6th–9th centuries ce)
The name given to twelve South Indian poet-saints, whose works, and the personal experience of God that they evoked, were highly influential in the development and practice of Śrī Vaiṣṇava bhakti, and devotional Hinduism in general. The Āḻvārs, who were disparate in class background, and included one woman, composed their poetry in the Tamil vernacular (as opposed to Sanskrit, the language of the Brahmanical tradition), thus ensuring themselves a potentially wide and mixed audience. This constituency reflected their ‘theology’, which was predicated on absolute and ecstatic devotion to Māyōn (Viṣṇu/Kṛṣṇa in one or more of his various forms) as the only qualification for the religious life, making questions of caste or gender irrelevant. The Āḻvārs' uninhibited and highly emotional dependence on God (manifested in dancing and weeping, as well as singing) emphasized their own inadequacies and their total reliance for salvation on the grace and forgiveness of the deity. Yet, in spite of this possession-like strength of religious feeling, the poetry and songs in which the Āḻvārs expressed their devotion show a high degree of literary sophistication, accessing and manipulating the symbols of an older, secular tradition of Tamil love poetry. It was this literary tradition that provided both a model for the way in which passionate devotion can break all social conventions, and the emotional register of ‘love in separation’ which, in the religious context, becomes viraha bhakti, the devotion of longing.
The Āḻvārs' poetry delineates the sacred geography of South Indian Vaiṣṇavism between the 6th and 9th centuries: Viṣṇu's presence, in a variety of specific forms, is evoked and praised in 97 different temples. This reflects a culture of pilgrimage from site to site as a form of devotion in itself, a practice instrumental in encouraging conversions and establishing Vaiṣṇava centres, the most notable being the famous temple of Śrīraṅgam. Two of the twelve Āḻvārs are said to have been brahmin temple priests, and temple worship, along with meditation, is already an important element in the practice of the earlier poet-saints. In this way God is conceived as both immanent and transcendent, localized and universal. As the specific object of the Āḻvārs' devotion, Māyōn shows himself in three different ways: through his mythical actions (drawn from stories about Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇu's avatāras), through his incarnation in South Indian temple statues, and through his residence in the hearts of his devotees. Part of the Āḻvārs' success in South India was achieved through the elevation of some of their number to divine status: they came to be seen as avatāras of Viṣṇu himself, of his wife, Śrī, or of various elements associated with the god's iconography (and so his temple image), such as his conch and mace.
The most celebrated of the Āḻvārs is the low-caste Nammāḻvār; but also well-known is the female saint Āṇṭāḷ. Their compositions, along with the poetry of the other Āḻvārs, were codified in the 10th century in a collection variously known in Tamil as the Nālāyirappirapantam, the Nālāyiram, the (Nālāyira) Tivviyappirapantam or the Tivyaprapantam, and in Sanskrit as the (Divya) Prabandham, or the Nālāyira Divyaprabandham. In English this anthology, traditionally ascribed to the Śrī Vaiṣṇava theologian Nāthmuni, and subdivided into four books, known as the ‘First’, ‘Second’, ‘Third’, and ‘Fourth Thousands’, is usually referred to as the ‘Four Thousand Divine Compositions (Stanzas)’. (The longest and most significant section—the Tiruvāymoḻi (‘the ten decads’), which belongs to the Fourth Thousand—contains Nammāḻvār's songs.) Thereafter, the Divyaprabandham was ritually recited, first in the temple at Śrīraṅgam, and then in Vaiṣṇava temples throughout South India, marking the transformation of the Āḻvārs personal soteriology into an organized and highly successful bhakti movement, one that, through the medium of other traditions and theologians, eventually spread into North India, and was instrumental in diminishing the influence of the heterodox systems of the Buddhists and the Jains. See also Araiyars; Bhagavāta Purāṇa; Kulacēkara(n); Maturakavi.