The Tamil treasures of Margazhi

The Season possibly began in the Bhakti era and has endured, thanks to the immortal nature of works such as the Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai

November 29, 2023 06:06 pm | Updated 06:06 pm IST

An illustration depicting the 26th verse of Tiruppavai.

An illustration depicting the 26th verse of Tiruppavai. | Photo Credit: Keshav

Carnatic music may hold centre stage during the month of Margazhi (December/January) but long before it were two treasures from the Bhakti era, which celebrate this month as a period of devotion and austerity — the Tiruppavai and the Tiruvempavai.

The creations of Vaishnavite saint Andal and Saivite savant Manikkavachakar respectively, they are both recited during this month. Some recite all the verses every day, while others do one a day. The Tiruppavai, comprising 30 verses, is rather convenient for the latter practice while the Tiruvempavai, with 20 verses, is followed by a recital of Manikkavachakar’s Tirupalliezhucchi for the remaining 10 days. This article looks at some similarities and differences between the Tiruppavai and the Tiruvempavai, from the lyrical point of view.

That both were meant for the month of Margazhi is quite clear. Andal refers to the month in her opening verse, in fact the first word, and also in verse 26 (Male Manivanna), which respectively mark the beginning and end of the Pavai nombu (ritual fast) that she and her friends observe during the month. The remaining four verses are celebrations following the culmination of the rite and extolling the Lord to grant boons. Yet another reference is to a uniquely Tamil phenomenon in Margazhi — the abundance of dew early in the morning, in ‘Kanaithu Ilam Katru’ (12). The Tiruvempavai too refers to Margazhi, once, in the final verse, number 20.

The Tiruppavai is structured as Andal awakening her companions, exhorting them to give up the comforts of the bed and sleep, and proceed to the house of the Lord where she progressively wakes up the attendants, family members, the divine consort and finally the Lord himself. The Tiruvempavai takes a slightly different route, while it also dwells at length on awakening those in slumber, it ends with the group of women plunging into the crystal-clear waters of a lake, singing as they swim of the Lord’s glory. Both signify the discarding sleep of ignorance and realising God.

Similarities between Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai

There are some remarkable similarities in treatment of the subject by both poets. The Tiruvempavai opens with an exhortation to rise and when those in sleep refuse, a question is rather irately asked as to whether they are deaf. The same theme appears in Andal’s ‘Thumani madathu’ (9). The excuses that someone gives when being woken up are all dealt with by both poets. In ‘Ol nitthil nagayai’ (4), Manikkavachakar describes a woman refusing to leave her bed and who bides time by asking if everyone else has arrived. Those that have are understandably irritated. The same theme is in ‘Elle ilankiliye’ (15) by Andal. And how many times have we had someone declare that they will be the first to rise the next morning and then end up being the last? This too is described in the Tiruvempavai’s ‘Maane ni nennalai’ (6) and the Tiruppavai’s ‘Ungal puzhakkadai’ (14).

Both works describe the beauty of the morning — the birds awakening, the stars dimming, the sun rising, conches sounding from temples. The Tiruppavai dwells repeatedly on cows being milked, as it is set in Aypadi — the settlement of cowherds which is the abode of Krishna. The Tiruvempavai mentions Tillai and Tiruvannamalai — both at one time full of water bodies, in keeping with the theme of bathing in the tanks. Unlike Andal, where bathing in a lake appears briefly (13 — ‘Pullin vai keendanai’), Manikkavachakar sings at length on it. In his verse 13 (‘Painkuvalai kaar malaral’), he compares a tank to a temple. The dark-hued blue lotus is Uma, the red lotus is Shiva, the white storks are the sacred ash, the snakes in the water the Lord’s ornaments, and the bathers cleaning themselves are devotees ridding themselves of their sins at a shrine. He is unparalleled in his imagery of women bathing — he even introduces an onomatopoeic word — ‘Mugair’ to describe the sound of bathers diving in.

Rainfall is associated with Margazhi in Tamil areas and it is remarkable that both works describe them with almost scientific precision. Andal in ‘Aazhi Mazhai Kanna’ (4) addresses the Lord as the rain giver and says He must enter the ocean, carry the moisture to the sky and form clouds that are dark like Himself. And then with lightning like the Lord’s gleaming discus and thunder like the sound emanating from His conch, rain must fall like arrows from His bow — the Sarnga.

To Manikkavachakar, the rain has similar imagery — only the dark sky is now Parvati, the Goddess. The Lord shrinks the oceans, raises it to the sky and gives the cloud the complexion of His consort. Lightning is her narrow waist and thunder the sounds emanating from her anklets. The rainbow is her brow, and the rainfall is her grace, available to all His devotees. It is interesting that both poets, in the 7th to 9th Centuries, were depicting what we now know to be the rain cycle.

Verses 16 to 26 of the Tiruppavai are involved in the waking of the Lord from His bedchamber. This is fulfilled by the Tirupalliezhuchi of Manikkavachakar, which is dedicated essentially to the shrine of Tiruperunthurai and has passing mention of Uttarakosamangai, both temples being associated with the poet’s life. The last 10 verses of Tiruppavai and the full Tirupalliezhuchi are like the approach to a king’s bedchamber. If to Andal the lesser Gods have all come as vassals to the doorstep, Manikkavachakar depicts all the commotion — musicians with the yazh and the veena, those chanting the Vedas, others singing verses in praise, yet others bearing garlands, some silently waiting with hands lifted above the head in obeisance and others overcome with emotion — weeping and fainting.

No article can do justice to the inherent beauties of these works. And each time you read them, you discover hitherto unseen aspects. We often speak of the Margazhi Season as having begun in 1927. It really began sometime in the Bhakti era and has endured, thanks to the immortal nature of such works.

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