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Dikshitar is a composer whose kritis (musical compositions) reflect his scholarship, his peripatetic life and his keen observation of the sites he visited and a thorough rootedness in the philosophy of non-duality.

Nothing can be more illustrative of the above observation than a set of compositions collectively referred to as the “panchabhuta linga kritis.”

What are the pancha bhutas(five elements)?

All of life can be explained as constituted of the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth—known in various Indian languages as akasham, vayu, agni, jalam, and prithvi respectively.

This model applies to human beings as well as any form of creation. We human beings are nurtured by fire that regulates our body temperatures; two thirds of our bodies are nothing but water; the air we breathe is the prana of existence; our material is nothing but the earth; and above all—much “space” or “nothingness” pervades our bodies.

Deep in South India, Shiva is worshipped in the form of each of these elements. Chidambaram is one of India’s most venerated Shiva temples and is the seat of Akasha lingam where Shiva is worshipped both as the cosmic dancer and as the embodiment of Space. A mysterious draft of air is said to aerate Srikalahasti temple located near Tirupati.

Tiruvannamalai, an ancient center of Saivite worship regards the Arunachala or the red hill as the column of fire whose limits could not be traced by Vishnu and Brahma. A perennial water spring flows through the Shivalingam in the sanctum at the Jambunatha temple in Jambukesvaram near Tiruchirappalli. An anthill symbolizing a Prithvi lingam or earth phallus, adorns the sacred sanctum of the Ekamresvara temple in Kanchipuram.

Each of the above temples is a time-honored shrine of worship. Each of these temples were reverentially addressed by the sacred Tamil poetry written by the nayanmars of the 1st millennium. Every one of the above temples can be described as vast temple complexes—rich in architecture, sculpture and hoary festival traditions. Needless to say, each of these is visited by thousands of devotees and pilgrims throughout the year.

While today’s network of roads and taxis make commute to Chidambaram nothing more than a four hour ride from Chennai, travel during Dikshitar’s time must have been intimidating.

Yet Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775—1835) traveled to each of these shrines, perhaps on foot or on bullock cart.

His visit to these temples is not marked by photo-ops or portraits, but compositions that he created that serve as brilliant testimonials to his musical and lyrical skills and his scholarship.

Dikshitar visited Chidambaram on his way from Manali near Chennai to his birthplace Tiruvarur. The song “ananda natana prakasam” in praise of Shiva in a 7 beat cycle is set to the Raga Kedaram and is a description of Shiva the cosmic dancer. He also invokes Shiva’s consort Shivakami in this composition.

The Sri Kalahasti temple, which is shadowed by Tirupati/Tirumala was visited by Dikshitar during his stay at Manali soon after his return from Kashi. This composition is in the folk Raga Huseni or Ushani, probably signifying the folk origins of the Kannappa Nayanar story of a hunter worshipping Shiva at Kalahasti and attaining spiritual liberation.

Dikshitar sings praises of Tiruvannamalai using the kriti “Arunachala Natham” in the raga Saranga. The second syllable in most of the words occurring in this kriti (arunachala, smarami, aravindam) is “ra” signifying the element fire. The composition is set to the majestic 6 (12) beat cycle in the raga. In this composition Dikshitar states “I always think of arunachala natha; thinking of his lotus feet confers spiritual liberation.” He describes Shiva as a “Tejo maya lingam whose effulgence exceeds the sun and as nothing other thanchidananda—a personification of infinity or sheer bliss.”

Dikshitar visited Tiruvanaikkaval temple on his way to Madurai from Tiruvarur. The composition “Jambupate” in the Raga Yamuna kalyani, the longest of the five kritis invokes the feeling of a majestic dhrupad in the 12 beat cycle. This composition contains references to several water bodies such as “Ambudi, Ganga, Kaveri, Yamuna.” Chronologically, this is the fifth and the last of this group of compositions and Dikshitar explicitly calls this out by referring to Shiva as the cause of the Universe, an embodiment of the five elements and by praying for a cognizance of the true bliss of our immortal existence.

Kanchipuram is located close to Chennai and Dikshitar spent two years of his life in this temple-town and his repertoire has a number of kritis and nottusvara sahityas dedicated to the temples. The most noteworthy of these compositions is the pancha bhuta linga kriti “chintaya ma kanda mula kandam.” He again describes Shiva as a form of bliss.

The five temples were patronized and expanded by different dynasties at various points in time. Yet there is remarkable similarity in their layout. Similarly, the five kritis of Dikshitar were written at different points in time during his life. Yet, there is a thread of continuity through them. All of them are three-part compositions with parallels in compositional approach. Together, they present Dikshitar’s vision of creating a set of kritis that would present a picture of the pancha bhuta model of life.

The five compositions are a treasured collection of kritis that succinctly describe five ancient temples and their traditions and also bring out the underlying philosophy of advaita where all there is, is sat chit ananda (eternal, bliss, consciousness).

Kanniks Kannikeswaran is an internationally renowned musician, composer and music educator, whose award winning research on the Indo-colonial music of Dikshitar is beginning to influence Indian music pedagogy. Kanniks is a pioneer of the Indian American choral movement. He teaches Indian classical music at the University of Cincinnati.