Araiyar Sevai: The art of devotion at Srirangam

For old time residents of the Trichy belt, the Ranganathaswamy temple has been the epicentre of life and culture. The Vaikuntha Ekadasi festivities in the temple beckon those who left the temple town for education and work elsewhere.

When you look closely, many of the rituals not only carry deep significance but are also a repository of the rich heritage of Tamil Nadu. Sudharshan, is a PhD scholar and makes sure he attends the Vaikuntha ekadasi festivities every year without fail. Having grown up in the nearby Thiruvanaikaval, he has fond memories of the festival from the last two decades. The celebrations lasting for over 21 days pull people like him back to their roots.

The festival and the Araiyar sevai are important because of the importance given to the 4000 Divya Prabandhams or Tamil vedas, as they are known. Many centuries back, the Azhwars sang them at various sacred shrines across the country, which are known as Divya Desams. The Araiyars trace their legacy back to Nathamuni, who compiled the Divya Prabandhams.  

“The elements of iyal (literature), isai (music and natakam (drama) are a part of the Araiyar sevai. It begins with the Thirunedunthandagam, where the Araiyars are brought to the sannidhi of perumal after having served the sannidhis of Ramanuja and Garuda. They stand before the dwarapaalas and sing the entire Thirunedunthandagam,” explains Sudharshan.

The festival is divided into pakalpathu (10 days of festivity during the daytime) and rapathu (festivity during late evenings). While musical instruments are a part of the first 10 days, no instruments are employed in the rapathu festivities. The ceremonies in the first 10 days are carried out in the Arjuna mandapam.

“The deity is known for his nadai azhagu, or the beauty of his gait. There are many styles of his gait, one of which is simha gathi. When the deity emerges out of the moolasthanam, it almost seems like a lion is emerging out of his den and hence it is called the simha gathi. He then assumes the rishabha gathi, where his movement is compared to that of a bull. They raise his palanquin to a height from where Tuluka Nachiyar can have darshan of the deity as well. Then he is seated and the Araiyars are brought in for the sevai. When he returns to the sannidhi, the serpentine movement is called sarpa gathi.

Each day, the deity is put to sleep by playing the Ekantha Veenai, where the musician plays it privately for the deity. Unlike the usual veena recitals where the musician is seated, here, the instrument is played standing and the day is closed with the rendition of the raaga Neelambari, which puts the deity to sleep.

 “It is also known as Mokshotsavam, as the process of salvation is played out during the festival,” says Madhusudhanan Kalaichelvan, who is an architect by profession. Madhusudhanan first visited the Ranganathaswamy temple when he was seven-years-old and fell in love with the place. Over the years, he developed a keen interest in Araiyar Sevai and also learnt the art, which he says is at least 1000 years old.

Of the 4,000 Divya Prabandhams, only 3,000 have been set to a rhythm. The others are in the prose format. In the first 10 days of the festival, 200 songs are sung every day. The belief is that Ranganatha comes to listen to the recitation of the Prabandhaam by Nammazhvar and the Vaikuntha vasal opens. In the remaining 10 days, 100 songs are sung, taking it to a total of 3,000. On the 21st day, the 1,000 verses which are in prose format are read out before the deity,” says Madhusudhanan.

 The ceremony called Thiruvadi Thozhuthal is an enactment of the soul to liberation, the apogee of which is when the crown of Nammazhwar touches the feet of Perumal. But he is sent back by Vishnu from Vaikuntham back to earth so that more people can learn the path to moksha and thus, Nammazhvar returns for the people, until the process gets repeated the next year.

This story was published in the special supplement Bhoologa Vaikuntham in The Times of India

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