Much has been written about the Āḻvārs, the 12 poetic saints whose poems form the very heart of the southern branch of Śrī Vaiṣṇavam, to which the koyil project is affiliated. There is a century old debate on how ancient the Āḻvārs are. Our tradition has it that they are very ancient, academic research places them in the 7th to 9th century C.E.
The problem with fixing the historical date of the Āḻvārs is that there is scant written evidence on anything in India before the 9th / 10th century C.E.. This is mainly due to the Muslim invaders burning down all universities, books and libraries they found. We have the impression that academic dating is based on the method of looking at references to temples and towns in the poems of the Āḻvārs and then concluding that temple X was built around year Y, therefore the author of the poem can be born a bit before Y at the earliest. The problem with this approach is that the present stone temples are often replacements / major renovations of older temples. Additionally, many temples newly build in the 9th to 11th century C.E. had likely predecessors made of wood and other perishable materials. The Āḻvārs usually address the deity and the surroundings of the temple, not the actual temple building. As example, we only see references to the island location and strong walls of Śrīraṇgam in Thirumālai, things like the thousand pillar hall or the beautiful golden Vimanas are not mentioned at all. So drawing extended inference from the present temple is a somewhat questionable approach to dating.
Overall, the amount of information we have about the lifes of the Āḻvārs is very limited. No wonder: the Āḻvārs and their works were nearly forgotten at the time of Nāthamuni, a predecessor of Rāmānuja, around the 9th century C.E. What we know was transmitted from Nammāḻvār, who appeared to Nāthamuni and via the descendants of Nammāḻvār’s disciple Madhurakaviāḻvār. The latter was able to extend his life for a very long time (he left his body probably only decades or a few centuries before the time of Nāthamuni), so he connects the time of the Āḻvārs with the time of the Āchāryas, which dawned with Nāthamuni. From Nāthamuni, the life stories of the Āḻvārs were handed down in the lineage of Āchāryas.
Academics place Poigai Āḻvār in the 7th Century C.E., while tradition places his birth at about the end of the last age (Dvapara Yuga), at the time around 4.200 B.C.E. He was born in the Tamil month Aippasi, which is usually somewhere in October / November. This is the coldest month in South India, with temperatures sometimes not even passing 30° Celsius. Since he was born in the Dvapara Yuga, tradition holds that his lifespan was much longer than the lifespan of today’s people.
He was born in near the Yathothkari Perumal temple in a place called Thiruvekkā, which is in Kanchipuram, a city located about 50 km away from the eastern shore of Tamil Nadu, in the south west of today’s Chennai. He and the two Āḻvārs who appeared in the days after him (Bhūta Āḻvār and Pey Āḻvār) were actually not born by a human mother but appeared on flowers. Poigai Āḻvār was found in a small pond on a lotus bud.
There are some alternative names under which this Āḻvār is known. Poigai means small pond in Tamil and Āḻvār is a Tamil term meaning „immersed in devotion to god“. Common alternative names are Saro Yogi, which is Sanskrit and means „essential Yogi“; Saro Munīndar, which has has similar meaning and Kāsāra Yogi, which means „Yogi from the pond“.
Very little is known about his early years, other that he was very devoted to Srīman Nārāyaṇa from his early years and quickly gained tremendous spiritual knowledge. In his later years, he was living as a saint-hermit in secluded places in the forest, often wandering large distances on pilgrimage to temples to enjoy the nectar of the presence of the deities in this temple.
A pinnacle in his life was certainly the meeting with the other two early Āḻvārs, of which we shall report below after having introduced them. Before doing this, we shall give a bit of background about his time.
Even though people in the last age, Dvapara Yuga, were generally much more spiritual than in this age, we know from the conversation of Kṛṣna with his friend Arjuna known as the Bhagavad Gītā, which took place a few decades before the appearance of the Āḻvār, that a lot of spiritual understanding had been lost at that time. People were following all the religious codes and practices laid down in the Vedas and the Dharma scriptures, but they lacked an understanding of the essence, of what all this is about and what really is important and what not. This essence is given by Kṛṣna in the Bhagavad Gītā, but we may assume that the Gītā became commonly known later. Because people were generally attached to the formal, ritualistic aspects of the Vedic religion, Āḻvārs who had an intimate, loving and somewhat informal relation with Srīman Nārāyaṇa were mostly on their own.
Poigai Āḻvār left us one work called „Mudhal Thiruvandhadhi“, which is a divine poem with 100 verses in Tamil. Here is the first, introductory verse:
Vaiyam takaḷiyā vārkaṭalē neyyāka
veyya katirōṉ viḷakkāka – ceyya
cuṭar āḻiyāṉ aṭikkē cuṭṭiṉēṉ col
mālai iṭarāḻi niṅkukavē eṉṟura
Using the Earth as a vessel, the surrounding ocean as the ghee and the Sun with hot rays as the light,
I rendered the garland made of words, saying ‚remove the ocean of obstacles‘, at the divine feet of Him who has the Chakra with the bright red light. [Srīman Nārāyaṇa]
After the introduction of the next two Āḻvārs we will learn a bit more of the picture he uses of the earth as ghee lamp (lamp made from clarified butter, which is traditionally used in deity worship).
It is common in our tradition that each exalted personality within the tradition has a so called Thaniyan, a verse of praise that briefly summarizes the glories of the respective personality. This Thaniyan is recited whenever we recite works from him / her. Here is the Sanskrit Thaniyan of Poigai Āḻvār:
kāñcyām sarasi hēmābjē jātaṃ kāsārayōginam |
kalayē yaḥ śriyaḥpatayē raviṃ dīpaṃ akalpayat ||
I meditate on Kāsārayōgi who manifested from a golden lotus in the temple tank of Kanchi. He offered the Sun as a lamp for the Lord of Śrī.[which is Srīman Nārāyaṇa]
The Tamil Thaniyan goes like this:
kaidhai sēr pūmpoḻil sūḻ kachchi nagar vandhudhiththa
poygaip pirān kaviñyar pōrēṟu |
vaiyaththu adiyavargaḷ vāḻa aruntamiḻ nuṟṟanthādhi
padiviḷangach cheydhān parindhu ||
The foremost among poets- Poigai Āḻvār was born in the garden city of Kanchipuram. With utmost compassion to redeem the devotees on the earth and take them to the feet of the Lord, he composed the rare composition of 100 psalms in the Antaādhi style.
For this Āḻvār, we find a confusing variety of ways how his name is spelled, for example Bhūthathāḻvār, Budattazwar or Bhuthath Azhwar. The adjective bhūta means in Sanskrit purified, proper, fit. He is also known under the names Bhūta Yogi, Bhūthahvayar, Mallāpuravarādhīshar and Pudhathar. We are not aware on the exact meaning of the last three names.
He appeared the day after Poigai Āḻvār appeared. He was born in Mahabalipuram (also called Māmallapuram), a village at the eastern shore of Tamil Nadu in the south of Chennai – so about 50km in the east of Kanchipurnam, the place where Poigai Āḻvār appeared. Also Bhūta Āḻvār was not born but rather appeared on a flower – a Kurukkathi (Sanskrit Mādhavi) flower.
Similar to Poigai Āḻvār, very little is known about his life. It is said that he was also very devoted to Srīman Nārāyaṇa from his early years on and was living a life of solitude and pilgrimage to important temples of Srīman Nārāyaṇa, just like Poigai Āḻvār. And there was the meeting with the other two early Āḻvārs, of which we shall report after introducing the last early Āḻvār. He left us the Iraṇdām Thiruvandhāthi. Let us enjoy the 5th out of 100 verses:
Aḍi mūnṟil ivvulagam anṟu aḷandāy pōlum
Aḍi mūnṟirandavani koṇdāy paḍininṟa
Nīr ōda mēni nedumālē nin aḍiyai
Yār ōda vallār aṟindu
Oh Lord with the complexion of the blue ocean, aeons ago, you manifested to ask Mahabali for three steps of land. But You scarcely needed those three steps to traverse this universe. Who can comprehend the secret of Your Feet or presume to speak of Them?
The Āḻvār is referring to the story of Vāmana, an avatar of Śrīman Nārāyaṇa (Viṣṇu), who gained back the universe which was gained by a demonic king named Bali, or Mahabali, with a very interesting personality, using „legal“ means. Hence, Vāmana did not use force but rather a sort of trick to get back the universe, donating the underworld back to this king. The name of the birth place of Bhūta Āḻvār literally means „city of Mahabali“. There is some archeologic evidence that this city has been a major trade hub at in the ancient past (likely one of the main ports for the trade between India and the Roman empire) and much larger until an ancient flood submerged the largest part of the city. So it seems perfectly plausible that Bhūta Āḻvār heard many stories about Mahabali and Vāmana from his early childhood, which made him very attached to Vāmana.
mallāpura varādhīśaṃ madhavī kusumōdbhavam|
bhūtaṃ namāmi yō viṣṇōrjñānadīpamakalpayat ||
I meditate on Bhūta Yogi who manifested from a mādhavi flower. He is the exalted lord of Māmallapuram. He offered the lamp of knowledge unto Lord Viṣṇu.
There is also a Tamil Thanian, but we do not have good sources or an authoritative translation of it.
Pey Āḻvār (also spelled Peialvar, Peyalvar or Pey Azhwar) appeared the day of after Bhūta Āḻvār’s appearance. As Bhūta Āḻvār and Poigai Āḻvār, he appeared on a flower – a red Lilly in Pey Āḻvār’s case, which was located at a well close to the Adi Keśava temple in today’s Chennai. Pey means possessed in Tamil, since Pey Āḻvār appeared like a person possessed by spirits to outsiders. This appearance is due to him being so attracted so Viṣṇu that he did not follow normal social customs. He is also known under the names Bhrantayogi, Mahathāhvayar and Mayilāpurādhipar. The adjective bhranta means confused, wandering, unsteady in Sanskrit. We are unaware what the other two names mean.
It is said that Pey Āḻvār served in the Adi Keśava temple by preparing Tulsi (Tulasī, holy basil, a plant very dear to Srīman Nārāyaṇa) and flower garlands in the temple. He also gave lectures and Pañca Saṃskāram (initiation) to the Āḻvār who appeared after him (Thirumaḻisai Āḻvār) at that temple.
He left us a work called Mūnṛām Thiruvandhādhi. Let us enjoy the 9th out of 100 verses
Kaṇṇum kamalam kamalamē kaittalamum
Maṇ aḻanda pādamum maṟṟavaiyē eṇṇin
Karumā mugil vaṇṇam kṝ kkaḍal nīr vaṇṇan
Thirumāmaṇi vaṇṇan tēśu
Can you conjure up a vision of a from that is a dark hue like a jet-black cloud, the azure ocean and a lustrous blue diamond? That is the beauty of the Lord’s form if one can visualize it, in which the eyes stand out like the crimson lotus, the hands and the feet which measured this earth are the same.
dṛṣṭvā hṛṣṭam taḍā viṣṇum ramayā mayilādhipam |
kūpe raktotapale jātam mahatāhvayaṃ āsraye ||
I surrender unto Pey Āḻvār who is the leader of Mylapore and was born out of a red Lilly flower in a well and who attained great bliss by having the divine vision of Srīman Nārāyaṇa with Srī Mahālakṣmī.
Quite often, we find that the first three Āḻvārs are adressed together under the name Mudhal Āḻvār. Mudhal in Tamil means first or initial. They are addressed together because
- They were all born a day after each other in sequence – Poigai Āḻvār, Bhūta Āḻvār and Pey Āḻvār.
- They were all what is called in Sanskrit ayonija – not born from a human mother.
- They were attached to Srīman Nārāyaṇa right from their birth and were blessed him by enjoying divine bliss throughout their life.
- At some point in their life, they met each other and from then onwards stayed together and travelled together to various holy places. Hence they are also called in Tamil „Ōṭit tiriyum yōkikaḷ“ – the wandering Yogis.
Let us now hear the story how they met each other. Once Poigai Āḻvār was visiting Thirukovilur. Thirukovilur is a small city with numerous temples about 130 km south of Kanchipuram. Poigai Āḻvār was roaming the streets of Thirukovilur, at the same time Bhūta Āḻvār and Pey Āḻvār had also come to visit the city.
Everyone who has visited tropical regions knows how heavy and suddenly it can start to rain there. Such a rain started and Poigai was looking for shelter. He found a narrow passage in the front portion of a house which is said to have belonged to the sage Mrigandu. He laid down, prepared to spend the night in this inhospitable and confined place. Sometime later, Bhūta too discovered the same place and finding someone already occupying the space, enquired whether there would be room for one more person. Poigai welcomed the stranger, saying that if there was space enough for one person to lie down, two could sit there.
An hour or so passed and there came knocking another worthy, wet and drenched to the skin and seeking shelter in the passage. He too was welcomed by the other two, who thought that three could at least stand comfortably in the small space, which could seat two and provide a bed for one. The three Āḻvārs were thus standing in the pitch dark, sharing with one another their experiences of the Lord and His auspicious attributes.
All of a sudden, they felt rather tight pressed. They were standing comfortably earlier, they now felt that the available space had diminished, as if a fourth person, unknown to the other three, had entered the narrow passage and was crowding them. Apparently, someone had sneaked into the already constricted space without announcement and was standing with them.
As it was pitch dark and Poigai wanted to light a lamp. Having nothing at hand but being a great Yogi, he used elements of nature as ingredients, considering the whole earth as a lamp, the waters of the salty seas as oil and with the shining Sun as the wick, he lit a glorious lamp that would shine forever and show up with clarity even the tiniest speck of dust. Bhūta lit another lamp, using ingredients all available within oneself and yet the hardest to find in any human being: he fashioned a lamp out of his unfathomable love for Srīman Nārāyaṇa. Oil for the lamp was his uncontrollable urge to see the Lord and the wick was his intellect, made sweet and melting by constant contemplation of the Lord’s auspicious attributes.
Such was the extraordinary illumination provided by the two lamps lit by these two Yogis, that the third, Pey Āḻvār, was able to see clearly the fourth person who had been squeezing them tight.
First and foremost, Āḻvār’s eyes alighted on the glorious form of Srī Mahālakṣmī, adorning the broad chest of the intruder. In the first verse, first half of Mūnṛām Thiruvandhādhi, Pey Āḻvār describes what he saw:
Tirukkaṇṭēṉ poṉ mēṉi kaṇṭēṉ tikaḻum
arukkaṉaṇi niṟamum kaṇṭēṉ – cerukkiḷarum
The vision rose before me first, now at this very instant, of the divine Mother with my ocean like Lord.
From the presence of the Divine Consort, who does not leave Srīman Nārāyaṇa even for a fraction of a second, they realized that it was none other than Srīman Nārāyaṇa who had entered the passage and was squeezing the trio. Pey Āḻvār describes this in the second half of the first verse:
poṉṉāḻi kaṇṭēṉ puri caṅkam kaikkaṇṭēṉ
eṉṉāḻi vaṇṇaṉ pāl iṉṟu
Then I saw his brilliant Form radiant like the sun, with his sparkling discus deadly in battle in one hand and the curved conch in the other.
The three Āḻvārs, inspired by the grand spectacle of Srīman Nārāyaṇa glorious form in their midst, poured out their devotion in the compositions we already heard about, each a hundred beautiful verses each, brimming over with Bhakti.
These three compositions served as forerunners for the total of four thousand nectarine verses that were to be composed by the Āḻvārs, called Divya Prabandham. In general, Āḻvārs do not praise anybody than the divine mother Srī Mahālakṣmī and Srīman Nārāyaṇa. However, the first and foremost of the Āḻvārs, Nammāḻvār, refers to these three „pioneer“ Āḻvārs as „Pāley Tamiḻar, Isaikārar, patthar“, paying generous tribute to their devotion and the beauty of their compositions.
Each of these verses is flowing from their mouths as if they are clear stream of water. The three works which constitute the earliest poetical compositions contributed by the Vaiṣṇava saints of South India contain philosophical and theological ideas of Śrī Vaiṣṇavam.
It is said that Srīman Nārāyaṇa listened to the three compositions to the utmost pleasure and satisfaction. Then, after blessing them, he disappeared. From then on, they always went together to other temples, and on their way, the three Āḻvārs are said to have been blessed by having two special darshans:
- The darshan of Srī Rāma and his companions from the Rāmāyana, like Sītā, Lord Rāma’s younger brother Śatrughna, Hanumān etc.
- The darshan of Lord Veṅkaṭēśvara, the deity of one of the most important Viṣṇu temples in India. This temple is called Tirumala Venkateswara Temple and located in Tirupathi, about 130km north of the region where the Āḻvārs were born. The temple is on the Tirumala hill, which is itself a very sacred place. Because of this, the Āḻvārs walked to the hill but hesitated to step on it. Hence, Lord Veṅkaṭēśvara came down from the hill have his darshan at the place where they were. Some say that the old name of a pond at the hill – Āḻvār Theertham (nowadays usually called Kapila Theertham) – refers to this.
Adiyēn Mādhava Rāmānuja Dāsan