Sri-Vaishnavism is the school of Vaishnavism associated with Ramanujacharya, his predecessors and successors, and its philosophy is known as Visistadvaita or qualified non-dualism. The Sri-Vaishnavas hold the twelve ‘alvars’, the Tamil poet-saints, and the ‘Acharyas’, or preceptors, in great veneration. Though the dates of the ‘alvars’ are a disputed question, but they may be roughly placed between the sixth and ninth centuries AD. The devotional songs composed by the ‘alvars’ were codified into the Nalayim-Prabandham by Nathamuni (tenth-eleventh century), the first of the ‘Acharyas’. The greatest of the Acharyas was Ramanuja (eleventh-twelfth century); subsequent to him the line divided into two, one representing the northern school and the other the Prabandhik, or the southern school. The followers of the former are called the Vadagalais and of the latter, the Terigalais.
The worship of the ‘alvars’ and ‘Acharyas’ is a peculiar feature of Sri-Vaishnavism. The worship of the ‘alvars’ was probably already prevalent by the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD. The deification of the ‘Acharyas’ followed in course of time and their statues were installed in Sri-Vaishnava temples. Yet it was only during the Vijayanagara period that the cult of these deified saints became highly popular and separate shrines were built for them in Srirangam, Tirupati, Kanchipuram and other important Sri-Vaishnava temples. This was particularly so in the sixteenth century during the reigning period of Tuluva dynasty. A popularity that in Vijayanagara city resulted in the installation of the ‘alvars’ in the Vitthala temple, a proliferation of images representing them, festivals honouring them instituted and separate temples built to enshrine them.
Sri-Vaishnavas bestowed reverence to the ‘alvars’ and ‘Acharyas’. The first three ‘alvars’, Poygai, Bhutam and Pey, collectively called the Mudal-alvars or the first ‘alvars’, are considered to be incarnations of the shankha, gada and nandaka (sword) of Lord Vishnu. Tirumalisai-alvar is the part of Vishnu’s chakra. Tirumangai is believed to be the part of bow; Periyalvar is the part of Garuda; his adopted daughter, Andal, is the only woman ‘alvar’. Tiruppan is thought to be the partial incarnation of the Srivatsa; Kulasekhara is the part of the kaustubha; Vipranarayana or Tondaradippodi is said to be the division of the vanamala, while the greatest of the ‘alvars’, Nammalvar or Sathakopa, is believed to be the ‘ansa’ or part of Visvaksena. The last in the line was Madhurakavi. At Vijayanagara, all the ‘alvars’ came, in course of time, to be worshipped by the Sri-Vaishnavas; among the ‘Acharyas’, the most popular was undoubtedly Ramanuja, also known as Udaiyavar or ‘owner of the two worlds’ and Bhasyakara, since his Sri-Bhasya is considered to be the exposition par excellence of the Vedanta Sutras.
In Vijayanagara, reliefs or sculptures of the ‘alvars’ and ‘Acharyas,’ belonging to the mid-fifteenth century have been found. Iconographically the ‘alvars’ are usually portrayed seated cross-legged with hands in ‘anjali-mudra’. At times, some of the ‘alvars’ are shown standing, notably Tirumangai who holds a sword and shield, because he had been a robber-chief before his conversion to sainthood, and Tiruppan, a minstrel of low caste, who is often depicted with a lute in the crook of one of his arms, resting on the shoulder. Some of these ‘alvar’ statues are to be seen in different spots in Vitthalapura.
The Tamil practice, especially in Tengalai centres, of a ten-day festival for the recitation of the Prabandham, the songs of the ‘alvars’, was also introduced in the Vitthala temple. In 1554 AD the swing pavilion in the Vitthala temple was built and a number of festivals were instituted in this place of worship, including the ten-day Tiruvadhyana festival of the recitation of the Prabandham. In the Srirangam temple, the centre of the Tengalai sect, this recitation takes place during the ten days of the Ekadasi festival in January. Another inscription of AD 1561 indicates that in Vitthala, too, the Tiruvadhyana was celebrated around the same time, for it is said to be around Makara-Sankranti, which falls in mid-January. In the same epigraph, Kondaraja added an eleventh and twelfth day to the ten-day Tiruvadhyana festival started by his younger brother Udayagiri Timmaraju. There is inscriptional evidence of the existence of shrines for the Mudal-alvars, or the first three ‘alvars’, Tirumaiigai, Nammajvar and Tirumalisai and of Ramanuja. Thus, separate shrines for six of the ‘alvars’ and one ‘acharya’ existed in Vitthalapura.
Both the ‘Alvars’ and ‘Acharyas’ are treated as deities in temples following the Tenkalai tradition. They are enshrined in the temples and are taken out in procession though the processions are not as elaborate as those for the deities. The processions for both the ‘Alvars’ and ‘Acharyas’ represent them as worshipping the deity; the ‘utsava’ image of the ‘Alvar’ or ‘Acharya’ is placed facing the image of the deity as the procession moves through the streets. Festivals are also celebrated to commemorate some of the ‘Acharyas’. It is interesting to note that, though ‘alvar’ and ‘acharya’ images were installed in other great Sri-Vaishnava temples at Vijayanagara, in none of these are there separate shrines for the deified saints either within or outside the temple complex. In this aspect, the Vitthala temple and Vitthalapura are unique in Vijayanagara. It is obvious that Vitthalapura was the centre of ‘alvar-acharya’ worship at the site. The temples of the ‘alvars-Acharyas’ in Vitthalapura seem to have existed as independent institutions, with their own grants and daily rituals. At the same time they were linked to the great Vitthala temple, which by this time had emerged as the Sri-Vaishnava centre par excellence at Vijayanagara. They also seem to have some relationship with each other, as is revealed by the foundational epigraph of the Tirumarigai-alvar temple that mentions the coming of Vitthala and Nammalvar in procession to it.
Prominent in the fostering of the ‘alvar-acharya’ veneration in Vitthalapura were the four sons of Ramaraja Konetiraja, the first cousin of the regent, Aliya Ramaraya. Of these four, Aubhalaraju, the eldest, built a temple to an ‘alvar’, the two middle sons instituted in the Vitthala temple the festival of the recitation, over a twelve-day period, of the Prabandham, while the last made some contribution to the Ramanuja temple. Aliya Ramaraya was also a patron of this cult, giving a village to the temple of Nammajvar near Vitthala.
In general, it can be seen that the apotheosis of ‘alvar-acharya’ worship at Vijayanagara occurred in the last decades before the destruction and desertion of the city, particularly during the reign of Sadashiva (AD 1542-1565) and the main centre was Vitthalapura.