The Chamundeswari temple, Mysore
The name Mysore is said to be a corruption of Mahishoor, the town of Mahisha, where the goddess vanquished the demon, thereby becoming Mahishasuramardhini. The erstwhile capital of the eponymous princely state is dominated by the Chamundi Hill, on top of which is a temple dedicated to Chamundi or Chamundeswari – the goddess who slew Chanda and Munda. The advance guard for Mahishasura. Together with other attractions of Mysore city such as the City Palace, the Jaganmohan Palace, the zoo and the Karanji Tank, this shrine is a must on the itinerary of any tourist.
Chamundi Hill is around 1000 metres in height, its summit is easily accessed by a motor road in about 15 minutes. As the car winds upward, you catch glimpses of the various royal residences that dot Mysore, giving it the name City of Palaces. Fitness conscious Mysoreans however prefer to climb the hill, taking in their stride the flight of 1000 steps built by King Dodda Devaraya in 1659. The more athletic prefer to run up and down the hill.
The road to the summit leads to a small settlement on the hill and at its centre is the shrine to Chamundi. At the entrance is a colourful statue of Mahishasura armed with a sword in one hand and clutching a writhing snake in the other. The village is picturesque, with several old-world houses, chatram-s and shrines. It also abounds in bulls and monkeys, both considered sacred. The animals are continuously fed by the steady throng of pilgrims and present a uniformly healthy appearance. They are also remarkably tame and move freely among the humans.
The Chamundi temple is small by Dravidian standards. The exact age of the shrine is unknown but its antiquity is not doubted. Perhaps the oldest temple on the hill is that of Mahabaleswara (Siva), said to have been built by the Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana in the 12th century. The hill is also Chamundi shrine has seen continuous worship from the Vijayanagar times. It first became famous in 1573, when Chamaraja Wodeyar IV was saved from a lightning strike even as he was praying to the goddess. The first gopuram was erected by him in gratitude. This was replaced by the Rajagopuram built during the reign of Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1799-1866). Though he was ruler only in name, with the administration in the hands of the British, Mummadi Krishnaraja had the capital shifted from Srirangapatna to Mysore, marking the beginning of the development of the latter town. With that began the rise in prominence of the Chamundi shrine.
Entry into the temple is through the Rajagopuram after which you have to climb a series of steps that lead you to the mukha mandapam that fronts the small sanctum sanctorum. An interesting item in the mukha mandapam is a rack with guns arranged neatly in it, perhaps indicating that this is a martial goddess. Not so aesthetic are several plastic clocks and hideous calendar prints. The mandapam must have once been open on three sides, all of which are today closed by grille gates. Outside, monkeys wait patiently. If a gate is opened, they dart in, snatch a fruit or two and vanish.
A group of women are singing devotional songs in Kannada as I enter and take my seat. In a corner, someone is reciting the Lalita Sahasranamam. The doors to the sanctum are shut as worship is going on inside. I close my eyes and try to recollect all that I have read about the musical history of the place.
Though it is said the musical development of Mysore began in the 19th century, there are records of patronage to music by rulers such as Kantirava Narasaraja Wodeyar (r. 1638-1659 AD). During his time, Mahanavami – the ninth day of Navaratri – was celebrated in a grand manner, continuing the tradition of the Vijayanagar rulers. From then on, Dasara became an integral part of the Mysore calendar, reaching its zenith in the first half of the 20th century.
Patronage for the fine arts increased substantially after the Mysore kingdom was restored to the
Wodeyars in 1799. With the English ensuring external peace, the rulers could concentrate on what they did best, provide a spectacle, ensure pomp and circumstance and help the arts to flourish. The Mysore rulers also became exemplary administrators, held up as an example by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. Under these benign princes, the arts received a new lease of life and several musicians flocked to the court. Several composed songs on the tutelary deity of the royal
family – Chamundeswari.
Royalty perhaps led by example in this regard, for among the earliest composers was Mummadi Krishnaraja himself. He is credited with several compositions and javali-s in Kannada, in praise of goddess Chamundi. In fact his mudra was Sree Chamundi. The king’s son-in-law, Aliya Lingaraja Urs was a composer too. Using the mudra Lingaraja, he created kriti-s, lavani-s and javali-s. His most famous song Sringara lahari in raga Neelambari is on Devi, though not necessarily on Chamundi.
Among the distinguished musicians who visited the court was Chinniah of the Tanjavur Quartet whose sprightly Amba Sauramba (Arabhi/Adi) is in praise of Goddess Chamundi. As he died in 1856, we can attribute his visit to the temple to the time of Mummadi Krishnaraja. According to Prof. Sambamoorthy, Veena Kuppier, the disciple of Tyagaraja, also visited Mysore in 1856. His
Intaparakelanamma is dedicated to this goddess, and there is reference in the second charanam to Krishnaraja Wodeyar.
Krishnaraja was succeeded by Chamaraja X who ruled till 1894. During his reign, several musicians adorned the court and many others came calling. Foremost among these was Patnam Subramania Iyer. I could not remember any song on Chamundi by this composer, but then, Mysore Vasudevachar was one of his disciples and he was asthana vidwan of the Mysore court for many years. Sree Chamundeswari palaya mam (Bilahari/ Adi) is one of his most popular
compositions. And in it he gives us the old name for this hill, for he refers to the goddess as ‘Mahabaladri vaasini’ (one who resides on Mahabaladri).
Legend has it that the Acharya, while still a young lad, was desperate to learn from Patnam of whom he had heard so much. Knowing that the king was in the habit of passing through a particular route to have daily darsan of goddess Chamundi, young Vasu positioned himself on the way and managed to gain the ruler’s attention. He was given a letter from the king addressed to Patnam and that is how he began his tutelage under the master. By then the route to the temple appears to have become a favourite spot for musicians wanting to gain the king’s attention. Both Pallavi Sesha Iyer and Sivagangai Peria Vaidyanatha Iyer are said to have been rebuffed by palace musicians in their attempts to sing before the ruler. Each, at different times, is said to have sung on the road side and managed to catch the royal eye/ear.
I am woken from my reverie as the sanctum opens and the pilgrims are up on their feet. I too struggle to my feet and manage to catch a glimpse of the goddess before we are ushered out, to make way for another batch of worshippers. The goddess appears to be a figurine made of gold. She is in seated posture with several arms. Prominent among her jewels is a ‘nakshatra malika’ endowed by Mummadi Krishnaraja. It is a necklace with star-shaped pendants, each of which has Sanskrit hymns inscribed on it.
Going around the shrine, I reflect that this temple could not always have been as crowded as this.
After all, was it not by singing somewhere in this passage that Muthiah Bhagavatar managed to attract the king? But that was a different ruler. Chamaraja Wodeyar passed away in 1894 and was
succeeded by his minor son, Krishnarajendra Wodeyar IV, whose reign was the highpoint of Mysore history. Among the visitors during his time was Ramanathapuram Poochi Srinivasa
Iyengar. He composed a tillana in Todi (Adi tala) addressed to Chamundi, asking her to protect the ruler.
By then, the Mysore court was rivalling Madras and Tanjavur as a centre for music. It was known for its formidable veena tradition, with its famed trio of Seshanna, Subbanna and Padmanabha. Seshanna composed pieces addressed as prayers to goddess Chamundi to bless the king with long life. His ragamalika varnam on Chamarajendra X is in 17 raga-s (Begada, Nata, Gaula, Sree, Arabhi, Narayanagaula, Reetigaula, Varali, Hamsadhwani, Karnataka Kapi, Nayaki, Yaman, Yamunakalyani, Poorvi, Poorvikalyani, Poornachandrika and Siddhamohini) and set to sankeerna
Matya tala. It begins with the line Mahishasura samharini kripaku patra Sree Chamarajendra bhoopa. His kriti in Khamas (Misra Chapu tala) Kapadakku taaye is addressed to Devi and mentions her as being praised by Krishna Rajendra. Vasudevachar adorned the court of Krishna Rajendra and among his works, apart from Sre Chamundeswari in Bilahari, there are some other songs (see box) on the goddess.
It was at Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar’s behest that Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar embarked on composing 108 kriti-s on Chamundamba. But the first meeting between ruler and musician was hardly propitious, we are told. The king was unimpressed and dismissed Bhagavatar from his
presence after a few formal courtesies. A dejected Bhagavatar repaired to the Chamundi temple and there he sang Manamu kavalanu in Sahana and Tapullaniyu talukomma in Bauli. Unknown to him, the ruler was also worshipping at the shrine and revised his opinion on Bhagavatar’s singing abilities. Muthiah Bhagavatar became asthana vidwan and among the tasks entrusted to him was the Ashtottara Satanama kriti suite on Goddess Chamundi (see box for further details). Bhagavatar began the task in 1928. Even prior to this, Bhagavatar had composed some kriti-s on the goddess, but it was with hesitation that he took on the task of creating 108 kriti-s. Helped greatly by Devottama Jois, the palace scholar, he composed the lyrics and the music. The set was completed
by 1930 or so and today, these are among the most popular songs of Muthiah Bhagavatar’s. Besides these, Muthiah Bhagavatar also composed varnam-s and tillana-s dedicated to
As I emerge from the temple, I recollect there are two other shrines on the hill on which Muthiah
Bhagavatar composed songs. The first is Mahabaleswara. His song Mahabaleswara vibho in Saranga/Roopakam is part of the propitiatory pieces prior to the Chamundamba suite. In this song, he attributes to Siva Mahabaleswara the task of bearing the burden of composing the 108 songs (Chamundamba ashtottarasata sankeertana rachanaadhaara). The temple is small and the linga is even smaller. It is in fact so tiny that you have to peer into the avudai to see it.
Close by is the Lakshminarayana temple. Narayana nagasayanaBhagavatar’s prayer to this deity. In
this he prays to the Lord to grant him the skill to compose the 108 songs (deva Chamundamba ashtottara sata divya nama kriti rachana chaturya bhavam dehi). This too is a tiny shrine with a ramp leading to it’s rather fort-like structure. An imposing bull lay in front and despite several people telling me it was a tame creature, I did not dare to go past it. I also noticed that all of them were waiting at a safe distance!
As I walk back to the car, the driver asks me if I want to see the Rajendra Vilas palace. It is on the
hill and is the last of the royal residences commissioned, before Independence brought the rule of the Wodeyars to a close. It is presently locked, but I remember reading somewhere that this was a
favourite of the last queen, Tripurasundari Ammani Avaru, wife of Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the ruler who succeeded Krishna Rajendra IV in 1940. It then struck me that this ruler was a composer too. Among his 90 odd kritis, there are some dedicated to goddess Chamundi.
Papanasam Sivan has also paid tribute to goddess Chamundi. His Tava charanau mama saranau, with wonderful Sanskrit lyrics is in Todi and set to Roopaka tala. His Chamundeswari Sankari in Saveri/Adi is a grand piece, also in Sanskrit. It mentions the grandeur of the Navaratri celebration at the temple, which is quite a spectacle, though not rivalling the Dasara procession that takes place in Mysore city. One line in the anupallavi goes: Sree karanavaratri mahotsava kolahala milita bhuvana prasadini.
The float festival
Muthiah Bhagavatar was also moved by the Navaratri celebrations on the hill. One of his songs, set in the rare raga Alankari begins as Navaratrotsava vaibhave. The annual float festival of the temple is also a colourful affair and takes place at the Devi Kola, a short distance from the temple. Vasudevachar, in his biography Na Kanda Kalavidaru (translated by his grandson S. Krishnamurthy as With Masters of Melody) relates a funny incident that took place during the annual float festival on Chamundi Hill:
“His Highness (Krishnarajendra Wodeyar IV) had ordered that (Bidaram) Krishnappa and I should sing together on the occasion of the teppotsava (festival of float) on the Chamundi Hills. His Highness asked us to sing a Dikshitar keertana, Mahishasuramardhini in Narayani which neither of us knew. Dodda Venkataramaniah who was accompanying us on the violin told us that he knew just the trend of the pallavi and sang it for us.
When the float moved away from the bank on which His Highness was seated and glided towards the other, we mugged up the pallavi. As the teppa was again nearing His Highness, we started singing kalpana swara-s to the pallavi of the keertana, one avarta each. When the teppa drifted away from the king, we kept quiet. We thus managed to get out of the ordeal.
“O God! We are spared today,” we exclaimed with a sigh of relief and had a hearty laugh.
The very next day, we were summoned by His Highness. “The keertana you sang yesterday was
excellent. We should however like to listen to the anupallavi and charana of the keertana as well,” said the Maharaja, with a mischievous smile lurking at his lips.
We both turned pale and with some effort managed a sheepish smile.”
We drive on and I wonder if the goddess now misses musicians coming to worship and composing
on Her. Evidently not, for the list of modern composers who have created songs on Chamundi is
only growing. A casual scan reveals songs by Bangalore Mukund, R.N. Doreswami, D. Pattammal and Cuddalore Subramaniam. So what if the captains and kings have departed?