Twelve saint (poet) devotees of the 1st millennium CE- the great Aalwaars lived their lives dedicated to expressing their devotion to MahaVishnu - considered to be the supreme manifestation of Divinity in the Vaishnava system of beliefs.. These saints composed verses in chaste tamil, and revitalized the religious spirit of the region, sparking off a renewal of devotional worship in what is generally referred to as the Bhakti movement. Perhaps the best known of the Alwars, is Aandaal.
Srivilliputtur in southern Tamilnadu, is home to Perialwar , and his foster daughter Aandaal; the works of Aandaal are very well known to the tamil world. The Tiruppaavai hymns written by Aandaal (a manifestation of the mother Goddess) are chanted in congregations throughout Tamilnadu during the cold month of Maargazhi, in the cool pre-dawn hours, in temples as well as in the streets that surround temples. The 30 hymns constituting Tiruppaavai have been recorded by several artists, and the national radio station All India Radio (used to) broadcast(s) a hymn each day throughout the month of Margazhi. Also composed by Andal is 'Vaaranam Aayiram' (Kanaakkanden Tozhi), describing Andal's dream of her marriage to Narayanan (Vishnu). This work is chanted during Sri Vaishnava weddings. A popular version of Vaaranam Aayiram sung by S. Janaki hit the charts in 1990.
Aandaal is also known by the phrase Soodikkodutta Sudarkkodiyaal - the lady who offered garlands to Vishnu, after trying them out herself. Indeed, this is the central theme of the legend of Aandaal, which culminates in the divine marriage between the Saint Poetess, and Maha Vishnu himself.
Legend has it that Periaalwar discovered a beautiful infant girl in in a lush grove in the vicinity of the Srivilliputtur temple, in the 9th century CE, in the Tamil month of Aadi (Cancer), in the Pooram asterism, in the fourth phase of the bright half of the month on a Tuesday. A delighted Periyaalwaar, brought up this infant, considered to be an incarnation of Mother Earth (in a manner similar to Sita's birth, in the Raamaayana), as his own daughter, naming her Kodai. A devout poet himself, Periaalwaar, brought up his foster daughter in his own footsteps.
The young damsel Kodai, spent her time assisting her father in serving the Srivilliputtur temple, and in meditating upon Vishnu, with the desire of being his bride. Assigned the task of making garlands for the presiding deity at Srivilliputtur, with flowers picked from the grove in which she was discovered, Kodai would try out the garland on herself, without the knowledge of her foster father, and only then have it sent to the temple. Upon discovering a strand of hair on a garland meant for the presiding deity, a distraught Periaalwaar suspended the offering of the garland to the temple. It is said that the presiding deity of Srivilliputtur appeared in the saint poet's dream, and revealed to him that he actually preferred garlands that had been pre-worn by Kodai. Realizing that Kodai's purpose in life was a special one, Periyaalwaar named her 'Aandaal' or Soodikkodutta Naachiyaar, and looked upon her as an incarnation of Divinity.
When Periyaalwaar, attempted to find a groom for the nubile Aandaal, she thwarted his efforts with the assertion that she was destined to be the bride of none other than Maha Vishnu. She urged him to describe to her the attributes of Vishnu enshrined in several of the shrines that he knew of. Upon hearing of Vishnu enshrined at Sri Rangam, Aandaal decided that she was to become the bride of Vishnu's manifestation of Ranga Mannaar at Sri Rangam.
Aandaal then spent her youth in purposeful pursuit of her aim to realize oneness with Maha Vishnu - Ranga Naathar (i.e. to become his bride). Her literary masterpieces Tiruppaavai and Naachiyaar Tirumozhi exhibit the passion expressed by a lover yearning for her beloved, and the rigorous penance of Paavai Nonbu, undertaken to achieve her surreal objective.
Perhaps, one of the most romantic works of Aandaal is Kanaakkanden Tozhi, in which - she narrates in vivid detail, her dream of marrying Narayanan (Vishnu). This is a celebrated work - an essential part of the Sree Vaishnavite liturgy, chanted during wedding rituals even today, in a manner similar to the recitation of Vedic hymns.
Legend has it that Ranganathar appeared in Periyaalwaar's dream and directed him to bring his bride Aandaal to the temple at Srirangam, where he would marry her. Following the divine ordinance, Periyaalwaar led Aandaal in a bridal procession to the grand temple at Srirangam, where Aandaal walked in with a sense of purpose and disappeared into the sanctum of the temple.
The colorful story of Aandaal has its parallels, with the much more known legends associated with the more recent Saint Poetess Mirabai of North Western India. Both these poets are known for their inspiring poetry as well as their passion for Krishna. While Mirabai lived upto a ripe old age, singing praises of Krishna, visiting shrines associated with the life of Krishna, Aandaal of South India, is said to have merged with her consort at Srirangam, as a young bride. The only two Sree Vaishnavite shrines directly associated with Aandaal are Srivilliputtur and Srirangam, although she has referred to Mathura, Brindavanam (Aaippaadi), Tirukkannapuram, Azhagar Koyil, Tirupati, Dwarka in her Tamil hymns.
Aandaal is regarded as more than a saint or a poet, although she is considered to be one of the Aalwaars, by virtue of her contribution in Tamil verse - to Sree Vaishnavite liturgy. Aandaal is regarded as Bhu Devi - or Mother Earth, the consort of Vishnu, and a shrine to Aandaal adorns several of the Sree Vaishnavite shrines. She is also regarded as a symbol of the strength of womanhood, a person with a sense of sublime purpose, complemented with a strong determination to attain the purpose successfully. An acknowledgement of these virtues is reflected in the belief that prevails that reliving this determination, through the chanting of the Tiruppaavai hymns would aid one in attaining their objectives.