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Nayanars and Alvars

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The Tamil poet-saints who played a very important role in the propagation of the Bhakti Movement in the Southern part of India in the 5th-10th centuries are known as Nayanars and Alvars. The Nayanars refers to a group of about 63 saints who were devoted to Lord Shiva and lived between the 6th and 8th centuries CE. The Alvars refers to those poet saints in South India, who were devoted to Lord Vishnu or for his avatars like Krishna in the literature and songs.

Nayanars and Alvars

Nayanars and Alvars

Nayanars and Alvars

During the period of the seventh to the ninth century, there was an emergence of a new type of religious movement in the South, which led to the path of devotion without discriminating against the people on the basis of their castes. The movement was largely led by the Alvars and Nayanars, who were two different sects, worshiping two different Gods, Shiva and Vishnu. 

People from all different parts of society joined the movement regardless of the caste system. Even the castes, which were considered “untouchable” such as Pulaiyar and Panars, were also welcomed. However, they were harshly critical of Buddhists and Jainas, and they held an impassioned devotion to Shiva or Vishnu as the way to nirvana. They focused on the ideals of love and heroism contained in Sangam literature and combined them with Bhakti principles. They traveled from village to village, writing wonderful poems in honor of the deities ensconced in villages they visited and setting them to music.

Nayanars and Alvars

Nayanars and Alvars

The Nayanars

During the Medieval era, the Nayanars were a total of 63, a group of Tamil Hindu saints, who were devotees of the Hindu God Shiva. The Nayanars played a vital role in the Bhakti movement in South India during the medieval era. 

Sundarar was the first, who originally produced the list of Nayanar names. When Nambiyandar Nambi compiled the poets’ works for the Tirumurai collection, he expanded the list to include Sundarar as well as his parents. The four most essential Nayanars are known as The Nalvar, often known as “The Four”: Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar, and Manikkavaasagar.

The Alvars

Same as the Nayanars, the Alvars were also a group of saints and Tamil poets in South Indian reign, who were the devotees of the Hindu God Vishnu. Their songs and poems of longing, ecstasy, and service. were dedicated to God Vishnu, who according to them is a supreme power and the ultimate source of Nirvana. 

According to some Myths, it is believed that the Alvars were 10 in number. However, according to some other references, Andal and Madhurakavi Alvar are also included, making them 12 in the count. It is believed that Andal was the only female Alvar among the 12. Both groups together were considered the most important saints in Tamil Nadu, who created a tremendous amount of bhakti literature, as well as led the path of devotion.  During the medieval era, through their devotional poems and songs, Alvars served as the catalyst for the bhakti movement. They gave honored the 108 Vaishnavite deities’ Divya Desams through their writings and songs. They wrote and sang thousands of songs reflecting their love and devotion to God Vishnu.  The collection of their writings is known as the “Naalayira Divya Prabandham”. The Alvars’ Bhakti literature contributes to the establishment of a culture that deviated from the Vedic religion and takes devotion as the only path to Salvation. 

Difference Between Nayanars and Alvars 

Let’s break down the differences between Alvars and Nayanars in tabular form to make things easier to understand and memorize:

Nayanars

Alvars 

  • Devotees of Lord Shiva and his avatars 
  • Lord Vishnu and his avatars devotees
  • Nayanars lived between the 6th to 8th Century
  • Although modern scholars believe the Alvars lived between the 5th and 10th centuries AD, they are thought to have lived between 4200 and 2700 BCE. 
  • Nambiyandar Nambi, the high priest of Raja Raja Chola I, compiled the hymns into a series of volumes known as the Tirumurai. 
  • The Alvars’ hymns were compiled into a book known as Divya Prabandha.
  • The Nayanars came from many backgrounds, including Brahmins, Harijan, and nobles. They are regarded as important Hindu saints from South India, along with the twelve Vaishnava Alvars. 
  • The Bhakti literature that arose from Alvars helped to establish and sustain a culture that rejected the ritual-oriented Vedic religion and rooted itself in devotion as the only path to salvation. 
  • Some important examples of Nayanars include:
  1. Meiporul
  2. Tiru Neelkanta
  3. Eripatha
  4. Yenathinathar
  • Some important examples of Alvars include:
  1. Sri Andal
  2. Nammalwar
  3. Thirumazhisai Alvar
  4. Kulasekara Alwar

Significance of Nayanars and Alvars

Both Nayanars and Alvars used to travel from one location to the next by chanting and singing hymns in Tamil in the praise of their lords. Both groups, played a very important part to start a protest campaign against the prevailing system of caste, which was a major problem at that time as well as in the battle against the dominance of Brahmanas, or a trying for modification of the caste system. This was put in place by the notions of bhaktas, who came from a wide range of social backgrounds, which included Brahmanas, cultivators, and even the untouchables.

Conclusion

Around the time of the 6th-7th century, the Nayanars along with Alvars started their first bhakti movement and the movement resulted in the growth of regional languages like that of Kannada, Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and so forth. Lower classes came into prominence and the movement had valued the men and women with equal importance.

Related Links

  1. Bhakti Movement (Part – 1)
  2. Bhakti Movement (Part – 2)
  3. Bhakti and Philosophy
  4. Important Question on Bhakti Movement and Sufism
  5. Nathpanthis, Siddhas and Yogis
  6. The Jagannatha Cult

FAQs on Nayanars and Alvars

How are Nayanars different from Alvars?

The Nayanars and Alvars are different as the Nayanars are devoted to Lord Shiva and his avatars, whereas the Alvars are devoted to Lord Vishnu and his avatars.

How did Nayanars and Alvars gain popularity?

The Nayanars and the Alvars play a very important role in the Bhakti movement which was present in Southern India during the 5th-10th centuries.

What was the name of the work of the Nayanars?

The name for the important work of Natanars was Thirumurai by Nambiyandar Nambi and was also the priest of Raja Raja Chola I.

What was the time period to which Alvars and Nayanars belonged?

The Alvars and Nayanars belonged to the 5th-10th centuries CE.



Last Updated : 12 Oct, 2023
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