In the Tamizh month of Margazhi ( mid December to mid January), the evocative poetry of one of South India’s favourite female mystics is heard everyday in many homes. Usually in the iconic voice of the late M S Subbalskhmi, but also re-recorded by almost every Carnatic musician of any standing, Andal’s passionate love poems directed to Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam are held up as a lone woman resistance to the patriarchal society of the early 9th century AD South India.
Unknown to the beloved daughter of Vishnu Chittan, head priest of the temple at Srivilliputtur, another woman in the western deserts of Syria had heard the voice of her Lord one hundred years earlier. Rabia Al Basri was born in 717 AD in the small town of Hijri. Born as the fourth (rabia) daughter of a poor merchant, she was sold into slavery and endured many harsh duties as a household servant. One night, her master spied upon her midnight prayers and was shocked to see a halo surrounding Rabia’s face. He immediately freed her and she travelled into the desert to continue her monologue with her beloved. Resisting many offers of marriage, she claimed that her life did not need any distractions from human beings. It was Rabia who introduced the concept of DIVINE LOVE to Sufism. She believed that the Lord could be loved without fear or guilt as her predecessors in the Sufi tradition had preached.
Oh Allah, if I fear Hell, burn me in Hell
If I pray for Paradise, exclude me from Paradise
But if I worship you for your own sake
Do not exclude me from your everlasting beauty!
Rabia Al Basri lived as a celibate upto to the ripe age of 80, denying herself all luxury except for a mat, a broken jug and a brick for her pillow. Her Tamizh ‘sister’, however, did not have such a long life. Immersed in dreams, prayers and poems of her beloved Vishnu, Andal’s ‘pasurams’ contain threats, pleas and impassioned outpourings of immense love and longing. Nature was her favourite metaphor.
Storm clouds caress my Lord’s shoulders
He stands mightier than a mountain
Dazzling, green, with red Lotus lips
Listen birds to my songs and wing them fast to His ears!
Slowly starving herself in unrealized longing, Andal is believed to have been ‘absorbed’ into Vishnu’s form before she was 22 years old. Today she has found a pride of place alongside Vishnu’s consort, Goddess Lakshmi, in all South Indian temples and her story is among the earliest in the long and colourful lineage of female mystics in India.
As we listen to Andal’s eternal poems and remember her life in this special month, let us also recall her elder ‘ssiter’ Rabia who softened Sufism with her love and was the first among female mystics in the Sufi tradition.