Oral Histories: Bari Nadaswaram player S. Palaniappan on the Tyagarajaswamy Temple, Tiruvarur

Oral Histories: Bari Nadaswaram player S. Palaniappan on the Tyagarajaswamy Temple, Tiruvarur

in Video
Published on: 31 October 2022

Origin stories: the prithvi sthala


In Krita Yuga, Mahavishnu performed a yagya and received a bow. Armed with this, he vanquished the demons. But his anger did not subside, so he started killing the gods. They pleaded to Siva to calm his fury. He answered that only when Vishnu went to Earth would his anger subside. The Almighty also announced his arrival at this place.

Tiruvarur is known for the 364 holy games of Siva. Madurai is known for 64 games, Tiruvarur for 364. The belief is that the Almighty himself came down and played with us. In his first leela, he said the town needs to be built. The belief is the Almighty himself built the town. 

Mahavishnu comes down to Tiruvarur. Exhausted, he stood leaning on his bow—you see a sculpture in this stance in the temple—and at that moment, Siva, in the form of a termite, snapped the bowstring. Mahavishnu’s body split into three: the head, body, and the feet fell on three places, Thirukanamangai, Thirukanapuram and Thirukanangudi. 

Mahalakshmi prayed to Siva. He appeared in the form of the termite mound. She made a Sivalinga out of this. That is called Vanmeekanathar, ‘the one who is made out of a termite mound’. Siva restored Mahavishnu to life. Mahavishnu and Mahalakshmi prayed to be granted children. Since Mahalakshmi performed penance at Tiruvarur, two places here are named after her, Sripuram and Lakshmipuram.

The Tyagaraja here emerged from Vanmeekanathar as flames. They call it, veedhi vidangam, that which is not sculpted by chisel. No one says this purana in Tiruvarur. Of course, it is in the mythologies. They say only that Tyagaraja came down from heaven. But the Tyagaraja originally emerged from this place. Even now, no one knows when exactly the altar of Vanmeekanathar was built. It is said that since Siva came in the form of a termite, every grain of termite mound here is a Sivalinga. 


Royal worship

They call the sanctum sanctorum a mantali (shrine built of mud). Before the seventh century, bricks were used for construction all over Tamil Nadu. The shrine was reconstructed with granite only during Mahendra Pallavan’s period. What you see now in the temple is called Achaleshwaram. The deity’s name is Araneriyappar. The temple was reconstructed with granite by Sembiyan Mahadevi, grandmother of Rajaraja Chola. This is the first temple in this region built of granite. Rajarajan was inspired by the sanctum here and replicated it at Brihadisvara. 


Siva’s Ajapa Dance

With time, people started telling only the story of Tyagaraja and omitted the original story. Mahavishnu worships Thyagaraja by carrying him in his chest. While Mahavishnu was in the Sea of Milk, the Almighty danced along with the tidal waves. Ajaba means breath. Since the Almighty is in Lord Vishnu’s chest, he dances to the pace of the breath.  



When the image of Thyagaraja was brought from Indra’s palace, they also brought 18 musical instruments and the flower sengkazhuneer malar, also called devaloka parijaatham. Muchkunda was the king who brought the deity and consecrated him in Tiruvarur. The temple, temple pond and the sengkazhuneer odai measure 20 acres each. Farming was done on the sengkazhuneer odai which was divided into 200 parts. Those lands are now being encroached. So the flowers offered to the deity don’t come from there. The belief is that a pooja is complete only after offering at least one flower from the land. Only for the past three years are we unable to get the flower. They are now growing it in a pot inside the temple. 


Temple Music 

The musical instruments brought from the heaven are, Bhari Nadaswaram, Panchamukha Vadhyam, Vaanga, Ekkaalam, Kodugotti, Thirichennam, Sangamam, Jellari, Suddha Mathalam, Nattuvathaalam, Veena, Pullangkuzhal, Perikai, Dakka, Semangalam, Thutthi etc. Six or seven of these still survive. But no one is there to play them. Only during when Tyagaraja is carried out of the temple in a chariot procession are the Perikai and Bhari Nadaswaram played near the deity. We’d play it all through the procession. We alone are allowed to play it. I remember six instruments being played. They have now removed these roles, no one performs them. During the Ajabai dance, the Suddha Mathalam is played. We have learned the art from our forefathers. 

I play the Kodugotti and Bhari Nadaswaram. I can also play Suddha Mathalam. If I try, I can regain touch in Thiruchennam, Vaanga and Ekkaalam. Or I can bring in people to play it. In the course of time, there was a change in the administration. Just 100 years ago, musicians for all these instruments were available. I belong to the 23rd generation. My father was Selva Ganapathi. He died when he has 94. He started playing when he was 14 years old, and performed till he was 91. He has performed at four consecrations. The Bhari Nadaswaram is quite difficult to play. Not everybody can do it. One needs to be trained for 12 years. It gives the most melodious music. It resembles a man’s voice. We need to blow it with four times as much air as for other types of Nadaswaram. 

It’s a belief that the instrument was created in Tiruvarur for the sake of Lord Thyagaraja. Over the past 400 years it came to be used in other regions. In Sanskrit, Bhari means ‘loud sound’. The part called ‘Seevali’ in this instrument is narrow. The upper part is usually available in music stores for other types of nadaswaram. But we ourselves have to make it for Bhari Nadaswaram. We are taught how during our training. 

During the time of Ramaswamy Dikshithar, father of Muthuswamy Dikshithar, there were rules that certain ragas should be played only at specific times of day. They usually sing Bhoopalam in the morning, at noon Surutti, Manirangu and Pantuvarali, at dusk Kalyani and Purvikalyani and in the evening they sing Kamboji, Yadukulakamboji and Sankarabharanam. Ramaswamy Dikshitar set down rules specific to this temple, as instructed by the Almighty. He wrote down the procedure to be followed through the year. 

The utsav takes place over 27 days, and we have to play the Bhari Nadaswaram on the streets for 24 days. The street performance ranges from one to four hours. In the old days, four people would take turns to play the nadaswaram. So, it was easier. I have played alongside my father.

They have divided each street into two. And have written it as eight stretches. On one stretch we have to play the raga. The first day we play Sriraga, on the second, Mayamalavagaula, then Suddha Saveri, Saveri, Yadukulakamboji, Kalyani and Purvikalyani. We play a different raga every day.


Only in Tiruvarur were four nadaswarams ever played together. And the chariot festival music originated at Tiruvarur. You would have heard about the grand chariot at Tiruvarur. During the chariot festival, we play the Mallari. At other places, there is no musical composition for the Mallari. They play it only as notes: paa-ni-pa-pa-saa-ni-pa-ma-pa-ni-pa-pa-saa. But in Tiruvarur the composition is written as, Thiyaa-ga-raa-ja-sri-thiyaa-ga-raa-ja-aa-aa-roo-raa-thiyaa-ge-saa. This is used to denote the rhythm and to play it at a slow pace. I learned from my father that this has been in practice for 900 years. 

So, in the tradition of eight parts, the first part is the raga, the second the Rakthisarvalago, the third the varnam. The varnam is played in all the time cycles. We are unable to play it in the streets now. In the old days they carried the deity on their shoulders. They loved the music. They’d slow their pace just to listen to it. But now, the deity is carried by a vehicle. We’re unable to keep up with their pace as we have to simultaneously play the nadaswaram.

But the songs to be played while the deity is in chariot have been listed. We start playing the Ther Mallari just as the chariot starts moving. And when the deity is placed in the chariot, we play the nadaswaram along with the kodugotti.

I play Bhoopalam at six ‘o’ clock in the morning. We have songs in this raga composed exclusively for this temple. My ancestors passed down only the composition with notes, and not the text. To play these ragas, I’ve been using those notes and the observations I’d made from their performances. In the morning, I’d play the ragas Bilahari, Dhanyasi, Asaveri etc. 

The sun and the moon are considered the wheels of the chariot. In Tiruvarur, the belief is that the chariot is nothing but the earth. The Almighty appears on the chariot to restore peace and justice. The belief is that the Almighty is very angry, and to pacify him, Mukhari raga is played at three ‘o’ clock in the afternoon.

Tha-na-na-na-Thaaa-tha-na-na-na – this is called the rakti. This rakti should be played with the notes … Tha-na-na-na-thaa-tha-ta-ta-ta-ri-sa-ni-saa-ga-ma….-pa-ma-gaa-ri-sa-ni-sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-thaa-pa-ma-ga-ma-ga-tha-pa-maa-ga-maa-gaa-ri-sa-ni-tha-ni-thaa-nii-saa-sa-thaa-ni-sa-ni-sa. This you should play for three cycles. 

This is in Misrathriputa thaala. Sarvalago is to change the beat: Tha-tha-ki-ta-tha-ki-ta.  It comes off like this, Thaa-na-na-na-tha-na-thaa-na-na-na-thi-tha-tha-ri-tha-ri-tha-ri-tha-ni-tha-ri-tha-ni-ka-ri-tha-ma-ga-ti-thaa-ni-sa-tha-ni-sa-ni-sa -sa

Next, we should bring the chatusram. After the thisrakati comes catusrakati, Thaa-na-na-tha-naa-na.

When the chariot is on the streets…the first kodi is the raga Hindolavasantha, the second Bilahari, the third Nadanamakriya, the fourth Dhanyasi, the fifth Punnagavarali, the sixth Bhairavi Kamboji, the seventh raga Ashtapathi etc. And after the chariot comes back to its starting point, we play the raga Irakku Mallari (for descent) and close our performance with raga Madhyamavathi. … Just as the chariot reaches the finishing point and the bells are rung, we play – Tha-na-na-tha-na-na-na-thaa-tha-na-thaa-sa-rii-ma-ma-pa-pa-ni-ni-sa-ni-tha-ni-pa-ma-pa-ma-pa-ma-ri-sa-ni-sa-rii-ma-ma-pa-pa-nii-ri-ma-ma-pa-pa-ni-ni-sa-ni-sa-ni-tha-pa-ma-pa-ma-ri-ni-sa-rii-ma-ma-pa. This is how it would sound with the song. It sounds very beautiful. 

No one is available now to play the kodugotti. Even for the Thavil musicians, it is I who have to teach them the procedures. This year, I spent more time training them than for playing my nadaswaram. No one else is there to do it. 

The instrument ekkalam produces the sound 'Om'. It consists of a big tube and a funnel. They support it with a small stick. The instrument tiruchanam also produces the sound Om. The instrument vaanga produces the sound Harahara. They say the instrument karna produces the sound Thyagaha. I haven’t heard the sound of this instrument. They play at the ceremony inaugurating the procession. 

The Bhari Nadaswaram is considered one of the cohorts of the Almighty. In other places it is played with the thavil to announce the alankara deepam (offering the deity the light of a special lamp). But in this temple, the nadaswaram is integral to the deity and the pooja. So, there are specific procedures to be followed. 

During festivals, we play the raga Pantuvarali at night; it is usually played in day-time. It is called ula (‘procession’) and we play it in the Nadavagana street. But during evening poojas, we play the raga Gambhiranatai. This raga has the quality of pride. When the deity is lifted up, this raga is played to lessen the burden and to cheer up the lifters. 

In other places, they play the raga only during the ceremony inaugurating the procession. But in Tiruvarur, we play it during the evening pooja, because it is the belief that gods come down to earth at sunset. We play the raga to welcome them cheerfully. After playing the raga, I play something where one’s pitch has to rise up to the upper shadjam and descend.

Since we know what pooja is being held inside, we manage our timing. At the exact moment when they perform the alankara deepam, we reach the note panchamam. We start from the lower octave, since this is a Prithivi sthala, we start from the lower octave and gradually rise higher 

There is a song called ‘Sivasiva bahimam’ written to be performed during the deity’s Ajaba dance. I don’t have the text, but we play the song which was written by King Sagaju. It is based on the raga Kapi. Since we don’t have the text, I’ll sing the notes for you. Ri-ri-rii-ri-ga-ma-ga-ma-rii-ga-ri-saa-ri-ga-ri-sa-ri-ni-sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-ma-ga-ma-ga-ri-ga-ri-saa. As we sing this, they swing the deity sideways, Ri-ga-ri-sa-ri-ni-sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-ma-gaa-ma-ga-ri-ga-ri-saa. While the swing the deity up and down, we sing, Nii-tha-pa-tha-pa-maa-paa-pa-tha-nii-tha-pa-tha-pa-ma-pa-ma-ga-ma-ri-ga-tha-ri-ri-ri-ga-ma-ga-ma-ri-ga-rii-saa. When they lift up Nii-tha-pa-tha-pa-maa-paa-pa-tha-nii-tha-pa-tha… the deity lifters would say ‘Dhaigesa, Dhaigesa’ so that they don’t feel the burden. 

Also, the music we play becomes integrate with the Almighty. There is a palm-leaf inscription in Thanjavur that says, ‘The Almighty came down and danced for the music of Bhari Nadaswaram’. It is kept in the Saraswati Mahal. First, they did not know the exact place which was denoted in the inscription. But they have now proved that it is Tiruvarur. …


Muthuswamy Dikshitar

None of the kritis composed by him have been altered. They were passed down through the generations in Tiruvarur. He composed many of his works in the temple. For, he formally learned music only from the nadaswaram musicians and devadasis of the temple. Of course, Ramaswamy Dikshitar was also a great musician and scholar and composed many kritis. Muthuswamy Dikshitar did not learn music from him, but in the temple. He spent most of his time there. He was from a very humble background. He composed more than 60 kritis in the Tiruvarur temple. ‘Sodasa Vinayagar’ is the collection of 16 kritis he composed for 16 forms of Ganesha. The ragas were based on thevaram scales. He also composed the navavarna kriti for the deity Kamalambal and for Nilotpalamba. In the Mahdhwajaroha’ kriti, he describes the 27-day festival in Tiruvarur, the flag-hoisting ceremony, the festival for the four saints…. 

He has composed a kriti, ‘Thyagaraja Yoga Vaibava’. During my training period I never saw anyone singing this. But Jon. B. Higgins, an American, has sung it. I heard it first through the radio. I informed to my father and then played it on my nadaswaram. ‘Thi-yaa-ga-raa-ja-yoo-ga-vaii-ba-vam-sa-daa-sra-yaa-mi-thi-yaa-ga-raa-ja'. The specialty of this kriti is the way each line reduces one syllable from the previous line, 'Thi-yaa-ga-raa-ja-yo-ga-vai-ba-vam-raa-ja-yoo-ga-vai-ba-vam-yoo-ga-vai-ba-vam-vai-ba-vam-ba-vam-vam-thi-yaa-ga' 

There was a man called Thambiyappa Muttukaarar whose father suffered a stomach ailment. To help him recover, Muthuswamy Dikshithar has composed a kriti dedicated to Rahu. So, people requested him to compose kritis for all the nine heavenly bodies. He composed all these Kritis with deep devotion for the almighty. Take ‘Kamalamba Navavarna kritis’, they refer to the layers and deities of the Sri Chakra yantra. These are also called as ‘Aavarana kritis’. 

Few devotees of this temple sing one or two of these kritis. In 1996, John Loud, an American, paid a visit to the temple on Dikshitar’s birthday, and sang 13 kritis including the nine ‘Navavarna kritis’. These are based on rare ragas such as Ghanta, Ahiri, Sahana etc. To sing in the ragas Ghanta and Punnagavarali is amazingly difficult. None of the musicians sing raga Ghanta or Ahiri, only a few sing Punnagavarali. We had organized a concert for it. Every year, we wish to sing these kritis on the birth anniversary of Muthuswamy Dikshithar. We even did it for few years at the altar of Kamalambaal. But we couldn’t continue it. Dikshitar died on a Diwali day in Ettayapuram. They still commemorate his death anniversary, but do not observe all the forms.



Dikshitar’s descendents did not have any relation with the temple. There were many devadasis in Tiruvarur temple in his time. Many songs were composed for them by King Sagaju, the grandfather of King Serfoji. He wrote a collection of kuravanji dance-dramas titled, Pallaki Sevai Prabancham. This has garnered interest in foreign countries, but has been forgotten here in Tiruvarur for the last hundred years. Dance-drama songs have vanished. During the 1950’s, Sarojini Naidu and others brought the Devadasi Abolition Bill. In fact, the term ‘devadasi’ originally has holy connotations. During the era of monarchs, the ‘dancer-women’, especially those who served at temples, were hugely respected. They were devoted to the Almighty. But during the zamindari period, they chose a hideous path for the sake of money. Since the term became associated with hideous things, all of them were forced to choose the wrong path, and only very few danced at the temples. But when the Devadasi Abolition Bill was passed, there were only seven devadasis in the temple. 

In Tiruvarur, separate streets had been allotted to each community. The title given to our community is ‘Nayanaaradiyar’. This refers to the community of people who play Bhari Nadaswaram in the temple. This is our street. My forefathers have lived here, and now I’m living here. Similarly, the North and South streets were allotted for devadasis. Keezha Sannithi Street is called the ‘Ambattan theru’, and is allotted to the barbers. The priests are called paramarayar. They light lamps during the pooja. And those who perform the pooja are called Nayanaar. … Likewise, servants, and the community which brings holy water have all been allotted streets. …


I’d sing ‘Thiyagaraja Palaya’ based on the raga Gowla.


Tyagaraja palayasu maam

Oh Siva, you are Thiyagaraja, the embodiment of sacrifice. Please protect me


You are a perpetual guardian of happiness.

kanda somaskanda vidhi vitanka 

The moon, the sun, Brahma, Skandha and others worship you. 

nagaraja mani bhooshanalankruta 

You are adorned with king of serpents and gems.

nagaraja sutardhanga goulanga bhogadiprada sringara sthita bhusurainuta valmikalinga sri guruguha pujita vrusha turanga sritajana rakshana nipunantaranga bhogintu charana karadhruta kuranga yogi vidita ajapa natana ranga


The moon, the sun, Brahma, Skandha and others worship you. 

Parvati, the daughter of the king of Himalaya mountains shines as one half of your fair body. You are the patron of prosperity. 

You dwell at Tiruvarur. 

Learned priests worship your Valmika Linga. 

Sri Guru Guha prays to you. 

Sacred bull is your vehicle. 

You are skillful in bestowing protection to those who seek. 

Serpents adore your feet. 

You hold a deer. 

Supreme yogis engross in your cosmic dance.

This kriti which is based on the raga Gowla does not have a saranam (the third-section of a kriti). It has a pallavi (chorus of the kriti) and a samashti saranam. He usually writes these kinds of small kritis. Samashti saranam means a kriti composed as per the rules which they have learned from the ahama. He had composed all these kritis in Sanskrit. He hadn’t composed any in Tamil. While Muthuswamy Dikshithar composed in Sanskrit, Thiyaga Brammam composed in Telugu. He was born here, in a Telugu Brahmin family. Since he was born in Tiruvarur, he was named as Thiyaga Brammam. 

Muthuswamy Dikshithar’s signature is ‘Guru guha’. He has composed songs for lord Muruga. He has also travelled to, and sung in, all the temples. It is a great thing that he was born here and composed songs for this temple. 

Though all the kings had worshipped and had done a lot for this temple, king Sagaju a.k.a king Sahoji, who was the grand-father of king Sefoji - despite being a Maratha- was very devoted to the Almighty and had composed a lot of kritis in Tamil and Telugu. And most of those are traditional. 


Family History

In 1975, Dr. V. Raghavan, one of the founders of the Music Academy in Chennai, requested my father to identify and train a next generation Bhari Nadaswaram musicians. They also paid a monetary compensation of Rs.100. At the time of my father’s death, they were paying Rs.2,500. Though it is a small amount, it was a kind of encouragement. 


Music Today

Blowing conch shell is no way related to Siva. Mahavishnu was the one who used the conch shells to announce the beginning and end of war. Conch shells were blown only during the dance of the deity Thiyagaraja. It is a bad omen if we hear the sound. 

Only through music can we receive the energy of the Almighty. Through Veda and nada. No one was able to see the almighty through the Vedas. Almighty is nothing but an invisible power. Only through music did people felt the Almighty. It was the Almighty who taught music to Muthuswamy Dikshithar. He saw the Almighty through music.

That was the reason Nadaswaram and Thavil music were called auspicious. They were initially played in temples, and only within the last 400 years were they played in other places. Only during the zamindari period, did they start organizing marriages outside the temples, to display their wealth. Previously, even kings got married in the temples. In those days they played an instrument called ‘thimiri’, a small nadaswaram. This is the one which is now being widely used. In the case of Bhari Nadaswaram neither its sound nor its appearance has changed over the years. 

They ask us to train ten or more people in this art form, under the pretext of ‘preserving the art’. The reason many of the art forms got obliterated is that… You have to encourage the artist. If you ask him to train ten or more people, how would the art form survive? The artist should survive, right? It is the artist who has the responsibility of passing it down to the subsequent generations. I have to pass the knowledge given by my father to the next generation. 

This is the present state of this art form. Now-a-days everyone has become obsessed with ‘preserving the art form’ and ask us to train ten or hundred pupils. The art form won’t grow just because we train them. Though we teach the pupil about the specific procedures to be followed while playing the instrument, he also needs income, right? He abandons this and chooses some other profession. 

With one music school for each district, totally there are 23 music schools in Tamil Nadu. They give training in Nadaswaram and Thavil. But people from all castes take part in it. They also don’t provide a proper training. According to their syllabus, in Nadaswaram training, the students learn Sarali varisai, upto Varnam and Kritis in their first year. Till their third year, they get trained in kritis. But when they graduate out of the course, they start to perform movie songs. Those are temporary. Divine music is eternal. It will keep on developing. But movie songs are not ever lasting and people’s interest in those songs are short-lived. 

Sahapedia is grateful to Bajaj Autos Pvt. Ltd. for the grant that made possible the production of this video.

Interview with S. Palaniappan, hereditary bari nadaswaram player at the Tyagarajaswamy temple, Tiruvarur, conducted by M.D. Muthukumaraswamy on May 1, 2019, in Tiruvarur.