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The Musical Traditions in Temples of Tamil Nadu

In the previous blog post, we spoke about the musical traditions in the temples of Tamil Nadu. The Nadaswaram and Tavil ensemble known as Periya Melam, have some interesting traditions. Though we don’t have the word Nadaswaram in the ancient literature or inscriptions, we can be certain that the tradition of these two instruments dates back to several centuries. Some opine that the instrument mentioned in inscriptions as Thiruchinnam could be the prototype for the current shape of Nadaswaram. Some scholars say it had many names and the current version of the Nadaswaram has evolved over a period of time. The percussion instrument Tavil has been the accompaniment of Nadaswaram since time immemorial.

As mentioned previously, the compositions that are unique to Nadaswaram are played in the daily rituals during the temples. During the procession of the Gods around the four streets around the temple, the procession begins with Mallari about which we discussed earlier. Alarippu is played in Tavil before Mallari. Another unique composition is Rakthi played after Mallari and Raga Alapana.

Sembanarkoil Brothers - SRJ Sambandam & SRG Rajanna along with their accompanying artistes at a Nadaswaram and Tavil kutcheri
Sembanarkoil Brothers - SRJ Sambandam & SRG Rajanna along with their accompanying artistes

Rakthi does not have lyrics and the intricate Laya aspects of music are explored in Rakthi. The renowned Nadaswaram artists of the Sembanarkoil family are known for their greatness in playing Rakthi. Unfortunately very few play this wonderful composition today.

Once the chariot or palanquin carrying the Gods reaches the southern entrance, the Pallavi is played. The Pallavi has a Sahithya (lyric). This is played for a long duration and it is usually played till the procession reaches the east street of the temple. There existed a tradition of not playing any other composition other than Pallavi till the procession of the Gods reach the eastern street around the temple. This usually takes about two hours and it indeed gave great scope for the musicians to explore the Pallavi in detail showcasing all its nuances.

Once the procession reaches the east Gopura (the main entrance of the temple) compositions such as Padams, Devarams are played. Either at the entrance or in a separate Mandapam, the god will rest for a while before entering the sanctum. During that time, the Devadasi of the temple takes the Kumba Deepa Harathi to ward off the evil eyes. After this, the Devadasi walk around the palanquin singing a Padam. In later times, the Padams have been played by the Nadaswaram players. When she finishes the Padam she continues to walk around the deity and during this time, the Tavil player continues to play. This is called Thattichurru (walking around accompanied by rhythm). The Thattichurru mandapams we see in some temples are meant for this ritual.

The Gods are finally taken to their chambers, and during that time Echarikkai will be played on Nadaswaram. After the rituals at night, the image will be taken to the Palliyarai (bed chamber). There the musicians play Padam, Oonjal, and Laali songs.

Such vast musical traditions that once existed in temples are now slowly declining and many temples do not even have musicians associated with them. Prastara is working towards restoring these traditions in temples and enhance the ecosystem within which these traditions thrive. Hopefully, we will be able to revive the many repertoires of Nadaswaram and Tavil in the process.

We pray that the Almighty guides us in our endeavors.

Written by

S Jayakumar

(Founder Trustee)

If you wish to support us in our initiative, you can reach out to us at or +91 9884013485. Donations can be sent through bank transfer to the below account: Prastara Charitable Trust  | State Bank of India | Adyar SME Branch, Chennai Current A/c No. 33646223076 IFSC Code: SBIN0013361.

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