The Sanskrit devotional text called the Narayaneeyam is held in the highest esteem by ‘Shaivas’ and Srivaishnavas alike. Its verses are sung in worship at the Krishna temple at Guruvayur, just as Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam is sung at Lord Jagannatha’s temple at Puri. The composer of the Narayaneeyam is Meppathur Narayana Bhattadri, of the priestly Namboodri community of Kerala. They say he was born in 1560 CE. (Saint Purandaradasa, the ‘Karnataka Sangita Pitamaha’ or ‘Grandsire of Carnatic Music’ had four years left to live then while in the north, Bairam Khan fell out fatally with Akbar that year). By about 16, Narayana Bhattadri was a proven prodigy, having mastered “all learning”. He was also an arrogant young person and a bit of a rake, if one can so interpret the careful remark by his historians that he was “morally indifferent.”
In fact, the only person that the arrogant young man was known to love and respect was his grammar teacher, Achyuta Pisharady. When the guru fell victim to paralysis a few years later, Bhattadri was moved to take his teacher’s illness upon himself. This duly happened, just as Babar had taken on Humayun’s sickness. Bhattadri then asked to be carried to Guruvayur temple. Sending word to the great poet, Thunchath Ezhuthatchan, for advice, he was given this cryptic message, “Start with the fish”. Rightly interpreting this as a hint to compose hymns on Mahavishnu’s ten avatars (which began with ‘Matsya’, the Fish), Bhattadri began to compose what became known as the Narayaneeyam. It was a condensed, original telling of the Srimad Bhagvatam in 1,036 Sanskrit verses, completed in precisely a hundred days. He was fully cured by the last day, November 27, 1587 (Vrischikam 28, year 763, Kollam Era) and, say some, lived to the great age of 106. One belief about the Narayaneeyam echoes the lovely Gita Govindam story that Krishna Himself permitted Jayadeva to retain a verse describing Radha’s “head on His feet.” The story goes that when it came to describing the Raasa Krida (Sri Krishna’s mystic dance with the milkmaids of Vrindavan), Bhattadri blanked out. He simply could not visualise it and surrendered to the Lord, pleading, “You tell me how.”
They say he was then graced with a dazzling vision of Krishna dancing with the gopis and this lilting verse, still danced by our classical artistes, tumbled out: Keshapasha- druta- pinchikavatiti- sanchala- makara- kundalam/harajala- vanamalika- lalita-madgaraga-ghana-saurabham: ‘Peacock feathers on your crown, fish-pendants in your ears, wildflower garlands on your neck, your body smelling sweet of sandal.’ “On this radiant form, dressed for Raasa, let us meditate,” he concluded in ecstasy. And perhaps we do so even now, each in our own way.