Swami Vipulananda
Swami Vipulananda

Swami Vipulananda: The Monk Who Recreated Lost Ancient Tamil Musical Instruments

ByAravindan Neelakandan

Today, 27 March 2022, marks the 130th birth anniversary of Swami Vipulananda.

Swami Vipulananda gave back to Tamil society its lost musical instruments.

Silappathikaram is one of five poetic drama works of epic proportions in Tamil. It was written more than 1,500 years ago. Apart from the well-known depiction of the ferocious nature of divine feminine, the work is a treasure trove of information on such things as ancient musical instruments, ragas, and dance forms.

Swami Vipulananda (1892-1949)

But can these ancient musical instruments, used in Tamil Nadu more than a millennium ago, be reconstructed from data available in ancient literature? And not just theoretical reconstruction but a physical reconstruction?

Yes, it was done. By a monk of Sri Ramakrishna Mission.

He was Swami Vipulananda.

Swami Vipulananda was born on 27 March 1892 in the region of Mattakalappu, Sri Lanka. Born into a traditional Saivaite family, the name his parents gave him was Mayilvahanan.

Initially, he was taught Tamil and Sanskrit by Vaidyalinga Desika, who was the priest at the local Ganesha temple and also the headmaster of the local Saivaite school. He was also taught English and Tamil by a tutor named Kunju Thampi. His father familiarised him with the works of Sri la Sri Arumuga Navalar, which ignited in the young boy a Dharmic fire.

In 1902, he joined the Methodist school when it was just started. Here, he became familiar with classical Western languages and Christian theology.

A prodigy, Swami Vipulananda passed the Cambridge examination for senior college even before he turned 16. The same year, he became a tutor and served in that capacity for two years. With varied interests, he mastered ancient Tamil classics and the works of Shakespeare (whom he fondly called ‘Jagat Sirpi', the sculptor of worlds) and obtained a diploma in the natural sciences in 1916.

During this period, he got introduced to the Vivekananda movement. He also passed the Tamil Pandit exam conducted by Madurai Tamil Society. His chemistry lectures were popular. Soon, he obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from London University.

A young Swami Vipulananda

During this time, Swami Sarvananda of Sri Ramakrishna Mission in Madras visited Sri Lanka. Pandit Mayilvahana met the Swami. This meeting transformed the Tamil pandit. He decided to dedicate himself to service and spirituality.

At that time, because of his knowledge in the sciences and the classical Hindu languages Tamil and Sanskrit, he was requested by prominent citizens to become the principal of the Hindu College. Here, he would teach not only chemistry but, when need arose, also Latin and he loved Shakespeare. Between all this, he would make students understand the richness of their own Tamil language.

In 1922, Swami Vipulananda joined Sri Ramakrishna Math in Chennai. Soon, he became the editor for both the Tamil and English magazines of the Math, Sri Ramakrishna Vijayam and Vedanta Kesari respectively.

During this period, he began interacting with Mahapadhyaya Sri U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, the grand old man of Tamil renaissance who saved, through superhuman dedication, the ancient classical literature of Tamil.

In 1924, Swami Vipulananda was ordained as a monk on the full moon day of the Chaitra month. Swami Sivananda gave him the name "Swami Vipulananda."

Swami Vipulananda's inspiration Swami Vivekananda (L), his guru Swami Sivananda of Sri Ramakrishna Math (R)

In 1925, he returned to Sri Lanka and started delivering lectures. The same year, he started a school for girls' education in Jaffna, called Sarada Vidyalaya. In 1927, he conducted a student conference at Jaffna and also welcomed and interacted with Mahatma Gandhi, who was visiting Sri Lanka.

Swami Vipulananda encouraged and organised student circles to study Tamil properly and thoroughly. He taught them Sanskrit as well. It was the firm belief of Swamiji that the knowledge of Sanskrit was essential to understanding and appreciating Tamil in its depth.

A school started by Swami Vipulananda in Sri Lanka

Swami Vipulananda also established a residential school that catered to the educational needs of all sections of society, particularly the marginalised.

In 1931, he was requested by Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, the founder of Annamalai University, to come to the newly founded university at Chidambaram. Swami went and there too he performed extraordinary educational and social service.

He conducted a night school for the scheduled community children whose families could not afford regular school education. Swami himself purchased the essential books for the children.

During the convocation ceremony of 1933, while on every house top the Union Jack was hoisted, in the residence of Swami the Swadesi tricolour was hoisted. This led to a police investigation. But Swami was not bothered.

Both Raja Annamalai Chettiar, a great patron of traditional Tamil music, and Sri U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, the grand old man of Tamizh, supported Swamiji.

During this time, Swami Vipulananda started researching ancient Tamil music traditions. His lecture at Madras University titled ‘The ancient musical instruments of Tamils and their other fine arts’ was an important milestone in the restoration of the lost ancient past.

In 1933, he left his job at the University. Officials from universities in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka used to petition Sri Ramakrishna Mission to lend the monk as a professor in their universities for a tenure. Swami meanwhile went to North India and was, for a period, the editor of the prestigious Vedantic magazine of the Mission, Prabuddha Bharata.

But all this while, he was also working on the authentic reconstruction of ancient Tamil musical instruments.

Present-day issues of the three Vedantic magazines in India of which Swami once served as the editor.

The culmination of his research was the book Yaazh Nool (The book of Yaazh; Yaazh is the ancient lost Tamil musical instrument). On 5, 6 June 1947, the book was given to scholars for critical evaluation and approval.

The Iravatheesvara temple (12th century CE) shows Thiruneelakanda Yaazhpanar with his string instrument.

This was the traditional Hindu way of releasing a book and it was done at the Thirukollamputhur Vilawaranyeswara temple. The location could not have been more appropriate for the occasion. It was Nambiandar Nambi, a devotee of Ganesha at this temple, who was instrumental in rescuing and reorganizing the sacred Tamil literature of Vedic Saivism a thousand years ago during the reign of Raja Raja.

At the function, a demonstration of the reconstructed musical instruments was done by a very famous string instrument musician of that time — Ka Po Sivanandam Pillai.

Swami's book on Yaazh, his reconstructions, and the Aadi Yaazh, the working model he constructed

After various scholars critically examined the book and the reconstruction, the book was accepted. The function ended with a ceremonial procession of the deity of the temple. The achievement of Swami Vipulananda involved his exhaustive knowledge of ancient Tamil literature, from Silappathikaram to Thevaram and Periya Puranam and also his knowledge of music.

To this was combined Swami’s knowledge in the natural sciences, particularly acoustics. He was also a good mathematician. By combining knowledge from all these different domains, Swami Vipulananda gave back to Tamil society its lost musical instruments.

Swami Vipulananda became ill after this achievement and, after two years, on 19 July 1949, at the age of 57, attained samadhi. Quite a few Tamil scholars believe that Ilango Adigal, the prince who became a Jain monk in order to avoid competition to the throne and who was the author of Silappathikaram, reincarnated as Swami Vipulananda to restore the lost knowledge.

Samadhi of Swami Vipulananda

To this day, his samadhi in Sri Lanka is a place of pilgrimage to the lovers of traditional music of India.

Today is the 130th birth anniversary of Swami Vipulananda.

Writer's note: The photos of Swami Vipulananda, his school, and the reconstructed Yaazh are taken from the 1951 biography written by Sri Ganapathi Pillai, compiled by Sri Thirunavukkarasu, and published by Sri Gopalakrishna Kon.