The Ekanta Veena Seva is a unique ritual played for Lord Ranganatha at Srirangam.

‘Hechariga’ – Careful! - the warning goes out loudly, clearly and musically. It is a call of concern to Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam, as He mounts the Yali steps, during the Ira Pathu festival. The ones warning Him are the hereditary vainikas of the temple. ‘Hechariga Sadanamu Ekanta Ranga,’ in Yadukulakhambodi is a composition of Vijayaranga Chokkanatha Nayak ((1704-31 C.E.). Even as the vainikas play, the processional deity goes up the eight steps, two at a time. The song has four charanams, one for every two steps. To say that what the vainikas do is extremely difficult is an understatement. All five of them have to hold their veenas upright, sing and play in synch, and climb the steps backwards, even as the crowd, anxious to have a look at Ranganatha, leaves them very little space for manoeuvrability.

The veena playing begins even before the processional deity leaves the 1,000 pillared mantapam. That is when the vainikas play compositions of various composers. When He reaches the Naazhikaettan entrance, the vainikas play tanams in Nattai, Arabhi, Varali and Gowla. The aural treat continues even as the Lord moves to the South West of Rajamahendran Sutru, and then makes His way to the Yali steps. This is all a part of the Ekanta Veena Seva, unique to Srirangam.

The pioneer

“The practice of playing veena for the Lord was begun by Ramanujacharya,” says octogenarian Rangarajan, hereditary vainika, who played at the Srirangam temple from 1940 to 2011. “I belong to the 45th generation of veena players.”

Why the veena, one might wonder. The sacredness of the veena is evident from Vedic references to it. “The Chandogya upanishad says that whatever is played on the Veena reaches Parabrahma, and becomes praise of the Supreme One. The Upanishad says Veena music itself is a form of Goddess Mahalakshmi,” says Sanskrit scholar V.S. Karunakarachariar.

There are references to the veena in the Divyaprabandham too. “In verse 15 in Tiruneduntandakam, Tirumangai Azhwar imagines himself to be Parakala Nayaki, and the nayaki pining for the Lord, plays the veena. ‘Solluyarnda Nedu Ceenai’- are the words used in the verse. Peria Vachan Pillai’s commentary on the verse says there is more melody in Parakala Nayaki’s veena than in the yazh and flute, and that lyric and music blend as she plays,” explains Vaishnavite scholar Kidambi Narayanan.

“The commentator reasons that on His last visit to Parakala Nayaki, the Lord must have played the veena. So now in Parakala Nayaki’s eyes, the instrument itself appears like her absent beloved! Azhagiya Manavala Perumal Nayanar in his Acharya Hridayam describes Tirupaanazhwar as ‘veenaiyum kaiyumaana antarangar’- the dear one who holds the veena.”

There are many references to the yazh too in Divya Prabandham. However, while some music scholars hold that the yazh and the veena are one and the same, there are others who hold a different view.

Vainika Rangarajan, who was Professor of Physics and vice principal in National College, Tiruchi, talks of his family tradition. “My cousin, S.R. Krishnaswamy Iyengar also used to play at the temple. My father Govinda Iyengar and uncle Ramaswami Iyengar learnt music from Veena Seshanna, and my father set to tune all the Srirangam pasurams. In addition he taught us many rare kritis for eg. ‘Nigama Gochara Sowre’ (Khamas) and ‘Ninnu Sevinchina’ (Nilambari) - both by Venkatadri Swami. Veena Balachander said he had never heard Mysore Sadasiva Rao’s ‘Parama Adhbhutamaina’ (Khamas) except from us. He used to say that in his next janma he wanted to be born into our family!

“Dr. S. Ramanathan, who heard us play Nerur Srinivasachariar’s Sriranga mangalam, which talks of the Dasavataras, took down the notations for the mangalam.” Rangarajan’s father added a line to this mangalam, to the effect that the praise was being sung for Ranganayaki Thayar too, who was seated beside Ranganatha in the Gadya Traya mantapam.

Usually musicians skip the last stanza of ‘Yaen Palli Kondeer Ayya,’ but the Srirangam vainikas play that too. Srimad Mukkur Azhagiya Singar told them that the first stanza gave the Ramayana in a nutshell, the second the Srimad Bhagavatam and the third the essence of Saranagati.

Rangarajan underwent coronary bypass surgery in 1998, but he played in the temple that year too. “When his health took a turn for the worse a couple of years ago, it was the sound of the veena that revived him”, says his son Srinivasan, a chartered accountant practising in Srirangam. Another son Gopalakrishnamani is a professor in Tiruchi. The other two sons - Ramanujam and Govindan live in Chennai, and go to Srirangam to play during festivals. Rangarajan’s grandsons too play in the temple, whenever possible.

For about 260 days in a year, the Lord wakes up to the strains of the veena and retires for the night, only after He has heard the veena. At these times, the veena is played by just one vainika and in a seated posture. During sayanam, even the bell is not sounded. The silence of the night is broken only by the music of the veena. This seems to be in consonance with an Upanishadic prescription. V.S. Karunakarachariar says that according to the Brihaddaranyaka Upanishad, when the veena is played, there should be no other sound. An Upanishadic reference to chamber music!

There are many who come to Srirangam for the unique experience of listening to the veena, even as they worship Lord Ranganatha. Sometimes it happens that because of the exigencies of time, the duration of the veena presentation is shortened. The vainikas should be given sufficient time to give devotees a glimpse into their vast repertoire.

Facts about Veena

1) This is how the veena is held upright- there are two nails fixed to the resonator, and a thick strap wound round these, is slung around the shoulder, with the suraikkai resting on the shoulder.

2) One of the veenas in Rangarajan’s collection, is made of bamboo, and is shaped to resemble the Lord’s discus and conch. It was made by a Saurashtra veena player called Uraiyur Rangachariar, who used to make veenas in novel shapes.

3) The Srirangam vainikas also play Ekanta veena for Ranganayaki Thayar and for Uraiyur Kamalavalli Thayar, for four days each.

Vainikas of Andhra Pradesh

1) The vainikas play many compositions of Alluru Venkatadri Swamy, who was born in 1806 in Andhra Pradesh, in Baradhwaja Gotram. Venkatadri Swamy made a new Pandyan Kondai for Ranganatha to replace the old damaged one. He vowed to himself that he would eat only after he had collected at least 10 rupees everyday for making the kondai. Venkatadri Swamy also made a makara kandigai for Ranganatha, and offered it to the Lord in 1867. Venkatadri Swamy’s memorial is near Alavandar Padithurai in Srirangam.

2) Vijayaranga Chokkanatha, composer of “Hechariga Sadanamu”, built the Veda Parayana mantapa and the hall of mirrors in the Srirangam temple, and his many gifts to the deity include pancha patra, milk bowl, an ornamental seat and a spittoon- all in gold, golden shirts studded with diamonds for the utsavars, and a golden umbrella studded with precious stones. He composed two Telugu works- Sriranga Mahatmya and Tulakaveri Mahatmya. He was a patron of the arts and an inscription in the Jambukeswara temple says that there was a drama instructor (natakasala siksakam) in the theatre hall attached to his palace! The statues of Vijayaranga Chokkanatha and his queen can be seen at the Srirangam temple.