How To Understand Azhwars and Vaishanvism

Azhwars Revitalized Vaishnavism in South India

Azhwars - Principal Devotees of Sriman Narayan.  Azhwar means one who is "immersed" in the experience of God. They deeply immerse themselves in their devotion and bhakti towards the Lord Sriman Narayanan. The Vaishnava tradition in India reckons 12 Azhwars. There was socialism in the Bhakti cult and Azhwars come from all walks of life and all strata of society. Out of these 12 Azhwars, one was a woman (Andal) and two were kings (Kulasekaraazhwar and Thirumangaiazhwar). The first three Azhwars, viz., Poigai Azhwar, Boothath Azhwar and Pei Azhwar, were called "Mudhal Azhwars" as they lived during the same period. Out of the 12 Azhwars four were from different regions of Tamil Nadu, India, i.e. Thondai Naadu (North Tamil Nadu), four from Pandiya Naadu, three (south Tamil Nadu) from Chola Naadu (East Tamil Nadu) and one from Malai Naadu (present Kerala).

Step 1

Period of Azhwars.  The period of the Azhwars based on Indian Historians range from 500 A.D for Poigai Azhwar, Bhoothatth Azhwar, Pey Azhwar and Thirumazhisai Azhwar; 550 A.D. for Namm Azhwar and Madhurakavi Azhwar; 600 A.D. for Kulasekara Azhwar and Peria Azhwar; 650 A.D. for Sri Andal; 700 A.D. for Thoddaradippodi Azhwar and Thiruppaan Azhwar and 750 A.D. for Thirumangai Azhwar.

Step 2

Revitalization of Vaishnavism.  Between the fifth and ninth century, in the Tamil-speaking land of India, Azhwars revitalized the Indian religious milieu, sparking a renewal of the Bhakti cult. Traveling by foot from place to place, from temple to temple, from holy site to holy site, they composed exceedingly beautiful poetry to their Divine Beloved, Vishnu, as an expression of their love for Him.

Step 3

Holy Hymn 4000 on Sriman Narayan.  The Azhwars composed approximately 4000 Tamil verses (known as Pasurams) called "Nalayira Divya Prabhandam." By 850 AD, the compositions of the Azhwars had become almost totally extinct in the Tamil country. In the 9th-10th centuries, the philosopher-saint Nathamuni went to extraordinary efforts to recover these verses from near oblivion. Nathamuni arranged them as the Divya Prabandham, or Divine Collection, set many of them to music, and rejuvenated the tradition of formally reciting them in temples.

Step 4

The List of Holy Hymns by Azhwars.  Each Azhwar's personal experience of God shows that He is accessible through sincere and humble devotion. They have sung 4000 songs praising the supreme. Details are given below (with titles of the songs:

  1. Poigai Azhwar - Birth Place: Thiruvekoo (Kancheepuram) Mudhal Thiruanthaathi. He expressed the Para Bhakti by his songs.Demonstrated that the Lord is the essence of the Vedas.
  2. Boothath Azhwar - Birth Place: Mamallapuram Irandam Thiruanthathi. He expressed the Para Gnanam by his songs.
  3. Pey Azhwar - Birth Place: Mylapore (Chennai) Moondraam Thiruanthaathi. He expressed the Parama Bhakti by his songs. Revealed the truth of the Lord's consort, Goddess Lakshmi.
  4. Thirumazhisai Azhwar - Birth Place: Thirumazhisai (Chennai) Naanmugan Thiruanthaathi, Thiruchandavirutham. He expressed the reality of the supreme by his Knowledge--who is the supreme, what are his qualities, etc. Affirmed the truth of the Almighty and the need to remain focused on Him without distractions.
  5. Nam Azhwar - Birth Place: Tirukurugoor (Azhwar Tirunagari) Thiruvirutham, thiruvaasiriyam, Thiruvaaimozhi and periya thiruanthaathi. Converted the entire Sanskrit Vedas in to four Tamil prabhandams. That's why he is called Vedam Tamil seitha Maaran sadagopan. Propagated the principle of surrender as the means and end of attaining liberation.
  6. Madhurakavigal - Birth Place: Thirukollur (Azhwar Tirunagari) Kanninunsiruthambu. He expressed the Acharya Bhakti in his songs. He enjoyed Krishna Avatar in his songs from the childhood of the Lord Krishna.
  7. Peria Azhwar - Birth Place: Srivilliputhur Periyazhwar Thirumozhi. Sensitized us to the Lord's infinite mercy and compassion when he spontaneously sung "Tirupallandu" to the Lord wishing Him longevity and protection against evil.
  8. Andal - Birth Place: Srivilliputhur Thiruppaavai and Naachiyaar Thirumozhi. Andal's devotion and bhakti was supreme love for Lord Vishnu. It was different from other commons. It was the spontaneous outpouring of Prem towards her Beloved. She vowed that Lord Vishnu would be her lover and her husband. She believed that her bhakti would show the way in getting married to Lord Vishnu. She invoked her Lord by chanting the hymns of Thiruppavai and Naachiyaar Thirumozhi. She chose the early morning hours in the Tamil month Margazhi (14 Dec - 13 Jan) to chant the hymns.  She was thinking that Lord Vishnu is her Lord and also her reality. All wordly things are not permanent (only illusion). Reaching and attaining bliss in the company of Lord Vishnu was considered by her as 'REALITY.' She was able to reach and got married with Lord Vishnu as vowed by her.  Of the 173 hymns composed by her, the 30 hymns Thiruppaavai are well known among people.
  9. Thiruppaanazhwar - Birth Place: Uraiyur (Trichy) Amalanaathipiran. He enjoyed the beauty of Lord Sri Rang Nathan. He said that he would never like to see anything after seeing the Beauty of the Lord.
  10. Kulasekara Aazhwar - Birth Place: Thiruvanjikkallam Perumal Thirumozhi. Taught by example the value of Vairagya (ability to renounce worldly objects even when in the midst of them). He enjoyed the Rama avatar as well.
  11. Thondaradipodi Azhwar -  Birth Place: Thirumandangudi Thirumaalai text shows the barathvam of the supreme and Thirupalliezuchi  songs are being prayed at temple daily at the vishwaroopam time. Stressed the path of worshipping God's devotees and taught the lesson of humility, without which it is impossible to realize God.
  12. Thirumangai Azhwar Birth Place: Thirukurayalur (Thiruvali) - Periya Thirumozhi, thiruvezhukkootrirukai, Siriya thirumadal, periya thirumadal, thirukkurunthaandagam and Thirunedunthaandagam. He had the unique distinction of having visited more than 86 holy places (Sri Vaishna Divya Desams) dotted all over the country and worshipped all the Divya Desa Emberumans and sung praising the deities therein in his six Prabandhams wherein he has poured out his Divine emotions.

Anyone can see why their poetry was so attractive, at once both impassioned and philosophical, their words cut across all barriers of caste and class, attracting all to their faith. In doing so, they sculpted a new religious heritage of intensely emotional bhakti, or love of the Divine, whose impact is still felt today in the Indian religious life.

Step 5

Tamil Veda and Tenkalai Tradition.  There are two Vedas in Vaishnavism. The first one is Sanskrit Veda. The other one, Nalayira Divya Prabandham, is considered to be the Tamil Veda. Northern-branch Vaisnavism gives precedence to the Sanskrit (Vatakalai) and the Southern-branch, Vaisnavism (Tenkalai) to the Tamil Pasurams.

Step 6

108 Holy Vaishnava Shrines or Divyadeasm.  Sri Vaishna Divya Desams: The 108 Divya Desams or Tirupatis (Sriyah Pathihi) are sacred places were sung upon by Azhwars, the ultimate devotees of Narayana. In the SriVaishna sampradayam or tradition, a Divya Desams is a temple whose Perumal or Lord has been sung about by at least one Azhwar. This is called "mangalasasanam."  Among the twelve Azhwars, only 11 composed hymns on the 108 Divya Desams. Poykai Azhwar composed hymns on 6 Divya Desam, Boothath Azhwar on 13, Pey Azhwar on 15, Thirumazhisai Azhwar on 17, Namm Azhwar on 37, Kulasekar Azhwar on 9, Periya Azhwar on 18, Sri Andaal on 11 and Thondaradippodiy Azhwar on 1, respectively. Madhurakavi Azhvaar glorified Namm Azhvaar in his hymns.

There are 106 on the Indian Subcontinent (105 in India and 1 in Nepal). The remaining two, Tirupparkadal and Srivaikuntam, can be accessed only when one leaves this world. The Tirupparkadal is the "ocean of milk" and the Srivaikuntam is the domain where LORD NARAYANA presides.  

Step 7

Appearance of His Revered Idols.  Emperumaan, Lord Sriman Narayanan is found in various Thirukkolam. The Thirukkolam (Appearance of His revered Idols) in 108 Divyakshetrams are listed  below:

Kidantha Thirukkolam (Sleeping Posture)    - 27 Divya Desams

Veetrirundha Thirukkolam (Sitting Position) - 21 Divya Desams

Nindra Thirukkolam (Standing Position)       - 60 Divya Desams

Out of these 108 Divya Desams, as we have seen that The Lord (Perumal) is appearing in various Thirukkolam (Postures), he is also facing his Thirumugham (Face) in various directions and giving his seva darshan, as below:

The Lord appears facing Towards East direction at 79 temples, facing towards West direction - 19, facing towards North direction - 3  and facing towards South direction in 7 temples. 

Recitation of Pasurams.  Nathamunigal established an oral tradition of recitation of pasurams down the ages. The traditional recitation (recited with enactments by a traditional devotee) is named Arayar Sevai. Arayar Sevai is performed even today at Srirangam, and at Srivilliputtur and Azhwar Tirunagari (and at Melkote in Karnataka). Ahwar Pasurams are recited everyday without fail in most of the Vaishna shrines in Tamil Nadu.

To sum up, the Azhwars found themselves "immersed" in the experience of God. They have revitalized Vaishnavism with their Tamil Veda. The 108 Holy shrines or Vaishnava Divya Desams are considered as the abode of Shriman Narayan. The Holy Pilgrimage to these shrines is considered as the sole objective of every Vaishnavite. The tradition of Tenkalai is established and followed in South India.

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Dear Mr Muthuswamy,

Glad to be in touch with your from HTDT. You have very nicely and elaborately written about Azhwars as well as Vaishnavaite tradition in this article. Neat presentation. I wish you had mentioned about Thirupparkadal, and Sri Vaikundam being the two places visited after leaving the body (out of 108).

By Anonymous