Last week, the Supreme Court debated whether “Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatam”, a hymn immortalised by Carnatic musician M.S. Subbulakshmi, could be played in the morning at the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Wisely and politely, the bench admitted its lack of expertise in the matter and declined to intervene. The priest who determines the rituals of the Padmanabhaswamy temple must settle the matter, it said.
The crux of the objection, raised by the Travancore royal family which has claims over the temple, is that Lord Padmanabha is in yoga nidra (posture of relaxation and sleep) and should not be woken up. The “Suprabhatam”, a Sanskrit verse believed to have been composed in the 15th century, is recited at most Vaishnavite shrines early in the morning as a supplication for the lord to wake up. The popularity of this invocation soared after HMV, the gramophone company, recorded the “Suprabhatam” in MS’s voice and, today, dawn breaks over many temple towns, especially in the Tirumala hills in Tirupati, the abode of Venkateswara, as her recorded voice soars to the heavens. Last year, officials administering the Thiruvananthapuram temple on court orders felt that Lord Padmanabha and his devotees should also have the pleasure of listening to the “Suprabhatam”. Clearly, they did not first ascertain whether the innovation would be in sync with the concept of worship and the devotional routine at the Padmanabhaswamy temple. Temple traditions are seen as sacrosanct and its custodians generally resist any kind of standardisation. Each deity has distinct features, defined in territorial and temporal terms, and rituals are personalised and executed under supervision. The reclining Lord of the Padmanabhaswamy temple is meant to be in deep sleep, unlike, say, in Tirupati.
Whichever way the conflict is resolved — whether the “Suprabhatam” continues to be played in the Thiruvananthapuram temple or not, whether the lord is allowed to sleep undisturbed or not — the court has been wise to steer clear of a controversy that even M.S. Subbulakshmi’s magic cannot set to rest.