Vazhi Maraithirukkude

ThiruppungurBirth or Worth? Or neither? What criteria should open the doors of a temple? The answer seems self-evident to me yet it is still otherwise in practice in some temples in India. Is that not sad?

My thoughts today are triggered by the discussion with my readers in my last musical post. The late Jon Higgins, an American, and Yesudas, an Indian Christian are both well known names in the Carnatic Music arena. As Carnatic vocalists they cannot but sing in praise of Hindu Gods all the time. Even otherwise, if their lives’ work is not a worship of Goddess Saraswati then I don’t know what is! Yet both were denied entry to certain temples on account of their not being Hindu. Who could be more deserving? Anyway, if it depended on what we deserved, the halls of temples would be empty indeed!

In fact, even Hindus of the lowest-classes used to be denied entry into temples. A terrible thing, this injustice meted out in the name of caste. I have had non-Indians talk to me as if this was true of Indians alone, this class-based injustice. I think not; this kind of injustice is a disease of humankind. Did the people of Israel get just treatment from the ruling Egyptians at the time of Moses? Or the African-Americans get justice in their slavery? What of the Aboriginals in Australia hunted like animals? Or the ethnic cleansing in Serbia in recent history? Oh the shame of it!

Such was case of Nandanar who was born in servitude, at the bottom of the caste ladder. He lived around the 5th/6th AD in South India. His caste was such that he was denied even entry to the temples. Yet he was one of the greatest devotees of Lord Shiva. Overcome with the desire to get just a glimpse of his Lord in the temple, he set off once to Thiruppungur. Standing outside the door, he tried to peer in to see the sanctum sanctorum but the great statue of Shiva’s bull, Nandi, blocked his view. It is said that on hearing his plea, the statue moved aside so that he could have a glimpse of the sanctum. Even now at this temple, Nandi is not in his usual place but a bit aside. This very Nandnar, denied even entry to temples, is now revered as one of the 63 Nayanmar saints whose statues decorate the halls of Shiva temples all over South India. What a come about!

One version of Nandanar’s life story was written as an upanyasam (musical discourse) by Gopalakrishna Bharathi (1811-1896). His songs were used in the film Nandanar made in 1942. If you enjoy Carnatic music, this is a recommended watch. In addition to songs by Gopalakrishna Bharathi, we also get to hear songs written by the great poet-composer Papanasam Sivan and Kothamangalam Subbu (1910-1974) of Thillana Mohanambal fame. The wonderful vocalist Dandapani Desikar plays the lead and impressive Serukalathur Sama plays his Brahmin overlord.  You can watch a good quality print of this film here (no subtitles).

My song choice of today is written by Gopalakrishna Bharathi in his Nandanar Charithram.  ‘Alas, my view is blocked by a mountain-like bull which is lying down’ says he. ‘Even after coming to this town, will not this sinner of Parayan caste have his sins pardoned?’ he goes on to ask.  He accepts that he cannot enter the temple. ‘It is enough if I can see you from the chariot stop, I will not enter the temple’ he says and begs ‘Will not your bull move just a little?’. For lyrics and translation, see footnote.

The song is sung in Raga Todi in the film; I believe Gopalakrishna Bharathi composed it in Todi as well. The version I have chosen for you is presented in Nattakurinji by the melodious and incredibly talented sisters Ranjani & Gayathri. I find the slow and meditative quality of the song very touching indeed. If you would like to know more about the raga, click here.

In his next song in Nanadanar Charithram , Gopalakrishna Bharathi has Lord Shiva saying to Nandi – சற்றே விலகி இரும் பிள்ளாய் சந்நிதானம் மறைக்குதாமே ‘Do move a little, my son. It seems you are blocking the view of the sanctum’. And that is what I say to the priests of the temples who deny entry to anyone at all – சற்றே விலகியிரும், சந்நிதானத்தை மறைக்காதீர் ‘Move aside, don’t block the sanctum’.

Footnote (Lyrics and Translation) :

Composer : Gopalakrishna Bharathi
Raga : Nattakurinji
Language : Tamil

வழி மறைத்திருக்குதே மலை போலே
ஒரு மாடு படுத்திருக்குதே

பாவி பறையன் (Alternates : நந்தன், ஏழை ) இந்த ஊரில் வந்து என்ன (Alt: வந்தும் இவன்)
பாவம் தீரேனோ (உந்தன்) பாதத்தில் சேரேனோ ஏறேனோ சிவலோக நாதா (Alt: நாதன்)

தேரடியில் (Alt: தேரடியிலே) நின்று தரிசித்தாலும் போதும்
கோயில் (Alt: கோயிலில்) வர மாட்டேனே (Alt: மாட்டேன் ஐயே)
ஓர் அடி விலகினால் போதும் இங்கே நின்று
உற்று பார்க்க (alt: பார்க்கவே) சற்றே ஆகிலும் விலகாதோ உந்தன் மாடு

Transliteration :

vazhi maraittirukkudE malai pOlE
oru mADu paDuttirukkudE

pAvi paraiyan (alt: nandan, Ezhai) inda Uril vandu enna (alt: vandum ivan)
pAvam tIrEnO (undan) pAdattil sErEnO ErEnO sivalOka nAdA

tEraDiyil (alt: tEraDiyilE) inDRu darisittAl pOdum
koyil (alt: koyilil) vara mATTEnE (alt: mATTEn aiyyE)
Or aDi vilaginAl podum ingE nindRu uTRu pArkka (alt: pArkkavE)
chaTRE Agilum vilagAdO undan mADu

Translation :

Alas (implied), my view (vazhi=way) is blocked (maraittirukkudE ) by a (oru) mountain-like (malai pOlE) bull (mADu) which is lying down (paDuttirukkudE)!

Even after coming to (vandu) this (inda) town (Uril), will not this sinner (pAvi) of Parayan caste have his sins (pAvam) pardoned (tirEnO, literally end, vanish)? Will I not reach (sErEnO) your feet (pAdatti) ? Will I not ascend (ErEnO) to your abode (sivalOka), O Lord Shiva (Lord, from Sanskrit natha)?

It is enough (pOdum) today (inDru) if I can see you (darisittAl) from the foot (aDiyil) of the chariot (tEr) (note: this is outside the temple gates), I will not enter (vara mATTEnE, literally not come) the temple (kOyil). It is enough (pOdum) if your bull moves (vilaginAl) by one (Or) foot (aDi) for me to peer (uTru pArkka) from standing (ninDRu) here (ingE). Will not your (undan) bull (mADu) move (vilagAdO) just a little (chaTRE Agilum) ?


Filed under Carnatic Music, Compositions in Tamil, Dandapani Desikar, Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Ranjani Gayatri

24 responses to “Vazhi Maraithirukkude

  1. Ramesh

    Beautiful song and a beautiful rendering you have chosen for this post. But, as is so often with your posts, your preamble and the narration is as interesting as the music itself.

    Things have changed a lot in India. Now, most temples open their doors to everybody – restrictions on non Hindus are usually only to the inner sanctum. Yesudas himself is welcome at so many temples and gives concerts in temples – can you imagine Sabarimala without Harivarasanam. One of the few standouts continues to be Guruvayoor where a rabid bunch under the guise of Nair Service Society are holding out, but they are dinosaurs soon to become extinct.

    But a thing that has given me great discomfort is the second part of your opening question – Birth or worth. In every temple today, there is a “fast queue” for those who are able to pay. While I can understand the “logic”, it is acutely discomforting that even in the House of the Lord, money seems to make a difference. Well, I’ll quell such misgivings and simply listen to the lovely music you have featured today.

    • Thank you Ramesh. So what you say is that a caste-based class system has been replaced by a money-based class system not just in society but in temples as well. Why doesn’t it surprise me? I understand that an egalitarian society may not be possible (is it even desirable? I am not sure..will it not lead to complacence and a disinterest in achievement?). But can we not have equality at least in places of worship? But like yourself, I’ll park such thoughts and just listen to music.
      Cheers. Suja

  2. Chandramouli Subramanian

    When Jon Higgins went to Udipi Sri Krishna temple he was denied entry by the temple priests. The bagavathar quietly sat outside the temple and sang “Krishna ni beghane bharo”. A huge crowd collected around Jon and when he finished a thunderous applause greeted him. The priests had no option but to allow Jon to enter the temple after this!

    Anway, love your blog!

    • Thank you Chandramouli 🙂 That is a nice story about Jon Higgins, isn’t it? His Krishna nee begane is indeed very touching. Thank you for the story.
      Cheers. Suja

  3. Hari

    A few months back, my mother had narrated this story and sang this song for me, it was a nice experience.

    It’s easy to get put off by the state of Carnatic music today (or always?), with terrible concert venues, sparse audiences, poor remuneration, quality of sound, rigid concert format, etc. Stories and compositions such as these are a reminder of just how rich and beautiful our art is, and why we love it like we do, blind to all the problems associated with it. 🙂

    Also, enjoyed the anecdote about Jon Higgins!

    • Welcome to my blog Hari 🙂 How nice for you that you heard your own ‘upanyasam’ at home, and that too from your mother! You are very blessed 🙂

      Do you really feel that negative about the state of Carnatic Music today? I had actually thought that they were doing well! There are so many young artists, it makes me think that this form of music is thriving. But I live in a cocoon of my own in Switzerland, with little experience of the reality of concerts in India or elsewhere. When I hear CDs or as is more often the case, listen to music online, I remain as enthralled as I have always been whether I hear the young new comers or the old established artists. I am not blind to the problems, I am simply unaware of them! I am sorry to hear you say that the music is not in a good state….

      Cheers. Suja

  4. Jay


    It is a very pleasing rendition. In my view such songs would probably be more expressive if all percussion is absent and even the violin relegates itself to providing gentle interlude. Last year, I had heard these sisters deliver a beautiful cutcheri for a charity event in Atlanta.

    These distinctions between classes are not unique to Hindus. For instance there are Christians in Kerala, who have their own pecking order and take pride in expressing their origins – the high class of Nambudiris. And some talk of Yesudas – that he belongs to a certain category of Christians. Same goes within certain Muslim communities too. It is our fundamental flaw – we discriminate in more ways than one. It is here where I find Papa Ramdas’ rendition most beatific and a message to all mankind:
    As Ramesh pointed out, money speaks loudest these days. There are temple men who negotiate with bhaktas and offer them deals based on money!

    This story reminds me of Adi Sankara’s encounter with a Chandala who was asked to move away from his way, who gently retorts asks the sage – do you want my body made of food to move away from your body made of food or the consciousness in these bodies to move away. In another story from the Mahabharata, it is the meatseller Dharmavyadha who exposits the true meaning of sva-dharma to a brahmana.

    You may want to check out: mamava sada varade by Rama Verma:


    • I am glad you found the rendition pleasing Jay. I too enjoyed your link of nattakurinji by Rama Varma this morning.

      You are right in saying that this distinction and hierarchy of classes is not limited to one religion or people. I am thinking that this might be hard-wired in us; even herds of animals have a pecking order, don’t they? Didn’t experiments with establishing a classless society generally fail? We are a sorry lot, we humans!

      Thanks for reminding me of those stories from the life of Shankara. I may weave them into one of my posts one day 🙂

      Cheers. Suja

  5. Chandramouli Subramanian

    Mata Amritanandamayi of Vallikavu in Kerala has brought about a revolution in our times. Even though she was born in a fishing village Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, or Amma as she is universally known, is revered as an incarnation of Kali by her devotees, irrespective of caste. Really religious people care a damn for caste!

  6. S.Narasimha Raj

    “Birth or Worth? Or neither? , , ”
    Suja, Your questions and your profound elaborations on them have indeed brought in intellectual/thoughtful/delightful comments – all of which I’ve enjoyed.
    In this context, my ears are filled with the song “Chidambara darushanama, paraya, unakku . . “.
    Reading the comment of Jon Higgins singing at Udupi Temple, wasn’t Bhakta Kanakadasa himself denied entry to Udupi Temple but The Lord turned round and gave his ‘darshan’ to Kanaka who peeped through a hole in the wall !
    Suja, I’m glad/fortunate that I still have 20 years of life left in/for me – so that I enjoy the exchanges in “Music to My Ears”.
    May The Divines Bless you.

    • Thank you Raj for your, as always, very kind comments 🙂 And thank you even more for telling me the story of Kanakadasa at Udupi. I did not know this story and tried to find out if there were any songs written by him on this subject but I have not succeeded. When I am next in India, I shall hunt for books on the songs of Kanakadasa. But thank you again.
      Cheers. Suja

    • Chandramouli Subramanian

      Talking of Kanakadasa, this is what V. Thiagarajan, a friend of Jon Higgins, wrote in SPAN magazine:

      Talking of Kanakadasa, this is what V. Thiagarajan, a friend of Jon Higgins, wrote in SPAN magazine:
      “A party of musicians, Jon among them, went to Udipi to see the Krishna temple. The American wore a dhoti and a kurta as was his custom in Madras . . . but he was much too fair complexioned to be an Indian, and the priests would not let him enter the temple… So Jon stood where Kanakadasa the untouchable had stood centuries ago, to catch a glimpse of the idol from a distance as best he could. His musician friends stood with him, refusing to go inside the temple if Jon was not allowed. Then it occurred to one of them to ask Jon to sing the famous song, “Krishna, nee begane baro,” a composition in Kannada�. When the air was filled with the vibrant melody of his splendid voice there was no keeping away the crowds that gathered around to hear him. The priests, astonished, begged the singer to come in, and what Kanakadasa could not achieve the foreigner could.” could.”come in, and what Kanakadasa could not achieve the foreigner could.”

      • What an interesting story! Thank you so very much Chandramouli for taking the trouble to post it 🙂 It is a wonderful and uplifting addendum to my post!
        Cheers. Suja

  7. Ram Kaushik

    Suja – a touching article – you are a true intellectual indeed, and I look forward to reading more of your articles. This song is indeed “heart-wrenchingly” delivered by RJ. As Vedanta says, true seekers rise beyond these petty differences of class, caste, religion. No dearth of pettiness be it in temples or palaces. And like you, I am an optimist about the state of Carnatic music although the time and patience to savor say an MDR seem lost in the age of JayaTV sound bites. Please keep writing – a novel awaits!

    • I am glad you enjoyed the post and the music Ram Kaushik, and thank you for your kind words 🙂 One of the issues which faces society is the effect of non-stop sensory bombardment from various sources. Our lifestyles have also changed. In comparison to the days past, our senses are on ‘high alert’ all day. Even if one doesn’t have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), our minds jump around as if we do. It is difficult to switch from that to a slow paced rendition like, for example, MDR. I understand. So music which lasts for hours will have less importance in people’s lives. That too I understand. Its just sad.

  8. Eswar

    As always, its wonderful to come here! I am telling my friend about Gopalakrishna Bharathi and how he chooses these evocative situations to write about, in Tamizh, so we understand and appreciate it better, and render his songs with more empathy. i remember the Nandanar annecdote and you are the top hit on the search results! Said friend and I are learning Nattaikurinji this month- she the kriti, I the Varnam. Wish us luck!

    • Indeed I wish you and your friend the very best of luck 🙂 May your Nattaikurinji touch your hearts and the hearts of all those who listen to your music! I am so very glad that you young folk are taking the effort to understand and appreciate the lyrics before embarking on learning a new warms my heart! My aashirvadams to you!

  9. Ram Kaushik

    Suja, revisiting this song and this wonderful article again. It struck me that in addition to all the caste ramifications and the history surrounding Nandanar, there is an elegant Vedantic interpretation to this song. The “bull blocking the vision of the idol” is simply our ego and insecurities (ahankara) preventing us from seeing the Supreme truth!

    • Now this is an intriguing interpretation, I like it well indeed. I walked through the lyrics with this in mind..The anupallavi can then be interpreted to point out that it is our ego which is preventing us from reaching the feet of our God. tEr has an alternate meaning of ‘Mirage’. Life is said to be maya, a mirage. So if the ego is removed, even in life which is a mirage, one can ‘see’ God, one doesn’t have to reach the koil where God resides. You have given me something to think about..
      Cheers. Suja

  10. Rs Ramaswamy

    Madam, This poem by Gopalakrishna Barathy, is said to have been composed in Desiya Todi. ( not Todi). “Gopalakrishna Bharati’s vazhi maraittirukkudE was also originally in dEsiya tODi (now-a-days it is sung in either tODi or nATakurinji).”. I would like to share a fine video of this song in Tamil Film Nandanar (1942). sung by M.M.Dandapani Desikar.-

    — The rendition by RG is in Nattaikkurinji as you mention. You may be interested in a very fine article on changing the ragam from desiya todi to nattaikkurinji, by a good writer Vishnu Vasudev
    View at
    He specifically objects to such changes in ragam while retaining the lyrics. I agree with him. Please do read the article. Very fine.

  11. I chanced upon this post, Suja, when I was researching this song rendered in concert delightfully by T.Vishwanathan on flute and vocal. It is indeed a bewitching and beguiling tune.

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