This works like a thavil
Dr. M. Lalitha
(A monthly column on India's ancient instruments.)
“The spotlight this time is on Davandai. We recently visited the Madurai Meenakshi temple. Here we got to witness the ‘Uchi Kala’ puja performed to the accompaniment of a rare percussion instrument called davandai. During the puja, this instrument is played along with the nagaswaram, instead of the thavil.
This is a two-faced hour-glass drum resembling ‘udukkai’ but slightly bigger. Both its faces are covered with thick goat’s skin and the ends are sealed with parchment stretched with cords. Though it is a two-faced instrument, only one side is played with a stick. It is fastened with a rope that runs from the faces to the body and fixed on to the small openings found on the other side. Different sounds emanate when the cords in the middle are tightened.
The instrument is played on occasions when the thavil is not allowed inside the temple. It is said to be a favourite of Lord Nataraja. In the Puranas, it is mentioned that when Lord Nataraja danced, Lord Brahma played the cymbals and Vishnu created this instrument from his spine and played it with the aralikuchi that resembled the backbone, slightly bent. Hence, the instrument is associated with Lord Vishnu. Many Vishnu temples use davandai in the daily rituals.
The instrument can be heard at the Sangameswarar temple in Bhavani, Sri Rajagopalaswamy temple, Mannargudi, and the Chakrapani and Kumbeswaran temples in Kumbakonam.
The davandai accompanies the nagaswaram till the end of the thaila kappu sevai.It is also played when the bali saadam is offered to the astabalakas. And it works solo at times. On occasions such as Trikala sandhi, Uchikalam, Sayaratcahi and the pujas at night, the davandai sounds can be heard for quite a distance. According to Ganesan, a davandai player at the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple, who hails from a musical family, the instrument is played not only on special occasions such as Adi festival and Avani Moolam utsavam, but also during nadai thirappu and other regular pujas.
During Navaratri, the instrument is played when the kappu is worn by the Bhattar as he performs the Ambal puja, known as Alavattam. The sculpture at the Nandi Mandapam at the Meenakshi temple where Lord Siva is portrayed in 25 forms, one can identify a davandai. It is believed that Vishnu plays the instrument while Siva dances.
There is another sculpture of a davandai opposite the golden flag post near the Urdhva Thandavar shrine.
Interestingly, at the Madurai temple, a separate post has been created for the davandai performers during rituals. At the Azhagar temple, nagaswaram artists play the davandai.
The davandai is usually made from jackfruit wood but for the Srirangam and Madurai Meenakshi temples, bronze is used.
In the Sarangapani temple, Kumbakonam, the davandai is known as ‘echarikai’ and is used to announce the procession of the deity.
In Srirangam, this instrument is known as ‘Veeravandi.’ It is considered one of the 18 most important instruments used for temple rituals. It is played at Siva and Vishnu temples during the processions of Sulapani and Selvar who oversee the offering of rice at the Bali Peetam for the temple guards.
At Sri Parthasarathy temple, Triplicane, Chennai, there is a similar instrument which is known as dakki and is played a little differently.
So how does one learn to play the davandai? In ancient times, artists would be in touch with thavil vidwans and observe them, and pick up the nuances. Sometimes, even the nagaswaram artists would teach the art.
But there are hardly any takers now. Such an ancient instrument needs to be preserved and special courses need to be introduced so that the art is kept alive for generations to come.”
(The writers are classical violinists and researchers.)