Wallajahpet Bhajana Mandiram

Despite his scorn for all pilgrimages, Tyagaraja did make one long journey when he was seventy. The reason for the composer setting out from his beloved Thiruvaiyyaru was a srimukham or letter from Upanishad Brahmam, a seer in Kanchi who in the early 1800s had played host to Muttuswami Dikshitar. This sage had known Tyagaraja’s father and so an invitation from him was to the composer more of a command. And so sometime in 1837 (or as some accounts have it, 1839), Tyagaraja left his hometown for Kanchipuram. Among his disciples, Veena Kuppayyar was under the patronage of Kovur Sundaresa Mudali, dubash of the East India Company, at Madras. It was this patron who attended to all the logistic details of Tyagaraja’s journey.

En route, he called at various places of interest and more importantly, locations where some of his disciples were living. The first stop was probably Lalgudi or Tapasthirtha, native place of Ramaiyyar. Here the composer offered his prayers at the temple of Saptarishiswara and Pravrddha Srimathi in five songs, two on the Lord, in Kalyani and Madhyamavati and three on the Goddess, in Bhairavi, Kamboji and Todi. In the first song he refers to Lalgudi as Bhooloka Kailasa, perhaps keeping in mind that his next stop was Bhooloka Vaikuntham – Srirangam. He refers to that sacred Vaishnavite town as such in his O Rangasayi (Kamboji).

The pallavi of the song (if I call out to you as O Rangasayi will you not respond by saying O) was probably inspired by a practice now fast vanishing. At the ‘aindu kuzhi moonu vaasal’ (five pits and three doors) that separates the Ranganatha shrine from that of the Nachiyar it was the habit of pilgrims to shout out the word Ranga and listen for an echo. There were to be four more songs on Srirangam, respectively in Saranga, Arabhi, Desya Todi and Devagandhari. That Tyagaraja visited Srirangam during Vaikunta Ekadasi and stayed on for Dhanur Masa is evident from the songs and this has been dwelt with in detail in an earlier instalment in this series.

From Srirangam it was on to Madras for Tyagaraja. In that bustling metropolis he was hosted by Kovur Sundaresa Mudali in his mansion on Bunder Street. The composer was given a room on the top-most floor, facing the street. Years later, this would become the office of Professor Sambamoorthy. The building survives as a crumbling edifice but sadly for us, the room that Tyagaraja stayed in was demolished a decade ago. During his stay in Madras Tyagaraja visited Veena Kuppayyar’s residence at Ramaswami Street (also since demolished) and it is said composed Venugana loluni (Kedaragaula) in honour of the tutelary deity of his disciple’s family.

The composer visited Tiruvottiyur, where he appears to have avoided the shrine of Padampakkanathar/Tyagaraja and paid his respects only to Goddess Tripurasundari on a Friday. Five songs were created here, in Kalyani, Saveri, Arabhi, Begada and Shuddha Saveri. It is rather ironic that Tyagaraja, who had been hosted by a rich man should have sung in the second song of how he realised that wealth, horses, huge buildings owned by people are all unreal and that he was not fond of the vain talk of the wealthy! But he appears to have made amends when he visited Sundaresa Mudali’s native village of Kovur. The tiny temple there was praised in a manner that can only be termed as fulsome in five songs set in Pantuvarali, Shankarabharanam, Sahana, Kharaharapriya and Kalyani.

En route to Kanchi, Tyagaraja visited his disciple Venkataramana Bhagavatar at his hometown of Walajahpet. There a civic welcome awaited him at his disciple’s bhajana mandiram. The composer Mysore Sadasiva Rao created a song to commemorate the occasion, which is now lost. From there Tyagaraja reached Kanchi, where he stayed at Upanishad Brahmam’s monastery. He composed one song each on Goddess Kamakshi (Madhyamavati) and Varadaraja (Swarabhushani). That he and Upanishad Brahmam exchanged notes on music is evident for like Tyagaraja, the seer too composed Divya Nama kritis of a similar structure. A visit to Tirumala followed and two songs were created here, in Gaulipantu and Madhyamavati. A song on Narasimha in Bilahari is attributed to Sholingur but it makes no mention of a kshetra. In all Tyagaraja’s tour appears to have lasted two years.

In addition to these places, he also visited Nagapattinam and Sirkazhi. In the former town he composed on Goddess Nilayatakshi in Saveri and Todi. At the latter shrine, he composed on Lord Subrahmanya in Todi and Supradipa.

Many legends, all of them unsubstantiated, would be built on these tours of Tyagaraja. But then he lived at a time when travelling even short distances was quite an adventure. And more so for a man who had never travelled till he was seventy!

This article appeared in The Hindu dated February 16, 2018 and is part of a series to commemorate 250 years of Tyagaraja. The earlier instalments can be read here