GLORY OF MARGAZHI AND RENDERING OF THIRUPPAVAI
The Tamil month of Margazhi from mid-December to mid-January, has just concluded. In Tamilnadu, the month of Margazhi, in more senses than one, marks the zenith point of spiritual quest when the seeker experiences the glow, the aura and the Divine power of the spirit over matter. The Divine significance of the month of Margazhi has to be understood and grasped by taking note of the singing of the time-honoured and popular Tamil hymns of THIRUPPAVAI on all the days of Margazhi, not only in hundreds of Krishna and Vishnu temples but also in thousands of Hindu house-holds in Tamil Nadu. This sacred, glorious and hallowed tradition in Tamil Nadu has been going on for centuries.
THIRUPPAVAI consists of thirty stanzas (hymns) in Tamil, each of 8 lines, dramatizing a scene of a group of maidens going from house to house bidding their friends to rise and join them for an early morning bath. These thirty hymns were composed by Saint Andal also known as Nachiar or Kodhai or Goda Devi. She was the daughter of Vishnu Chitta alias Periyazhvar of Srivilliputtur. He was a garland maker for Lord VATABHADRASAYI in the Srivilliputtur. Andal or Goda Devi is one of the most important saints of Sri Vaishnavism. THIRUPPAVAI is part of Divya Prabandha, a work of the twelve Alvars, and is important in Tamil literature.
At an early age Andal fell in love with Lord Ranganatha in the Srirangam Temple. It all began because she used to wear the garlands meant for the deity VATABHADRASAYI before it was put on the deity. Andal came to be called in oral Vaishanavite religious tradition as Chudi Kodutha Chudar Kodi. People believed that Andal was an avathara (incarnation) of Bhooma Devi. Andal left her ethereal body to mingle with her beloved Lord Ranganatha.
THIRUPPAVAI (Pavai Genre) belongs to the Pavai genre of songs, a unique Tamil tradition sung in the context of the Pavai vow observed throughout the month of Margazhi, originally by unmarried girls praying to the Pavai goddess (related to Goddess Parvathy) for a blissful married life. Sri Vaishnavas sing these stanzas every day of the year in the temple as well as in their homes. This practice assumes special significance during Margazhi: each day of this month gets its name from one of the thirty verses. There are references to this vow in the late-Sangam Era Tamil musical anthology Paripadal.
The worship of Goddess Pavai was very common in Tamil Nadu since ancient times. The worship was done by unmarried girls. They all used to take bath in the rivers daily early in the dawn, in the month of Margazhi (December-January) and worshiped the Goddess by dance and music, observing very strict vrata (penance or fast or nonbu) during the day. This it was believed would get them good husbands and would lead to a very happy married life.
This time-honoured tradition continues even today. On each day, during the month of Margazhi, a hymn of THIRUPPAVAI is sung in many Vishnu and Krishna temples and several Tamil households even today. Andal’s emotions and sentiments poured out in a cascade of Divine Bliss in her 30 pasurams (poems to God) in THIRUPPAVAI and 143 pasurams of THIRUMOZHI have found an immediate echo in the mind’s and hearts of men for centuries. According to Vaishnavite tradition Sri Ramanuja who was the greatest saint and philosopher of Sri Vaishnavism, eloquently extolled Andal’s Bhakthi and sang all the thirty Thiruppavai pasurams every day. In view of this, Ramanuja came to be called as Thiruppavai Jeeyar. Also there is a practice to this day among Sri Vaishnavas that during the Poojas of God in any of their temples the last two stanzas of Thiruppavai are sung. It is also interesting to know that these two stanzas are also recited in Tamil during coronation of the kings of Thailand.
When Vishnuchitta, a garland maker for VATABHADRASAYI in the Srivilliputtur Temple, found a female child near a Thulasi bush in his garden, he joyfully accepted her as the Lord’s gift and took her home. The child was to grow up as Goda Devi, imbibe the Krishna-consciousness prevalent in Vishnuchitta’s home, dedicate her life to the Lord’s service, indite 143 pasurams of THIRUMOZHI and 30 pasurams of THIRUPPAVAI, and finally merge with Lord Ranganatha in the Srirangam Temple. It is a glorious dramatic saga of Love Divine, of a soul’s aspiration matched by the answering Graces of the Supreme.
For more than 1,500 years, the devotional world of Tamil Nadu has fondly recreated Andal’s life, recited her songs and entered into communion with the Divine. Andal means ‘One who has Ruled us’. Millions of Vaishnavas recite Andal’s THIRUPPAVAI, sing it melodiously and hear it expounded daily during the sacred month of Margazhi. There seem to be several reasons for the choice of this month. The scriptures celebrate the Margazhi month as the most sacred month in the Hindu calendar. In the Bhagawat Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: “I am Margasirsa (Margazhi) among the 12 months”. Tradition has it that the Brahma Muhurta of the year occurs during the month of Margazhi and early morning baths in Holy Rivers followed by prayers in Temples confer material and spiritual wellbeing on the true devotees.
Shri Bal Gangadhar Tilak in his Gita Rahasya describes the grandeur and glory of the month of Margasirsa (Margazhi) in these words: “The first place has been given to the month of Margasirsa among the months because it was usual in those days to start with the month of Margasirsa in counting the months (Mahabharata . Anu 106 &109, Valmiki Ramayana, 3.16 ). There is a similar reference in the Bhagawata (11.16.27). I have pointed out in my book called Orion that the Margasirsa Constellation is called the Agrahayana or the Constellation of the commencement of the year, that the Mrga Constellation must have got the first place, when the computation starting with the Mrga Constellation was in vogue, and that the Margasirsa month must also have acquired importance later on, on that account.”
In the ancient Tamil classic Paripadal, the poet Nallandhuvanar gives particulars of such bathing (neerattam) undertaken as Vrata (nondu) by young girls (pavai) in the month of Margasirsa (Margazhi). The young girls in the poems of THIRUPPAVAI aspire to be united to the ‘Bridegroom’ of their choice and pray to the fresh floods of the Vaigai River to grant them prolonged youth which would help them enjoy wedded bliss for long.
However, the “Margazhi-Thai-Neerattam” of the Sangam Age gathered a new significance as the centuries went by. The legends of Lord Krishna from Mathura, Brindavan and Dwaraka spread to the South and brought the Katyayani Vrata observed by the cowherdesses of Vraja (Mathura-Brindavan region). In the life of Lord Krishna this observance of Katyayani Vrata has an importance place. Once when there was a drought in the Yadava country, the maidens enacted this ceremony and prayed for rain. Lord Krishna immediately rewarded them with HIS abundant Grace and Prosperity returned to the country. The Katyayani Vrata by the Gopikas was observed somewhat like the “Margazhi-Thai-Neerattam”, but with this significant difference. Bammera Potana (1450-1510) in his Potana Bhaagawatam conveys it thus: “In the first month of cold Hemanta, from the opening day onward, the maids of Nanda’s tribe woke up early, bathed in Kalindi waters, made a figure of Katyayani with sand, offered scented blossoms, sandal paste, scented smoke, lighted lamps and various sweets to the Divine Mother with the prayer: ‘Oh! Katyayani, Bhagawati! We salute you! Grant us Lord Krishna as our husband! The day we gain HIM, we shall hold a special festival in your honour!’”
As a child of the Tamil heritage as also of the Bhagavata tradition from the North, Andal (Goda Devi) took up the theme, unified the long standing existing custom of “Margazhi-Thai-Neerattam” with the imported observance of the Katyayani Vrata and wrote the 30 pasurams of THIRUPPAVAI as a Guidance-Hymn to those who wished to follow the path of devotion. Soon THIRUPPAVAI became popular with laymen and scholar, housewife and ascetic, artless youth and learned preceptor. As Dr Prema Nandakumar has put it most exquisitely: “Andal (Goda Devi) had transformed the seasonal vow into an incandescent poem of Bridal Mysticism, where the soul wishes to be united with the Supreme. Though the poem contains prayers for rains and other means to prosperity, the symbolistic motif of THIRUPPAVAI is servitude to the Supreme, in this life as well as in all lives to come. The prayer is attuned to receiving the Grace (parai) of the Lord for attaining spiritual freedom.”
Many do not know that an annual Festival called "Trivambave - Tribave" is celebrated in the month of Margazhi between December 14 and January 12 every year in Bangkok by the people of Thailand. This festival is celebrated by the Brahmin priests chanting verses in praise of Hindu gods. This festival is marked by the singing of THIRUPPAVAI AND THIRUVEMBAVAI. These Thai Brahmins who sing these Pasurams are descendents of Tamil Brahmins from Rameshwaram, Srivilliputtur and other parts of South India who were brought to this land as early as the 2nd century .
The area comprising the present Thailand, Cambodia and Burma was once ruled by Khemers till 13th century. Historians believe that the Khemers were either our Pallava Kings or Leaders of local tribes who were made Kings by the Pallavas. We have plenty of evidence by way of archeological findings, legends and stone inscriptions to confirm the theory of Political connections between the Palllava Kingdom of India and the Khemer Kingdom of Thailand.
The Khemer Kings, being Hindus, practiced either Vaishnavism or Shaivism. The King who built Angkorwat , Surya varman, was a Vaishnavite and it was built as a Vishnu Temple. Angkorwat is the largest Vishnu temple in the world. The Khemer Kings adopted a concept called "Devaraja Cult" which means that the King is an incarnation of Vishnu or Shiva. They built temples for Vishnu and Shiva.
The Pallava Kings took some Brahmins with them as Court Advisors to Thailand as was the practice in Mainland India. That is how the cultural tradition of the Brahmins functioning as Royal Advisors was firmly established in Thailand and continues even today.
The Khemer kingdom , after 1300 years of glorious rule by the Hindu kings, fell to the Thais in 1282 when Jayavarman , the last Khemer King, was defeated by the Thai invasion that formed the First Thai Kinddom -- Sukhothai. The creation of a Buddhist Thai Kingdom should have ended Hinduism practiced by the Khemers. Surprisingly it did not.
The practice of Devaraja Cult established during the days of the Khemers did not die with them. The Thais, even though they became Buddhists , continued the Khemer tradition of Devaraja Cult for two reasons. Since they took over a land of Khemers, they did not want to change the practices of the land and be alienated from the locals. Secondly, the Devaraja cult suited their intentions of assuming supremacy as it gave them instant recognition among people. So the Thai kings also continued the Devaraja cult and as a consequence extended patronage to the Indian Brahmins and projected themselves as Incarnations of Hindu Gods in addition to practicing Buddhism. This explains why the Royal family in Thailand continues to adhere to the tradition of Hindu Rituals and practices even today. The singing of THIRUPPAVAI AND THIRUVEMBAVAI in the month of Margazhi in a temple in Bangkok every year is a part and parcel of this inherited tradition.
Many of you may not have visited a place in Bangkok which houses three Hindu deities-- Ganesh, Shiva and Vishnu. It is not a temple patronized by the Indians like Dev Mandhir and Mariamman Temple. It is a Thai temple. It is called Devasthan ‘Boat Prahm’ and is situated opposite the Dev Mandir, right behind the Giant Swing. The word Boat Prahm means "Sanctuary of Brahmins". This is the place where the Thiruppavai Thiruvempavai festival takes place for 15 days and all the Brahmins in Thailand come and stay in the temple for 15 days. It is a memorable experience watching these Thai Brahmin Priests reciting the Thiruppavai and Thiruvempavai .
The Kanchi Paramacharya had spoken in highly eloquent terms about this ancient practice of reciting Thiruppavai in a Buddhist country like Thailand in Mayavaram's Dhakshinamurthy Mutt in 1952. He had even commented that "even though we in TamilNadu recite Thiruvembhavai , we do not perform it as a festival but a Buddhist country thousands of miles away does it". On the request of the Kanchi Acharya, a team of Tamil Scholars, went to Thailand and studied the scripts of Thiruppavai and Thiruvempavai that are being recited in Bangkok temples and recorded the fact that they are in Grantha script.
Finally Andal (Goda Devi) transcended the bounds of human vanities by annihilating all desires. She entered---- almost glided into----the realm of the Spirit. Because of her inspiring spiritual quest and the single-minded realization of her goal, Andal remains a great and unique figure in the whole range of Tamil poetry, shining as a glorious lamp in Vaishnavite literature and ever-occupying the sovereign place in the hearts of millions of devotees to this day.
I invite the kind attention of my readers to a very sublimely beautiful book on THIRUPPAVAI published by Kalai Arangam in Chennai. The Tamil text of the 30 verses of THIRUPPAVAI, with Notation of a new version of rendering of the hymns, is by Gotuvadyam Vidwan Shri V.S. Parthasarathy Iyengar. The English translation of the hymns has been done by Shri.R.Bangaruswami. Dr. Prema Nandakumar, an incomparable scholar and litterateur, has written the General Introduction and Commentary on all the verses of THIRUPPAVAI. This book carries a forward by Maduravarshee Vidwan Shri.U.Ve. Thirunagai Viraraghavachariar. My dear friend late Shri.Rangaswami was a great poet and an ardent devotee of LORD RANGANATHA OF SRIRANGAM. He brought out this book at the instance of his beloved wife Shrimati Ramapriya Rangaswami Founder Convener Kalai Arangam in New Delhi. She was a disciple of Gotuvadyam Vidwan Shri V.S. Parthasarathy Iyengar and was privileged to learn the 30 hymns of THIRUPPAVAI directly from him. Shri.V.S. Parthasarathy Iyengar in his own hand wrote down the musical notation for these songs for her benefit. For over 25 years from 1960 to 1985 in New Delhi, Shrimati Ramapriya Rangaswami was observing Margazhi Poojas for the whole month and giving full fledged recital of all the 30 hymns on the Koodaravalli Day. A dedicated soul, she took it upon herself to teach the THIRUPPAVAI hymns to as many as possible in New Delhi to popularize the new version of rendering composed by Gotuvadyam Vidwan Shri V.S. Parthasarathy Iyengar.
Shrimati Ramapriya Rangaswami passed away in December 1991. Her immortal spirit and that of her great Acharya Gotuvadyam Vidwan Shri V.S. Parthasarathy Iyengar will continue to shine forever in the pages of this beautiful book. (The front cover of this book can be seen above).
Let me conclude this story with the last (30th) verse of Thiuruppavai in Tamil.
I am giving below the English translation of the 30th verse of Thiruppavai presented above:
30. Goda, daughter of Vishnuchitta
Has retold how the moon-faced damsels
Got there desires fulfilled by praying
To Madhava, the same Kesava
Who churned the ocean with ships afloat.
Devotees who repeat in order the thirty verses
Will be rewarded with happiness and grace
By the red-eyed, four-armed, noble Vishnu.