Margazhi Minstrels

Blowing the conch.  

Margazhi is winter of sorts for those in this part of the hemisphere. Blazing summer followed by a bounteous Monsoon giving way to the salubrious weather of December — at least this was the script until a few years ago. Dhanur Masa or Margazhi derives its name from the star Mrigashirsha and is associated with devotional spirit. Sanctums in temples open at pre-dawn hours, the songs amplified by speakers waking up sleepy neighbourhoods.

A distinct feature of Margazhi is the bhajan groups that traverse streets, where house fronts look sparkling with freshly drawn kolam, at the centre of which stands a bright yellow pumpkin flower. The choral singing, to the accompaniment of chaplakattai, harmonium and mridangam, lends a divine touch to the crisp morning breeze that carries a mixture of sounds — Tiruppavai, Thevaram and the chime of temple bells. In those days, a conch would be blown ushering in the dawn, a signal for the bhajan groups to start their musical ritual.

Margazhi Minstrels

“Naaham Vasaami Vaikunte, Na Yogi Hridaye Ravau; Madhbhaktha yatra gaayanti, Tatra tishtami Narada (I dwell not in Vaikunta, nor in the hearts of the Yogis. O, Narada, I am present where my devotees sing and chant)”, said the Lord, who also said that He was Margazhi among the months.

The bhajan sampradaya was established about 500 years ago by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In the South, about 350 years ago, in Govindapuram near Thiruvidaimarudur, known as Madhyarjunam, Sri Bhagavan Nama Bodhendral and his contemporary, Sridhara Venkatesa Ayyaval, who lived close to Tiruvisainallur wrote several granthas and established the Nama Siddhanta.

A typical Bhajan scene in Pudukottai.

A typical Bhajan scene in Pudukottai.  


In Marudanallur, also known as Brahmapuram and Madananthapuram, Sri Venkatarama Swamy, better known as Sadguru Swamigal established the Hari-Hara bhajan system, now prevalent in the South. These three are considered the Mummurthy (triumvirate) of Sampradaya Namasankirtanam.

At Marudanallur, during Sadguru Swamigal’s times, there was daily bhajan (Namasankirtanam) in the evenings, followed by Dolotsavam. During Sri Ramanavami, Sri Jayanthi and the month of Margazhi, Sita Kalyanam, Rukmini Kalyanam and Radha Kalyanam were conducted. Unchavritthi was part of the daily schedule. In the afternoons, eighteen prarthana kirtanas, including Dasana Madiko, Ninnakoti Dhanyanatheno and Radha Krishna Daya Mado would be rendered. During Saturdays and Ekadasi, special Namasankirtanams were held. Veedhi Bhajans (street bhajans) with devotees from neighbouring villages were regular events. A mutt still exists where Sadguru Swamigal used to stay.


Tyagaraja pointed to the easier Gana Marga, of course, centred around Bodhendral’s precept of nama japa. The bard of Tiruvaiyaru was a spiritual singer and lived a life ofunchavritti — one of austerity, rigour and discipline. He refers to this in his kriti, ‘Haridasulu Vedale.’ The value of nama japa is also stressed in his ‘Namakusumamula’ and ‘Bhajana Seyave.’ He was a composer, a devotee, a sangitha vidwan and a bhagavatha — all rolled into one. It cannot be gainsaid that the Bhagavatha tradition has earned substantially from Tyagaraja’s Divya Nama Sankirtana and Utsava Sampradaya kirtanas. Narayana Tirtha describes the Lord as ‘Sangeetha rasa rasika.’


In Chennai, Seshachari, a lawyer, philanthropist and a close friend of Annie Besant, started Margazhi Veedhi bhajans on the Mada Streets of Mylapore by the end of the 19th Century. The Umayalpuram Brothers, Sriperumbudur Mudumbai Krishnamachariar, K.C. Adivarahachariar, Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma and Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar were regular participants. Papanasam Sivan was a member of this bhajan group before he started one in the 1930s. He continued to conduct Veedhi Bhajans during Margazhi and Arubatthumoovar festival until he passed away in 1973. Sivan’s Veedhi Bhajan is being continued by his descendants and disciples.

Pudukkottai Gopalakrishna Bhagavathar (1892-1971) enriched the Sampradaya Bhajan tradition by travelling throughout the country, leading several congregations.

Nott Annaji Rao, a noted Bhagavatha and an ardent disciple of Swamy Gnanananda Giri of Thapovanam, initiated Margazhi bhajans in the middle of the last century and continued it until 1967, when his eminent son Swamy Haridoss Giri took over. If Namasankeertanam is a transcontinental movement today, the credit goes to Swamy Haridoss Giri. The names of Thiruvidaimarudur Venkatarama Bhagavathar, Kumbakonam Balu Bhagavathar, Srivanchiyam Ramachandra Bhagavathar, Mayavaram Krishnamurthy Bhagavathar, Pudukkottai Sanjivi Bhagavathar, Srirangam Sethumadhava Rao, T. V.Narayana Sastri, T.S.Krishnamurthy, Tiruchi Pichai Bhagavathar, A.K. Gopalan and Sethalapathi Balu deserve distinct mention. In those days, the singers would dance in gay abandon, singing the glory of god.

Veedhi bhajans are held in some parts of Tamil Nadu and even outside the State. Tiruvisainallur Ramakrishna Bhagavatar, dedicated to spiritual service, even today goes on unchavriti rounds. In Chennai, Mylapore continues to be the hub, with about ten groups involved in it throughout Margazhi. Two groups conduct this in Tiruvallikkeni. Margazhi Veedhi Bhajans are held in a few towns of the State such as Kumbakonam and Tiruchi and in a handful of villages, including Valady, Tiruvaiyaru and Udayalur. Outside the State, Veedhi Bhajans are held in places like New Delhi, Mumbai and Lucknow.

Lifestyle changes and dwindling interest have taken their toll on this tradition. Members of groups lived close to each other and could quickly assemble at a temple, the starting point. These days, they live scattered and travelling is not easy. Pollution and health issues have prevented veterans from venturing out in the pre-dawn hours. The steadfast among them continue the tradition but start a little late. Some observe the ritual for the first few days and withdraw.

Young brigades should take over from veterans, a transition that is not happening, again due to changes in lifestyle, career constraints, etc. They prefer to perform at sabha halls, which, however, cannot have the spontaneity of the street ambience.



(The author is a Namsankirtana artist and a disciple of Sadguru Nathamuni Narayana Iyengar Swamigal)

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 12:58:30 AM |

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