A portrait of Tyagaraja, done during his lifetime

The previous episode in this series looked at Tyagaraja’s travels, which he undertook when he was 70 or so. Coming back, he must have resumed his usual routine in Tiruvaiyaru. By then his illustrious contemporaries — Syama Sastry and Muthuswami Dikshitar — had both passed away. He had ten long years to live.

While it is not possible to date authoritatively any song of Tyagaraja’s other than a mere handful, there are several that sing of a great weariness with worldly life. It is of course not necessary that he composed them in old age. ‘Ennallu tirigedi’ (Malavashri, Adi) asks as to how long he is to roam the world. It also has a rare reference to Tyagaraja’s uncchavrtti (ritual begging of alms) practice — how long am I to roam pretending to be a great man even as I have to get salt, camphor and other articles by begging for it he asks.

That he was taking in disciples till the very end of his life is evident from his accepting Krishna and Sundaram, boys aged 8 and 10 just a few years before his death. There appears to have been a full-fledged gurukulam with others such as Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar also in residence. What of Tyagaraja’s second wife? There is no information on Kamalamba after the brief reference to her being the composer’s second wife in the biography by Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar.

Certainly, Tyagaraja does not mention his wife in any song. There is however one disputed reference in the song ‘Ninnavalasinademi’ (Kalyani/Chapu) if you go by C Ramanujachari’s translation. However, that does not help us establish anything conclusive on her. Certainly we have no idea if she outlived Tyagaraja or predeceased him. We do know from Krishnaswami Bhagavatar’s biography of Tyagaraja that the composer’s daughter Sitamahalakshmi was married off by then to one Subbaramayya. Prof. Sambamurthy, however, has the son-in-law’s name as Akhilandapuram Kuppuswamiah.

Whatever be the facts, it is safe to assume that by 1846 or so, the composer was nearing the end of his life. And then we get on to firmer ground. Two songs show that Tyagaraja was composing till the very end and despite age, his abilities in music were intact. As per ‘Giripai’ (Sahana/Deshadi), Tyagaraja unerringly saw Rama on a hill. Attendants were vying with each other to serve Him and in the midst of all that the deity assured the composer of salvation in five days (Tyagaraja uses the expression padiputalapai — five days and five nights). Having spent a whole lifetime praying for a vision of Rama, the composer was yet unprepared for it. He writes that even while he thrilled and shed tears at the vision, he could only mumble. Another song, ‘Paritapamu gani’ (Manohari/Rupakam), reiterates this promise of salvation within five days with the same expression of padiputalapai. Only this time, Rama is seated in the company of Sita in a golden boat on the river Sarayu.

Thus assured, Tyagaraja prepared himself for his end. He wanted to embrace sanyasa. The initiation was done by Paramahamsa Parivrajaka Swami Brahmananda. There are some accounts that have it that Tyagaraja took on the name of Nadabrahmananda but of this we cannot be sure. Tiruvaiyaru was and is considered a mukti sthalam, a holy spot to die in. Close to the Bawasami Agraharam was a Golgotha of sorts, a place where all the sanyasis who came to the place to die were buried in. A small temple for Kasi Viswanatha, built just outside of this place, and the various ghats leading to the Cauvery reinforce the imagery of the Ganga and Varanasi. It was here that Tyagaraja repaired to. He bathed in the river for one last time, performed the necessary rituals, performed all the obligatory charities and waited for salvation. In keeping with tradition those who had gathered around began singing bhajans. And then, to quote from William Jackson’s translation of Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar’s biography of Tyagaraja, “on the fifth day before the dark moon in the month of Pusya, a Sunday, and in the year Prabhavanama, with the appearance of a great sound, he merged with the Brahman.”

What was the great sound? Had the music reached a crescendo or did the composer’s skull burst asunder to make him conform to the highest form of death as per Hindu beliefs — kapala moksha?

The composer had, according to Prof. Sambamoorthy, given clear instructions as to how his funerary rites and burial were to be conducted and these were done on the banks of the Cauvery. As the mourners wended their way back to the village they would not have known that the simple act of burial would spawn a long history culminating in the decisive intervention of Bangalore Nagarathnamma who converted the spot into a temple in the 1920s.

This article is part of a two-year-long series to commemorate 250 years of Tyagaraja. It appeared in The Hindu dated April 13, 2018. The rest of this series can be read at this link