In the busy calendar of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, Kerala, there are two major festivals. The Painkuni utsavam takes place in the Malayalam calendar’s month of Meenam (March/April), while the Alpashi utsavam is held during Thulam (October/November).
Both of these festivals are ten days long, and each day, an idol of Lord Padmanabha (a form of Vishnu), accompanied by other deities, is taken on a procession in a different type of vahana, or vehicle. It is said that originally the deities were taken out on elephants, but after an elephant ran amok one year, the temple decided to use vahanas which are carried by temple priests instead. These include a throne, Vishnu’s eagle Garuda, and a palanquin, to name a few. The festivals culminate on the tenth day, when the deities are taken to the Shankumugham beach for a holy bath in the ocean.
Swati Tirunal, the 19th-century king of Travancore, was a prolific Carnatic and Hindustani composer whose compositions I’ve written about before. One of his most interesting works is the Utsavaprabandha. It’s made up of twelve compositions: an introduction, a conclusion, and ten main songs, each one describing a specific day of the festivals. They are set in a variety of ragas, some popular and some rare, and their lyrics are in highly Sanskritized Malayalam.
The charming song “Kanakamayam Ayidum” was composed for the third day of the festival, when Lord Padmanabha’s idol is taken out on procession atop the kamala vahana (lotus vehicle). It describes a conversation between two devotees who are watching the procession go by, but aren’t sure who the deity is. It’s kind of funny; Hindu kids are often teased about the seemingly endless number of Hindu deities, but as this song reveals, plenty of Hindus also find them hard to keep track of!
This song is set in raga Huseni and is in rupaka talam (six-beat cycle). Here’s a rendition by the wonderful Rama Varma, with a translation of the lyrics below:
Pallavi: kanaka mayam AyIDum kamala vAhanam atin mEl kanattOru kAntiyODu gamikkunnatAravanO?
Oh! Who could this be, approaching in such grandeur in the resplendent kamala vahanam (lotus vehicle)?
Charanam 1: valamathanan vibhavamODe vasudhayil cariccIDunnO? valamathanan engil engU vilasum nEtra sahasram?
Is it Indra, king of the gods, who killed the demon Vala? If it is Indra, then where are the thousand sparkling eyes all over his body?
(Here’s why Indra is covered with a thousand eyes. It’s quite a scandalous story.)
C2: kalabha gatE* kuLirmatiyo? kanivODe vilasunnU! kuLirmatiyennAkil uLLil uLavAkum ankam engU?
Oh, my friend who moves gracefully! Could it be Chandra, the Moon, roaming with compassion? But, this person is flawless; if it is indeed the Moon, where is his trademark dark spot?
*literally, kalabha-gate means “one with an elephant-like gait,” kalabha meaning a young elephant, gati meaning gait. It’s a common epithet found in Sanskrit poetry, and it’s a compliment! It sounds odd to us today, but I guess Indian poets thought elephants moved around very elegantly.
C3: gaurI nayakan Akum kailAsAdhIshvaranO? gaurI nayakan engil kamani mUnnAm nEtram engU?
Is it Shiva, the beloved of Gauri and lord of Kailasa? If it is indeed Shiva, then where is his third eye?
C4: ati mahasA vilasIDum katirOno vada bAlE? katirOn ennAkilavan kathamEvam shAntanAvU?
Tell me, my dear, is it Surya, the Sun, dazzling with his harsh brilliance? If so, why he does he seem to be so peaceful?
C5: tArittEnmozhi bAlE! dhanapati ennAkilavan bhUri virUpAnganatO nIrajanAbhan nUnam!
Oh my friend with a voice sweet as honey! He is bedecked with jewelry, but if he were Kubera, the lord of wealth, he would be terribly ugly. He is none of these, so he must be my Lord Nirajanabha (Vishnu).