Archive for the Month »July, 2010«

Trance in Fire Walking Rituals of Goddess Tiraupati Ammaṉ Temples in Tamilnadu

July 25, 2010  Published by


The entire epic of Mahābhārata is performed as a set of storytelling, theatrical, and ritual performances in the northern districts of Tamilnadu in honor of Goddess Tiraupati. The month long ParatakÅ«ttu performances culminate in rituals where hundreds of men and women devotees walking barefoot on burning coals (TÄ«miti) in fulfillment of their ritual vows and enacting the mythologies of Tiraupati being the woman born of fire. This paper analyzes the social constructs leading towards the highly charged trance states in men and women prior to, during, and after the fire walking rituals. Through the case studies of personal narratives the paper presents how trance in this context is viewed both as a physical and an emotional achievement and what kind of social implications they entail. Arguing that the women identify themselves with Goddess Tiraupati and her helplessness through the performances of mythology the paper proceeds to present personal narratives of participants in such rituals. Finding structural similarities in the narratives of several participants the paper presents how emotional intensities are created through the narrativizing of values. 

1 Introduction: Tamil words that signify native perceptions on the emotional state of trance

The tÄ«miti (fire walking) participants of the Mahābhārata festival use the words “āvÄ“cam” and “aruḷ” to describe the experiences of people who get possessed. The Tamil words for trance, “āvÄ“cam” and “aruḷ” are indicative of the emotional states men and women achieve prior to, during, and after fire walking rituals of Mahābhārata festival in Tiraupati1 Ammaṉ temples of TamilNadu. The word “āvÄ“cam” would literally mean “height of anger” whereas “aruḷ” which is again literally translated as ”grace”  would refer to a fluid state of the body and consciousness where both have become conduits and sites for a divine energy to descend and communicate. Shulman, making a fine distinction between the these two experiences referred to by the Tamil words, accords a higher devotional value to “aruḷ” inside the Tamil classical traditions in preference to other possessions of āvÄ“cam of the religious practices of villages (Shulman, 2002)2 The villagers of TÅ«ci and Takkōlam in Kañcipuram district where I did extensive documentation of Mahābhārata festival in Tiraupati Ammaṉ temples, do recognize the distinction between these two experiences but the distiction is also blurred and “āvÄ“cam” is often viewed as descending of the “aruḷ” of the goddess on the chosen few. While fire walking rituals are common for several other goddess temples in Tamilnadu, and “āvÄ“cam” is the word invariably used to refer to the dominant emotion in most of the trance situations, it is only in Tiraupati Ammaṉ temples the prevailing emotion of anger has been endorsed by mythological reason and justification. In the neighboring temples of other goddesses “āvÄ“cam”. The entire epic of Mahābhārata is performed as a set of storytelling, theatrical, and ritual performances in the northern districts of Tamilnadu in honor of Goddess Tiraupati. The month long ParatakÅ«ttu performances culminate in rituals where hundreds of men and women devotees walking barefoot on burning coals (TÄ«miti) in fulfillment of their ritual vows and enacting the mythologies of Tiraupati being the woman born of fire. This paper analyzes the social constructs leading towards the highly charged trance states in men and women prior to, during, and after the fire walking rituals. The narrative of Mahābhārata and its axiological dilemmas present the overarching framework for the unfolding of emotions of the ritual participants who transform their otherwise ordinary lives into moments of coming in touch with the divinity through their capacity for emotional intensity. Arguing that the women identify themselves with Goddess Tiraupati and her helplessness through the performances of mythology the paper proceeds to present personal narratives of participants in such rituals. Finding structural similarities in the narratives of several participants the paper presents how emotional intensities are created through the narrativizing values. Trance in this context is viewed both as a physical and an emotional achievement. In the neighboring temples of other goddesses “āvÄ“cam” is reasoned as “malai Ä“á¹›utal” (lit. 'climbing a mountain')  and coming out of the trance as “iá¹›aá¹…kutal” (lit. 'climbing down'). “Malai Ä“á¹›utal” does not refer to a gradual progress contrary to the suggestion contained therein, and it refers to a suddenness or an abrupt seizure of the body and the consciousness by an unknown benign force, “iá¹›aá¹…kutal” , refers to a slow regaining of the worldly senses. In the classical Tamil Åšaivite religious parlance the sudden seizure of the body is described by the phrase “taá¹­uttu āṭkoḷḷal” (lit. 'blocking and taking over') which is to say God forcefully takes over the devotee's body and consciousness. From “malai Ä“á¹›utal” to “āvÄ“cam” and “taá¹­uttu āṭkoḷḷal” to “aruḷ” there is a continuum of emotional experiences marked by various intensities of bodily strain, and duration in a variety of Tamil ritual and festival contexts. Pouting of the tongue, gritting of the teeth, rolling or closing of the eyes, extreme stretching and straining of the nerves and limbs, and an altered level of consciousness which can not be recalled again in ordinary waking states characterize the trance situations.

Dhanalakshmi in trance during the ritual of Tiraupati being born out of Homa fire,Takkōlam September 2009

Since the emotions, thoughts, and words during the trance can not be remembered and recounted by the subjects often the conversations with them would wander into why they do fire walking rather than the actual emotional experience of going through the trance. In the villages of Tūci and Takkōlam I have taken the entire video documentation Mahābhārata festival and arranged for public screenings. During such public screenings I collected the comments of the ritual participants on seeing their trance states. With those comments acting as prompters for further conversations I built their discourse of bits and pieces of perspectives, remembrances, fragmented narratives, and anecdotes. In this paper I try to present their discourse of trance state emotions which are otherwise considered to be inaccessible and unknowable.

TÅ«ci villagers watching the public screening of fire walking documentation September 2009

The attempt here is not to claim that the emotional content of trance in fire walking rituals of Tiraupati temples is fully comprehensible but to chart the way emotions are perceived in local and native social discourses.

2 Ascribing the value of heroic leadership to āvēcam

Takkōlam leader and chief organizer of Mahābhārata festival, Devabalan entering the fire pit as the first devotee September 2009

For Devabalan, the Takkōlam leader and the chief organizer of Mahābhārata festival it is his hereditary right to enter the fire pit as the first devotee leading hundreds and hundreds of other ritual participants known by the name “kumāra varkkam” (lit. 'class of children'). Tracing the history behind the naming of the ritual participants of Mahābhārata festival as Kumāra varkkam Hiltebeitel and Dirks have written that the warrior ancestors of these villages were given this prestigious title by the erstwhile kings of Thondaimandalam region (Hiltebeitel 1991, Dirks 1987). Devabalan and his family members do not know the historical facts through which the entire class of organizers and the devotees have acquired the name kumāra varkkam or ñāṉācāri kumāra varkkam. What they know is that it is their tradition to call themselves as ñāṉācāri kumāra varkkam or simply as kumāra varkkam during the Mahābhārata festival. So they print the festival invitations in the name of kumāra varkkam and understand the phrase to mean that they are the children of Tiraupati. Hiltebeitel has eloquently argued that the Mahābhārata festival in Tiraupati Ammaṉ temples is also a celebration of the memory of local history and kinship (Hiltebeitel 1991). The processional carrying of Tiraupati's weapon, flag, ritual water pot (karakam), and the statue of Pōttarājā to the border of the village and coming back again to the temple premises on the day of fire walking in Takkōlam do have the paraphernalia of royal display of power and they do confirm that this festival is also a celebration of history of their local kingship.

Kumāra varkkam carrying Tiraupati's flag, weapon, and the statue of Pōttarājā Takkōlam September 2009

The spectacular procession of the ritual participants to the border of the village is largely silent but when they return to the temple premises where the fire pit is waiting for them their walking is frenzied and the cries “Kōvintā”, “Kōvintā” fill the air. The procession certainly evokes the memory of an army going to war.
          It was a war of different sorts for Devabalan this year. His leadership was questioned by a rival faction in the village. Devabalan belongs to thepolitical party, DMK (Tirāvida Muṉṉēṭṛa Kalakam) which is officially an atheist party. Devabalan has won the local election on DMK ticket to become the president of Takkōlam panchayat. Although he has become doubly qualified to lead the village in all walks of life, since he espouses an atheist ideology and he never had an experience of possession the rival faction questioned his qualifications to lead and organize the Mahābhārata festival at the Tiraupati Ammaṉ temple. Village meetings after meetings could not resolve this issue and the festival could not be held during the summer months. The final compromise was arrived at after Devabalan announcing in one of the panchayat meetings that he would wear the turmeric wristlet (kāppu) and yellow ritual clothes, go through all the observances required out of kumāra varkkam, and enter the fire pit as the first devotee. As he was making this announcement he was very angry and was close to reaching āvÄ“cam. His body was uncontrollably shaking, his body was profusely sweating, his eyes became bloodshot, but he was aware of what he was saying in the meeting. Everybody including the members of the rival faction thought that it was a divine command from the goddess herself and agreed to his leadership. However the death rituals for the slain Turiyōtaṉaṉ after the fire walking should be done by a senior ñāṉācāri (lit. 'wise teacher') belonging to the rival faction. Devabalan agreed to the compromise.

kumāra varkkam procession returning from the border of the village after their ritual bath and pūjā for Kāḷi

The announcement incident was the only occasion Devabalan had an experience which was close to āvÄ“cam. Otherwise he thought he was incapable of getting into trance. The festival was delayed and it had to be scheduled in September finally. Although the rival faction gave in, they were waiting for some mishap to take place and Devabalan had to make sure the arrangements for the festival were proper. September being the monsoon month it could bring in rains and spoil the fire walking ritual. Had it rained on the fire walking day the entire village would have attributed the mishap to Devabalan's leadership and he would have lost his subsequent elections as well. There was also another risk. Two days before the fire walk, under the leadership of the ñāṉācāri the ritual participants ceremoniously set Tiraupati's sword to stand on its tip on the sides an earthen pot. Defying the gravitation the sword should stand on the sides of the pot for three days till the fire waking gets over. Had the sword fallen before the conclusion of the fire walking ritual it would have meant cāmi kuṛṛam (lit. 'mistake against the goddess). Like the fire pit that would not hurt the devotees of Tiraupati, the sword defying gravitation also testifies to the power of the goddess.
          Luckily it did not rain on the fire walking day. The sword stood still on the sides of the pot without a hitch. Devabalan had passed the two tests but he had never walked on fire on his own before. As a child he had sat on the shoulders of his father who walked on fire. As the lead first man he has to walk slowly with determination, he has to throw a ball of jasmine flowers on the burning coals, bend down, take the jasmine ball from the embers, and walk across the pit. In addition, the fire pit has been prone to accidents3. In TÅ«ci even in the 2006 festival Kuppu ācāri and Ranganathan both priests at the Tiraupati temple fell in the fire pit and were burnt all over. Compared to the Takkōlam fire pit TÅ«ci fire pit did not have depth and burning coals were spread on the surface. TÅ«ci did not have fences around the fire pit in 2006. While the frenzied kumāra varkkam charged on the fire pit the onlookers crowd swelled, jostled, pushed, cheered, and in the process shoved Kuppu ācāri and Ranganathan into the pit. Both of them were hospitalized for more than three months. Learning from such accidents in the neighboring villages, Devabalan had fenced the fire pit with wooden poles that would contain the pushing crowd. He had also made a pathway that would allow only one fire walker at a time. The fire walkers can come in a crowd but they need to be regulated in a line to walk or run across the fire pit through the fences. More over the law and the police do not look at accidents during fire walking kindly and if at all fatal accidents occur the organizers could be charged, tried, and imprisoned.
      On the day of fire walking Devabalan thought he might die on the fire pit. If he were to die, then it was for the sake of his ancestors, the heritage of his village, his hereditary right, and his victory over the rival faction. It was quite an arduous task for him to organize this month long festival. He took his moped and biked all over his village. His felt the love for his children moistening his eyes. He did not join the procession going to the border of the village in the afternoon4. He stayed behind in the temple and for once looked into the eyes of Tiraupati Ammaṉ.
  As the others approached the temple, his family offered to pour water on his body but Devabalan refused. He felt strangely brave and defiant. He had a bunch of margosa leaves and the ball jasmine flowers ready in his hand. As he was waiting near the fire pit sweat broke out all over his body. The heat was truly unbearable. The other devotees who kindled and tended the embers standing inside the fence need to be constantly streamed with water from a hosepipe connected to a water tanker.
  Devabalan walked on fire without fear. He threw the ball of jasmine flowers on the embers, bent down, took the flowers and walked across the fire pit calmly, slowly, and steadily. He was followed by ñāṉācāri kumāra varkkam devotees carrying Tiraupati's flag, weapon, and karakam. The other men and women followed afterward.
  I caught Devabalan immediately after the fire walk, under the metal statue of Tiraupati Ammaṉ who was supposedly overseeing and accepting the devotees crossing the fire pit. He said that he felt as if he were born again. He did not know how to explain that the fire did not hurt him. Definitely he did not go into trance and he showed me his unhurt feet. The ball of jasmine flowers though, was completely burnt. Actually the jasmine flowers should not have been burnt. The fact that they were burnt signified that some aspect of ritual had gone wrong and some cāmi kuṛṛam had occurred; but no body else except Devabalan and I knew about the burnt jasmines.
  That night Devabalan had a peaceful sleep.

3 Self realization and transcendence: āvēcam as an achievement and divine gift

Women devotees of TÅ«ci walking on fire May 2009

Mahābhārata storyteller Krishnamurthy was not at all amused when I told him about Devabalan's successful fire walk. “An atheist doing fire walk! These are signs of Kali Yugā” he mused and went on to explain what it means to be in the state of āvÄ“cam. Whenever he did the afternoon recitals of Mahābhārata he would elaborate and compare the status of women in the villages with that of Tiraupati. Through out the Mahābhārata Tiraupati had no say in the matters concerning her life. Immediately after her marriage with Arjunā nobody ever asked her whether she wanted to be the wife of all the five Pāṇṭavās. When Tarmar pawned her away in a game of dice she was not consulted either. The unspeakable horror of Tiraupati being drawn into the Kaurava court wearing a single garment and menstruating, is a powerful metaphor for indecency, injustice, and cruelty to a woman. During his recitals and also in the all night TerukÅ«ttu performances the similarities between Tiraupati's utter helplessness and the lives of ordinary women in the villages are drawn. According to Krishnamurthy each of the incidents in Tiraupati's life – her birth, her marriage, humiliation in the Kaurava court, exiled life in the forest, sexual harassment by KÄ«cakan, and loss of her five children in the war- is like walking on fire: meaning, going through crisis after crisis which is equivalent of death and coming out of it is like being born again into a newer world. Mahābhārata festival culminating in the fire walking ritual signify that by surrendering yourself to the will of the God you can overcome any crisis. Tiraupati's moment of humiliation in the Kaurava court is also the moment of her self realization. When she vows that she would tie her hair only with the blood of Turiyōtaṉaṉ and Tuccataṉaṉ she in fact declares the Kuruká¹£etra war in advance. Krishnamurthy and the other Mahābhārata story tellers would call that moment as Tiraupati's trance (āvÄ“cam). On the moment of her vow she realizes that the purpose of her life is to cause the greatest destruction through the Kuruká¹£etra war and restore justice in the world. Or in the parlance of Mahābhārata story tellers she realizes that she is Kāḷi, the feminine twin of Kriá¹£na. From that moment of breaking into self knowledge Tiraupati transforms from being a passive woman into a ferocious goddess who would not rest until her vow is fulfilled. The transformation is both self realization and self transcendence at the same time.
     Many women devotees do identify themselves with Tiraupati. Fourteen personal narratives I have collected from the fire walking women of TÅ«ci and Takkōlam share similar narrative structures. They all start with an insurmountable crisis in their lives, proceed on to taking a vow to do the fire walking, and conclude with everybody in the village respecting them for the accomplishment.

Priest Ranganathan’s wife Lakshmi fulfilling her vow TÅ«ci May 2009

The elevation in social status after the fire walking is quite evident for a number of women. The familial relationships improved, the in-laws treated them with more respect and in many cases the in-laws feared that their fire walking daughter in law could have the blessings and power of the goddess Tiraupati. For Krishnamurthy and other Mahabharata story tellers the disjointed and fragmented narratives of the women fire walkers are indicative of the notion of achievement contained in the fire walking rituals.
     For Rangnathan's wife Lakshmi the feeling of desperation is a prerequisite to feel a sense of achievement after the fire walking. In the year 2006, her husband Ranganathan was pushed into the fire pit by the onlooking devotees inadvertently and was burnt all over. Ranganathan being the priest of the TÅ«ci Tiraupati temple, his falling into the fire pit caused quite a sensation in the whole village. Apart from hospitalization expenses for her husband, Lakshmi had to hear the rumors that Ranganathan must have committed some cāmi kuṛṛam. Day by day she was feeling more and more miserable. Ranganathan continuing as the priest of the temple was also becoming uncertain. Their family owned a patch of agricultural land but the main income came from Ranganathan's work at the temple. Their grown up sons had been away working and living in Chennai but the option of going and living with their hostile daughter in laws, especially with her sick husband, looked like falling from the frying pan into the stove. In the year 2007, when Lakshmi was sweeping the courtyard of the Tiraupati temple she was overcome by an acute sense of despair and did not know what happened afterward. Since it was late morning most of the villagers have gone for agricultural work and a very few old men and women stayed behind in their homes. Those who stayed behind heard an unusual and loud animal sound coming from the temple courtyard. With her hair flowing, head rapidly rotating, limbs and nerves straining Lakshmi stood in the courtyard making strange noises. Her body was filled with such energy that the few old men and women, who came rushing, could not hold her down. In an alien voice Lakshmi announced that she would do the fire walking in the next Mahābhārata festival. It took nearly three hours for her to regain her consciousness. After that incident the rumors died down. When Ranganathan returned home from the hospital everybody in the village praised his wife's brave decision and he was beginning to feel comfortable with his daily duties at the temple. In the 2009 festival Lakshmi had the second āvÄ“cam as she entered the fire pit.
   Krishnamurthy's interpretation of Lakshmi's trance experience is that her inner self was sufficiently prepared by the crisis to become the recipient of the divine gift of āvÄ“cam.

4 Faking trance/ trance envy

For Rajagopal, the popular notion that one's self needs to be prepared for receiving the divine gift of āvēcam proved to be a problem. Although he has been fire walking ever since he was fourteen years old, he never had an experience of āvēcam. He visited temple everyday, did pūjā at home regularly and visited several religious gurus, mendicants, and magicians. While he thinks that fire walking is like any other sport which you can master if you have the will and the time, the greater achievement is in trance which eludes him even today. Rajagopal has always wondered why is that the trance occurs only at specific rituals or performances. The disrobing of Tiraupati episode, opening of the eyes of Kāḷi statue, and fire walking are a few of the prominent rituals where possession occurs in a mass scale. Over the years Rajagopal became envious of the people who are regularly receiving the divine gift of trance.

Rajagopal faking trance during fire walking ritual Takkōlam September 2009

     In the year 2005 Rajagopal made a strange decision. He would not do the fire walking but he would try to 'practice' getting in to trance. He always stayed with the drummers and other musicians, shouted Kōvintā, and Kōvintā in the loudest possible voice, rolled his eyes, and pouted his tongue often. His friends and relatives were quick to catch him 'faking' trance. Some of them warned him of the negative effects of invoking the wrath of Tiraupati Ammaṉ. Rajagopal could not be stopped by these warnings because he believes that he is sincere in his devotion and he only desires a communion with the goddess. Mahābhārata story tellers, TerukÅ«ttu artists, elders, and women sympathize with Rajagopal's aspirations for trance. Nobody is sure whether Rajagopal's ways of 'practicing' trance is right or wrong. Takkōlam festival 2009 also saw Rajagopal successfully simulating trance behavior during fire walking ritual.

5 The lure of the fire pit : fear, anxiety, lust, and fulfillment

Takkōlam fire pit September 2009

The fire pit is strangely alluring; there is an invitation for adventure, death, renewal, and rebirth5. As mythologies would have the fire pit is a symbol of feminine energy. In Tiraupati temples the fire pit overseen by the goddess herself compresses several meanings; it is mother (it is Tiraupati's children who walk on fire), sister (she is Kriá¹£na's twin), wife, giver, and destroyer. The fire pit is also the symbol of Tiraupati who is a menstruating virgin. In the complexities of the feminine rest the desire for justice. The fear, anxiety, lust, and fulfillment are all emotions that can be constructed only in relation to the feminine.
   The social constructs of these emotions need to be explored further.

1 Transliterations in this paper closely adheres to the spoken Tamil of the festival participants. Wherever Sanskritized words are not used in spoken parlance, Tamil transliteration is followed for even the names of charaters in Mahābhārata.
2 See Shulman’s article on Tirukkōvaiār in “Self and Self-Transformation in the History of Religions”. Shulman rightly points out that the literal English translation for the word “aruḷ” as “grace” is rather misleading as it refers to “a kind of fluid, shimmering fullness, marked by shifting, unpredictable intensities”
3 Hiltebeitel records several accidents including a death in 1981 during fire walking rituals. See Hiltebeitel's The Cult of Draupadi vol: 2. On Hindu Ritual and the Goddess (Hiltebeitel 1991, 460).
4 Valentine Daniel's classical study Fluid Signs: Being a person the Tamil way describes how Tamils integrate their native village into their selves. The border ritual conducted before the fire walking ritual confirms the sanctity of the village (Daniel 1984).
5 Hiltebeitel eloquently interprets the feminine nature of the fire pit (Hiltebeitel, 1991)


Shulman, David, and Guy G. Stroumsa (eds) 2002. Self and Self-Transformation
in the History of Religions.
New York: Oxford University Press.

Daniel, E. Valentine. 1984. Fluid Signs: Being a person the Tamil way. Berkley:
University of California Press.

Deliege, Robert. 1997. The World of the ‘Untouchables’: Paraiyars of Tamil
Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Dirks, Nicholas.1987. The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harman, Willam P.1992. Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess. Delhi: Motilal

Hiltebeitel, Alf.1991. The Cult of Draupadi vol: 2. On Hindu Ritual and the
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mines, Diane P.2002. Hindu Nationalism, Untouchable Reform, and the
Production of a South Indian Village. American Ethnologist 29, 1:58-85

Moreno, Manuel.1985. God’s Forceful call: Possession as a Divine Strategy. In
J.P.Waghore, N.Cutler and V.Narayanan (eds) Gods of Flesh/Gods of
Stone:The Embodiment in Divine India: Chambersburg, pa.: Anima Press.

  1. Transliterations in this paper closely adheres to the spoken Tamil of the festival participants.Wherever Sanskritized words are not used in spoken parlance, Tamil transliteration is followedfor even the names of charaters in Mahābhārata.
  2. See Shulman’s article on Tirukkōvaiār in “Self and Self-Transformation in the History of Religions”. Shulman rightly points out that the literal English translation for the word “aruḷ” as “grace” is rather misleading as it refers to “a kind of fluid, shimmering fullness, marked by shifting, unpredictable intensities”
  3. Hiltebeitel records several accidents including a death in 1981 during fire walking rituals. See Hiltebeitel's The Cult of Draupadi vol: 2. On Hindu Ritual and the Goddess (Hiltebeitel 1991, 460).
  4. Valentine Daniel's classical study Fluid Signs: Being a person the Tamil way describes how Tamils integrate their native village into their selves. The border ritual conducted before the fire walking ritual confirms the sanctity of the village (Daniel 1984).
  5. Hiltebeitel eloquently interprets the feminine nature of the fire pit (Hiltebeitel, 1991).

Vedic chanting as householder’s meditation practice in Tamil Åšaiva Siddhānta tradition

July 19, 2010  Published by


This paper presents the historyof Vedic chanting as householder's meditation practice within the Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta tradition. Distinguishing philosphical foundation of Śaiva Siddhānta tradition from the tradition of Vedanta the paper presents how certain Tamil non-Brahmin castes approach Kriṣṇa Yajur Veda for their daily meditation practice. As this tradition emphasizes the importance of mental worship as opposed to external worship carried out in the form of festivals and rituals, and also because the tradition evaluates advancement in the practice as a gradual abandonment of prayer elements and ritual components the paper argues that this practice should be seen as a practice of meditation. Elaborating on the mixing of several traditions contributing to the contemporary form of this practice, the paper further presents the two nuanced differences within the tradition: one approaches Kriṣṇa Yajur Veda purely as a set of sacred sounds and another approaches it as sacred sound with profound meanings. Both the practices aim towards attaining communion with Śiva a state of consciousness which is beyond the known states of sleeping, waking, or dreaming. Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta's position is that when such merging of self with God takes place neither of them lose their quality of infinity.

Keywords: Śaiva Siddhānta, Kriṣṇa Yajur Veda, Vedic chanting, sacred sound, Tamil, Tamilnadu, Srirudram, Sadarudriyam, Rudraoupaniṣad

Vedic chanting as householder’s meditation practice in Tamil Åšaiva Siddhānta tradition has a long and complex history of negotiations between Sanskrit and Tamil, Ä€gamas and Vedas, temple and household, self and God, cosmos and human body, and sound and meaning. As philosophical systems differed in their interpretations of the relationships between these binaries, so were the practices, their acceptance, popularity, secrecy, and beliefs in their efficacy. While the manifold complexities of contradictory and often competitive factions make the unilinear history of this meditation practice difficult to encompass, the survival of the practice in contemporary Tamilnadu through oral transmission points in the direction of a maze of interwoven texts, temples, oral discourses, and family practices. Central to this heritage is the Kriṣṇa Yajur Veda in the passages of which the Pañcāká¹£ara mantra (na ma Å›i va ya), the holiest of the holy mantras for the adherents of the Åšaiva Siddhānta tradition occurs for the first time.

The fourth chapter of Yajur Veda Taittria Saṃhita known by the names, Srirudram, Sadarudriyam or Rudraoupaniá¹£ad is not the exclusive claim of the adherents of Tamil Åšaiva Siddhānta. In fact on the one hand Srirudram is considered to be one of the canonical texts on par with Bhagavad GÄ«tā for all Hindus and on the other hand many of the monolingual Tamil adherents of Åšaiva Siddhānta may not even know that there exists a vibrant tradition of chanting Srirudram as the householder's meditation practice. Srirudram is also the popular chant that is used in daily rituals of Åšiva temples, in Vedic Homas, and Yajñas. I use the word 'meditation' to designate this householder's practice in preference to the use of the word 'ritual' because the tradition emphasizes the 'Ä€tmārta pÅ«jā' internal worship in contrast to 'parārtha pÅ«jā'' the external worship carried out in the form of rituals and festivals in temples. The other reason for considering this householder's practice as meditation is that the tradition evaluates the advancement in the practice as the gradual abandonment of the ritual elements and prayer components of the practice and gaining proficiency in Ajapa japa, non-utterance of the mantra yet listening and being one with the sacred sound. While Samādhi is the commonplace word used to describe the ultimate goal of the meditation practice, Tamil Åšaiva Siddhānta uses the phrase TurÄ«ya Turîyaṃ to describe the final goal and state of the consciousness which is beyond the three known states of sleeping, waking, and dreaming. The gradual growing in silence is also equating and merging the self of the practitioner with the God meditated upon. It is a process of realizing self as God. While this is the ultimate goal of this complex meditation practice the differing philosophical foundations and their consequent interpretations have given rise to differences in the daily practices.

Recent scholarship ( Sanderson 2009, Davis 2009) dates the integration of Sanskrit and Tamil, Ä€gamas and Vedas, temple worship and householder's practice in Tamilnadu to twelfth century when (the proverbial author of the authoritative Ä€gama text Kriyakramadyotikā) AghoraÅ›iva took up the task of amalgamating Sanskrit and Tamil Siddhānta. Strongly refuting Sankara's heritage of monist interpretations of Siddhānta, AghoraÅ›iva brought a change in the understanding of the Godhood by reclassifying the first five principles of Åšaiva Siddhānta namely Nāda (sound), Bindu (the bodily mystical point where fluid of immortality flows), Sadāśiva( the ever revealing grace of the primal soul), Èsvara (Supreme God) and Suddhavidya (pure knowledge), into the category of pācam (bondage), stating they were effects of a cause and inherently unconscious substances, a departure from the traditional Vedantic teaching in which these five were part of the divine nature of God.

AghoraÅ›iva was successful in preserving the Sanskrit rituals of the ancient Ä€gamic tradition. To this day, AghoraÅ›iva’s Siddhānta philosophy is followed by almost all of the hereditary temple priests (Åšivācāryas), and his texts on the Ä€gamas have become the standard ritual manuals. His Kriyakramadyotikā is a vast work covering nearly all aspects of Åšaiva Siddhānta ritual, including initiation, worldly duties, householder's meditation and worship, and installation of deities.

In the thirteenth century MeykaṇṭatÄ“var and his student Aruḷnandi Åšivācārya further spread Tamil Åšaiva Siddhānta. MeykaṇṭatÄ“var wrote Civa-ñāṉa-pōtam (“Understanding of the Knowledge of Åšiva”) Aruḷnandi Åšivācārya wrote Åšiva-jñāna-siddhiyār (“Attainment of the Knowledge of Åšiva”), Umāpati's Åšivaprakāśam (“Lights on Åšiva”) in the 14th century, ÅšrÄ«kaṇṭha's commentary on the Vedānta-sÅ«tras (14th century), and Appaya DÄ«ká¹£ita's commentary thereon established the continuity of the tradition. MeykaṇṭatÄ“var's Civa-ñāṉa-pōtam and subsequent works by other writers laid the foundation of the MeykaṇṭatÄ“var's Tamil tradition, which propounds a pluralistic realism wherein God, souls, and world are coexistent and without beginning. Åšiva is an efficient but not material cause. They view the soul’s merging in Åšiva as salt would dissolve in water, an eternal oneness that is also twoness. The source literature of the Åšaiva-siddhānta school consists of the Ä€gamas, and Tamil devotional hymns written by Åšaiva saints but collected by Nambi (c. AD 1000) in a volume known as Tirumurai.

From the turn of the twentieth century to the mid twentieth century a vast corpus of Tamil texts with Sanskrit originals were published in Tamilnadu by the various adherents of Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta. The publishers were independent religious practitioners, Śaivite monasteries, scholars, and landlords. Journals and books were also published as part of the celebrations of life cycle ceremonies such as marriages and on the occasions of temple festivals. These publications had a very profound impact on the way the householder's meditation practice charted its course through the twentieth century. Smartha Brahmins, hereditary temple priests of Śiva temples, and Śaiva Siddhāntins belonging to the non-Brahmin caste groups of Caiva Veḷaḷar , Caiva Mutaliyār, and Caiva Cetṭiyar are the prominent practitioners and inheritors of the tradition of chanting Srirudram as their household meditation practice in contemporary Tamilnadu today. While Smartha Brahmins adhere to the monism of the Sankara school of Vedanta, hereditary Śivācāryas, and the non-Brahmin Śaiva Siddhāntins owe allegiance to a pluralistic view of the world.

It is generally considered1 that the Vedantin's practice of Vedic chanting consists of hearing scripture (śravaṇa), reflection (manana), and contemplation or meditation (nididhyāsana). However Sankara in his commentary of Bṛhadāraṇyakaoupaniṣad2 clearly states that allocating three separate categories for hearing, reflecting, and meditating is meaningless. This is because this commentary is also where Sankara develops his main themes of philosophical monism such as the oneness of the self and God, the world of name and form, the sufficiency of knowledge alone for release. As a consequence the Vedantin's way of Vedic chanting foregrounds the knowledge that the self and God are one and the same and so the act of Vedic chanting or the meditation on the sacred sound is to demonstrate the oneness rather than it being the means to achieve it. So the Smartha Brahmin who chants Kriṣṇa Yajur Veda in his household has to first of all ask the permission of Śiva to worship Him outside himself on any sacred object such as Linga or the statue of the deity.

In variance to the Vedantin's view that the knowledge is alone is enough for the realization of the self the Åšaiva Siddhāntin believes that proper action needs to be initiated in order to realize the self as God. Chanting Kriṣṇa Yajur Veda is an important act in the life of Åšaiva Siddhāntin where he enters into the processes of reabsorption of the self into God. The five divine manifestations of the God are said to be the five faces of Åšiva where the face looking upward is Īśāna, "ruler" (the power of revelation), the one facing east is Tatpuruá¹£a, "supreme soul" (the power of obscuration), westward looking is Sadyojata, "quickly giving birth" (the power of creation), northward is Vāmadeva, "lovely, pleasing" (the power of preservation) and southward is Aghora, "non-terrifying" (the power of reabsorption). Attributing meaning to directionality is the contribution of Ä€gamic tradition and the householder’s practice of Vedic chanting is no different from the chanting that is done in the temple rituals. As Åšaiva Ä€gamas accord importance to the placements of deities and their directionality in the temples a parallel is always drawn between the cosmos, temple and the human body all of which are believed to share the same internal architecture. The all-pervasive sound as the mediator and the unifying feature help elevate the consciousness to a different level of shimmering luminosity where the practitioner realizes his own self as the God.

Of all the Vedic chants Srirudram is the one which has the most elaborate ways of distributing and designating sounds on the bodily parts3. Mahā Nyāsa , the big or the great way of designating sounds on the bodily parts and Laghu Nyāsa , the easy or the quick way of assigning sounds are the two ways in which the Srirudram is distributed prior to the beginning of the actual chanting. While Mahā Nyāsa is done mainly on the occasions such as Mahā Rudrā yajña, the great Rudrā Vedic sacrifice, Laghu Nyāsa is mainly practiced by the householders. The Nyāsa component of the Vedic chanting correlates and establishes equivalences between sounds, deities, and bodily parts. This preparation towards the chanting is believed to embody, capture, and facilitate the process of reabsorption elaborated in Åšaiva Siddhānta and the practice is believed to have its roots in PurvamÄ«māṃsā and tantric texts. Immediately after invoking the grace of the particular deities on the bodily parts, Srirudam's Laghu Nyāsa celebrates the self as the God and how the rhythm of the self and cosmos composed of the five elements (fire, air, earth, sky, and water) are interrelated. Body, mind, energy or breath, senses, and awareness are said to be in a rhythm and the Laghu Nyāsa while praying for their mutual nourishment, also brings their interrelationship to the attention of the practitioner. Generally for all chanting the Nyāsa component serves the function of purification4 of the body and makes it ready for the ritual process. As the Laghu Nyāsa process plays a very important role in the meditation practice of this tradition it is important to read through the verses associated with it and relate them subsequently to verses of the main chanting. In this section of chanting there are two parts: the first part commences with invoking of deities to stay in different parts of the body and the second part is more about the universal rhythm.

In the first part of the Laghu Nyāsa the chant aids the meditator to visualize himself as Rudrā , the worshipful form of Åšiva. The mental movement from the first section of the Laghu Nyāsa to the second section can be described as the meditator moving from the deities to elements of nature embedded in the human body. The visualization starts with the chant describing Rudrā as having the crystal clear color, three eyes, five faces, river Ganges on his matted hair, snake as his sacred thread, tiger skin as his clothes, bluish black neck, having Uma as his half body and one who is bathed with nectar. Immediately after the visualization the chant moves towards invoking deities on the bodily parts of the meditator who is visualizing himself as Rudrā , the Åšiva. 'On the breath is Brahma, on the feet is Viṣṇu, on the hands are hara'- is the progression of the chant which ends with praying to all the deities to bless the meditator. Since the second part is considered to be very important in this tradition it is fully given below: “agnirmÄ“ vāci Å›ritaḥ, vāg-há¹›dayÄ“, há¹›dāyaṃ mayÄ«, aham amá¹›tÄ“, amá¹›taṃ brahmaṇi (may fire nourish speech, speech nourish the heart, heart nourish my self, let my self nourish what is eternal/nectar (God) in me, the eternal in me nourish the eternal everywhere), vāyur-mÄ“ prāṇe Å›ritah, prāṇo há¹›dayÄ“, há¹›dayaṃ mayÄ«, aham- amá¹›tÄ“, amá¹›taṃ brahmaṇi (may air nourish the vital breath, vital breath nourish heart, heart nourish my self, my self nourish that which is eternal in me, the eternal in me nourish the eternal everywhere) sÅ«ryomÄ“ caká¹£uá¹£i Å›ritaḥ, caká¹£ur-há¹›dayÄ“, há¹›dayaṃ mayÄ«, aham amá¹›tÄ“, amá¹›taṃ brahmaṇi (may sun nourish sight, sight nourish heart, heart nourish my self, my self nourish that which is eternal in me, the eternal in my self nourish the eternal everywhere) candra-mā me manasi Å›ritaḥ, mano há¹›dayÄ“, há¹›dayaṃ mayÄ«, aham-amá¹›tÄ“, amá¹›taṃ brahmaṇi (may moon nourish mind, mind nourish heart, heart nourish my self, my self nourish, that which is eternal in me, the eternal in me nourish the eternal everywhere,) diÅ›o mÄ“ Å›rotre Å›ritāḥ, Å›ro-tragṃ há¹›dayÄ“, há¹›dayaṃ mayÄ«, aham-amá¹›tre, amá¹›taṃ brahmaṇi (may space nourish hearing, hearing nourish heart, heart nourish my self, my self nourish that which is eternal in me, the eternal in me nourish eternal everywhere) āpo me retasi Å›ritāḥ, reto há¹›dayÄ“, há¹›dayaṃ mayÄ«, aham amá¹›tÄ“, amá¹›taṃ brahmaṇi ( may water nourish creation, creation nourish, heart, heart nourish my self, my self nourish that which is eternal in me, the eternal in me nourish the eternal everywhere)

Illustration 1: Depiction of sound and deities on the bodily parts- Tantric painting

pṛthi-vī me śarīre śritā, śarī-ragṃ hṛdayē, hṛdayaṃ mayī, aham amṛtē, amṛtaṃ brahmaṇi (may earth nourish the body, body nourish the heart, heart nourish the self, my self nourish that which is eternal in me, the eternal in me nourish the eternal everywhere) oṣadhi-vanaspa-tāyo me lomāsu śritāḥ, lomāni hṛdayē, hṛdayaṃ mayī, aham amṛte, amṛtaṃ brahmaṇi (may herbs nourish hair, hair nourish heart, heart nourish my self, my self nourish that is which eternal in my self, the eternal in me nourish the eternal everywhere) indrō me balē śritaḥ, ba-lagṃ hṛdayē, hṛdayaṃ mayī, aham amṛte, amṛtaṃ brahmaṇi (may power nourish strength, strength nourish heart, heart nourish my self, my self nourish that which is eternal in me, the eternal in me nourish the eternal everywhere) punārma ātmā puna-rāyu-rāgāt (Finally the atman which is omnipresent is invoked as the source of everything) punā-prāna-puna-rākūta-māgāt (we beseech the atman to bestow long life, to let the prana stay within, to let the mind be controlled) vai-śvānaro raśmi-bhirvā-vṛ-dhānaḥ (to the the fire and the light grow, to let the digestion be well) anta-stiṣṭha-tvamṛtāsya gopāḥ (That the protector of wisdom may be well established in us)

Laghu Nyāsa hymn establishes for the Åšaiva Siddhāntin that the individual soul of a person is identical with Åšiva; recognition of this identity is essential to liberation. The process of arriving at the identical nature of individual soul with that of Åšiva is through a conception of human body which has the natural elements such as sun, moon, earth, and air constituting bodily parts and influencing their functionalities. Laghu Nyāsa hymn also confirms the Åšaiva Siddhāntin's view that heart is the most important place in the human body for the sacred sounds to vibrate and create the channel for Åšiva, the Brahman to reveal himself and dissolve the individual soul with himself. While the centrality of heart in the Nyasa process is not unique to this tradition and it is common to all anga (body) and kara (hand) Nyāsa processes of all Vedic chanting6 , it assumes great importance within the Åšaiva Siddhānta tradition because here Åšiva is seen as the most graceful, loving, and all giving God7 . Through His grace and love He reabsorbs the soul into His fold. The several schools of Åšaiva thought, ranging from pluralistic realism to absolute monism agree in recognizing three principles: pati, Åšiva, the Lord; paÅ›u, the individual soul; and pāśa, the bonds that confine the soul to earthly existence. The goal set for the soul is to get rid of its bonds and gain Å›ivatva (“the nature of Åšiva”). The paths leading to this goal are caryā (external acts of worship), kriyā (acts of intimate service to God), yoga (meditation), and jñāna (knowledge). Householder’s Vedic chanting is at once an act of external worship and an internal meditation.

The second step in chanting Srirudram is to pay tribute to the sages who composed the chants and to distribute the primal sounds (bījākṣara) on the body. The difference between the first part of the Laghu Nyāsa distribution of sounds and this part is that in Laghu Nyāsa one is to mentally concentrate and focus on the bodily parts while saying names of the deities invoked on that particular part, here in this section the meditator has to touch the body while chanting the verses. Designating primal sounds of the chant on the fingers and on the bodily parts is also known by the name Viniyogaḥ Yoga (Yoga of distribution). For Srirudram sage Aghora is said to be the author and the chant begins by touching the head with the middle and ring finger of the right hand while mentioning his name. When the cadence of the chant (in this case the meter is anuṣṭubh) is uttered the meditator has to touch the tip of the nose and when Rudrā 's name is uttered the meditator has to touch the middle of his heart to establish him firmly there.

The distribution of the bÄ«jāká¹£ara mantra recognizes the “na ma Å›i va ya” as the base sacred sounds on which the entire chant is constructed. While recognizing the base sacred sounds of the chant the practitioner has to touch the right hand shoulder with the closure of right ring finger and the thumb. Similarly while recognizing “Å›ivatharayeti” (the grace of Åšiva) as the power of the chant the practitioner has to touch the left hand shoulder with the closure of the right ring finger and the thumb. An imaginary inverted triangle is drawn and completed when the recognition process completes with the touching of the navel when uttering the name “mahā devá” (great god). The distribution continues on the five fingers of the hands and touching of chest, head, nape, eyes, finally again establishing Åšiva in the heart, and creating a firm relationship with him. Going beyond the initial function of purification process this distribution of mantras on the fingers and body spreads out the grace of Åšiva on the body of the practitioner.

Immediately after the distribution of both the sounds and the grace the practice calls for visualization on the all-pervasive quality of Śiva. This portion of the chant is called dhyāna8 (meditation), the intense quality of it will determine the flow of the entire chanting of Srirudram which is to follow it. The visualization is complemented by offerings of sacred primal sounds that signify primordial elements of nature. The primal sounds9 'lam' ( signifying earth), 'ham' (sky), 'yam' (air), 'ram' (fire), 'vām' (nectar), and 'saṃ' (all pervasive) are submitted along with flowers, lighting of lamps and incense sticks, and food items. If the meditator is to be imagining himself to be Śiva one might legitimately ask how he is offering and submitting the sounds and the other materials. This interplay of outside and inside is one of the qualities of this meditation process as the meditator becomes aware of both the all-pervasive nature of Śiva and at the same times his uniqueness within the omnipresence. As already indicated the One not subsuming the other is one of the important philosophical positions of Śaiva Siddhānta in contrast to the Vedantin's position of absolute monism.

After these preparation towards the chanting what follows is the customary invocation of Ganapati and a passage from the second part of Srirudram known by the name “Chamakam”. The purpose of chanting the third stanza from Chamakam is believed to be for invoking peace. The third stanza of Chamakam prominently asks for all the worldly successes and benefits from the grace of Åšiva. For the adherents of Åšaiva Siddhānta this world is not to be denied and dismissed as illusory but to be accepted as a facet of godliness. So the long life, material prosperity, friendships, mornings filled with thoughts on god, ability to extract work from the servants, and healthy life are all within the scope of achieving communion with Åšiva. With this preparation the actual chanting of Srirudram begins.

Srirudram is in two parts. The first part, chapter 16 of the Yajurveda, is known as Namakam because of the repeated use of the word "Namo" in it. The second part, chapter 18 of the Yajurveda, is known as Chamakam because of the repeated use of the words "Chame". Rudram is divided into 11 sections called Anuvākas. Both Namakam and Chamakam have great rhythmic sounds and chanting them appropriately is believed to create auspicious vibrations in the house. Many householders approach chanting of Srirudram merely as sacred sound and many practitioners do not even know the meaning of all the verses contained therein10 . Many do not have formal training, knowledge, or education in Sanskrit. Their way of learning Vedic chanting is either partly as a family tradition or from publications that transliterate Sanskrit verses in Tamil. With the Sanskrit verses written in Tamil the practitioners memorize the verses completely and over the years of daily practice in the early morning hours the chanting becomes an everyday routine for many of them. Because the fidelity of the sound is more important than the meaning of the word chanted the practitioners take real efforts to pronounce Sanskrit words accurately. Very few practitioners begin to reflect on the meaning of the chant at their advanced ages and even then the correctness of the pronunciation assumes more importance than the meaning. TaittriaUpaniṣad which teaches the science of pronunciation (siksha) is very much part of the tradition of practicing Vedic chanting at homes. It deals with sound, pitch, quantity, force, modulation and combination of sounds. The teachings of Taittria Upanishad are preserved in the practices in such a way that the practitioners who approach Vedic chants as pure sacred sounds believe that they affect the breath (prāṇa) and since it affects the regulation of breath the meditating practitioner automatically benefits out of the everyday chanting and as the practice matures one begins to enjoy physical and mental health. For the practice to mature it is often prescribed that one chants from the throat rather than from the mouth. The cadence, pitch, and force need to be learned from an experienced teacher, or from the father or maternal uncle who is a practitioner. While it is common for fathers to initiate their male children into Vedic chanting when they reach seven years of age, many also prefer to employ proficient teachers for their children's initiation and subsequent training. When the Vedic chanting is taught as a householder's ritual, prayer, and meditation technique to the child it is taught as an eighteen step process. The eighteen steps are purification of the body through water, purification of the body and mind through bodily designation of sounds, prayer to Ganapati for removal of obstacles in the process, declaration of the intention to complete the chanting and its objectives, inviting benign forces, inviting Śiva to present himself, visualizing self as Śiva while chanting, paying obeisance to Śiva, offering incense, food, sacred leaves, flowers and light, submitting sacred primal sounds, asking for boons, and finally bidding farewell. For those adherents who approach Srirudram as pure sacred sounds Namakam, the first part is meant to elevate the consciousness and transport the practitioner to another world and Chamkam, the second part is to bring the practitioner back to the normal everyday world. In other words, these two parts are believed to be complementary auditory systems that would bring about a healthy equilibrium to the body and the mind of the practitioner. Further peace and rhythm between body and the cosmos are achieved by supplementing the Srirudram with that of five sacred Vedic hymns (Puruṣa sūktaṃ, Narayana sūktaṃ, Viṣṇu sūktaṃ, Durga sūktaṃ, and Sri sūktaṃ) and ending with all auspicious chant of Mantra puṣpaṃ. While this sequencing of Vedic chants is common to the Srirudram chanting in the Śiva temples and the households, in the household practice the practitioner is at the liberty to skip the supplementary hymns and go directly to Mantra Pushpam. Whatever the choice of the practitioners it is mandatory for them to sing a Tamil hymn from Tirumurai before completing the sequence with Mantra puṣpaṃ. For those who approach Srirudram only as a set of sacred sounds the Tamil hymn provides the comfort of meaning.

Adherents, who meditate on the meaning of Srirudram, go through the process of mastering the chant with perfect pronunciation. It is believed that one is capable of meditating on the meaning of Srirudram only after years of practicing the chant on daily basis. When the practitioner reaches his middle age his teacher further initiates him into the meaning of Srirudram. It is believed that the meaning of Srirudram will reveal itself to the practitioners only through the grace of the teacher.

For those who were initiated into the Vedic chanting through their fathers or maternal uncles the families guide them to seek a guru at the appropriate time of necessity in their lives. Alternatively the families adhere themselves to Śaivite monasteries which act as seat of guru and guide the practitioners in understanding the meaning of Srirudram. The practitioners are not encouraged to seek the literal translated meaning of the text of Srirudram in the first place; instead they are asked to read all texts of Tamil Tirumurai, go to Śiva temples regularly, participate in the temple rituals and festivals, learn about the different temple myths, attend discourses on Śaiva Siddhānta, involve themselves in charitable activities, and consult their gurus periodically. The guru assesses the progress of the practitioner by

(A page from Sanskrit Srirudam written with tamil script used by practitioners)

judging changes in the quality of voice of the practitioner,his attitudes, the acuteness of his need to realize God, and his growing capacity for love. When the guru decides that the practitioner has reached the appropriate stage of reception he would ask him first of all to reflect on the interconnectedness of natural elements and life forms on the earth and see the interconnectedness as the rhythm of the cosmos. In the second stage of the guidance the guru would ask the practitioner whether he can recognize the the rhythm of the cosmos as love and grace of Åšiva. Simultaneously the practitioner would be asked to abandon the the physical ritual activities such as bathing the Åšivalinga, or showing the lamp to the deity while chanting and to do such activities mentally visualizing them. The practitioner should be able to do all the sixteen ritual activities while chanting Srirudram purely by imagining or visualizing them before he can be considered for the next stage of instruction. When the guru is satisfied with the capacity of the practitioner in visualizing all activities he will ask him to reflect on the meaning of Srirudam along with worldly benefits he would acquire by the chanting of each of the stanzas. I attach below the standard English translation of Srirudram available to the practitioners in Tamil11:

In the first Anuvāka (stanza) Rudrā is asked to turn away his Ghōra rÅ«pa (fierce appearance) and to please keep his and his followers’ weapons at bay. Having been pacified, Rudrā is requested to destroy the sins of those for whom it is being chanted. Apart from being a hymn devoted to Lord , Srirudram also may contain hidden secrets in coded format. For example the verses contain coded instructions for preparing various ayurvedic medicines. This first stanza is chanted to destroy all sins, obtain leadership and divine benevolence, protection from famine, freedom from fear, obtain food, and protect cows, for deliverance from untimely fear of death, of tigers, thieves, from monsters, devils, demons. It is also chanted as a protection (kavacha) against virulent fever, diseases, fetal disorders, absolution from evils stars and bad karma, for the fulfillment of ones desires, sumptuous rainfall, family protection, blessings with good children, fulfillment of all material desires and the destruction of enemies.

In the second stanza Rudrā is prayed to as one who pervades the earth and as the green foliage and heritage of medicinal herbs. He is asked to loosen the bonds of Saṃsāra (illusion). This stanza is chanted for the destruction of enemies, possession of wealth, getting kingdom and sharpening of intelligence.

In the third stanza Rudrā is described as the Lord of thieves who exists in everything. He is Sarvatma; the self of all. In this context, we who are unenlightened have stolen the immortal status of the Self and replaced it with our own limited conception of ego. And in turn it is Rudrā who will come and steal our ignorance from us, restoring us to our natural status of enlightenment.

In the fourth stanza Rudrā is described as the creator of everything in the universe and in the fifth Rudrā’s existence in running waters is praised and his five activities are described (creation of the universe, preservation of it, destruction at the time of Pralaya (deluge), bonding human beings in ignorance, and the ability to grant the boon of release or moksha). In the sixth stanza Rudrā is identified with time (KalarÅ«pa). He is described as the source of the different worlds, Åšrutis (Vedas) and its essence. The fifth and sixth stanzas are chanted for the expansion of one’s own assets, victory against enemies, blessings for a son with the stature of Rudrā , avoidance of a miscarriage and easy childbirth, and protection of one’s own progeny.

In the seventh stanza Rudrā 's all-pervading presence in waters, rains, clouds, storms and its various forms are described. This stanza is chanted for sharpening of intelligence, improvement in health, wealth, progeny, clothes, cows, sons, education, lands, longevity, and move towards liberation.

In the eighth stanza Rudrā is described as He who illumines other Gods and confers powers on them. He is seen as ever present in holy rivers and He who can absolve all sins. In the ninth stanza the strength and power of his attendants are celebrated because they illumine the gods and the world and control the forces of the universe. In the tenth stanza Rudrā is again asked to shed his fury and shower benevolence by his displaying his bow without arrows and to gracefully appear with his tiger skin on his body with pleasing countenance ready to shower boons upon his devotees. In the eleventh stanza Rudrā ’s accomplishments are profusely praised and his benevolence is invoked with unconditional salutations.

After praying and identifying Rudrā with everything in the Namakam, the Chamakam is recited, in which the devotee identifies himself with Śiva and asks him to grant variety of worldly success. Adherents of Śaiva Siddhānta interpret the Chamakam portion of the chant to mean that the creator makes no distinction between the things of the world and the other world. Both belong to him and desire born out of Virtue is really manifestation of divinity and Dharma. Chamakam furnishes completely the ideal of human happiness and defines it in the highest degree possible.

The idea of dharma is the focus of the meaning based meditation on Srirudram. The third stanza of Namakam describes Åšiva as the chief of thieves. While the benign interpretation has been to make Åšiva the thief of hearts, literal interpretation would say that as an all pervasive God Åšiva is everywhere including men and things considered evil. For the practitioners the third stanza of Namakam is to recognize that the dharma is distributed both good and evil for meanings to emerge in life. By meditating over this it is believed that evil can be won over and overcome in real life. The worldwide view is very similar to Yudhiṣṭhira famous saying in Mahābhārata: “Disasters have neither limit (maryāda) not cause; dharma distributes meaning to good and evil” (dharmas tu vibhaiaty artham ubhayoḥ puṇya -pāpayoḥ, c3.312.1)

When the guru recognizes that the practitioner has reached the stage where he can do the complete visualization mentally and has the ability to grasp the meaning of all pervasiveness of Śiva he may initiate the practitioner into the final stage of the meditation practice. As per the folklore surrounding this stage the guru may ask the practitioner to chant the entire Srirudram mentally while visualizing all the eighteen components of Śiva pūjā. To gain proficiency in this practice, the meditator has to sit in a comfortable position, close his eyes, lock his upper part of the mouth with his tongue (sambhavi mudrā), grit his teeth, and chant Srirudram mentally. The advancement in the practice will lead the practitioner to listen to the chanting unconsciously, without any effort on his part, and when he is completely silent. This stage of the meditator's heart involuntarily chanting Srirudram in its entirety is known by the name Ajapa-japa which also signifies the dance of Śiva. For the meditator then every breath becomes na ma śi va ya, every act becomes an act of Śiva pūjā, and the mind becomes the world of all auspicious Śiva. That is bliss.

1 See Dasgupta “[He] should try to understand correctly the true purport of the Upanisads (called sravana), and by arguments in favour of the purport of the Upanisads to strengthen his conviction as stated in the Upanisads (called manana) and then by nididhyasana (meditation) which includes all the Yoga processes of concentration, try to realize the truth as one.” (Dasgupta 1922, 1:490) 2 Jacqueline Suthren Hirst's article 'Strategies of interpretation: Samkara's commentary on 'Brhadaranyakopanisad' clearly establishes Sankara's view that the three categories are meaningless. 3 Designating sacred sounds of a chant on the bodily parts known as 'Nyasa' as preparation before the chant is common for many devotional chanting of Sahasranamas (one thousand names) of Viá¹£nu, Åšiva, and Lalita. 4 Purification of the body and mind through the designation of sound on the bodily parts is common to almost all chanting practices involving Sanskrit mantras. 5 I have closely followed the Paul Harvey's translation of the hymn available at  except that I have opted to use the word 'self' instead of 'me' for the word 'aham' 6 For instance the Vedic hymn Narayana suktam describes the heart as the location of God in the human body and all Nyāsa processes invariably ask for establishing a relationship with the heart through the Gayatri mantra, a vehicle for transporting offerings. 7 Tamil  Bhakthi (devotional) tradition recognizes the importance of intensity of love and related emotions as the means of achieving oneness with God and that is why Åšaiva Siddhānta accords the status of Tirumurai (sacred texts) to devotional literature on par with philosophical literature. 8 Having a dhyāna slokā (a verse for meditation) is common for all hymns used in paryers and also for traditions such as traditional sculpting, painting, and icon making for temples. 9 According to tantric texts and the beliefs attached to Sankara's  composition Soundarya Lahari the primal sounds have the power to energize the chakras (vital points of energy) in the body. 10 My informants are from the Caiva Veḷaḷar caste groups in Tirunelveli region of Tamilnadu. 11 This translation is based on the Tamil texts of Srirudram published by Ramakrishna mission. This book is used by most of the practitioners for memorizing Srirudram chanting through Tamil scripts


Primary Sources

Anna 2003: Srirudram. Ramakrishna Mission Press, Mylapore Chennai.

Puvai. Kalyanasundarayatheenthirar 1931: Siddhānta Kattalai Thiratu. Poomagalvilasa Publishers, Chennai.

Suresh.K. 2002: Srirudra Ghanam. Latha, Mandaveli Chennai.

Works Cited

Arunachalam M. 1983: The Åšaivagamas. Gandhi Vidayalam, Mayuram.

Dasgupta S.N. 1922: History of Indian Philosophy Volume V, Calcutta

Davis, Richard,,2009: A Priest's Guide for the Great Festival Aghoraśiva's Mahotsavavidhi, Oxford University Press.

Fuller C.J. 2001: Orality, Literature, and Memorization: Priestly Education in Contemporary South India in Modern Asia Studies, 35, 1 2001 PP 1-31, Cambridge University Press U.K.

Hirst, Jacqueline. 1996: “Strategies of Interpretation: Samkara's Commentary on 'Brhadaranyakopanisad' ” The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 116, 1996

Sanderson, Alexis. 2009: The Åšaiva Age — The Rise and Dominance of Åšaivism during the Early Medieval Period.” In: Shingo Einoo, ed., Genesis and Development of Tantrism, University of Tokyo.

Siddalingaiah T.B. 2004: Śaiva Siddhānta Siddhanta Ratnam Smt. Usha Ramji Memorial Trust, Chennai.

Fieldwork Report: Discourse of the blurred genre: Case of Draupadi Kuravanchi Koothu

July 15, 2010  Published by

Abstract: This paper analyses how folk creativity finds expression in the context of village festival ambience by blurring many genres. This paper also describes how framing devices of the blurred genres are used to transport the audience between fiction, ritual and reality. One of the most recognizable framing devices of Therukoothu is the endless repetitive descriptions of Draupadi’s humiliation in the Kaurava court as exemplified by the text and performance of Kuravanchi.  

Therukoothu1 as the theatre of Mahabharata occupies the psyche and the landscape of the villagers of northern Tamil Nadu during the summer months. Mahabharata, the great epic of the Bharata2 Dynasty and Ramayana are two Sanskrit Indian epics valued for centuries for their high literary merit, religious inspiration and teaching morals for everyday life. The Mahabharata was composed around 300 BC and received numerous additions until about 300 AD. It is divided into 18 cantos containing altogether about 200,000 lines of verse interspersed with short prose passages. The central theme of Mahabharata is sibling rivalry and fratricide between Pandavas and Kauravas over the kingdom of Hasthinapura. The conflict begins when Drtharashtra, the eldest son of the Kuru dynasty has to pass over his crown to his younger brother Pandu because of his physical blindness. After reigning for a brief period Pandu renounces his kingdom due to his incurable illness and goes to forest with his two wives Kunti and Madhuri. The five sons of Pandu, the Pandava brothers (Dharmaraja3, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva), grow up in the court along with their one hundred cousins, the Kauvravas, sons of Drtharashtra. The prominent among the Kauravas are the eldest son Duryodhana and his loyal demonic brother Dhucchasana. Because of the enmity and jealousy that develops between the cousins, the Pandavas are forced to leave the kingdom at the time of their father’s death. During their exile the five jointly marry Draupadi and meet their cousin Krishna, who remains their friend and companion thereafter. They return to experience some years of prosperity in a divided kingdom but are again forced to retire to the forest for 12 years and spend one year of life in disguise when the eldest brother, Dharmaraja loses everything (including Draupadi who is pawned away) in a game of dice with the eldest of the Kauravas. Immediately after their defeat in the game of dice, Duryodhana sends Dhucchasana to bring Draupadi to the court. Dhucchasana forcibly drags Draupadi by hair into the court. Draupadi wearing a single garb and menstruating is further humiliated when Duryodhana orders Dhucchasana to disrobe her in front of the crest fallen Pandavas and other helpless elders present in the court. Draupadi clasps her hands above her head in a gesture of worship and prays to Lord Krishna to help her. Recognizing Draupadi’s moment of ultimate surrender Krishna saves her as the single of garb of her sari miraculously grows endless and tires Dhuchchasana so, that he faints. A furious Draupadi vows that she would tie her hair only with the blood of Duryodhana and Dhucchasana. After twelve years of life in the forest and one year in disguise the Pandavas return to claim their kingdom but Duryodhana refuses to give even a pinhead of a land. In the ensuing bloody battle at Kurukshetra, Krishna participates as a non-fighting charioteer of Arjuna and ensures the Pandavas’ victory over the Kauravas. Almost half of Mahabharata’ verses are devoted to the description of the great battle. In the s middle of the war field, just before the war, Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as the Lord of the Cosmos and teaches him Dharma, one’ duty and meaning s in human life. Hindus revere this portion of Mahabharata known as Bhagavat Gita as the holiest of the sacred texts. If Gita preaches the philosophy of surrender to Krishna, the eighth avatar of Lord Vishnu and guides how human beings need to “act”, it is Draupadi of all characters in Mahabharata who exemplifies Gita’s ideal. In Bhagavat Gita, if Krishna says that he is the universal time, destroying and recreating everything, Draupadi is also Kali (the goddess of time), born out of fire, a feminine vehicle of Krishna. The battle of Kurukshetra annihilates Kauravas and an avenged Draupadi ties her hair with the blood of Duryodhana and Ducchassana before the Dharmaraja’ ascendance to the throne.

 Over centuries of oral and written transmissions, the texts of Mahabharata live innumerable lives through their endless versions in all Indian languages across the Indian subcontinent. The Mahabharata festival, which we witnessed in the Tamil village Kulamanthai, is only a tiny miniscule expression of Mahabharata, with its millions of followers, and its spiritual and artistic practices all over India.

        When we reached Kulamanthai, one of the epicentres of Therukoothu performances in the region, the twenty-day festival comprising of story telling, rituals and dramatic performances was already on. Kulamanthai is an interior remote village located within the Thiruvannamalai district in Cheyyar taluk. Vandavasi and Cheyyar are the nearest towns about seven kilometres. Kulamanthai is roughly one hundred and thirty-five kilometres in the south from the city of Chennai. A sugar mill on the Vandavasi by- pass road acts as a landmark to find the unformed road leading to Kulamanthai. Driving from Chennai one sees an arid and dusty landscape dotted with small rocky hills, isolated palm trees, ponds and small lakes. Cheyyar is also the name of the river that originates in the Javvadu hills near Thiruvannamalai, flows through the outskirts of Cheyyar town and joins Palar as a tributary. Mirages loom large on the absolutely dry sandy riverbed of Cheyyar where trucks mindlessly quarry sand for construction work in the ever-growing city. The villagers channel the rare flow of rainwater in Cheyyar during monsoons to their intimate lakes and ponds and save it for irrigation. The economy of this agrarian society inevitably depends on what is known as ‘lake irrigation’. The heavy rains of 1996 have become a forgotten dream and the lakebeds are also dry, black and cracked like the pairs of feet that walk on them. Erumaivetti Lake that irrigates the surrounding of Kulamanthai is no exception. In the busy streets of Cheyyar town and the bus stand scores of men and women sit on their haunches hugging their knees; their foreheads are wrinkled in the tiring heat. The vegetables on the pushcarts, the fruits on the stalls and the over crowded town buses sag in unison. The cruelty of explosive summer heat has a pervasive presence like the epic of Mahabharata.  

        The villagers believe that the epic’s presence in Kulamanthai is as old as the practice of reciting Paratham4 in the region. Hiltebeitel dates the practice of reciting Paratham in Draupadi Amman temples to circa 600–700 AD citing Kuram copper plates of Parameshvaravarman I Pallava. He also argues that the present practice of using Villiputurar’s text for story telling sessions of Mahabharata probably goes back to the fourteenth century (Hiltebeitel 1991, 14-15). In fact, the invitation poster for the festival published by the villagers and the festival committee accords predominance to the story telling by publicizing the photograph of the story teller Muthuganesan. The second in order of importance is his companion and reader of poetry, Thevarasan. While mentioning the Therukoothu troupe as the third in order, the leader’s artistic lineage is highlighted. The festival itself is called ‘the big festival of Mahabharata in the temple of Draupadi Amman’. The story telling starts ten days in advance and only from the eleventh day evening onwards is it complemented by all night theatrical performances. The only ritual printed in the poster invitation is the fire walking ceremony in the penultimate day of the festival. The epic incident of Pandava’s eldest brother Dharmaraja’s ascendance to the throne marks the conclusion of the festival.  

        To have all the three significant parts — rituals, story telling and the theatre — in the performance cycle is a luxury of the large-scale festival affordable, only if the economy of the village permits. Usually the Therukoothu festival season starts immediately after the Tamil New Year (mid April) and lasts till the end of June. Traditionally these months have been the post- harvest period. The harvest would be completed by the end of January, and then the paddy would be husked and sold. By February and March the villagers would have enough money to commission Therukoothu performances. If January, the harvest month, is the time of paying worshipping tributes to the Sun God and the cattle by celebrating Pongal the post-harvest season of Therukoothu is for rest, contemplation and anticipation. The ritual efficacy of conducting Mahabharata festival in honour of Draupadi Amman lies in the firm belief that the ascendance of Dharmaraja to the throne is the restoration of justice; and it empowers Draupadi Amman to safeguard and nourish the fertility of the land and people. Different episodes of Mahabharata are believed to provide different blessings and boons to communities and individuals. For instance, performing the play ‘Karna’s salvation’ on the sixteenth day after the death of a person is believed to liberate the departed soul from the cycle of rebirths (Frasca 1990, 135 de Bruin 1998, xiii), attending the performance of ‘Arjuna’ penance’ is believed to enhance fertility in women and giving one’s own child in the hands of actor playing Draupadi, the gypsy in ‘Kuravanchi’ is said to enhance the intellectual prowess of the child. The belief system structures, relates, shapes and interprets the sacred text and performance and so organizes the levels of participation of the villagers. Despite the paucity of funds if the festival committee and the villagers of Kulamanthai had organized a full Mahabharata festival it was because they were concerned about the failure of monsoons year after year. The fact that the festival was being organized after a lapse of several years enlivened their hope for rejuvenation, agricultural prosperity and growth. The festival accentuated, fine-tuned and aligned the subliminal consciousness of the villagers towards Mahabharata through Therukoothu and other theatrical devices employed in the rituals and story telling.  

              The Tamil name ‘Therukoothu’ literally translates itself into ‘street drama’ according to contemporary dictionaries. Nonetheless the etymology of the word ‘Koothu’ goes back to the ancient Sangam Tamil literature of first century C.E. meaning ritual enactments involving sacred possession or trance (Frasca 2003). Possession or trance is a regular feature of Therukoothu performances. Both the actors and members of the audience slip into trance during ritually charged performances such as ‘Disrobing of Draupadi’. The urban colloquial usage of the word ‘Koothu’ refers to ‘commotion’ ‘fun’ or ‘melodramatic situation’ in everyday life and never to the art form. The villagers of northern districts of Tamil Nadu use the words ‘Koothu’ and ‘Natakam’ (drama) interchangeably in common parlance. The region specific usage of the word itself is the indicator of the fact that this theatre is confined to this region. Hiltebeitel’s survey of Draupadi Amman temples records as many as two hundred and twenty five temples in the two northern districts of one of which Kulamanthai is a part (Hiltebeitel 1991, 25). That there was, in fact going to be another festival immediately after the one we were attending shows the intense vibrancy of this tradition in the region. Despite the large number of Draupadi Amman temples and performances, if not, full-scale festivals, the knowledge about this tradition and the art form remains scant in urban areas, the rest of Tamil Nadu and the media. The venues, dates, program schedule and festival calendar do not reach the press or television channels headquartered in Chennai and they remain part of ‘local knowledge’.  

        Deploring the urban lack of knowledge about this tradition Hanne M. de Bruin writes, “For complex theatre traditions such as Kattaikoothu5 which carry the label ‘folk’ require a similar degree of exposure as ‘high culture’ art forms termed ‘classical’, in order to understand them, develop a ‘taste’ for them and to appreciate their nuances” (de Bruin 2003). But the sociological reasons go well beyond matters of taste, hierarchy of cultural strands and consequent low status accorded to rural performers and their art form. Quoting Gustav Oppert, Hiltebeitel states that whereas the Ramayana is favoured by the Bhramins, Sudras or non- Bhramin castes adopt the Mahabharata. Referring to the prevalent beliefs that Mahabharata is not to be read in homes as it arouses family conflict whereas Ramayana by way of contrast should be read in homes as it portrays ideal family conditions, he further argues that Mahabharata as an epic lends itself to drama, public presentations and tragic modes (Hiltebeitel 1991, 396). All these sociological conditions contribute to the modes of transmission of the theatre of Mahabharata as it is found today.  

       In the blasting heat of the summer afternoon, the villagers had gathered under the tiled roof of the courtyard in front of the shrine of Draupadi Amman to listen to the telling of the Mahabharata. The storyteller, Muthuganesan sits on a raised platform along with his companion ‘poetry reader’, Thevarasan. Surprisingly, Muthuganesan does not wear Vaishanavite6 holy marks on his forehead like many of the devotees and Thevarasan. He adorns his forehead with prominent Saivite7 marks. Earlier he had been ceremoniously brought to the temple-shed by the ritual practitioners clad in yellow clothes with a respectable umbrella held over his head. During the ceremonial procession through the streets the women wash the feet of the ritual practitioners as they cross their doorsteps. On the raised platform prominently propped up are the microphones, a container covered with yellow cloth with a slit on top to facilitate dropping donations by the audience, ritual offering of betel leaves, nut and coconut, a soda bottle for Muthuganesan and a flask full of hot water for Thevarasan. Muthuganesan’s high pitched story telling is alternated by Thevarasan’s sedate and sober reciting of poetry from the Mahabharata text which is kept reverentially on his harmonium. Muthuganesan has committed the entire Mahabharata to his memory and does not refer to any text at all during his telling. Nevertheless, he knows the complex and long text astonishingly well and stops at the appropriate places to prompt Thevarasan’s recital. Thevarasan’s recital is in accordance with the Tamil music tradition of ‘Pann’ or melody whose moods are classified and named after the types of landscapes. In this type of music, singing is restricted to recital and words cannot be distorted to achieve variations in melody. Thevarasan sits meditatively till his turn and uses his harmonium judiciously and minimally as a pure accompaniment. Word dominated singing is a characteristic of religious music, which Muthuganesan uses well to highlight or focus the poignant moments in his story. His allusions cover the entire gamut of Tamil classical literature. He handles indirect speech, reportage, descriptions and dialogues of heroic characters in literate high Tamil and alternates it with colloquial local Tamil for everyday experience and speech. The transition is dramatic in its effect with audience nodding their heads along with him or sitting awe struck with literally open mouths. His facility in handling colloquial Tamil seems to be limited in comparison to the amazing repertoire of literary jokes that he has at his command. That, however, does not deter the audience from applauding his jokes executed in contrived colloquial. The audience includes largely women, old men, children, Draupadi Amman herself who sits inside her shrine and the icons of Vishnu, Balaram and Lakshmi who are given the front row seats. The conspicuous absence of young men does not seem to be an issue as the microphones and the loud speakers amplify the already loud story telling and carry it to wherever they are. In the storyteller’ art the thin membrane separating fiction and reality breaks many a time assisting the audience to traverse through both the realms. The audience does play these slippages through numerous ways throughout the festival and also in storytelling sessions. The shared knowledge of the epic and its incidents, the unconditional devotion to their Lord Krishna and to Draupadi Amman and the belief system give the audience opportunities to imbibe and display their faith. The entire festival is in honour of Draupadi and so the story that is happening is also told from the point of view of Draupadi Amman at the will of Lord Krishna is the understanding that permeates their behaviour and action. When the storyteller narrates the event of the five Pandava brothers performing the Rajasooya worship with the sacrificial fire and sends around the container covered with ritual yellow cloth among the audience, everybody contributes coins as their humble donations for the Rajasooya worship. A fictional event inside the epic becomes a ‘real moment’ with the audience participation with the real money going towards the temple as donation or to the storyteller as an appreciative gift. The fictional frame breaking with the real community participation is the unique nature of this festival of Mahabharata. Even when the storyteller stops in between to announce the list of donors when single donations exceed ten rupees the seriousness of the epic instance is never lightened. In fact he resumes with ease, the main thread of the story after his digressions as if nothing has happened. Thevarasan is expressionless when people appreciate him with currency notes. The donations earmarked for the temple go to offset the cost incurred by the festival organizers. To encourage such donations the organizers have arranged a lottery system by which single donors making a contribution beyond one hundred rupees are eligible for prizes by drawing lots on the last days of the festival. The prizes ranging from stainless steel vessels to a bicycle and an electrical rice grinder are on display on the benches besides the storyteller’s platform. Even as divine icons jostle with mundane prize objects, the language of the sacred texts merges with the language of the streets. The easy seeping through different realms in an egalitarian coalescence is extended to the different levels of consciousness as well. Though the audience is very attentive and hangs on every utterance of the storyteller many doze off quietly waking up only for what holds their interest. This feature is shared by the all night theatrical events also.  

        If the sacred and crass, divine and mundane, fiction and real coexist and coalesce, the space seems to be transforming in harmony. If the simple shed, in front of Draupadi Amman shrine, is called ‘royal assembly of Mahabharata’ (Bharata sabai), the open space adjacent to it is called ‘the war field’ (Kalam). The ‘war field’ is where the villagers normally dry and husk their paddy on ordinary days. But as the reminder of the Kurukshetra war of the Mahabharata the mud and sand figure of Duryodhana lies hugely in the adjacent open space. It is the slain figure of Duryodhana, measuring a hundred feet easily, that lies defeated to the satisfaction of Draupadi Amman sitting inside the shrine and the idol of Bhima (who killed Duryodhana) guarding her threshold. With Draupadi and Bhima frozen in perpetual victory and Duryodhana in permanent defeat the villagers go about their day-to-day routine throughout the year. They run their cattle over the figure of Duryodhana and children play over him. Surrounded by the paddy fields the empty space adjacent to the Draupadi Amman temple is a meeting point, a way station, a playground and a multi-utility agricultural space. Parallel to the shrine of Draupadi Amman is the stage for Therukoothu performances. Rectangular in shape the raised platform is a permanent structure with a big room at the back acting as its green room. The shrine of Draupadi, the sprawling figure of Duryodhana, the guarding idols of Bhima and Potharaja8 and the Therukoothu stage defining the performance space is not unique to the village, Kulamanthai. Rather, the spatial arrangement is typical of Bharathakoothu festival spaces throughout northern districts of Tamil Nadu. During the season festive ambience is created by erecting a series of wooden poles on the border the of performance area with white tube lights and running nets of small colour serial electrical bulbs wound through the poles. A colourful electrical bulb figure of Krishna stands as a forty feet tall installation hovering over the figure of Duryodhana. Thus lit well, the vendors of local snacks, tea, balloons and tobacco adding to the carnival ambience, loudspeakers blasting Tamil, popular film music and the air thick with the smell of palm toddy and earth the everyday empty space transforms into performance space. As we shall see the acting area is not limited to the stage; every episode in the epic brings its own spatial transformations sometimes to the entire village. As fictional, every day, ritual, imaginary, sacred and performance spaces collide, the attitudes appropriate for different spaces also collide. For instance it is not uncommon to see a fully made up actor having a casual smoke and conversation with his friend during a performance or a villager casually propping up his bicycle over the ritually decorated figure of Duryodhana. As realms and spaces vary and overlap so do the actors, ritual practitioners, participants and onlookers with varying degrees of intensity.  

       Essentially, the ritual provides the overarching framework for the layers and layers of significance. The ritual starts much before the festival, well in advance. Once the village panchayat (administration) decides to hold the Mahabharata festival, on an auspicious day the villagers in a procession take the idols of Pandavas, Kali and Potharaja to the village pond for a ritual bath. They carry a yellow flag post, sword of Draupadi, Veera Jatti (another weapon of Draupadi), her anklet and a pot of water back to the performance arena and erect the flag post to the musical accompaniment of Pampai, Parai, (types of drums), anklet and Nathaswaram (a long pipe — wind instrument). The villagers decide the festival committee in front of the erected flag post. In the case of Kulamanthai since it has predominance of Agamudaiya Mudaliar caste all the five festival committee members were drawn from that caste. The festival committee then decides on the storytellers and the Therukoothu troupe to be invited. The festival calendar is also drawn. Once the flag in Draupadi Amman temple is hoisted the villagers are not supposed to stay outside the village even for one single night. With the donations collected from the villagers the committee pays an advance and offers a thamboolam (betel leaves and nuts – a token of respectful invitation) to the storytellers and the Therukoothu troupe leader. The ritual procession to the pond is repeated everyday of the festival both in the mornings and just before the performances in the evenings. On the first day of the story telling the villagers brought Muthuganesan ceremoniously to the Barathakoothu shed and he tied yellow twines around the wrists of all the five festival committee members. From then onwards the five men in yellow were believed to be the personification of the five Pandava brothers of the epic story. The assumption of the five festival committee members as characters in the epic is the first cross over from the real world into the mythological world. From the moment of the ritual yellow twines being tied on their wrists the five men are expected to follow several observances. They should not sleep in their regular beds, go to their houses and shave or cut their hair. They must sleep in the courtyard in front of the Draupadi Amman shrine till the end of the festival and eat only vegetarian food in the premises. Every day only after they hand over the ritual pot full of water drawn from the pond to the leader of the Therukoothu troupe are the actors authorized to perform. The significance is that as the Pandava brothers they symbolically transfer the right to assume the roles of epic characters to the actors. This transfer of rights over a period becomes a convention between the villagers and Therukoothu troupes. The rights to perform and the obligation to invite constitute and determine the choice of troupe to be invited. These rights need to be recognized by the villagers. Such recognition happens in the acts of women washing the feet of yellow clad men as they walk through the streets in the daily ceremonial procession. From the pond to the performance stage the procession is marked by stops at the street corners for dance accompanied by drumming. Retrogressive steps characterize the dance and bending backward movements suggest inclination towards trance. Although we did not see any of the five-committee members going into a trance during their journey from the pond the villagers assure us that such possessions do occur and they authenticate their assumption as Pandava brothers.  

       Kulamanthai committee paid thirty thousand rupees to the two storytellers for twenty days and twenty thousand rupees to the troupe of fifteen actors and musicians for ten days9.  

       The fee for the Therukoothu troupe depends on its popularity, heritage, specialties and acting abilities. When the troupe leader receives the advance and thamboolam they together decide on the epic episodes to be played. There is a complex relationship between the afternoon storytelling sessions and the episodes of all night dramas. Sometimes what is narrated in the afternoon is performed the same night. Sometimes the storyteller draws allusions to the previous night’ performance to explicate a scene. There are also rare instances of Kattiyankaran, the clown, referring to the storyteller to make a point. Story telling sessions and the cycle of plays complement each other in the presentation of Mahabharata in its entirety. However departures from the agreed schedule of plays are also normal due to various reasons. The changes in the schedule are effected at the last minute and the actors and the audiences accept the changes stoically without any protest. There are also instances of actors performing free extra dramas after the last day of the festival in gratitude for the festival invitation (Mu. Ramaswamy 1999). To be prepared for such eventualities both the troupe leader and the actors have to be versatile in playing various roles and should have the entire play texts of Mahabharata committed to their memory.  

        “Purisai Kalaimamani Natesa Thambiran therukoothu nataka manram”, the Therukoothu Company that performed in Kulamanthai is one such versatile group with a known heritage of at least one hundred and fifty years (KannappaThambiran 1991 Mu.Ramaswamy 1999). According to Purisai KannappaThambiran, an octogenarian doyen and a renowned guru of Therukoothu tradition, his cousin Natesa Thambiran and he himself come from a tradition initiated by their grand father, Veerasamy Thambiran. After the death of Natesa Thambiran factional fights within the family led to split in the joint family and also in the professional troupe. Natesa Thambiran’s son Subramaniya Thambiran is the present leader of the group functioning independently for the last two decades whereas KannappaThambiran’ son  Sampanthan runs his father’s group. The training for the young actor in play composition, songs, music and adavu (dance steps) takes place in the living room of his house as part of his growing up. Non-family members also join the training in the Vattiyar’s (guru) house but they never become the group leader and they are not given ritually important roles. The artistic leadership stays within the family as a matter of hereditary right although it requires competence and talent to maintain it. The factional fights between the performing cousins are well known to the villages surrounding the villages of Purisai and Kulamanthai adding another dimension to the story of sibling rivalry presented by Mahabharata. Incidentally Agamudaiya Mudaliars’ lives are also full of family feuds over the ownership of agricultural wetlands. The non-family actors are like minor characters in the epic and they come and go while the family continues the tradition through its male progeny generation after generation. Only male actors perform all the roles including the female ones. That includes the role of Draupadi as well.  

       The Thambirans belong to the vegetarian caste called ‘Pandarams’10 whose traditional occupation is to make flower garlands for the gods in the temple. They are non-Brahmin priests for the land owning castes such as Agamudaiya Mudaliars who populate Kulamanthai. Their funerary rites where they are not cremated but buried unlike other caste Hindus confirm their priestly status. This is because it is believed that because of their life long engagement with the ritual performances they attain salvation11 (Samadhi) with their bodies.  

       It is in his priestly status that SubramaniyaThambiran receives the symbolic pot of water from the Pandava villagers clad in yellow and hands it over to his actors. The actors then take the pot to the Draupadi Amman shrine and bring the lamp from the shrine to the green room. With the lamp soot the actors draw ohm in Tamil with Ganesh marks12, the Vaishnavite symbols of Chakra (wheel) and conch on the Mirudangam (a type of drum) and begin their make up. The facial make up is an elaborate process by which the actors slowly get into the character.  

        Three types of make-up and costumes are in vogue. The Kattiyankaran (literal translation announcer, but also known as buffoon or clown), female characters, ordinary citizens and characters in disguise are made up realistically. The main epic characters are known as Kattai Vesham (kattai – wood, vesham – make-up) referring to the elaborate wooden ornamentation for the shoulders. The Krishna character is always made up as described in the sacred texts. Actors playing kattai veshams are the ones that use elaborate facial motifs as well. As the actors are required to play different roles during the cycle of plays or during the performance of even one play as we did see in the ‘Kuravanchi’ episode, the elaborate self-make up of the faces helps them in the transition. The colour scheme codifies the traditional interpretation of the characters. The basic rose base signifies the neutrality of the character, green denotes valour and goodness and red connotes valour but badness of the characters. Karna’ facial make up is green in the episode of his death and salvation but in other episodes he is adorned in red. Dharmaraja walks around in ordinary rose in all the episodes and assumes green only in the last episode of his coronation. The three thick black stripes bordered with black dots run across the ridges of the noses of all the kattai vesham characters. Heavy black stripes are drawn over the lids elongating up to the edges of the ears to highlight the eyes and also to facilitate rotating. Only the princely cousins wear full-fledged crowns, kreetam, with the sizes indicating hierarchy. A smaller crown called ‘chikrek’ distinguishes Arjuna character. In an interview with Subramaniya Thambiran’s actors they confirmed that Frasca’ meticulous description of the facial make up scheme is valid for their group also and it remains unchanged over the years (Frasca 1984, 1990). They changed over from their dry grass and straw skirts to plastic skirts made out of package waste obtained from the nearby sugar mill. Although the plastic looks horrific in the place of grass and straw, actor Mani who is the senior most artist in the group with an experience of three decades, feels that the plastic is ‘modern’ and ‘convenient’ to withstand the wear and tear of vibrant jumping around. The wooden shoulder ornaments are called ‘puja keerthi’ literally meaning ‘pride of the shoulders’. Puja keerthi is worn finally just before the entry on to the stage.  

        With the curtain drawn over the green room for privacy and secrecy the actors begin their make up at 6 p.m. for a play that is to start at 10 p.m. Children and others constantly peep through the sides of the screens much to the annoyance of the actors. Especially the actors dressing up for the female roles with wooden balls for artificial breasts are continuously taunted and jeered. They largely ignore such disturbances and often light up their beedis in assertion of their maleness. Despite the long hours of make up the second transition of actors getting into the characters do not complete till they enter the stage.  

       Just in front of the curtain separating the green room from the stage and at the extreme back of the stage sit the musicians and the Vattiar (teacher) on a wooden bench. The musicians consist of one Mirudangam player, cymbalist, harmonium player and a Mugaveenai player. Mirudangam (two- sided drum) and cymbals provide the Talam (rhythm) and Mugaveenai (a high-pitched, hand held pipe instrument) complements, supplements or alternates with the background singing. Subramaniya Thambiran leads the singing when he is not playing any roles and as he sings the first line clapping the cymbals others join immediately following his lead. His troupe does not use microphones and takes pride in not using it as they consider the non-use as a sign of purity and vocal prowess. High-pitched Mugaveenai and loud cymbals drown the singing and the words are hardly audible. After the invocation of Ganesh’s blessing for successful performance and the introduction of the night’s play the background singing continues for hours before the first character’ entry.                                  

       Kattiyankaran makes his entry by announcing his own name in the third person. The typical first entry of Kattiyankaran invariably is composed in a Tamil prosody called Tharu. It goes like this:  

  “Here came Kattiyankaran
  One who guards
   The doors of Dharmaraja. (Chorus repeats)
   Here came Kattiyankaran
   One who guards
   The doors of Dharmaraja (chorus repeats)

   With the crooked stick in the hand
   With the crooked shake in the walk
   Silencing the ones who shout
   Calming the ones who trouble
   With the leap in the air
   With a shake in the stick
   Here came Kattiyankaran
   One who guards
   The doors of Dharmaraja. (Chorus repeats)

   Like a cub of a lion
   With worldwide fame
   Here came Kattiyankaran
   One who guards
   The doors of Dharmaraja.

  To conduct the play properly
  Announcing his own name
  Here came Kattiyankaran
  One who guards
  The doors of Dharmaraja. (Chorus repeats)”
  (Draupathai Kuravanchi Natakam Page 6)

The musicians sitting on the bench and the actors who are not yet on stage also sing the chorus repetition. This includes the actors who are dressing themselves up in the greenroom as well. Kattiyankaran as the conductor of the play, as a jester and as the representative of the audience on stage has immense liberties in terms of his movements, language and gestures. After the entrance song Kattiyankaran breaks into prose with the English word ‘Silence!’ He literally silences the children shouting in the front row. His prose is full of comical alliterations rhyming at the end. The alliterations are nonsensical with the rhyming last words such as Latti, Vatti, Mutti, Potti, Putti and Sotti. Actor Meghanathan as Kattiyankaran delivers the nonsensical rhyme with all seriousness and suddenly announces,

       “All the people who have gathered here are ‘very good’. In Thiruvannamalai district, Cheyyar taluk, Purisai village lives a ‘set’ of late K. Natesa Thambiran who was awarded ‘Kalaimamani’13. The owner of this set is Kalaimamani N. Subramanya Thambiran. Today, this night, in this village of Kulamanthai at the event of Draupadi Amman fire walking festival on this stage we are going to perform one part of Mahabharata called ‘Draupadi Kuravanchi’. If there are mistakes in word, meaning, music, thalam (rhythm), Mirudangam and in several other aspects please forgive them as you would forgive the mistakes of your own children.” (Partial translation of audio recording Kulamanthai performance May 6, 200.  

       It may be interesting to note the English words such as ‘very good’ and ‘set’ are used to rhyme with colloquial Tamil words. Therukoothu performances use a wide variety of high and low Tamil freely mixing them to achieve dramatic effects, double etendre and nuances. Caste dialects and borrowings from other languages are also freely used. Although Kattiyankaran mentions that Draupadi Kuravanchi is a part of Mahabharata, the classical Tamil text written by Villiputturar does not contain Kuravanchi. Actually only chapbook versions of Kuravanchi are available in print. Whole corpuses of chapbooks containing stories of extrapolation exist as instances of folk creativity, imagination and interpretation. Published by individual entrepreneurs such as B. Rathina Naicker and written by local Vattiyars such as Tindivanam Thanikachala Mudaliar the corpus of chapbooks exist ever since printing technology was introduced in this region.14

      The chapbooks offer very interesting insights into the dynamics of Therukoothu’ relations with orality and literacy. If Therukoothu performances mix a wide variety of Tamil the chapbook plays mix a wide variety of literary and folk genres. ‘Viruttam’, ‘Tharu’, ‘Kavi’ or ‘Pattu’ are the three genres used in the printed version of the play. ‘Viruttam’ like ‘Tharu’ again is the name of another Tamil prosody consisting of four, eight or sixteen lines (de Bruin 1998 xv) The grammar of ‘Viruttam’ finds an entry in ‘A dictionary of Tamil Literary and Critical Terms’ defines it as a ‘poem dealing with the bow, sword, spear, sceptre, elephant, horse, country, capital city and liberality of a king each being praised in a decad of stanzas of a particular rhythm’ (Murugan ed, 1999 300). While ‘Pattu’ or ‘Kavi’ is the general name for the songs used and these could be of any number of lines and follow the melody of any genre of folk song. Alternated with the sequences of verses and songs are the dialogues in prose for characters and general announcements for the audiences known as ‘Pothu vacanam’ (general speech). The rhythm and melody sequences are mentioned in the print version by the colloquial name ‘jatai’ and the literary word ‘jati’ is retained in the everyday speech. As the chapbooks are chronicles of spoken Tamil of their period they render everyday speech in classical prosody. In addition to this the chapbook writers’ concept of high Tamil need not necessarily coincide with the expression of high Tamil prevalent in their period. In professional groups such as Natesa Thambiran’s company the leader himself composes the play. That luxury is not available to a number of other groups and they employ Vattiyars to compose the plays. Over a period of time those compositions find their way to print. Vandavasi and Cheyyar towns still have a number of Vattiyars who specialize only in composing plays. Sometimes they simply recommend the published chapbooks and procure them for the groups to train their actors. The Vattiyars of Vandavasi and Cheyyar do not participate in the Therukoothu training process. After supplying the plays either in the printed or handwritten version they do however participate and lead small town drama groups that perform on the proscenium stages. The proscenium stage dramas have a totally different repertoire of social, historical and mythological plays. Secular plays that they are, they have no rituals associated with them. Some of the extrapolated texts of Mahabharata such as Pilavendran Kalavu Malai (the exploits of Arjuna) and Alli Arasani Malai (The Garland of Queen Alli) are common to Therukoothu tradition and the small town secular dramas. Nevertheless these plays are never performed as part of Mahabharata festival and they are performed as entertainment koothus individually. The leader of the Therukoothu group who in a way functions like a theatre director in the modern context mediates the relationship between the playwright of the chapbook or the texts and the actors.  

       Of all the chapbook plays Draupathai Kuravanchi is very special in the sense that it invokes the framework of Tamil literary genre known as ‘Kuravanchi’ on the one hand and contains the structure of Koothu plays on the other. The Tamil literary genre of Kuravanchi normally features a Kuravan (a male member of kuravar caste) as Singan and a Kuratti (a female member of kuravar caste) as Singi. The Singan and Singi walk through the street, find the heroine and a Kuratti tells the fortunes of the heroine which normally centres on the heroine’ good prospects in her love. This generic pattern has produced a long list of classical poems in Tamil classical literature including Lord Murugan’ mythology where Murugan woos Valli, his second wife the Kuratti. As the kuravar caste is considered to be the lowliest of the low the purpose of the myth has been to indicate that the God resides even in the lowliest of the low and sometimes subverts the entire caste system. The Kuravar are actually nomadic, in fact tell fortunes and lead the lives of gypsies. Tracing the development of Kuravanchi as a dramatic form Se. Vaidhialingan argues that the musicality of the form must have contributed to its development as drama (Se.Vaidhialingan, 2002 282-83). The form of Kuravanchi is so flexible that one even finds Bethlehem Kuravanchi written during the early Christian missionary period narrating the birth of Jesus Christ. The flexibility of Kuravanchi structure lies in the Pattu section as it can accommodate a variety of folk songs and sometimes even contemporary Tamil film songs. While Viruttam and Tharu remain the fixed part of Kuravanchi drama, Pattu offers the scope for improvisation, change and addition. Despite the Draupathai Kuravanchi following all the generic rules of Kuravanchi’s dramatic structure Se.Vaidhialingan considers it as a corruption of the form, since Draupadi as gypsy does not tell fortune but instead soothsays the doom of the Kauravas (Se.Vaidhialingan 2002, 283) Hiltebeitel however sees similarity between the structure of Draupathai Kuravanchi and “that of numerous Brahmana and classical myths in which the gods and demons (like the Pandavas and Kauravas) contest with each other for the elements of the sacrifice”(Hiltebeitel 1991, 309). The elements of sacrifice in this case are the seed grains. For Hiltebeitel, Draupathai Kuravanchi further exemplifies and supports his argument that Draupadi worship has cult status in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu (Hiltebeitel 1991, 309). The summary of the play Draupathai Kuravanchi is as follows.  

       At the end of the twelve years of life in the forest the Pandavas have to begin their one-year of life in disguise. If they are discovered by the Kauravas either during the transitional period or during their life in disguise the Pandavas have to suffer another twelve years of banishment to the forest. To flush the Pandavas out of the forest before they go into disguise Duryodhana orders that if anyone comes to procure or beg for seeds they should only be given roasted grains. The idea is to starve the Pandavas of fresh seed grains so that they cannot cultivate and live in prosperity in the forest. He also prepares his army to search all the forests and plans to imprison the Pandavas before they go into life in disguise. Krishna, who visits the Pandavas in the forest, apprises them of Duryodhana’s plan and advises Draupadi to go to Hasthinapura in the disguise of a Kuratti (gypsy) with Sahadeva on her hip as her child. He further advises her that, as gypsies normally do, she should predict the future of the Kaurava women and seek as payment for her fortune telling, fresh grain seeds for their field in the forest.  

        Draupadi goes to Hasthinapura as a gypsy and manages to meet Duryodhana’ mother, Gandhari and his wife, Peruntiruval. They check the gypsy’ abilities to predict future through a series of questions on folk beliefs. When Draupadi replies satisfactorily to all their questions Peruntiruval asks Draupadi about her own past to test if Draupadi is an authentic fortune- teller. Draupadi demands seeds if she is accurate about Peruntiruval’ past. Draupadi then tells her of Duryodhana’s attempts to kill the Pandavas and also of her own humiliation after the Pandavas lost in the game of dice. Immensely satisfied with the gypsy’s accurate telling of her family’s past, Peruntiruval urges the gypsy to predict her future. Draupadi narrates the fulfilment of her own vow, that is, the horrible death of Duryodhana in the battlefield and Draupadi anointing her hair with blood from Duryodhana’ thigh and adorning his torn intestines as flowers on her hair, as the future waiting for Peruntiruval. On hearing this Peruntiruval falls on to the ground and weeps and wails.  

       Seeing her daughter-in-law weeping Gandhari intervenes and challenges Draupadi, the gypsy to tell her some details of her own past. So Draupadi reveals some of the most personal details known only to Gandhari especially Gandhari’ first marriage to a male goat and the circumstances of her conception of one hundred sons. Shocked by the truth and accuracy of these revelations, which were known only to her, Gandhari cannot console Peruntiruval. Draupadi demands her payment of seed grains. Meanwhile Duryodhana learns about the Kuratti and her predictions, tests her himself suspecting her to be Draupadi. He orders her arrest. Krishna advises Arjuna to go to Hasthinapura as a Kuravan to secure the release of Draupadi. Arjuna as Kuravan fights with Duryodhana’s warriors. Duryodhana wants to find out whether the Kuravan in the street is Arjuna. Kaurava elders advice him not to be bothered with the Kurava couple for the kings should not be bothered about such lowly caste people. More over if the Kuravan turned out to be really Arjuna he might destroy the entire kingdom. So Duryodhana releases Draupadi and both of them return to the forest with the seed grains. But as soon as they reach the forest they find out that the seeds are roasted and not fresh. When Krishna asks them to plant the roasted seeds anyway Arjuna asks Krishna how they will grow. Krishna replies:  

       “Listen, sister’ husband (maittuna). If you ask how the roasted cennel will grow, the blackened ones will become crowlike (kakkai colam, a kind of millet), the black grains will become uluntu (black gram), the burnt ones will become manakkam (another millet), the cooked ones will become centinai (red millet), and the ones that have grown black will become karuntinai (black millet). Since we have sown them in nine kinds like this, we give< them the name navataniyam (“nine grains”). They will grow in three months in a way that is pleasing to the nine planets (navakkirakankal).” (Draupathai Kuravanchi Natakam, page. 64. Translated by Hiltebeitel 1991, 308-309)

       And so the roasted grains grow, to the amazement of Duryodhana. Meanwhile the Pandavas and Draupadi Amman (as she is called in this finale) settle down in the kingdom of Matsya.  

        Hiltebeitel further argues that the ceremony of the nine grains (Sanskrit navadhanyam) is given a mythological origin in Draupathai Kuravanchi. As Krishna and Draupadi collaborate in the scenes of death and revival, according to him navadhanya represents the principle of rebirth and immortality at the heart of symbolic sacrifices performed at Draupadi festival. For him it is no coincidence that Krishna should send Draupadi to trick the Kauravas into yielding it to the Pandavas before they enter the kingdom of Matsya, the Fish, (for their life in disguise) the “womb” of their regeneration. (Hiltebeitel, 1991, 309) 15  

        We witnessed further localization of Draupathai Kuravanchi in Kulamanthai on May 6, 2003. If the chapbook version of Draupathai Kuravanchi follows the structure of invocation to gods, Viruttam, Tharu, Vacanam (prose speech) and Pattu and the repetition of this structure till it concludes with Mangalam (auspicious ending) the performance text contains several digressions. The entrance songs by the characters behind the curtain, background singing and several of the prose speeches are more or less adhered to in the performance. The digressions occur once the characters start interacting with the Kattiyankaran or among them. To perform 64 pages of the play’ script all night requires an enormous talent at improvisation on the part of all the actors and especially the Kattiyankaran. His presence is required continuously on stage all through the night, and two actors, Meghanathan and Rajendran perform the role on alternative nights. Apart from the physical stamina needed, the role also calls for acute sense of timing and rich linguistic abilities. As Subramaniyathamiran’ group is very famous for performing Kuravanchi there was tremendous expectation on the part of audience. Their expectations were further augmented by the ritual import of the play, which was to bring agricultural prosperity in a village starved of rains.  

       We did see in the beginning of this chapter that the second transition from actors to characters does not get completed with make up alone. If Kattiyankaran enters the stage announcing his own name in the third person the Kattai vesham characters have a much more elaborate entry. In Kuravanchi a fully made up Duryodhana waits in the green room when the musicians sing the stanza announcing his entry.  

“The famous King with precious stones in his crown
With his ministers on his side
With the stone on his neck shining like a lightning
On his shoulders flashing big as if they were huge clouds
With Sakuni, Salliyan, Karnan
With Bhishmar and Dronar
With his brave younger brothers surrounding him
Here comes Duryan to his royal court”

This passage with the third person reference to Duryodhana is repeated by actor Jothi playing Duryodhana both in the green room and at the entrance along with the musicians. He makes his entry with a vigorous rotating movement called ‘Kirki’ as the musicians continue to sing and Kattiyankaran and another actor hold up a big outstretched cloth in front of him totally hiding him. The stagehands holding up the curtain continue to sing along with the musicians and the actor. The audience can see only the feet and the anklets of the actor. All of them move on to the second stanza still referring to Duryodhana in the third person.  

“The King of Kings, Sri Maha Raja Raja, The Fierce King
The unrivalled King, The Forceful King, Duriyabooban,
With the only flower umbrella held over his royal head,
With guards standing both on his side
With the drum beats thundering
With the crackers bursting
With Vikarnan, Karnan, Veeshmar, Dronar surrounding him
Here comes Duryodhanan
Veena and Thamboor play the melodies,
All the military generals bow their heads,
The snake flag flies high
Victorious music fills the air
Drummers walk with respect
Along with horses and lions
Here comes Duryodhanan
With the rosebay garland on his chest and
The auspicious crescent of moon on his forehead
Here comes Duryodhana”

As the actor jumps on to the middle of the bench where musicians are sitting, he strikes a terrifying pose with his spectre swung over his shoulder, his tongue pouted out and eyes fearfully rotating. The hand held curtain covering him all along is removed with suddenness as Kattiyankaran announces,  

“Behold! Silence! Attention! For the King of Kings
The Maharaja of Maharajas!
The Extravagant King!
Duryodhana Maharaja!”

For a few moments the audience is favoured with the sight of Duryodhana standing on the bench before he jumps to the ground and starts rotating for the ‘Jampai’ or ‘Jati’. He spins like a whirling dervish, his arms flying up and down with the rhythm of his ankles ring out as he stamps the outside foot around to keep up with the inner one. At the end of the drumming Duryodhana slows down to dance steps and sings,  

“Of all the kings in the world
There is only one Maharaja
I, Duryodhana the Maharaja of all Maharajas, come
I, Duryodhana the Maharaja of all Maharajas, come”

If the boastful self-introduction completes the transition from actor to character it is immediately intervened by the nonsensical song of Kattaiankaran.  

“Papparapapara pai papparapara pai
Pai (mat) in the sky
Ayee (grand mother) in the Kuthir (Paddy basket)
Papparapapara pai papparapara pai”

Duryodhana looks perplexed but ignores Kattiyankaran who runs in a circle on the stage like a child driving an imaginary vehicle. Duryodhana blinks deeply before continuing,  

“The cosmos trembles,
Even the dead shiver,
All the world reverberate
When the emperor walks”
Kattiyankaran replies with another song.
“Do the chicken need the (medical) treatment?
Do the sparrows need the treatment?”
Duryodhana stops him in the middle and asks,
“Hey guard! Do you know who I am?”
Kattiyankaran: “How do I know unless you tell me?”

Without batting an eyelid that all his introductions have gone waste, Duryodhana replies in all sincerity,

“My name is king Duryodhana with a garland of rosebay, an emperor
who has never bowed his head before anybody. Our flag…

Kattiyankaran: “Your flag”

Duryodhana: “Do you know what is our flag?”

Kattiyankaran: “What flag?”

Duryodhana: “Aravar (snake) flag”

Kattiyankaran: “Avarai (beans) flag”

Duryodhana completely irritated, runs after Kattiyankaran to beat him up. After several such mishearing and beatings a disciplined Kattiyankaran repeats all the last sentences spoken by Duryodhana verbatim. However, he does not hesitate to intervene or irritate Duryodhana at appropriate places. For instance, when Duryodhana narrates the past incidence of Draupadi laughing at his fall, Kattiyankaran continuously intercepts to remind Duryodhana that she is goddess. He does not fail to bring out the fact that both the Pandvas and Kauravas gambled away the goddess. Kattiyankaran’ interruptions may seem random but close listening to the audio recording reveals that his strategy is to ridicule the boastful identities and claims of characters and to push the characters to own up their claims and identities. For the audience, this technique brings forth all the information intact and for the actors, it pushes them deep into the characters. The ‘ridicule and anger’ exchange between Kattiyankaran and Kattai vesham characters tremendously enhances the emotional intensity of actors’ identification with their characters. In the ritually charged episodes such as ‘Disrobing of Draupadi’ Ducchasana is subjected to such virulent ridicule resulting in high voltage performance of the actor. Since Therukoothu’s idiom of acting consists of Kirki (rapid rotation), rolling of the eyes and pouting of the tongue, such energetic acting would naturally lead the actor into trance. In the episodes where the characters are in disguise, the drama is greatly augmented by the ridicule and anger exchange.

       By the time Draupadi makes her appearance as gypsy, it is past midnight and most of the audience have gone to sleep. On the mats brought from their homes spread out to accommodate friends, relatives and strangers like us, the audience sleeps. Dreaming and snoring, yet with abundant caution and care not to disturb others, each one carving out a space for oneself, it is a mass of bodies stretched out on the ground. Few wander for a cup of tea or smoke. The play goes on as if everybody is attentive. In an experience of total liminality the voices of the actors trail behind you not allowing deep sleep to set in. In the silence of the night, the voices unmediated by microphones travel closely with you looking for defenceless resonance. Some murmur the songs of the actors in their half sleep. Some smile in response to their dreams or to the jokes of Kattiyankaran. Sleeping children in the audience babble more audibly than the adults. It is only the third night of the cycle of plays and they need to participate in the morning ritual, listen to the afternoon story telling and come for the all night plays for seven more days. It is through this kind of transmission the third transition of audience identifying themselves with the characters occurs.

        This process is much more subtle and hidden compared to the other two explicit transitions of villagers ritually assuming the roles of Pandavas and the actors getting into the characters. For the audience’s identification with the characters does not take place in the mimetic plane as one would assume in the case of Aristotelian theatre, cinema or television. It is true that the audience recognize the individual talent of particular actors and there exists a sophisticated history of stars, legends and their memorable performances in the meta- folklore surrounding Therukoothu. It is also true that the actor’ athletic ability to perform forceful ‘Kirki’ (spinning) on stage, ability to deliver lists of different kinds at a remarkable speed (the 100 names of Kauravas, for example), ability to improvise and skills of language and repartee constitute the making of a star in Therukoothu. But what perpetuates a Therukoothu star in the memory of the people is the actor’ proclivity towards trance and his ability to transfer it to the members of the audience. It would be naïve to assume that such transfers of mental states happen only through acting. Further analysis of ‘Kuravanchi’ offers some clues to the understanding of the phenomenon of trance in this tradition although nobody went into trance that night.

        Actor Balu played the role of Draupadi in the first part of the drama but it is Kanniyappan now who plays the role of Draupadi the gypsy. Two or more actors playing the same character is common in the set of plays dealing with the lives of Pandavas in disguise. In these episodes of double distancing (actor playing a character, the character is in disguise of another) mediated through the tripartite introductory convention of Therukoothu (third person introductory song behind the curtain, first person song after the removal of curtain and the interrogation of Kattiyankaran) audience’s identification is neither with the character nor with the actor. The theatrical devices of Therukoothu simply do not permit such identification. Therukoothu’ techniques cannot find parallels in the Brechtian devices of alienation either because what we are dealing with here is the intense emotional involvement of the audience ranging from ritual observances to trance.

       With the willing suspension of everyday routine, instead of the proverbial disbelief, what the audience identifies with is the multiple framing of the fictional events with at least one frame devoted to their inclusion. As long as the frames are prim and proper it does not matter when a man plays the most important character of Draupadi or multiple actors play the same role. Yet, this has to be written down as audience’s identification with the characters because the frames are ephemeral, verbal and invisible. One of the most recognizable framing devices of Therukoothu is the endless repetitive descriptions of Draupadi’s humiliation in the Kaurava court as exemplified by the text and performance of Kuravanchi. As Draupadi’s humiliation is both the reference point and subject of all recounting it reaches the audience from different points of views of various characters. If Duryodhana reasons out that her mocking and laughing at him (when he visited the Pandavas as their guest during Rajasooya worship) were the reasons for her humiliation later on Kattiyankaran, the story teller and others preach lengthy moralizing on what should be the women’ behaviour in everyday life. There is even a Tamil proverb that says ‘If a woman laughs, disaster follows’. Duryodhana’ permanent scar in the heart is not only because Draupadi laughed at him but also said “Oh! I thought only my father in law is blind. Now only I know my brother in law is also blind”. Even Kattiyankaran, who mocks at everything Duryodhana says in an earlier scene, gives credence to the basis of his anger. Nonetheless, the humiliation he meted out on her is unpardonable. In Therukoothu’s musings it is repeatedly said that the elder brother’ wife deserves the respect and love that one reserves only for one’s mother. Duryodhana not only ordered Duchhassana to denude her in public but also in a concealed sexual invitation asked her to sit on his thigh. It is a heinous crime cries every framing device in Therukoothu and that too in all caste dialects and language varieties of Tamil. If Kuravanchi uses Kuravar caste dialect, then the episode of ‘The marriage of Subathra’ uses Brahmin dialect to frame the injustice done to Draupadi.

        The framing devices facilitate the improvisation immensely and allow Kattiyankaran to connect the scene to everyday life experiences. In Kuravanchi when Draupadi meets with Gandhari, Duryodhana’s mother and her own mother in law, Kattiyankaran continuously intercepts it to connect it to the everyday conflict between mother in laws and daughter in laws. So the audience sees Draupadi and Gandhari not as mythological figure as the classical texts would present but as ordinary mother in law and daughter in law next door. Kattiyankaran in a variety of ways plays the bringing-everything- down- to- earth function. If a character speaks in a high flown literary language, he paraphrases it; if a caste dialect is used he mocks at it; he makes fools out of kings; and he links the great injustice done to Draupadi to the familiar experiences known to the audience. In a poignant exchange between Kattiyankaran and the gypsy who is to obtain fresh seeds, he criticizes the low quality of rice supplied through the government’s public distribution system. Generally the framing devices emerge from Kattiyankaran and permeate to the audience whether they are asleep or awake.

      However the alert ones in the audience nudge you to wake up if there are important scenes such as the first appearance of Kanniyappan as Draupadi, the gypsy. He is dressed in Sari with artificial breasts, blue facial make up and a little spinning bucket on his head. The little spinning bucket is at once a comical device inviting hilarious comments from Kattiyankaran and useful for collecting donations from the audience. A woman from the audience willingly gives her sleeping baby into the hands of the gypsy, as Draupadi has to carry Sahadeva, the youngest of her husbands, in the disguise of a baby according to Krishna’s wish. Our neighbours in the audience assure us that the baby would be handled carefully and also grow to be wise having ‘acted’ in the episode as Sahadeva. This is very similar to what we did see in the afternoon story telling sessions when audience contributed donations to successful conduct of Rajasooya worship. Compared to Kuravanchi the framing devices for audience’s inclusion and participation are very elaborate in the episodes of Bagasura Vatham (Killing of Bagasura), Arjunan Thapasu (Arjuna’s penance), Madupidi Sandai (The fight for cattle) and Padu Kalam (The Final War field). In ‘Killing of Bagasura’ the actor playing> the role of Bhima rides a bullock cart through all the streets of the village and the villagers place rice and vegetables on the cart for Bhima to take it to the Bagasura. In ‘Arjuna’s penance’ the actor climbs the pole centrally erected in the performance area as Arjuna had climbed the Himalayas to observe penance towards Shiva for getting the most powerful weapons. The villagers gather around the pole and wait for the Arjuna actor to reach the top of the pole. Once he reaches the top he throws lemons all around, which the villagers collect religiously. The lemons received from the actor are believed to cure infertility in women. The couples that benefited from earlier occasions tie cradles on the Arjuna’s pole and rock the baby for a while. ‘The Final War field’ looks almost like a war field because Bhima chases Duryodhana street after street literally fighting with their wooden spectres and kicking clods of dust after them. When they finally reach the decorated slain figure of Duryodhana Bhima kills him by hitting him on the thighs. On the slain figure of Duryodhana the villagers gather, sing mock dirge songs and beat the figure with broomsticks

       ‘The fight for cattle’ that happened on May 7, 2003, the next day after Kuravanchi the villagers brought cattle to the performance area. After the Kuravanchi episode Draupadi and the Pandavas lead their one year of disguise in the country of Vrada. Duryodhana wages war on this country and steals the cattle. Arjuna defeats Duryodhana and wins the cattle back for the kingdom. In the evening men young and old assemble with their beasts in the village square, outside the temple. The cattle’ horns are decorated and they are looking freshly washed and groomed. Some of the participants are no more than boys. As they wait for the event to take place, they smile and chat with their mothers and siblings in the surrounding audience. The actors, Duryodhana and Arjuna, prepare slowly in the green room at the back of their stage. They are putting on the same costumes and makeup used for the nighttime dramatic depiction of their character. However, they> are different actors from those who took the roles in last night’s show, and tonight they will be different again. The storyteller Muthuganesan is prominent in the audience, along with the village panchayat, five men clad in yellow robes. One of the panchayat members brings extra banana palm branches to decorate the front of the stage area. In the branches, Arjuna’ bow is hung. The three icons are brought on their bier out from under the eaves of the temple where they had earlier witnessed the story telling. A pujari (non Brahmin priest) performs a puja (worship) for us all, the crowd, especially children, surging forward to take part. The storyteller Muthuganesan gets onto a raised platform to relate the story that will be played out in this ritual. The audience is silent, totally attentive to his words – just as they had been earlier in the day when sitting for hours listening to his tales. Now, in the early evening, they are more relaxed, but nevertheless acutely attuned to the import of the story.

       The actors are brought down off the stage area and onto the street level. Arjuna is given his bow. Duryodhana carries his characteristic sceptre. The actors are given a blessing and then commence their chase around the square, dodging through the crowd. The people cheer and whistle. The actors run at the cattle, forcing them and their owners to flee outwards into the dusty street and the paddy fields. Some of the frightened animals break loose and charge away in a cloud of dust. Arjuna and Duryodhana keep circling clockwise around the square and the temple area, running and jumping as they go. They are pretty athletic, but not menacing. In fact, their presence is surprisingly relaxed – as if they were pretty careless of the significance or impressiveness of their actions. As Arjuna and Duryodhana return from their half-a-dozen cycles, they slow down and wander into the crowd positioned at the edge of the stage platform. Like footballers coming off the pitch, heads down they slow to a walk and make their way through the group of women and children up onto their stage. The panchayat members join them and pat them on the back, congratulating them on a good performance.

       As we move from Kuravanchi to The fight for cattle the earlier frames for transitions and inclusion of audience cave in and merge, everybody becomes a character in Mahabharata. Except for the thin outline of a play provided by the script everything else is part of improvisation, convention and oral tradition. Taking into account that the Therukoothu events are not totally unpredictable, Hanne M. de Bruin proposes the existence of a hypothetical construct ‘oral reservoir’ that determines the contextual expressions. According to her, the oral reservoir may contain “the framework and plot of plays, verbal and non-verbal material (including music, dance, mime, gestures, make-up, costumes, conventional themes, settings, formulae and imagery), performance conventions and devices (including ritual actions and recall strategies) and emotions or stimuli triggering emotions, including various rasas and bhavas as well as trance-like states, which fit into the culturally defined pattern of emotional reactions evoked….” (de Bruin 1998, xxviii).

       What Hanne M. de Bruin does not include in her list is the set of values that guide the predictable course of Therukoothu events. The values the villagers live by and the values Mahabharata proposes feed into their belief system. It is this belief system that gives and sustains the dramatic force of Therukoothu. With Kattiyankaran as the conduit between the epic world and the real world the theatre of Mahabharata continuously localizes its axiology. At the centre of it lies the violation of a value, (violation of a woman’s honour) which produces strongest range of emotions. As this system of values is intimately linked with the principles of natural justice, justice is what assures emotional balance. Aptly in Tamil trance in the Therukoothu context is referred to as ‘Aavesam’ (Fury) and trances occur in most number when the episode ‘Disrobing of Draupadi’ is played. When the actor or the audience member goes into trance, the performance is immediately stopped and the actors playing Duryodhana and Ducchasana pray to goddess Draupadi ask for her forgiveness. If the occurrence of trance authenticates the efficacy of Therukoothu performances, it also authenticates the efficacy of living by the values. Such a living is important for preservation of progeny and fertility in women, land and nature in general. As we depart Kulamanthai we think of the ritual observers who have to walk on the burning coal on the last but one day of the festival. Walking on the burning coal they complete their ritual observances and come back to the world of reality. Only on their return Dharmaraja can ascend on his throne to restore justice. Therukoothu remains a genuine and total community theatre.

And we do know what is theatre’s double.


1 All the Indian words are written as they are pronounced without transliteration and diacritical marks. Except proper names of persons and places all Indian words are in italics. Sanskrit names and pronunciations are followed for characters and concepts that are recognizable all over India. If Tamil and Sanskrit words are used for the same concept or character for any specific reason then they are mentioned in the endnotes.
2 Bharat (in Sanskrit) and Paratham (in Tamil) are also official names of India deriving their root from the epic of Mahabharata.
3 Dharmaraja or Dharmarajan is the Tamil name commonly used for Yudishtra, the eldest of the Pandva brothers.
4 Paratham is the Tamil name for Mahabharata
5 Hanne M. de Bruin is the lone scholar who calls Therukoothu, Kattaikoothu because of the kattai veshams used in Therukoothu. She is also closely involved in the formation and administration of an association called ‘Kattaikoothu Sangam’. However artists and audience continue to refer to the form as Therukoothu in the banners, posters and everyday speech. It is only by the name Therukoothu Tamil speaking world continues to know the art form.
6 Vaishanavite mark on the forehead is known as ‘Namam’ in Tamil. It is a vertical U-shaped white stripe drawn on the forehead with a red line in the middle. Vaishnavites are religious followers of Vishnu.
7 Saivites are religious followers of Shiva. They wear a horizontal ash stripe on their forehead.
8 Potharaja is a historical figure who ruled the Gingee kingdom. His accommodation as a mythical character along with the other characters in Mahabharata reveals the way history and mythology mix. A Muslim warrior named Muttalarauthan is also normally accorded iconic representation inside the Draupadi Amman temple premises although we did not see his statue in Kulamanthai. For detailed analysis of such syncretic processes see Hiltebeitel’s ‘Cult of Draupadi Mythologies: From Gingee to Kurukshetra’
9 Therukoothu groups follow a complex system of sharing the fees among themselves. For a detailed analysis of the sharing system see Hanne Bruin’s ‘Kattaikuttu: The flexibility of a South Indian theatre tradition’
10 Therukoothu artists, leaders and Gurus come from several other castes also. They enjoy the status of ritual specialists irrespective of the castes they are born into.
11 The ritual burial is followed only in Pandaram caste. When KannappaTambiran passed away on October 6, 2003 he was buried in the sitting position. His Therukoothu Company performed ‘Karna’s salvation’ on the sixteenth day after his death to liberate him from the cycle of rebirths.
12 Ganesh marks consist of Tamil alphabet equivalent of ‘U’ with two underscores. They are drawn before the beginning of any activity.
13 Kalaimamani is the annual award given by the government of Tamil Nadu for artists in all the fields of performing arts including folk performing arts and cinema. A Therukoothu artist considers this award as highly prestigious and if awarded it is advertised in the banners and in the announcements before the play.
14 Despite massive researches carried out on the Therukoothu tradition very little research exits on the phenomenon of printed folklore such as chapbooks. The recent publication of Stuart Blackburn’s book ‘Print, Folklore and Nationalism in Colonial South India’ (2003 New Delhi, Permanent Black) is the first work in that direction. Vaidialingan, Se. 2002. Tamizh Panpaattu Varalaaru. Chidambaram: Annamalai University.
15 Hiltebeitel cites Beck’s ‘Elder Brother Story’ (Annanmarswamy Kathai) to draw our attention to a similar episode where the roasted seeds sprout, by Vishnu’s grace, when planted. In that epic also the heroes receive roasted seeds from their parallel cousins. This motif is immensely appealing to the agricultural communities.


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