PREMA NANDAKUMAR

The Oonjal Utsavam for Goddess Ranganayaki of Srirangam, begins tomorrow.

While the festivals of the Srirangam temple are always colourful, the Swing Festival has a special aura because one actually gets to see at leisure Lord Ranganatha and Ranganayaki Thayar moving to a gentle rhythm. There is no jostling here, and silence reigns during the hour-long "Oonjal sevai". As with age-old convention, the Swing Festival for Lord Ranganatha, celebrated for nine days, will be followed by a week-long Oonjal utsavam for Goddess Ranganayaki, which takes place within the enclosure for the goddess. This year, the Oonjal utsavam of Ranganayaki Thayar will be celebrated from November 18 (tomorrow) to 24. There is a grand Oonjal mandapam sculpted in stone at a height of about three feet so that the devotees can have a clear view of the Goddess while they relax on the corridor that stretches in front. A feeling of sweet peace spreads all over while the bhattar gently moves the swing.The evenings, for a week, will unfold this lovely scenario as thousands of worshippers throng the temple to watch the various upacharas (services) like the offering of naivedyams and fanning with the chowrie.

A familiar ritual

Swing festivals are familiar enough in Indian culture. In Bengal we have Dol Purnima where the images of Radha and Krishna are placed on a swing and rocked amid ecstatic bhajans. In Brindavan, homes and temples rock to rhythm, celebrating the Jhulana Yatra where the idols of Radha and Krishna are placed in artistically prepared swings. Obviously the oscillating movements of the swing have the power of settling the mind into a peaceful rhythm.For centuries such a peace, that passes understanding, has been given to her children by Goddess Ranganayaki whose Oonjal utsavam was hailed in fifteen verses by Koneri Appanaiyengar, the grandson of the legendary poet Pillai Perumal Iyengar, a disciple of Sri Parasara Bhattar. He says that the Divine Mother sways gently for the assured prosperity of Sri Ranganatha, Adisesha, Garuda, Vishwaksena, the twelve Azhwars, the sun, the moon, the devotees and the Universe.

Jewels of the Goddess

Appanaiyengar gives a detailed description of the jewels of the Goddess that sway in the movement; sweet-scented flowers and bees on the tresses move too, as droplets of sweat appear on the face; jewelled ear-studs, bangles, bracelets (soodakam), gem-studded necklace, choker (kandikai), waist-belt (mekalai) and anklets also sway tenderly. The poet finds Saraswati, Parvati, Valli and Devasena holding the four ropes of the swing and moving it; the twelve Azhwars are present singing her glory, the Acharyas too are here, Nathamuni, Ramanujar and Koorathazhwar, positing victories in debates; and the ten groups of serviteurs ("pathu kothu") appointed by Ramanujacharya are performing their allotted tasks as the Goddess sways in the swing: "Like the swan that sways on the lotus that moves in the southern breeze, Like a peacock that dances in joy sighting rainy clouds, the Goddess swayed watching the dark complexion of the Lord; Like the incomparable Beauty who rose from the ocean that was churned and swayed on the white foam, Sri Ranganayaki went up the jewelled plank of the swing and kept to its movement."