The festival of Navaratri and the district of Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu are bound by a regal tradition of over 250 years of religious and social history. It is a la the Mysore Dussehra in a sense, though the scale of celebration has changed over the years. What the Wodeyars and Goddess Chamundeswari are to Mysore, the Thondaimans and Goddess Brahadambal (and Lord Dakshinamurthy) are to Pudukkottai.
Remadevi Thondaiman, a venerable member of the current royal family and S Srinivasan, an octogenarian native of the place, are a storehouse of information on the tradition.
The then Maharaja of Pudukkottah Samasthanam (Princely State of Pudukkottai), Vijaya Raghunatha Raya Thondaiman, instituted the worship of Lord Dakshinamurthy, an aspect of Shiva and arranged for the annual conduct of Navaratri, as ordained by his mentor, Sage Sadasiva Brahmam, way back in 1733. “The festival was celebrated in the state capital of Pudukkottah on a very grand scale until World War II. His highness himself used to lead the festive procession, called ‘sannasavari’,” recalled Srinivasan.
Cooking and mass feeding went non-stop in the royal choultries. Citizens assembled at the old palace square to receive the state dole and the festival would be complete only with ‘kanyapooja’, worship of unmarried young women and ‘suvasinipooja’, worship of auspiciously married women. “However, during 1939-45, the celebration was stopped as a measure of war economy and there was a lull during the times of privy purse abolition and states merger. As time passed, Marthandapuram K Nagarajan, a s tate lawyer (‘durbar vakil’), carried on the tradition, as wished by the royal family, though on a minuscule scale,” reminisced Remadevi and Srinivasan.
In the 1990s, Remadevi evinced a fresh interest in the heritage. “I felt a propulsion from within, in 1992 to be exact, and have been carrying on the mission as desired by my elders ever since, for universal peace and prosperity (‘lokakshemam’), approximating to the original glory,” she revealed.
Currently, Remadevi, R Rajagopala Thondaiman, Sarubala R Thondaiman, former Mayor of Tiruchy City Corporation, V R Karthik Thondaiman, present Pudukkottai MLA, R Vijaykumar Thondaiman and Janaki Manohari jointly organise the festival at the Dakshinamurthy Temple in the old palace complex. Special prayers and distribution of gifts like sarees, blouse pieces and ‘ashtamangalam’, sacred make-up for women, mark the occasion.
The major share of the expenditure is borne by the royal family and a part by the Nagarathars, notably Vairavan Chettiyar, a former Thakkar (fit person) of the Brahadambal Temple at Thirugokarnam, a suburb of Pudukkottai town.
Both the temples are equally dear to the royalty. Goddess Brahadambal is their familial deity and Lord Dakshinamurthy is the deity of their personal choice (‘upasanadevatha’). Navaratri is conducted at both the shrines. Remadevi has spent nearly one-and-a-half years at Thirugokarnam, supervising the renovation of the temple. Like in Mysore, music programmes are organised in Pudukkottai too, during the celebration. The Divine Mother is hailed as ‘Navaratri Dinaradhya’, one who is worshipped during the Navaratri days and ‘Jaya Sangita Rasike’, one who delights in music. “My mother, Radha, was a disciple of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. I myself am a student of Srinivasan and we presented a veena duet as the inaugural programme on the day of revival of the festival 20 years back,” pointed out Remadevi.
Today Navaratri is regarded as a festival of socialisation and celebration, but ideally it is a means to edification, capable of leading the aspirant to a state of power and wealth through wisdom (Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi). One can already perceive a bright aura of devotion and spirituality around this historic town. Remadevi wants to make the halo brighter.