In Search of a Change: The Paryaya Festival of Udupi
With the semester break now a distant memory, the lone MITian- desperate for a change- goes out into the streets on a free afternoon. Finding nothing intriguing in Manipal, he takes a stroll towards a place where his visits were only limited to the bus journeys from home; Udupi – known far, and wide as the temple town of Karnataka.
The Paryaya ceremony is a religious event that takes place every alternate year to mark the transfer of the temple administration, and involves bestowing the puja rights upon the next pontiff, among the 8 seers of the Ashthamathas. The Ashthamathas were founded by Acharya Madhwa, and it was his disciples that instructed the pontiffs of the Mathas to share the responsibilty of the Puja among themselves by a ceremony deemed as Paryaya, or ‘change.’ The outgoing swamiji whose duties culminate on the 17th of January then transfers the ‘Akshaya Patra’ -which is essentially the key to the temple- to the succeeding seer. Sounds simple enough? Well, all of it takes place in a gala ceremony with thousands of devotees pouring in from all over the country.
The festivities are initiated by the yearly Rathasapthami, a seven day car festival that takes place on every day of the week preceding Sankranti, and hundreds of devotees head to ‘Car Street’ during this time. Every alternate year, when the Paryaya is to be celebrated, the festivities continue, and on the eve of the ceremony artists, and performers from across the state congregate at Udupi. With stages built at every major crossroad, and folk artists thronging the streets, the night is a feast for the eyes.
This is a bi-yearly event. Why then was this year’s ceremony unique? Since the inception of the two year tenure (replacing the two month Paryaya originally envisaged by Acharya Madhwa, the founder of the Dwaita philosophy) no seer in history has been selected as the Paryaya Swami for a total of five times. Even the legendary Acharya Vadiraja of the Sode Matha, held the position on only four occasions. This time though, Acharya Vishwesha Theertha of the Pejawar Matha rewrites history by holding the position for the 5th time, and his induction fell on the auspicious day of Madhwa Navami i.e. the birthday of Acharya Madhwa. Branded as the Pejavara Panchama Paryaya by his faithful devotees, it was all Udupi talked about for a while.
Walking through the city at night, visitors were treated to a variety of sights. From school play grounds converted into makeshift parking lots to the actual parking lot made into a spectacular stage for the cultural and formal proceedings of the day. The paddy fields were turned into an enormous kitchen which had a granary and dining hall to feed all those who visited. From fireworks adorning the sky to the repeated gonging of the temple bell resonating with the lively atmosphere, the city -home to quiet, and mostly shy natives- bustled with activity.
About an hour after midnight, the city saw people nestling on footpaths, and roofs of tall buildings. There were volunteers marking a perimeter, and leading people off the main road. The Paryaya procession was about to commence.
The beating of the ceremonial drums could be heard from a distance. Tradition demands that the seers take a dip in the chilling waters of the holy pond at Dandatheertha (near Kaup). They then arrive at Jodukatte (situated near the Udupi Taluk Office) to commence Puja for the Paryaya Swami’s Pattada Devaru. The procession begins at 2 in the morning with the Swamijis paraded on traditional pallakis or palanquins followed by various performances.
The procession was led by Udupi’s very own ‘Pili-vesha’, or the Tiger Dance followed by a variety of folk, and urban dance forms indigenous to states as far away as Punjab ,Maharashtra, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh. These performances paraded the streets of Udupi for two hours before entering the Car Street.
After the swamijis acquired the blessings of lord Krishna through the Kanankana Kindi (the window of Kanaka), they visited the two most historic Shiva temples of the area after which they are welcomed into the Krishna Matha by the outgoing pontiff who will have spent the whole night in worship. After visiting the smaller shrines of Mukhyaprana and Subrahmanya inside the Matha itself, the ceremonial transfer of the Akshaya Patra, the utensils of Acharya Madhwa, and the ascending of the Sarvajna Peetha (the spiritual seat of Acharya Madhwa) by the Paryaya swamiji marked the beginning of a new cycle.
By the time the proceedings were over it was 6 AM in the morning, and dawn was breaking. Giant Television screens showcased live proceedings of the ceremony.
The seers then trailed the Paryaya Swami to the Badagu Malige which is the room of the first shishyas, or students of Acharya Madhwa. A small philosophical discussion followed by the honoring of the pontiffs by the Asthana Pandits took place before the formal ceremony known as the ‘Durbar’.
Usually housed in a place that specially catered to such events, the Rajangana this year saw yet another deviation from the standard norm because of the sheer number of people who participated in the festival. A dais especially constructed for the Durbar (The Anandatheertha Mantapa), saw all the swamijis of the eight Mathas participate in a discourse with numerous politicians including, former Deputy PM L.K Advani, MP Uma Bharati, MP Ananth Kumar, CM of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu, former CM of Tamil Nadu O. Paneeraselvam, and several others in attendance. After a multitude of speeches, felicitations, and cultural programs, it was noon and the Maha Annasantharpane –or the badakhana feast as we probably would know it- was announced to satiate one’s hunger. All in all, the Paryaya festival was an indelible experience and proved to be testimonial to the rich, illustrious past of the town of Udupi.