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Where the Lord listens to Veena recital
It’s a customary practice. And, it’s a daily routine at this temple in Srirangam to usher Lord Ranganatha to sleep in the night and wake him up early morning with a divine Veena recital. Vaishnava Acharya Sri Ramanuja initiated this custom several years ago. Veena (Yaazh isai in Tamil) playing during the early morning and at midnight is come to be known as `Ekantham Veenai’ (since it is played in privacy). Before Lord Ranganatha retires to sleep, Ekantha Veena is played melodiously. Ramanuja had assigned the task of playing the scared Veena to the “Sathya Kootam” Vidwans, a clan belonging to a village near Srirangam.

Every morning, Divya Prabanda Pasurams of Tondaradipodi Azhwar, “Tiruppalli Ezhucchi”, is played in ragas such as Bhoopalam, Bilahari, Dhanyasi, Malayamarutham and Saveri. At around 5.15 a.m., the Vidwans sing the Pasurams and play the Veena simultaneously for about 30 minutes. Similarly in the night, the sacred instrument is played and Kulasekara Azhwars “Mannupugazh Kosalai” is sung in ragas such as Neelambari, Anandabhairavi, Sahana, Revati et al. And the recital ends again with a Neelambari, which is said to be a soothing raga. When the Ustav Moorthy (procession diety) is retired into the Sanctum Santorum at night, the outer entry door to his abode is shut firmly. And, nobody is allowed go out or come in when the procession deity is led into the Sanctum Sanctorum by Veena vidwans. The entire exercise is done with great devotion and in privacy. A pin drops silence ensues. As the Sathya Kootam Vidwans sing ever so softly the Pasurams, the strains of the Veena strings gently float in the night air. It’s an exhilarating experience. The atmosphere is absolutely calm and the mind is light. A sense of nirvana encircles and a feeling of total surrender takes over.

Only a few willing devotees make up to this `Veenai Ekantham’. Blessed indeed are these few! Listening to a Veena recital by Vidwans for the Lord is one of the blissful moments in a devotee/listener’s life. Vidwans play with dedication. They are immersed in devotion. Their main focus is on the deity, Ranganatha. The Lord here is also known by myriad names such as Azhagiya Manavalan, Namperual etc. Especially during the Erapatthu Utsavam, the Vidwans play the Veena in a standing posture, singing Divyaprabandam, Thyagaraja kritis and compositions of Dikshitar, Purandaradasa and others. On the seventh day of the Erapatthu Utsavam, Lord Ranganatha is draped in a beautiful silken robe sans jewellery. He wears only a simple one on this occasion resembling a night attire.

It is an extra-ordinarily grand sight to experience the Lord in such simple attire! His Nadai (the way he walks) is elegant and majestic. Various Gatis or Nadais are expressed for Lord Ranganatha. Simha Gati, Hamsa Gati and Sarpa Gati – the Lord is often described as a `Walking beauty’! Ensconced comfortably in a palanquin, the Lord is taken in different Nadais. People throng just to witness and cherish this procession. As he descends and ascends the steps leading up to the Sanctum Santorum, it is a wonderful and ecstatic feeling. Flowers are showered on the Lord by the privileged devotee (from the lineage appointed specially to perform this duty). Lord Ranganatha is then finally led in to his chamber. As he gets in, he bows to the big Lord Ranganatha (the presiding deity), who resides inside the Sanctum Sanctorum in a reclining posture underneath the divine serpent Aadisesha. The Utsava Deity takes a bow in a Sarpa Gati-like way (that of a snake). This is immensely sublime. The task of carrying the Lord in a palanquin is assigned to the `Sriman Tangikals’, who are specialists and trained in the art of shouldering the Lord in palanquin or ketayam. There is something aesthetic about the way they carry the Lord on their shoulders. It is wonderful to watch them do it in a caring manner. The presentation of the Pasurams by the Veena Vidwans is done on 262 days (non-festival days) in a year and 29 days during few festival occasions, making it almost 300 days in a year. The Veenai Ekantham is said to be almost 900 years old. Veena G. Rangarajan is said to be the 45th descendent of this tradition. The Vidwans are paid a meagre Rs.30 a year for their service. During the Era Patthu (which falls around Vaikunta Ekadasi), Veena is played in a standing posture on all ten days. However, in normal times, solo Veena is played in a sitting posture. Training in Veena and rendering songs takes almost ten years, they say. First, they are trained to sing and then made to play them on Veena.

An interesting part of the Era Patthu festival is the Divya Prabandha Pasuram recital in front of Lord Ranganatha by the Arayars. Arayars belong to a distinct clan and have originated from the lineage of Nathamuni. Nathamuni is another Vaishnava Acharya and grandfather of Alavandar, who is also the guru of Ramanuja. Arayars sing the Divya Prabandhams with great devotion tuned to simple music. They also enact and sing Maha Vishnu’s Dasavatharas and events from Bhagavatha. Vishnu’s fourth incarnation of Narasimha Avathara is enacted on the seventh day prior to the Vedupari Utsavam of Ranganatha Swamy. Nammalvar, one among twelve Azhwars, attained Moksha during the Vaikunta Ekadasi period. Hence during the Erapatthu festival, Nammalvar is glorified. On the seventh day, Nammalvar reveals his Madhurya Bhakthi to the Lord by adorning himself with the costumes of a woman and posing as Nayika. Hence, Nammalvar is dressed like a lady with long plaits and other jewellery. Arayars sing Nammalvar’s Divya Prabanda compositions in front of the Lord Ranganatha. At the end of each Pasuram, they pay their respects to Nammalvar seated at the right angle in front of the Lord at the opposite corner. During all ten days, Lord Ranganatha is placed in the Aayiramkal mandapam and the rendering of Pasurams takes place here.