The Sevvaikizhamai Paditturai is a landmark in Tiruvaiyaru. It is as the name suggests, one of the flights of steps to the Cauvery. Close to it is a chattiram or choultry, built by the aristocratic Soorve family.
It has been converted into a residence by the clan in recent years and is best known for the fact that the palanquin in which Lord Panchanadeeswara travels during the Sapta Sthanam festival is stored here for the rest of the year. The Soorves in fact are the major sponsors for the decoration of the palanquin. The building has a pillared verandah fronting it and this opens into a corridor that has a giant Ganesha mural done in the best Thanjavur tradition.
The passage leads to a vast open courtyard and beyond. A stone edict let into the verandah wall has it that the chattiram was constructed in memory of Durgabai, the wife of Balwant Rao Soorve and was meant for the daily feeding of Brahmins. The words Paraloka Sadhanaartham occur in the text, thereby indicating that this building was put up for the salvation of Durga Bai.
In its time, Tiruvaiyaru was full of chattirams of this kind, all of them as per locals, bearing edicts that included the phrase Paraloka Sadhanam. Structures such as the Seethabai, Pacchayappa and Balayi Chattirams were works of art and today most have made way for drab marriage halls. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Tiruvaiyaru was considered to be the local equivalent of Kasi and many travelled here in their old age to die by the river. A Kasi Viswanatha Swami Temple abuts the Cauvery to reinforce this. The rich, when they were close to death, endowed the village with choultries and at one time Tiruvaiyaru had as many as 60 of them. The most famous of these was by Pacchayappa, the well-known dubash, who died when just 40, of complications bought on by diabetes and infantile paralysis. That was in 1797, when Tyagaraja was 30. Pacchayappa moved to Tiruvaiyaru just to die, and built two structures, one his residence and the other the chattiram (for his Paraloka Sadhanam).
Two songs of Tyagaraja — ‘Paraloka sadhaname manasa’ (Purvikalyani) and ‘Paraloka Bhaya’ (Mandari) — appear to mock the habits of such people. The first song states that chanting Rama’s name is the only means of salvation in the hereafter and can destroy all worldly afflictions. The second goes into great detail — people consider elephants, horses, charming gardens, women, progeny, colourful clothes and rain-shelters (chattirams) as heaven itself and get so bound in them that they have no time to think of afterlife. It is interesting that the first song uses the same expression found in the endowed chattiram edicts.
The ways of the rich are made fun of in ‘Emi jesite nemi’ (Thodi) as well. In this song, certain lines may have been inspired by real-life happenings. Tyagaraja mentions many practices then in vogue. One of these was adoption to protect family wealth.
The most famous instance of this in his time was that of King Tulaja II going (1786) to Satara to legally take on as his heir the eight-year old boy Sarabhoji. This adoption would be mired in controversy for almost ten years and it was only in 1798 that the prince would formally ascend the Thanjavur throne. Another line mentions the building of palatial houses and fixing lanterns in pairs on them. The rich of Thanjavur and the dubashes of Madras were perpetually building all over the Cauvery delta — new agraharams were coming up as were huge rest houses and residences. Lanterns were a rarity in Madras Presidency, flaring torches being the preferred method of illumination in public almost until Tyagaraja’s passing in 1847. It was only the rich who could afford such things and it is interesting that the composer uses a loan word in Telugu — ‘landaru’ —which is an adaptation from the English lantern.
The Soorves and their chattiram would play an important role in the aradhana of Tyagaraja, which commenced 60 years after his demise. The land on which Tyagaraja’s samadhi stands and the burial ground surrounding it was all owned by a trust of which the Soorves were administrators. When Bangalore Nagarathnamma decided to acquire the samadhi land in 1921, she bought fertile land of the same extent in the Tiruvaiyaru area and exchanged it with the trust’s samadhi property.
The chattiram at Sevvaikizhamai Paditturai was where she first resided in Tiruvaiyaru and this was where she hosted her Devadasi friends, all of whom descended on Tiruvaiyaru to conduct their exclusive women’s only Aradhana to Tyagaraja, each year from 1926 to 1940. In a way, the building has played a role in the ‘paraloka sadhanam’ of the composer too!
This article is part of a series to commemorate 250 years of Tyagaraja and appeared in The Hindu dated July 7, 2017
The earlier instalments can be read here