Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tamilnadu Government meddles with the customs of Srirangam Temple

One thousand year old tradition of honouring the ‘Araiyars’, for their reciting Tamil hymns of Azhwars is going to be dispensed with from this year at Srirangam Ranganathaswamy temple, as directed by the HR & CE of the State Government.

Azwars and Tamil Pasurams

Several centuries  back, 12 Vaishnavite Acharyas, popularly known as ‘Azhwars’ visited 108 temples and sung in praise of Lord Vishnu.  All those 12 Azhwars together have rendered 4000 Tamil hymns, known as ‘pasurams’.  .Around 1200 years back, a great Vaishnavite Acharya known as  ‘Nadamuni’  compiled all these 4000 Tamil pasurams known as ‘Nalayira Divya Prabandhams’. 


In order that these Tamil pasurams reach the common people, Nadamuni  trained two of his brothers-in-law to recite, sing and dance the pasurams before Lord Ranganathan at Srirangam.  Nadamuni created a group called ‘Araiyars’.  Traditionally, for the past 1200 years, they used to recite the 4000 Tamil pasurams with raga and tala before Lord Ranganatha during the ‘Vaikunta Ekadasi festival’.  This is popularly known as ‘Araiyar Sevai’. 

Ten days prior to Vaikunta Ekadasi is called ‘ Pakal Pathu’ and 10 days after Vaikunta Ekadasi is called ‘Erapattu’.  Araiyars used to perform Araiyar Sevai during these 20 days.   They will also perform dance for some pasurams and enact some situations based on pasurams.  Generally, this is considered as ‘Muthamizh vizha’ (prose, music and drama is known as Muthamizh).  

performing Araiyar Sevai at Sri Mahalakshmi Temple, Besant Nagar.

Dedication of Araiyars

These Araiyars perform ‘Araiyar Sevai’ only before Lord Ranganatha  during these twenty days.  They used to take training for nearly 20 years to perfect this ancient art.   Even when Chennai Music Sabhas approached these Araiyars for performing during Music season at Chennai, they refused to perform outside the temple, whatever be the compensation offered. 

These Araiyars have totally dedicated themselves for performing Araiyar Sevai, using Tamil pasurams.  Besides Araiyar Sevai, they also sing the Tamil Pasurams before Lord Ranganatha during important occassions.   For all their services, they do not get paid by the temple.  They only get great temple honours.

Temple honours to Araiyars

On the last day of Erapattu, after completing the entire 4000 Tamil Pasurams, the head of the Araiyar Tem will be requested to sit in the palanquin carrying the palm leaves of the 4000 pasurams,  This palanquin is a special one used for Lord Ranganatha only.  Those persons, who used to carry Lord Ranganatha, will carry the Araiyars on their shoulders and drop them at the house.  This practise prevails for the past 1200 years.

Government orders to stop the tradition

But now, due to the influence of few atheists in the Board of Trustees, the State Government has ordered to withdraw the tradition of dropping the Araiyars at their home carrying in palanquin.  This has triggered anger amongst the devotees for meddling with the thousand year old tradition. 

Mr A Krishnamachariar, Editor of Panchasanyam said that the Government had taken this decision on the ground that it was below the dignity when men carry another man on palanquin.  He disagreed with this logic, saying that the age old tradition honours the Tamil Pasurams and those who devoted their life time for maintaining this art of singing Tamil Pasurams.  He said, he would fight against this type of tampering with the customs of the temple, through all forums.

Mr Arjun Sampath, President of Hindu Makkal Katchi said that they would stage protest against such tampering of the traditions of the temple by the atheist Government.

Old article on Araiyar Sevai puiblished in The Hindu.

The following article appeared in "The Hindu" on December 21, 1997

on Araiyar Sevai

 A dying art

Monuments crumble, manuscripts get moth-eaten and  traditional fine arts practised for centuries in temples  are being forgotten because of long years of neglect. No  wonder ``Araiyar Sevai,'' a visual enactment of the passionate expression by Vaishnavite saints known as ``Azhwars'' in vogue in almost all Vishnu temples in the  past, is now confined to a handful of them and seems to  be on its way out.

Temples in Tamil Nadu, especially those dedicated to Sri Narayana, had been, and continue to be, on a lesser scale the nurseries of the three branches of Tamil literature (Iyal), music (Isai) and drama or performing arts (Natakam) for many centuries. The ``Araiyar Sevai,'' which comes under the last category, is a performing art practised by Araiyars, descendants of Nathamunigal, who retrieved the ``Divya Prabandam'' pasurams or songs, almost from oblivion. They used to perform ``Abinaya'' or ritualistic facial expression and movement of legs and hands to explain the feminine concept of Vaishnavite philosophy where the Lord is the only male and around Him revolves the whole universe.

The Araiyars are not mere performers of this unique dance form, but are also well versed in sacred Vaishnavite love, especially the commentaries for Azhwar's hymns known as ``Eedu.'' Highly respected by the rulers and the ruled in the past, they, especially those in Srivilliputtur in Virudhunagar district, were conferred the status of spiritual teachers. Sri Ramanuja was the disciple of Thiruvaranga Perumal Araiyar.

According to Koil Ozhugu, record book of the Srirangam temple, which gave valuable information about temple practices and rituals, Thirumangai Azhwar, a Vaishnavite
saint, started the practice of presenting before the Lord of Srirangam his work known as ``Thirunedunthantakam'' to the accompaniment of music and dance. But it was Nathamunigal who introduced the performing art in its present form in temples in the
Tamil month of ``Margazhi'' during the festival known as``Thiruvadhyayana Uthsavam.'' He taught this art to two of his nephews - Keezhai Agathu Azhwar and Melai Agathu
Azhwar - who were the first and foremost Araiyars in the Srirangam Temple.

According to tradition they were given a cone-like cape  known as ``Ariyar Kullaai,'' two cymbals and the sacred garlands by the Lord of Srirangam Himself. Nobody else
was given this honour and to this day they are getting it. Their ``Abhinayam'' is considered to be similar to the ``Srunga Nirutham'' taught by Lord Narayana to Lord
Brahma and the ``Kaisika Vrithi'' of Brahaspathi, the  teacher of the Devas.

Numerous is the inscriptional and historical evidence about ``Araiyar Sevai'' having existed during the reign of Chola and Pandya kings and the former could be found  in plenty in the Srivilliputtur temple.

 According to Srinivasa Rangachariar, one of the two Araiyars in the Srivilliputtur temple, Thirukkurungudi in Tirunelveli district was the home of Araiyars where
once 64 Araiyar families lived. But now not a single Araiyar family can be found there. The reason for this, according to Srinivasa Rangachariar, was that the Lord
who was so much impressed by their service appeared before them and asked them to seek from Him whatever they wanted. The Araiyars said all that they sought was
His Holy Feet and the Lord granted the same. The Lord later regretted their absence and to please Him, all their cymbals were melted and a bell was made out of them. The Lord is offered food only after the ringing of the bell, which is found even now in that temple.

Now the ``Araiyar Sevai'' is performed only in three places - Srivilliputtur, Azhwarthirunagari in Tuticorin district and Srirangam. At Melkote in Karnataka,  Araiyars only recite Pasurams, they do not perform the``Abinaya.'' It is performed at the same time in the three places during the ``Pahal Pathu'' and ``EraPathu'' festivals for 20 days in December-January. The Araiyars first recite the Azhwars' songs, explain their
 inner meanings as handed down to them by their ancestors through palm leaf manuscripts and then perform Abinaya.''

  It is a treat to watch the Araiyar of Srivilliputtur perform the ``Abinaya'' depicting the life of Andal, who was found as a five- year-old child in the garden (``Pancha Varshath, Divyaroopath, Divayapara Bhushithath,'' according to Varaha Puranam) and was
brought up by her foster father like a princess, her composing 173 poems sending the cloud, and other things as messengers to the Lord, to convey her longing for
union with Him, the observance of a ritual known as ``pavai nonbu'' etc.

The most interesting parts of the ``Araiyar Sevai'' are ``Amirthamadhanam'' or the churning of the ``milky ocean'' and ``muthukuri.'' In the latter the Araiyar will don the roles of the mother of the lady love and the soothsayer known as `Kattuvichi.' He will, through of voice, perform the role of the mother, who will explain the plight of her daughter who used to adorn herself with all dresses and ornaments and look at the mirror, build houses in sand and the other pains undergone by her. The soothsayer will advise the mother to take her daughter to the temple and present her  before the Lord which alone can cure her illness. It gained the name of ``muthukuri'' as the soothsayer used to do it by spreading pearls in a bamboo plate known as ``muram.'' The ``muthukuri'' episode has a philosophical connotation as it signified the individual soul seeking the guidance of the ``Acharya'' or spiritual teacher (soothsayer) for union with the ``Supreme Soul.'' It is performed thrice during festivals at Srivilliputtur while it is done only once at Azhwarthirunagari and Srirangam. The Araiyars strictly adhere to the
guidelines given by their ancestors in manuscripts known as ``Thambiranpadi.''

Such an ancient and great system seems to be on its way out due to lack of Government and public patronage. There are two Araiyar families at Srivilliputtur. One of them, Srinivasa Iyengar, is too old and his descendants have not been trained in the art. Hence the Periya  Araiyar, Srinivasa Rangachariar, and his two sons - Balamukundan and Vatapatrasayee - had to perform the Sevai in the temple on all the 365 days.

 They had to undergo training for at least 18 years to perfect the art of `Abinaya.' But the Government, without realising their uniqueness and importance, declared them temple servants and they would have to retire like others on reaching the age of superannuation. Despite lucrative offers, the Araiyars had not given any audio or video recordings. There were many greener pastures, but the Araiyars of Srivilliputtur, though ``retired'' by the Government,  were serving the Lord without expecting any  remuneration. The Government and the devout public ought to see that this system which had been in vogue for a millennia, is continued in the temples. The Government spends a lot to preserve folk arts and other forms of dance, so it should not turn a blind eye to the  performing art of `Araiyar Sevai.'


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ತಾಳೆಗರಿ said...

A very sorry news to hear! A serious loss of culture and the insensitivity of the ruling party and all the factors leading to it have no idea what they are doing.
(talegari, blogsrikanth.wordpress.com)

Sundar said...

Tamilnadu Government is slowly interfering with the age old regular Hindu Customs. The need of the hour is : All Hindus must protest this. I witnessed the Arraiyar Sevai while i was in Srirangam during the Ekadasi festival.

jayasree said...

All Hindus must unite - I think that is the need of the hour, Mr Sundar.

I witnessed the Arayar sevai last December in Sri villiputtur.
Mr Srinivasa Rangachariar (in the pic) performed then. I had the opportunity to talk to him about his marvelous rendition. Our body naturally bends before persons like him in reverence, on seeing them do the rendition. Had I been present in Srirangam on that day when the ugly incident took place, I would have offered to carry him and called others to join me. That is the honour we have to do to the Azwars and the Almighty. I don't know why the devotees gathered in that place failed to rise to the occasion and carried him when the atheists and mischief makers made a big hue and cry.