The Ramaswami Temple, Kumbakonam

In Gitarthamu (Surati/Desadi) Tyagaraja hails Hanuman as one of the blessed beings who knows the true import of the Gita and the bliss of music. In his Kaluguna pada niraja seva(Purna Lalitha, Adi), he wonders if he will ever be able to witness Hanuman serving the Lord and one among the duties listed is the recital of puranas, when commanded by Rama. Thus Anjaneya was to Tyagaraja a musician and discourser. As though to buttress this is the frieze of Ramayana idols that the composer worshipped – in that assembly Hanuman holds a manuscript in his left hand and his right hand is in vyakhyanamudra, indicates he is reciting something to Rama.

The concept of Hanuman as an expert in music is not new. Dr V Raghavan in his comprehensive survey on early names in Sangita Literature notes how Anjaneya was considered an acharya in music from ancient times. But it would appear that it was around the time of the Vijayanagar Empire (14th to 16thcentury), that the idea of Hanuman as a musician gained ground. In his Sundara Muruti Mukhya Prana, Purandara Dasawho lived during the apogee of the Vijayanagar Empire sings of Hanuman coming home wearing anklets and dancing even as he hears the chanting of Rama’s name to the accompaniment of Tumburu and Narada playing the veena.

While the worship of Rama as an avatara of Vishnu was well-established in Tamil-speaking areas even when the Silappathikkaram was composed and then dwelt upon by the Azhwars, shrines exclusively dedicated to Rama became popular here only from the times of the Vijayanagar rulers. And perhaps the most magnificent among these is the Ramaswami Temple, located in Kumbakonam. It was however constructed well after the Vijayanagar Empire had begun to decline.

Utsavamurthy Rama, Ramaswami Temple, Kumbakonam

Following the battle of Talikota in 1565, when a confederation of the five northern states of Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, Ahmednagar and Golconda defeated the Vijayanagar forces and sacked the capital of Hampi, the viceroys of the empire became more or less independent rulers. This was even though they, as a formality, still swore allegiance to the nominal emperor who ruled over a shadow court at Penugonda and later Chandragiri. In the Tamil region there were three viceroys, the Nayaks of Madurai, Gingee and Thanjavur. Of these, the last were a powerful dynasty that lasted till 1673. And in that lineage was Raghunatha Nayak (r 1600-1634) – warrior, administrator and scholar par excellence. Helping him rule wisely and well was his minister Govinda Dikshita, who in every way complemented his master.

A pattabhisheka panel, Ramaswami Temple, Kumbakonam. Note Hanuman playing the Veena and reciting the Ramayana

The Nayaks frequently came into conflict with one another and not just over territory. They also squabbled over the succession to the Vijayanagar throne, weak though it had become. The bloodiest battle among these was in 1616 at Thoppur near Trichy. Raghunatha took the side of SriramaRaya, a young prince who was just 12 years of age. He was crowned ruler of the Vijayanagar Empire at Kumbakonambefore Raghunatha rode out to battle on his behalf. Returning victorious he decided to build a temple to commemorate his success. To mark the crowing of a king called Srirama, the principal deity here is a giant set of granite idols depicting Rama Pattabhisheka. The Lord is seated, with Sita to his left, while Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna stand around holding fans and umbrella. Hanuman is on one side, and he holds a vina in one hand and manuscripts in the other. It is believed he is singing the Ramayana. According to scholar Kudavayil Balasubramanian, this was an immortalisation of Raghunatha himself for the ruler gave himself the title Anavarata Rama Kathamrita Sevana – forever partaking of the nectar of the Ramayana. In the sanctum Rama is at peace after his fierce battle against Ravana. Outside, Raghunatha stands, handsome, powerfully built and flanked by two queens. He is also at peace after the battle at Thoppur. And then it strikes you, Raghunatha is another name for Rama.

Raghunatha Nayak, Ramaswami Temple, Kumbakonam

The view from the road does not prepare you for the wonders of this temple. Outwardly it appears a simple shrine with a modest gopuram. It is below road level thanks to the insensitive manner in which we keep adding layers of tar. Then comes the first pavilion – a magnificent structure comprising 64 stone pillars every inch of which is covered with sculptured panels. They are in all sizes but what is common is the detailing and the exquisite manner in which they have been executed. Episodes from the incarnations of Vishnu and in particular the Ramayana abound. After such beauty comes hideousness – a set of Ramayana panels stretching along the circumambulatory corridor- these are all modern paintings overlaying an earlier set of Nayak masterpieces. It makes you wonder as to where we lost our sense of aesthetics.

Amar Chitra Katha on the Ramaswami Temple wall