The presiding Goddess of Kanchipuram, Kamakshi, has been a powerful deity of the Hindu pantheon since time immemorial. Adi Sankara installed a Sri Chakra, the mystic circular pattern most associated with Devi worship, in front of the icon of the Goddess and this has been in worship ever since. The Goddess is four-armed, bearing a bow made of the sugarcane stalk, a bunch of flowers signifying arrows, an elephant goad and a rope. Significantly, in a town that abounds with temples, this shrine is the only one dedicated to a Goddess. In addition, none of the Shiva shrines of Kanchipuram has a sanctum for the Goddess. Kamakshi is considered to be the feminine deity for all these shrines.
The temple is supposed to have five representations of the Goddess. Apart from the Goddess in the sanctum, there are Tapas Kamakshi (the Goddess in penance), Anjana Kamakshi (said to be Lakshmi doing penance here), Utsava Kamakshi (the processional idol) and Bangaru Kamakshi (the golden Kamakshi). The last named was spirited away from here in the interests of safety by the hereditary priests and their families, following the fall of the Vijayanagar Empire in 1565. After moving about for more than two centuries in search of sanctuary, the descendants of these families finally took refuge in Tiruvarur, under the benign rule of the Maratha king of Tanjavur, Tulaja II. Here was born in 1762, to Venkalakshmi, wife of the chief priest Viswanatham, the boy Venkatasubramanya whom we all know as Syama Sastri. Later the family shifted with the Goddess into Tanjavur where a temple was built for her in the West Main Street. Syama Sastri in time became the chief priest to Bangaru Kamakshi and adored her through his songs.
Syama Sastry’s illustrious contemporary Muttuswami Dikshitar was born in Tiruvarur in 1775 to Ramaswami Dikshitar and Subbammal. The family too traced its origins to the North Arcot village of Virinchipuram, not far from Kanchi. Ramaswami Dikshitar had migrated to Tiruvidaimarudur on the Cauvery banks in search of musical education and having obtained it, he became a fine composer and musician. When Muttuswami Dikshitar was still young, his father shifted the family to Madras at the behest of Manali Muttukrishna Mudaliar, a rich patron. It was from that city that Muttuswami Dikshitar left for Kashi in the company of his guru Chidambaranatha Yogi. Returning from there in 1799 he became a fine composer.
Muttuswami Dikshitar was invited by Upanishad Brahmam, a sage of Kanchipuram to come and spend some time in that temple town. The composer, during his stay there set to tune the Rama Ashtapadi composed by Upanishad Brahmam. The Goddess Kamakshi must have exercised a powerful influence on Dikshitar for he propitiated her with several songs. KanjadalAyatAkshi (in manOhari) is perhaps the best known. In this kriti Dikshitar refers to the Goddess as kamalA manOhari (one who has captivated the heart of Lakshmi) and this phrase led to the raga itself being referred to as kamalAmanOhari! The Goddess is said to be called Kamakshi here because Ka (Saraswathi) and Ma (Lakshmi) are her two eyes. Therefore the song nIrajAkshi (hindOlam) states sAradA ramA nayanE in its anupallavi. A third song, perhaps a pair to kanjadalAyatAkshi begins as sarasvati manOhari, set in the raga of the same name. kAmAkshi varalakshmi is a song that is full of mysterious phrases. Is it in praise of Goddess Lakshmi or Kamakshi? The terms referring to each of the two Goddesses appear to alternate in the song. It could also be a song in praise of Anjana Kamakshi who cannot be seen but is said to be present. The phrase kAmakOTi bilahari nuta kamalE is clearly a reference to the Vishnu idol located in a small aperture in the pillar close to the Kamakshi sanctum. Known as Kallapiran, this deity’s shrine is a divya desam, one of the 108 sacred Vaishnavite shrines, in its own right. shrI sarasvati hitE in raga mAnji is a small kriti that speaks of the Goddess as being kAmakOti nilaya, residing in the Kamakoti pitham which is the name given to the shrine in Shakti worship terms. There is one more song by Muttuswami Dikshitar in praise of Goddess Kamakshi in Kanchipuram – EkAmrEsha nAyikE in raga shuddha sAvEri.
Later in life, Dikshitar had the opportunity to travel to Tanjavur. He was invited to that town to teach music to the Tanjavur Quartet. He chose to live on West Main Street and became a close friend of Syama Sastri. The two, along with Dikshitar’s younger brother Chinnaswami Dikshitar collaborated in the creation of three charaNams for an incomplete shri ranjani varnam of Ramaswami Dikshitar. It is said that Subbaraya Sastri, the son of Syama Sastri was a disciple of Muttuswami Dikshitar. Goddess Bangaru Kamakshi being a famed deity of Tanjavur, besides being the object of his good friend Syama Sastri’s worship, Dikshitar composed on her as well. avyAjakaruNA kaTAkshi (raga sAlanga nATa) is clearly in praise of a resplendent (golden?) limbed (divyAlankrta angA) deity who carries a parrot in her hand (shuka hastE), both being iconic features of Bangaru Kamakshi. namastE paradEvatE is another krti, set in raga dEvaranji.
During his stay in Tanjavur, Dikshitar composed several songs on the deities in the numerous temples of the town. Many of them are small pieces, with just a pallavi and a samaShTi charaNam. Most of them are set in the 72 rAgAnga ragas, the parent raga system of Venkatamakhin that Muttuswami Dikshitar followed. There are of course some in janya ragas as well. Dikshitar’s set of songs in the 72 rAgAnga ragas, begins and ends with kritis on Goddess Bangaru Kamakshi. The first piece is kanakAmbari (set in the first rAgAnga raga kanakAmbari) and from its very first line which describes a Goddess clad in golden raiment, it is clear that the song is on Bangaru Kamakshi. The last piece, set in the 72nd rAgAnga rAga is shrngAra rasamanjarim (in raga rasamanjari). It states that the Goddess delights in the 72 rAgAnga ragas (dvisaptati rAgAnga rAga mOdinIm) and is worshipped by scholars in the arts such as Matanga and Bharata. Dikshitar also ends this kriti with what could be a rare personal reference – rasika pungava guruguha (Guruguha who is foremost among rasikas or one who savours the arts).
This article was written as a sleeve note for the Charusr album Kamakshi kritis of Muttuswami Dikshitar, rendered by Amritha Murali.