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The tour was organised as part of the 38th Natya Kala Conference convened by Srinidhi Chidambaram and was led by historian and writer V Sriram.

Of dance and deities The history of North Chennais Thiruvottiyur Thyagaraja temple
Features Culture Thursday, January 03, 2019 - 14:49

A group of enthusiastic dancers and history lovers traversed around Thiruvottiyur’s famed Thyagarajar Swamy temple as part of a tour organised by the 38th Natya Kala Conference on December 29, 2018. The 38th Natya Kala Conference was organised and convened by Srinidhi Chidambaram, a prominent dancer from the city. This tour was led by historian and writer V Sriram. 

Forming the northern boundaries of Chennai, this neighbourhood is one of the oldest on the Coromandel coast, we learn. Sriram explains the origins behind the name - ‘Ottri Oor' in Tamil means mortgage land - adding that this area was once exempted from taxes by the kings.

The temple in Thiruvottiyur has an interesting mix of influences, beginning with the Pallavas, early Cholas, Rashtrakutas, later Cholas, Vijayanagara kings and then the Nayakas. The temple also has a continuous recorded history of various timelines, beginning from the 7th century.

Sriram tells us that the temple’s architecture is quite intriguing, indicating that the temple was probably two different structures at some point in time. Constructed over a period of time, the gopuram (entrance tower), built no later than the 15th century, is completely out of alignment from the inner structures, indicating that the present structure was once different temples.

photo courtesy: vadivudaiamman.tnhrce.in

This Thyagaraja temple in Thiruvottiyur is a lot like the famous Thyagarajar temple in Thiruvarur. Drawing attention to the importance of dance in this temple, Sriram explains the different interesting ways in which the deities are brought out in procession from these temples.

“The Thyagesha here is known as the Oodum Thyagar (the one who runs) while in Thiruvanmiyur, he is called the Aadum Thyagar. And since Thyagarajar has to be worshipped with dance, you will also notice that several kritis in Carnatic music were written for him,” he says.

Interestingly, the dance styles in which Thyagarajar - God of Dance - is brought out in a procession outside the respective temples are varied.

There’s Ajabathaanam which resembles the dance of Thyagaraja resting on Vishnu’s chest; Unmathanathaanam that looks like the dance of an intoxicated person; Vilathithaanam like that of the waves on the ocean; Kukunathaanam like that of a cock; Brunganathaanam is a dance that is styled to look like a bee hovering over a flower; Kamalanaanathaanam will remind you of a lotus swaying to the breeze; and finally Hamsapthanathaanam that looks like the dainty gait of a swan.

The temple in Thiruvottriyur has a recorded history of dance performances since the 10th century. “There are also records of how many women were dedicated here as dancers, what were their hierarchies, etc,” says Sriram.

This very temple had three levels of Devadasis, whose responsibilities ranged from performing to cleaning the temple premises. The Thali Illar or the Pathi Illar formed the top rung of Devadasi women in this temple. Their responsibilities included the ‘Sandhikunnipam’ or the evening dance and Sriram adds that there are verses that lead us to believe these women also performed puja for the deities. “The Kumba aarati was not done by priests but instead by these women,” he claims.

This temple also appointed a nattuvanar or a dance teacher to train the Devadasi women in dance. Right after the Thali Illar came the Devaradiyar, whose main tasks included decorating the idols, cleaning the temple premises and removing impurities from rice grains that were to be cooked in the temple - thiruazhagu, thirumezhuku and thiruthalivilakku.

This hierarchy among dancers in the temple was rounded off by the Illavuthaliyar whose responsibilities included stringing flower garlands and carrying flower plates during times of worship.

photo courtesy: Facebook/Natya Kala Conference

This system was in practise for centuries and was finally put to an end around the 16th century after colonial invasions.

Sriram also points out that some of the names of the courtesans have been recorded, giving us a fair idea of their fame. “We know there was someone by the name Ainootru Thalaikolli  (translates to the one with 500 head gears). Now Thalaikolli refers to the head gear or figuratively speaking the title that is usually bestowed upon a performer by a king, in recognition of their talents. She may have obtained it 500 times, we never know,” he says.

Then there’s Chaturan Chaturi - another Devadasi - who was married to Nagadevan, a local chieftain. “She established certain charities in this temple,” he adds.

The cult of Thyagesha associated with Devadasis dates back to Sundamurthi Nayanar  aka Sundarar, an 8th century Tamil poet, who authored his first Thevaram ‘Pitha pirai choodi’. Legend has it that Sundarar married two Devadasis - Paravai Nachiyar, a Kondi (a high ranking Devadasi) at the Thiruvarur temple, and later Sangili Nachiyar who was a Devadasi at the Thiruvottiyur temple.

The temple also has an interesting association with the Chettiyar community with their patron saint - Pattinathar (a merchant turned mendicant) - believed to have attained mukti (salvation) in this very village. “The Pattinathar samadhi is closer to the shore opposite the temple and the Chettiyars of this region have a very close association with this temple,” adds Sririam.

Interestingly, this temple also has a historic association with Kerala, a unique connection that is quite unusual to chance upon. “A Chera princess named Iravi Neeli married a Chola king and she established a form of worship for the goddess in this temple. She is worshipped by Nambudaris and not Shaivites and goes by the name Thripura Sundari or Vadivudai amman,” says Sriram.

Another well-known recorded history associated with this temple is that of the visit of Saint Thyagarajar of the legendary Carnatic music trinity. “He composed five kritis here. We also know that he came here on a Friday when the temple was crowded, of which he also sings. It is a wonder, though, why he did not visit Thyagarajar, his namesake, who was probably just a few meters away,” he finishes. The tour ended with dancer Nrithya Pillai performing a piece dedicated to Thyagarajar in the temple's vasantha mandapam. 

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