Early thinkers have written that all creation is made up of five elements- space, air, fire, water and earth. As per the Taittriya Upanishad these elements came from the Supreme Being. Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntala begins with the verse “yA shrShTihi shrAShTurAdhyA bhavati…” which traces all creation to the divine couple Parvati and Parameshwara thereby embodying them as the Supreme source of all creation. In South India, on the same lines, there are five important temples, all dedicated to Lord Shiva, each one of them representing him as one of the five elements.
Muttuswami Dikshitar (1775/6-1835), the great composer visited each one of these shrines and dedicated songs to them. These are today referred to as the Pancha Bhuta Kritis (songs on the five elements). It is not clear if the composer himself intended them to be grouped together, though they do have certain common features. All the five songs have the standard kriti structure of pallavi, anupallavi and charanam. All kritis incorporate the raga mudras, a characteristic of many Muttuswami Dikshitar kritis.
Chidambaram is the shrine where Shiva is worshipped as Space. The sanctum has the world-famous icon of Nataraja, the dancing deity beside which is an empty space referred to as Chidambara Rahasyam or the secret of Chidambaram. The very word Chidambaram is full of cosmic symbolism for it refers to the space within the heart of the devotee where the Lord is said to be in cosmic dance as depicted by Nataraja. This space is also called daharAkAsha. Dikshitar’s kriti here is Ananda naTana prakAsham in raga kEdAra. The song opens with the lines describing the Lord as being effulgent in dance and as the Lord of Sivakamavalli. The first lines of the anupallavi, emphasising the space motif, describe the Lord’s effulgence as being equal to many suns. It then states that he pervades daharAkAsha and grants salvation. The last line of the anupallavi has the legend behind the temple as it states that Shiva displayed himself with an uplifted foot to Patanjali and Vyaghrapada here. The charanam, continuing on the space theme, says the Lord bears the moon and the Ganga (which is believed to be of heavenly origin) and has a blue neck, the colour blue once again indicating space. The importance of Chidambaram as the foremost Shaivaite shrine is emphasised when the composer says Nataraja here is the basis for all shrines beginning with Kedara. The raga name is also incorporated here. Legend has it that 3000 sages left for Chidambaram from Kailasa and on reaching their destination found one missing. The Lord then indicated that He was that person and counting Him in would make 3000. This is highlighted in the line “bhUsura trisahasra munIshvaram”. The song, in keeping with one dedicated to a dancing deity has sollukattus to be sung at the end of the anupallavi and charanam.
shrI kAlahastIsha in raga Huseni is on Shiva as Vayu Linga. A lamp that keeps flickering in the rather airless sanctum shows the manifestation of Shiva as air here. The song says Shiva is like the zephyr to His devotees. The anupallavi states that He is the life breath of the Gods and manifests as the five elements, for all five have shrines for themselves here. The shrine is referred to Dakshina Kailasa (the Southern equivalent to Kailasa). The charanam says the Lord here is the consort of Gnanaprasoonambika. The last line speaks of Kannappa Nayanar as the lowly huntsman who worshipped the Lord here and made the shrine famous. The raga mudra is in the line prANamayakOshAnIla bhUmi salila agni prakAsha. In the Dikshitar system this raga was called UshAni.
The Lord manifests as fire at Tiruvannamalai. Called Arunachalanatha, His consort here is Apitakuchamba. The song in sAranga, aruNAcalanAtham, mentions Her in the pallavi. Simply thinking of Arunachala is said to grant salvation and Dikshitar states this in the opening line of the anupallavi as smaraNAt kaivalya prada. Taking fire as the theme, he says the Lord is like many suns at dawn. The charanam says that He is the ancient effulgent Shiva Linga. It has been scientifically proven that the rock of Arunachala is one of the oldest on earth and has a fiery origin, either a volcanic eruption or a meteor strike. The Linga itself is unusual for it is grey in colour bringing to mind a stone of volcanic origin. Dikshitar states that the Lord bears a Saranga (deer) in His hand, thereby bringing in the raga mudra. The madhyamakAla charanam begins with viprOttama viShEshAntarangam, bringing to mind the special grace shown to Gnanasambanda at this shrine. The last line once again brings in the fire motif – the Lord’s effulgence puts the sun, the moon and fire to shame. sAranga is a synonym for camphor, an easily flammable substance.
jambUpatE in raga Yamuna (also the name of a river) is on Shiva as water, in which form He is worshipped at Tiruvanaikka near Trichy. The sanctum of Shiva always has water from the Kaveri seeping in and in the rainy season it floods the shrine. This is a song steeped in fluid symbolism. The pallavi asks the Lord to give the nectar of bliss. The anupallavi states that He is worshipped by Brahma who is seated on the lotus which is born in water and that He quenches the fires (sorrows) of the heart. Then it states that He is the Lord of the rivers Sindhu, Ganga, Kaveri, Yamuna (also the raga mudra) and Goddess Akhilandeshwari who has a throat like a conch (which is of water origin). The charanam refers to the sthala puranam and says that the Lord here is the water Linga worshipped by the daughter of the mountains and residing at sAmajATavi (the forest of elephants).
Shiva in the form of earth is worshipped in Kanchipuram. Here he is Ekamranatha, residing at the root of a mango tree. He is hence also referred to as mAmUlanAtha. Dikshitar refers to this in cintaya mAkanda mUla kandam. A panel depicting Shiva as Somaskanda (Shiva with Uma and Skanda) is below this mango tree and hence the second line of the song propitiates Somaskanda. The anupallavi states that Shiva’s feet provide empires, an indirect allusion to the Pallava Empire that flourished from here. An empire is also an earthly possession. In the charanam, there are allusions to the God of Love and the God of Death (Shiva excels Madana in beauty and quelled Yama) both important personages for humans. The last lines speak of the deity as Bhairavi prasanga (embraced by Parvati). This brings in the raga mudra and also refers to the purana here where Parvati worshipped Shiva in the form of a sand linga. To test her devotion, Shiva sent a flood through the river Kampa which threatened the linga. Parvati in her anxiety embraced it and Shiva was pleased. This song mentions no consort for there is no shrine for Her in the temple. All the Shiva temples of Kanchipuram have no shrine for Devi and the only Devi shrine is that of Kamakshi.
Dikshitar’s Pancha Bhuta Kritis are fascinating musically and otherwise.