The 'Rock' In Music: How Inscriptions Are Actually A Minefield For Sangeet Aficionados

The 'Rock' In Music: How Inscriptions Are Actually A Minefield For Sangeet AficionadosVeena, an instrument used in Carnatic music (Kelvin Kay/Wiki Commons)
  • A peek into some of the stone inscriptions in Tamil Nadu that reveal a world of musical lessons.

The history of Indian music is as old as the Vedas. It is interesting to note that the term Sruti which denotes Vedas, ‘the one which is heard’ also refers to the quality of pitch in the music.

The Sama Veda in fact is based on music. Bharata Muni’s Natya Sastra is perhaps the oldest available musical treatise which deals with the Indian musical system elaborately.

There are other musical texts like Bridhaddesi of Matanga Muni, Dattilum by sage Dattila, Sangita Ratnakara by Sarngadeva (or Sarangadeva) which are considered as important manuals on Indian music.

As these books were written at different times, they also provide insights into how the musical system evolved over the years. While the information regarding this is available predominantly in manuscripts, there are few inscriptions which provide some details about the nature of music prevalent in the olden days.

One such inscription can be found in Kudumiyanmalai, near Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu.

Kudumiyanmalai is a hillock situated on the Pudukkottai-Manapparai road. It is famous for the Shiva shrine known as Sikhanathar (Kudumithevar) temple situated in the hillock.

Lord Shiva is with a tuft (Kudumi) here and there are legends associated with it. The temple was said to be constructed by the Pandya kings and renovated during Vijayanagara and Nayak’s times with some beautiful sculptures.

It also has a 1,000-pillared Mandapa and a number of subsidiary shrines. There is a rock cut temple atop the hill known as ‘Melaikovil’.

The presiding deity of this temple is called ‘Thirumulattanattu Peruman’. This shrine has a square shaped sanctum and a mandapa in front. It also has a Mukha Mandapa and Artha Mandapa constructed during the later Chola period.

There are a number of inscriptions in this temple belonging to Pandya, Chola, and Tondaiman dynasties.

The 'Rock' In Music: How Inscriptions Are Actually A Minefield For Sangeet Aficionados

South of this Melaikovil, a grand inscription is found adjacent to a Ganapathi sculpture carved on a 13x14 feet wall. This is the famous musical inscription which was one of the surviving sources of ancient Indian musical system.

It must be noted that similar inscriptions were also found in nearby rock cut temples at Thirumeyyam and Malaiyakovil. The Thirumeyyam inscription was destroyed unfortunately during the 13th century.

Compared to that, the Kudumiyanmalai inscription is well preserved. This was published first in the Epigraphia India Volume XII, edited by P R Bhandarkar.

The inscription is written in Pallava Grantha script and at the end of the inscription, a couple of lines were inscribed in Tamil Vattezhuthu.

Near this inscription, a label ‘Parivadini-da’ is inscribed in Pallava Grantha.

Period of the Inscription

The period of the rock cut temple and the authorship of the musical inscription were a subject of debate for a long time. Earlier, scholars were of the opinion that both the temple and inscription belong to Pallavas and the musical inscription was engraved by Mahendra Pallava in 7th century CE.

As Mahendra was said to be an expert in playing the Veena Parivadini and the fact that the name Parivadini was inscribed near the musical inscription led to many believe that the inscription belong to Mahendra.

However, there are a number of objections to this theory. During Mahendra’s time, river Kaveri was the southern boundary of the Pallava kingdom.

There was no other Pallava inscription found in the rock cut temple. Further, the Peetam of the Shivalingam in the rock cut temple has a square shape which is a hallmark of Pandya architecture.

Most of the early Pallava cave temples also have inscriptions and prasastis of the kings which is absent here. In addition, it must be noted that there were many Pandya kings who were also experts in music, like Parantaka Nedunjadaiyan who was called as Gitakinnaran in the Velvikkudi grants.

Considering all these, it is now conclusively ascertained that the temple and inscription belong to the Pandyas or perhaps their chieftain ruling this territory.

The Music

The inscription begins with a prayer ‘Siddham Namah Shivaya’ — salutations to Lord Shiva. In the body of the inscription, there are seven sections consisting of musical notes.

These sections are titled as

- Madhyamagrame Catusprahara Svaragamah

- Sadjagrame Catusprahara Svaragamah

- Sadabe Catusprahara Svaragamah

- Sadharite Catusprahara Svaragamah

- Panchame Catusprahara Svaragamah

- Kaisikamadhyame Catusprahara Svaragamah

-Kaisike Catusprahara Svaragamah

Source : Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State by K R Srinivasa Ayyar
Source : Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State by K R Srinivasa Ayyar

Each of these sections consists of groups of four notes, arranged in sub-sections of 16, with each sub section taking one line in the inscription. Based on the names of the sections, it can be clearly established that each of them belongs to Grama Ragas prevalent during that time.

The words Catusprahara Svaragamah denotes ‘texts of notes in four strikings’, which is basically striking of a percussion or string instrument. Looking at the evolution of our musical system, the Natya Sastra of Bharata Muni predominantly refers to ‘Jatis, and does not mention the Gramas (however D Widdess suggests that five of these ragas are mentioned in Bharata’s treatise).

Dattilum (edited by Emmie te Jijenhuis) which is said to have been composed after Natya Sastra during 1-4th century CE, mentions both Madhyamagrama & Sadjsgrama ragas.

In the Brahaddesi of Matanga which belongs to the 6-8th century CE, all these seven ragas are mentioned as a group of Suddha (pure) Ragas.

Naradhiya siksa of the first millennium, Bharatabhasya of Nanyadeva (1100 CE) and Sangita Ratnakara of Sarngadeva (1200 CE) mention all the seven as basic ragas.

Based on these, it can be concluded that these were ragas practised during the earlier times (from 6th century onwards) and later merged into the extended raga system.

Under each raga, the Svaras or the notes are mentioned in a particular combination. Apart from the fundamental Svaras like Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, the inscription also adds and uses vowels like a, u, i, e to come up with notes such as ne, pu, dhu, su, gi, mu, re etc.

The vowel notation is perhaps unique in this system. Each group in the sub section ends in the same note. For example, in the first line of Madhyamagrama, every group in the sub section ends with Sa. Only those notes which denote the characteristic of the raga (strong note) appear as measure finals.

Repeated notes are avoided in this. According to D. Widdess, the Kudumiyanmalai music is “not governed by any discernible mathematical formula as seen in the svaraprastara in its strict form, but takes full account of melodic characteristics of each raga”.

The inscription ends with a colophon with a Sanskrit and a Tamil part. The first one in Sanskrit reads as:

“Rudracharya Sisyena parama


hitartta(m) kvatah (krtah) svaragamah”

meaning, “(this was) composed for the benefit of students (of music) by the king who is a disciple of Rudracharya and a great devotee of Maheswara”.

While the name of the king is unknown, considering the period of the inscription (circa 8th century) and the Pandya ruler at that time Varaguna who was a great Siva devotee, we can assume that the author of this inscription was Varaguna Pandya.

The fact that there are inscriptions of the same king in the name of Maran Sadayan in the temple adds to the possibility.

As regards Rudracharya, it is not clear as to who is this Acharya though there are a number of suggestions put forward by researchers.

This was followed by couple of lines in the Tamil

“Ettirkum Ezhirkum

Ivai Uriya”

Meaning, “these belong to Seven & Eight”. Widdess opines that the number Seven and Eight should be taken as similar to the number four mentioned in the inscription, which refer to the number of strikings.

So along with four, they can be applied for both Seven & Eight strikings as well.

However, many don’t agree with this view. The Veena Parivadini is said to be having seven or eight strings.

As the name of the Veena is inscribed near this, the ‘Seven & eight’ mentioned seem to indicate that these Ragas need to be played in Parivadini.

There is another opinion that these Svaras can also be played in an eight stringed lute and hence the note at the end is intended to tell the ‘Sisyas’ of the music that these notes can be played in a Seven or Eight stringed Veena or lute.

In many ways, the Kudumiyanmalai inscription provides glimpses of a musical system practised during the ancient times. It also provides room for doing further research by students of music along with the contemporary texts of Indian music to bring out some of the unknown facets of the history of our musical system.


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