For most students in Tamil Nadu, their introduction to Tamil prose began with Aathichoodi, a collection of single line quotations explaining basic morals on how to live a good life. Whilst researching for my article on Velirs, a line of dynastic kings in the ancient Tamil country. I was surprised to find that Avvaiyar ( meaning “respectable women”) was not just a single person but that over the course of Tamil history as many as three to six ( numbers vary based on the sources) women had held that name. Also as I went deeper I understood that this was not a name but rather a title given to the women who were considered important contributors to the Tamil literature canon. In this article, I will talk about two of the most famous women who bore that name.
The Sangam Age Avvaiyar
This Avvaiyar lived during the 1st and 2nd Century CE and was under the patronage of King Athiyaman Neduman Anci of the Velir Dynasty. She was considered to be the contemporary of Thiruvalluvar and Kabilar ( both of whom were considered to be legends in the Tamil Cultural scene). She is credited with writing 7 verses in Naṟṟiṇai, 15 in Kuṟuntokai, 4 in Akanaṉūṟu and 33 in Puṟanāṉūṟu. In addition to the above she had also written many songs about Anci
In addition to being a poet, she also undertook diplomatic missions for Adhiyaman by visiting by visiting Cholan viceroy’s om his behalf and also interceding with a chieftain Thondaiman on Anci’s behalf.
There are many interesting anecdotes about Avvaiyar and Thondaiman who was Anci’s rival. Once when Thondaiman was showcasing his skill his archery Avvaiyar had reportedly told him that whilst his Armour glistened in the sun unlike Anci’s which was worn out because of the numerous battles which he had to fight insinuating that Anci is much more experienced and that Thondaiman and that that he will be soundly defeated if it come to a war.
The Cholan Age Avvaiyar
This is the Avvaiyar we are very familiar with and she was the author of Aathichoodi. She was the court poet of the Cholas and said to be active around 10th Century CE. It is this lady whom we all think about when we think off when we see an old saree draped women supporting herself with a stick.
She is known to have been a devotee of Lord Muruga. The story goes that whilst she was sitting under a Jamun tree she was contemplating on her life and her achievements and was thinking of retirement. At this time a disguised Lord Muruga came up to her and after a battle of wits made her realise that she had a lot more to contribute to do and learn. It was then that she concentrating on writing Tamil works directed at children.
Whilst her works Aathichoodi and Konraiventhan were written for young children, the works Mooturai and Nalvali were written for older children.
Fun Fact: Whilst writing this blog my word editor was prompting me to change Avvaiyar’s name to Avatar.