Wednesday, 28 June 2017


Its beat heralds a procession

Udal during the Neivedyam procession, at Sri Ekambaranathar temple, Kanchipuram. Photo: Special Arrangement  

The Udal resembles a thavil but differs in size, the playing method and rhythmic patterns.

(This column will focus on ancient instruments, their origins and myths.)
Upon invitation from Sri Sachchidananda Tirtha of the Sri Chakra Maha Meru Peetam of Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, who was camping at Tiruvaanaika, Tiruchi, we performed at Sri Akhilandeswari temple, one of the Pancha bhoota sthalams that represents the water element as ‘Appu Lingam.’ During the abishekam and the uchi kala puja (special here as the priests dress up themselves in a sari and perform the puja), we heard the beautiful strains of the nagaswaram accompanied by rhythms from a barrel-shaped instrument smaller than the thavil. The instrument was so fascinating that we began to research it. And soon we learnt that it is known as the ‘Udal and occupies an important place in temple rituals. One can hear it at the following shrines in Kanchipuram - Sri Kamakshi Amman, Sri Ekambaranathar, Ulagalanda Perumal and Sri Varadarajar apart from those in Madurai, Tiruvanaika, Srirangam, Woraiyur Nachiyar temple, Tiruvidaimarudhur, Chidambaram, and at the Murugan temple in Kumarakkottam. The udal comes under the category of Avanaddha vadyas/membranophones/percussion instruments, and has a strong resemblance to thavil but is a little smaller than the latter. Having two faces covered with two layers of goat’s skin, the percussion instrument is made from the wood of the jackfruit tree. The right side or ‘valam thalai’ is slightly larger than the left side or ‘thoppi’ the ‘edam thalai.’
The Udal is made mostly in Sirkazhi and Tiruvaiyaru. Unlike the thavil, where the stick is used on one side and the hand on the other, the udal is played by either using the hands or sticks known as ‘kuruvikombu kuchi’ (now replaced by plastic) found in the forest of Tiruvannamalai. Some performers play with chavuku (casuarina) or arali sticks too.
The udal, which is hung on the left shoulder, has simple rhythmic patterns. It is said that this instrument is the later version of the tudi used by the Kurinji people belonging to one of the five thinais or landscapes, the others being mullai, marutham, neidal and paalai.
Research says that this instrument, along with ekkalam, brahmatalam, sangu and tiruchinnam, is among the favourites of Lord Siva. In order to please Lord Siva, the bhuta ganas played the udal.
At the Kamakshi Amman and Varadarajar temples, Kanchipuram, only one face is played according to niyati or tradition whereas in the Siva temples, both the faces are played.
Along with kombu, ekkaalam, thappu and thaarai, the udal was played prior to the commencement of a temple procession. This is still practised in Tiruvannamalai where 11 udals are used to announce the procession of the deity.
According to Ganesan, a Davandai player from Madurai, Meenakshi Amman temple , the udal is also known as sutru thavil and played only as talam, during pujas and purappadu along with the nagaswaram and thavil. The udal is also played during the fifth day Tiruvizha, known as the Theruvadaithan, in Chidambaram, during ‘Thiruveedi ula’ of Lord Bikshadanar, and during Vasthu Shanti when this instrument is played around the four veedhis.
According to Kartigeyan, the thavil player at the Ekambareswarar temple, the instrument is used mainly for swami purappadu. It is only after playing the udal in the morning that the temple opens. In Agamas, it is mentioned that udal should be played at temples. While some temples follow the tradition, others have it just as a show piece.
Udal is also played while offering neivedyam for the deities. The rhythmic patterns played on the udal indicate whether it is for neivedyam or purappadu.
At the Srirangam Ranganathar temple, the udal is considered important. There are three different types – periya udal played during thaligai, tirumanjanam and when the Lord comes out in a procession; tirumanjana udal, a bit small and the nadam, softer, played while bringing the tirtham and chinna udal, played while taking tirtham from the river. This is played in the morning for the Viswarupa Darisanam of Lord Ranganathar followed by the fifth tirtham.
The technique of playing the instrument has been handed down for generations. Some of the artists say they started playing by just listening to their elders. Sadly, there are only a few practitioners of the udal left today. Hope the hoary tradition is preserved, or it will be forgotten forever.
(The writers are classical violinists and researchers.)

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