The Avvaiyars (Tamil: ஔவையார்) "respectable women" was the title of more than one poet who was active during different periods of Tamil literature. The Avvaiyar were some of the most famous and important female poets of the Tamil canon. Abithana Chintamani states that there were three female poets titled Avvaiyar.
Among them, Avvaiyar I lived during the Sangam period (c. 1st and 2nd century CE) and had cordial relation with the Tamil chieftains Paari and Athiyaman. She wrote 59 poems in the Puṟanāṉūṟu.
Avvaiyar II lived during the period of Kambar and Ottakoothar during the reign of the Chola dynasty in the 13th century. She is often imagined as an old but intelligent lady by Tamil people. She wrote many of the poems that remain very popular even now and are inculcated in school textbooks in Tamil Nadu. These books include a list of dos and don'ts, useful for daily life, arranged in simple and short sentences.
The name Avvaiyar is a combination of Tamil word avvai with honorific suffix ar.Avvai refers to respectable elderly woman as the word ammai which means good woman in general term for a woman of any age. Thus the name Avvaiyar means a respectable good woman hence a generic title rather than a specific name of a person.
The Avvaiyar who lived during the Sangam period is considered to be contemporary to poets Paranar, Kabilar and Thiruvalluvar.She is attributed as the author of 7 verses in Naṟṟiṇai, 15 in Kuṟuntokai, 4 in Akanaṉūṟu and 33 in Puṟanāṉūṟu. Legend states that she was a court poet of the rulers of the Tamil country. She travelled from one part of the country to another and from one village to another, sharing the gruel of the poor farmers and composing songs for their enjoyment. Most of her songs were on a small time chieftain Vallal Athiyamaan Nedumaan Anji and his family.The chieftain had also used her as his ambassador to avert war with another neighbouring cheiftain Tontaiman. The rest of her songs related to the various aspects of state governance. Although traditions claim that she was a sister of Kabilar, Thiruvalluvar and Athiyamaan, V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar refutes this claim based on his studies that all four of them were most likely of different walks of life, thus from different caste backgrounds and hence impossible to be siblings.
The medievaal period Avvaiyar was the court poet of the Chola monarch and was the contemporary of Kambar and Ottakkuttar. She found great happiness in the life of small children. Her works, Aathichoodi and Konraiventhan written for young children, are even now generally read and enjoyed by them.
Her two other works, Mooturai and Nalvali were written for older children. All the four works are didactic in character — they explain the basic wisdom that should govern mundane life.
கற்றது கைமண் அளவு, கல்லாதது உலகளவு (ஔவையார்)
Alternatively "Known is a drop, unknown is an Ocean". (Source: Avvaiyar)
"Thol Ulagil Nallaar Oruvar Ularael Avar Poruttu Ellarkum Peiyum Mazhai" - The rain falls on behalf of the virtuous, benefitting everyone in the world.
"Nanri Oruvarku Seithakal An Nanri Enrum Thalaravalarthengu Thaan Unda Neerai Thalaiyaalae Thaan Tharuthalal" - A good deed will pay back, as the coconut tree that gives the benefit holding on its head, for the water you pour in its feet.
Her quote "Katrathu Kai Mann Alavu, Kallathathu Ulagalavu" has been translated as "What you have learned is a mere handful; What you haven't learned is the size of the world" and exhibited at NASA.
In Muppandal, a small village in the Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu. there is an image of Avvaiyar. By tradition, this is stated to be the spot where the great poetess left the mortal world.
Legend has it that once the great king Athiyaman gave an eternal amla Nellikani (gooseberry) fruit to Avvaiyar, this is a special and powerful fruit, whoever eats it will have a healthy and long life. Athiyaman wanted Avvaiyar to eat the eternal fruit as she was the right person who could serve the Tamil community.
In 2009, Red Hen Press published a selection of Avvaiyar's poetry from the 12th century, entitled "Give, Eat, and Live: Poems by Avviyar." The poems were selected and translated into English by Thomas Pruiksma, a poet and translator who discovered Avviyar's work while on a Fulbright scholarship at The American College in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India.