It is derived from the Sanskrit root word Bhaja whose literal meaning is ‗to utter‘.
The significance of the word Bhaja is ‗to adore‘ or ‗to love with honour‘.
In the devotional literature the word is used to mean ‗unquestionable faith and utter devotion to God‘. Thus in a general sense Bhakti means devotion to God.
The Bhakti movement originated in South India during the seventh to eighth century CE, spread northwards from Tamil Nadu through Karnataka and gained wide acceptance in fifteenthcentury Bengal and northern India.
The 12 Vaisnava Alvars and 63 Saiva Nayanars of South India are hailed as the earliest groups of bhakti saints.
These 75 poet-saints composed soul-stirring verses in Tamil that set the groundwork for centuries of bhakti tradition.
The early Vaishnava and Saiva bhakti saints composed hymns at a time when Jainism and Buddhism were gaining major popularity.
In the early seventh and eighth centuries, the Hindu Pallava and Chola kingdoms of southern India were at the height of their power.
This, coupled with the burgeoning popularity of the divine songsters, kept Hinduism strong as it faced threats from other faiths.
The bhakti environment created by these poet-saints influenced people from all walks of life, royalty and laymen, who were inspired by the pristine devotion of the saints and subsequently redefined their own lives as service to God
The Alvars, which literally means “those immersed in God”, were Vaishnava poet-saints who sang praises of Vishnu as they travelled from one place to another. These poet-saints, all great devotees of Maha Vishnu, came from diverse communities in the Tamil South. They traveled to temples far and wide, collectively composing 4,000 hymns (pasurams) in praise of Vishnu and Krishna. They established temple sites such as Srirangam, and spread ideas about Vaishnavism. As torchbearers of the Sri Vaishnava tradition of South India from the sixth through ninth centuries, the 12 Alvars of Tamil Nadu spread the message of fervent love, devotion and spiritual surrender unto the Divine. In the 10th century, theologian Nathamuni compiled their works as the Nalayira Divya Prabandham (Divine Collection of 4,000 Hymns) and set them to music for singing in temples. The Divya Prabandham is hailed as the ―Vedas of the Dravidians‖ as they convey the message of the Vedas and Upanishads in accessible Tamil. The Alvars propound a personal and emotional approach as they dote on and chide Perumal/Vishnu through their passionate bhakti poetry, which devotees memorize, recite, sing, listen and dance to. The songs of the Prabandham are regularly sung in South Indian Vishnu temples and homes, especially during festivals.
The Bhakti literature that sprang from Alvars has contributed to the establishment and sustenance of a culture that broke away from the ritual-oriented Vedic religion and rooted itself in devotion as the only path for salvation.
In addition they helped to make the Tamil religious life independent of a knowledge of Sanskrit
As part of the legacy of the Alvars, five Vaishnava philosophical traditions (sampradayas) have developed at the later stages
Born in Srivilliputhur and brought up by Periyar (also an alvar), the maiden named Kothai maintained that she would marry only Lord Ranganatha of Thiruvarangam. Her devotion and surrender earned her the name Andal, the girl who ―ruled‖ over the Lord.
Nammalvar (―our Alvar‖) is one of the most famous and prolific of the group. His poetry contributed greatly to philosophy and theology of Tamil Vaishnavism.
To the Alvars, the Lord is not a mere idea but a concrete presence.
Through their magnificent hymns in the Divya Prabandham, the saints sang about Lord Vishnu presiding in 108 temples.
Each of these temples is celebrated as a Divya Desam, ―divine precinct‖, and together form a map of sacred geography and pilgrimage for the Sri Vaishnava community.
India is home to 105 of these sanctuaries, spread across Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. One Divya Desam is in Nepal, and two are in celestial realms.
The Nayanars “hounds of Siva”, later “teachers of Siva”) were a group of 63 saint-poets in the 6th to 8th century who were devoted to the Hindu god Shiva in Tamil Nadu. The Nayanars were from various backgrounds, including Channars, Vanniyar, Vellalas, Idayars, Thevars, oilmongers, Brahmins, Harijan, and nobles. In the 10th century, king Raja Raja Chola I collected Tevaram literature after hearing excerpts of the hymns in his court. His priest Nambiyandar Nambi began compiling the hymns into a series of volumes called the Tirumurai. He arranged the hymns of three saint poets Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar as the first seven books which he called the Tevaram. He compiled Manikkavacakar’s Tirukovayar and Tiruvacakam as the eighth book, the 28 hymns of nine other saints as the ninth book, the Tirumandiram of Tirumular and 40 hymns by 12 other poets as the tenth book. In the eleventh book, he created the Tirutotanar Tiruvanthathi (also known as Tirutoṇṭar Antādi, lit. Necklace of Verses on the Lord’s Servants), which consisted of 89 verses, with a verse devoted to each of the saints. With the addition of Sundarar and his parents to the sequence, this became the canonical list of the 63 saints. In the 12th century, Sekkizhar added a twelfth volume to the Tirumurai called Periya Puranam in which he expands further on the stories of each of 63 Nayanars.
The poets’ itinerant lifestyle helped create temple and pilgrimage sites and spread spiritual ideas built around Shiva.
Early Tamil-Siva bhakti poets influenced Hindu texts that came to be revered all over India.
Of the Siva devotees, the Nalvar (Sambandar, Appar, Sundarar and Manikkavasagar), as well as female poet-saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar, had a great impact on Saiva Siddhanta philosophy (According to Saiva Siddhanta, Siva is the ultimate and supreme reality, omniscient, omnipresent and unbound) as they sang about Siva as Personal Lord and Supreme Reality.