis in Bhakti literature on ritual worship as highly meritorious and the temple as the house of god and the iconographic descriptions of the Puranic deities are closely related to the teaching and ethos of the Agama and Tantra…”

Tidal Wave of Devotion

Over the next few centuries, this ripple of religious fervour which started in Tamil Nadu, turned into a tidal wave that spread as far north as Punjab. First, the Bhakti Movement spread north to Karnataka in the 12th century through the works of Basavanna (1105-68 CE) and then to Maharashtra in 13th century CE, through the Varkari movement. 

The greatest text of the Bhakti Movement in Maharashtra was the Dnyaneshwari, which was a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita by saint Dnyaneshwar (1275-1296 CE). This was revolutionary as till then, Bhagavad Gita, written in Sanskrit, was out of reach for most common people. The Bhakti Movement unleashed a wave of translations of religious literature in regional languages, from Kannada and Marathi to Maithili, Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Punjabi.

On its way northwards, the movement even took a different face. Indira Peterson, in her book, Poems to Siva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints (2007), points out that the Tamil Bhakti movement saw itself as a champion of Vedic-Puranic traditions and communal solidarity against the dominance of Buddhism and Jainism. This was in contrast to the Bhakti movements in northern India, which were a reaction to Hindu orthodoxy and a form of social protest. In the North, the Bhakti Movement was quite critical of the Brahmin orthodoxy and the rigid caste system.

14th century sculpture of Andal | Wikimedia Commons

These saints transformed society and left behind a lasting legacy. Art Historian Vidya Dehejia writes in her Antal and Her Path of Love (1990), “The saints of South India acquired a position of such great eminence that a cult arose around them. Bronze sculptures of both Nayanars and Alvars were commissioned by every temple for placement in the innermost courtyard beside the sanctum sanctorum.” In fact, the Alwars came to be considered as amsas or secondary incarnations of Vishnu’s companions and his attributes. Andal was regarded as an amsa of Vishnu’s second consort Bhudevi, the Goddess Earth.

Even today, after centuries, the devotional hymns and poems of these saints are a part of the temple liturgy. They are often sung on special occasions across South India. 

Why bathe in Ganga’s stream, or Kaviri?
Why go to Comorin in Kongu’s land?
Why seek the waters of the sounding sea?
Release is theirs, and theirs alone, who call
In every place upon the Lord of all.

(Hymn by Appar, translation by F Kingsbury and G P Phillips)

This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

Find all the stories from this series here.

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