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The Alvars

by Jyotsna Kamat

First Online: June 05, 2001
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

Introduction | Important Proponents | Pictures
Alvars | Shankara |Bridal Devotion | The Alvars | Ramanuja | Madhva | Ravidas
Meerabai | Guru Nanak | Chaitanya | Purandaradas
Ramananda | Kabir | Tukaram | Kanakadas

The earliest saints who appeared after Buddhist era on the Indian scene were Alvars (a.k.a. Alwars). They came from present day Tamilnadu. 

According to modern scholars the Alvars flourished between seventh and ninth centuries A.D. They were worshippers of Vishnu and are known as Bhagavata (followers of  Lord Vishnu; also known as Vaishnavas). Vishnu's incarnation is Krishna, who is popular as Krishna in Western India. The Guptas in North and Pallavas in South were followers of Vishnu and Bhagavata teachings. The Alvars who are twelve in number were great mystics and sang their mystic experiences in simple poems known as Pashuras composed in ecstatic love towards the Lord which depict different bhavas (attitudes). 

The greatest Alvar was Nammalvar, also known as Satakopan  and belonged to lowly Vellala caste. He composed four Tamil Vedas-- Thiruvaimoli,  his famous hymn speaks of God as all pervading spiritual principle who assumes different human forms for the upliftment of devotees. 

Tirumangai Alvar belonged to a tribe of thieves (Kallars) and was a practicing robber before becoming a saint. Tiruppani Alvar was an untouchable. Kulashekhara was a ruler and composed Mukundamala in Sanskrit, which considered the most beautiful and popular hymns of total self-surrender. Vishnu Chitta was a Brahmin and known as Periyalvar whose composition in Tamil Thiruppallandu is daily sung in important Vaishnava temples of South India.

Andal (a.k.a. Antal picture), daughter of Vishnu Chitta is one of greatest women saints of India along with Lalleshwari (Kashmir), Akka Mahadevi (Karnataka) and Meera (Rajasthan). She considered herself  the bride of  Lord Vishnu from her childhood. Tradition holds that the Lord ordered a palanquin to be sent to Andal's house and she be brought to the temple in all bridal finery. Andal came accordingly and merged into divine body (image of Lord Vishnu). A magnificent temple at Srivilliputtur, the Andal's birthplace, stands as an example of divine love where the famous festival takes place. Andal was a gifted poet whose compositions, Tiruppavai are sung all over South India in the month of Margashirsha. (see also: Married to God, Tiruppavai Illustrations)

This Alvar Bhakti cult was quite popular when the great Acharya Ramanuja (born in 1017 A.D.) appeared on the scene. Ramanuja was a well learned, liberal  philosopher and defined a new realm of Indian spirituality known as Vishishtadwaita or Qualified Monism.

Scholars are not sure of the caste of other four Alvars. But all are equally held holy and worshipped. Their compositions numbering to four thousands are known as Prabandhams. Vaishnavas (including Sri Vaishnavas or Iyengars, the followers of Ramanujacharya) consider the Prabandams as holy as the Vedas. There are 215 compositions which are sung in everyday rituals.

The Vaishnava teacher Nathamuni  in the later years collected all available poems and hymns of Alvar saints in a monumental work Nalayira Prabandham. It is also called Anubhava Vedanta. 

Introduction | Important Proponents | Pictures
Alvars | Shankara |Bridal Devotion | The Alvars | Ramanuja | Madhva | Ravidas
Meerabai | Guru Nanak | Chaitanya | Purandaradas
Ramananda | Kabir | Tukaram | Kanakadas

See Also:

  • Tamizhakam -- Pictures and stories from the state of Tamil Nadu; includes a citation database of latest research.


Path of Devotion

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486 - 1534)Guru GhasidasSant Tukaram Swami Haridas (1478-1573)Saint Mirabai
Andal - A Lady Saint of South IndiaSaint RamanujacharyaGuru Madhvacharya Sage Basaveshwara who founded the Lingayat cult in 12th centuryMadhvacharya (guru) teaching a Desciple
Adi ShankaracharyaChaitanya Mahabprabhu with DesciplesSwami RamanandSant RavidasSaint Namadeo (Namadev)
Saint Eknath

Kamat's Potpourri Religions of IndiaBhakti

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