The twelve Alvars belonging to the Vaishnava faith were responsible for, among other things, the Vaishnava Bakthi movement in Tamil Nadu. This Vigraha is that of Nammalvar, one of the twelve alvars.
Though chronologically Nammalvar was not the first Alvar, he is considered the first among equals, of the twelve alvars. Whereas other alvars are considered to be incarnations of various attributes or objects associated with Vishnu, Nammalvar is said to be an incarnation of Tirukkungudi Vishnu.
This vigraha is identified based on the hair arrangement, the Vyakhyana mudra of his right hand and his left hand resting on his thigh holding a book. The hair arrangement of Nammalvar is called KariMaranKondai (Kari – the caste he belongs to, Maran – his given name and Kondai – Hair arrangement). This is one of the few vigrahas where identification can be based on the hair arrangement.
Though aesthetics of this Vigraha is not the best, the iconographic features listed below merit attention.
- Nammalvar is said to have born in Velalar community, a non-brahmin group, and he is not meant to wear the sacred thread. This Vigraha shows him wearing one. That is the reason for some tentativeness in the identification.
- Here Nammalvar is shown wearing the Namam, vertical religious mark, on his forehead (see the closeup picture) and that feature became common during the Vijayanagar period.
- His upper arms sport the religious marks Chakra and Shankha, two of the attributes of Vishnu. These days they are more commonly replaced by Namam.
- See the close up picture of his hair arrangement. It shows Chakra, Namam and Shankha. Very unusual. This again helps us in dating this Vigraha. Though the display of these three symbols together is quite common now, especially at the entrances or on top of Gopurams, they did not appear as a combined emblem till about the eighteenth century.
This Nammalvar vigraha is only about 8 cm in height and it is from Tamil Nadu. This vigraha will fall into the vintage category, less than 150 years old, but it carries a story or two.