Temples Through Music

Tavil and nagasvara performers at the Brihadeswarar Temple.
Image courtesy: Department of Tourism Tamil Nadu

Music in South India rose from its temples over 2000 years ago. Its evolution is linked to the hymns and compositions of many saints. Temples served as physical spaces from where the aesthetic quality of this music emanated.

Temple Music
Every temple is a creation for music. Temples have inspired musicians and continue to inspire them even today. The cultural, social and political transactions through the ages have affected temple life, but what comes to mind are the musical forms, complex and subtle, that wafted into the temples with the breeze through every entrance, gate, porch and pillared corridor to join every carved movement in the sculptures. These carried within their notes the fragrance of the flowers, coconuts, incense and sandalwood paste to dissolve into the hearts of those devotees who made and make the temple what it is.

Devotional Music
Music within the precincts of the temple becomes an offering of devotion – a surrender to the Almighty, nowhere more tellingly as in Tevaram hymns. These Tamil Saiva hymns (7–9 centuries) have canonised over 200 temples and the deities in their verses as ‘paadal petra sthalam.’ Divyaprabandham are 4000 verses composed in Tamil by Azhwars, Vaishnavite saint-poets of the 8th century in praise of Vishnu, distinguished by their mystical quality. Whether the prabandhams were composed in musical form, we don’t know, but that they were later given musical form is unquestionable. Other musical traditions took the shape of theatrical presentations like the Bhagavata Mela, Yakshagana and Kootthu, which used conversations, monologues, and soliloquies to convey the deepest yearnings of the devotee. Among all these art traditions also existed Carnatic
music, probably not known by that name. To the Carnatic musician, within the inseparable relationship between raga, tala and text existed divinity. And this art dwelling within him became his offering to the art created for the deities – their temple-home.
Central to the music stands the devotee in the presence of the smiling lord or goddess, only to burst into song. Whose song does she sing? How does she sing? These don’t matter. What matters is that the song is real, as real as the experience from which the song emerged, the moment of oneness. As a musician I can go into the aesthetics of every one of these forms and how they are different from each other. Dangerous words such as ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ may creep into the discourse and soon the reason for all this musical activity – the temple – will be lost.

Temple Musicians
No journey to the temples of South India, especially Tamil Nadu, is complete without the experience of the music from the nagasvara and tavil. These two instruments and their practitioners, are ritualistic and artistic cornerstones to the temples and have influenced the aesthetics of Carnatic music to a large extent.
The devadasis and the nagasvara musicians lived and breathed music within these temples for centuries and in the course were instrumental in its dissemination. While we always remember that dance traditions were born in the temples, we forget that music lived and thrived there too, no less than dance. In fact, there was and is no dance without music. Every karana or movement captured by the sculptor is a musical phrase; the sculpture is the silence in music. Ironically, except for sporadic visits back to her birthplace, most dance traditions have left the temple, but the music remains there. The devotee still sings.

AUTHOR'S BIO: TM Krishna is a renowned Carnatic vocalist and author of A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story.

  • Ahmad heppenstall

    I’m a musician myself based in England though i’m interested in traveling to India to learn more. Do you recommend any temples to visit ? I am absolutely blind on this subject but so inspired at the same time.