The Madals of Tirumangai Alvar

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An Introduction to the Genre

March 27, 1996

According to sangam Tamil tradition, madal oordhal or madal ERudhal is performed by males afflicted by love by a female. Roughly translated, this would mean “riding a palmyra stem”.

Love, in ancient Tamil tradition, falls into two large divisions, kaḷavu and kaRpu. In kaḷavu, the love is instantaneous. In case of kaḷavu, usually, a man and a woman fall in love at the very first sight. But, on occasions this love will be one-sided, called kaikkiḷai. In such cases, the affected person will try to convey the love through his/her friends. If the love is still not accepted, the males usually take recourse to the following action:

Using a palmyra stem, the man makes a horse shaped object and sits on it. He makes a flag and paints it with his lover’s figure. He will usually wear tattered clothes and spread ash(?) all over his body. His friends will then carry him around, and along the way the lovesick man will shout insulting things at the woman and her family, in the hope that the woman, unable to take the shame caused by all this, agrees to marry him.

This was a last ditch attempt the males took recourse to. Tholkaappiyam Poruladhikaaram prohibits this for women, suggesting that this is not becoming of a women. While there is a mention of “madal ERudhal” in sangam works, there doesn’t appear to be any effort on the part of the poets to elevate its status. However, by the time of Thiru Valluvar’s Kural, madal ERudhal for men has already achieved an exalted status. In addition, Valluvar also says that “there is no women better than the one who didn’t perform madal ERudhal even when she was afflicted by love as large as an ocean.”

There is a suggestion by a few that the scales of the sharp palmyra stem could cause physical pain to the person riding this. And this is why the women were forbidden to do this. I don’t agree with this theory. This was prohibited for women more in accordance with the Tamil custom that a woman is supposed to have achcham, naaNam, madam and payirppu, and to come out on the street and perform madal ERudhal would imply she had given up all those! In addition the woman in her tattered clothes will be seen by everyone on the streets! So, these were the considerations that prevented the womenfolks from following this custom.

Taking this too far, various commentators of Tholkaappiyam have argued about whether a woman is allowed to even think about performing this action (as opposed to really doing it!). In any case, let us not dwell deep on this topic for now.

“madal” became a type of “small literature” (சிற்றிலக்கியம்) along with other genre like “uLaa”, “kalambakam”, “thaaNdakam”, “piLLaith thamizh”, “thoodhu” etc. but was quite strict in the sense that it was always a man performing madal ERudhal, pining for a woman. Tirumangai Alvar was the first one who wrote a madal with a female performing madal ERudhal (or at least expressing her intention to do so). [There does exist a solitary stanza in veNpaa, dates not known, where a woman expresses similar intentions for a King.]

Grammar works (like panniru paattiyal, ilakkaNa viLakkam) written well after Tirumangai Alvar’s time, made amends indicating that one can also write about a woman performing madal ERudhal provided the object of such an act is God Himself.

It is interesting to note that siRiya thirumadal also has a small but very engaging portion on “thoodhu” (messenger poems), where Parakaala Naayaki sends her heart as the messenger to the Lord, which alas! doesn’t return back after seeing the Lord! The last few lines of siRiya thirumadal where Parakaala Naayaki details the insults she is about to hurl at her ‘uLLam kavar kaLvan’, are really humorous!

—badri

Background

In 1996, P. Dileepan posted a short note on the Bhakti List about two unique poems of Tirumangai Alvar, the Siriya Thirumadal (சிறிய திருமடல்) and Periya Thirumadal (பெரிய திருமடல்).

Sri Dileepan wrote:

“[Tirumangai] Alvar went against the Tamil tradition and portrayed a female performing ‘madal oordhal’ as an expression of intense and insatiable love [for the Lord]. Madal oordhal is extremely painful and thus the target of this action, a damsel, and her family, acquiesces for the fulfillment of the man’s love. [Alvar as] Parakaala Nâyaki risks public ridicule by venturing upon this ‘madal oordhal’, for it is forbidden for women.”

This prompted Sri V. Sundar to ask for an explanation of the concept of “madal oordhal”, and the context in which the Alvar composed these moving love poems. Sri Badri Seshadri, a connoisseur of Tamil literature, replied with this informative article. — Mani