Woman in Sanātana Dharma is regarded as the motivating power and energy. She is honoured as the Goddess in all forms – icchāśakti, kriyāśakti and jñānaśakti. It is no surprise that women have been pioneers in philosophy and other fields ever since the Vedic age. Ṛgveda speaks of Viṣpalā and Mudgalāni who helped their husbands win over enemies with the display of skill and valour. But as centuries passed by, India was subjected to invasions; women had to be guarded and in the process many compromises had to be made in their education and in their lifestyle. Though literature and historical resources seem not to talk much about the women of their times, every century has produced great women warriors, diplomats, philosophers and achievers in various fields.
The 17th to 18th Century C.E. was one such period which was in great turmoil with Mughal invasion and expansion of their rule while the Hindu rulers had been struggling to protect the people and their kingdoms. Many queens have been the backbone to sustain the kingdoms and administration. One such Maratha queen of Tanjore was Dīpāmbā, wife of Ekoji (1676-1683). She was an efficient administrator, diplomat and a patron of arts and literature.
Another woman of the same period was Āvuḍai Akkā – a philosopher belonging to Senkottai region, of south Tamil Nadu. A young widow blessed by the great philosopher guru Śrīdhara Ayyāvāḷ, she has enriched the Tamil literature with simple poetic compositions propagating Advaitic philosophy. These songs got adopted in day to day activity as kummi songs (set with clapping of hands), ailasa (fishermen song) and other such songs set to folk tunes. These have inspired great freedom fighters like Mahākavi Subrahmanya Bhārati of 19th Century too. Such Advaitic songs and contribution of Āvuḍai Akkā shall also be discussed.
Tanjore, the rich and fertile land has been nourished by many dynasties. The Colas had established supremacy and many temples stand as evidence representing their cultural achievements. They were followed by the Nayakas and then the Marathas. The Marathas established their rule in the 17th Century C.E. and art and literature reached the Zenith during their reign.
(Figure 1: Credit: CarnaticCircle – Bodhendra Sarasvatī)
The rich contribution to Bhakti movement by Sadāśiva Brahmendra, Śrīdhara Ayyāvāḷ and Bodhendra Sarasvatī is also well known. This golden age of Marathas was during the reign of Śahaji- II from1648-1712 C.E. Śahaji- II was the son of king Ekoji, the establisher of the Maratha rule in Tanjore and queen Dīpāmbā. Queen Dīpāmbā was not only a ‘vīraprasūḥ’ the mother of a virtuous sons but was herself a great administrator, diplomat and a guiding light to her family as well as the kingdom acclaiming which the Marathi poet Cindaḍ Śaṅkar calls her the lamp of the family – Dīpāmbā kuladīpake’
Marriage of Dīpāmbā with Ekoji
Dīpāmbā was born in the family of Iṅgilās and she was a great devotee blessed by Lord Śiva is mentioned by Śrīdhara Veṅkaṭeśa or Ayyāvāḷ in his Śāhendravilāsa.
King Ekoji of Tanjore was childless and prayed to Lord Śiva for a progeny. The Lord appeared in his dream and directed the king to marry Dīpāmbā his ardent devotee blessed by Him to be born as her child. Thus being guided by Lord Śiva himself King Ekoji married Dīpāmbā (Śāhendravilāsa I. 51, 52cd):
Dīpāmbā, the diplomat
(Figure 2: Credit: Indianetzone – Tanjavur Maratha Empire)
Queen Dīpāmbā’s timely political counsel to her husband Ekoji had averted the battle between Ekoji and his step brother Śivāji, the great. Śivāji did not like the fact that Ekoji had the association with the Sultans of Bijapur, Turks and Pathans. Their father’s heredity property claimed by Śivāji was also not settled by Ekoji which raged Śivāji to march against him. But by the wise suggestion of queen Dīpāmbā, Raghunātha Pandita was recalled for his services and sent as the messenger to Śivāji. Raghunātha Pandita who was closely associated with the Maratha family settled the dispute between the brothers signing a treaty. Śivāji’s letter to Raghunātha Pandita appreciating Queen Dīpāmbā is the evidence for the same:
“I cannot but highly recommend the wisdom and foresight of my sister-in-law DipaBai who with uncommon zeal and skill induced her husband to come to terms with me and thereby so satisfactorily solved a difficult problem. In fact he lays down in his 15th article, “The districts of Bangalore, Hoskote and Shiralkot yielding a revenue of two lakhs have already been conquered by us. We assign these districts as a voluntary present to our sister-in-law DīpāBai, wife of Ekoji. Ekoji may supervise their management but may not lay claim to them. Thus he gave this as a Stridhana (choli-bangdi) to her.”
Dīpāmbā was also a guiding light to her son Śāhaji- II who was only 13 years when he was crowned the king after his father’s death. Her timely counsel to assist the king of Setu against the Madurai forces all speak of her as a diplomat. This aspect of Queen Dīpāmbā is well described by Śrīdhara Veṅkaṭeśa or Ayyāvāḷ in his Śāhendravilāsa (I.60 c) as one who had the ability to come up with sound political strategy that was capable of removing all fear:
Thus she was truly the light of the family guiding her husband, son and the country.
Dīpāmbā’s contribution to Sanātana Dharma
Queen Dīpāmbā was a woman endowed with a firm conviction in the Sanātana Dharma. In the prevailing political and social conditions of the Mughal invasions in the North and the Bijapur Sultanates in the south she knew that the protection of the culture, tradition and practices of the Sanātana Dharma vested in the hands of women. Realising the need of the hour it is said that she requested the scholar minister, Trayambakarāyamakhin to compose a work on the Dharmaśāstra which could easily be comprehended and followed by women. At the request of the Queen, the great scholar poet Trayambakarāyamakhin composed the strīdharmapaddhati consulting the Vedas, Purāṇas and the Śāstras (Strīdharmapaddhati, 1, 2d):
Dīpāmbā is said to have also suggested to the king to depute the Pauranika – Duṇḍuvyāsa in educating the people on these dharmas through his expositions. Dīpāmbā had also made the work –Strīdharmapaddhati available in Marathi for the ordinary womenfolk to understand in their mother tongue.Thus the Marathi scholar Raghunātha Paṇḍita had brought out this work in Marathi by name pativratādharmam.
Dīpāmbā and Scholar Poets
Dīpāmbā had great interest in literature is well-known by her rendering encouragement to scholars to write many works. One such work is the Śaṅkaracarita written by Govindananda. Dīpāmbā had requested the sannyāsin Govindananda to write a short biography of ŚrīĀdiśaṅkara, who having consulted all the available biographies of the ācārya, composed this work briefly giving the life accounts of ŚrīĀdiśaṅkara. The colophon records the date of composition as 30/3/1713 and the scribe as Veṅkaṭeśa Śāstri:
Dīpāmbā had been a great propeller of the poet scholars to compose many works is explicitly mentioned by Raghunāthasūri a Sanskrit as well as Marathi scholar poet who at the instance of the queen composed three works – pativratādharmam, narakavarṇana and Govardhanoddharaṇa (narakavarṇana, 49, 57, 78):
Dīpāmbā had seen to it that all the poets and scholars were well taken care of. She is said to be instrumental in donating villages to poets, scholars and Brahmanas is also brought to light by Raghunāthasūri in the colophon of the narakavarṇana:
And also in DīpāmbāMāhāmya (38):
Dīpāmbā was virtuous and righteous in her actions, honoured scholars and she is said to have done many meritorious acts (ŚāhendravilāsaI. 59):
Queen Dīpāmbā was religious and her charities are also recorded. She had been to Setu and had made a golden balance and offered it at Rāmeśvaram. She had made many other charities in the auspicious period called the ardhodaya (DīpāmbāMāhāmya, 39):
For the comfort of the pilgrims she had also made available facilities of lodging by building Rest houses from Rāmeśvaram to Kāśi, watersheds were established for distributing aromatic water during summer and sumptuos food was also made available to the pilgrims in these resthouses (DīpāmbāMāhāmya, 41-42ab):
She had also built many Śivatemples (DīpāmbāMāhāmya, 42cd):
Thus the queen Dīpāmbā had been a backbone in building the Maratha Empire and it flourished well during the 17th to 8th Century C.E.
Āvuḍai Akkā 17th to 8th Century C.E.
(Figure 3: Credit: RoarMedia – Āvuḍai Akkā with Śrīdhara Veṅkaṭeśa Ayyāvāḷ)
Āvuḍai Akkā is a household name in the Tirunelveli district. She has composed many folk songs in Tamil full of Advaitic concepts.
Āvuḍai Akkā is said to have been born in an orthodox Brahmin family. She had been a child widow and confined to the social norms of those days. She is said to have received initiation from Śrīdhara Veṅkaṭeśa Ayyāvāḷ. An exclusive song on the guru describing the greatness of Śrīdhara Veṅkaṭeśa Ayyāvāḷ and also giving the picture of the student-teacher relation they had is seen in the song guru:
She describes as to how Ayyāvāḷ, the great guru, a scholar and a famous personality guided her who was wandering like a blind person without an aim to attain the śivapada (p.84-5):
. . . Andakanpōlavēalaindutirindaennaiāṇḍavanē! Gurunāthā!
. . . deśameṅgumpugaḻŚrīVeṅkaṭeśvaradeśikarē! Gurunāthā!
Āvuḍai Akkā’s devotion and indebtedness to her Guru, Ayyāvāḷ is evident and expressed in many of her songs. In the kiḷikaṇṇi she mentions as to how inefficient and ineligible she felt about herself in achieving self realisation but by the association with noble people and the grace of guru it is easily attainable by one and all (p.86):
taṭṭi paṟikkavenṟāl kiḷiye sādhukkaḷ veṇḍumaḍi
paṟṟi paṟippōmaḍikiḷiye – Brahmarasattai
She declares in the Kuyilkanni that without the grace of the guru nothing can be achieved and that she attained the turīya state, by the grace of her guru, Ayyāvāḷ (p.87):
Guruvaivaṇaṅgāmal, kuyile – kōḍijenmamirundēn
ŚrīVeṅkaṭeśvaraguruvāl, kuyile- turīyanilaiyaḍainden
She has composed many songs in Tamil set to folk tunes which are sung doing the day to day activities by all genre of people – men, women and children. The songs are those sung in the fields (paḷḷu and so on), by women while doing their daily chores (kaṇṇi and others) or by the children while playing as the ammānai and others.
About forty songs of Āvuḍai Akkāare are available and published as CeṅkōṭṭaiŚrīĀvuḍaiAkkāḷpāḍaltiraṭṭu. Kuravañji drama, Ammānai, paḷḷu, āṇḍi, vaṇḍu, Kummi, kappal and other such day to day songs fall into this collection. The Bhagavad Gītā has also been rendered in simple songs as Bhagavad Gītāsārasaṅgraha and Bhagavad Gītāsāra.
Some of the folk songs are discussed here to highlight how beautifully and effectively Āvuḍai Akkā –has incorporated into the popular folk songs, the principles of Advaita-Vedānta, so as to make it easy for the commoners to understand the philosophy.
Vedānta Ammānai– Ammānai is a type of Tamil poetry associated with a game of balls that was popular with teen girls. Three or more balls are taken in this game, thrown up alternatively and caught, thus at a time two balls will be in hands and the rest will be in the air. Ammanai will be in the form of questions and answers. The earliest ammanai poetry was composed by Saint Manikkavāsagar. All the concepts of Vedanta are knit in the song set to common tune or the popular rhythm.
She explains in a very lucid manner as to how the world emerges from the Supreme, beginning with māyā emerging first, which transforms and veils the Universe; from māyā emerges the ignorance and the five gross elements and the three guṇas– sattva, rajas and tamas with their three colours white, red and black (p.14):
Mūlattukku̇ḷḷe muḷaittu muḷai eḻuppi
māyaiyaduvāgi marittu pariṇamittu
sakala jagattayum teriyaviḍāmal maraittu
añcu būtangaḷenrum pañcavarṇattāliḻaittu
karuppāy civappāy kalaṅgamaṟṟa veḷḷayumāy
mūnruguṇamāy samainda mūrttamuḷḷa amānai
In the following it is seen that the Vedantic terms are just knit into the song and the common people also seemed to have just understood them (p.25):
nityo’ham mukto’ham mokṣasvarūpo’ham
sarvamidaṁ paraṁ moham
asañgohaṁ enṟu amarndāḷ samādhiyilē
All the concepts of Vedanta are taught in play mode,which is now the order of the day.
Similarly the pandupāṭṭu is a song sung playing with a ball tapping to bounce. Āvuḍai Akkā has created the Bālāmbikaypandu–hailing goddess Bālāmbikā.
The paḷḷu and kaṇṇi songs are sung while working in and protecting the fields. The Vedāntapaḷḷu is interesting where the cosmogony is beautifully knit while preparing the field.
The paḷḷan – field worker first takes the rope which is the karma and yokes the bulls which are the kāla (time), to the plough and ploughs the field on all seven days, three times a day which represents past, present and future. In the appropriate season the seed sown in the field sprouts aided by the rains which is the replica of process of the jīva coming into existence in this world (p.104):
The kaṇṇi songs are sung by the guardians of the crops to shoo away the birds which perch on the ripe crops and eat them. And Āvuḍai Akkā has composed the Kuyil kaṇṇi, Kiḷikaṇṇi and Parāparakaṇṇi.
In the Kuyil kaṇṇi she unveils the techniques of alleviating māyā. She explains as to how all the sorrow is but only the delusion of māyā, if one yearns for salvation, the means is only Bhakti and that itself is śraddhā. She says that all the wretched sorrows will have to be borne and warded off with knowledge of truth and discrimination. The enjoyment of pleasures should be shunned and sensual pleasures should to given up (p.87):
. . . kavalaiyedukkaḍi kuyile māyā kalpitamaḍi
muktiveṇḍumenrāl kuyile yukti veṇḍumaḍi
bhaktiyudikkumaḍi kuyile śraddhaiyadāgumaḍi
porukka veṇḍumaḍi kuyile pollāda duhkkaṅgaḷai
taḷḷaveṇḍumaḍi kuyile tattvadṛṣṭiyināl
verukkaveṇḍumaḍi kuyile viṣayabhogañgaḷai
iḻakkaveṇḍumaḍi kuyile indriyavṛddhigalai. . .
Āvuḍai Akkā tempts one who sings the Kiḷikaṇṇi to relish the fruit called salvation. She describes that the fruit called ānanda isunsatiatingand very sweet. This is a rare fruit not got by searching but relished by the ones with knowledge of Truth alone (p.86):
ānandamāna paḻam anavadiyāy kiḍaikka
saccidānandamenrum kiliye kāṇa arideyaḍi
arivullorkānandamaḍi kiliye adimaduramaḍi
She says that this fruit can be obtained by the grace of the guru.
Similarly the ēlēlō songs are sung while water is drawn from the well and made to flow in the fields. To make the knowledge of Advaita available even to these workers Āvuḍai Akkā has composed the Advaitaēlēlō. In very simple phrases she educates as to how one can attain salvation. Suppress the ego, giving up worldly desires, unfettering the attachments towards children, cut away the passion on the counter parts and knowing the world as a mirage and with such other means one can attain salvation with the grace of the Guru (p.100):
veṅkaṭeśar ēlēlōguruvāyvanduayilēlō. . .
Āvuḍai Akkā’s devotion to her guru is again revealed when she say how she has treasured the knowledge showered on her by Śrīdhara Veṅkaṭeśa Ayyāvāḷ.
Kappal Pāṭṭu or Padagup Pāṭṭu is a boat-song, sung by travellers in chorus to overcome the fear of tides and to prevent the monotony of travel on lakes and rivers. Āvuḍai Akkā has rendered vedāntajñānarasa kappal and vedānta kappal songs.
Festive occasions are marked with songs and dance. To such a category belong the Kummi and kolattam songs.
Kummi is a folk dance, popular in Tamil Nadu and Kerala in India, danced mostly by Tamil women in a circle. It is very simple, with rhythmic clapping or beating of the drums. The word “kummi” has originated from the Tamil “kommai”, meaning dance with clapping of hands and had originated at a time when instruments were not invented.
(Figure 4: Credit: SouthTourism – Kummi dance)
One village woman starts a popular song while others join in with singing and clapping to keep note of time. Songs are performed by the women dancing in circles and men, when they join, form the outer circle.
Āvuḍai Akkā has composed Vedāntakummi and CūḍālaiKummi. The Cūḍālā episode in the Yogavāsiṣṭa text is completely rendered in easy flowing language in a condensed form.
Kolaṭṭam a folk dance of southern India accompanied by the striking together of sticks. Āvuḍai Akkā has in ten stanzas has composed a kolaṭṭam song.
(Figure 5: Credit: Pinterest – Kolattam)
Apart from these there are also lullaby songs. Like the famous Madālasā lulluby, Āvuḍai Akkā has composed Advaitatālāṭṭu and Toṭṭilpāṭṭu to put the child to sleep. The swing song called ūñjal song is also composed with concepts of Advaita.
There are many such songs inspiring and imparting knowledge to people. Āvuḍai Akkā a realized soul wanted each and every one to experience the joy she was in. Thus she has composed these songs of day to day activity instructing the principles of Vedānta in simple regional language understandable to a child or a lay man.
Thus the Queen Dīpāmbā of the 17th to 18th Century C.E was a great administrator and diplomat. She was a true guiding light to her family as well as the country. Queen Dīpāmbā had taken care of the physical material welfare of her subjects and equally contributed to the establishment of the Maratha Empire.
The Advaita Saint Āvuḍai Akkā has enriched the philosophical and mental health of the people of not only the cotemporary period but also the future generations. Subrahmanya Bhārati and Ramana Maharsi of later centuries.
Both the women have worked for uplifting the lives of the people in the two main aspects of material and eternal aspects of life. These women had rendered their services as their duty. Some of the incidents are recorded and available to us. Many are still to be unveiled. The modes of social services to be rendered and the methods of teaching the highly philosophical concepts are well exhibited in the lives of these two women.
The achievements of these two women – one the queen of acclaimed political wisdom and the other a young widow of great spiritual wisdom is an inspiration to the women of present era.
- DīpāmbāMāhāmya, 23560/ B. 1426- Paper Manuscript.
- ŚrīĀvuḍaiAkkāḷpāḍaltiraṭṭu, By Nityanandagiri Swami, Sri GnananandaNiketan, Tapovanam, Viluppuram TN, 2012.
- Sāhendravilāsa of ŚrīdharaVeṅkaṭeśa or Ayyāvāḷ, SarasvatiMahal Library and Research Centre, Tanjavur, 2016.
D.23560/ B. 1426- Paper Manuscript.
Ed. By Nityanandagiri Swami, Sri GnananandaNiketan, Tapovanam, Viluppuram TN, 2012.
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