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Bhāgavata Traditions of Thanjavur Marathas


1.1. The Bhakti Movement

The significance of the Bhakti movement in BhārataVarśa is the shattering of beliefs that religion and God belonged to certain groups in the demography. It is believed that, in today’s Cosmic era, named KaliyugaA, an intense unconditional love for the Supreme takes one closer to godhead much more effectively than rituals, sacrifices and yagyās

The Bhakti movement or the movement of religious awakening began in the 5th century in South India, spread to the North and continued to flourish till the 17th century. It began with a sect of 12 Vaiśnava saints called Ālvārs, including the first ever woman composer in world music, the saint-poet Āndāl. Ālvārs travelled to temples singing the praise of Viśnu in all his avatārs or Manifestations.

Along with Ālvārs, a sect of Śaivites named Nāyanārs also began to preach the path of Bhakti in Tamil Nadu. There were sixty-three poet-saints called Nāyanārs. They travelled to temples, created compositions called Tevārams describing the Deity, the location, and the sthalapurānaB or origin of each temple. This movement gained momentum as a shield to protect sanātanadharmā against other faiths. These two sects of Bhakti saints carried forward the tradition until around 10th century. While the saints in the South followed two devotional traditions – Śaivism and Vaiśnavism, in the North saints mostly promoted Vaiśnavism. Religious scriptures inspired by temple architecture and sculptures were the visual manifestation of the deities described in them. Temples were the fountainhead of art forms like music, dance, drama, sculpture and paintings. These art forms were sacred and divine, being a medium of worship and spirituality.

1.2. The Gurus

Along with Bhakti saints, there were important Gurus who extolled the importance of Bhakti. While Bhakti saints believed that surrendering to God leads to salvation, these Gurus declared that every human being is connected to the Supreme. These Gurus, namely, ĀdiŚankarā, Rāmānujā and Mādhavāchāryā spread this message around the country. The spread of religious consciousness underscored the freedom of the unlettered and marginalised communities to embrace godliness and spiritualism.

Sant Rāmānand, born in Ayodhya, brought the Bhakti movement to the North from the South. He visited Srirangam and was believed to be initiated by Rāmānujāchārya in his dream. He established UdhavSampradāyaC and was the guru of Sri Swāminārāyan.

Singing devotional hymns is a temple tradition in South India. The Bhakti movement grew because of the necessity to build a bridge between the lay man and the divine. It is a continuation of the ideas expressed in the VEDĀS, BHAGAVAD GITĀ, KATHĀ UPANIŚAD AND ŚVETAŚVARAUPANISHADC. It was considered a strong weapon to confront the wave of the
anti-Hindu forces that had started converging in the country. This movement influenced the growth of literature and language of the country.

2. Bhāgavata Melā

Bhāgavata Melā is an ancient dance-drama tradition of Brahmin male Bhāgavatars who worship Viśnu with music, dance and drama. This form of dance-theatre by male Brahmins was known to exist during the Chola reign and evolved in various forms during the centuries. Plays were written for the artistes and kings invited them to perform in the court and during festivals.

The tradition prevalent today is credited to the 18th century saint-poet NārāyanaTīrtha (1650-1745 CE), the composer of the opera KRISHNA LĪLĀ TARANGINI. He attracted a great many followers who began to compose dance-dramas based on stories from the BHĀGAVATAM. He initiated them into Narasimha worship and Bhāgavata Melā became a cult tradition. The Bhāgavata Melā artistes performed Telugu, Marāthi and Tamil nātakams. The annual festival dedicated to the fourth avatar of Viśnu, Narasimha, is celebrated with great enthusiasm over the last five centuries.

This tradition practiced dance and music as part of their worship and offered their art to the VaradarājaPerumāl temple, Srinivasa Perumāl and other Vishnu temples. The actors were known for intense dedication to their art form and total devotion to Vishnu. They were otherwise occupied as landlords and priests who conducted ceremonies when required. AchyutappaNāyak donated five villages to this tradition. These artistes staged the yakśagānams written by the kings, in the palace and at temples as organised by the royalty. They were honoured for their art but when the royal support dwindled in 1855, the tradition vanished for almost a century. The Bhāgavatars played a significant role in the Bhāgavata movement as they brought the Puranic stories of the yakśagānams to life.

The Marātha kings provided a strong support to this tradition which was a medium of entertainment, spreading devotion and imparting spiritual education for the masses.

In fact, the celebrated theatre tradition of Mahārāshtra began here in Thanjāvūr, and it was Śāhji II who is considered the first playwright of Marāṭhi theatre. The Marāthā Rajas specialised in a drama format named yakśagānam.

5“Primarily the performance of Bhagavata Melā is an expression of Bhakti, and that sentiment above all permeates. Important factors in the spiritual and psychological well-being of the Hindu community, they are a living force today.”[Jones-1963-JAS]1

3. The Marāthās in Thanjāvur

The Marāthā Empire in Thanjāvūr was established in 1676 CE and when the last Marāthā ruler Sivaji II gave up the throne to the British in 1855, they left behind an amazing wealth of multi-lingual literature, poetry, musical texts, dance poems, and yakshagānams.

Śahji Bhosle I, father of Chhatrapati Śivaji, was based in Bengaluru and as children Śivaji and his step-brother Vyankoji grew up in that environment.

Therefore, the Thanjāvūr Marāthā rulers were mainly based in the South and had incorporated the musical culture, languages and traditions of the southern states. Vyankoji or Ekoji I became the first Marāthā ruler of Thanjāvūr in 1676 after defeating the Nāyaks, He retained the administrative structure of the Nāyaks and continued Telugu as the court language.9[Raman 2018.24]2

We remember the Marāthās as great statesmen and warriors who were led by Chhatrapati Śivaji. We must also recognise them as religious scholars and their immense contribution to Bharat’s literature and fine arts. Their works embraced stories from the BHĀGAVATA PURĀNAM expressing their devotion to Vaiśnava traditions. They were scholars and authors of major texts on music and dance and polyglots who wrote in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil besides Hindustāni and Marāthi.

Religious devotion or Bhakti consciousness was dominant among Thanjāvūr Marāthā rulers, expressed through dance, music and literature. They continued this pursuit relentlessly despite the stress and strain of administrative duties, internal domestic squabbles, fighting battles with Mughals and foreigners, and dealing with the British. The Thanjāvūr Marāthā rulers were true bhaktas and followed all the nine-paths of worship. They were Bhāgavatās who led by example and not mere words.

Every day the court held performances of various poets and musicians who sang the praise of Vishnu and Shiva. The rulers staged their own dramas and works through Bhagavata Melā artistes in temples and during festivals so that the general population could also enjoy them.

The kings themselves wrote and sang hundreds of compositions in many languages on the deities.

The rulers were extremely religious and devoted. Śāhji II was so devoted to Tyagesa that he did not have his meals until the service at the Tiruvarūr temple 57 kilometres away was over. Then a relay of bells would begin to ring from the temple and when the last bell reached the palace, Śāhji would sit down for his meal.

The Rajas dedicated all their works and creations at the feet of their devata.

They built monuments and temples besides adding murals and sculptures to existing temples. They beautified and renovated temples, covered temple towers in gold leaf, and gifted puja articles like large bronze bells to many temples. This was a practical way to express their adoration.

The kings were known to conduct elaborate celebrations of religious festivals and paid homage at the temples on a regular basis. The compositions they wrote held a humble personal prayer and a petition for grace.

By recognising godhead in all human beings, they displayed a generous and friendly attitude by extending patronage to poets and scholars belonging to other languages and faiths. They built chhatrams (rest houses) for pilgrims. Free meals and medical facilities were offered. These structures were also used as educational centres.

Śāhji II, the greatest of them all, gave up the throne to his brothers, renounced the world, and spent his old age in prayer.

The Mahārāshtrian form of kīrtan was a combination of music, dance and drama.

Thanjāvūr, the seat of music and dance was the crucible where many art forms like languages and music systems blended perfectly together in this golden era of the Thanjāvūr Marāthā kings. The palace was vibrant with the sound of music, bells of dance exponents, instrumentalists and the crème de la crème of composers of music, literature and dance.

Thanjāvūr Marāthā kings and their works embraced Vaishnava PURĀNĀS and adapted stories from the BHĀGAVATA PURĀNA and ŚIVA PURĀNA. The plays contained various poetic devices and verses like dwipada (couplets) chūrnika (descriptive verses) and darus (songs). Śāhji II, Tulaja I & II, Pratāpasiṃha, Ekoji II, Serfoji II and Śivāji II wrote and composed yakśagānam, devotional pada (song), and prabhandham (devotional verses) to express their devotion. These compositions were in Telugu, Marathi, and Sanskrit. The manuscripts were in the Telugu script making it accessible to local pandits and scholars.

4.1. Transmission of Maharashtrian Traditions

Bhāgavata traditions of Mahārāshtrā flowed into Thanjāvūr when Swāmi Samartha Rāmdās visited during the reign of Ekoji I. The unique Mahārāshtriān tradition of religious musical discourse or Harikatha was introduced to Thanjāvūr by Swami Rāmdās where there was already a great demand for musical discourses. Marāthi Abhangs gave a fresh impetus to the repertoire of kathākālakshepam (story-telling) exponents in the South. Marāthi compositions are sung by Nāmasankīrthanaṃ groups and on music concert platforms even today.

4.2. SamarthSwāmi Rāmdās (1608-1681)

Swāmi Rāmdās was born as Nārayan to Suryāji Ṭosar and Rānu Bāi at Jhamb. His father was a wealthy and religious man. At the age of twelve, Nārayan left home as he was obsessed with the idea that he had to improve the minds and lives of people. He spent many years at Nasik, praying, meditating, attending religious discourses and visiting temples. Rāmdās studied Sanskrit and copied Vālmīkī’s RĀMĀYANĀ in his own hand.

He became a devotee of Sri Krishna as Viṭṭal at Pandharpur after a rare vision of Vittala’s Sri Rama. He installed a Maruti idol in the temple and eleven Maruti temples all over Maharashtra. In another vision, he was instructed to go to Śivaji Mahārāj and help the cause he was fighting for. In 1649, it is believed that Śivāji Maharāj became his disciple, placed his sandals on the throne and ruled in his guru’s name. But Swāmi Rāmdās returned the kingdom to Śivāji Maharāj and asked him to rule in
Sri Rama’s name to protect and honour the saffron flag.

On his way to Rāmeswaram in the South, Samartha Swāmi Rāmdās stopped at Mannargudi, a town near Thanjāvūr. Vyankoji, the first Bhosle ruler, rushed there to invite him to Thanjāvūr.

It was the arrival of Samartha Swāmi Rāmdās, which laid the foundation of a musical discourse tradition named Harikathā in Thanjāvūr. He established 12 MuttsE. His first disciple Bhimaraja Swami was patronised by both Vyankoji and Śahji II. Swāmi Rāmdās conducted kirtan in the first Mutt established by him. In the 17th Century, these Marāthā Mutts became more prevalent and besides Bhimrāja Goswami, Govind Bālaswami, Johiram Goswami and Sethu Bāva were also known to establish Mutts. Special mandapams (halls) were built for nāmsankīrthanaṃ performances, for example, the Samanthan Kulam that is associated with Swāmi Rāmdās. The Mutts were instrumental in infusing fresh perspectives in music, religious thought and devotional fervour. [Seetha.S-1981.536]3

The kīrtans were composed by kīrtankārs, like his main disciple Meruswami, who was a great singer and had his Mutt in Pudukkottai (Thanjāvūr District). He spread this art in Kerala at the invitation of SwātiTirunālMahārāja. He was also known as Ananta Padmanābhā Goswami and was appointed kulaguruF of the Maharaja. [Seetha.1981.537]3

SwātiTirunāl with Meruswami composed two operas on stories from BHAGAVADAPURANAM- KUCHELOPĀKHYANA and AJAMILOPĀKHYANA. Another kīrtankār of eminence was Rāmachandra Bhuva Morgaumkar who came from Morgaum near Pune. He introduced the use of music and instrumental accompaniment in Harikathā which attracted a large audience. [Seetha.1981.538]3

Anantamauni, Mādhavasvāmi, and Rāma Pandit were composers of beautiful works in Marathi.

“The literary revival found its impulse in the religious awakening. It is indeed appropriate to call the poets of this period psalmists because of their most characteristic lyrical utterances called Abhangs, which usually expresses religious longing or describes religious experiences. All of them are Vaishnavites,” says Nicol Macnicol [Macnicol.1919.7]4

He goes on to exclaim that “these works are inspired by their yearning and devotion to the Supreme Deity, and not written as works of art. The addition of music makes it appeal to the heart.”

“God dwells in all, and yet we find to Him the faithless man is blind.

If Eknath unfaithful be the God he also shall not see.”

The twelve Muṭṭs established by Swāmi Samartha Rāmdās continues to observe the Marāthā Vaishnava traditions.

In the development and popularity of the medieval Bhakti movement, the saints of Maharashtra made an important contribution. In Mahārāshtra, the Bhakti sect is centered around the temple of Sri Krishna or Viṭṭal, the chief deity of Pandharpur, so this movement is famous as the Pandharpur movement. The Bhakti movement in Mahārāshtra is divided into two sects – Varakaris and Dharakaris. Varkaris are devotees of Sri Viṭṭal of Pandharpur. Jñāneśvar, Namdev, ChokhaMelā, Eknath, Samarth Ramdas Swami, and Tukaram were the main saints of this Bhakti tradition.

4.3. Harikathā

What is Harikathā? This tradition from Maharashtra which came with Swāmi Rāmdās became popular and attracted many followers among the native Bhāgavatas. The rāgas used were easy to understand, the rhythmic structure was catchy, enactment of Navarasas and abhinaya captivating and the stimulating tempo attracted the lay devotees.

A form of kathākalakśepam was already popular in Thanjāvūr. The word means ‘to spend time listening to a story’. They were of different types. One was Purāna Pāthanam which was reading out slokas and explanation of the meaning and context. A Pauranik should be knowledgeable in Sāstras, Purānas, Itihāsas, and Vedāntic philosophy. The flow of the story is called Nirūpanā. [Gurumoorthy.1991]5 They were adapted from KĪRTAN TARANGINĪ, a Marāthi text. This concept of writing the flowchart or script of a Harikathā is entirely a Marāthi tradition and was adapted by the local performers. These were translated into Tamil by T.S.V. MahādevaSāstri (20th C). Other forms of discourses were Prasangaṃ by Oduvars, bhajans, kālakshepam, and Upanyāsam. 10

There were some bhajan and kālakshepam Bhāgavatars like Varahur Gopāla Bhāgavatar who could sing and dance. All these performances exuded bhaktirasa and were not meant merely to entertain. The South Indian Bhāgavatas admired Marathi kīrtans.

“The Maharashtra saints had declared in their songs “… if a devotee sings lying in bed, God hears him standing; if he sings sitting, God begins to nod in joy and if he sings standing, God begins to dance’” (Seetha, 1981 522)3. It is believed that God is a personal form with attributes one can relate to, so it helps in focussing on the image. A name and a form are essential to connect to the devotee’s heart and mind. The bhajan or sankīrtan is open to the devotees to join in the singing.

Dr. Premeela Gurumoorthy in her doctoral thesis states- “The talas Usi, 3 beat, 7 beat and 5 beats reckoned on the Cipla and Jalra were used in a special method.”   DRAUPADI MĀNA SAMRAKŚANA, RUKMINI KALYĀNAM, VATSALĀ KALYĀNAM, GARUDA GARVAHARANA are some Nirupanas are from this text.”

The inclusion of the Marathi tradition of kīrtan into the South Indian tradition evolved into a novel form. The Marathi devotional songs included verses praising Vigneswara, the Guru, family deities, Saraswati and saints. This was known as Panchapādi and was sung at the beginning of Marāthi Bhajan gatherings and in Harikathā. This was later adopted in the Thanjāvur tradition of Harikathā. Other centres of this tradition near Thanjāvur were Marudanallur, Kumbhakonam,Varahur, and Govindapuram.

“The Harikathā is one of the greatest discoveries of the Hindu genius,” comments N. S. Rāmasvami Sāstri6. The South Indian Harikathā in its present form emerged during the Marāthā rule in Thanjāvur. “The Harikathākālakśepa became an integration of sahitya containing moral and spiritual ideas, music and abhinaya. It became a means of spiritual exultation and an entertainment”, says
Dr. S. Seetha. “The idea of giving religious discourses with moving and attractive music was got from the Mahārāśtrians.”

“The establishment of Mutts by the Marāthā saints in Thanjāvur was an event of musical importance.”

On occasions like Rāma Navami and Samartha Navami, DashabodhaPrayana, Harikatha and Bhajans were performed by the heads of the Mutt. Rāmchandra Goswami of Bhimrao Mutt was a good musician and composed kīrtans. His work named GURU GEETHIF in Ovi metre is available in the Library. Muttuswami, was a composer of some noteworthy Marathi compositions, and these were introduced in Thanjāvur.

Rāmachandra Morgaumkar Bāva (1866) established a Mutt and with a missionary zeal popularised the art of kīrtan.  He started the trend of percussive accompaniment in kathākālakśepam. This added another dimension to the performance and many stalwart mridangam players of the time vied with one another to accompany Harikathā artistes.

During the time of Śivaji II and later Harikathā became more popular than music concerts. Many composers created works for Harikathā. Gopālakrishna Bhārati composed NANDANĀR CARITRAM with a Katha Nirupana at the beginning. He uses Marāthi kīrtan forms such as saki, khadga and lāvani. The RāmaJanma kīrtan is a typical Marāthi kīrtan. We can conclude that Marāthi kīrtan inspired and impacted the South Indian musical tradition to a great extent.

The Mārathi kīrtans were of two types Nāradīya and Vārkari. The Nāradīya, which originated from Nārad Muni had Purvaranga and Uttaranga. This style also became popular in Thanjāvūr and included exposition of kathās, stories. The Vārkari style included padas, abhaṇgs of Marāthi saints and the highlight was the nāmasaṇkīrthanam as a chorus.

Kathākalakśepam was modified by Thanjāvur Krishna Bhagavatar (1847-1903) who is considered the innovator of the Thanjāvur style. Krishna Bhāgavatar was the one who systematised Thanjāvur Harikathā tradition. He used the Marathi musical forms including lāvani. He introduced North Indian ragas and his rich voice made the performances popular.

He adapted the Mārathi metrical compositions which were short verses in metres like Saki, Dindi, Ovi, Abhang, Arya, Pada, Ghanakshari, and Savayi. The ragas were Carnatic ragas familiar to Tamil ears like Bhimplasi, Kapi, Bihag and Yamuna Kalyani. He enacted the characters of the story, and as a trained dancer, he used facial expressions for added dramatic effect. [Gurumoorthy-1991 Thesis]5

Two other exponents Pandit Lakśmanāchārya, Tirupayanam Panchāpakesa Śāstri followed his lead and continued this tradition. This influenced many exponents including Vaidyanātha Bhāgavatar who developed Bhāgavata Melā in Sūlamangalam.

“The Marāthi settlers (thanks to their rhythm-dominant Abhangs) also helped to develop the mridangam techniques. This is evident from the Carnatic terms, chāpu (as in the tala “Khanda Chāpu”) which is probably from the Marāthi “Chāp”; and mora (rhythmic patterns) from “mohra.” One of the foremost mridangam exponents was a Thanjāvur Marāthā Nanasama Rao (aka Narayanaswami Aappa)’. “The impact of Mahārāshtra kirtan and bhajan were a regular feature in various Mutts established by the pioneering missionary work of the Mahārāshtra saints.” []7

The Bhāgavatars also sang Ashtapadis, Tarangam, and kīrtanams. But these new metrical forms helped as fillers between prose passages transforming the flavour of the music with Marāthi language. Saki, Dindi, Pada and Abhanga were the most favoured forms used. This was an important point in the bhakti tradition influenced by the Marāthās.

Bhajanasaṃpradāya or devotional musical tradition has always been a rich multi-lingual presentation as the southerners were privileged to have an easy mastery of Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Sanskrit. Inclusion of Marāthi was seamless and non-intrusive.

“These saints, Jñaneswar from in the thirteenth century to Rāmdas in the seventeenth century, brought about a religious awakening in Mahārāshtra which became a foundation of Swarājya under inspired leadership of Śivaji in 1674,” says S.R. Sharma8.

4.4. Lāvani

Folk musical forms like Lāvanis were very popular in Tanjore. Lāvanis became very popular in Thanjāvūr. In Thanjāvūr, Lāvanis were composed using Hindi, Marāthi and Tamil. Serfoji II wrote the longest Lāvani called TRISTHALLI YĀTRA LĀVANI, a description of his journey to Kashi.

They are composed for the lay audience to entertain them with riddles, questions and answers. It is a medium used to acquaint villagers with stories from the Puranas, scriptures and in a manner of religious instruction. Marāthi Lāvani singers were patronized by Thanjāvur kings. Lāvanis were extempore and created on the spur of the moment. Always sung in a group, by males, they used instruments like the Duff and Tuntina. [Varsha -Ramakrishnan 2015]9

Lāvani has been in vogue since 15C CE. Well-known composers of Lāvani like Tukaram, Eknath, Ram Joshi, Sagan Bhavoo, Honnaji Bal, Parasuram Easu, Ananda Phandhi, Madhavmuni and Amrita Bai were famous. It had mass appeal because the tunes and rhythms were catchy. Also, there were multi-lingual Lāvani using Hindi, Marathi and Tamil.

The Lāvani had one main verse, similar to Pallavi, followed by charanas or verses. The theme may be historical, devotional or erotic. Two groups of Lāvani singers also contest with each other. Sivaji II held the title of Sawāi Sarabhoji’s Tristhalli Yātra Lāvani as a long majestic Lāvani describing his pilgrimage to Kashi.

“The Bhosles of Tanjavur, especially Serfoji Bhosle were great patrons of art and literature. In the collection of the Southern Lāvani, one also gets the Lāvani of the shāhirs like HonnajiBala. The Marathi language of these Lāvanis is not the same as that of the Marathi of Maharashtra.” [Sharma 1956]8“This, to a certain extent, language of the Lavanis becomes an indicator of the changing culture.”


The Marāthā empire in Thanjāvūr was established in 1676 CE and when the last Marāthā, Raja Sivaji II gave up the throne to the British in 1855, they left behind an amazing wealth of multi-lingual literature, poetry, musical texts, dance poems, yakśagānams, monuments and the art of painting on glass, wood and cloth, but most remarkably, an intense fervour of bhakti and the musical tradition of Marāthi Harikathā, Abhangs and Bhajans which are sung by Nāmasankīrthanaṃ Bhajan groups and concert artists even today. The bhakti movement spearheaded by the Swāmi Rāmdās in Thanjāvūr was part of the unifying force of Marāthā pride and nationalism. 


  1. Jones R Clifford. -Journal of Asian studies Vol22 No 2. (Feb 1963) pp193-200 Jstor .org pp5
  2. Raman Indumati, Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition, 2017, Indus Source Books Mumbai
  3. Seetha, Dr. S. (Tanjore as a Seat of Music) University of Madras-1981- pp520 -560
  4. Macnicol Nicol- Psalms of Marāthā Saints- Associated Press Calcutta 1919- pp7
  5. Gurumoorthy-Dr.Premeela-Kathakalakshepam PHD diss. University of Madras 1994 pp12-25


  1. N-Saraswati Bai C. Commemoration Vol 1939 pp8
  2. Srikanth January 2006 accessed 08/2020-
  3. Sharma S.R. The Soul of Indian History-1956-Bhavan’s Book University- (pp180)
  4. Shirgaokar Varsha/Ramakrishna K.S. -Lavani Literature as a Source of Socio-Cultural History of Medieval Mahārā -pp 42


A. Kaliyuga- The current epoch, preceded by Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga and Dwapara Yuga.

B. Sthala purana– is the story of how the temple’s deity came to reside there. The temple may have a water body, a tree or a special ritual for worship.

C. UddhavSampradāya -Uddhav Sampradaya is based on the teachings of Uddhav, a friend of Sri Krishna. This was later named SwaminarainSampradaya which dedicated itself to service of humanity and followed a strict male-only ethical code.

D. SHVETASVATARA UPANISHAD is found in YAJUR VEDA. It is a Shaivite Upanishad of philosophical content.

E. Mutt- a residential religious institution for monastic studies.

F. Guru Geethi– a text which has the script or Nirupana for Harikatha stories. (TSSML Journal Vol XVII -1964-No3.)

Instruments mentioned: Cipla (castanets), duff (tambourine) jalra (small cymbals) mridanga (two faced drum)

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