For those who do not know, there are two main sects of Sri Vaishnavism: Thenkalai and Vadakalai.

The Vadakalai sect wear their namam, or thiruman, in a "U" shaped pattern with manjal or yellow like this:

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And the Thenkalai sect wear it in a "Y" shaped pattern with kunkumam or red like this:

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While this difference is probably the most visible one, I am not completely sure whether I fully understand the differences in the theological beliefs of the two sects.

Could someone please articulate what are the major disagreements between these two branches?

Also, for those who are interested, one of the differences in ritual was previously discussed here, but for this question I would like to know more about the differences in belief.

  • The difference betveen thengalai and vadagakalai is that from immemorial the cast differences exists on earth whatever is the religion in some form or other The alwars propogated pure bhakti irrespective of cast and in them there were all casts( so to say God has taken birth in all casts and propogated bhakti the only way for surrender which removes ego(like avtar of Anjaneya ).
    – user7443
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 21:10
  • So the thengalais permitted (pillai lokacharya) all bhaktas irrespective of casts into sanctum sanctorim of God.this was objected by Vedanta desika by so many arguments that sanctoriam will be impurities and started vadagalai sect .He did not accept bhakti alone but wantedbramins with achara for entering.pillailokacharyas vaishnavismfailed as sathada srivaishnavisam the true tengalais
    – user7443
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 21:10
  • The difference is obvious in the name itself. In old proto Dravidian - Thenuku means South and Vadagu means North. So northerners were called Vadagalai and southerners Thenkalai. Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 21:19

3 Answers 3


First of all, these aren't the two main sub-sects of Vaishnavism, they are the two main sub-sects of Sri Vaishnavism. There are other Vaishnava Sampradayas, like the Gaudiya Vaishnava sect that ISKCON adheres to. What distinguishes Sri Vaishnavas from other kinds of Vaishnavas are mainly two things: our beliefs, and our origins.

Gaudiya Vaishnavas believe in Achintya Bheda Abheda, a simultaneous unity and difference between Jivatma (the human soul) and Paramatma (divine soul or supersoul) that is inconceivable. Madhvas believe in Dvaita, a fundamental difference between Jivatma and Parmatma. Sri Vaishnavas, on the other hand, believe in Visistadvaita, or "qualified monism", where there is one big unified whole called Paramatma, but within that there are still distinct parts like Jivatmas, akin to how an unborn baby is part of the body of a pregnant woman, but the pregnant woman's body extends beyond the baby (what Western thinkers would call panentheism).

The Sri Vaishnava sect has its origins in the works of the Alwars, a group of 12 ancient Vaishnava saints who lived in Tamil Nadu and and are famous for their poetry in praise of Vishnu. The 4000 poems of the Alwars were collected by Nathamuni into a book called the Naalayira Divya Prabhandam, which started being thought of as the Dravida Veda, or Veda of South India. It is the beliefs and principles embodied in the poems of the Naalayira Divya Prabhandam that provided a basis for the Sri Vaishnava belief system. Nathamuni was the founder of the sect, but it really got into prominence when Ramanujacharya became its leader. As I describe in this answer, it is after the time of Ramanujacharya that Sri Vaishnavas became a sizable enough portion of the Brahmin community that they started developing a distinct identity, which is e.g. how the Iyengars emerged from the Iyers.

Now Ramanujacharya placed pretty much equal emphasis on both Sanskrit scripture, like the Vedas, Upanishads, and Puranas, and the Tamil Naalayira Divya Prabhandam, because he took the notion that it was the Dravida Veda very seriously. But after his death, his followers started having disagreements. They all agreed on the Visistadvaita philosophy that characterizes the Sri Vaishnava belief system, but they had disputes that fundamentally revolved around how much authority we should give to the Naalayira Divya Prabhandam. Manavala Mamunigal and his successors believed that words of the Alwars are of paramount importance, and that they contain all the important messages of the Vedas and more, so they started called themselves Thenkalai (the Southern group), because their supreme scripture was the Naalayira Divya Prabhanda, which is from South India. Vedanta Desikan and his successors still believed that Alwars' words were sacred, but they also thought that we shouldn't neglect the importance of Sanskrit scripture like the Vedas. Since they placed some emphasis on scripture that had come from North India, they became known as Vadakalai (the Northern group).

The other doctrinal differences between Thenkalais and Vadakalais emerge from this split over what scriptures to pay the most attention to. For instance, Naalayira Prabhandam consists in large part of devotional poems where the Alwars describe their utter dependence on Vishnu for salvation (Moksha), akin to a lovesick youth being dependent on the affections of his beloved. Since the Thenkalais paid attention almost exclusively to the works of the Alwars, they developed the notion that all of us are dependent on Vishnu to grant salvation to whomever he chooses, and that we are powerless to do anything to achieve it. The traditional analogy is to baby kittens, who don't need to do anything in order to be carried around by their mother. The Vadakalais, on the other hand, got from Sanskrit scripture the insight that there are actually things we can do to try to achieve Moksha, like the principles of Bhakti Yoga laid out in the Bhagavad Gita. But they also paid attention to the poems of the Alwars, which led them to believe that it is possible to be granted salvation by Vishnu the way the Alwars were talking about, but in order to do that you need to first make a positive act of surrender (Saranagati or Prapatti) to the lotus feet of Vishnu. The traditional analogy for the Vadakalai belief is baby monkeys, who have to make some effort to cling to their mother's body.

The "cats vs. monkeys" dispute is the biggest doctrinal difference between Thenkalais and Vadakalais, but there are other smaller differences; here is a list of ten of them (the central difference I discussed above is described in points 1, 4, and 5):

1) Regarding Lord's mercy. Next to the Caste mark, this probably is the only other difference most people are aware of

Vadakalai View: Some positive gesture is necessary on the part of the jeevatma to deserve the grace of God, because He can be deemed partial if He grants Moksha to all both deserving and undeserving.

Tenkalai View: Lord's grace is spontaneous. He can grant Moksha to anyone he likes.

2) Regarding the status of Lakshmi (i) as to her being the means (ii) as to her being infinite (iii) as to her being Paramatma

Vadakalai View: (i) She is the means for attaining salvation as much as the Lord Himself and also has the role of a mediator ( Purushakara) (ii) She is infinite in nature (Vibhu) like the Lord Himself (iii) She is also Paramatma as much as the Lord Himself

Tenkalai View: (i) Do not accept this position though they accept her recommendatory role as held by Vadakalais (ii) She is atomic in nature like other Jeevatmas (iii) She is a Jeevatma like any of us.

3) Regarding Kaivalya

Vadakalai View: (i) Kaivalya is inferior to Paramapada (ii) Kaivalya is not eternal (iii) Kaivalya is situated Outside Paramapada

Tenkalai View (i) Accepted (ii) Kaivalya is eternal (iii) Kaivalya is within Paramapada but in its outermost parts.

4) Regarding the means of Bhakti and Prapatti

Vadakalai View: Accept both as the direct means but Bhakti is more difficult and dilatory while Prapatti is easy and immediate

Tenkalai View: Do not accept any means because Jeevatma is so utterly dependent as to be incapable of adopting either Bhakti or Prapatti as a means.

5) Regarding Prapatti

Vadakalai View: Prapatti has to be a positive specific act of surrender by the jeevatma to the Paramatma

Tenkalai View: No positive, specific act is necessary. All that is required is (i) the knowledge of the Svarupa of the Jeevatma and (ii) mental acceptance of the Lord's grace in granting salvation

6) Regarding sins

Vadakalai View: When a jeeva surrenders, the Lord forgives the sins committed by the jeevatma and grants Moksha.

Tenkalai View: The sins of a jeevatma is a source of joy for the Lord who relishes the same like a cow licking off the dirt on the body of its calf

7) Regarding performance of Compulsory duties like Sandhyavandanam

Vadakalai View: As compulsory duties are laid down by the Sastras which are the Lord's commandments, non- performance will tantamount to transgression of His commands (Ajna adhilangana) and will render the Prapanna liable for punishment

Tenkalai View: To a highly evolved soul, non- performance of the compulsory duties is not an offence. But, they should continue to do them more for setting an example to the less evolved souls.

8) Regarding the interpretation of the words "Sarva Dharman Parityajya' occurring in the Charama sloka

Vadakalai View: The Dharmas actually refer to the 32 Vidyas attaching to Bhaktiyoga which had already been given up by the jeeva due to incapacity and delay involved in observing them and the Lord offers to stand in their place

Tenkalai View: This is literally interpreted to mean ' First, give up your duties and then take refuge in the Lord'

9) Regarding the Lord's grief at the suffering of the souls

Vadakalai View: One can have grief only when one cannot remove suffering of another. But, the Lord is capable of removing suffering. So, there is no need for Him to grieve. As Sri Rama , He shows to the World how a human would feel and how one should react on seeing the misery of others.

Tenkalai View: They hold that the Lord actually feels sorry on seeing the sufferings of souls and cite examples from Srimad Ramayana where Sri Rama is depicted as grieving over the misery of others.

10) Regarding the Lord's being also atomic as well as gigantic in size as mentioned in the Vedas.

Vadakalai View: He is smaller than the atom in beings that are atomic in size. This is called 'Antar Vyapti' ( Immanence). He is also greater than the greatest in the sense He pervades and surrounds everything. This is called ' Bahir Vyapti'. ( Transcendence)

Tenkalai View: His being atomic in atoms and enveloping even the biggest are all done by what is known as 'Agatitha Ghatana Saamartya'- Special powers enabling accomplishment of even the impossible.

Tell me if you want me to clarify any of these points. By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, my dad is a Thenakalai and my mom is a Vadakalai, so I'm technically a Thenkalai, but my beliefs lean more toward the Vadakalai side because I think Sanskrit scripture is important. So that might bias my description of the two sides.

EDIT: The web page I quoted above gives only 10 of the 18 points of difference between the beliefs of Thenkalais and Vadakalais, but here is the full list of 18 points, quoted from a journal article. (Note that N denotes Vadakalai and S denotes Thenkalai.). Also, here is an excerpt from C. Umakanthan's book "Greatness of Saranagati in Sri Vaishnavism" discussing seven of the differences. (Vedanta Desikan's view is what became the Vadakalai view and Pillai Lokacharya's view is what became the Thenkalai view).

  • Thank you for such a wonderfully well-written answer! I've generally been aware of the major differences, but didn't realize that they stemmed from the value placed in the original Sanskrit texts. Also, I've updated the question to reflect the distinction between Vashnavism and Sri Vashnavism.
    – Akshay
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 20:53
  • 2
    @Akshay Thanks! I'd phrase it the opposite way: it's about the value placed on the Alwars' poems. Thenkalais also believe that the Sanskrit scriptures are sacred, that the Vedas have a divine origin, etc., but they think despite all that, the Naalayira Divya Prabhandam is so great that it encompasses everything you need to know from those scriptures. And they think that if there's ever a conflict between the words of the Alwars and Sanskrit texts, you should go with the Alwars, especially the words of Nammalwar, because his guru was Vishwaksena, whose guru was Lakshmi, whose guru was Vishnu. Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 21:45
  • 1
    @Akshay Vadakalais believe in the same disciplic succession, they just don't draw quite so strong a conclusion from it. Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 21:46
  • You know I agree with the Vadakalai arguments for the most, but when it comes to Sharanagati I think the Marjara (Cat) way is the better one.
    – Surya
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 4:39
  • @Surya Why do you think thenakalai mental acceptance is better??
    – Yogi
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 11:02

18 points of dispute:

The Nature of Lakshmi (Sri). Vadagalai -Sri has essential pervasion (svarupa vyapti), the same as Narayana. They are coeval in that they both share the same essential nature and together they form a dual entity with a co-operative identity. Lakshmi is completely Divine as per the teachings of Lakshmi Tantra, and the personification of the Mercy of Narayana. Tengalai- Sri has attributive pervasion (guna-vyapti) and corporeal pervasion (vigrahavyapti) — in other words she shares the same qualities or attributes as Narayana and shares the same manifest iconic form and pervades the universe. She does not have essential pervasion (svarupa vyapti). This means that Sri does not have essential divinity by nature as she is a jiva, but has the divine function of Mediatrix as a gift from God.

Powers of Sri. Vadagalai--- Lakshmi has equal power with Sriman Narayana to grant liberation. In other words she too can serve as the Goal and the Means, one can therefore surrender to Sri only Tengalai- Sriman Narayana alone has the power to grant liberation. Sri is the Universal Reconciler, the Mediatrix between the jivas and Sriman Narayana. She is not fully divine and therefore being a jiva herself, she has a natural affinity and compassion for the jiva. She also has an intimate relationship with the Lord and therefore is in a position to influence Him to grant liberation but she herself cannot do it.

  1. Concerning God’s Grace (Prasada).

Vadagalai Divine Grace is co-operative, that is; it is earned through the performance of acts of merit (punya), it comes as a reward for the self-initiated efforts made by the spiritual aspirant. Sriman Narayana can use any excuse He chooses for bestowing Grace, but it does not come completely freely without some good deed on the part of the individual, however slight it may be

Tengalai Divine Grace is irresistible it is the free gift from Sriman Narayana given to whomsoever He may choose. It cannot be earned in anyway through any form of spiritual or worldly practice such as good works, charity, sacrifice, worship, study etc. But we do agree that Sriman Narayana does use yadrccha sukrta (accidental good works*) as an excuse for bestowing grace

Concerning God’s “Maternal” Love (vatsalya).

Vadagalai -Sriman Narayana’s maternal love (vatsalya) for the jiva means that He turns a blind eye to one’s faults and ignores the transgressions one has committed (dosha-adarshitvam). Although He also continues to ignores all the transgressions committed after Prapatti, He still requires some atonement and administers some form of light punishment to the errant prapannan

Tengalai -The maternal love of Sriman Narayana is so overpowering that He actually relishes (as it were) the faults and errors of the jiva (dosha-bhogyatvam), because they present Him with a pretext (vyaja) for showing more compassion and forgiveness. There is no need for atonement for transgressions committed after Prapatti.

. Concerning God’s Compassion (daya).

Vadagalai- Sriman Narayana’s compassion is such that it produces in Him a desire to relieve the suffering of the creatures (para-dukha-nicakshire).

Tengalai Sriman Narayana’s compassion is such that He cannot bear to see suffering and it actually causes a vicarious suffering in Him.

Works (karma yoga) and Gnosis (jñana yoga).

Vadagalai- These two paths taught in the Bhagavad Gita are not a direct means (upaya) to God, they are ancillary to the path of Devotion (bhakti yoga), which is the principle means to Liberation. They are integral accessories to Bhakti Yoga

Tengalai -Any of these three means (karma yoga, jñana yoga or bhakti yoga) may lead directly to liberation if done in the spirit of Self-surrender (Prapatti). In each case it is the motivation and mind-set of the individual which is the determining factor

Taking Refuge in God. (Prapatti).

Vadagalai- Prapatti is a self-initiated act (upaya) like bhakti, jñana and karma Yogas and is therefore one among four ways or returning to Godhead, although it is the best

Tengalai- Prapatti is the method par-excellence and the only valid means. It is the means and the end and therefore not a ‘method’ like other Yogas (upayas}


Vadagalai -Those who are incapable of following Bhakti Yoga and other means because of caste restrictions or gender (women), or sheer helplessness or despair should resort tO PRAPATTI

Tengalai -Prapatti is for everyone, be they capable or incapable of other means. Prapatti is the sine-qua-non of Salvation. To attempt to qualify it as better or worse and to compare it to the other means derogates from its greatness


Vadagalai -If a Prapanna, subsequent to the act of Taking Refuge, lapses into error, the atonement consists of repeating the act of Prapatti again and again, as often as one backslides. Or one may also perform one of the several forms of atonement that are mentioned in the Dharma Sastras in order to propitiate the Lord and elicit His forgiveness.

Tengalai -Not so! Prapatti is the act of Taking Refuge and freely and completely surrendering oneself to Sriman Narayana. It is done once and for all. This one act contains all the potential for redemption and therefore cannot be cancelled by a moral lapse, or subsequent acts of folly! The atonement for lapses consists of recalling to mind the saving Grace of the first efficacious act of Prapatti. This contrite repentance is enough, and the act of Prapatti remains in tact and unabrogated. There is no need for penances or atonement.



Traditional Smartha Brahmins wear a U-shaped namam on their foreheads which represents the Feet of Krishna. It is made of chandanam. The Vadakalais probably borrowed this shape to show their support for the Sanskrit theology. This is only my opinion, because in the History of Melukote Through the Ages, it says that Thiruman shapes were based on natural objects, and at one time there were many shapes. The two we have today are the standardly accepted ones.

  • 1
    "For instance, Naalayira Prabhandam consists in large part of devotional poems where the Alwars describe their utter dependence on Vishnu for salvation (Moksha), akin to a lovesick youth being dependent on the affections of his beloved. Since the Thenkalais paid attention almost exclusively to the works of the Alwars, they developed the notion that all of us are dependent on Vishnu to grant salvation to whomever he chooses, and that we are powerless to do anything to achieve it". I must protest this, particularly since Acharyas of both kalais regard the Prabhandam as pramanam. Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 18:57
  • "Traditional Smartha Brahmins wear a U-shaped namam on their foreheads which represents the Feet of Krishna" @m_raghavan please support with citation / data.
    – S K
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 15:04

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