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Article on Araiyar Sevai

From: M Srinivasan (
Date: Tue Dec 23 1997 - 12:49:42 PST

  REGARDING           Article on Araiyar Sevai

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

            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 ``Era
            Pathu'' 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

            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
            change 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
            Araiyar 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.'

            T.A. SRINIVASAN