A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 3

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1940 | 232,512 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of the chronology of the aḻvars: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the first part in the series called the “the aḻvars”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 1 - The Chronology of the Āḻvārs

In the Bhāgavata-purāṇa, xi. 5. 38-40, it is said that the great devotees of Viṣṇu will appear in the south on the banks of Tāmra-parṇī, Kṛtamālā (Vaigai), Payasvinī (Palar), Kāverī and Mahānadī (Periyar)[1]. It is interesting to note that the Āḻvārs, Nāmm’-āḻvār and Madhura-kaviy-āḻvār, were born in the Tāmraparṇī country, Periy-āḻvār and his adopted daughter Āṇḍāḷ in the Kṛtamāla, Poygaiy-āḻvār, Bhūtatt’-ārvar, Pēy-āḻvār and Tiru-mariṣai Pirān in the Payasvinī, Toṇḍar-aḍi-poḍiy-āḻvār, Tiru-pāṇ-āḻvār and Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār in the Kāverī, and Periy-āḻvār and Kula-śēkhara Perumāl in the Mahānada countries. In the Bhāgavata-māhātmya we find a parable in which Bhakti is described as a distressed woman who was born in the Drāvida country, had attained her womanhood in the Carnatik and Mahārāṣṭra, and had travelled in great misery through Guzerat and North India with her two sons Jñāna and Vairāgya to Brindaban, and that owing to the hard conditions through which she had to pass her two sons had died. This shows that at least according to the traditions of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa Southern India was regarded as a great stronghold of the Bhakti cult.

The Āḻvārs are the most ancient Vaiṣṇava saints of the south, of whom

  • Saroyogin or Poygaiy-āḻvār,
  • Pūtayogin or Bhūtatt’-āḻvār,
  • Mahadyogin or Pēy-āḻvār,
  • and Bhaktisāra or Tiru-mariṣai Pirān

are the earliest;

  • Nāmm’-āḻvār or Śaṭhakopav,
  • Madhura-kaviy-āḻvār,
  • Kula-śēkhara Perumāl,
  • Viṣṇucittan (or Periy-āḻvār)
  • and Goda (Āṇḍāḷ)

came after them and

  • Bhaktāṅghrireṇu (Toṇḍar-aḍi-poḍiy-āḻvār),
  • Yogivāha (Tiru-pān-āḻvār)
  • and Parakāla (Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār)

were the last to come.

The traditional date ascribed to the earliest Āḻvār is 4203 B.C., and the date of the latest Āḻvār is 2706 B.C.[2], though modern researches on the subject bring down their dates to a period not earlier than the seventh or the eighth century A.D. Traditional information about the Āḻvārs can be had from the different “Guru-paramparā” works. According to the Guru-paramparā, Bhūtatt-, Poygaiy- and Pēy-āḻvārs were incarnations of Viṣṇu’s Gadā, Śaṇkha and Nandaka, and so also Kadan-mallai and Mayilai, while Tiru-mariṣai Pirān was regarded as the incarnation of the cakra (wheel) of Viṣṇu. Nāmm’-āḻvār was incarnation of Viṣvaksena and Kula-śēkhara Peru-māl of the Kaus-tubha of Viṣṇu. So Periy-āḻvār, Toṇḍar-aḍi-poḍiy-āḻvār and Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār were respectively incarnations of Garuḍa, Vanamālā and Śārṅga of Viṣṇu. The last Āḻvār was Tiru-pāṇ-āḻvār. Āṇḍāḷ, the adopted daughter of Periy-āḻvār, and Madhura-kaviy-āḻvār, the disciple of Nāmm’-āḻvār, were also regarded as Āḻvārs. They came from all parts of the Madras Presidency. Of these seven were Brahmins, one was a Kṣattriya, two were śūdras and one was of the low Panar caste. The Guru-paramparās give incidents of the lives of the Āḻvārs and also fanciful dates B.C. when they are said to have flourished.

Apart from the Guru-paramparās there are also monographs on individual Āḻvārs, of which the following are the most important:

  1. Divya-sūri-carita by Garuda-vāhana Paṇḍita, who was a contemporary of Rāmānuja;
  2. Guru-paramparā-prabhāvam of Pinb’-aragiya Peru-māl Jīyar, based on the Divya-sūri-carita and written in maṇi-pravāla style, i.e. a mixture of Sanskrit and Tamil;
  3. Periya-tiru-muḍiy-aḍaivu of Āribillai Kaṇḍādai-yappan, written in Tamil;
  4. Upadeśa-ratna-mālai of Maṇavāja Mā-muni, written in Tamil, contains the list of Āḻvārs;
  5. Yatītidra-pravaṇa-prabhāvam of Pillai Lokācāryar.

The other source of information regarding the Āḻvārs is the well-known collection of the works of Āḻvārs known as Nāl-āyira-divya-prabandham. Among these are the commentaries on the Divya-prabandham and the Tiru-vāy-moḻi of Nāmm’-āḻvār. In addition to these we have the epigraphical evidence in inscriptions scattered over the Madras Presidency[3].

Maṇavāḷa Mā-muni, in his Yatīndra-pravana-prabhāvam, says that the earliest of the Āḻvārs, Pēy-āḻvār, Bhūtatt’-āḻvār, Poygaiy-āḻvār, and Tiru-mariṣai Pirān, flourished at the time of the Pallavas, who came to Kāñcī about the fourth century A.D. Again, Professor Dubreuil says that Mamallai, the native town of Bhūtatt’-āḻvār, did not exist before Narasimhavarman I, who founded the city by the middle of the seventh century. Further, Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār praised the Vaiṣṇava temple of Kāñcī built by Parameśvarvarman II. It seems, therefore, that the Āḻvārs flourished in the eighth century A.D., which was the period of a great Vaiṣṇava movement in the Cola and the Pāṇḍya countries, and also of the Advaitic movement of Śaṅkara[4].

According to the traditional accounts, Nāmm’-āḻvār was the son of Kāri, holding a high post under the Pāṇḍyas, and himself bore the names of Kārimāran, Parāṅkuśa and Śaṭhakopa, that his disciple was Madhura-kaviy-āḻvār, and that he was born at Tirukkurgur. Two stone inscriptions have been found in Madura of which one is dated at Kali 3871, in the reign of King Parāntaka, whose uttara-mantrin was the son of Māra, who was also known as Madhura-kaviy-āḻvār. The other is dated in the reign of Mārañ-jadaiyan. The Kali year 3871 corresponds to A.D. 770. This was about the year when Parāntaka Pāṇḍya ascended the throne. His father Parāṅkuśa died about the year A.D. 770. Māraṅkāri continued as uttara-mantrin. Nāmm’-āḻvār’s name Kārimāran shows that Kāri the uttara-mantrin was his father. This is quite in accordance with the accounts found in Guru-paramparā. These and many other evidences collected by Gopi-nātha Rāu show that Nāmm’-āḻvār and Madhura-kaviy-āḻvār flourished at the end of the eighth century A.D. or in the first half of the ninth century. Kula-śēkhara Peru-māl also flourished probably about the first half of the ninth century.

Periy-āḻvār and his adopted daughter Āṇḍāḷ were probably contemporaries of Śrivallabhadeva, who flourished about the middle of the ninth century A.D. Toṇḍar-aḍi-poḍiy-āḻvār was a contemporary of Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār and Tiru-pān-āḻvār. Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār referred to the war drum of Pallavamalla, who reigned between A.D. 717 and A.D. 779, and these Āḻvārs could not have flourished before that time. But Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār, in his praise of Viṣṇu at Kāñcī, refers to Vairamegha Pallava, who probably flourished in the ninth century. It may therefore be supposed that Tiru-maṅgaiy lived about that time. According to Mr S. K. Aiyangar the last of the Āḻvārs flourished in the earlier half of the eighth century A.D.[5] Sir R. G. Bhandarkar holds that Kula-śēkhara Peru-māl flourished about the middle of the twelfth century. He was a king of Travancore and in his Mukunda-mālā he quotes a verse from the Bhāgavata-purāṇa (xi. 2. 36).

On the basis of the inscriptional evidence that Permādi of the Seṇḍa dynasty, who flourished between 1138-1150, conquered Kula-śekharāṅka, and identifying Kula-śēkhara Peru-māl with Kula-śekharāṅka, Bhandarkar comes to the conclusion that Kula-śēkhara Peru-māl lived in the middle of the twelfth century A.D., though, as we have already seen, Air Rāu attempts to place him in the first half of the ninth century. He, however, does not take any notice of the views of Sir R. G. Bhandarkar, who further thinks that the earliest Āḻvārs flourished about the fifth or the sixth century A.D. and that the order of the priority of the Āḻvārs as found in the Guru-paramparā lists is not reliable. One of the main points of criticism used by Aiyangar against Bhandarkar is the latter’s identification of Kula-śēkhara Peru-māl with Kula-śekharāṅka. The works of the Āḻvārs were written in Tamil, and those that survive were collected in their present form in Rāmānuja’s time or in the time of Nātha-muni; this collection, containing 4000 hymns, is called Nāl-āyira-divya-prabandham. But at least one part of it was composed by Kuruttalvan or Kuruttama, who was a prominent disciple of Rāmānuja, and in a passage thereof a reference is made to Rāmānuja also[6].

The order of the Āḻvārs given in this work is somewhat different from that given in the Guru-paramparā referred to above, and it does not contain the name of Nāmm’-āḻvār, who is treated separately. Again, Pillān, the disciple and apostolic successor of Rāmānuja, who commented on the Tiru-zāy-moḻi of Nāmm’-āḻvār, gives in a verse all the names of the Āḻvārs, omitting only Āṇḍāḷ[7]. Thus it appears that Kula-śēkhara was accepted as an Āḻvār in Rāmāhuja’s time. In Vcṅkatanātha’s (fourteenth-century) list, contained in one of his Tamil Prabandhams, all the Āḻvārs excepting Āṇḍāḷ and Madhura-kaviy-āḻvār are mentioned. The Prabandham contains also a succession list of teachers according to the Vadakalai sect, beginning with Rāmānuja[8].

Kula-śēkhara, in his Mukunda-mālā, says that he was the ruler of Kolli (Uraiyūr, the Cola capital), Kudal (Madurā) and Koṅgu. Being a native of Travancore (Vañjikulam), he became the ruler of the Pāṇḍya and Cola capitals, Madurā and Uraiyūr. After A.D. 900, when the Cola king Parāntaka became supreme and the Cola capital was at Tanjore instead of at Uraiyūr, the ascendency of the Travancore country (Kerala) over the Cola and the Pāṇḍya kingdoms would have been impossible. It could only have happened either before the rise of the great Pallava dynasty with Narasimhavarman I (a.d. 600) or after the fall of that dynasty with Nandivarman (a.d. 800). If Tim-maṅgaiy-āḻvār, the contemporary of Vairamegha, be accepted as the last Āḻvār, then Kula-śēkhara must be placed in the sixth century A.D. But Gopi-nātha Rāu interprets a passage of Kula-śēkhara as alluding to the defeat and death of a Pallava king at his hands. He identifies this king with the Pallava king Dantivarman, about a.d. 825, and is of the opinion that he flourished in the first half of the ninth century a.d. In any case Bhandarkar’s identification of Kula-śēkhara with Kula-śekharāṅka (a.d. 1150) is very improbable, as an inscription dated A.D. 1088 makes a provision for the recital of Kula-śēkhara’s “Tettarumtiral” [9] Aiyangar further states that in several editions of the Mukunda-mālā the quotation from the Bhāgavata-purāṇa referred to by Bhandarkar cannot be traced. We may thus definitely reject the view of Bhandarkar that Kula-śēkhara flourished in the middle of the twelfth century A.D.

There is a great controversy among the South Indian historians and epigraphists not only about the chronological order of the different Āḻvārs, but also regarding the dates of the first and the last, and of those who came between them. Thus, while Aiyangar wished to place the first four Āḻvārs about the second century A.D., Gopi-nātha Rāu regards them as having flourished in the middle of the seventh century A.D.[10] Again, Nāmm’-āḻvār is placed by Aiyangar in the middle of the sixth century, while Gopi-nātha Rāu would place him during the first half of the ninth century. While Aiyangar would close the history of the Āḻvārs by the middle of the seventh century, Gopi-nātha Rāu would place Kula-śēkhara in A.D. 825, Periy-āḻvār in about the same date or a few years later, and Toṇḍar-aḍi-poḍiy-āḻvār, Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār and Tiru-pān-āḻvār (contemporaries) about A.D. 830. From comparing the various matters of controversy, the details of which cannot well be described here, I feel it wise to follow Gopi-nātha Rāu, and am inclined to think that the order of the Āḻvārs, except so far as the first group of four is concerned, is not a chronological one, as many of them were close contemporaries, and their history is within a period of only 200 years, from the middle of the seventh century to the middle of the ninth century.

The word Āḻvār means one who has a deep intuitive knowledge of God and one who is immersed in the contemplation of Him. The works of the Āḻvārs are full of intense and devoted love for Viṣṇu. This love is the foundation of the later systematic doctrine of prapatti. The difference between the Āḻvārs and the Aragiyas, of whom we shall speak later on, is that, while the former had realized Brahman and had personal enjoyment of His grace, the latter were learned propounders who elaborated the philosophy contained in the works of the Āḻvārs.

Poygaiy, Bhūtatt’ and Pēy composed the three sections of one hundred stanzas each of Tiru-vantādi[11].

Tiru-mariṣai Pirān spent much of his life in Triplicane, Conjeevaram and Kumbakonam. His hymns are

  • the Nan-mukham Tiru-vantādi, containing ninety-six stanzas,
  • and Tiru-chaṇḍa-vṛuttam.

Nāmm’-āḻvār w'as born of a Śūdra family at Kurukur, now Ālvārtirunagari in the Tinnevelly district. He was the most voluminous writer among the Āḻvārs and a great mass of his poetry is preserved in the Nāl-āyira-divya-prabandham. His works are

  • the Tiru-vṛuttam, containing one hundred stanzas,
  • Tiru-vāṣiriyam, containing seven stanzas,
  • the Periya tiru-vantādi of eighty-seven stanzas,
  • and the Tiru-vāy-moḻi, containing 1102 stanzas.

Nāmm’-āḻvār’s whole life was given to meditation. His disciple Madhura-kavi considers him an incarnation of Viṣṇu.

Kula-śēkhara was a great devotee of Rāma. His chief work is

  • the Peru-māl-tiru-moḻi.

Periy-āḻvār, known as Viṣṇucitta, was born at Śrībittiputtūr. His chief works are Tiru-pall’-āṇḍu and Tiru-moḻi.

Āṇḍāḷ, adopted daughter of Periy-āḻvār, was passionately devoted to Kṛṣṇa and considered herself as one of the Gopīs, seeking for union with Kṛṣṇa. She was married to the God Raṅganātha of Śrīraṅgam. Her chief works are

  • Tiru-pāvai
  • and Nacchiyār.

Tirumori Toṇḍar-aḍi-poḍiy-āḻvār was born at Mandaṇgudi. He was once under the seduction of a courtesan called Devādevī, but was saved by the grace of Raṅganātha. His chief works are

  • Tiru-mālai,
  • and the Tiru-paḷḷiy-eruchi.

Tiru-pāṇ-āḻvār was brought up by a low-caste childless panar.

His chief work was

  • Amalan-ādibirān in ten stanzas.

Tiru-maṅgaiy was born in the thief-caste. His chief works are

  • Periya-tiru-moḻi,
  • Tiru-kuṛun-dāṇḍakam,
  • Tiru-neḍun-dāṇḍakam,
  • Tiru-verugūtt-irukkai,
  • Siṛiya-tiru-maḍal
  • and Periya-tiru-maḍal.

Tiru-maṅgaiy was driven to brigandage, and gained his divine wisdom through the grace of Raṅganātha. The Nāl-āyira-divya-prabandham., which contains the works of the Āḻvārs, is regarded in the Tamil country as the most sacred book and is placed side by side with the Vedas. It is carried in procession into the temple, when verses from it are recited and they are recited also on special occasions of marriage, death, etc. Verses from it are also sung and recited in the hall in front of the temple, and it is used in the rituals along with Vedic mantras.

Footnotes and references:


This implies Jhat the Bhāgavata-purāṇa in its present form was probably written after the Āḻvārs had flourished. The verse here referred to has been quoted by Veñkatanātha in his Rahasya-traya-sāra. The Prapannā-mṛta (Ch. 77) however refers to three other Vaiṣṇava saints who preceded the Āḻvārs.

They were

  1. Kāsārayogin, born in Kāñcī,
  2. Bhūtayog ī ndra, born in Mallipura,
  3. Bhrānta-yogīndra called also Mahat and Mahārya who was the incarnation of Visvaksena.

It was these sages who advised the five saṃskāras of Vaiṣṇavism (tāpaḥ pauṇḍras tathā nāma mantro yāgaś ca pañcamaḥ). They preached the emotional Vaiṣṇavism in w'hich Bhakti is realized as maddening intoxication associated with tears, etc. They described their feelings of ecstasy in three works, comprising three hundred verses written in Tamil. They were also known by the names of Mādhava, Dāsārya and Saroyogin.


Early History of Vaiṣṇavism in South India, by S. K. Aiyangar, pp. 4—13; also Sir R. G. Bhandarkar’s Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism and Minor Religious Sects, pp. 68, 69.


Sir Subrahmanya Ayyar Lectures, by the late T. A. Gopi-nātha Rāu, 1923.


Sir Subrahmanya Ayyar Lectures, by the late T. A. Gopi-nātha Rāu, 1923, p. 17.


Indian Antiquary, Vol. xxxv, pp. 228, etc.


This part is called Rāmānuja-nurrundādi. The order of the Āḻvārs given here is as follows:

  • Poygaiy-āḻvār,
  • Bhūtatt’-āḻvār,
  • Pēy-āḻvār,
  • Tiru-pān-āḻvār,
  • Tiru-marisai Pirān,
  • Toṇḍar-aḍi-poḍiy-āḻvār,
  • Kula-śēkhara,
  • Periy-āḻvār,
  • Āṇḍāḷ,
  • Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār.

Veṅkatanātha, however, in his Prabandha-sāram records the Āḻvārs in the following order:

  • Poygaiy-āḻvār,
  • Bhūtatt’-āḻvār,
  • Pēy-āḻvār,
  • Tiru-vnarisai Pirān,
  • Nāmm’-āḻvār,
  • Madhura-kaviy-āḻvār,
  • Kula-śēkhara,
  • Periy-āḻvār,
  • Āṇḍāḷ,
  • Toṇḍar-aḍi-poḍiy-āḻvār,
  • Tiru-pān-āḻvār,
  • Tiru-maṅgaiy-āḻvār.


Bhūtaṃ Saraś ca Mahad-anvaya-Bhaṭṭanātha-
Śrī-Bhaktisāra-Kulaśekhara- Yogivāhān
Bhaktāṅghrireṇu-Parakāla- Yatīndramiśrān
Parāṅkuśa-muniṃ praṇato’smi nityam.

Verse quoted from Aiyangar’s Early History of Vaiṣṇavism.


Rāmānuja’s preceptor was Periya Nambi, then come

  • Alavandar,
  • Manakkal Nambi,
  • Uyyakkondar,
  • Nāthamuni,
  • Śaṭhakopa, Viṣvaksena (Senai Nathan),
  • Mahālakṣmī
  • and Viṣṇu.

Aiyangar, Early History of Vaiṣṇavism, p. 21.


Ibid. p. 33.


These are Pēy-āḻvār, Bhūtatt’-āḻvār, Poygaiy-āḻvār and Tiru-marisai Pirān, the first three being known as Mudal-āḻvārs among the Śrīvaiṣṇavas.


As a specimen of Tiru-vantādi one may quote the following passage:

“With love as lamp-bowl, desire as oil, mind melting with bliss as wick, with melting soul I have kindled the bright light of wisdom in the learned Tāmil which I have wrought for Nārāyaṇa.”

—Bhūtam, quotation from Hooper’s Hymns of the Āvārs, p. 12, n.

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