Natalie Savelyeva


Role in temple ritual

During annual festivals, starting from Abhishekam within the sanctum inside the temple to the procession of the deity in the streets around the temple, a special type of mallari accompanies each stage of the movement of the Lord. (Nagaswaram is an open air instrument, the music played on it signals to the people of the village the type of prayer or offering made.)

All big temples in the south celebrate an elaborate festival called Brahmotsavam. In some temples it goes on for 10 days, in some others for a longer duration. On all the days of the festival, the Lord or Utsava Moorti is taken out in procession led by Nagaswara vidwans. The procession halts at various points in this journey and a different mallari is played at each stage.

First, while the deity was decorated and during the Deeparadhana (offering and worship with oil lamps) the Tevaram hymns were song and played.

When the deity reached the main doorway, the mallari was rendered. The word "mallari" may be translated as "wrestling with the Lord" i.e., before the idol is set on the Ter (the temle car or chariot) the priests should "wrestle" with him to make him up and sit under the palanquin.

The practice of playing Alaripu was an indication that the procession of the deity had started.

The mallari was followed by raga alapana but there were specific ragas for the different vahanas. For example, Kambhoji was played on the day of the Rishabha Vahana.

The tradition in those days was not to play kritis. Instead, mallari was followed by some kalpana swara, then rakti, which again was followed by swaraprastara and finally by a pallavi.

Tevarams and padams were played when the deity returned to the temple after the procession.

Originally, mallari was played in all temples. Later on, it was divided into Siva mallari and Vishnu mallari. (Even today, there are mainly two varying traditions of mallari, one played at the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram and the other at the Tyagaraja temple in Tiruvarur.)

Muthuswami Dikshitar’s father, Ramaswami Dikshitar formalised the utsava procedures in the Tiruvarur temple and specified the stages of mallari to be played during the daily pooja and annual festivals. This was a custom followed by all the nagaswara vidwans at the temple.

Types of mallari

The Mudal mallari is played on the Nagaswaram accompanied by the Kaithalam, an instrument similar to cymbals or jalra for rhythm or the tala that may also be kept by counting on the hand. First Mudal mallari is initially rendered in Adi tala. After this, it is presented in Tisram and in Roopaka tala.

Purappadu mallari is to signal the Purappadu or starting out of the Lord. This is also called Peria (big) mallari. It is usually in Adi tala. The Peria mallari is played during the Rishabha Vahana, which is a very important event in Siva temples. All other mallaris that are played fall under the category of Chinna (small) mallari.

Ter mallari is played during the procession of the deity on the Ter (the chariot). Ter mallari is set to Chatusra Triputa tala with Khanda gati (i.e. five-beat cycle). In the temple of Tiruvenkadu, the Ter mallari is played when the presiding deity Swetaranya sets out. It is played in the raga Mohanam (this is unique and special to this temple as all other mallaris are set to Gambhira Nata raga.) This mallari is however followed by a mallari in Gambheera Nata for the deity Aghora Veerabhadraswami.

Teertha mallari set to Misra Chapu is played when water is fetched from the yagasala for Tirumanjanam (abhishekam or oblution of the deity), . This mallari is also called Triputa mallari, as it is set to Triputa tala, which comprises seven beats either as "Takita takadhimi" (3 + 4) or "Takadhimi takita" (4 + 3).

Taligai mallari is played w hen Neivedyam is brought for offering to the Lord.

Kumbha Mallari is performed while giving the Poornakumbham.

In Vaishnava temples, there is the practice of playing the Palli Arai mallari. When the deity enters the temple after the procession, the lali oonjal (lullaby song, when the deity is put on swing for night sleep) is played, followed by the first part of the big mallari. This is called Palli arai mallari.

In the palanquin festival at Chidambaram, Nadavana pandal is played in sankeerna gati. The Triputa tala mallari is followed by kalpana swara till the deity reaches the chariot stand. The raga Huseni raga follows. At the Govindaraja sannidhi of the Chidambaram temple, mallari, raga and swaram are played during the Navaratri festival.

Characteristics of mallri

Mallari is the special form of instrumental music played only on the nagaswaram (the emblem of a naga is embedded in the instrument and hence the name “nagaswaram”.)

Mallari is played only in the raga Gambheera Nata (referred to as Nata also) which omits the rishabha in both arohanam and avarohanam. It is a belief that according to agamas, everything pertaining to God should be related to the number five. The raga Gambheera Nata depicting veera rasa has five swaras, Lord Siva has five faces, the fifth day of the temple festival is an important one when the Peria mallari is played, some Siva temples have five Prakaras five steps lead to the sanctum and Siva is also worshipped as the five elements.

Another reason is that Gambheera nata is one of Ghana Pancha ragas, namely, Nata, Gowla, Arabhi, Varali and Sriragam. (Ghana ragas are the ragas of special vigor and power) and stays for Veera Rasa (giving impression of valor, heroic action.)

Mallari is more laya based than raga based. There is rarely any variation in the raga as it is almost always in Gambheera Nata.

There is no sahitya or words for a mallari. Instead of words, there is set of solkattus (rhythmic syllables, please see the example of mallari below) set to particular patterns of svaras (the melody.) This pattern is played on the instrument as a tune and the same is played on the tavil in the form of jatis. Mallaris are usually set to four or eight avartas or tala cycles.

Solkattus used in Mallari, are Mridangam solkattus (i.e. imitating sound of different strokes on the drum and facilitate precisionist.) According to the legend, during the Siva Tandava (rigorous dance of Lord Siva), Siva anklet fell down and produced the basic drum sounds, "Tha dhi Tom Nam". This formed the basis of jatis for several percussion instruments like Mridangam. Using two hand strokes, the sollukattus like "Dhim Dhim, Tham Tham" could be derived. This forms the basis of the Mallari presentation.

The mallari is usually played in three speeds: vilamba or slow; madhyama or medium; durita or fast. This same mallari is then played in tisra gati followed by kalpana swara.

Complicated tala patterns test the skill of a mallari player. It has to be played in three speeds and in tisram. It can also be played on Usi (i.e. starting on half or one fourth away from or before the beat.) The tavil player is usually told about the form of the mallari and the order in which jatis are used and they play accordingly. There is no tani avartanam in mallari. Instead the tavil vidwan plays a brief solo following the pallavi (which comprises the special jatis of the Tavil, called "Kunda kundagu - Diruta Kundagu".)

Example of mallari

Mallari composed by Sri. B. Seetharama Sarma, set to Adi talam, Tisra Gati, Gambhira Nata ragam:

Vilamba Kalam (the first speed)

ta , , , dhi , , , ta , ka , jo , nu , ta , , , , , , ,

dhi , , , ta , ka , jo , nu , ta , , , , , , ,

ta , ka , jo , nu

ta , din , , , gi , na , tom , , , , ,

ta , din , , , gi , na , tom , , , , ,

ta , din , , , gi , na , tom , , , , ,

Madhyama Kalam (the second speed)

ta , dhi , ta ka jo nu ta , , ,

dhi , ta ka jo nu ta , , ,

ta ka jo nu

ta din , gi na tom , ,

ta din , gi na tom , ,

ta din , gi na tom

Druta Kalam (the third speed)

ta dhi taka jonu ta ,

dhi taka jonu ta ,

taka jonu

tadin’ ginatom ,

tadin’ ginatom ,

tadin’ ginatom


During Chola period, Pushpanjali was performed during procession of the idols and during the festivals as convocation. Dancers were standing and facing main deity in temple or went around the temple in pradakshanam and carried flowers.

Pushpanjali is mentioned in Agamaragam* and in Panchamarabu.

Pushpanjali was performed with or after Kumbha Harati ceremony** as preventive and propitiatory item as part of Devadiyar service at the temples.

*Agamaragam refer to Agamas, where offering of flowers is mentioned as the part of ritualistic worship.

** Kumbha Harati is very special ritual of removing black eye (drishti) performed only by Devadiyarhal (Devadasi). They waved big idol lamp looking like a pot in front of the idiol, the king or their patron. They were considered as auspicious women (Nityasumangali) as they were married to God thus would never become widows.

S Sharada Teacher notices, that "pushpanjali, kauthuvam and todayamangalam originate from other Art forms and do not belong to the original Bharatanatyam repertoire. If these items are performed, they should be simple."


Kauthuvam is devotional music form, a song in praise of a deity. This is sacred item intended to worship and pacify Gods through music and dance. There are kauthuvams in praise of Gods (Subramanya, Ganapathi), kauthuvams in praise of murthis (Mahalingam or Nataraja), or kauthuvams in praise of local deities and saints – Thiruvangadu goddess, Swami of Thiravidai madurur.

Kauthuvam is mentioned as part of Agamaragam (16 types of dance) in Pancha Marabu. It was in vogue in 16th cent AD. Up to first half of 20th cent kauthuvams were performed by Devadasis as regular part of temple rituals. South temples were constructed according specifications laid down in Agamas which include location of the temple, its measurements, iconography, rituals of worship including music and dance as offerings performed during pujas and festivals.

Regarding the lyrics, the kauthuvams are small prayers that are composed on a particular deity - they can be in Sanskrit/tamizh, and possibly other languages as well. As an ancient component of classical dance, there are as many Kavuthuvams as there are temples and deities.

"The main deity in any temple is called the moolavar or moola bimbam; the deity taken out in procession is known as the utsavar, utsava bimbam or kautuka bimbam. It is known that Kavuttuvams were performed in the temple processions in the presence of the kautuka bimbam." [5]

According to [5]: "...Perhaps, the most comprehensive definition of Kavuttuvam, is in Natyacahrya Vedantam Parvatheesam”s Kuchipudi Natya Darpana in Sanskrit."

Pataksharena samyuktam devata vishayatmakam

Nanartha chitrasamyuktam kitthantam kautam uchyate

[That which has a combination of syllables pertaining to footwork (sollukattu), that which pertains to the deeds of Gods and thus presents pictures of various types and ends with the rhythmic syllable, kittha, is called a Kavuttuvam]

According to noted scholar and critic, E.Krishna Iyer, kauthuvams popularity waned after devadasi tradition was banned in beginning of the 20th century. Thus, the performance of such rituals ceased when dancing in the temples was banned.

In second half of 20th century, the kauthuvams were revived and restructured by Guru K.P.Kittappa Pillai, who was cautious about its popularisation owing to its religious connotation.

Nowadays kauthuvams are defined as the dance compositions in praise of a Hindu deity, in the form of an invocation performed at the commencement of a Bharatanatyam recital. The kauthuvam is to be followed by a thevaram, written by Shaivite saints, which suit the 'pun' mentioned in the kauthuvam (for instance, the thevaram for the Brahma Sandhi kauthuvam is in Megha raga pun, i,e. Neelambari).

The structure of present day kavuthuvam is as follows. First the rhythmic syllables (sollukattu-s) are recited and then sung. This is interspersed with lyrical passages that are first recited and then sung. It is again ended with sollus or rhythmic syllables. The most important characteristic feature peculiar only to Kavuttuvams is the close intertwining of sahitya (lyric) and sollukattu (rhythmic syllables).

Kavuthuvams are not bound by any raga restrictions. Thus a dancer is free to tune them to any raga of his/her choice.

One doesn't perform sancharis in Kavuthuvams. The focus is on complicated footwork and variations in the movements. Kavuthuvams are performed according to the meaning with thattimettu and concluded with thattimettu.

In a kavuthuvam, the lyrical passages give the dancer some scope to explore poses and movement variations while the sollus keep the pace and tone of both the dancer and the audience like in Alaripu. Hence, a Kavuthuvam justifies its position as an invocatory piece in a Margam that's not too long and not too short, but just of the right length and pace and crispy enough to keep the audience glued to their seats and look forward with curiosity and interest.

There are many types or variations in kavuthuvams:

  1. Kavuthuvams specific to a temple like the Natesa Kavuthuvam on Nataraja of Chidambaram. Madurapuri Sokkar Kavuthuvam is dedicated to Madurai temple.
  2. Kavuthuvams on deities like Vinayaka, Subramanya etc, which do not have mention of any particular temple.
  3. Kavuthuvams on nature like the Vanampadi Kauthuvam.
  4. Kavuthuvams that has mention of Nithya Sumangali or the Rudrakanika on devadasis.
  5. Kavuthuvams on Kings and noblemen. But these came into existence only after the Quartet.
  6. Navasandhi Kavuthuvams on the Gods ruling the nine junctions or directions. The Navasandhi Kavuthuvams were performed in the different sandhis in the temple. This was performed to propitiate the devadas or the deities of different sandhis.
  7. Pancha Murthi Kavuthuvams were devoted to five deities, Vinayaka, Muruga, Chandikeshwara, Sambandar and Nataraja.
  8. Hari Krishnan [2] gives the following description of the kauthuvam (based on the text called "Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam", see 1):

    "In addition to courtly compositions such as the shabdams, the early part of the Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam also presents us with devadasi temple repertoire, in the form of ritual dances called kavuttuvam. The text contains the full cluster of the nine famous navasandhi kavuttuvams, and in addition, nine other kavuttuvam compositions.

    "The navasandhi kavuttuvams are a set of nine compositions that invoke the deities of the eight cardinal directions (called lokapalas or dikpalas) plus the god Brahma in the centre (brahmasthanam) of the temple during a major festival (mahotsava). The ritual is accompanied by the worship of the structure called balipitha (seat of offering), and thus is thought of as part of a larger offering often called balidana or baliharana.

    "Textual injunctions for the performance of such dances at the time of balidana is found in south Indian Sanskrit Agamas such as the Kumara Tantra and in the Shaiva commentator Sadyojatashivacharyas manual for priests called Kriyakramadyotika. In the form of the kavuttuvams that we find in the Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam however, these rituals were performed by devadasis at the Thanjavur Brihadishvara temple and the Madurai Minakshi temple until ca. 1946 in Thanjavur and 1955 in Madurai."

    "The texts of the songs of the navasandhi kavuttuvam are descriptive in nature. They invoke both Sanskrit terms (such as the krantaka karana movement from the Natyashastra, and hand gestures pataka and arala mentioned as those used to depict Vayu in the Abhinayadarpana) and Tamil ones, (including the names of the basic modes [pans] of ancient Tamil music)."

    "The other kavuttuvams found in Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam are the following:

    • Ganapati kavuttuvam (on Ganesha);
    • Subramaniyar kavuttuvam (on Murugan);
    • Sirkali Campantar kavuttuvam (on the nayanar Tirujnanasambandar);
    • Chidambara Natesar kavuttuvam (on Shiva-Nataraja);
    • Tiruvalankadu Kali kavuttuvam (on Kali);
    • Tiruchengodu Vishnu kavuttuvam (on Vishnu);
    • Srivilliputtur Nachiyar kavuttuvam (on the alvar Andal);
    • Madurapuri Chokkar kavuttuvam (on Shiva-Chokkanatha of Madurai); and
    • Darukavanam Mahalinga kavuttuvam (on S hiva-Mahalingasvami of Tiruvidaimarudur).

    "Of these, four (those on Ganesha, Murugan, Nataraja, and Tirujnanasambandar) were among the five panchamurti kavuttuvams sung by the descendants of the Thanjavur Quartet every year during the festival of Tiruvadirai (also known as Arudra Darshana) at the Brihadishvara temple. These four songs plus another kavuttuvam on the saint Chandikeshvara would be sung by the dance-master as they played the cymbals (talam) while the processional image of Shiva as Somaskanda would be taken around the temple grounds."

    "Clearly then, the compositions in Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam were specifically compiled in textual form by observing and recording the living traditions of devadasi dance at a crucial point in history, and therefore its significance as an early 'documentation' of the south Indian dance repertoire cannot be understated."

Navasandhi kauthuvam

Navasandhi Kauthuvams can be traced back to before the Tanjore Quartet era. There is an opinion, that they were majorly performed in the Shaivite temples. These Tamil compositions are dedicated to the ashta dikpalas, the presiding deities of the eight directions, namely, Indra, Agni, Yama, Niruti, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera, Ishan with Brahma propitiated in the centre.

In medieval period Navasandhi Nrithyam used to be performed during the annual festivals before the deity was taken out in ceremonial procession to propitiate the gods of eight directions or sandhis - Brahma, Indra, Agni, Yama, Nirudhi, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera and Isaana must be propitiated before the commencement of temple festivals for their successful conduct and completion.

For instance, Navasandhi kauthuvams were performed during Brahmotsava festivals.

Brahmotsavam is a big temple festival, which starts with special ritual – Dwaja arohana (hoisting the flag). Each day of the festival the deity comes round the temple in procession on different vahanas (vehicles).

Navasandhi kauthuvam was performed on the first day of Brahmotsavam by devadasi. This ceremony was called Dik-vandana (dik means direction, vandana – prayer). During Dik-vandana the special procession was going round the temple and stopped in particular places (corresponding to each direction). Those places are always marked by two small stone pedestals of round shape intended for installation of deities. Corresponding part of Navasanshi Kauthuvam was performed by dancers who were facing the corresponding direction.

Meaning of Navasandhi kauthuvam is protection and purification of the place by praising nine guardians. It is offering to deities before commencement of Brahmotsavam festival.

Navasandhi kauthuvam is the composition in praise of guardians of nine directions (nava-sandhi):

  • East – Indra on Airavata (while elephant)
  • South East – Agni on Mesha (the male goat).
  • South – Yama on Mahisha (the male buffalo).
  • South West – Nirurti on Ashwa (horse).
  • West – Varuna on Makara (the crocodile).
  • North West – Vayu on Mruga (the spotted deer).
  • North – Kubera on Nara (Man)
  • North East – Isana on Vrishbha (bull)
  • Center – Brahms on lotus or swan.

Navasandhi kauthuvam comprised nine short dances, 3-4 minutes each. It comprises sollukattu-s and sahityam parts. Each dance starts with jathi (pure nritta) followed by sahityam (abhinaya). In each part details of corresponding guardian should be described, his consort, vehicle, weapons, and mudras.

Being ritualistic in nature, there were many constraints regarding their performance: they could be performed only in the appropriate areas within the temple precincts. In addition, each kauthuvam contained specifics of its ragam and talam, besides its deity's preferences of ragam, talam, hastam and vaadyam.

Navasandhi kauthuvams were composed in the following specific ragas and talas:

South EastAgni Varatai, NattaiMattavarna
SouthYama Desaksi, RamagiriBhringi
South WestNirurti Kuntala, BhauravuMalla
WestVaruna Varali, JybharuNaga
North WestVayu Mukuntava, Desagiri Bali
NorthKubera Melavasri, GaudhikaGauli
North EastIsanaMalahari, TundiraBhakkai
CenterBrahma Madhyamavathi Brahma

Note: The set of thalams most commonly associated with temple rituals is known as "Navasandhi thalams".

For instance, the Brahma Sandhi kauthuvam was set in ragam Madhyamavathi, tisra eka talam, the preferred ones being Madhyamavathi ragam, Brahma talam, chatura hamsasyam hasta, and sat satputam vaadyam.

Before banning of Devadasi, Navasandhi kauthuvam was performed at many temples, long before Tanjore Quartette (who codified and systematized the lyrics and composed music for the kauthuvams famous today). It was performed either before the procession of the Lord or during procession (if procession went round the temple).

It is also known, that these Kavuttuvams were performed as dance numbers until the times of Sabhapati and Mahadevan nattuvanar, the sons of Sivanandam (one of the Tanjore Quartette), but later such a practice was dispensed with.

I got to know that such rituals were followed in Tanjavur and Srirangam temples. I read also, that in first half of 20th cen such procession happened in Kapaleswarar temple of Chennai (Mylapore). I read about this in reminiscences of the last devadasi of this temple - Mylapore Gowri Ammal.

I also noticed, that there are special pairs of stones installed in each temple - outer diameter of main shrine, outer diameter of prakaras (inner walls) and outer wall. Those stones indicate eight directions. They were used as pedestals for deities. Procession stopped at each of eight points marked with those stones. Deity was installed on the stone, puja done, and dance was performed as part of offering. Then procession moved to the next point, etc. Those stones are considered as auspicious, they protect the temple from calamities.

Pancha murthi kauthuvam

Pancha murthi kauthuvam is a collection of five Kavuttuvams set to ghana Ragas in praise of five (pancha) deities (murthi means image or embodiment of the deity). Pancha murthi-s are:

Deity Raga Tala
1 Vinayakar (Ganesha) Nattai Adi
2 Subramanya (Muruga, Scanda, Vellan) Gowla Catusra Eka
3 Sambandar (one of four major Tamil saints) Arabhi Sarva Laghu
4 Candikesvara (canonized devotee of Siva) Sriragam Catusra Eka
5 Nataraja Varali Sarva Laghu

Pancha murthi kauthuvam was usually sung on Thiruvadiram day (day Siva and Parvati’s marriage).

Gangaimuthu, the grandfather of Tanjore Quartette is said to have written many Navasandhi and Pancamurti Kavuttuvams in his work "Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam".


  1. Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam (1898) by Gangaimuttu Pillai (1837-1920)
  2. Inscribing Practice. Reconfigurations and Textualizations of Devadasi Repertoire in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-century South India by Hari Krishnan
  3. Dhvaja-Stambha: Critical Account of its Structural and Ritualistic Details by S.S. Janaki in Siva Temple and Temple Rituals ed. by Janaki, S.S., Madras: Kuppuswami Research Institute, 1988
  4. Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India by Kersenboom, Saskia, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987
  5. Kauthuvam by Padmashri Chitra Visweswaran and Sangita Kala Acharya T. S. Parthasarathy
  6. Kavuthuvams: A Study by Sangeetha Shyam
  7. Mallari: endangered species by Dr. Vedavalli, Sruti No. 42, July 2010