Antal was a Tamil saint who occupied a unique position amongst the twelve Alvars (saints) because she was the only woman Alvar of Vaisnavism. Before she was given the name “Antal”, she was known as “Goda” (‘Go’ means the ‘earth’ and ‘da’ means ‘given by’) and in Tamil she was named “Kodai” (one who has beautiful hair) (Sundarsanchar 15). Antal was also known for having a powerful love connection towards the god Visnu, and has composed the greatest Tamil works of Thiruppavai and Nachiar Thirumozhi. They are recited by the devotees during the month of Margashira (Maghshar) in Srivaishnava mandirs (Dehejia 4). The first 1,000 verses contain songs by Vishnuchitta Alvar and his adopted daughter, Antal (Antal means ‘One who attracts’). Srivilliputtur was the birth place of Antal and in that same area, there is a temple dedicated to her (Dehejia 5-7). Legend goes that Antal was the incarnation of the goddess Sri Bhudevi (goddess earth) and was understood that the goddess “asked as a boon of Visnu, to be born on earth as his greatest devotees” (Deheijia 7). Therefore, a priest named Vishnuchitta from the Srivilliputtur temple found a young infant girl in his garden and decided to adopt her. In many places in India, particularly in Tamilnadu, Antal is treated as a saint and form of Goddess.
The Tamil word, Alvar means one who has drowned or lost himself in the sea of the divine being (Dehejia 1). Between the fifth and ninth century in the Tamil-speaking region of South India, these twelve saints revitalized the Indian religious milieu, sparking the renewal of devotional worship throughout the subcontinent. They were the earliest proponents from the bhakti movement which was a form of worship that emerged in medieval India (Chabria and Shankar 13). Traveling from temple to temple and from site to site, they composed exceedingly beautiful poetry to their Divine beloved Visnu as an expression of their love to him. Anyone can see why their poetry was so attractive; at once both impassioned and philosophical, their words cut across all barriers of class and inviting everyone to be part of their faith. In doing so, they sculpted a new religious heritage of intensely emotional bhakti which are still felt today in the Indian religious life. Among the twelve Alvars was Vishnuchitta who spent his time mostly tending to the flower garden and serving the Lord Vatapatrasayi at Srivilliputtur Temple. He later became known as “Periyalwar” (Sundarsanchar 10-11). Antal, whose life and poetry are celebrated every December to January, is the most visible contributor to this heritage.
According to legends that have developed around her, Antal was discovered under a tulsi bush (holy basil) in the temple garden of Srivilliputtur by the devouted Brahmin Visnucitta. Having no family of his own, he considered it as being a sign from God and named her Kotai which meant “she of the fragrant tresses” (Dehejia 1). Since her foster-father was known to be a great Alvar, he used to worship God in the Srivilliputtur temple by showing Visnu great love and affection. Vishnuchitta lived in villaputtur which was a town near Madurai, his duties included acquiring flowers for the worship of the Lord at the local temple. Therefore, Antal grew up in an atmosphere of love and devotion. Vishnuchitta cherished her in every respect, singing songs to her about his beloved Krsna, teaching her all the stories and philosophy he knew, and sharing with her his love of Tamil poetry (Dehijia 7). The love he had for his Lord, intensified further in his daughter and before long, a great love for the Lord was awoken in her heart (Dehejia 7-8). Even as a child, Kodai made up her mind to marry none but the Lord Ranganatha and refused to think of any human being in similar terms.
As she began growing into her teenage years, Antal developed a great attachment and longing for the Lord. She imagined what it would be like to be his bride, playing the role of his beloved, and enjoying his presence (Chabria and Shankar 9-10). She began craving for him deeply. Unknown to her father, she adorned herself daily with the flower garland which he prepared for the Lord at the temple. After admiring her reflection and thinking of herself as his ideal bride, Antal would put the garland back for Vishnuchhitta to take to offer it to the Krsna. One day, Antal put on the garment and said “This is offered to God” (Sundarsanchar 20). Her father witnessed this and was shocked for he considered this as a great violation. He remonstrated her for this act and threw away the garland. Therefore, Vishnuchitta had to perform the evening puja without an offering to the Lord. On that night, Lord Krsna appeared in his dream and asked him why he discarded Antal’s garland instead of offering it to him. The Lord told him that he missed the scent of her garland. He told Vishnuchitta that he yearned for the smell of Andal’s body in the flowers and that he preferred them that way. “Periyalwar, the garland worn by your daughter has the sweet fragrance of her devotion and purity; that is the garland I love” (Sundarsanchar 22). Overcome with emotion, Vishnuchitta awoke and cried tears of joy because his daughter found a bridegroom. Her spiritual greatness was such that the Lord himself wished to share her presence. From that day on, “she won Periyalwar by her qualities and indeed became Antal (one who attracts)” (Sundarsanchar 23). She was also known as “Soodi Koduthra Sudarkodi, maiden, shining bright as a golden creeper, who offered garlands after wearing them” (Chabria and Shankar 20). This last name that was given to her, refers to the event of her wearing the garlands.
Antal blossomed into a beautiful young woman as she came of marriageable age. When asked to marry, however, she stubbornly refused, saying that she would only agree to marry Srirankam, the Lord at the great temple. Vishnuchitta became extremely anxious, wondering what was to become of his daughter. Until one night, Lord Srirankam appeared in his dream and Visnu assured him that he would accept Andal as his bride (Dehejia 8). Vishnuchitta once again was filled with joy because his beloved daughter would attain her goal. However, at the same time he was sad because he had to let her go. It is said that Visnu himself made all the wedding preparations and arrangements for Antal’s journey to Srirankam, including the fanfare of a royal marriage party. Antal waited with excited anticipation as the wedding party approached the Lord’s shrine. As they entered the temple, she jumped out of the palanquin, unable to restrain herself any longer. Running onto the sanctum, she embraced the feet of the lord and disappeared in a mysterious way (Sundarsanchar 30-32). The marriage ceremony initiated by Antal’s gift of the garland, closed with a formal wedding. At the end of her story, she passes from a normal human being, into “a deity to be worshipped” (Sundarsanchar 32).
Antal composed two works throughout her life, both works display a literary and religious maturity far beyond her years. Her first work is the Thiruppavai, a collection of thirty verses in which Antal imagines herself to be a gopi (cowherdess) during the incarnation of Lord Krsna (Dehjia 14). There are beautiful descriptions of the water lilies unfolding, the buffaloes grazing, and the maidens calling out to each other and over to Krsna to come and join them. Antal yearns to serve him and achieve happiness not just in this birth, but for all eternity. The second is the Nacciyar Thirumozhi. This poem fully reveals Antal’s intense longing for Vishnuchitta, the divine beloved and describes how she uses certain methods to achieve the union with Krsna. In one verse, she prays to the god of love to help unite with her lover and another verse illustrates how she refuses to marry any other human being other than the Lord (Sudansanchar 33-35). “It is clear from both the Thiruppavai and the Nacciyar Thirumozhi that Antal’s chosen god is Krsna the cowherd Lord” (Dehejia 14).
Antal is now one of the best love poet-saints of the Tamils, she was present in all Sri Vaisnava temples in India and elsewhere next to her Lord as she always desired. There is a beautiful temple dedicated to her in Srivilliputtur, by the side of the garden where she was found as a child (Dehjejia 6). Her life epitomized ideas of devotion, feminism and empowerment during that century. “Antal Utsava (celebrations) in Srivilliputtur is like a grand religious fair. The women of the place participate in the festival with pride. Antal is like a precious jewel among women” (Sundarsanchar 54). Antal continues to be praised as a heroine and saint with the flowers of that garden. To this day, the Lord is presented with the garland that was worn by her. The impact of these works on the daily religious life of South India, has been tremendous; people are never tired of listening to the Thiruppavai. The poem itself is recited with great religious passion by women, men and children of all ages, particularly in Tamil Nadu. The daily services in most Vaisnava temples and householders recite these poems. Antal showed the people how to present God’s grace with a true longing for desire and devotion to him. She emphasized that everyone should submit themselves before the Lord like a lover (Sundarsanchar 51-52). In her hymns, Antal has incorporated all the essence of four Vedas, Puranas and all spiritual knowledge about God Thiruppavai is recited during the sacred month of Margashira (also known as Marzazhi in Tamil), that is in the auspicious month of Dhanurmasam (Chabria and Shankar 24-25). Dhanurmasam is considered so holy and sacred that during this month, no Vedic Hindu marriages take place as everyone want to devote all their energy and time in the Holy name of the Lord Sri Narayana. “The vow was undertaken by the young unmarried girls who, throughout the month, bathed at dawn in cold waters of river or pond to secure the blessing of a happy married life” (Dehejia 17). Even though the hymns in the Thiruppavai are only 30 in number, they contain the full knowledge of the Lord. Most of all, Antal is remembered for her poetry, in which she often discovers autobiographical notes about her love for her Lord.
References and Further Recommended Readings
Chabria, P.S., and Ravi Shankar (2016) The Autobiography of a Goddess. New Dehli: Zubaan Books
Dehejia, Vidya (1990) Antal and Her Path of Love: Poems of a Woman Saint from South India. Albany: SUNY Press.
Simha, s.n.l. (1987). Andal: Tiruppavai and Nachiya Tirumozhi. Bombay: Ananthacharya Indological Institute.
Srinivasa, Reddy (2010). Giver of Worn Garland. New Dehli: Penguin.
Sundarsanchar, Jaggu (2010) Andal. Association of American Publishers: Litent ePublishing
Venkatesan, Archana (2010) The Secret Garland: Andal’s Tirruppavai and Nacciya Tirmoli. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Article written by: Ruth Melara (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.