Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Bard of Tirupati


The credit for having been the first composer of classical Carnatic songs [Vaggeyakara] goes to Sri Annamacharya who preceded Sri Purandaradasa by about 70 years. He was named Annamayya [the word Anna in his name is to be pronounced as Anna which means rice or food and not as Anna, meaning elder brother] and the appellation, Acharya, was a title given to him when his musical expertise was recognized all over. It is learnt that he was given the name Annamayya which has its root in the word ‘Anna’ which also means ‘Vishnu or Venkatesha’ as is evident from the Sri Vishnusahasranama when it states; ‘Annam Annada Eva cha’.

Annamacharya was born in a village called ‘Tallapakkam, near Tirupati in May 1408 in a pious, devoted and spiritually oriented family. His parents were Narayana Suri and Lakkamamba. Since their forefathers had settled down in this remote village for several years, Tallapakkam had become their family name. Right from his younger days, Annamayya developed single-pointed devotion to God and spent most of his time in singing Bhajans. Bhakti songs etc. This made him neglect the domestic chores which often resulted in his sister-in-law’s scolding him quite often.

One day Annamayya noticed a group of devotees singing Bhajans and going on a pilgrimage. As he was already upset by the unwelcome reception at home, he joined the group and went out with them without informing any one at home and not even caring to know where the group was going. After several days the group reached the foothills of the Tirupati Temple. From the base, the seven hills had to be crossed by foot to reach the temple at the top. Annamayya, weak from hunger and thirst, lagged behind and got separated from the group. As he had not taken any food for two days, he fell down unconscious. It is said that at that moment Divine Mother Padmavathi appeared to him in the form of an old lady, awakened him, and gave him food and water with motherly affection. She advised him to go barefooted over the sacred hills. Annamacharya could understand that it was Divine presence. He prostrated before the old lady and implicitly obeying her instructions, he proceeded towards the temple. By the time he reached the top of the temple, its doors were closed. He, however, took bath in the sacred temple pond and then started reciting a poetic eulogy of one hundred verses in praise of Lord Venkateshwara, popularly known as ‘Venkateshwara Shatakam’. .By the time he completed the Shatakam, the temple door automatically got opened so that he could have complete darshan of the Lord. Thereafter, Annamayya stayed for quite sometime in Tirupati, composing songs and padams to the delight of many pilgrims visiting Tirupati.

When Annamayya left his village for Tirupati without informing anyone in the family, the members of his family were taken aback. After enquiries they came to know that he was in Tirupati. His mother went to Tirupati and forced him to return home, get married and lead the life of a householder. She also promised her son that he could pursue his devotional path even after marriage. With this assurance, Annamayya returned to Tallapakkam and under compelling circumstances got married to two brides –Tirumallama and Akkalamma. It is said his wife Tirumallamma became a famous poet in Telugu in course of time and wrote ‘Subhadra Kalyanam’ in Telugu. She is considered to be the first Telugu poetess.

Often visiting Tirupati and Ahobila and other pilgrimage centers, , Annamayya composed several songs and Padams in praise of Lord Venkateshwara. Simultaneously he became a disciple of Shatagopa Yati, the founder of the Ahobala Math, and studied several Vedantic scriptures under him. By the time he was sixteen, his name had spread far and wide as a devotional singer and mystic. He was given the title ‘Acharya’. An inscription in a copper plate found in Tirupati states he had the Darshan of Lord Venkateshwara when he was sixteen years old. His wife and children were also influenced by him and composing Bhajans and Padams became a family tradition. It is said that this tradition of composing Bhajans and Padams continued in the Tallapakkam family for over 150 years.

Wherever Annamacharya went, he offered worship at the local temple but his songs always mentioned ‘Venkateshwara’ in the last few lines. This became his ‘Mudra’ [Stamp].He saw all gods as different forms of Lord Venkatershwara.

Extremely pleased with the compositions of Annamacharya, King Saluva Narasimha, Chief of Benugunta in the Vijayanagara Kingdom, requested him to compose a few songs eulogizing the king for a big fees. Annamacharya’s firm refusal to do so landed him in prison with shackles. He then sang in all piety in praise of the Lord of Seven Hills. The shackles were broken and the prison doors gave way. Every one realized the greatness of Annamacharya and the strength of his strong devotion to the Lord. Annamacharya. Thereafter he spent the rest of his life until 1503 in the service of Lord Venkateshwara.

Having heard about the greatness of Annamacharya, Purandaradasa from Karnataka who was much younger than Annamacharya once went to Tirupati to meet the great mystic singer. Annamacharya had also heard about the reputation of Purandara as another mystic singer. Purandara greeted Annama with the words “You are the very incarnation of Lord Venkateshwara”. Annama replied “You are the incarnation of Sri Puranduranga Vithala”. Purandaradasa’s padam ‘Sharanu Shranu Surendra Vandita” has a striking resemblance to Annamacharya’s padam “Sharanu Sharanu Surendra Sannuta”. Both these great singers shared intense devotion to Lord Vishnu.

A copper plate of those days states that when Annamacharya had a vision of Lord Venkateshwara in his sixteenth year, he took a vow to complete at least once song a day as long as he lived. It is said that he composed more than 32,000 songs in the Carnatic music tradition, a fact which is almost impossible to replicate. His son, Tirumalachar, recognizing the excellence of his father’s compositions, got them engraved on copper plates and stored them in a room in Tirupati temple. For nearly 200 years these songs were popular and thereafter they faded away from public memory. However, during the 19th century, A British Government servant by name A.T.Campbell wrote in the preface to a Telugu literary work “I heard that over 1000 copper plates are in the old storage vaults of Tirupati Temple. I sent an Indian to inspect those. They were not literary works but devotional songs”. A hundred years later, in the 20th century, the Tirumala Devasthanam authorities collected them and counted them. Since the plates were serially numbered, many were found missing. Finally 14, 358 songs were retrieved. Some of them were found hidden in the walls of the Ahobala and Srirangam Temples.

Annamacharya passed away in 1503 at the ripe old age of 95 years.


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Created: Friday, May 11, 2007


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