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  • Alvar

Kerala, Southern India

Seated in padmasana, the posture of meditation, hands clasped together in the anjali mudra, a gesture of reverence and greeting, this figure appears to be a devotee in the act of salutation. The urdhva pundaram, the sectarian mark on the devotee's forehead, symbolise the feet of Vishnu and by extension, the devotee's position as a humble servant of the Lord.

Together, these elements indicate the figure is one of the 12 poet-saints from the Tamil speaking regions of South India who, between the sixth and ninth centuries, changed and revitalised Hinduism. Known as the Alvar, 'one immersed in god', these saints wandered all over the Tamil countryside, composing hymns mapping a sacred geography. Their pilgrimage, legends, and poetry inspired and converted kings, brahmans and peasants, fashioning a communal image that cut across caste and class.

Revered as an avatar of Vishnu's attributes, the Alvar's semi-divine status is reflected in the motifs incised on his upper arms - the conch shell and the discus, powerful attributes that symbolise the origin of existence and universal knowledge. Likewise, the vaijayanti mala or garland of victory worn by the figure implies his control over the senses while the elongated earlobes are considered an auspicious indicator of power. The lotus petalled seat, favoured by the deities, further emphasise that this is no lay disciple.

Although the iconography of the Alvars is not strictly followed, typically, only the first three of the Alvars - Poykai, Putam and Pey - are depicted seated with their hands held in the anjali mudra or with their hair tied in a top knot (jatabandha). An exception is occasionally made for Kulashekhara, the sole Alvar saint who was a king from the Kerala region.

Temple sculpture in Kerala is largely crafted in wood; the use of stone (usually granite) is generally restricted to sculptures placed on the temple exteriors and the main idols. In the former instances, the carved figures were often covered by a thin lime plaster and painted.




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