12 Alvars

(4200 BC - 2700 BC)

Biography of 12 Alvars

The alwar or azhwars (Tamil: ‘those immersed in god’) were Tamil poet-saints of south India who espoused ‘emotional devotion’ or bhakti to Visnu-Krishna in their songs of longing, ecstasy and service.

Traditionally, Alvars are considered to have lived between 4200 BCE - 2700 BCE, Vaishnava orthodoxy posits the number of alvars as ten, though there are other references that include Andal and Madhurakavi, making the number twelve. The devotional outpourings of Alvars, composed during the early medieval period of Tamil history, helped revive the bhakti movement, through their hymns of worship to Vishnu and his Avatars. They praised 108 of this deity's holy abodes in their hymns, known as the Divya Desams. Vaishanava bhakti literature was an all-India phenomenon in the Tamil-speaking region of South India, with twelve Alvar (one immersed in God) saint-poets, who wrote devotional songs. The religion of Alvar poets, which included a woman poet, Andal, was devotion to God through love (bhakti), and in the ecstasy of such devotions they sang hundreds of songs which embodied both depth of feeling and felicity of expressions. Together with the contemporary sixty three Saiva Nayanars, they are accounted as South India's 75 Apostles of Bhakti because of their importance in the rise of the Hindu Bhakti movement. The collection of their hymns is known as Divya Prabandha.

The Bhakti literature that sprang from Alvars has contributed to the establishment and sustenance of a culture that broke away from the ritual-oriented Vedic religion and rooted itself in devotion as the only path for salvation. In addition they helped to make the Tamil religious life independent of a knowledge of Sanskrit. As part of the legacy of the Alvars, five Vaishnava philosophical traditions (sampradayas) have developed at the later stages.

Alvars or Azhwars literally means 'people who are immersed'. They are so called because they were immersed in their devotion and love to their Lord, Vishnu. However recently S.Palaniappan has argued that what was originally Āļvār got changed through hyper correction and folk etymology to Āzhvār. Palaniappan cites inscriptional evidence for a gradual sound change from āļvār to āzhvār over a period of two centuries from the 9th to the 11th century involving references to religious leaders in Vaishnavism, Shaivism and even Jainism and to political personalities. He states: "āzhvār is but a corrupt form of āļvār which has been used interchangeably with nāyanār in secular and religious contexts in the Tamil land" and "... Notwithstanding the Vaishnava claim of unbroken teacher-student tradition, the fact that Nathamuni has used the form āļvār but Piļļān [A disciple and younger cousin of Rāmānuja] ended up using the form āzhvār suggests that there has been an error in transmission somewhere along the teacher-student chain between the two teachers. This error was obviously due to the influence of the sound variation that has occurred in the Srirangam area and elsewhere"

Azhwars are considered the twelve supreme devotees of Vishnu, who were instrumental in popularising Vaishnavism. The religious works of these saints in Tamil, songs of love and devotion, are compiled as Nalayira Divya Prabandham containing 4000 verses and the 108 temples revered in their songs are classified as Divya desam. The saints had different origins and belonged to different castes. As per tradition, the first three azhwars, Poigai, Bhutha and Pei were born miraculously. Tirumizhisai was the son of a sage, Thondaradi, Mathurakavi, Peria and Andal were from brahmin community, Kulasekhara from Kshatria community, Namm was from a cultivator family, Tirupana from panar community and Tirumangai from kazhwar community. Divya Suri Saritra by Garuda-Vahana Pandita (11th century), Guruparamparaprabavam by Pinbaragiya Perumal Jiyar, Periya tiru mudi adaivu by Anbillai Kandadiappan, Yatindra Pranava Prabavam by Pillai Lokacharya, commentaries on Divya Prabandam, Guru Parampara (lineage of Gurus) texts, temple records and inscriptions give a detailed account of the azhwars and their works. According to these texts, the saints were considered incarnations of some form of Vishnu. Poigai is considered an incarnation of Panchajanya (Krishna's conch), Bhoothath of Kaumodakee (Vishnu's Mace/Club), Pey of Nandaka (Vishnu's sword), Thirumalisai of Sudarshanam (Vishnu's discus), Namm of Vishvaksena (Vishnu's commander), Madhurakavi of Vainatheya (Vishnu's eagle, Garuda), Kulasekhara of Kaustubha (Vishnu's necklace), Periy of Garuda (Vishnu's eagle), Andal of Bhoodevi (Vishnu's wife, Lakshmi, in her form as Bhudevi), Thondaradippodi of Vanamaalai (Vishnu's garland), Thiruppaan of Srivatsa (An auspicious mark on Vishnu's chest) and Thirumangai of Saranga (Rama's bow). The songs of Prabandam are regularly sung in all the Vishnu temples of South India daily and also during festivals.

According to traditional account by Manavala Mamunigal, the first three azhwars namely Poigai, Bhoothath and Pey belong to Dwapara Yuga (before 4200 BC), as per the details, all Alvars lived around 4200 - 2700 BCE. Some modern scholars suggest that they lived during 5th - 9th century, although such estimates lack evidence. Though it is widely accepted by tradition and historians that the trio are the earliest among the twelve azhwars. Along with the three Saiva nayanmars of Saivism, they influenced the ruling Pallava kings, creating a Bhakti movement that resulted in changing the religious geography from Buddhism and Jainism to these two sects of Hinduism in the region. The azhwars were also instrumental in promoting the Bhagavatha cult and the two epics of India, namely, Ramayana and Mahabaratha. The azhwars were instrumental in spreading Vaishnavism throughout the region. The verses of the various azhwars were compiled by Nathamuni (824 - 924 AD), a 10th-century Vaishnavite theologian, who called it the "Dravida Veda".

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