“Usually we play cricket or badminton after the siesta. But today we are off to Thiruvattar to pray at Adikesava Perumal Temple in Kanyakumari district,” says Eshwar Sharma, before he rushes off to change into a T-shirt and dhoti.
Eshwar is one of the 72 youngsters staying at the gracious Vadakke Kottaram on Padmavilasam Road near the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. All of them, in the age group of 20 to 30, are scholars in the Vedas. They lead the chanting of the Vedas at the 45th edition of the 56-day Murajapam festival at the temple, which concludes on January 15 with the grand Lakshadeepam, when the temple will glow in the light of one lakh oil lamps.
The Murajapam was first organised at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple by Marthanda Varma (1705-1758), the architect of Travancore, after he shifted his capital from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. In 1744, he had conducted a Bhadradeepam at the temple, and the Murajapam is believed to have been first conducted in 1750 when he invited Vedic scholars from all across Kerala to participate in the grand ritual. Since then, this practice has been followed by the heirs of the King. This is the first time that the temple trust is organising the Murajapam.
“Prior to the Murajapam in Thiruvananthapuram, Sucheendram, which was then a part of Travancore, used to host the Murajapam but not on such a grand scale,” says history buff Prathap Kizhakkemadom.
“ Murajapam pana , written by an anonymous poet, gives us a clear and vivid picture of the festivities that surrounded the ritual in 1804. According to poet and writer Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer (1877-1949), this work, which was given to him by Ottasekhamangalam Achuthan Namboodiri must be one of the oldest descriptions of the ritual. Ulloor was collecting old palm leaf documents and books from all corners of Kerala for his seminal work on Kerala Sahitya Charithram , a comprehensive documentation of Malayalam language when he came across this version of the Murajapampana ,” says Prathap.
According to Prathap, Ulloor says although the work on the Murajapam was not of the highest literary standards, it was a work that deserved attention on account of its descriptive details of the festival.
“It is an eyewitness account of a commoner who is in awe of the grandeur of the festival. There are details about the preparations for the rituals, the food that was prepared for scholars and Namboodiris, the raw materials that were stocked and so on. In those days, sadya was not such a common feature for ordinary people. So, the feasts with a number of curries, pappadam and payasam were a rare sight for many. The entire administration would be involved in the conduct of the ritual. More than 1,500 Namboodiris used to participate in the festivities,” he adds. Although the numbers have come down, many of the rituals continue to be practised by the young scholars.
“They are young and may appear carefree. But they are a well-versed and dedicated bunch. Study of the Vedas is a way of life for these men from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. At the same time, like most other people of their age, they are up-to-date with modern technology and gadgets,” says S Kasturi Rangan of Kerala Brahmana Sabha (KBS), which looks after the scholars during the course of the festival.
A highlight this year is the just-concluded ‘Jalajapam’, which was revived after nearly a century. In this session, the scholars stand in the Padmatheertham, the temple pond, and chant ancient hymns, adds KP Madhusudhanan, another member of the KBS.
- Murajapam stands for chanting in turns (‘mura’ means turn, ‘japam’ is chanting). They chant hymns from Rigveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda, with 24 scholars each assigned to recite the verses. The ceremonial chanting is being held in seven sessions, with each lasting for eight days and this is called a ‘mura’. Each mura concludes with a special ‘sheeveli’ or procession.
- In addition, sookthams are chanted by 60 scholars in two batches and Vishnu Sahasranamam by 75 scholars. Sahasranama japam and Jalajapam concluded on the 48th day.
The day starts early for them as the murajapam begins at 6.30 am and goes on till 10.30 am. “They have a break at 8 am during which we serve a special parippu kanji and banana (padathi variety),” says Rajukumar R, who heads the kitchen. “The kanji has cherupayar parippu, jaggery and coconut milk,” he adds.
Lunch is more like a sadya though there are specific rules that distinguish it from the traditional Kerala feast. “There are certains dos and don’ts. Use of spices is tempered and even salt is reduced. Raw banana, snake gourd and drumstick are proscribed during the ritual and so also shallots, onions and garlic. Use of coconut is minimal,” says Raju, who was in charge of the kitchen at the previous edition of the Murajapam as well.
Paal payasam, the main prasadam of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, is served every day. In addition, a special payasam is prepared at the end of each ‘mura’. “They all love pappadam. We also make evening snacks; sometimes home-made eats are provided by volunteers. Dinner is usually poori, idli or chappathi or different varieties of rice. Curd rice is a must for dinner. Some of them take a glass of hot milk after dinner,” he explains.
Mukunda Sharma, a Yajurveda exponent from Kancheepuram, says that they are extremely pleased with the arrangements in place for their stay and food. “We are treated with respect and warmth by the temple authorities, the members of the royal family and all those associated with the event,” he says with a broad smile.
Talking about the ceremonial chanting, he points out that certain sessions are strenuous and tough. “But we don’t prepare in advance for this. This is how we spend our lives. All we have to do is get used to new places. That is not difficult considering the significance of the tradition,” he adds.
Murajapam is a learning experience for newbies such as Sreekrishna Sarma, a resident of the city. “I didn’t want to miss out on this because I have to wait for another six years to be part of this again. Learning the Veda is a rigorous exercise, it is like a sacrifice. But all the effort is worth it when we take part in events like this,” Sreekrishna says. However, he rues the fact that not many youngsters in Kerala are taking up the learning of the Vedas. “And those who’ve mastered it want to go outside Kerala,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the bus has arrived to take them to Thiruvattar. And like a bunch of excited school kids they get ready for the ride.