''Araiyar Sevai'', a unique Vaishnava temple worship during Vaikunta Ekadasi, Srirangam temple

Ariyar sevai at Srirangam temple, TN facebook.com

Mainly performed in a few Vaishnava  temples during the Vaikunta Ekadasi festival presently, it is a tradition-bound performing art form staged  by  certain trained Araiyars who hail from hereditary families. It is a  distinctive blend of music, dance and devotion. These families attached to certain  temples, dedicate their lives to the service of Lord Vishnu. This ritual of dancing  and singing by a group of Araiyars  is conducted in  ''Tamil''  invoking  devotion and soul-stirring hymns of  Naalaiyara Divya Prabandham composed by Azhwar saints (5th century to 10th century CE .  This unique sevai is generally performed only on the temple premises right before the Utchava murthy.( the temple's processional deity).The Araiyars  hail from Si Vaishnava  Brahmin families  (both Vadakalai and Thenkalai?) and are engaged in  singing  select verses of Divya Prabangam on special days with gestures  (abhinaya) and commentaries. This sevai is an important event  called Adhyayanotsavam  during the Vaikunta Ekadasi festivities at Srirangam Ranganathar temple, TN. The festivities are held in the Tamil month of  Margazhi (Dec’15th – Jan ‘15th), an auspicious period.  It  attracts thousands of devotees. every year and this year it will be a low-key event in view of Covid-19 pandemic.

Tamil Azhwar Vaishnavite saints indiadivine.org

The performers  and their families who  belong to a hereditary institution  retain the rights. It is said, they claim their lineage from the first  exponent of Sri Vaishnavism.  These hereditary performers, I understand,  may be IT professionals, engineers, civil servants or teachers, et.c and  they do the service to the lord during the festival,  not deviating  from their family's duty. Many work as priests in the temple and do kaingarya to the lord. These people are the torch-bearers of the centuries old bhakti tradition in this modern world  and take credit to keep it going down the ages. 

It is quite sad, this Araiyar Savai, an intense form of worship with deep devotion  that was widespread way  back in the past several decades ago,  is slowly dying.   The reason attributed by them is some   HR & CE ( State Govt. Agency)  officials at  some temples do not let the hereditary performers conduct the seva, overlooking their rights, and instead bring in performers from outside the families. These people have neither experience nor do they belong  to the Araiyar families. The department is getting huge revenue from various temples across the state and the fund is not properly spent on temple administration, repairs, adequate salaries for the hereditary priests (in Vishnu, Shiva and other temples),etc. They get the lowest salary among the people working in the temple.  Why this disparity? 

Consequently. many temples are  in a state state of neglect and there are complaints of  thefts of  age-old  valuable bronze idols of deities  in the media. Of late, complaints are fresh in the air that presently the regular worship protocols are not followed as per temple norms  at Sri Ranganathar  temple, Srirangam during this  2020-21 festival period!!  On account of sheer neglect,  temple mismanagement and irresponsible attitude of certain higher officials,  temple worship  norms, traditional fine arts practiced for centuries there, etc.,  are slowly becoming things of the past.

At present, besides Sri Ranganathat temple,  Srirangam,  Azhagiya  Manavala  Perumal Temple, Azhvar Tirunagari  and the Andal Temple at Srivilliputhur in Tamil Nadu and at  the Melkote  (ThiruNarayanapuram, Karnataka)  Araiyar sevai is conducted  with religious fervor. 

Ariyar Sevai,  arayasamajam.blogspot.com

Ariyar sevai at Srirangam temple, TN facebook.com

 In the last one, this Sevai is performed in a different form;  the Divya Prabhandham  verses are sung but not enacted.  Sarangapani Koil, Nachiyar Koil, Thiruchcherai, Azhagar Koil and Thiru Nagai and Sri Parthasarathy Swami temple in Triplicane, Chennai were known for Araiyar sevai, but not any

Devotee of Vishnu, Nathamuni. geni.com

 Nathamuni, Vaishnava savant. am.oranudinam.org

Above images: Nathamuni (823 AD (?) to 951 AD (?); birth name: Aranganathan  is known to have been a great savant of God Vishnu. Nathamuni meaning  the Saint lord (Nathan-lord, muni-saint) was instrumental in popularizing Naalaiyera Divya Prabhdam in all Divyadesam shrines.  It is said that he  recited 12000 times, Kanninun Siruthambu, a poem in Tamil in praise of  saint Nammazhwar (born in 3059 BCE in  Alwarthirunagiri) who, as a token of his  appreciation, appeared and gave the 4000 divine verses (Nalayira Divya Prabhandam). Not satisfied  Nathamuni wanted to read the work thoroughly   so that he could understand their meaning and spiritual implication.  Nathamuni breathed life into this rare voluminous work by teaching them to his relatives in Srirangam  and introducing  them as an integral part of  Vishnu worship at Srirangam  Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple and elsewhere. To make it more divine and  bring out bhakti, he set the hymns to music in a Vedic way matching the relevant ragas.. Now, Divya Prabhandam is called Tamil Veda. Nathamuni  practiced Ashtanga yoga. and introduced Guruparampara tradition .......https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathamuni

The great  Vaishnavite Savant Nadhamuni, (9th-10th Century A.D) was the one who introduced the Araiyar sevai at the Divadesam shrines for a few reasons:

 01. The bhakti tradition of singing, etc.,  had to be preserved. 

02.  He was very particular about preservation of  the divine hymns of  Naalayira Divya Prabandham,

 03. Divya Prabandam hymns had to be sung in all Divyadesam shrines across the land, so that the ritual would continue for centuries down the ages. 

04. A way to get the attention of devotees and instill devotion in them, rendition of sacred  hymns in a musical form accompanied by simple dancing and gestures by  a performer or a group is a must and will have a lasting impact on the devotees 

To accomplish this new way of invoking God Vishnu, Nadhamuni sought the help of his nephews, Keezhaiyagath Azhwar and Melaiyagath Azhwar,.Nadhamuni  also introduced  special ragas and talas for the paasurams. This, way over a period of time,  Araiyar Sevai evolved. Tradition has it  Araiyars (Kings of Music) wear  the cone-like cap, two cymbals and a sacred garland  around their neck during performance.

To become an Araiyar a person needs devotion, patience and commitment. The learning process is a time-consuming one spanning more than 10 years minimum, mastering the art of  singing the paasuram  with the relevant raga, abhinaya and presenting the Vyakyanam. The practice starts in  every morning at 4 and again in the evening till  9 pm. The student or vidhyarthi has to memorize and understand the meaning of the 4000 verses  and the gist of each one and the ability to put it across the audience. The Vyakyanam for the Thiru Pallandu verses alone covers  70 pages!  The Arayar,  besides   gestures must  explains the verses in Manipravalam, a combination of Tamil and Sanskrit words.

 We need to understand  why this visual enactment  and recitation expressing passion and devotion by Vaishnavite scholars  has become an integral part of Vishnu worship. About one thousand years ago, in the absence of printing press and other gadgets, valuable work of art, divine hymns, verses, etc  were preserved in the palm leaves in the form of manuscripts. Care must be taken to preserve them for the posterity against moth and termite attacks that were common in those days. The recitation of such verses along with singing, commentaries  and abhinaya was a unique way of  preserving  them and passing  them  on to the next generation. This way this age old tradition won't fade away. In the state of Tamil Nadu, the performing art form and certain Thirukoothu like Myilattam, Karagattam, Thirukoothu, etc are already on the decline.