History & Culture

The royal celebration

Velakali enacted near the Pandava Idols.  

The last event recorded about the Pandavas in the Mahabharata is their ascension to heaven. However the story does not seem to end there. It is believed that to this day, each year, they arrive at Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Thiruvananthapuram, to have darshan of the Lord’s ten-day Aarat festival. They stand towering at the Temple’s eastern entrance (except for Dharmaputrar who is seated), their long hair and red robes fluttering in the breeze blowing from the temple tank.

The Aarat is a bi-annual festival celebrated in the months of Meenam (March-April) and Thulam (October-November). The former, on a larger scale, is when the Pandavas arrive. On the final day of the ten-day festival, the Lord is taken out in a grand procession to the seaside where He is ritually bathed in the sea and worshipped.

The first ritual is the ‘Anujna’ when sanction for the festival is given in the presence of the Valia Thampuran (head of the Travancore Royal family). Religious events begin ahead of the flag hoisting. A large number of devotees gather to witness the spectacular Seeveli (circumambulation within the temple), where the idols of deities such as Padmanabha, Narasimha and Thiruvampati Krishna are carried on flower bedecked Vahanams (mounts) – a different one each day.

Maharaja Marthanda Varma (1729-1758 A.D.), consolidated the kingdom and in an act of absolute devotion dedicated it totally to the Lord, with the act of ‘Thrippati Dhanam’ binding himself and his successors to serving the Lord as Padmanabha Dasas. He renovated and expanded the temple to its present state. Maharaja Swati Tirunal composed specific slokas and keertanams, each vividly describing the Lord on the day’s Vahanam, to be sung on each day during the ten-day festival.

“Sree Padmanabhaswamy is the ‘Adhipati’ of 33 crores of Devatas” declares vocalist Ananthapadmanabhan, who sings these compositions during Seeveli. “To be selected for this service is the biggest blessing in my life,” he adds.

The ninth-day sees the ‘Palli Vetta’ or Royal Hunt. In a magical procession after nightfall, the Lord comes to an area decorated like a forest. The Valia Thampuran symbolically shoots a green coconut kept there followed by an immediately eruption of musical instruments, joyously proclaiming the triumph of good over evil. After this event, the Lord returns to His abode.

The tenth-day Aarat is a purificatory rite due to the Royal Hunt. Rituals begin before dawn. In the evening the deities, carried on the Garuda vahanams by the temple priests, come out of the western entrance, preceded by the Valia Thampuran holding the famous sword of Maharaja Marthanda Varma. Men from the Royal family wait there with swords and shields to escort their Lord. Heads of clans of Kshathriyas and Nairs, Police on foot and horseback, bands, musicians, Vedic scholars, palace and temple staff, bearers carrying leaf umbrellas and temple flags (including a replica of the flag of Tipu Sultan captured by the Travancore Army) make up the grand and colourful spectacle of the Aarat.

“Though Maharaja Chithra Tirunal, my grand-uncle, passed away in 1991, in my mind’s eye, I can see only him lead the procession even now” says Prince Rama Varma, renowned vocalist and vainika. “He was and remains an ‘amsham’ or morsel of Sri Padmanabhaswamy as far as I am concerned.”

Deities from specific related temples arrive on caparisoned elephants to join the procession which is witnessed by a huge gathering of devotees, both old and young alike. Children wait to get a glimpse of the drummer atop the temple elephant and a 21-gun salute marks the crossing of the Fort gate by the Lord.

“I have been accompanying the Aarat procession since 1968,” says Dr. S.S. Mani, who was posted as Medical Officer to the Maharaja. “What is remarkable is that this festival is very punctual and methodical in every way.”

“Maharaja Chithra Tirunal built Travancore’s first airport near the beach,” says Dr. Mani. “When he handed it over to the Government, he had only one condition: the Aarat would not be re-directed. So, even today the airport is closed to enable the procession to take the same centuries-old route.”

His teenage grandson, Arvind has been walking with the Aarat for the past five years. “We chant ‘Hare Rama’ as we walk” he says. How does this ancient festival attract today’s youngsters? “It is a special blessing, we look forward to this experience” says Arvind.

A feature of this festival is that it finds participation from people of other faiths as well. The Muslim population en route welcome the procession and the Christian fisherfolk community sends out boats as a protective cover - a mark of the inclusive social atmosphere which Travancore’s rulers preserved for their subjects.

“The procession halts at the Karikku Mandapam en route,” explains H. Parameshwaran, retired engineer and Vedic scholar. “Here, descendents of Dalawa Ramayyan, the beloved Dewan of Maharaja Marthanda Varma, make offerings of tender coconuts.”

At the seashore, encircled by a protective ring of priests, the deities are ritually bathed. They are worshipped in the presence of the Valia Thampuran in the granite mandapam. After nightfall, the procession heads back, where again the 21-gun shots mark the Lord’s return to the Fort.

The festival also features several ancient classical and folk arts such as the popular Velakali in which male dancers in war costumes moving between the Pandava Idols enact the war of the cousins. At one time 99 such arts used to be presented.

“The world is full of His Effugence. Those who believe can really experience it”, says Ananthapadmanabhan. This year’s Meenom Aarat falls on Sunday, April 13.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 1:26:00 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/the-royal-celebration/article5896803.ece

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