Invisible Bodies: Andal, Bhakti, and the Language of Poetic Discourse

Abstract: Reading and re-reading from multiple stances has been the prerogative of much of present post-colonial and/or feminist discourse. While plurality and marginality are conceptual terms that make an attempt to account for and accommodate what was once the periphery within the center, the actual cultural Situation leaves much to be desired. Even when the existing linguistic and socio-cultural borders lose their significance/ relevance, newer systems of marginalisation come into the foreground.

 Keywords: women’s oppression, poetic discourse, feminist discourse, post colonial writing, system of marginalisation, Bhakti movement, Bhakti writing, Bhakti

Reading and re-reading from multiple stances have been the prerogative of much of the present post-colonial and/or feminist discourses. While plurality and marginality are conceptual terms that make an attempt to account for and accommodate what was once the periphery within the centre, the actual cultural situation leaves much to be desired. Even when the existing linguistic and socio-cultural borders lose their significance/ relevance, newer systems of marginalisation come to the foreground.

Much of the post-colonial theory and feminist thinking share common territory. They are preoccupied with the marginalised and the subordinated groups, who once conscious of their subjective and denigrated position, work self-consciously and determinedly towards a more privileged situation. Appropriation and abrogation are only some of the postcolonial strategies utilised by the less-privileged.

The silencing of the female/colonised was cleverly effected by the dominant discourse by two very devious methods:

1. By valorising silence as a desirable feminine/colonised trait.

2. By neatly overlooking or disregarding the discourse of the less-privileged.

One or often both these methods were usually used to maintain the privileges of the dominating group.

Early twentieth century notions of feminism posited the view that gender overrode cultural differences to create a universal category of the feminine. But many post-1980s feminists found this position Euro-centric and thereby biased (Spivak 1985, Mohanty 1984, Suleri 1992). The notional position of the colonised woman as that of the doubly-oppressed came to be debated for the view that colonialism operated very differently for men and women. Given this context, the need for women’s discourse to be placed within the framework of its cultural ambience, historical time as well as the personal and the personality factors acquires special importance. While the private thus becomes the public and by extension the privileged, the political question that arises in women’s discourse is how much of the private really is viewed as the public. What factors are taken into consideration when privileging takes place?

In this paper, I intend to make a study of the poetic discourse of the Tamil mystic-poet Andal (c.9th centuryA.D?) and then take up the question of privileging. Placing Andal within her personal and historical background as well as within the bhakti tradition in India, I hope to throw new light on her poetic work(s).

The Bhakti revival as a movement in south India spreading over four centuries from the 8th to the 12th, is essentially related to the Bhasha tradition, Desi, rather than to the Sanskrit, Margi, and fore grounded the common folk practices over the rigid and the classical. The Bhakti movement, which was not confined to South India, was itself a revolutionary movement in its time, particularly in its preliminary stages, for it took religion and religious devotion to the masses – particularly to the lower classes and castes. It was designed as a protest against the upper class monopoly over religion through religious practices and scriptures. The religion embraced by these mystics was an intimate and personal one, not necessarily temple centred, and their poetic discourse emotional, genuine and less-stylised than the classical. The movement, which produced in its wake a large collection of songs in the regional languages as opposed to the elite Sanskrit, earned for Hinduism a widespread following and a mass backing that stayed powerful for a long time afterwards. The simplicity of language and the unambiguous nature of the lyrics were perhaps some of the reasons that made these songs more accessible to the commoner. Their language was the language used by the common folk. Their social position was unique, for they were heretics and outcastes as well as religious leaders with a sufficiently widespread following.

The Bhakti Movement and more specifically the Bhakti poetry while being deeply religious and devotional, had a very physical base as well. It was celebratory and ecstatic and took bhakti to a very physical level as well. The mode of expressing the bhakta’s devotion was quite often taken to very concrete levels with extremely detailed and sensuous descriptions of the deity concerned or the reigning idol. In fact, cultural historians like Friedhelm Hardy have gone to the extent of describing the poetry of the Alwars as “a highly sensuous and sensual world of human experience,” thereby foregrounding the markedly erotic quality of much of their poetry (523).

Much of the Bhakti poetry took the form of the nayaki-nayaka discourse with the bhakta, whether male or female, taking the role of the nayaki awaiting her wayward or sometimes distressed lover. Both male as well as female mystics took on the female lover’s role in their poems. The mode provided scope for unconstrained expression of the love for the Lord and the emotional intensity of their passion as well as yearning for union with the Divine. This role allowed much scope for the intrusion of much emotionalism, which was often stretched to the level of the erotic. The bhakta, in his/her discourse, provided extremely detailed descriptions of the beloved’s anatomy, as well as expression, alternatively wooing and quarrelling with the Lord. What may perhaps in secular poetry been treated with censure and social disapproval was in this religious discourse, not only welcomed but incorporated into the mainstream, in due course of time.

The Alwars were Tamil singer-mystics who were Vaishnavites unlike the other set of Tamil Bhakti poets the nayanmars who sang in praise of their Lord Shiva.The very meaning of the term Alwar is debated by critics and scholars. While one version translates it as those who are immersed in god (azhwar), the other points to Alwar as meaning ‘ruler or born to be ruled’. And Andal was apparently the only woman poet among them (tentatively placed in the 9th century A.D.). Her works, Tiruppavai consisting of 30 stanzas and Naachiyar Tirumozhi, (The Sacred Speech of the Queen), consisting of invocations to Kama, the god of Love, etc. have been collected and preserved as part of the Alwar collection of hymns known as the Nalayira Prabandham (The Collection of Four Thousand), reportedly gathered together by Nathamuni in A.D.920. She describes herself repeatedly as the daughter of Vishnuchittan, or Periazhwar in much of her verse, but strangely enough, none of his poems mention her presence. Translators and editors of her work like P. S. Sundaram have made particular note of this fact in their notes to her poems. Curiously enough, while every poem attributed to Andal describes itself in its signature stanza as a composition by the daughter of Vishnuchittan of Puduvai or Puttur, the works of Vishnuchittan himself make no mention of this gifted daughter of his.

Hagiographical accounts describe how Periyalwar found her in his flower garden while he was digging and brought her up as his own child after naming her Kothai. She grew up in the Bhakti tradition, saw herself as one of the Gopikas of Krishna, seeking union with him through every means. There is a story of how she occupied herself preparing garlands for her Lord and decked herself with them before they adorned the Lord. One day Periyalwar detected a strand of hair on the garland and rebuked her for her actions replacing the garland with a fresh one for the idol. It is stated that the Lord was displeased with the offering and demanded that Kothai wear it before it adorned His idol through a dream that occurred to Periyalwar. Henceforth, she was called Andal– the immersed one. Many other versions of the story exist. In one, she acquires the name of Choodikodutha Nachiyar, or the Queen who bestowed the Garland. When the question of her marriage arose, she refused to marry a mere mortal and demanded that she be united with her divine consort Narayana as in his avatara as the Lord of Sree Rangam. Following another vision to Periyalwar, she was taken in bridal finery to Sree Rangam where she is supposed to have disappeared. Andal later came to be worshipped and temples dedicated to her were built and the Tiruppavai came to be sung as part of the daily rituals associated with those shrines. Today, especially in the month of Margazhi (corresponding to the Malayalam Karkitakam), it is considered auspicious for women to sing the Tiruppavai whether in homes, temples or other public places. The composition has come to acquire a classic status well recognised for its ritual austerity and celebratory value.

In the Tiruppaavai, Andal assumes the role of a gopika. The tone of the poem is that of a lady pleading to her lover to join her without teasing her too much by pretense of indifference or sleep. She pleads with Krishna and his consort,( here addressed as Nappinnai), to wake up from their supposed slumber and to join her with her sakhis ( friends) in the ritual bath undertaken during the cold but festive month of Margazhi :

Great Lover! Emerald hued!

If you ask us what we need

To observe as of old the Margazhi bath,

It is conches like your Panchjanya

Milk-white to set the world atremble;

Great big drums whose sound will travel;

Devotees to sing your praise

Tall lamps, a flag, a canopy.       The poem is used as an occasion to extol the virtues of the Lord Krishna— his strengths, his power, his virtues. The Lord’s physical beauty is dwelt upon in detail, and then there is description of his physical strength and stamina. The distinction of his lineage and the glory attendant upon his family and friends, are viewed with wonder and amazement. Both his brave as well as mischievous exploits are examined with admiration and awe. In the translation by P. S. Sundaram, He is described as the Supreme One and the narrator and her sakhis are but “worldlings”. The contrast between the puny nature of the devotee and her friends as opposed to the Divine glory of the Lord is constantly reiterated. The tone of address changes as the mood swings from a pleading and cajoling one to a more demanding request that goes on to take on the more intimate and threatening note of a chastisement. But before the song comes to its conclusion, there is an apology and the errant devotee is contrite for the harshness of the earlier statements made in a fit of passionate longing for her beloved Lord:

If through our innocent love

We have nicked your name, taken liberties,

Don’t be angry with us, Lord,

Nor withhold your gracious drum. (v.28)

The irony here is that her plea is merely for the Lord’s appearance with his drum which is what she demands as a token of his love for her. In exchange for this instrument or his conch, the Panchajanya and what it symbolises for them, she offers him a whole host of worldly riches:

Bracelets, shoulderbands, earrings, eardrops,

Anklets, and all such ornaments;

Dresses new, and after that milk-rice

Heaped up, covered with ghee which drips

Down our elbow as we eat—

And the delight of being together with you! (v.27)

But in the last line of the very same verse she makes her greater spiritual aspirations clear. After all the pleading, cajoling and chastisement, she makes her genuine involvement and the true intensity of her passion clear. Her desperation is out of her yearning for her Lord—for everlasting union with his divine presence/self:

Not only for today do we seek your drum

But for ever and for ever, seven times seven births!

Would be one with you, work only for you—

Change all our other wishes, Lord! (v.29)

Here and elsewhere in this poem she makes the spiritual quality of her love for the Lord quite clear, despite the worldliness pervading much of the poem. She employs literary and linguistic devices such as addressing her sakhi or calling to the other gopikas or pleading with her mother or dwelling upon maternal tensions to create a better feminine milieu as well as more feminine sympathy. She dwells upon woman to woman relationships and feminine considerations creating a unique and more intense female space in the poems. This perhaps accounts for much of its widespread popularity in places of spiritual worship. In fact, the Tiruppaavai is one of the most popular poems of the Nalayira Divya Prabandham. The reasons for its popularity even to this day is a matter of much amazement.

But the same is not the case with her other poem Naachiyar Tirumozhi, which is also addressed to her Lord Narayana. The poem is replete with intense and overt physical expressions of her love for her Lord. The poem is more explicitly physical with intense outpourings of her physical passion as well as sexual tensions:

From childhood I have dedicated

My surging breasts, ever fond of him,

To the Lord of Dwaraka and him alone—

Join my destiny quickly with his.

Know Manmatha, I will not live

If my broad breasts, set apart

For that great God with discus and conch

Are bandied about as meant for a man

As if an offering set apart

By pious Brahmins in a sacrifice

And meant for the gods who dwell in heaven

Is by a forest jackal seised

Which smells, paws and desecrates it. (v. 4-5)

She sees the female body, her very femaleness as a reason for celebration and her beauty as a means to her goal, and marriage or sexual union with her Lord as one of the methods towards reaching it. Such explicit discourse in our own times would probably be termed womanist (to use Alice Walker’s term) or feminist (as Elaine Showalter would call it), and yet perhaps fail to reach the depth of emotional fervour arrived at in the intensity of Andal’s song. The early sections of the Naacchiyar Tirumozhi are designed as an invocation to Manmatha or Kama the God of Love, whom she worships in order to win physical favour with her Lord. Legendarily beautiful and physically alluring though she may be, she asks for one more boon from the God of Love for fulfillment:

Grant that I earn fame on earth

As the one whose splendid belly and breasts

Were caressed with love by the great Lord

Who, thrice victorious, measured the world. (v.7)

To her, true fame and fulfillment are as physical and concrete as abstract and spiritual. The process of beautifying and adorning her body in order to physically attract her Divine Lover is not averse to her. Yet she is prepared for great physical hardship and denial if that could bring hope of union with her Beloved:

O famed and expert God of Love,

Take note of the penance I undertake


That I become Kesava’s servant-maid. (v.8)

It is perhaps the sheer physicality of these poems coupled with emotional fervour that have resulted in the indirect social ostracism that these poems face. In fact, translators and scholars have repeatedly stressed the difficulties they encountered in attempting to translate the poem. Prof. Vidya Dehejia, in her introduction to her own translation of the poems of Andal describes the reluctance of her Tamil guru to render public the translations due to their physicality and thereby offensive nature, notwithstanding the beauty and poetry of the passages.

The Bhakti movement , despite all the initial social ostracism it faced, provided an opportunity for the marginal groups including women to express themselves. Although women were ordinarily subsumed by the male voice and limited to their female space by multiple patriarchal devices, these women saints could break away completely from such phallocentric strategies and move beyond the language and restrictions of their times, resorting to Bhakti. They were able to combine the worldly and the physical with the spiritual—the sacred with what was once considered the profane. To express it in the words of the poet Octavio Paz:

Through the word, through expression of his experience, the poet endeavours to make the world sacred; with the word, he consecrates the experience of men and the relations between man and world, man and woman, man and his own consciousness

What Paz defined in somewhat male centred terms approximates to the poetry of the woman mystic, who used language to engulf normal societal relations and go beyond the ordinary notions of physicality, sensuousness and the body to enter realms of greater experience, immediacy, and intensity. Nevertheless one can see how even the sacred can be marginalised if it fails to conform to the requirements of acceptable social propriety. While the songs of the Tiruppaavai have come to be accepted as part of the mainstream religion, being customarily sung in the temples, homes and other conventional places of worship, the other poem, the Naachiyaar Tirumozhi , is hardly heard about leave alone sung. Andal herself has been converted into a reigning deity, religiously worshipped and the Tiruppavai not only sung at all auspicious occasions but even taught to the members of the younger generation thus carrying on the tradition. Yet when the Naacchiyaar Tirumozhi is mentioned there is an unusual silence and ignorance – feigned or otherwise. Although there may be no conscious or deliberate ostracism, the social note of inhibition is there in the taciturn reticence and the absence of comment.

Thus, in conclusion we can aver that the Bhakti revival provided a genuine background for women to express themselves. They could be as explicitly autobiographical as they wished and did not need to cover up their personal identity or speak using pseudonyms or false identities. They could write women without undue interference though they did face much social disapproval for their actions and their words. Even when they brought their bodies into the public discourse they were not only tolerated but actually acclaimed. But when their discourse failed to fit within the norms of social propriety, they were neatly sidelined and partially ignored. Nevertheless they were not burnt at the stake or tortured as witches as their counterparts in the West of that period were treated for similar action.


Hardy, Friedhelm. The Religious Culture of India: Power, Love and Wisdom. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Paz, Octavio. The Siren and the sea shell and Other Essays on Poets and Poetry. Texas: U of Texas, 1976.

Sundaram, P. S. trans. The Azhwars: For the Love of God. New Delhi: Penguin, 1996.

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