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Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya (1408 - 1503)

Annamacharya Painting and Article on his
Life & Works - Courtesy : SACRED

Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya (also known as annamayya), is a mystic saint composer of the 15th century. He is the earliest known musician of South India to compose songs called "samkeertanas" in praise of Lord Venkateswara, the deity of the Seven Hills in Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh, India. He is widely regarded as the "Telugu Pada Kavita Pitaamaha" (Grand Old Man of Simple Poetry). Annamacharya was born on Vaisakha Suddha Pournami in the year Sarwadhari (May 9, 1408) in Tallapaka, a remote village in current day Cuddapah district of Andhra Pradesh, India. He lived immaculately for 95 years until Phalguna Bahula Dwadasi (12th day after full moon) in the year Dhundhubhi (February 23, 1503). His wife, Thimmakka, was also a poet, and had written Subhadra Kalyanam, and is considered the first Telugu woman poet. His son PeddaTirumalacharya is also a well-known vaggeyakara. He took the Ramanuja saampradayam, with the blessings of Sri Sathagopa Yateendra of the Ahobila Mutt. Annamacharya composed about 32,000 samkeertanas on Lord Venkateswara, and the 'Sri Alamelumanga Sri Venkateswara Satakam'.

Annamacharya is to be reckoned as the first among the hymnographers in Telugu, not only from the view point of chronology but also for his superb artistry and range of feeling and thought. He was a pioneer in the field who could handle both amorous and devotional strains with equal felicity. The eroticism evident in Kshetrayya’s love lyrics and Thyagaraja’s rapturous praises of the glories of Rama are undoubtedly reminiscent of Annamayya’s treatment of these elements in his hymns.

The synthesis of Vishnu of the Rigveda with the cosmic god Narayana of the Brahmana’s and then with the popular deity Vasudeva Krishna in due course resulted in the emergence of Vaishnavism. The religion holds Vishnu to be the supreme god and devotion to him the main objective of human existence. According to Vaishnava theology descent or incarnation is only one of the five forms through which Vishnu manifests himself. In the ‘para’ transcendent form he is Vasudeva, the supreme being, beyond the reach of human experience. The ‘vyuha’ emanative form is his functional manifestation as a creator, sustainer and destroyer of the Universe. The ‘vibhava’ incarnate aspect is related to his descent into the world in physical form. In the ‘antaryamin’, immanent form he dwells in the hearts of all beings regulating their feelings. And finally in the ‘archa’, iconic form he becomes easily accessible to his devotees and receives ritualistic worship from them in temples and homes.

Among the five, ‘archa’ is the most sought after form by devotees as it enables them to enjoy the beauty and splendour of the Lord here and now. That is why several saint poets have expressed their wish to be born again and again in the mortal world if only to experience the bliss of beholding Vishnu in their favourite iconic form. The medium favoured by all these saint poets to worship their favourite deity was a song or ‘samkeertana’, as it is the most effective medium to reach god in Kaliyuga. It also appeals to the imagination and interest of the common man, amongst whom these saint poets wished to propagate their path of Bhakti or devotion.

Annammayya pioneered singing of pada or samkeertana in Telugu language. Annamayya started composing lyrics at the age of sixteen, when he was fascinated by his devotion to Lord Venkateswara. This devotion is called 'Madhura Bhakti' or ‘godlove’ in which the devotee is the beloved or ‘preyasi’ or jeevatma and the ‘Lord God’ is the supreme hero or Paramaatma. Alamelmanga and Venkateswara represent Radha and Krishna in Vaishnava parlance and they stand for ‘Prakriti and Purusha’ in Samkhya terminology. The same divine pair represent ‘Sakti and Siva’ in Saiva parlance.

After the Saivite Naayanars of 3rd Century and Vaishnavite Alwars between 7th and 12th Century, we have Annamacharya, the earliest composer of lyrics in Telugu in the 15th Century. Annamacharya was greatly influenced by the legacy of the God intoxicated poet composers, the Alwars. The term Alwar means, “one who is immersed”. In the present context it denotes an ardent devotee ever immersed in God. Twelve such devotees of Vishnu who lived between the sixth and ninth century in the Tamil speaking region of South India are traditionally recognized as the Alwars. The Alwars are held in such high veneration by the Vaishnavas that each of the 108 places they sang about have consequently regarded as a divine place. Annamacharya was well acquainted with the hymns of the Alwars for at least two reasons, one, he was himself a latter-day Alwar. Secondly, the foremost exponent of the Vishishtadvaita school of Vaishnivism, Ramanuja, rightly thought that “The real proof of the being of God is the being in God” and accepted the utterances of the Alwars as authoritative as the word of God in the Vedas.

As a convert to the Vishishtadvaita sect, Annamacharya had devoted many years to the study of its theology. Therefore he shared the emotional mysticism of the Alwars as well as their intense love for the God of the seven hills. Be it Alwars of the 7th to 12th Century, Jayadeva of the 11th Century, Chandidas, Vidyapati or Annamayya, they followed composing lyrics of God love with predominance of eroticism in their compositions. Their songs had a desi milieu and deserved no reproof from any quarter. Those were the "limits of permissiveness" as observed by the liberators, painters and architects as part of the Indian ethos of the middle ages.

To study the life of any human being it is essential to first look into the socio-cultural and spiritual ethos of the period, as the life and work produced by the person are intricately woven together and in most cases, the particulars of the life can only be pieced together from the legacy of poetic lyrics left behind. Hence, we have to make an effort to look at the cultural, spiritual ethos of the period before actually going into a chronological account of the life of Annamacharya.

Popular accounts of the lives of saints freely blend fiction with fact and invest ordinary natural events with the shades of miracles. It is not therefore surprising that descriptions of some miraculous events should find a place in the earliest biographical account of the poet saint Annamacharya. A poetical work in Telugu titled ‘Annamacharya Charitram’ was written by his grandson, Chinna Tiruvengalanadha, popularly known as Chinnanna. It has however much value as history for two reasons. Chinnanna gathered information about the main events in his Grandfather’s life from the members of his family, and he composed the poem when people who were acquainted with the saint were still alive and it received their approval. Annamacharya’s period has almost unanimously been specified to be between 1408-1507 A.D. Annamacharya was born of Nadavaraka Brahmin parents in Tallapaka, a somnolent hamlet situated not far from Tirupati, in early fifteenth century, most probably on 22nd May 1408. His fore fathers obviously acquired the name ‘Tallapaka’ from their association with the village for long. Though Annamacharya’s parents Narayana Suri and Lakkamamba belonged to the smartha seet whose adherents hold Siva and Vishnu in equal veneration. It is said that desiring a male child the parents of Annamayya went on pilgrimage to the shrine of Venkateswara on top of the hill Venkatadri and met with an unusual experience. Within the precincts of the temple they saw in a vision, the ‘nandaka’ sword, and in due course were blessed with a son in answer to their prayers.

The story about the mystic vision of Nandaka sword and the subsequent birth of Annamayya is in consonance with the traditional belief of the Vaishnavas that their saints are embodiments of the objects and attendants of Vishnu in Vaikuntha. Periyalvar was considered as an incarnation of Garuda and Poygai Alwar of Panchajanya Shankha. Annamacharya like Nammalwar was born under the star, vishakha in the Vaishakha month and both miraculously received spiritual enlightenment at the age of 16.

The boy Annamayya appears to have been quite bright in his studies and his songs bear sufficient testimony to the fact that he had received sound instruction in classical learning at an early age. It appears that he grew weary of the ways of the world when he was only a boy of 8 years. During his childhood he was given several chores by his parents and relatives which he detested. There is a Samkeertana indicating this:

అయ్యో పోయఁ బ్రాయముఁ గాలము
ముయ్యంచుమనసున నే మోహమతి నైతి
{TTD Book Ref : Samputi 1 | Page 120 (186)}

which indicates that his life was getting wasted on mundane and meaningless tasks. At the age of 16 Annamayya saw a vision of Lord Venkateswara and these lyrics burst forth in his ecstasy as mentioned by Chinnanna.

" ఇప్పు డిటు కలగంటి నెల్లలోకములకు-
నప్పఁడగు తిరువేంకటాద్రీశుఁ గంటి
{TTD Book Ref : Samputi 1 | Page 25 (91)}

One day when he was sent to cut grass, he observed a happy band of pilgrims on their way to Tirupati. They were singing songs of the Lord, and the temptation to follow them was irresistible to Annamayya. He left his village and family and followed the pilgrims all the way to Tirupati. From Tirupati he started early morning and visited Narasimha Swami, Talayerugundu, Peddayekkudu, Kapurapungalu and reached Mokkallaparvata by evening. After crossing a tamarind tree in Talayerugundu he came across the ‘sripadas’. Peddayekkudu was very difficult to climb, a culvert called Karpurapungalavu comes before reaching the mokaalla parvata, the water there was said to be very fragrant. As a custom, the mokaalla parvata should be climbed with the knees. Legend goes that, without realizing it Annamayya climbed the mountain with his slippers and was unable to go any further due to exhaustion, when Alamelumanga appeared before him in the guise of an old woman and advised him to give up the slippers. She gave him divyaprasadam and disappeared at which point he recited spontaneously a satakam on Alamelumanga:

Annamacharya then reached Tirupati safely. He visited the Swamy Pushkarini and recited several songs. On finally having darshanam of his Lord, he recited a song expressing his joy at finally being able to see in person the peerless form of his beloved Venkateswara:

" పొడగంటిమయ్యా మిమ్ము పురుషోత్తమా మమ్ము
నెడయకుమయ్యా కోనేటిరాయడా "

He composed several lyrics on the greatness of the Lord, and his ‘abhaya hastam’. In Annamayya’s songs he makes several references to ‘Guru’, but it is obscure as to who he exactly may have been. One feels due to the songs and legends, that it was Lord Venkateswara himself in the guise of a learned man who advised Annamayya to go back home and have a family. A particular song expresses this idea that it was only Lord Venkateswara who was Annamacharya’s true Guru.

" సర్వోపాయముల జగతి నా కితఁడే
వుర్వీధరుడు పురుషోత్తముం డితఁడే "
{TTD Book Ref : Samputi 2 | Page 89 (161)}

Yet another verse shows in Annamacharya’s own words that he has composed 32,000 songs in praise of this ‘Guru’ or ‘Paramatma’:

" పాడేము నేము పరమాత్మ నిన్నును
వేడుక ముప్పదిరెండువేళల రాగాలను "
{TTD Book Ref : Samputi 3 | Page 314 (354)}

Sometime thereafter Annamayya returned to his village and became a ‘grihastha’ (man with a family) by marrying two girls, Tirumalamma and Akkalamma, in deference to the wishes of his parents. Tirumalamma also known as Timmakka was herself a poet, who wrote the narrative poem ‘Subhadra Kalyanamu’, and acquired the distinction of being the first noteworthy woman poet in Telugu. Annamayya visited many holy places and composed innumerable Sringara sankeertanas on God. Ahobala Nrusimha Swamy himself is said to have bestowed on Annamayya with ‘Tridandam’ and several mantras.

A strong urge to master the Visishtadvaita theology led Annamacharya sometime after his marriage to seek the guidance of a reputed Vaishnava preceptor of the age, Adivan Sathakopa yati, the founder of a mutt in Ahobalam. He appears to have lived with his family there, spending several years studying the scriptures of his sect especially the collection of the hymns of the Alwars called ‘Divyaprabandham’ and the Ramayana of Valmiki which is regarded by the Srivaishnavas as ‘Saranagati Sastra’, treatise on self-surrender or ‘Prapatti’. Annamayya also learnt Vedanta from Sathakopa yati. He is said to be the same Sathakopa muni whom Sri Krishnadevaraya prays to in Aamuktamalyada. Annamayya served him with the following lyrics.

" చూడుఁ డిందరికి సులభుడు హరి-
తోడునీడయగుదొరముని యితఁడు "
{TTD Book Ref : Samputi 1 | Page 80 (146)}

At a very young age, Annamayya composed Ramayana in Samkeertana form. The loftiness of his sentiments and felicity of his language, the intensity of his devotion soon began to attract the attention of people at large. When Saluva Narsinga Raya, who was then the chief of Tanguturu, a town near Tallapaka, came to know about the saintliness of Annamacharya, he approached the poet with great reverence and humbly begged him to visit his place and stay there as his honoured guest. Annamaya accepted to his request and stayed with him for some time. Narasinga Raya began to thrive and prosper and soon rose to be the ruler of the fort of Penugonda in the Vijayanagara Empire. At his invitation Annamacharya went to Penugonda and stayed there for a while.” There is a well known story in the context of Annamacharya’s stay at the court of Saluva Narsinga Raya.

On a certain occasion Narsinga Raya requested the poet to sing an erotic song on the deity. Annamacharya obliged by reciting a fresh composition of his in which there is a suggestive description of the teasing of the heroine by her friends when she comes out of the bed-chamber after spending the night with her Lord.

" ఏమొకొ చిగురుటధరమున యెడనెడఁ గస్తూరి నిండెను
భామిని విభునకు వ్రాసిన పత్రిక కాదుగదా "
{TTD Book Ref : Samputi 5 | Page 57 (131)}

Narsinga Raya was so deeply moved by the luminous beauty of the song that in a state of euphoria he transcended the bounds of propriety and requested the poet to compose a similar song on him. Annamacharya was deeply offended by this request and plainly told him that his gifts of music and poetry were dedicated to the service of Hari and that he would never employ them to extol men.

“Hari mukunduni koniyaadu naa jihva ninun goniyaadanga nera”

Narasinga Raya was offended and in a fit of rage he ordered that the poet should be bound with chains and locked up in prison. A song is mentioned in this context:

" ఆఁకటివేళల నలపైనవేళలను
తేఁకువ హరినామమే దిక్కు మఱి లేదు "
{TTD Book Ref : Samputi 1 | Page 107 (173)}

Annamacharya contemplated the situation and his thoughts naturally turned to the supreme saviour. He uttered a song impromptu, expressing his unwavering faith in the Lord - “Aakati Velala”. At once the fetters that bound him fell off. The awe-struck guards rushed to their master and reported the miraculous happening. Narasinga Raya was overcome with remorse when he realized the greatness of the saint and humbly sought his forgiveness. Annamacharya did forgive him, but decided to eschew the company of such worldlings and proceeded to Tirupati to live in peace. It must be pointed out in this context, that in spite of their association with men of affluence and power, even kings and emperors at times, including Saluva Narsinga Raya who later became the ruler of Vijayanagara Empire, Annamacharya and his descendants never wrote a song or verse in honour of a mere mortal. Gifts and honours came to them unsought, and they accepted prosperity and adversity, praise and insult in a spirit of complete detachment, cherishing only Sri Venkateswara as their precious treasure in the midst of inevitable vicissitudes of fortune.

In his last days Annamayya spent most of his time in Tirupati organizing utsavas and pujas for the Lord. There he wrote a short narrative poem entitiled "Sringara Manjari", describing the passionate longing of a young girl for Sri Venkateswara and the fulfillment of her wish. He also composed numerous songs that vividly describe the pomp and spectacle, rituals and festivals associated with the shrine. Annamacharya appears to have spent the last years of his life in relative tranquility. Spending his time mostly at Tallapaka and Tirupati by turns and participating in the annual Brahmotsava festival of Sri Venkateswara without fail. He received several grants of land, besides other gifts unasked, from his admirers and spent the income from those sources quite lavishly in the service of the Lord by instituting new festivities and food offerings.

From specific references in two poetical works ‘Sripadarenu Mahatyamu’ and ‘Sakuntala Parinayamu’ by one of his grandsons, Revanuri Venkatacharya, It is learnt that Annamacharya performed the Kalyanotsava of the godess Alamelmanga with Lord Venkateswara, assuming the position of the bride’s father. In the past, Periyalwar had the honour of being hailed by the Vaishnavas as the Lord’s father-in-law as he had performed the marriage of his foster-daughter, Andal with Sri Ranganadha and Annamacharya appears to have enjoyed the same distinction among his contemporaries with regard to Sri Venkateswara.

In consequence of his unceasing devotion to the Lord, he acquired certain miraculous powers. Chinnanna mentions a particlar incident when Narsimhadandanadha who attacked Vijayanagar was said to have given sour mangoes to the Lord as naivedya. Annamayya’s one touch changed them to sweet mangoes. There are some songs mentioned where common people are said to have worshipped him as God. Songs composed in praise of Annamacharya by his successors are also mentioned. One of the songs of Peda Tirumalaacharya is:

" హరియవతార మీతఁడు అన్నమయ్య
అరయ మాగురుఁ డీతఁ డన్నమయ్య "
{TTD Book Ref : Samputi 2 | Page 67 (139)}

Annamayya is said to have composed over 32,000 lyrics. Besides the samkeertanas, he also composed Ramayana in Dwipada metre, Venkatachala Mahatyam in Sanskrit, Twelve Satakams, several prabandhas, Sringara Manjari and Sankeertana Lakshana in Sanskrit, which is now not available. Annamacharya lived to a ripe old age, and could look back with satisfaction on his extensive service as the cief hymnist of Sri Venkateswara himself. It is known that he performed the Brahmopadesa to one of his gransdons China Tirumalacharya, and according to reliable inscriptional evidence, he entristed the sacred task of offering a fresh hymn to the Lord every day to his son Peda Tirumalacharya, and passed away on 23rd February in 1503.

Annamayya left behind him worthy successors who were great scholars and poets in their own right. Peda Tirumalacharya was the son of Akkalamma. His son was Chinna Tirumalacharya. Tirumalamma’s son, Narsimhacharya, was also said to have been a great poet. Peda Tirumalacharya assisted by Saluva Narasinga Raya was the one who started the process of storing Annamayya’s songs on copper plates. He had many poetical works to his credit. The contribution of the Tallapaka poets was recognized by many poets of future generations. Annamacharya had always regarded life as a theatrical show, full of pretences and vain pursuits, as he says in one of his songs:

" నానాఁటిబదుకు నాఁటకము
కానక కన్నది కైవల్యము "
{TTD Book Ref : Samputi 3 | Page 337 (427)}

Never for a moment did he waver in his faith that attainment of the realm of Vishnu should be the prime objective of human life. It is certain that Annamacharya played his role in the theatrical show with consummate skill, and when the appointed hour arrived, he made his final exit from the stage with a profound sense of fulfillment.

Annamacharya Painting and Article on his
Life & Works - Courtesy : SACRED

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