Decoding the gramaraga

Kudimiyanmalai is a small hill situated in the Tamizh heartland near Pudukottai. On a rock face behind the Shikhanathaswamy temple, on the hill we find the earliest source of notation in Indian classical music history. These inscriptions, dated to the 7 {+t} {+h}/8 {+t} {+h} century AD during the reign of the Pallavas, are in Pallava grantha script. There is mention of a Rudracharya and historians believe that this refers to the Pallava king Mahendravarman I.


The music notated is related to the Desi tradition and it is believed that the notations were used to teach music. Seven gramaragas have been notated and these ragas represent the form that was in vogue before the classification of gramaragas into suddha, bhinna etc. had arrived. The colophon also mentions the parivardhini (a type of veena) and scholars associate this inscription to instrumental playing of these ragas.

The rock face has 38 horizontal lines of musical notation. Each line has 64 svaras split into four sets each with each set having four svaras. There does not seem to be any variation of duration in the svaras. We find that a svara never repeats itself immediately and the last svara in each set of four svaras is the same in each line. For the first time consonants S,R,G,M,P,D,N are used to denote the seven svaras. Secondly and more importantly we find that these svaras are followed by four vowels u,e,a,i. For e.g., we find that for svara G the use of a(Ga),i(Gi),u(Gu),e(Ge). We also find the presence of two vikrita svaras antara gandhara ( A) and kakali nishada ( K). Both these svaras are weak in nature, meaning not used very often and used only as leading svaras to M and S respectively. In the case of these two svaras the vowel ending i is never used. The functionality of these vowel endings have led to various explanations.

Explanations for the usage of the vowels given by scholars have varied from associating them to techniques of instrumental playing to trying to associate them to the 22 srutis but they are all found wanting for various reasons which I shall not elaborate here. Dr Richard Widdess gives an explanation that seems to be the most accurate when we analyse the notation and his interpretation. Without going into details, here are the observations. Vowel usage in the notation indicates the relative svarasthana level between two svaras. The vowels are ranked as u,e,a,i with u denoting the least relative interval and i the largest relative interval. We know for example that S – N is a larger rising seven note interval as compared to S – G which would be a three note rising one. This is exactly what these vowels seem to indicate. Therefore in the above example we could use Su – Ni to denote S – N and Su – Ge for S – G. Of course the vowels are also used in relation to all the four svaras in each set. We must understand that since there are only four vowels for seven notes their usage is spread sometimes arbitrarily .We need to understand the same in each context. Dr Widdess has corroborated his explanation with various other references from grantha script to the Sangita ratnakara.

These inscriptions are important and definite proof of Desi music in Tamizh land. When we also look at the treatises from the same period including the commentators of the Silapadhigaaram we find a lot of commonality with Sanskrit treatises. Therefore it is safe to assume that there was interplay between Desi music and local music of the Tamizh region without going into which came first.

The Tirumurai are about 11000 Saivaite Hymns by 27 authors, which constitute the works of all the great saivaite saints of the period 7 {+t} {+h} – 12 {+t} {+h} century in 12 parts. The first seven Thirumurai composed by the three saints Tirugnanasambandar (7 {+t} {+h} century AD), Thirunavukarasar (6 {+t} {+h} /7 {+t} {+h} century AD) and Sundarar (8 {+t} {+h} century AD) are generically known together as the Thevaram. The Thirumurai originally consisted only of the works of the three saints; later Sivaneeshachelvar added four more Tirumurais of other saints, which included the Thiruvachakam of Mannikavachakar.

Between the times of the three saints and the 12 {+t} {+h} century the singing tradition of these Thevarams seem to have disappeared and the manuscripts were locked in a vault in the Chidambaram Nataraja temple. In the 12 {+t} {+h} century the Chola king Raja Raja Chola found and revived the Thevarams, and with the help of Nambiandar Nambi. Nambiandar Nambi added the last Tirumurai namely, the Periya-puranam of Sekkizhaar, giving an account of the sixty-three Nayanmars.

Pann classifications

In Tamizh treatises we find the reference to 103 panns. Of these 103, only 23 are found in Thevarams. There is one more pann called Yazhmuri pann (with an interesting anecdote to it), which is not found in the 103 panns. The 23 panns are divided into three groups: Pagalpan (those that can be sung during the day), Iravu pann (for singing in the night) and podupann (those that can be sung at any time). The music of these Thevarams is attributed to a lady belonging to the Tirunilakantayazhpaanar family. She was approached by Nambiandar Nambi, as nobody knew how to sing the hymns when they were found.

The singing tradition of Thevarams belongs completely to the Odhuvars of Tamizh Nadu. They were officially appointed and paid to sing these hymns in the Saivaite temples by Raja Raja Chola in the 12 {+t} {+h} century, a tradition that still continues. Most of the Odhuvars learnt thevarams in oral tradition while some of them have learnt Carnatic classical music formally. Odhuvars perform Panniru Tirumurai inside the sanctum of the temple very strictly following the panns as handed down without liberties of improvisations etc, accompanied by cymbals but are allowed to sing the same Thevarams with far more flexibility and improvisation and even change panns while singing outside the sanctum in the temple. Outside the sanctum over the ages many instruments like Yazh, flute, mrudangam, sarangi, clarinet, violin, and harmonium have accompanied the renditions.

From 1949 the Tamizh Isai Sangam has been trying to find raga equivalents to the panns. This has been done on the basis of the singing of the Thevarams by traditional schools of Thevara Isai. The 23 panns have been equated to 15 ragas meaning that there are multiple panns for the same raga. The obvious question now arises: how can we be sure that the tunes have not changed in the last 1000 years of rendition? The explanations are that the Odhuvars even today do not include panns other than the 23 in their renditions and that they did not practice any other form of music. Both these reasons may not be airtight as we do find differences in panns being used in different temples and even in the conclusions made by the Tamizh Isai Sangam. For example the pann Indhalam is believed to be equivalent to Mayamalavagowla though the Odhuvars sing it as Nadanamakriya but some scholars believe it is Hindolam.

It’s also a fact that the temple was a hub of music and dance. It is very likely that the music of the Thevarams did change with the times, as the Odhuvars would have been exposed to Carnatic ragas. It is possible that the panns they were using were close to some raga melodies and later they completely merged into the raga identity. All that we can confidently conclude is that panns as they are sung in the 20 {+t} {+h} century are similar to certain ragas of the modern era and sometimes even the same pann is sung as two different ragas in different traditions.

Originally written for The Hindu

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