With the Navarathri festival - the 9 day long festivities dedicated to the various forms of Hindu Goddesses right around the corner, the celestial Navarathri Mandapam in Trivandrum, is all set to roll out its carpets forthis year’s list of nine day musicals by famous singers. The much revered stage is any South Indian musician’s dream platform to showcase his performance.
The Navarthri Mandapam is located at the East Gopuram,one of the four decorated gateways of the renowned PadmanabhaSwamy Temple, Trivandrum. It stands out for its many interesting facets that are reaped in history apart from its famous nine day music nights. But interestingly all these historical features of the Mandapam are invariably associated with the nine day music programs for which it was built two centuries back.
The much honored Navaratri musical celebrations started centuries back, when the legendary Sage Kambar- the author of the famous epic, the Kamba Ramayana, entrusted his favorite idol of Goddess Saraswati to the Chera king, who was also his disciple. The Sage made the king promise that the idol would be worshipped with respect and that the Navaratri festival would be held every year for the Goddess. Until 177 years ago, the festival was held at the Padmanabapuram Palace located at Padmanabapuram, Kanyakumari District of Tamilnadu. It was the illustrious King Swati Thirunal of Travancore royalty, who started the festival at the Navaratri Mandapam, when he shifted his capital to Trivandrum from Padmanabapuram. He decided to bring the Goddess every year to the Mandapam for the nine day festivities. And the tradition continued! For the rest of the year,the idol of the Goddess is kept inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Saraswati temple located inside the Padmanabhapuram palace.
It is indeed a beautiful sight to watch the Goddess being brought to the state capital for the festival. The caparisoned elephant carry the idol of the Goddess in all her glory. Policemen, music bands and men holding swordsfollowed by the Goddess perched on her elephant march down the roads leading to the temple. The shop owners and the locales welcome the Goddess with lit lamps and garlands of flowers.
The walls of the Navaratri Mandapam vibrate with scintillating music every evening of the nine days of the music festival. Only the compositions of Maharaja Swati Thirunal are sung for the festival. The king had composed nine Keerthanams in Sanskrit in different Ragas for the nine days, which are sung by the musicians as the main song of each day. Unlike other Carnatic music concerts, the conclusion song or the Mangalam as it popularly called is sung at the end of the nine days and not at the end of the each music concert. As every performance is a dedication to the Goddess, the audience does not applaud the singers.
The hall is well-lit with tall brightly glowing oil lamps and this age-old custom does speak for itself as no modern electric lamps are used. The ceilings are decorated with garlands of sweet smelling flowers and the granite pillars are decked with strings of yellow lemon and brown betel nuts made in wood. Every evening before the main concert, the Mullamoodu Baghvatars- acclaimed musicians of the court, sing the Thodayamangalam, composed by Swati Thirunal as a prelude to every concert. Another unique feature of the Mandapam is the sound acoustics. Here again an age-old invention is followed even to this day. Earthen pots of different sizes and thickness are tied together over their mouths and hung downwards. These pots act as sound reflectors and prevent echoes in the music hall.
The main concert starts at 6pm at the sound of a bell and ends at 8.30pm at the ring of another bell. The prompt timings were started way back in the 1930’s, for live recordings of the concerts that were broadcasted through the Travancore Radio every day. However, now only major parts of the concerts are recorded and are broadcasted through the All India Radio from 9pm to10pm every evening. Until 2006, ladies were not allowed to sing at the Mandapam, however this changed when the Prince Rama Varma of the Travancore family felt it was unfair and decided to make a move against it. And he did finally win his fight, when in 2006; the renowned Carnatic singer PaarasallaPonammalmade her mark as the first woman to sing at the Mandapam during Navaratri festival.