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The Tamil word azhwar means one who is immersed in love of God or one who has become mad in the love of God. Therefore, the twelve great saints of the Sri Vaishnava order who appeared between 5050 BCE and 2800 BCE, and composed the 4000 verses of the Divya-prabandha canon are called azhwars.
The azhwars are nitya-suris or eternal residents of Sri Vaikuntam or the eternal spiritual abode of Sriman Narayana. They were not ordinary mortals but the incarnations of different weapons, limbs or eternal associates of the Supreme Lord Narayana.
They were never bound by the dualities of this material nature or by their karma to be born on this planet like others. They incarnated on earth by the divine order or the sankalpam of Sriman Narayana to redeem fallen souls and take them back to the divine eternal service (nitya-kainkaryam) of the divya-dampati: Sriman Narayana and Sri Mahalakshmi.
Following is a brief summary of the twelve azhwars and the verses they composed which form a part of the 4000 Divya-prabandham:
01 — Poigai Azhwar
Poigai Azhwar was born on (sravana-nakshatra) in Thiruvekka, Kanchipuram. He graced the 100 verses of the Mudhal Thiruvandhadhi, and is an incarnation of Panchajanya or the divine conch of Sriman Narayana.
02 — Bhoothathazhvar
Bhoothathazhvar was born on Aippasi Avittam (dhanishta-nakshatra) in Thirukadalmallai (Mahabhalipuram). He graced the 100 verses of the Irandam Thiruvandhadhi, and is an incarnation of Kaumodaki or the divine mace of Sriman Narayana.
03 — Peyazhwar
Peyazhwar was born on Aippasi Sathayam (satabhishaka-nakshatra) in Mylapore. He graced the 100 verses of the Moondram Thiruvanthathi, and is an incarnation of Nandaki or the divine sword of Sriman Narayana.
04 — Thirumazhisai Azhwar
Thirumazhisai Azhwar was born on Thai Magham (magha-nakshatra) in Thirumazhisai. He graced the 96 verses of the Nanmugan Thiruvanthadi and the 120 verses of Thiruchandavirutham, and is an incarnation of Sudarshana-chakra or the divine discus of Sriman Narayana..
05 — Nammazhwar
Nammazhwar was born on Vaikasi Vishakam (vishakha-nakshatra) in Azhwar Thirunagari (Thirukurugur). He graced the 1102 verses of the Thiruvaymozhi, 7 verses of the Thiruvasiriyam, 100 verses of the Thiruvirutham, and the 87 verses of the Periya Thiruvandhadhi. He is an incarnation of Vishvaksena, the commander-in-chief of the Sriman Narayana in Vaikuntha.
06 — Madhurakavi Azhwar
Madhurakavi Azhwar was born on Chitra Chittirai (chitra-nakshatra) in Thirukolur. He graced the 11 verses of Kanninun Siruthambu, and is an incarnation of Garuda, the divine mount of Sriman Narayana.
07 — Kulashekhara Azhwar
Kulashekhara Azhwar was born on Masi Punarpusam (punarvasu-nakshatra) in Thiruvanchikulam in the Chera Kingdom of Makotai. He graced the 105 verses of Perumal Thirumozhi and is an incarnation of Kaustubha, the divine jewel on the necklace of Sriman Narayana.
08 — Periyazhwar
Periyazhwar was born on Ani Swathi (svati-nakshatra) in Srivilliputhur. He graced the 473 verses of the Periyazhvar Thirumozhi and is an incarnation of Garuda, or the divine mount of Sriman Narayana.
09 — Andal
Andal was born on Adi Puram (purva-phalguni-nakshatra) in Srivilliputhur. She graced the 30 verses of the Thiruppavai and the 143 verses of the Nachiyar Thirumozhi, and is an incarnation of Bhudevi, the divine consort of Sriman Narayana, and the personification of Mother Earth.
10 — Thondaradippodi Azhwar
Thondaradippodi Azhwar was born on Margazhi Kettai (jyeshta-nakshatra) in Thirumandangudi. He graced the 45 verses of the Thirumalai and the 11 verses of the Thirupalliyezhuchi, and is an incarnation of Vanamala, the garland of Sriman Narayana.
11 — Thiruppaan Azhwar
Thiruppaan Azhwar was born on Karthigai Rohini (rohini-nakshatra) in Uraiyur. He the 10 verses of the Amalanadi-piran, and is an incarnation of Srivatsa, the divinely auspicious mole on the chest of Sriman Narayana.
12 — Thirumangai Azhwar
Thirumangai Azhwar was born in Karthigai Krithigai (krittika-nakshatra) in Thirukurayalur. He graced the 1084 verses of the Periya Thirumozhi; 1 verse of the Thiruvezhukootrikai, 20 verses of the Thirukurunthandagam; 30 verses of the Thirunedunthandagam; 40 verses of the Siriya Thirumadal; and 78 verses of the Periya Thirumadal. He is an incarnation of Sharngam or the divine bow of Sriman Narayana.