In my post on celebrating Margazhi with Kolam I mentioned that it is impossible to talk about Margazhi without discussing the Poetess Saint Andal. But to do that first, I must discuss Srivilliputtur, her hometown, which also happens to be my mother’s hometown. Here are my memories about the place along with the jewelry inspired by Andal and Srivilliputtur.
Kumkum Tulsi Necklace – sold – inspired by the holy tulsi plant where Andal was found and Kumkum that represents her feminity
Srivilliputtur is a small temple town near Madurai in Tamil Nadu built by prince Villi in the 2500-3000 years ago. It is built around the Vadabadrasaaye temple – whose gopuram (temple tower) is the emblem of the state of Tamil Nadu. The town is a hub for various craft activities like weaving, matchstick making, and yes the famous Palkhova – the milk sweet. Extensive renovations made by the Madurai Nayaks in the 17th century AD in the Andal Temple and Vadabadrasaaye temple makes it difficult to identify the original structures. The Andal temple is known for its beautiful dancer and yakshi sculptures, colourful wall murals, and a gorgeous mirror room. The temple car (Ther) repaired by BHEL Trichy is also world famous. The original wooden car had burnt down and its remnants (wood carving) are displayed proudly in the Gopala Vilasam hall in the main temple as seen below.
From the Left – Clockwise: Vadabadrasaaye temple tower, Poster of Andal showing her life journey, annual temple car festival, Madhvi pandal – lattice roofing, Sculptures in the Andal temple and Gopalavisam mandap
My Srivilliputtur Memories
Until I was 18, vacations meant visiting Chennai (then Madras) or my grandmother’s house in Srivilliputtur. I hated these Chennai trips as a kid. What was the point in visiting a city (from a small industrial township) just to remain cooped up in the house listening to the chatter of relatives? But Srivilliputtur was a different story. It would take anywhere between 5 to 8 hours to reach the town by changing buses. There were no modern facilities – heavy power cuts, no cable TV, a water tank that was filled only once in two days, no cousins to play with, and no fancy places to visit. Just a vintage house, a couple of important temples, a quaint bazaar, and a few neighbours who took it upon themselves to educate and entertain me. Here are a few 17-year-old pictures – I am appalled by the scarcity of photos in the pre- smartphone era.
As a kid, I would pretend to be a ticket conductor on a fancy train while playing on the swing. I learned how to play Paramapadam (Snake and ladders) here. Learning to draw kolams and reading cliff notes of Shakespearean stories came next. I learned to fetch water from a well, hand pump water and make my first cup of tea (which was pathetic because it was supposed to be coffee that I made with tea dust). My mom had lived there only after graduating from college and she lined up the corridors with her paintings. Wanting to be like her, I too would try to paint.
When three women, each separated by a gap of 30 plus years shared a space, storytelling naturally happened. My grandmom had cupboards full of Tamil books and I would badger them into reading me stories. We would go shopping for earrings and purses that just came in from Mumbai (then Bombay) so that I would be stylish the next school term. Every trip I would hunt for and find some forgotten bauble – old postcards, trinkets or books in that house. We would daydream in the corridors of the temples and trace our hands over the jewelry worn by the sculptures. Much later, I practiced my ramp walk in the long corridors of that house and dabbled in night photography with my P&S.
SNP1032 – PK Pink and blue serene necklace with crystals and dagger beads with the Srivilliputtur temple pendant. Perfect for Margazhi – available for sale
Of Andal and Srivilliputtur
Coming back to Andal (pronounced Aandal), she was found as a little girl in Tulsi (holy basil) bushes near the Vadabadrasaaye temple by her foster father Vishnuchittan (also know as Periya Alwar). This is said to be around 8th century AD. This childless priest adopted her and named her “Kodai” and taught her everything he knew about religion and society. She was not only beautiful but so much more intelligent than he could have imagined. Listening to stories about Krishna and Gopikas, she fell in Love with the God and wanted to marry him.
She composed two literary works, both par excellence – Thiruppavai and Nachiyaar Thirumozhi to convey the glory of Lord Vishnu, his various avatars, and her love for him. She is one of the 12 Alwars (foremost Vaishnava saints who have devoted themselves to God) and the only woman of the 12. Her father Periya Alwar is also one among the 12. Written in verse form, both the works detail her devotion, love, lust, longing, and at times frustration apart from glorifying the Lord. You can read a gist of the expressions here. In her songs, she describes her house, the wooden lattice structures, Madhavi (kurukathi flower) creepers blooming there and even records recipes of the foods she thinks is fit for her Lord.
The Poetess saint/Goddess Andal, initiated the Dhanurmaasam vrath by signing Thirupaavai (30 songs of glories of Lord Vishnu – one for each day of the month). These are the songs usually sung in the early morning hour. The songs describe how the young Kodai motivated her friends to give up their comforts, sleep, rich food, decorative ornaments, and beautification to sing the glories of the Lord. In the last few days of the month, when they finally dress up and offer thanks to the Lord for his blessing. Could this be in preparation for the harvest festival that is the first day of the next Tamil month, I wonder?
In Hindu culture, one does not use taste/ wear or even smell offerings that are meant for the Gods. But Kodai used to wear the garlands that her father made for the Vishnu deity in the temple. She would imagining herself to be a bride garlanded by her lover. Once, when her father found out he was furious and reprimanded her and made another garland for the deity. The deity refused to wear it. Appearing in her father’s dreams, he made it clear that he would only wear the garland after it was worn by Kodai. Such was her love.
The word “aandal” refers to a female ruler and because Kodai ruled over Vishnu’s heart she came to be known as Andal – the ultimate ruler. Even today, garlands from the Andal temple travel to many Vishnu temples to adorn the deities there. She is known as “Soodi kudutha Sudar Kodi” in Tamil meaning – a young girl who is as vibrant as a blooming creeper, who gives the Lord the garlands that she has worn. Three necklaces in this post are symbolic of this act.
The Iconography of Andal
The Iconography of Andal shows her as a young girl draped in a red or a green silk saree, wearing a garland. She sports a hair bun on the left side indicative of the hairstyles prevalent in the Pandya kingdom then. She lovingly holds a parrot which is symbolic of the Andal’s knowledge.
Andal the feminist
A Tamil brahmin girl falling in love and expressing it to her family is a big no – no even today. So imagine in the 8th century where a teenage girl not only saying “no” to an arranged marriage but professing her love for God (through the form of a deity) saying that she will marry only him. She walks around the town singing and invites her girls to join her to learning about devotion or Bhakti. Furthermore, she describes her strong feelings for him, through her songs. She dotes on him, begs him, cajoles him and at times scolds him to come and marry her. There is a collection of verses called “Varanam Aayiram” where she imagines her wedding day and describes details from the finery she would wear to the rituals observed. I would say that it is not very different from how a modern girl would dream of wedding day and describe it to her friends today.
She never takes no for an answer. It is said that finally, the Lord, in the form of the Ranganathar deity of Srirangam appears in Vishnuchittar’s dream and asks him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The father takes his daughter dressed up as a bride to Srirangam where she runs to sanctum santorum, hugs the deity dressed as the groom and vanishes. I like to believe that she stepped into a higher dimension and lived happily ever after.
Andal and Srivilliputtur – the story continues
Sometime after this, her father laments the loss of his daughter. To reassure him, the Bride and the Groom in all their finery appear in a vision at his doorstep (you can see the dressed up deities in the collage). They promise to stay there in that likeness forever. Touched, Periya Alwar gives them his house which today is the Andal temple. Both the neighbouring Madurai and Srivilliputtur are considered to be female strongholds as the husbands of the respective Goddesses reside with them in their respective father-in-laws houses after their marriage.
A linear narrative of Andal’s life story and details about Srivilliputtur can be found on the Iskcon times website.
Andal is considered to be the reincarnation of Bhooma Devi or the Goddess of the earth who holds infinite wisdom. Unlike other avatars of Gods and Goddess in Hinduism, her presence is not just a myth. The town where she lived stands even today and her literary works are studied by scholars. How much more closer can you get to divinity?
It has been seven years I visited Srivilliputtur. I have been there only twice after my grandmom’s death. Somehow plans get made and cancelled every year. But the call is strong. I hope I would visit both Andal and Srivilliputtur soon. Usually, we visit new places with detached emotion and document them with the hope of connecting with – to them later. Usually, it never happens. Also, we hardly ever takes pictures of our houses, local landmarks, or our home towns (atleast never did in the pre -smart phone era) for we feel no need for it. The emotion connect already exists. However, In the scope of writing this post I have realised that both – documentation and emotional connect are vital to revisit the places and relive the moments. So this time when I visit I hope to document the place, study the sculptures and see the place for what it once was.
Thank you for staying with me through this long post. It’s been in the making for a while and it has been cathartic to write it. If you have stories about your native towns and legends who lived there, I urge you to share. I would love to read about them.