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Suprabhatam For A Past Life

Suprabhatam For A Past Life

July 26, 2012

The chant from the local temple is filtering through the morning sun and coconut leaves, back into my restless mind.

It's been a year since I left India. To be precise, it was a year on 13 July (which was also a year since the most recent horrific bomb blasts in Mumbai). 

As we grow older, annual markers such as birthdays and anniversaries tend to lose more and more of their meaning. With work and family, life becomes more routine, and that routine tends to override any special celebration for another year having passed.

However, anniversaries do offer an opportunity to pause and cast a quick glance around. Forwards if you're an avowed goal-setter. Backwards if you're given to nostalgia. I have therefore spent much of the past week looking back on my life in Kerala.

I can't explain exactly why, but my thoughts have been dominated by the morning Suprabhatam prayer that was broadcast (and I imagine is still broadcast) by my local temple. Dominated isn't quite the right word, though. It's more like it's been playing in the distant recesses of my mind, quietly accompanying all that I do without fighting its way to the surface. This is also a reasonably accurate description of the role it played in my life in Kerala, although the pre-dawn start time quite often grated and frustrated. Now, though, nostalgia papers over all that and makes every moment – the frustration, the devotion; the beauty, the alternate calm and agitation – into a nugget of gold from my past. I cannot help but feel grateful for all of it.

The sounds issued forth from Valiyaveetil Devi Temple. I only know its name from looking it up in Google Maps just now; when I lived barely a minute's walk from it, I knew it simply as 'the temple'. I also didn't know what any of the prayers it broadcast were called, nor was I sure that they were prayers. It's amazing how you can spend three years in a place and come away knowing and understanding so little.

It's also worth pointing out that 'Suprabhatam' is just one of many names given to the early morning wake-up that Hindu temples around India aim at the heavens and the surrounding neighbourhood. Twitter friends told me it could be 'sabere ki aarti', 'suprabhat' or 'morning aarti'. In other cases, depending on where in India you are, it could be something subtly different like 'Sahasranamam', 'Om Jai Jagadeesh', 'Gayatri mantra', 'Narayaneeyam' or 'Harivarasanam'. Some of these appear to be parts of the same composition. Whatever its exact name, wherever it plays, it is likely as inescapable as it was in Thiruvananthapuram district.

Valiyaveetil Devi Temple played a number of different morning Suprabhatam but the one which has been stuck in my head is Ayyappa Suprabhatham. That link leads to the voice of K. J. Yesudas, which is famously distinctive and revered, but the voice on the temple's CD was female. I can't find that recording online so Yesudas will have to do for now. Still, I can conjure that woman's otherworldly chant in my head at will – and sometimes, as evidenced by the past week, I can conjure it without any effort or intention. It's just there.

I would wake up to that voice, my eyes flickering open and focusing on the rotating fan above the bed. I'd then look out the window, which was always slightly ajar, into the coconut grove that occupied all the land around my house. The sound shone forth from about fifty metres beyond those coconut trees. It filtered gently through the soft early morning light, which in turn illuminated the bright green of the leaves. Depending on how I'd slept, and on the ebb and flow of stresses and pleasures in my life, I would long for more rest or feel glad to be awake. Wherever my mood went, Ayyapa Suprabhatham followed, inescapable, unchanging.

Again, I can't tell you why this is what has accompanied my reflections of late. I did hear it hundreds and hundreds of times, so no doubt some of its strength in my mind is a result of repetition. It seems to me to have some other power, though, something I can't quite put my finger on. It probably has something to do with being such a constant in a life I now dearly miss. There may also be some inherent power in the chant itself, and in the voices of its singers; this wouldn't be surprising, given the established systematic perfection of Carnatic music.

All I can be sure of is that Ayyapa Suprabhatham is on my mind, in the here and now and in my nostalgic recollections of a previous life.


In the course of writing this short post, I have learned so much. I've been gone from India for a year and it still teaches me, as do its people. When I returned to New Zealand against my will, it welcomed me with open arms; I became closer to my family, I got a good job which I enjoy and I met wonderful new friends. But India remains a huge part of me, like a vessel that fills endlessly. This is true after one year. I expect it will remain true even after fifty years.

Photo credit
: Anil Bhatt


  • Jyoti Agarwal
    Jyoti Agarwal
    27.07.12 10:30 AM

    I simply adore your love for India and Indian culture. I wish you all the best for your future in New Zealand and hope you can soon come back to India to enjoy the Suprabhatam.
  • Rajpriya
    27.07.12 12:30 AM
    Hi Barn,

    You lost your titles. LOL
    26.07.12 10:34 PM
    @ Barns

    Suprabhatham is not a prayer for the lord, but it's for you and your happiness, so that your day go smoothly and happy, and I am glad even tho you have left exactly an year a go, you still feel love for India. I hope you can still feel same after hearing suprabhatham for next fifty years to come. Best of luck for your future endeavors and the prayer giving you that happiness every morning.

    HARRY :)
  • Rajpriya
    26.07.12 07:51 PM

    I think you be given the title “Desh Bandhu” or “Gurudev”, I am serious.

    I am NOT ashamed being educated about India through your articles. Was good reading as many of your previous posts. Keep writing more.
  • Sampada
    26.07.12 07:26 PM
    Hey, may be the female version is by M.S Subbalaksmi.

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