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Nava Raatri Mandapam in Kerala

Prince Raam Varmaa upholds his ancestor's pledge with musical offerings to Devee during Nava Raatri. The Chalai Bazaar at Thiruvananthapuram, is cleared of traffic, wears an expectant look. Groups of merchants light gleaming oil lamps and hang string of flowers in their shop fronts. Although the street is full of pedestrians, nobody is shopping on that day. Suddenly at the western end of the bazaar, music and activity herald the approach of a grand procession. Platoons of mounted police are followed by uniformed men, music bands, and then a group of men carrying the sword of the Mahaaraajaa. A caparisoned elephant appears and the merchants rent the air with shouts, accompanied by showers of flowers and garlands. The elephant is carrying the idol of Goddess Saraswatee, who is arriving in the city for Nava Raatri.

Starting the Nava Raatri Mandapam
The holy arrival is in keeping with a promise made by a Cheraa King to a sage Kambar centuries ago. The sage Kambar had an idol of Goddess Saraswatee that he gave to a Chera King. The King promised him to worship the Goddess and hold the Nava Raatri Festival in her honor every year. When Mahaaraajaa Swaati Tirunal shifted the capital from Padmanaabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram in the 19th century, he made arrangements to bring the Devee to his new capital every year and built the Nava Raatri Mandapam adjoining his royal palace.

Apart from the Nava Raatri days, for the rest of the year, Devee blesses devotees from her Thevarakkettu at Padmanaabhapuram Palace. It is the "Mool Vigraham" which is brought to Thiruvananthapuram leaving a lighted lamp in the sanctum. Lord Kumaaraswaamy on a silver horse from Kumaar Kovil and Goddess Munnoothinangai from Sucheendram on a palanquin also accompany the Devee.

At the Nava Raatri Mandapam, situated at the Eastern entrance to Padmanaabhaswaamy Temple, devotees can have Darshan of Saraswatee Devee every day at designated times, but every evening, the Mandapam resonates to the sound of special musical offerings by renowned Karnaatak musicians. The Nava Raatri concerts feature Mahaaraajaa Swaati Tirunal's compositions. He composed nine Nava Raatri Keertan in Sanskrit, each to be sung on designated days of the Nava Raatri. They are in the Raag Shankarabharanam, Kalyaanee, Saveri, Todee, Bhairavee, Panthuvarali, Shuddha Saveree, Nattakurinji and Arabhi respectively, and are sung as the main piece on each day. Mangalam is sung only on the last day. During the first three days, the Devee is worshipped as Saraswatee, the next three days as Lakshmee and the last three days as Durgaa.

"I feel so utterly blessed and privileged to be able to do my bit to continue such a sacred and wonderful event as the Nava Raatri festival." says Prince Raam Varmaa, a renowned vocalist, musicologist and teacher. Every year, he performs on one day of the event.

Performers at the Concerts at Nava Raatri Mandapam?
Earlier, only the family members of Mullamoodu Bhagavathars used to perform. "Amma Mahaaraanee (Prince Raam Varmaa's great grandmother) invited stalwarts to perform at the Nava Raatri Mandapam," explains the Prince. One such concert featured Mahaaraajaapuram Vishwanaath Iyer with Dwaaram Venkataswamy Naidu on the violin, Palghat Mani Iyer on the Mridangam and Palani Subramania Pillai on the Ganjeeraa. Although he was a percussion giant, the Traavancore Asthaanaa Vidwaan title was the sole recognition Palani received in his lifetime. The Prince recalls being told by Amma Mahaaraanee and by Mahaaraajaa Chitra Tirunal (his grand uncle) about the Nava Raatri concerts in the 1920s and 30s.

The audience was musically erudite. The concerts were transformed into Sangeet Sadas, where a Raag Alaapan by the artist would be taken up by members of the audience in succession and only then would the main piece be sung. As a child, he attended the concerts where the Mangalam "Bhujagasayino" would be joined by the members of the audience and the whole Mandapam would reverberate with the group offering.

The concerts are held in front of the Devee's sanctum, with the musicians sitting to its left. Behind them is a mural depicting Devee on her Sinh Vaahan. Facing them sit three rows of the audience, behind which is a latticework window through which the members of the Royal Family watch the concerts. The rest of the audience sits in the larger Mandapam area, amidst the granite pillars and tall oil lamps. There is no artificial lighting. Canopies of flowers decorate the ceiling. The pillars are covered with strings of yellow lemons and brown betel nuts made of wood.

"The glow of the oil lamps, the fragrance of flowers and incense, the divine musical offerings, the sacred presence of the Devee presiding over all this is an unforgettable experience." explains Prince Raam Varmaa. "One really has to be there and experience it to understand what I am talking about."

Women Can Also Sing There?
Traditionally, only men were allowed to perform and to listen to concerts at the Nava Raatri Mandapam. However from his teens, the Prince started to question this exclusive practice. "I could never understand why women were not allowed to perform at this festival, where the concerts were held essentially in honor of the Devee, the Universal Mother." he says. After 22 years, his effort to change this finally bore fruit and in 2006, the taboo was lifted. The Prince invited Parassala Ponnammal to be the first lady to perform at the Mandapam. The event catapulted her from the obscurity of retirement into the public eye. From that point, women could also attend the concerts at the Mandapam.

Others Can also Sing
Anyone can hire the Mandapam in the mornings, for a nominal fee and give vocal or instrumental concerts or dance performances as their offering to Devee. For details, call the Fort Palace Office at 471-247-9245 for a booking.

Timings for Singing at Nava Raatri Mandapam?
Timings are strictly adhered to here. At 6 pm, the main concert starts and at 8.30 pm a bell is rung to signal its end. Artists time their renditions to end before the bell. "The sanctity of the timing has its origins in the era of Traavancore Radio during the 1930s, when the concerts were relayed live." says Prince Raam Varmaa. Preceding the evening concert, the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars sing the Thodayamangalam (mainly compositions of the Mahaaraajaa), 5.30-6.00 pm.



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Created by Sushma Gupta on 3/15/05
Updated on 09/30/13