Musical pillars in South Indian temples

Early rock music – Music from Stones

Strange, the uninitiated would think, reading the title, for it is neither about rock music as we know it today, nor about the rolling stones, but about music from stones, a field called Lithophony, and its early applications in South India, characterized by the many musical pillars, staircases, idols and stone blowing instruments found in certain temples. While there are a number of articles about these music pillars on the web, they follow pretty much the same template, and some of them have incorrect information as well. Almost all these articles are about the pillars at Hampi’s Vittala temple, mentioning them as singular and unique, but seem unaware that there are many more in Tamil Nadu and Andhra. So, I thought I would put on my research cap and work a bit on it. Let’s go.

In our Tharavad house in Palghat, at the entrance, just as you climb up the steps, under the low awning overhead, is a knurled roller, which you can spin. As a kid I was mystified about its purpose, for all you could do was spin it either way, and it was just a carved wooden disc that spun over the wooden screw. My uncle explained to me that these were the master carpenter’s signature items. Some were incredibly complex, some simpler. Similarly, the musical pillars in these temples were not built by aliens, or by using rock melting technology, but were carefully chiseled and tuned lithophonic stones. But we will get to all that in due course, read on…

A lithophone is a musical instrument consisting of a rock or pieces of rock which are struck to produce musical notes. Such resonating stones can be found in many parts of the world and many rudimentary lithophones bear witness to the fact that ancient people found and created musical instruments out of them. In fact, some months ago, we visited the Luray caverns near Washington DC and saw the largest stone organ (recently created), the ‘stalacpipe’ as it is called, which creates plays a lovely sonata when the limestone columns are tapped, click the link for details. Even though there are other Lithophonic rock locations in the US and other parts of the world, we are going the review the ancient ones in South India. Though I have not been to the Hampi ruins, I do recall the musical pillars at Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum and the ones at Madurai Meenakshi temple. They did make some sounds when tapped but did not seem astounding, in any way, so I had not taken notice.

Musical pillars are mostly found in South India, though one has also been located at Ajanta. Most of the temples bear some connections to the Vijayanagara rulers or the Madurai Nayaks, and even the oldest i.e., the Nellaiappaar temple in Tirunelveli, still has pristine examples of such pillars. But experts feel that these pillars were added much later to the original 7-8th century temple, by Nayak era craftsmen during 17th century renovations. The oft mentioned (there could be others) locations are at the temples at Hampi, Tadpatri, Lepakshi, Dhadikkombu, Madurai, Alagerkoil, Coutallam, Tenkashi, Tirunelveli, Alwar Tirunagari, Suchindram, Trivandrum, Kumbhakonam (Darasuram), Tanjore, Shanbagaramanallur, and Kanchipuram. While the earliest factual articles one could refer to, are the ones written by P Sambamurthy, TG Aravamuthan and HV Modak, there are a few acoustical studies which the scientifically inclined reader can peruse. Let us get to the detailed studies penned by our stalwarts and their conclusions, also acknowledging their original work, with many thanks.

Aravamuthan’s article, ‘Pianos in stone’, circa 1943, is an article in poetic English replete with uncommon vocabulary, something our man Shashi Tharoor, would nod at. On many instances, I had to stop and smile, seeing his choice for words! The first aspect that a reader should take note of is that these clustered musical pillars are structured in a particular fashion with a main thick load-bearing shaft in the middle and surrounded by a number of slender pillars (as many as 48), exhibiting a lithophonic character. Though cloistered columns can be found in European churches separating aisles, dating to the 10th century, they were used only for ornamental purposes, and not with any musical intent.

Each of the stone pillars produces a different note and the range could extend over an entire octave. Aravamuthan has no doubt that Hampi musical columns were played by skilled musicians to produce dance accompaniments to tuneful psalms, while the dancers moved from one end to the other. He despairs that not many are even aware of the splendid musical pillars at the Nellaiappar Manimandapam which are 8’ tall and 5’ square. That these were chiseled out of a single block of granite, is also stated by him, and tuned to specific notes. They are not all necessarily square in cross-section and are shaped differently as square, rectangular, circular, oval, octagonal, spiral, etc., depending on the note desired, but all cut to true lines. Since many of them are crowded together, no single instrument can play these to create music as such, and he feels that for this reason, these complex structures were condemned to futility, and were just curiosities.

He believes that these were thus played in unison, creating a chorus of sound. He adds that in the nearby Alwar Tirunagarai temple, special structures have been added to make some subtle changes to the music from the columns, making the structure even more complex, exemplifying his conclusion thus - The architect must have designed this pier in the architectural elucidation of some of the cardinal principles on which musical instruments are constructed. For hours one could stand playing on these columns, parent and offspring and brothers, all sprung of the same stock, and listening to the variety and the range of the whimsicality of the separate and the mingled notes. A gentle tap at the offspring makes it wake up with a tremulous note and, at the same time, sets the parent responding with a lullaby: a light tap at the parent makes it tuneful and makes the offspring hum.

Though he mentions - These pianos, with strings, resonators and frets that are fashioned out of a material which weather cannot warp and time… many of these pillars have lost some of their tonal qualities, as testified by musicologists who checked them out.

KC Thiagarajan visited the temple and made recordings for an AIR event, creating eight compositions that he illustrated during a radio show. He also demonstrated the types of Swaras which came from different columns in these pillars. But he makes it clear that it was not possible to expect Gamakas from these stones, and that the sounds only roughly corresponded to some Swarasthanas. One group of illustrations was based on five notes, some on four and some gave three, corresponding to or echoing Kharaharapriya, Dhenuka, Saman- chanting and Subhapantuvarali.

The musical pipe scooped out of a granite stone pillar found at the temple at Shanbagaramanallur in Tirunelveli is also an architectural marvel, as it gives the tone of the Ekkalam (cymbal) when blown from one end and the tone of the conch when blown from the other end. A miniature nagaswaram made of stone is said to be still in use in the temple at Alwartirunagari. In some temples, there are figures whose limbs give out musical notes. A musical statuette of Lord Ganesa has been found in Tanjore, and the sculptures of Rati and Manmadhan in the Vishnu temple at Shanbagaramanallur (and also at Tenkasi) are of resonant stone which produces different notes when struck. The stone steps in the temple at Darasuram creates notes of varying pitches. There is a stone Nadaswaram at the Kumbhakonam Kumbeswararswami temple as well. The Srinivasa Perumal temple in Chamarajapet, Bangalore also contains musical stone pillars but since they are not of sufficient height, the notes given by them are not quite bright.

The Manimandapam at Tirunelveli’s Nellaiappar temple is of particular interest, as it has pillars each with fifty pillarets! At the Western end of the Alankara Mantapam in the Northern Sribalipura in the Suchindram temple, we find the four clustered columns of musical pillars. The two Southern groups contain 33 shafts and the two Northern, 24 shafts in each. The entire group of pilasters is carved out of a monolith, an architectural marvel. Each shaft yields a different musical note. Facing the Kala Bhairava shrine appears the marvelous pieces of art, the musical pillars chiseled out of a single block of granite. The halls containing the musical stone pillars are referred to as Mani mandapas. Some pillars give notes belonging to the Kharaharapriya scale, some to the Hari-Kambhoji and some to the Sankarabharanam scale. The pillars at Tadikombu give out notes which correspond to the Udatta, Anudatta and Svarita svaras of Vedic music.

Nellaiappar Temple Tirunelveli

Prof Sambamurthy’s ‘Music in stones’ from Akashvani circa 1942 and his excellent treatise – History of Indian Music provide more insight– He explains that while some pillars have dim notes, the others are still quite rich and comparable to the Jalataranga notes. These granite pillars around the Prakaram (temple compound around the sanctum) of the temple, grey, black, white, or sandalwood in color, are actually of different heights (3’-6’) and shapes as explained by Aravamutham previously. Sambamurthy focuses on the technical skill and the musical knowledge of the stonemason. These were used to provide a sruti accompaniment and a musical accompaniment. Some of these give the basic swaras of classical music. These pillars were played upon with two thin sticks made of cane or bamboo, just like Jalatarangam. He explains that they were four types of pillars.

Sruthi Sthambas- These were used for sounding the drone note. With the tonic note given by the pillar, the sacred choir gave recitals of sacred music - Vedic hymns or the Tevaram or both.

Gana Sthambas-In this case, two players with thin bamboo sticks stood at opposite ends and played in a concerted manner. The compass of the musical notes of the pillars extended over one octave. In some cases, the pillars gave the notes belonging to the Kharaharapriya scale and in other cases to the Harikambhoji or Sankarabharana scales. Solo performances were also given with these Gana sthambas.

Laya Sthambas - These were used for providing a cross-rhythmical accompaniment. These pillars are so sensitive (e.g., Bugga Ramalingeswaraswami temple at Tadpatri) that any player on the Kanjira can play on them. Rhythmic accompaniment was provided to sacred music with these pillars and perhaps jatis were played on them for the guidance of the dancer or a group of dancers.

Pradarsana Sthambas - The phenomenon of sympathetic resonance can be seen and verified in the musical pillars in the Suchindram temple. The opposite corner pillars are so accurately tuned that when one pillar is just tapped, the pillar at the opposite corner which is tuned to the note of the same frequency, immediately vibrates. This vibration can be clearly heard and also felt by the fingers.

Pillai covers the musical pillars Suchindram – He states that there were constituted by four groups of pillars, two on the north and two on the south, standing parallel to each other. The two northern groups are in a cluster of 24 pillars, while the southern ones are in a cluster of 33. A striking feature is that all the pillars of each group, together with the exquisitely carved turret at the top of each group, are chiseled out of a single block of granite.

Now that we know of what is out there, their physical attributes, the purpose, etc., let us take a look at the period when these acoustically skilled artisans created these masterpieces. While the Nellaipayar temple is the oldest dating back to the 7th century, it is also established that a number of modifications have been done in the premises and by conjecture, once and surmise that the musical pillars there were not really that old, but were added in when the Madurai Nayaks were ruling over Tirunelveli. Uma Maheswari, writing about this subject and focusing on the Madurai and Travancore regions, opines that it was indeed so. The Vittala temple Ranga mandapa and pillars dates to the ~1554-time frame. Interestingly, a prehistoric lithophonic stone structure existed just 8-10 miles from Hampi at the Vanibhadreswara temple! Just tapping the Vittala temple pillars these days, seem to just produce gong and bell sounds, but the musicians who played on them, centuries ago, may have had a different technique.

The two Ajanta musical pillars in Cave # 6 are a curiosity and date back to the 2nd-5th centuries. Walter Spink states that they ring since they are so attenuated, having been quite literally cut out of the wall, when the typical fronts of such early cells were converted to fronting elements of the more elaborate pillared complexes. He demystifies the musical aspect completely and I am drawn to Aravamuthan’s comment - Blind to the obvious are they who pursue the recondite or seek quick returns.

In general, one can state that the Vijayanagar style in temples manifested during 1336-1565 period whereas the Madurai Nayak styles were predominant as they rose to prominence in 1600-1700. The artisan families in Vijayanagar must have moved South to Madurai and other temple states after the fall of the Vijayanagar empire, just like the musicians and Carnatic music moved to Tanjore.

The sculptors who came to the South made these pillars on their southward journey. These pillars are found in Meenakshi temple, Alwar Tirunagari, Tirunelveli temples, Suchindrum and at the Padmanabhaswami Temple at Trivandrum. The pillars in Padmanabhaswamy temple have sculptures of Gods and Goddesses and produce musical sounds of various instruments. The pillars in the Nellaiappar Temple have lost the capacity of producing the "Swaras" and a few pillars only produce ''sa, ri, ga, ma, pa". While the Suchindram pillars are slated to 1798, the Trivandrum pillars seem to be made somewhat earlier. The new additions to the older temple are the prakaras (outer part of the Sanctum) and this style reached its zenith during the 17th century A.D.

Modak was the first to do some scientific studies – he adds - The number of pillars in a cluster varies from three at Lepakshi to fifty at Tirunelveli and Alwartirunagari. The resonance method has been used to establish the frequencies of the Pillars in the Swami Nelliappar Temple at Tirunelveli. In general, the conclusion was that the two batches - square and circular pillars had been carefully constructed and that the theoretical calculations were a close match to the actual measurements, but arbitrarily distributed around the main pillar and most very difficult to reach. However, the ones that generate true tones are not properly located so that they could be struck to create a tune, but they seemed to be more ornamental or used only for accompaniment music composed in three to five-note combinations. as in religious hymns. It is possible to select the pillars near each other producing notes in such scales these pillars produce pleasing tones

In general, I am inclined to go along with the hypothesis that these pillars were the sculptor’s signature and mostly curiosities adding to the lure and lore of the temple, and the power of their patrons, and not regularly used musical instruments. As Dr. Raghavan maintained in 1977, these pillars, which emitted musical sounds, were not used in any music or dance rituals in the temples and were just architectural curiosities. These stones had some peculiar geological qualities and the Shilpi’s who came across them while cutting stones for the temple work created these as well to demonstrate their skill. But without a doubt, they are marvels, carefully crafted by those rock sculptors who also had a good understanding of music and tones.

So, how did the relatively modern term ‘Rock music’ come about? It came about from the rock and roll style in the US during the late 40s and was popularized in the mid 50s. For decades African Americans had used the term rock and roll as a euphemism for vigorous sex!! The phrase "rocking and rolling" originally described the movement of a ship on the ocean - a phrase apparently used by 17th-century sailors to describe the motion of a ship on the sea. Pretty distant from the art of tapping on rocks, right??

References & acknowledgements
Musical Curiosities in the Temples of South India - H. V. Modak
History of Indian Music – P Sambamoorthy
Musical pillars and singing rocks M.G Prasad and B. Rajavel
Journals of the Music academy Madras – 1943, 1977 (Aravamuthan article, Dr Raghavan’s speech, etc.)
Heritage of the Tamils – temple arts – Ed Dr. SV Subramaniam, Dr. G Rajendran
The Suchindram temple – KK Pillay

 Pics - Wikimedia acknowledged with thanks

          Wishing all readers a great NEW YEAR


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