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Ghanta Puja Sloka: melody and ritual function

hindu ritual bell (ghanta) with a candle
Mario Friscia

Mario Friscia

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What kind of text do Hindu priests recite when ringing the ritual bell (ghanta) at the beginning of a puja?

Those of you that are familiar with Hindu ritual prayers and sacred formula might already know the answer:

the verses chanted by the priests are contained in a specific stanza, commonly known as the Ghanta Puja Sloka, literally, “stanza for the devotional homage to the ritual bell”.

Reciting the Ghanta Puja sloka while ringing the ritual bell serves as a signal that the Vighneshvara Puja has just started.

Did you know that the first act of worship performed by a Hindu priest is not addressed to Vighneshvara (one of the many names of Ganesh) but to the temple bell itself?

In this article you’re going to learn how to chant the Ghanta puja sloka in accordance with the rules followed by temple officiants, the meaning of the text, which is written in Sanskrit, and its main ritual function.

Let’s dive in!

 

Ghanta Puja Sloka: text and ritual meaning

 

1. āgamārthaṃ tu devānāṃ gamanārthaṃ tu rakṣasām |

ghanṭānādaṃ karomyādau devatāhvāna lāñchanam ||

 

Here’s the English translation of the sloka:

For the arrival of the gods and the departure of the evil entities, I ring the bell, as a sign of invocation of the deity

As you can see, the verses of the sloka are primarily focused on declaring the ritual meaning of ringing a ghanta.

The words are not addressed to a particular deity but are chanted to pay respect to the ghanta itself.

During my fieldwork in Tamil Nadu I’ve had the opportunity to interview a series of temple officiants about the benefits of ringing a ritual bell at the beginning of a puja while singing its corresponding sloka.

Their views about the ritual function of chanting a sloka and, at the same time, ringing the ghanta, can be summarized as follows:

 

  • clearing the air around the priest
  • announcing the beginning of the pooja
  • welcoming Vighneshavra (another name of Ganesh) and all the other deities
  • driving away negative energies
  • invoking positive energies and peaceful mind states

 

The text of the sloka associated with the ritual bell is found in the Agamic manual “Shivagama Prayoga Chandrika”, a compendium of mantras used in Tamil Nadu to train the future priests.

With the expression “agamic” I’m referring to the Agama Shastras, a huge corpus of non Vedic ritual texts that provide detailed indications for the correct performance of temple ceremonies.

Going through these manuals you can realize that there are mantras and slokas prescribed for each ritual gesture.

 

Alternative versions of the Ghanta Puja sloka

 

Doing my research online, I’ve found other 2 versions of the Ghanta Pooja sloka.

They were cited, here and there, within blogs and Youtube videos:

 

2. āgamārthaṃ tu devānāṃ gamanārthaṃ tu rakṣasām

kurve ghanṭāravaṃ sarva devatāhvāna lāñchanam

 

3. āgamārthaṃ tu devānāṃ gamanārthaṃ tu rakṣasām

ghanṭāravaṃ karomyadau devatāhvāna lāñchanam ||

 

The first hemistichs (half of a line of a verse) are identical.

The variations occur at the beginning of the second hemistich but do not alter the meaning of the sloka, since the new words are just synonyms for those utilized in the agamic version of the Ghanta puja sloka.

Considering that the agamic sources are believed to be the most trustworthy among the Hindu priests,  I’m going to base my rhythmic and melodic analysis of the sloka on the verses provided by the agamic manual I’ve alluded to before.

 

Metre and rhythmic structure

 

A sloka consists of four pādas (foot) or quarter-verses, of 8 syllables each.

Here is the Ghanta pooja shloka divided in its four padas:

 

āgamārthaṃ tu devānāṃ (first pada) gamanārthaṃ tu rakṣasām (second pada)|

ghanṭānādaṃ karomyādau (first pada) devatāhvāna lāñchanam (second pada) ||

 

Temple priests in Tamil Nadu tend to recite this sloka leaving two pauses:

 

  1. after the word rakṣasām, at the end of the first “second pada”
  2. after the word lāñchanam, at the end of the second “second pada”

 

This is in line with the punctuation of the sloka, which is indicated by the vertical bar ( | ).

Vedic recitation schools’ students seem to adopt another system:

they leave a pause after each pada so as to magnify the inner shape of the verses and better sculpt the prosody of the sloka.

The rhythmic values of the notes sung by the priests are totally dependent on the length of the syllables (akshara) of the text.

That’s why I think a quick review of the basis of Sanskrit prosody could be useful at this point.

A syllable can be formed in two ways:

 

  • one vowel plus one or more consonants
  • one vowel alone

 

In addition, a syllable can be short (hrasva) or long (dirgha).

A short syllable ends with a short vowel (a, i, u, ṛ) while a long syllable may end in two ways:  either with a long vowel (ā, ī, ū, ṝ, e, o, ai, au) or with a short vowel followed by two or more consonants.

As a result, the Ghanta Puja sloka derives its musical rhythm from the alternation of the short and long syllables that form the poetic verses.

To get an overview of the different types of sloka, I suggest you to read “Notes on the Sanskrit sloka” by Victor D’Avella.

 

Melodic profile

 

Let me be clear:

a sloka is not a mantra.

In fact, slokas are not preceded by the sacred formula “om” and follow a specific poetic metre, a condition that doesn’t apply to mantras.

This means that a sloka can be sung as one wishes.

However, temple priests are used to chant slokas within a third minor range, in line with the sound theory of the Yajur Veda.

They tend to apply the same melodic intervals prescribed for the chanting of the Yajurvedic formulae.

As a result, the Ghanta Pooja sloka can be represented on a score as follows:

score of the ghanta puja sloka

The melodic profile you have just seen represented in the score above is one of the most frequently used melodic patterns that one can find in Tamil Nadu (South India) and Sri Lanka.

More specifically, I’ve heard the Gantha Puja sloka chanted on this melody both inside Hindu temples and within the Vedic recitation classes I attended in Kumbakonam and Mayladuthurai.

There are several audio files of worshipers reciting the Ghanta Puja sloka on Youtube and they all maintain the same melody as the one indicated in the score.

Listen to these two examples:

 

The melody on which the Ghanta Puja sloka is recited is transmitted orally within the Brahmin community, even though it can be also derived from the metre itself, once you can identify the various positions of the accent.

Unfortunately, I can’t explore this topic in depth because it would require a separate guide.

But there’s one thing I want you to pay attention to:

the same melody you have just heard in the recitation of the Ghanta Pooja sloka is generally applied to all the slokas uttered by priests during the performance of a puja.

 

Sources and further readings

 

This article is based on the audio-recordings and video footage collected in the temples and Vedic recitation schools of Tamil Nadu, where I carried out my doctorate fieldwork in 2009 and 2010.

If you want to have a first access to the world of Hindu puja and its symbolism, I suggest you to read “Follow the Hindu Moon”, a well written and easy to read guide to the festivals of South India.

For those of you that can read Sanskrit and are interested in expanding their knowledge about the slokas and mantras recited by the priests, I suggest to consult Indian publications specifically focused on the training of priests.

Shivagama Prayoga Chandrika” and “Mahanyasam Sasvaram Shivapuja Veda Mantirankal” are the two collections of mantras and slokas, published in 2009 by Visvanatha S.V. Shivacharya, I used for my Phd dissertation.

Sure, you can find many websites providing free pdf-s that claim to collect all of the sacred formula you need to perform a puja according to the Agama Shastras.

Unfortunately, most of the time these texts are plenty of errors and the translations available online are somewhat questionable.

Therefore, if you’re planning to take a look at them anyway, follow my advice and do it with a good amount of suspicion and critical spirit.

A free resource available online that can help you better understand the richness and complexity of the Indian metrical system is this pdf by Michael Hahn.

If you want to start learning Sanskrit and be able to translate slokas on your own, I suggest you to study Max Muller’s “A Sanskrit grammar for beginners“.

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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