Located 70 Kms South West of Madurai is Srivilliputhur, the birthplace of Andal and considered to be among the holiest of the 108 Divya Desams. This is the birthplace of not one but two Azhvaars and a father-daughter one at that- Periyazhvaar and Andal.
Legend has it that this town was built by two hunters Villi and Puttan and hence the name Villiputhur. The temple dates back to 1st Century AD. The 196 ft high temple tower is 2nd only to Srirangam’s Rajagopuram (236 ft) among the Divya Desams. The 9 tier temple chariot is said to be the biggest in Tamil Nadu. It is the Srivilliputhur temple tower that is enshrined as the Tamil Nadu Government logo.
Periyazhvaar, who was born as the 4th son of Mukunda, was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. Pandya king Vallabadevan who wanted to know the Lord with the power to lead one to Paramapatham, the heavenly abode, sent out for Periyazhvaar of Srivilliputhur to provide a solution. Accordingly, PeriAzhvaar was brought to the court of the Pandya King in Madurai. With several examples from Vedic scriptures as well as historical references, Periyazhvaar showcased to the Pandya King that Lord Vishnu was the one who could take one to the heavenly abode.
Confers title of VishnuChittar
A delighted Pandya king was impressed with the explanation of Periyazhvaar and conferred the title of ‘Vishnu Chittar’ on Periyazhvaar. So pleased was the king that he took Periyazhvaar on an elephant top through the streets of Madurai. Koodal Azhagar, along with the Goddess, came to witness this sight on his Garuda Vahana.
Elephant’s bells as the beats for his Pallandu
Periyazhvaar was surprised at the presence of Koodal Lord and instantly showered praises on the Lord with his Pallaandu. Periyazhvaar used Elephant’s bells as the beats for the song. Periyazhvaar composed a total of 473 Paasurams, including the first 12 songs of the Divya Prabhandham called the Thiru Pallandu.
Finds Aandal in the Garden
PeriAzhvaar then returned to Srivilliputhur and continued his devotion for Lord Vishnu. One day, while he was performing his daily collection of flowers for the Lord, he found a small girl lying in the garden. Periyazhvaar named her as Andal and brought her up as his own daughter.
Andal’s Thiruppavai (30 verses in praise of Lord) is one of the most beautifully composed songs among the Nalayira Divya Prabhandham. It is believed that singing these 30 verses will bring peace and prosperity as well as God’s grace. It was in the month of Maargazhi (mid December to mid January) that Andal composed Thiruppavai at the tender age of five.
Thiruppavai celebrates, in 30 songs, a certain simple ritualistic observance on the part of the devotees. While it appears in the early stanzas that Aandal’s intention is to pursue the Lord to marry her, as one reads through the later verses, one finds that she is actually praying to be allowed the service of the lord. The first ten songs celebrate the fruits of the devotional observance, the second ten songs seem to wake up Lord Krishna to pray for their grace and the last ten songs inspire devotees to take the path of service to Lord.
During Margazhi, the Vishnu temples open very early, around 4am, and the entire 30 songs of Thiruppavai are chanted in a special rendition. It has been an age-old belief that unmarried girls who bathe in a pond and visit temples to recite the Thiruppavai with sincere devotion will attain spiritual husbands.
Letters in Maargazhi
It is said that one song of the 30 Thiruppavai verses is dedicated for each of the thirty days of Maargazhi. A unique feature in centuries gone by was that letters written during Maargazhi used to start with one Thiruppavai Paasuram (relevant to the day) that would serve as an indication of the date of the letter (The date itself was not written in the letter).
Thiruppaavai and Thiruvempaavai- Vaishnavism and Saivism acknowledging each other
An interesting facet of Thiruppavai and Thiruvembavai is that the first verse in Thiruppaavai begins with the Maa (Maargazhi Thingal), the syllable with which Maanikkavaachakar's name begins and the first verse in Thiruvembavai too begins with the syllable Aa (Aadhiyum ..), with which Aandal's name begins, an indication of the mutual respect the two great saint poets had for each other - a tale of Vaishnavism and Saivism acknowledging each other.
Into her teens, Aandal developed the habit of wearing the garland that Periyazhvaar had put together for the Lord. With garland around her neck, she began admiring admire her own beauty in the mirror. From a very young age, she began to sing praise of Lord Krishna and began to see the Lord as her husband.This act shocked Periyazhvaar and he looked up to the Lord for solution. To Periyazhvaar’s relief, the Lord indicated that he was happy to adorn the garland. To this day, this unique tradition is followed in this temple, not seen in any other Divya Desam. Lord Vadapatrasaayee adorns every morning the garland worn the previous evening by Andal (the Goddess).
As years passed by, Periyazhvaar was anxious and worried about the future of Aandal. Answering his prayers, Lord Ranganatha asked PeriAzhvaar to bring Aandal to Srirangam. Periyazhvaar left for Srirangam in a Palanquin provided by Pandya King Vallabha Devan. On reaching the Cauvery, Andal suddenly disappeared. Periyazhvaar continued his trip across the Cauvery. On reaching the temple, he found Andal alongside Lord Ranganatha.
PeriAzhvaar wanted to see this sight in his own place at Srivilliputhur and Lord Ranganatha is said to have made the trip on his Garuda Vahana and appeared in a wedding posture as Rangamannar.
Garuda alongside the main deities – A special feature
One finds Lord Garuda, the charioteer of Lord Vishnu, alongside the main deities. In all other temples, one finds Garuda standing opposite the main deity. It is believed that Garuda, brought Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam to Srivilliputhur faster than expected and hence he was accorded the special status here.
5 Garuda Sevas on the Birth day of Andal
On the birth day of Aandal in the Tamil Calendar month of Aadi, one witnesses 5 Garuda Sevas - Venkatachalapathy, Thiruthangal Appan (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2007/12/thiru-thangal-ninra-narayanan-temple.html), Vadabadrasayee, Rangamannar and Kaatu Azhagar Sundararajan.
During the Chitra festival in Madurai, KallAzhagar (of Azhagar Koil) makes an important stop at Thallaakulam Perumal koil to collect the garland sent by Aandal of Srivilliputhur. Only after wearing the garland, does Azhagar get into the Vaigai River. During the Aadi Thiruvadi Pooram festival, marking the birthday of Aandal, Lord Azhagar of ThiruMaalirun Cholai sends his attire to Srivilliputhur as a ‘return gesture’ to her.
Araiyar Sevai – A Big Attraction
A big attraction at the Srivilliputhur temple is the Araiyar Sevai, the visual song and dance enactment of the Paasurams (4000 Divya Prabandham verses) that has been performed at Divya Desams for over 1000 years. Srivilliputhur remains one of the three Divya Desams in Tamil Nadu where Araiyar Sevai is still being performed, the other two being Srirangam and Azhvaar Thirunagari (near Tirunelveli).
The famed Araiyar Sevai is said to have originated from Thirukkurungkudi, the Divya Desam about 40kms from Tirunelveli. Legend has it that the Lord used to listen to Araiyar’s Abhinayam hiding behind a wall in Bashyam Street (South Mada Street).
Araiyars (King of Music) are descendents of Nathamuni, who is believed to have introduced the Araiyar Sevai. It is believed that Lord Ranganatha himself gave the Araiyars the right to perform the unique musical chanting at the temples and presented them with the cone-like red cap, two cymbals and the sacred garland (which they wear around their neck when they perform).
The Araiyars first recite the Paasuram, then explain its inner meaning and finally perform the Abhinayam, a unique art/dance performance with their hands and legs explaining the Paasurams with special musical effect.
This special explanation (Vyakyaanam) requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the Paasurams and its inner meaning. It is not an easy art, as can be seen from the fact that it takes one nearly 20 years to learn and perfect the Abhinayam.
Story of Aandal through Araiyar Sevai during Margazhi
One of the ‘Araiyar Sevai’ occasions that is of particular significance is during Vaikunta Ekadesi - The Paghal Pathu (10 days) and the Era Pathu(10 days)- when one is treated to a real spectacle with the Araiyars enacting the ‘Story of Andal’ growing into a young beautiful girl through their Abhinayam.
Will Araiyar Sevai become a thing of the past?
Of real worry, though, is the fact that only a handful of Araiyars are keeping this most difficult art going. With no salaries, the Araiyars at Srivilliputhur are finding the going tough. But despite this, they continue to perform the Araiyar Sevai with sincerity and devotion.
In the last 2-3 years, a corporate chieftain in Chennai has been helping out the education of the kids of the Araiyar. One of the kids has secured top rank in the first two years of the college education.
It will be a pity if this 1000 year old art is not recognized by the Government and the temple trusts. While awards have been bestowed on artists in various fields, the Araiyars have sadly been left out of this, despite delighting devotees with their unique recital of the Divya Prabhandam. It is something too precious to lose and one hopes that it is not yet late to bring the Araiyars back to their glory days. Otherwise Divya Prabhandhams and Thiru Pallandu recitals in this unique art form will be a thing of the past, soon, in Srivilliputhur.
Those interested in helping the Araiyar can contact him on : 94438 67345
Moolavar : Vadapatrasayee Bhoga Sayanam Sleeping Posture East Facing
Thayar : Andal
Pasurams : Periyazhvaar and Aandal
Temple timing : 630am –12noon and 4pm-9pm
Contact : Raju Bhattar @ 94863 21552 / Veda Piran Bhattar @ 99940 28568
One can reach Srivilliputhur by train. Chennai- Tenkasi Podhigai Express runs daily and reaches Srivilliputhur at around 630am