Ariyar Sevai, a brief note - this year at Srirangam temple it has limited audience!!

 On account of Covid-19  pandemic and a new virus Omicron threats, at many temples across Tamil  Nadu and elsewhere  'temple festivities'  are limited to the minimum  as they attract huge  gatherings of people. At Srirangam  Ranaganathar temple, this year also the Vaikunta ekadasi festivities have limited audience. The TN govt. has introduced restrictions on devotees participating in  temple festivities and it is  done  with good intention as the consequence of another bout of COVID -19 or some other virus threat is unthinkable. What has saddened me is this year, the Ariyar sevai, a rich tradition-bound performing art form, during Pagal pathu had very much limited audience. Under normal circumstances,  lots of devotees would attend the pagal and ra pathu events and enjoy this seva with rapt attention.  This year it is not so because the threat from the pandemic is not yet over. Though devotion is very much there among the devotees, they miss the joy of prayer and bakhti. With looming threat of Omicron on the horizon, the audience can not get immersed in such divine  seva before the blissful god. Presented below is a brief account of Ariyar Seva, that is an integral part of Vaikunta ekadasi.  

Ariyar Sevai, maalaimalar

Ariyar Sevai,

Srirangam  Ranganathar temple is  closely connected with  the Ariyar Sevai  during the Vaikunta ekadasi festivities that last for 21 days -  divided into  Pagal pathu (10 days; prathamai following   ammavasai till first dasami) and  Rapathu (10 nights; after vaikunta Ekadasi till first panchami). During Pagal and Ra pathu, Ariyar sevai to the main deity is a great event and this tradition has been around here for centuries.  The great  Vaishnavite Savant Nadhamuni, (9th-10th Century A.D) was instrumental in introducing  the Araiyar sevai at the Divayadesam shrines with a view to preserving  the divine hymns of  Naalayira Divya Prabandham  and the  bhakti tradition of singing, dancing  and gestures.   His idea was to instill devotion to Perumal among the devotees. This unique seva was first performed in Srirangam temple. The families, it is said,  involved in Ariyar Sevai  trace their hereditary link to Nathamuni and his close relatives.

This tradition of Ariyar sevai is being followed by a few temples in Tamil Nadu  and in Karnataka.  Presently,  apart from Sri Ranganathat temple,  Srirangam,  Azhagiya  Manavala  Perumal Temple,  Azhvar Tirunagari  and the Andal Temple at Srivilliputhur in Tamil Nadu and at  the Melkote temple  (Thiru Narayanapuram, Mandya dist., of  Karnataka)  Araiyar sevai is conducted  with religious fervor. In the latter Sri Ramanujar  did lots  of Kainkarya during his long sojourn at Melkote . I understand   at Srivilliputhur temple Ariyar sevai is  performed in the Tamil months of Thai and  Adi besides Margazhi.

Ariyar swvai  is a tradition-bound performing art form staged  by   trained Araiyars who hail from hereditary families. Truly, a distinctive devotional service,  it is a right blend  of  music, dance, bhavam and dedication. There are families attached to the temples where Ariyar sevai is part of the temple worship and the family members dedicate their lives to the service of the lord  ''Emperuman''. 

During the Pagalpathu and Rapathu events, the place is charged with bakthi,   and the  ritual  of  singing and dancing with bhava  by a group of Araiyars  makes the audience  spell-binding.  Conducted in  ''Tamil''  invoking  devotion and soul-stirring hymns of  Naalaiyara Divya Prabandham  composed by Azhwar saints (5th century to 10th century CE, this seva promotes devotion and dedication to God.

This unique sevai is normally  performed only on the temple premises right before the utchava murthy (the temple's processional deity).  The performers  recite devotional hymns from  verses of Divya Prabangam  with certain  gestures  (abhinaya) and commentaries. The most important criteria for Ariyars are  commitments to their  service to god, besides through understanding  and meaning of  Divya Prabamdham and pasurams, ability to sing,bring out right laya and bhava, nd make commentary with reference to particular verse .   This sevai is called Adhyayanotsavam  during the Vaikunda Ekadasi festivities at Srirangam Ranganathar temple.  It takes several years for a devotee to get trained in Ariyar seva; quite time consuming and needs practice and patience. 

Hailing from  Si Vaishnava  Brahmin families  (both Vadakalai and Thenkalai), the performers  and their families who  belong to a hereditary institution  retain their  rights to perform on the temple premises. The   performers, who follow different professions  like engineering, civil service or teaching, etc., for livelihood  claim their lineage from the first  exponent of Sri Vaishnavism. They get a chance to bring out their talents and training during the Tamil month of Margazhi (Dec. 15th – Jan. 15th) when Vaikunta ekadasi festival is held.

In the realm of propagation of Bhakti, devotion and  selfless service  to God  Ariyars have made a stellar contribution. This seva, a visual song and dance enactment of the ‘Paasurams’ that has been performed at  many Divya Desams for over 1000 years is slowly on the decline and needs rejuvenation.