The Alvars (Tamil: ஆழ்வார், romanized: Āḻvār, lit. 'The Immersed') were Tamil poet-saints of South India who espoused bhakti (devotion) to the Hindu God Vishnu in their songs of longing, ecstasy, and service. They are venerated in Vaishnavism, which regards Vishnu as the Ultimate Reality.
Many modern academics place the lifetime of the Alvars between the 5th century and 10th century CE. Traditionally, the Alvars are considered to have lived between 4200 BCE and 2700 BCE. Orthodoxy posits the number of Alvars as ten, though there are other references that include Andal and Madhurakavi Alvar, making the number 12. Andal is the only female Alvar among the 12. Together with the contemporary 63 Shaivite Nayanars, they are among the most important saints from Tamil Nadu.
The devotional outpourings of the Alvars, composed during the early medieval period of Tamil history, were the catalysts behind the Bhakti movement through their hymns of worship to Vishnu and his avatars. They praised the Divya Desams, the 108 divine realms of deities affiliated to Vaishnavism. The poetry of the Alvars echoes bhakti to God through love, and in the ecstasy of such devotions they sang hundreds of songs which embodied both depth of feeling and the felicity of expressions. The collection of their hymns is known as the Naalayira Divya Prabandham. The bhakti literature that sprang from Alvars has contributed to the establishment and sustenance of a culture that deviated from the Vedic religion and rooted itself in devotion as the only path for salvation. In addition, they contributed to Tamil devotional verses independent of a knowledge of Sanskrit. As a part of the legacy of the alvars, five Vaishnavite philosophical traditions (sampradayas) developed over a period of time.
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The word alvar has traditionally been etymologized as from Tamil. Al (ஆழ்), 'to immerse oneself' as 'one who dives deep into the ocean of the countless attributes of god'.
However recently Indologist Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan has established from epigraphy and textual evidence that the traditional term Āḻvār (ஆழ்வார்) for Vaiṣṇavaite Tamil poet saints has historically been a corruption of the original Āḷvār (ஆள்வார்). It is investigated with a multi-faceted approach using philology, linguistics, epigraphy, and religion.
Palaniappan shows that what was originally Āḷvār (ஆள்வார்) meaning 'One who rules', or '(Spiritual) Master' got changed through hypercorrection and folk etymology to Āḻvār (ஆழ்வார்) meaning 'One who is immersed'. Palaniappan cites inscriptional evidence and even literary evidence from Vaishnavaite tradition itself for a gradual sound change from Āḷvār (ஆள்வார்) to Āḻvār (ஆழ்வார்) over a period of two centuries from the 9th to the 11th century involving references to religious leaders in Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism and even Jainism and to political personalities. He states: "āḻvār is but a corrupt form of āḷvār which has been used interchangeably with nāyanār in secular and religious contexts in the Tamil land" and "... Notwithstanding the Vaiṣṇava claim of unbroken teacher-student tradition, the fact that Nāthamuni has used the form āļvār but Piļļān, a disciple and younger cousin of Rāmānuja, ended up using the form āḻvār suggests that there has been an error in transmission somewhere along the teacher-student chain between the two teachers. This error was obviously due to the influence of the sound variation that has occurred in the Srirangam area and elsewhere".
The original word ஆள்வார் compares with the epithet 'Āṇḍãḷ' (ஆண்டாள்) for the female canonized Vaishnava saint Gōdai (கோதை) and they share the same verb Tamil. āḷ (ஆள்), the former being the honorific non-past (or present-future) form and the latter the feminine past form of that same verb.
Palaniappan's findings on 'Āḻvār' have been accepted by scholars like Prof. Alexander Dubyanskiy. In his article on Āṇṭāḷ, Dubyanskiy says, "Āṇṭāḷ was among the twelve Āḻvārs, the poet-saints, adepts of Viṣṇu, canonized by the tradition, which accepted the interpretation of meaning of the word āḻvār as "submerged, plunged [in love for god]", from the verbal root āḻ, "to plunge, to be in the deep". But recently it was convincingly shown by S. Palaniappan (2004) that initially the term in question was represented by the word āḷvār (from the verbal root āḷ "to rule"), which reads as "those who rule, lords", and was applied in the texts, both Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava, to Śiva and Viṣṇu accordingly (pp. 66–70). In the course of time the term underwent the process of sound variation, took the form āḻvār and acquired the folk etymology which was accepted and fixed by the tradition. It is worth noting here that this interpretation agrees well with the meaning of the poetess' nickname Āṇṭāḷ, which means "she who rules".
Alvar or Alwar in modern times are confined to temples in South India. Still devout to Lord Vishnu, many of the practices have remained the same, except for some modern changes.[self-published source?]
Alvars are considered the twelve supreme devotees of Vishnu, who were instrumental in popularising Vaishnavism in the Tamil-speaking regions. The alvars were influential in promoting the Bhagavata cult and the two Hindu epics, namely, Ramayana and Mahabaratha. The religious works of these saints in Tamil, songs of love and devotion, are compiled as Nalayira Divya Prabandham containing 4000 verses and the 108 temples revered in their songs are classified as Divya desam. The verses of the various alvars were compiled by Nathamuni (824 - 924 CE), a 10th-century Vaishnavite theologian, who called it the "Dravida Veda or Tamil Veda". The songs of Prabandam are regularly sung in all the Vishnu temples of South India daily and also during festivals.
The birth of Alvars were already been sketched in mid-Dvapara Yuga due to a heated debate between Vishvakarma (the divine architect of Gods) and Agastya (a sage) about the best language (Sanskrit or Tamil). Midst of debate, Agastya Maharshi gets furious which makes him to curse the former that, at some point of time one of his architecture would be destroyed (a contemporary to Gandhari's curse to Dwarka) and can never be recovered. (Some sources say Agastya Maharshi curses Vishvakarma for Sanskrit to lose its fame, as the curse became true in the present Kali Yuga). Enraged Vishvakarma too curse Agastya Maharshi in return that his most favorite language (Tamil) will be downtrodden in the future, and will go very remote that people will badly fail to identify its history and its sources. Agastya Maharshi who felt very bad by then for confronting Vishvakarma for a childish reason is in turn blessed by the vision (darshan) of Lord Vishnu after a long penance who promises him that one day Tamil language will regain consciousness and will emerge same as before but with little disparities and disabilities among people in pronunciation of words as Kali Yuga progresses. At the same time Vishnu also promises the Vedas to be translated to Tamil as the result of his curse on Vishvakarma. Agastya Maharshi gets happy and awaits for the time for his boon to become true. After the Mahabharata war and all the post incidents in Dwarka (Gandhari's curse coming into effect and Lord Krishna's death in the hands of the hunter Jara), Lord Krishna as Lord Vishnu resumes his abode in Vaikunta, hence sowing the seeds of Kali Yuga. In Vaikunta, Lord Vishnu rests on Adi Sesha, surrounded by his amshas (messengers). He becomes worried about the people of Kali Yuga. His weapons (The Sudarshana Chakra, Panchajanya, etc.) asks the reason he to which he responded the same. Sudarshana immediately responded to slice the head of all people who refused Dharma, to which Lord Vishnu smiled and corrected him exclaiming nobody would be left alive if he were to do so even in the Dvapara Yuga, then Kali Yuga would be no less. When asked any other solution, Lord Vishnu says his amshas (messengers or weapons) to take birth and to become a role model and inspire how they suffered to reach the holy feet of Lord to the human beings who come in the future. Thus descended those weapons to Earth, being the amshas (or weapons of Lord Vishnu) who happily accepted to take birth as different Alvars, aligning with the boon given to Agastya Maharshi and also became a role model for the human beings who came later in the Kali Yuga.
As per the boon given to Agastya Maharshi by Lord Vishnu, the 5th (or sometimes the 10th or 12th) Alvar, Nammalvar (amsha or incarnation of Vishvaksena) is credited for converting the Rig Veda to 100 poems called the Thiruviratham, Yajur Veda as Thiruvarshiyam and the most difficult Sama Veda as Thiruvaimozhi in 1000 verses (poems).
The saints had different origins and belonged to different castes. As per tradition, the first three alvars, Poigai Alvar, Bhuthath Alvar, Peyalvar and Andal were born miraculously i.e., they were not given birth. Thirumizhisai Alvar was the son of a sage Bhargava; Thondaradipodi Alvar, Mathurakavi Alvar, Periazhwar were brahmin; Kulasekhara was a Kshatriya, Nammalvar was from a cultivator family, Thirupanalvar from Tamil Panar community and Thirumangai Alvar from kalvar community. Some Vaishnavities consider only the main 10 alvars (except Andal and Madhurakavi Alvar) while other include these two in the list too. Srirangam is the only Divya Desam that was glorified commonly by the 12 Alvars.
Temple records and inscriptions give a detailed account of the alvars and their works. According to these texts, the saints were considered incarnations of some form of Vishnu. Few of them are:
According to traditional account by Manavala Mamunigal, the first three alvars namely Poigai Alvar, Bhoothath Alvar and Pey Alvar belong to Dvapara Yuga (even before the birth of Lord Krishna, i.e., before 4200 BCE). It is widely accepted by tradition and historians that the trio are the earliest among the twelve Alvars. Along with the three Saiva Nayanmars, they influenced the ruling Pallava kings, creating a Bhakti movement that resulted in changing the religious geography from Buddhism and Jainism to these two sects of Hinduism in the region.
After the era of Alvars, few of the Divya Prabandham were lost. So in order to retrieve them, Lord Vishnu sent Nathamuni, who had a vision of Nammalvar through the idol that Nammalvar advised Madhurakavi Alvar to get for. The idol can be found today in Alvarthirunagari Temple.
Some modern scholars suggest that they lived during 5th – 9th century CE, "on the basis of a few historical evidences", although no "clear" evidence exists to place them between the 5th to the 9th century CE. The Encyclopædia Britannica says that alvars lived between 7th – 10th century CE. Professor of Religion and Asian Studies, James G. Lochtefeld of Carthage College, notes in his The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, the first three alvars Poigai, Bhoothath and Pey belonged to the 7th century; while Nammalvar and Madhurakavi belonged to the 10th century; while the rest of them lived in the 9th century.
Traditionally the Alwars are considered to have lived between 4200 BCE – 2700 BCE, while some texts account for range between 4200 BCE to early 10th century. Traditional dates take them to the age of Shuka from the period of the Bhagavata Purana, the first four (Poigai Alvar, Bhoothathalvar, Peyalvar and Thirumalisai alvar) are from Dvapara Yuga, while Nammalwar, Madhurakavi Alvar and others belong to Kali Yuga.
The following table shows the place, century and star of birth of each alvar. Scholarly dating, except that of Kulasekhara Alvar, is based on summary of views of modern scholars by Dr. N Subba Reddiar, although even these dates lack historical evidence. Much effort has gone into dating Kulasekhara Alvar recently. The alvar is now tentatively identified as Sthanu Ravi Kulasekhara (reigned c. 844/45–870/71 CE), the first known ruler of the medieval Cheras kings of Kerala.
|Sl no||Image||Alwar Saint||Modern dating||Traditional date and place||Composition||Month||Nakshatra||Avatar of|
|1||Poigai Alvar||713 CE||4203 BCE, Kanchipuram||Mudhal Thiruvandhadhi, 100 verses.||Aiypassee||Thiruvonam (Sravana)||Panchajanya (Vishnu's conch)|
|2||Bhoothath Alvar||713 CE||4203 BCE, Thirukadalmallai (Mahabhalipuram)||Irandam Thiruvandhadhi, 100 verses.||Aiypassee||Avittam (Dhanishta)||Kaumodaki (Vishnu's Mace)|
|3||Pey Alvar||713 CE||4203 BCE, Mylapore||Moondram Thiruvandhadhi, 100 verses.||Aiypassee||Sadayam (Satabhishak)||Nandaka (Vishnu's sword)|
|4||Thirumalisai Alvar||720 CE||3102 BCE Thirumazhisai||Nanmugan Thiruvandhadhi, 96 verses; ThiruChanda Virutham, 120 verses.||Thai||Magam (Maghā)||Sudarshana Chakra (Vishnu's discus)|
|5||Nammalvar||798 CE||3059 BCEAlwarthirunagiri (Kurugur)||Thiruvaymozhi, 1102 verses; Thiruvasiriyam, 7 verses; Thiruvirutham, 100 verses; Periya Thiruvandhadhi, 87 verses.||Vaikasi||Vishaakam (Vishākhā)||Vishvaksena (Vishnu's commander)|
|6||Madhurakavi Alvar||800 CE||3049 BCE, Thirukollur||Kanninun Siruthambu, 11 verses.||Chitthirai||Chitthirai (Chithra)||Kumuda Ganesha (Vishvaksena's disciple) or Padma (Lotus)|
|7||Kulasekhara Alvar (Sthanu Ravi Kulasekhara?)||9th century CE||3075 BCE, Thiruvanchikulam||Perumal Thirumozhi, 105 verses.||Maasee||Punar Poosam (Punarvasu)||Kaustubha (Vishnu's jewel embedded in his necklace)|
|8||Periyalvar||785 CE||3056 BCE, Srivilliputhur||Periyalvar Thirumozhi, 461 verses.||Aani||Swathi (Swaathee)||Garuda (Vishnu's mount)|
|9||Andal||767 CE||3005 BCE, Srivilliputhur||Nachiyar Thirumozhi, 143 verses; Thiruppavai, 30 verses.||Aadi||Pooram (Pūrva Phalgunī (Pubbha))||Bhudevi (Vishnu's wife and the earth goddess)|
|10||Thondaradippodi Alvar||726 CE||2814 BCE, Thirumandangudi||Thirumaalai, 45 verses; Thirupalliezhuchi, 10 verses.||Margazhi||Kettai (Jyeshta)||Vanamalai (Vishnu's garland)|
|11||Thiruppaan Alvar||781 CE||2760 BCE, Uraiyur||Amalan Adi Piraan, 10 verses.||Karthigai||Rogini (Rohinee)||Srivatsa (An auspicious mark on Vishnu's chest)|
|12||Thirumangai Alvar||776 CE (Contemporary of Nandivarman II (731 CE - 796 CE) as mentioned in his Hymns) ||2706 BCE, Thirukurayalur||Periya Thirumozhi, 1084 verses; Thiru Vezhukootru irukkai, 1 verse; Thiru Kurun Thandagam, 20 verses; Thiru Nedun Thandagam, 30 verses; Siriya Thirumadal, 40 verses; Periya Thirumadal, 78 verses;||Kaarthigai||Krithika (Kṛttikā)||Sharanga (Vishnu's bow)|