The legend of Alli is located in and around Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Alli was the child of a Pandyan king, born after a putra-kamesthi-yagna (a special yagna conducted for the birth of a male heir). She was born/found on a flower and is associated with the reigning deity of Madurai, Meenakshi, who is supposed to have entrusted the royal couple with the care of the child.

The Pandyan kings worship Meenakshi and interestingly their kingdom, according to oral lore, was founded by a woman.

Alli was brought up by the king and his wife as an heir to the throne, she was trained in the art of battle and that of administering the large Pandyan kingdom. In this too, her life mimicked that of the goddess Meenakshi who was proficient in war craft and is still regarded as one of the major warrior goddesses in the pantheon.

There are many stories about Alli, about her kingdom and her encounters with Pandava prince Arjuna. This story is about Alli and Neenmugan and is among the early stories about her skill on the battlefield.

Neenmugan who was believed to be the son of a waterfowl (who had been a prostitute in a previous birth) had been adopted by Alli’s father. Some versions of the story claim that Neenmugan was part of a larger conspiracy to derail the Pandyan kings and had been planted in the household of the childless king by an enemy.

After Alli was born, it became apparent to Neenmugan that his plan to usurp the kingdom was about to fall apart. So he decided to act fast, while the royal couple were on their way back with Alli, he carried out a coup and took over the throne. The king found himself exiled from his own kingdom, without an army to mount an attack on his adopted son.

He sought refuge with his father-in-law who ruled over a tiny principality. But the vengeful Neenmugan declared war on that state, demanding a tribute. Alli, who was still a child at the time led the fight against him. The text of “Alii Kadai” (verse: 45, canto I) says that Alii defied the tyrant and successfully led the army against him.

Alii was subsequently crowned ruler of Madurai. Historian Vijaya Ramaswamy writes in a paper, The taming of Alli (2002), “The Alli myth in its various shifts and movements clearly points to a coming together of two traditions. Alli Arasani Malai combines indigenous Tamil traditions, which can be broadly categorised as Dravidian, and the Sanskritic, Brahmanical tradition, which makes its presence in South India towards the latter part of the Sangam age (Kadai Sangam). This cultural encounter was a long drawn process.”

Ramaswamy further explains that the legend shows the female heir Alli in far better light than the male heir Neenmugan who is shown as villainous and greedy for power. It establishes right at the start the heroic qualities of the princess who would go on to establish her rule over the kingdom of Madurai.

Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta

Location: Tamil Nadu

Source: The taming of Alli, Vijaya Ramaswamy