The ARAIYAR SEVAI is a unique offering that takes place on certain specific occasions at a few VAISHNAVA shrines in Tamilnadu such as SRIRANGAM, SRIVILLIPUTTUR and TIRUKKURUKUR (AZHVAR TIRUNAGARI). The term ARAIYAR SEVAI conveys that it is a service rendered by Araiyar-s. They are a special class of SRIVAISHNAVA brahmin-s who have been assigned the task of singing the NALAYIRA DIVYA PRABANDHA OF THE Azhvar-s, on special days, the select ones being accompanied by gestures(abhinaya) and commentaries as well. It is during festival called the ADHYAYANOTSAVAM, celebrated in SRIRANGAM, in the month of Margazhi as per the Tamil calendar(Dec’15th – Jan ‘15th) that the ARAIYAR SEVAI attracts thousands of devotees. The Araiyar-s have been enjoying certain privileges and honours from varey early times. In fact it is a hereditary institution and these families retain the rights. They claim themselves tobe the descendents of the first acharya of SRI VAISHNAVISM – SRI NATHAMUNI who is credited with having compiled and set to music in the 9th century, the sacred utterances of the Azhavar-s totaling four thousand verses.
SRI NATHAMUNI was not merely a savant and an acharya but also versatile in the art of music. There is an interesting incident narrated in the history of the SRI RANGANATHA temple of SRIRANGAM called the KOIL OZHUGU. SRI NATHAMUNI was then living at a place called KATTUMANNAR KOIL near CHIDAMBARAM. One day several VAISHNAVA-S from MELNADU(MELKOTTAI) recited a decad of verses commencing with the word Aravamude and concluding with the phrase “these ten out of a thousand composed by SRI SATHAKIPAN of KURUKUR”. SRI NATHAMUNI was thrilled by the verses and made anxious enquiries of them whether they knew the rest of the verses. However, they replied that the ten verses that they had recited were all that they knew.
SRI NATHAMUNI was sorely disappointed and soon got into a state in which he could not rest till he unearther the other pasuram-s of SRISATHAKOPA (NAMMAZHVAR). He proceeded forthwith by foot to KURUKUR, the birth place of the Azhvar and me Parankusa Muni Dasa, a disciple of SRI MADHURAKAVI. The latter confessed to SRI NATHAMUNI that owing to the indifference of the local VAISHNAVA-S the verses were practically lost to the world and the only method of recovering them was, according to his guru and God SRI NAMMAZHVAR, to meditate on him by repeating the decad KANNIN SIRUTTAMBU ( bu SRI MADHURAKAVI) twelve thousand times. SRI NATHAMUNI was only too glad to follow this advice and in due course SRI NAMMAZHVAR appeared before his mental vision and taught him his TIRUVAYMOZHI and also the other pasuram-s of all other Azhvar-s.
SRI NATHAMUNI was fully aware that the verses collected by him, excepting the IYARPA (verses of the DIVYA PRABANDHAM for which there is no music at all), had been originally set to music by the respective Azhvar-s themselves. The GURUPARAMPARA (traditional hagiological account) says that PERIYAZHVAR sang his composition, the TIRUPPALLANDU sing, the bells on the neck of the elephant that he was riding, as cymbals. SRI TIRUPPANAZHVAR was a professional musician (panar) and sang the praises of LORD RANGANATHA with a vina in his hands. But the original music had been lost. SRI NATHAMUNI decided to set the DIVYA PRABANDHA verses to music in the DEVA GANA style on the model of the Udatta (acute accent), Anudatta (grave accent) and Svarita (circumflex accent) of the VEDA-S. From the GURUPARAMPARA it would appear that there were two styles of music in Tamilnadu in SRI NATHAMUNI’S time viz., DEVAGANA and MANUSHYAGANA and SRINATHAMUNI adopted the former style. But what were these two styles of singing?
A clarification is available from an anecdoten arrated in the GURUPARAMPARA itself. In the court of a Chola King who was then ruling from GANGAIKONDA CHOLAPURAM there, was a dispute between two women singers, one singing in the DEVAGANA style and the other, in the MANUSHYAGANA style. The ruler set up a committee of musicians to settle the dispute and recommended by it, declared the MANUSHYAGANA style as the superior of the two and honoured its exponent. This broke the heart of the DEVAGANA singer who, from that day, decided to dedicate her art to none other than God. She travelled from place to place singing in shrines but no one appreciated her music till she came to the villageof SRI NATHAMUNI. The acharya realised her worth and praised her style of singing.
The Chola King who heard about this incident invited SRI NATHAMUNI to his court and requested him to explain the real greatness of DEVAGANA. The acharya explained it with suitable authority I and to prove that one should possess a sharp ear for subtle sruti-s to appreciate that style, he had veral pairs of cymbals of different weights sounded at the same time and accurately told their individual weights. This shows that the
DEVAGANA style had more subtle sruti-s than the MANUSHYAGANA. Among the 4000 verses of the DIVYA PRABANDHA, Tamil pann-s and tala-s had been assigned to 1102 verses of SRI NAMMAZHVAR’S TIRWAYMOZHI. Raga-s have been assigned by some later musicians but they do not tally with the Tamil pann-s concerned.
To recreate the story, SRI NATHAMUNI now took the assistance of his two nephews, KIZHAIAKATTAZHVAN and MELAIAKATTAZHVAN and fulfilled the task. They performed with utter devotion before the Lord who conferred on them the title MANAVALA PERUMAL ARAIYAR and NADA VINODA ARAIYAR. For this magnificent service rendered by SRI NATHAMUNI not only to VAISHNAVISM but also to sacred music, VEDANTA DESIKA aptly describes him as “Talam vazhangi Tamil Marai Innisai Tanda Vallal” (the benefactor who set the Tamil VEDA-s to music with tala-s).
During SRI NATHAMUNI’S time the temple singers of the PRABANDHA came to be known as Araiyars and they not only sang the verses but anced as well. The ritual is still being followed in SRIRANGAM, SRIVILLIPUTTUR, TIRUKKURUKUR and TIRUNARAYANAPURAM (MELKOTE in Karnataka).
The title of NADA VINODA ARAIYAR was conferred on a singer by LORD RANGANATHA who is himself referred to in the KOIL OZHUGU as Gayaka Sarvabhauma, a surprisingly modern expression. The Araiyar tradition is now a dying one. Timely and relevant steps need to be taken if one is interested in preserving the tradition for posterity.