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The Music & Dance Traditions in Temples of Tamilnadu - Araiyar Sevai

Updated: Sep 7, 2022


In the last few articles we were exploring the musical traditions in the temples of Tamilnadu, more specifically - the Saivite temples and their traditions. This and the following articles will look into the tradition of Ariar Sevai, a ritualistic art form of the Vaishnavite temples that amalgamates music, literature, dance and prose in its rendition.

This unique art form is performed by Araiyars (literally meaning Kings) who represent the Azhwars (Vaishnavite Saint Poets) eternal poems. Hence, the title Araiyar. Legend has it that Lord Nam Perumal of SriRangam himself gave the title Araiyar to these artists. Vinnaappam Seivar, Nampaaduvaar, Isaikkaarar, Thambiraanmaar are the other names for Araiyars in many literary & epigraphical sources.

The origins of this ritualistic art form are found in the Vaishnavite traditional texts.

According to one version, it is said that, Thirumangai Azhwar,(8-9th Century CE) himself sang his ‘Thirunedum Thaandakam’ and performed Abhinaya (facial expressions and bodily movements) during the month of Karthikai in front of the Utsava image (Processional Deity) at the SriRangam temple. He requested the Lord that the verses from Thiruvaazimozhi of Nammazhwar be recited on Vaikunta Ekadasi day, during the Adhyayana Utsava. The image of Nammazhwar was brought from his native, Azhwar Thirunagari (Thirunelveli) and his disciple Mathurakavi Azhwar sang the hymns and performed.

In the version mentioned in the Guruparampara (Vaishnavite hagiographic texts), Araiyar Sevai was instituted by Sri NathaMunigal as a theatre expression form of worship. He happened to hear the verses of Nammazhwar recited by a group of devotees. Learning that there are thousand verses of Nammazhwar, he set on a journey to Azhwar Thirunagari, the native of Nammazhwar and met Parankusa Dasar, one of the disciples of Mathurakavi Azhwar. On his advice, he started chanting ‘Kanni Nun Siru Thaampu’ (hymns of Mathurakavi) and on completion of chanting the verses 12,000 times, it is said Nammazhwar himself appeared and taught all the hymns of the Azhwars. He was directed by the Lord of Kaattu Mannar Koil to set these immortal hymns into music and propagate them. He set the music for the Divya Prabandham (except Iyarpa which is supposed to be recited), trained his nephews Keezhai Akaththu Azhwan and Melai Akaththu Azhwan and commenced the Araiyar Sevai tradition in SriRangam. The hagiographical texts elaborate on his very evident expertise in music. The Srunga Nruththam taught to Brahma by Lord Vishnu and the Kaiska Vriththi of Brihaspathi were carefully combined by NathaMunigal to create this ritualistic art form. Along with the Pasurams, Nammazhwar apparently taught him Ashtanga Yoga as well.

It is interesting to note that the sacred hymns of both Saivites and Vaishnavites were discovered with the help and effort of two people, i.e NathaMunigal and Nambiyandar Nambi who hailed from the same region. (Thirunaraiyur and Kattu Mannar Koyil).

The Araiyars - Image Courtesy:

Generally, the Araiyar Sevai is associated with SriRangam temple, but SriVilliputhur, Azhwar Thirunagari & Melkote temple also have the tradition of Araiyar Sevai during the Tamil month of Margazhi (December-January).

The Ariyars perform the artform only in the temple and in front of the processional deity known as Utsavar or Veedhiyaara Varuvar(the one that comes around the streets). According to tradition, the Pasurams(Songs of the Azhwars) are supposed to be sung/chanted only after reciting the Dhaniyan(Invocatory verses). However, the Araiyars have been given the privilege to sing the Pasurams without reciting the Dhaniyan.

The festival that features Araiyar Seivai is divided into two parts.

The first ten days of the festival is known as Pakal Paththu since it takes place during the day (Pakal means day). The attire of the Araiyars during the Sevai is unique. They wear a Khulla (crown shaped hat/headgear) made of cloth in which the symbols of Shanka and Chakra and the ThenKalai Thiruman (symbol worn by a set of Vaishnavites) are placed.They wear a parivattam made of silk,cotton and a garland that was worn by the Lord himself. It is said, only the Araiyars are allowed to adorn these.

During the Araiyar Sevai, the Araiyar plays the Thaalams (cymbals) during the first part of the ritual known as Kondattam. This is followed by the singing of the Pasuram dedicated for that particular day. Once he finishes singing, he performs Abhinaya through which the beauty and the meaning of the Pasuram is expressed. This is followed by the recitation of the meaning of the Pasuram. The meaning is also recited with a lot of Bhava (emotion) and followed again by Kondattam.

(To be continued)

Written by

S Jayakumar

(Founder Trustee)

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