--> Skip to main content

Adi Alvars – 12 Tamil Vaishnavite Saints

Adi Alvars were the first Vaishnava saint mystics (6th to 8th century CE) who initiated the Bhakti Movement with Bhagavan Vishnu as the main deity. Their poetry was in the language of the masses. The Alvars, through their four thousand poems, collectively known as Divya Prabandham (divine hymns), emphasized the glory and grandeur of God and renewed the Vedanta philosophy. The 12 Adi Alvars were – Poygai, Bhutam, Pey, Thirumalisai, Nammalvar, Madhurakavi, Kulashekhara, Periyalvar, Andal, Thondaradippodi, Tiruppan and Thirumangai.

The first three Alvars are called ayonija (not born of the mortal womb) and it is commonly believed that they manifested themselves from different flowers. Their lives are shrouded in mystery. These god-intoxicated men had the vision of Bhagavan Vishnu and poured out ecstasy, hundreds of devotional lyrics called Tiruvandadi in the andadi form (the closing word in a stanza forming the opening word of the next stanza). They extolled the syncretic form of God, Hari-Hara or Vishnu-Shiva, treating them as identical and without displaying any feeling of difference between them.

Thirumalisai Alvar, a Shaiva who later became a Vaishnava, sang in praise of Bhagavan Vishnu in Nanmugan Tirvandadi in 96 verses, and in Thiruchanda Virutham in 120 verses.

Nammalvar is considered the core thinker of the twelve Alvar saints and is also venerated as an acharya (great teacher). His contribution to Prabandha literature is rich, with about 1300 verses in the total collection of 4000. His greatest work, Tiruvaymoli comprising 1,100 verses, is regarded as the magnum opus in Vaishnava religious literature. It is a composite work of bhakti (devotion) and jnana (knowledge). It echoes the Upanishadic truths and the experience of Alvars of the omnipresence of God.

Madhurakavi, the chose disciple of Nammalvar, sang about the glories of the latter in his work Tiruvaymoli. He is a model of acharya bhakti (devotion to the spiritual teacher).

The devotion of Periyalwar or Vishnuchitta took the form of vatsalya bhava (feeling of a mother’s affection for her offspring). He gave expression to his feelings of love in 461 verses, called Tirumoli, which describe with a wealth of imagery and delicacy, the leelas (playful acts) of Bhagavan Krishna as a child.

The childless Perivalvar was blessed with a female baby found in his Tulasi (sacred plant) grove. The child was named God and Andal, who later grew to be an Alvar, the only woman saint in the order. Her two great lyrics, Nachiyar Tirumoli and Tiruppavai consisting of a total of 173 stanzas, occupy a position of pre-eminence, like their author who has come to be worshipped as a Goddess.

Kulashekhara, the Chera king, and an Alvar, sang in praise of Sri Ranganatha, the Lord of Srirangam temple in Tamil Nadu, and gave away his daughter in marriage to him. The devotional songs sung by him, numbering 105, have been strung together into a garland called Perumal Tirumoli. He also composed a number of beautiful verses in Sanskrit called Mukundamala.

The sense of humility and devotion shown to god-men (the great devotees who have completely surrendered to God) by Vipranarayana earned him the name of Thondaradippodi (one who takes the dust off the feet of devotees). He sang 45 verses in praise of Sri Ranganatha called Tirumalai, which is sung daily before Bhagavan Sri Ranganatha at the Srirangam temple.

Though born of a low caste, Thiruppan Alvar was a minstrel of the Srirangam Temple. He often went into a trance becoming absorbed in divine consciousness. Entry into the temple was denied to him because of his birth in a low caste. But God himself is said to have helped him enter the precincts. With his life’s ambition fulfilled, Thiruppan Alvar sang, in gratitude, ten verse in praise of Bhagavan, with philosophical import.

Thirumangai Alvar, the last of the twelve, has left a rich legacy of 1253 verses in the collection of 4000 songs of Prabandha literature. He renovated the Srirangam temple and introduced in it the Adhyayana Utsavam (literally, the festival of study) to which Nammalvar’s image is brought and his Tiruvaymoli recited.

Some of the Alvars, like Perialvar, were good musicians and like Thiruppan Alvar, instrumentalists. Sriman Nathamuni (9th century CE), the great Vaishnava Acharya, collected Prabandha verses, compiled them into four books like the four Vedas and set them to music.