Tyagaraja’s tambura

When I entered the Sri Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Kovil in Madurai on that January evening in 2016, I had no idea of what I was about to see. I don’t think other members of the group I was travelling with did either.

The only clue that there was something important in the temple came from Sriram’s (our group leader) rather enigmatic statement that there was a surprise waiting for us there. He wouldn’t say what it was though, and went off in search of the priest.

I looked around trying to guess what the ‘surprise’ could be. Was it the 12 ft tall Hanuman idol? Was it the Perumal idol in the sanctum? Or was it something else? As I looked around trying to figure out the ‘surprise’ in the temple, Sriram beckoned to our group to gather around a small shrine on one side. It was a simple shrine with two framed pictures — one of which I recognised as that of Tyagaraja (1767-1847), one of the greatest composers of Carnatic classical music — and two old tanpuras or tamburas.

Tyagaraja, Tanpura, Tambura, Musical Instrument, Saint Thyagaraja, Prasanna Venkatsa Perumal Temple, Madurai, Musical Heritage
Tygaraja’s framed portrait and tambura is on the left, while Venkataramana Bhagavathar’s tambura and framed portrait are on the right.

As the priest bustled around getting the shrine opened, Sriram casually announced that the tambura on the left used to belong to Tyagaraja. You could have heard a pin drop at the silence that followed.

Tyagaraja, Tanpura, Tambura, Musical Instrument, Saint Thyagaraja, Prasanna Venkatsa Perumal Temple, Madurai, Musical HeritageWell not exactly. An excited chatter broke out amongst our group, but I heard nothing for all I could see was Tyagaraja’s tambura. It took a while before I realised that the chatter had stopped and Sriram was talking about the history of the temple, the organisation that owns it — the Madurai Sourashtra Sabha — and how Tyagaraja’s tambura came to be at the temple.

The Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Temple is about 125 years old, though the site has been a place of worship since the late 1700s for the Sourashtra community. Originally from Sourashtra region in present day Gujarat, this community of expert weavers arrived in Madurai on the invitation of the then king, Thirumalai Nayak (r.1623-1659). Over the decades and centuries since their arrival in Madurai, the Sourashtra community has thrived and grown and have become part of the social fabric of the city and the state they call home now.

The Sourashtra community in Tamil Nadu has produced many notable and famous people, but the one who is relevant to this blogpost is Venkataramana Bhagavathar (1781-1874), one of the foremost disciples of Tyagaraja. He stayed with Tyagaraja for 26 years and was responsible for writing down the compositions of Tyagaraja, a prolific composer. But for someone like Venkataramana Bhagavathar to record the compositions, Tyagaraja’s music would not have become the precious legacy we have inherited today.

When Tygaraja died, his tambura, padukas, as well as some manuscripts were entrusted to the care of Venkataramana Bhagavathar. And when the Bhagavathar passed away in 1874, Tyagaraja’s relics and his own tambura and padukas were handed over to the Madurai Sourashtra Sabha by his descendants.

Both sets of relics have since then been preserved and taken care of by the Sabha. While the tamburas are worshipped daily, the padukas are brought out only on special occasions.

Tyagaraja, Tanpura, Tambura, Musical Instrument, Saint Thyagaraja, Prasanna Venkatsa Perumal Temple, Madurai, Musical Heritage
Tyagaraja’s padukas

After seeing the tamburas, we headed to the Madurai Saurashtra Sabha office across the road where the padukas of both Tyagaraja and Venkataramana Bhagavathar are kept. They were brought out with due ceremony for us to see, after which a music session followed where Bharat Sundar, the musician accompanying our group, sang a couple of Tyagaraja compositions.

Tyagaraja, Tanpura, Tambura, Musical Instrument, Saint Thyagaraja, Prasanna Venkatsa Perumal Temple, Madurai, Musical Heritage
Bharat Sundar singing a Tyagaraja composition

It has been more than a year since that visit and I still remember that day in Madurai vividly. A day of visiting the two Azhagar temples of the city and one which ended with a visit to the Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Kovil and unexpectedly coming across Tyagaraja’s relics. I still get goosebumps when I think of that moment.

It was a perfect end to a perfect day in Madurai. 🙂

PS: Have you visited the Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Temple and seen Tyagaraja’s tambura?

Disclaimer: I was part of a Chennai Pastforward group led by V. Sriram, that toured Madurai in the first week of January 2016. This was NOT a free, sponsored or discounted trip.

Madurai Series:
MS Subbulakshmi’s House | The Meenakshi Amman Kovil | Memories of Madurai: A photo essay | The two Azhagar Kovils | Pathu thoon or the 10 pillars | The palace that Thirumalai Nayak built | Tyagaraja’s Tanpura |

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15 thoughts on “Tyagaraja’s tambura

      1. Wow!
        I also think that you have a talent for truly observing and soaking up all that culture, beauty and history. That really shows in your posts! Can’t wait to read your next post!


    1. Thank you for your comment, Krishnamurthy. The tamburas can be easily seen as they are in the temple, but you will have to ask for the padukas to be shown to you.


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