crumble, manuscripts get moth eaten and traditional fine arts practised
for centuries in temples are being forgotten because of long years of neglect.
No wonder that the Arayer Sevai, a visual enactment of the passionate expression
by Vaishnavite saints which were an integral part of Vishnu worship 1000
years ago, is not confined to a handful of practitioners who themselves
are on the threshold of fading away.
were the arayers? What makes this dramatic form so unusual in the landscape
of Indian performance, ritual, religion and theology? The word arayer itself
means king. In Tamil, there are two ways to pronounce the letter 'r'. Said
without stress like 'arayer' it means king and with stress like 'rr' it
means 'speaker' or 'narrator'. In both cases the word fits these temple
servants who dedicated their lives towards the worship and glory of Lord
Vishnu through song, dance and drama. Vaishnavite temples were the crucibles
of the three branches of learning 'iyal' (literature), 'isai' (music) and
'natakam' (drama). Arayer Sevai which means 'the service or offering of
the royal priests' falls under the category of drama.
The main text
for these priestly actors was an impressive volume of verses called the
'Divya Prabandham.' The word means 'divine compilation.' The Prabandham
was the cumulative result of 12 saint-poets who lived between the 6th and
9th centuries in Tamil country. These saint-poets were called 'alwars'.
The word 'alwar' means 'deepest of the deep'; one who is immersed in the
devotion of Lord Vishnu/Narayana.
the 6th and 9th century, in the Tamil speaking region of South India, these
devotees of Vishnu (also known as Tirumal, the dark one) changed and revitalized
Hinduism. Along with their counterparts, the Nayanmars, who were devotees
of Siva, these saint-poets wandered all over the Tamil countryside, inspiring
and converting kings, brahmans, and peasants, affirming in poetry the holiness
of hundreds of Tamil places dedicated to Vishnu and Siva. Their pilgrimages,
their legends and their hymns, which they sang by the thousands literally
mapped a sacred geography of the Tamil regions and fashioned a communal
self-image that cut across class and caste. They composed the most important
early Bhakti poetry in any Indian language. This is particularly significant
when practitioners of dance, dance history and religious studies have a
tendency to associate Bhakti/devotional poetry with the later poets like
Jayadeva of the 12th century, Chaitanya in Bengal of the 15th century and
Annamaya of the 14th century. Even Tulsidas, Kabir, Meera who are popular
choices for dancers and singers came much later.
poetry of the Prabandham, composed by these 12 Tamil alwars Hindu philosophy
spoke for the first time in India, in a language other than Sanskrit. The
imperial presence of Sanskrit with its brahminical texts like the Vedas
and the Upanishads was the elitist presence against which Bhakti in Tamil
defined itself. Also Sanskrit in India of the 6th century was not a people's
language, it was not spoken as everyday tongue. Here was poetry, devotional
poetry in a people's first language. The concept of bhakti or devotional
poetry as we understand today arose, as suggested by scholars from the
meshing of Sanskrit mythology and the Tamil conception of women and kings.
one thousand years after all the 4000 verses of the Prabandham were composed,
a devotee called Natamuni (10th century) gathered and ordered the compositions
of the 12 alwars and arranged for their recitation. First he only knew
of 10 poems and when he realised there were almost 4000, he travelled to
the birthplace of Nammalwar (Alwartirunagari near Tirunelveli) and tried
to retrieve them. Failing to do so, he meditated and received a vision
of the poet Nammalwar himself who revealed all the 1102 verses to him.
that he received all the 4000 verses in this way.
In order to
make the poetry meaningful and alive to the general public, Natamuni arranged
for them to be sung and danced on special occasions of Lord Vishnu, particularly
in the month of Margazhi which is mid-December to mid-January and
in Panguni Chitra which is mid-March to mid-April the end of which marks
the Tamil New Year on 14th April.
the songs would live only if many could chant and watch the most special
poems danced with gestures and movements, Natamuni is credited to have
created a system of ritual performance called Arayer Sevai. The word Arayer
literally means Lord or King. The Arayers of today are all direct descendants
of Natamuni's family lineage and the practice is held with the male members
of the family and not taught to the women. It is devoutly believed that
the inspiration for the music and the dance came from Lord Vishnu himself
and that it was He who ordained these arayers to perform this unique service
for His pleasure.
structure of Arayer Sevai is dependent on a regal stature, a stately walk
and minute right hand and left hand gestures which weave a complex imagery.
The end of every phrase or sentence is marked by a jerky flick of the hand.
The feet stamp the ground and the legs are always held in a unique half
worn by the arayers consists of a cap which is a reproduction of the crown
worn by Vishnu as the temple idol. The garland and the cymbals the arayers
carry were all believed to have been given by Vishnu himself.
were exalted in the hierarchy of temples. They were as important and sometimes
even more highly regarded than the priests themselves. Palm leaf manuscripts
of temples like Srirangam and Srivilliputur, state that the arayers were
given special treatment and medical care whenever they fell ill.
all Vishnu temples have the bronze images of the 12 alwars as important
figures in their shrines but the art of 'arayer' exists only in four temples,
three in Tamilnadu and one in Karnataka. Melkottai in Karnataka does not
perform the movements and actions but only the recitation and chanting
and commentary. The three temples in Tamilnadu are Srirangam, Alwar Tirunagari
on maintaining the purity of their tradition is not augmented with a desire
to perfect the art of their ancestors rather than just going through the
motions once or twice a year. They refuse to teach, allow audio or video
recordings of their ritual and thus it will be but a matter of time when
the practice which is already a mere shadow of its former self is completely
lost. I was able to watch several hours of their performance since I was
considered a direct Vaishnav descendent of one of the famous families of
Thirukurungudi (the town of the famous arayer temple bell) and as such
allowing me to watch or allowing me to learn some of their movements was
not considered sacreligious to the high priest.