December 17, 2000
Thoughts on the 30 day festival season
in Tamilnadu, awaiting the arrival of the winter solstice through the darkest month of the
The word Maargazhi
brings to mind memories of childhood music classes, when our teacher would abruptly stop
teaching kritis and switch over to Tiruppaavai. It was our first ever
formal introduction to the world of Tamil hymns of the Bhakti movement
that revolutionized and revitalized the religion of the Indian subcontinent towards the
end of the 1st millennium CE.
I went back home that day, some 28 years back, with a child's sense of exhuberence. Here
was music whose lyrics I could understand. Here was music, whose solfege did not have to
be written. There was another bonus. The lyrics did not need to be written down either. A
yellowed book with a missing cover page was handed to me by the ever gracious teacher.
All the 12 classes, in the month of Maargazhi that year, were devoted to Tiruppaavai.
So were the classes in the Maargazhis that followed in subsequent years.
Then there was the Tiruppaavai, Tiruvempaavai
recitation/singing competitions. Maale Mani Vanna in Kuntalavaraali
was the most sung Tiruppaavai in the competition - where I also had my first exposure to Tiruvempaavai,
at the Kachabeswarar Temple in the now virtually uninhabitable Parrys
Corner, in Chennai.
Now, why did the kids that sang
Tiruvempaavai, sing all of the hymns in Bhoopaalam. Why werent there
other raagams in the Tiruvempaavai hymns sung in the competition? It was only later that
we were to learn that the currently popular tunes, in which the lyrics of Tiruppaavai
are sung, are thanks to the efforts of veteran Karnatic musician Ariyakkudi
An image of Maanikkavaacakar was taken in procession, for a 10 day period
culminating in Tiruvaadirai. Four
different processions of Manikkavaacakar were encountered each day in our
neighborhood, each bearing the image of the poet Saint in four different types of
palanquins, to the accompaniment of four different nadaswaram troupes, and at times,
four sets of Oduvaars.
The results of the competition were announced in the month of Thai,
following the monthlong Maargazhi . 'Ki Vaa Ja' - was the big name, that
was to grace the occasion, with a speech. He was to award a specially pressed coin and a
book as a consolation prize to every single participant. 'A great speaker he was' we
were told. 'Do you know Kalaimagal? He runs that magazine' - 'Oh, Kalaimagal'
- were the murmured conversations, as the fifty odd kids sat in silence, in front of a
packed stage, in a packed temple courtyard.
28 years later, I still remember two interesting details regarding these Classics, that
the veteran writer pointed out in his lecture to kids and adults then. 'The first hymn Tiruppaavai
begins with the syllable Maa (Maargazhi Tingal) - the syllable, with
which Maanikkavaacakar's name begins - while the first hymn in Tiruvempaavai
begins with the syllable Aa, with which Aandaal's name
begins. 'The stalwarts of Vaishnavism and Saivism had thus acknowledged each other', he
said. We thought it was neat. He also spoke of a tradition of Tiruppaavai/Tiruvempaavai
singing in Indonesia - where the chanters concluded each verse with
emphasis on the phrase 'lorepmaavai' given their lack of knowledge of Tamil!
In the following year, as we moved elsewhere in George Town, strains of a
lady's voice singing the Tamil hymns used to waft through and wake us up in the morning.
That was when I realized, that the hymns of Tiruvempaavai were being
rendered in 20 different raagams, just like the Tiruppaavai
hymns. I was to learn later, during the Navaratri
of 1974 - in the Madurai Meenakshi
Sundareswarar temple that this lady was none other than the veteran Karnatic
It amazes me to see these Maargazhi festival traditions fairly intact, in
an era, where the rapid changes brought about through the information revolution, have
changed the face of various festival traditions. Contrast this for example with Deepavali
of 1997 that I spent at Anna Nagar, Chennai. I could very well have been at Annapolis,
Maryland! It turned out that we were the only ones celebrating Deepavali
at 5 AM in the neighborhood! 'Oh! Today is a holiday. We need to catch up on sleep. We
shall celebrate the occasion in the evening' - was the reason that justified the lack of
early morning Deepavali celebration.
Thus, in Maargazhi 1997 (98), when I strolled to Kapaaleeswarar
temple, in the wee hours of the morning on Vaikuntha Ekaadasi.
Maanikkavaacakar, was then just being placed on his palanquin
(which was to be wheeled through the processional streets of Tirumayilai);
a sole Oduvaar, with a pair of cymbals, accompanied the image with a
nadaswaram and a drum player. Inside the temple, there was a flurry of activity, with the
early risers, scrambling for a darshan to the temple, before leaving for
The brilliant lights of the billboards of
leading restaurants such as Sangeeta , flanked by scores of coconut trees, and the
still water filled Mylapore tank, all enveloped by the now brightening sky greeted me as I
walked along the Western wall of the temple.
My next stop was at the Kesava Perumaal temple - where an orderly crowd
waited in a perfectly formed long line for a walk through the Vaikuntha Vaasal,
to have a darshan of Mahaavishnu on Vaikuntha Ekaadasi.
Processions of Perumaal on the Garuda mount, were
received enthusiastically by traditionally dressed neighbors in the vicinity, with
offerings of coconuts and the like.
The amount of activity in the wee hours of dawn was quite astounding, in contrast to the
rest of the walk back home, where late risers, armed with toothbrushes and hand towels,
adorned balconies of multi-family dwellings, again preparing to continue with the dance of
life, in what would be another day in Maargazhi.