The Monk Who Recreated Lost Ancient Tamil Musical Instruments
Silappathikaram is one of five poetic dramatic works of epic proportions in Tamil. It was written over 1,500 years ago. Besides the well-known depiction of the fierce nature of the divine feminine, the work is a treasure trove of information on such things as ancient musical instruments, ragasand dance forms.
But can these ancient musical instruments, used in Tamil Nadu more than a millennium ago, be reconstructed from the data available in ancient literature? And not only a theoretical reconstruction but a physical reconstruction?
Yes, it was done. By a monk from the Sri Ramakrishna Mission.
He was Swami Vipulananda.
Swami Vipulananda was born on March 27, 1892 in 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 of the local Ganesha temple and also the principal of the local Saivaite school. He was also taught English and Tamil by a tutor named Kunju Thampi. His father introduced him to 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 had just started. Here he familiarized himself with classical Western languages and Christian theology.
A prodigy, Swami Vipulananda passed the Cambridge exam for university before he was even 16 years old. In the same year, he became a tutor and held this position for two years. With varied interests, he mastered the ancient Tamil classics and the works of Shakespeare (whom he affectionately calls “Jagat Sirpi”, the sculptor of worlds) and obtained a degree in natural sciences in 1916.
During this period, he was initiated into the Vivekananda movement. He also passed the Tamil Pandit Examination held by the Madurai Tamil Society. His chemistry lectures were popular. Soon he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of London.
Meanwhile, Swami Sarvananda from the Sri Ramakrishna Mission in Madras visited Sri Lanka. Pandit Mayilvahana met the Swami. This meeting transformed the Tamil pandit. He decided to devote himself to service and spirituality.
At that time, due to his knowledge of sciences and classical Hindu languages, Tamil and Sanskrit, he was asked by prominent citizens to become the Principal of the Hindu College. Here he taught not only chemistry but, where appropriate, 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 of Math’s Tamil and English magazines, Sri Ramakrishna Vijayam and Vedanta Kesari respectively.
During this period, he started interacting with Mahapadhyaya Sri U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, the great old man of the Tamil renaissance who, through superhuman dedication, saved the ancient classic Tamil literature.
In 1924, Swami Vipulananda was ordained a monk on the full moon day of Chaitra month. Swami Sivananda gave him the name “Swami Vipulananda”.
In 1925 he returned to Sri Lanka and began to lecture. In the same year, he opened a school for the education of girls in Jaffna, called Sarada Vidyalaya. In 1927 he led a student conference in Jaffna and also hosted and interacted with Mahatma Gandhi, who was visiting Sri Lanka.
Swami Vipulananda encouraged and organized circles of students to study Tamil properly and thoroughly. He also taught them Sanskrit. It was Swami’s firm convictioni that knowledge of Sanskrit was essential to understand and appreciate Tamil in its depth.
Swami Vipulananda also established a boarding school that catered to the educational needs of all sections of society, especially the marginalized.
In 1931, he was invited by Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, the founder of Annamalai University, to come to the newly founded university at Chidambaram. Swami went there and there too he rendered extraordinary educational and social service.
He ran an evening school for children in the community whose families could not afford a regular school education. Swami himself bought the essential books for the children.
In the 1933 Convocation Ceremony, while on every house roof the Union Jack was hoisted, in Swami’s residence the Swadesi tricolor was hoisted. This led to a police investigation. But Swami was not disturbed.
During this time, Swami Vipulananda started researching the ancient Tamil musical traditions. His lecture at the University of Madras titled “The Ancient Musical Instruments of the Tamils and Their Other Fine Arts” was a milestone in restoring the lost ancient past.
In 1933, he quit his job at the University. University officials in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka used to ask Sri Ramakrishna Mission to loan the monk as a professor in their universities for one term. During this time, Swami traveled to northern India and was for a time editor of the prestigious Vedantic Mission magazine, Prabuddha Bharata.
But all the while, he was also working on the authentic reconstruction of ancient Tamil musical instruments.
The culmination of his research was the book Yaazh Nool (The book of Yaazh; Yaazh is the lost ancient Tamil musical instrument). On June 5 and 6, 1947, the book was turned over to scholars for critical evaluation and approval.
This was the traditional Hindu way of publishing 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 in this temple, who was instrumental in rescuing and reorganizing the sacred Tamil literature from Vedic saivism a thousand years ago during the reign of Raja Raja.
During the ceremony, a demonstration of the reconstructed musical instruments was given by a very famous string instrument musician of the time – Ka Po Sivanandam Pillai.
After various scholars critically reviewed the book and the reconstruction, the book was accepted. The function ended with a ceremonial procession of the temple deity. Swami Vipulananda’s achievement involved his comprehensive knowledge of ancient Tamil literature, Silappathikaram for Thevaram and Periya Puranam as well as his knowledge of music.
Added to this was Swami’s knowledge in the natural sciences, especially acoustics. He was also a good mathematician. By combining knowledge from all these different fields, Swami Vipulananda has returned to Tamil society its lost musical instruments.
Swami Vipulananda fell ill after this feat, and after two years, on July 19, 1949, at the age of 57, attained samadhi. Many Tamil scholars believe that Ilango Adigal, the prince who became a Jain monk to avoid competition for the throne and who was the author of Silappathikaramreincarnated as Swami Vipulananda to restore lost knowledge.
To this day, his samadhi in Sri Lanka is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of traditional Indian music.
Today is Swami Vipulananda’s 130th birthday.
Author’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.