Carnatic Compositions – The Essence and Embodiment

-Aparna Munukutla Gunupudi

Our intent for this essay is to highlight the great features of the language, emotion and melody (rAgam) of a krithi (song/composition) and also to provide the song for your listening pleasure.  Most of you may know these krithis, but when you discover the distinct features of a krithi, you may enjoy a new beauty or an attribute in the krithi.

Note: Krithi is defined as a song containing pallavi, anupallavi and charanam that have high musical value and can be sung elaborately with improvisations.  Whereas Keerthana also has a pallavi, anupallavi and charanam but is sung in a single form or simpler pattern.


Krithi: arunAchalanAtham

rAgam: Saranga

tAlam: Rupaka talam

Composer: Muthuswamy Deekshitar

Singer:  Arvind Lakshmikanthan


aruNAchala nAtham smarAmi anisam apItakuchAmbA samEtam


smaraNAt-kaivalya prada charaNAravindam taruNAditya kOTi sankAsa chidAnandam

karuNA rasAdi kandam saraNAgata sura brundam


aprAkruta tEjOmaya lingam atyadbhuta kara dhruta sArangam

apramEya aparNAbja bhrungam ArUDhOttunga vrusha turangam

viprOttama visEshAntarangam vIra guruguha tAra prasangam

svapradIpa mouLi vidhruta gangam svaprakAsha jita sOmAgni patangam

This krithi describes arunAchalanAtham, who has embodied himself as agni (fire) lingam in Tiruvannamalai hills.  Though the temple is for devotees to visit, the significance of this place is that people don’t have to visit the temple, rather just think of aruNachaleswara to attain salvation (kaivalyam).  Therefore, Deekshitar insists the same in the pallavi and says always think of aruNachalanAtham, who is together with his consort apItakuchAmba.  Again, in anupallavi he says that just by the thought of lord Siva’s feet shall confer you with salvation.  He shines like a mid-day sun with a lot of energy, is always pleasant at heart and is very kind to the people who come to his rescue.  The charaNam is intricately woven with pleasing yet rhyming words like lingam, sArangam, bhrundam, turangam, antarangam, prasangam, gangam and patangam with lord siva’s attributes such as the one who took the form of agni lingam, holds a deer in his hand, hovers like a bee around the lotus faced aparNA, ascends a tall bull as his stead, who is in the minds of the good people, enchanted in discussions with his son guruguha, adorned the shining moon in his head and ganga flowing out of his matted locks and the one who could defeat, sun, moon and fire with his effulgence.

Interesting features of this fire related song is the referring of Siva to the midday hot sun and the song mostly is sung in lower octave and a slow tempo.  There are three places where it goes to a higher octave and each represents an upper status such as kaivalya (higher world), ArUdhOttunga (ascending on a high object) and mouLi (head).  The solar energy is portrayed as follows in the Upanishads:

na tatra sUryo bhAti chandra tArakam

nEmA vidyutE bhAnti krutOyam agni:

tamEva bhAntamanubhati sarvam

tasya bhAsA sarvam idam vibhAti

Without the sun, the moon and other planets shall not shine, many rays together create the fire, the fire heats the objects around it and those objects energize and illuminate the world.  So the sun is very important for the universe and it is very apt that Deekshitar compared Siva with the Sun.

Last few months, we learned that Siva manifested as pruthvi and jala lingams upon Parvati’s request.  But what made him come upon earth as agni lingam?  The story goes that, once Vishnu and Brahma grew very arrogant and portrayed themselves as superior over the other and started arguing and fighting.  Siva, intending to teach them a lesson manifests as a huge pillar of fire between them.  Vishnu and Brahma, totally astonished by this fire, were curious to find the beginning and end of the fire.  Vishnu takes the form of a boar and starts burrowing down into the pAtala loka (world under) yet could not locate the origin of the fire.  HE decides to accept his defeat and comes back to earth.  Brahma on the other hand, takes the form of a swan and flies high up into the sky, yet can not find the end.  As he gets tired and about to return he finds a ketaki (mogali – Pandanus Tectorius) flower falling from the top.  HE stops the flower and inquires if it has seen the end of the fire.  The flower answers “yes, I am coming from there, however I don’t know how much it grew since I started coming down. It is an unachievable task to find the end of this fire”.  Brahma gets disappointed and worried that he has to go back and accept his defeat to Vishnu.  While he tries to head down he gets an idea to lie and say that he has seen the end of the fire and requests ketaki to be the witness to support him.  Ketaki agrees, they both descend to earth and Brahma tells Vishnu that he has seen the end of the fire and ketaki is the witness.  Ketaki confirms.  Vishnu feels bad and accepts his defeat and starts to attend to Brahma.  While doing that he laments about his fate and chants upon Siva.  Siva, pleased by Vishnu’s honesty, appears in front of him and says “ Vishnu, truth stays forever, your truthfulness is your asset, therefore you will be worshipped across the world similar to me” and blesses him.  Then he decides to punish Brahma and initiates bhairava to go and attack Brahma.  Bhairava follows Brahma with his sword and slashes the fifth head, the one that lied.  While he is ready to slash the other heads, Brahma realizes his  mistake and comes to Siva’s rescue for protection and meditates upon Siva.  Siva who is easily pleased, calms down and in the meantime Vishnu begs Siva to protect and bless Brahma.  Siva, blesses Brahma but curses him to lose the worship privileges because of his dishonesty.  Siva then turns to ketaki and curses that it will not be eligible for offering to god.  Ketaki, also realizes her mistake and begs Siva to pardon her.  Kind hearted Siva, says, it may not be offered for worship services but can be used for decoration purposes and blesses it.  The pillar of fire is none other than SIva who has no origin or end.  Just as fire burns down everything false into ashes and keeps the pure as shining, Vishnu, Brahma and ketaki all lose their arrogance and grow a bit more tolerant and worship Siva regularly.  The day the fire appeared is fourteenth day in waning fortnight in the month of mArgasira with the star as Arudra.  That day is Siva’s favorite day and considered auspicious for Siva Parvati kalyanam and to worship Siva.

Many devotees travel to Tiruvannamalai to see the fire on Arudra day and to walk around the hill’s perimeter (14km).  Also, there are eight lingas (4 sides and 4 corners) known as indra, agni, yama, nairuti, varuna, vAyu, kubEra and EsAnya lingas in the path.    While Siva resides at the tip of the hill, referred as the Sun, each of the other lingas have been attributed with each of the other eight planets.   It is said that walking by the perimeter while worshipping each of the lingas and visiting the main sanctum clears the minds and blesses devotees with good health and utmost salvation.  For people who are unable to travel, just thinking of him or listening to this song bestows good health and peace of mind.  

Just as I requested from the people who read the essay last month to pray for rains in California, I plead to everybody who reads this essay to enjoy the song and pray to lord Siva to cool down and protect us from the disastrous forest fires.

The power of music is profound

The joy of music is sweet and sound

The awe of music is abound

Music makes the world go round

Arvind Lakshmikanthan is an accomplished violinist.  He performs as a soloist and has accompanied several acclaimed musicians.  Having performed in concerts extensively in the US and in India, he has trained several students in music.


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One thought on “Carnatic Compositions – The Essence and Embodiment-8”

  1. These essays about Carnatic Compositions are wonderful and much needed. I am sure the list of these essays grows manyfold and will be published as a book. Understanding the Sahityam, will provide a new dimension for both Artist and Rasika. In the West, there are so many resources available for classical music and fine art appreciation, including university level courses. However, similar resources are not prevalent for Indian arts. Your essays lay the foundation for English language audiences for appreciation of Carnatic Krithis.

    A request though. Please prioritize the songs that are popularly taught to kids for dance and music. Helping them understand the mystic in the sahityam at an early age will let imbibe the emotional aspects and will also whet their appetite for sahityam through out their life

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