Written by Jeysundhar D
Navaratri means a lot of things. It is the first long vacation after the beginning of the school term in June. For those working far from home, it is an opportunity to plan a day off and combine it with the holidays of Saraswati Pooja (or Navami, depending on where you came from) and Vijayadasami (or Dussehra) so you could take the train home.
In the South, it is an opportunity to bring out the golu idols of the house (called Bombe Habba in Karnataka and Bommala Koluvu in Andhra), and to stock up on your protein requirements on all the sundal being served across the neighbourhood where the Golu is on display.
For those who were into music, Navaratri golu was a chance to warm up before the coming December concert season, as you sing across the neighbourhood. With a regular golu in the household and visiting aspiring singers, yours truly has been witness to several demonstrations of the twists and turns of various Carnatic Kritis.
Of all the kritis that I heard during those years, it was the Kamalaamba Navavarana Kritis that interested me the most. They seemed to be structured just for the Navaratri, with one kriti for every day of the festival.
As I got back to Navavaranas years later, I was amazed by the layered lyrics, the complexity of the handling of the ragam, and arguably, the best visualisation of the Sri Chakra in Carnatic music.
Nine days of Navaratri, Nine levels of the Sri Chakra, Nine aspects of the Devi, and Nine kritis on Kamalaamba. The number 9 is magical indeed.
The Kamaalamba Navavarana Kritis were composed by Muthuswamy Dikshithar (1775-1835 CE), one of the Trinity of Carnatic Music. While traditionally called the Navavaranas, implying that there are nine kritis, the series consists of eleven compositions, with a Dhyana Kriti in the beginning, and a Mangala kriti at the end. The kritis are dedicated to the Goddess Kamalaambika, who resides in the Thyagaraja temple of Thiruvaroor. The idol of the Goddess has a unique seating posture with the legs crossed to the side, perhaps the only such portrayal of the Goddess anywhere in India.
Each kriti is composed in a different Ragam, grand and majestic in its own right. Dikshithar has creatively embedded the name of the ragams into the lyrics of the kritis, thereby transforming the often ornamental component of Ragamudra, into something organic to the lyrics. Thus, Anandabhairavi and Sankaraabharanam ragams are mentioned partly (with the first half of their names), Kambhoji, Sahaana and Ahiri are mentioned with their names part of longer phrases, and the ragams Kalyani, Bhairavi, Punnagavaraali and Ghanta are mentioned in full.
In addition to being a composer, Muthu swamy Dikshithar was also a Srividhya Upasaka. His upasana and fascination with the Sri Chakra finds fullest manifestation in the Kamalaamba Navavaranas, where Kamalaambika is the resident of the Kamalanagara, a metaphor for both Thiruvaroor, and also the Sri Chakra itself, with its three dimensional structure resembling a lotus.
Dikshithar’s kritis are layered, holding depths of meaning that become apparent as one becomes initiated into the knowledge system of the Sri Vidhyas. The word “Avarana” itself means “covering/concealing”.
In fact, the Navavarana kritis are the lyrical and musical variation of the famous wooden puzzle boxes, with several secret compartments and hidden openings. With a series of discoveries, you open the puzzle box and realise that the central core of the box (or the Bindu, if you will) contains everything and yet, nothing. The prize of the puzzlebox is in the discoveries themselves, which you put together, and open yourself up to the grace of the Goddess.
The first of the discoveries you make through the Navavaranas, composed in Sanskrit, is how the Goddess is addressed in the eight declensions of the eight Vibhaktis (cases) of the Sanskrit language. “Kamalaamba” of the first kriti is followed by “Kamalaambam”, “Kamalaambikaya”, etc. to “Kamalaambike” in the ninth kriti.
Once the veil of language is lifted, the path takes us to the next puzzle and the next discovery. Each kriti talks about a different level/Avarana of the Sri Chakra., with the Sadhaka mastering the ragam, talam and the complexity of the lyrics.
From opening the locked doors of Bhoopura avarana in the first Kriti, the Sadhaka traverses through the maze of the Navavaranas, parting the sixteen petalled lotus of the Shodasadalam level and the eight petalled lotus of the Ashtadalam level.
Past the lotuses, the Sadhaka enters the world of triangles. The fourth Avarana refers to the level of the fourteen triangles, Chaturdasha Trikona, which correspond to the fourteen manifest worlds that Kamalaambika rules over. Crossing the fourteen triangles, the Sadhaka goes through the outer ten and inner ten triangles of the fifth and sixth Avaranas.
There is a steady progression in the nature of the chakra of the Avaranas. From the Trailokyamohana chakra (enchants the three worlds) of the first Avarana, the Sadhaka gains access to the Sarvarakshakara Chakra (protects all) in the 6th Avarana.
As he passes through the six Avaranas, the Sadhaka is considered worthy enough to enter the seventh Avarana, that of Ashtatrikona or eight triangles, where the Goddess is embodied in the form of the Beeja Mantra of “Hreem”. Dikshithar refers to Kamalaambika as “Hreemkara Sushareerinyam”, and as “Hreemkara Eshwaryam”, as the presiding deity of the mantra “Hreem”.
The Sadhaka, chanting the Beeja mantra enters the eighth level of the single triangle or Trikona. This is the penultimate Avarana, the last layer before one reaches the centre of the Sri Chakra.
As each discovery is made, the puzzle box opens ever further, taking the Sadhaka closer and closer to the centre of the maze, where the prize sits. The prize of the Sadhana, the prize of prayer, worship and upasana, is the mother herself. As the ninth avarana opens, Dikshithar is ecstatic, singing “Jayati” to Kamalaambika.
The chakra of this Avarana is Sarvanandamaya – that which is replete with bliss.
What else could one want, when one is full of bliss? From a state of wakefulness, the Sadhaka moves to Savikalpa Samadhi, in submitting himself to the Goddess. The journey is complete.
In this piece, we have only scratched the surface of the beauty and complexity of the Kamalaambika Navavaranas. The compositions are unparalleled in their brevity, while also exploring profound musical and mystic concepts. Even without subscribing to the Sri Chakra and Sri Vidya Upasana traditions, learning and listening to the kritis is a soulful and satisfying experience.
May Ma Kamalaambika shower her blessings upon us all this Navaratri!
Jeysundhar D is a career diplomat of the Indian Foreign Service and works at the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi. He tweets at @jeysundhar_d. The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.
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