Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Araiyar Sevai Azhvaar Tirunagari

How a family dispute in Azhvaar Tirunagari Divya Desam is taking a nasty turn, one that could bring to end the Araiyar Sevai in this historical birth place of Nam Azhvaar
Case filed in the High Court against HR & CE by one of the Araiyars has thrown questions on the future presentation of Araiyar Sevai in this Divya Desam 
There was a time in the not so distant past when Araiyar Sevai was presented in several Divya Desams across Tamil Nadu. In fact, they were differentiated by the Divya Desam where they performed. Thus there used to be Thirukurungudi Araiyar, Srivilliputhur Araiyar, Thiru Mogur Araiyar, Thirukannapurathu Araiyar, Srirangam Araiyar and so on (

However, this number has drastically come down to just three. Aathi Nathan Divya Desam in Azhvaar Tirunagari  about 30 kms East of Tirunelveli and part of the Nava Tirupathi Divya Desamsis one of the only three Divya Desams where Araiyar Sevai continues to be presented.

Araiyars in the 1950s/60s @ Azhvaar Tirunagari
Over the last century, Azhvaar Tirunagari has managed to survive the extinction of this rare art form dating back a 1000 years with the truly devotional commitment of the Araiyars despite living a life in financial poverty. But a series of events over the last few years has raised a serious threat and thrown open the real possibility of Araiyar Sevai closing down at this historical Divya Desam.

With a cone-like coloured cap on the head and a sacred garland on their chest, Araiyars, descendents of 9th Century Vaishnavite Saint Nathamuni, present these divine hymns through a differentiated musical chanting and dance performance using two cymbals in their hands.

The Araiyar Sevai requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the Pasurams. It takes close to two decades to master this art, which involves not just acquiring knowledge of the 4000 divine songs of the Azhvaars but also the monumental task of capturing the meaning of each of these Pasurams and then reaching out the essence of these verses to the audience. Also, Araiyar Sevai requires close co-ordination and perfect synchronisation of the musical chanting (of one Araiyar) with the Thaalam and the dance steps (of another).

Sarangan (Vada Badra Sayee) Araiyar of Azhvaar Tirunagari Divya Desam had learnt the art of Araiyar Sevai from his father in the 1930s and began performing at the temple a decade later. He would present the Abhinayam and Vyakyanam of the 4000 verses without ever opening the book even once, such was his devotional commitment through the decades of his performance. For a long time, the only reward for his presentation was a prasadam and betel leaves from the temple.

By the 1950 and 60s, the family was in dire straits financially. In the mid 60s, recognizing the extraordinary devotional service rendered by the Araiyar and the lack of any alternate income, the temple decided to provide a monthly fee of Rs.5. In addition, the Araiyar was also provided a few kgs of paddy every day. Annually, the Araiyar would receive Thattu Kasu a total of around Rs.20 over three special days in a year during the Adyayana Utsavam.

Sarangan Araiyar's eldest son Srinivasan Araiyar learnt the art from him for 12 years and started performing with his father from 1966. Those who watched Srinivasan Araiyar perform in those days are all praise for him for his way of presentation. He later joined the corporate world picking up a job at TVS in Madurai in the mid 1970s in Madurai and worked there till 2010 making it to Azhvaar Tirunagari on special festive occasions through the year.

Another son Araiyar Nathan who has been performing Araiyar Sevai since 1984 remembers the dismal financial state from his school days in the 1970s ‘Whenever I would ask my father for just 25 paise, he would look around to his neighbours to lend. Such was the situation at home that he could not afford even a few annas for his son despite presenting selfless service to the Lord through the year for several decades.”

Soon after completing his class X, Araiyar Nathan quit academics and joined his father in full time temple service. Right from his school days, he had watched closely the presentation of his father especially during the Adyayana Utsavam and that proved to be a great learning experience for him. Through the 90s, till the death of his father in 1998, Araiyar Nathan presented Araiyar Sevai along with his father and his brother Araiyar Srinivasan during the 21 day Adyayana Utsavam.

A monthly remuneration of Rs. 3000
In 1996, he received an ‘appointment’ under a special order from the temple for a monthly remuneration of Rs. 3000 for the services rendered in lieu of the Paddy that had been previously provided to his father.

Also, after the restoration services of Nava Tirupathi that happened in the 1990s, Venu Srinivasan organized a monthly sambhavanai for the Araiyar. But even with that it has remained a case of financial difficulty for Araiyar Nathan for the monthly expenses top Rs. 10000 and there isn’t an income to match that.

And yet, he is keen to keep up the commitment given to his father to dedicate his life to Araiyar Sevai.  
He has rarely moved out of the Divya Desam for there is a Kainkaryam to be presented almost every day of the year, even if its only for a few minutes. Araiyar at Azhvaar Tirunagari hold the rights for presentation during Thirumanjanam as well as at the presentation of Pasurams. Also, the Araiyar is present every evening during the recital of Nithyanusanthanam at the temple. During the procession of the Lord on festive occasions, Araiyar have been bestowed with the rights to present ‘Padi Etra Sevai’.

In recent years, Araiyar Nathan has also taken up aradhana Kainkaryam at a few of the nearby temples including the Appan temple near Erettai Tirupathi.

Public Spat within the temple 
Unfortunately like in two other Divya Desams where Araiyar Sevai is performed, the relationship amongst the Araiyars is not a happy one. Araiyar Nathan’s elder brother Araiyar Srinivasan got into a tussle with the temple authorities over the rights of the Araiyars and has filed a case against them in the High Court that has now been re-directed to the JC court.

Araiyar Srinivasan is of the view that Araiyars cannot be 'appointed' by HR & CE as the service is hereditary having passed through several generations over the last 1000 years.

When Araiyar Sarangan died, it was customary for the family to invite the senior most Araiyar but many in Azhvaar Tirunagari look back at those series of events as yet another indication of what's in store there. 

Araiyar Srinivasarangachariar of Srivilliputhur ( who was well into his 60s then and who had performed at Azhvaar Tirunagari along with his son Bala Mukundan Araiyar, was to have been invited but he wasn't. And that left a sore taste.
One of the bigger issues that arose a few years back on the Nam Azhvaar Moksham day was when in an open dispute involving Araiyar Sevai the Lord was held 'captive' for over 6 hours, much to the dissent of the devotees.

Following the filing of the case by Araiyar Srinivasan, only Araiyar Nathan has been presenting Araiyar Sevai at Azhvaar Tirunagari. With the case pending in the court, Araiyar Nathan's teenaged son, who has learned the agamas and prabhandham, too has been prevented from presenting the Araiyar Sevai at Azhvaar Tirunagari on the ground that he is not an 'appointee'.

Similar is the scenario in Srivilliputhur where only one brother (Bala Mukundan Araiyar) has been presenting Araiyar Sevai while his younger brother's rights have been put on hold by the temple authorities. Many requests by both the temple authorities as well as by the elder brother to convince the younger Araiyar to continue the Sevai have turned a futile exercise.
It is now almost 35 years since Araiyar Nathan began presenting Araiyar Sevai at Azhvaar Tirunagiri Divya Desam. Now in his late forties and with a son who in his late teens, Araiyar Sevai as a full time service is still not financially viable as he finds it difficult to make both ends meet with the income/sambavanai he receives every month. But it is evident from his commitment that he will continue this devotional service unmindful of the financial challenges.

However, the public spat within the Araiyars is a clear distraction. Given the current scenario, one is not sure of the NextGen continuing to present Araiyar Sevai as it may be a big challenge to keep it going at Azhvaar Tirunagari unless the powers that be, including the likes of Venu Srinivasan who are closely involved with supporting the devotional services at the Nava Tirupathi temples, come together to sort out the lingering disputes that have been going both within the Araiyar family as well as Araiyar Srinivasan’s long standing battle with the HR & CE. It is all the more important for the Araiyar had been part of the TVS team at Madurai for almost four decades.

It is hoped that the differences between the Araiyar and the authorities will soon be sorted out amicably amongst themselves without the intervention of the court and that the current Araiyars and the future generations at Azhvaar Tirunagari will continue to be able to present this rare art for centuries to come.


Anonymous said...

Very well written Prabhu. Sad that an amazing art form has to go through this crisis

Anonymous said...

Who can beat us in digging our own holes... So sad to hear / read this :(