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Among the believers: the brahmin, the neo-Pilgrim Fathers.
By Krishnan Iyer
In ancient what is now India the trade or profession one chose to pursue determined his class or caste which was broadly divided into four distinct groups viz. Gurus or teachers (that formed the priestly class), the Kshatriyas or the warriors who fought for their mother land, the Vaishyas or traders who catered to the material needs of the other three, and Shudras who laboured hard to service the others. This came to be known as the Varna system that over the passage of centuries degenerated into innumerable castes, sub-castes and tribes, some became high castes and others lesser mortals in degrees on a reducing scale, the last being the untouchables. With democracy ruling – where the "numbers" and their voting strength determine who gets to rule – the times have changed and the unwritten hierarchical order of castes has gone through a thorough overhaul, too. The once powerful Brahmins have now become voiceless and are in no position to lobby hard for their interests and rights in view of their numerical inferiority.
The Brahmin community can be found in all the states of India, albeit with different nomenclatures. Thus the Tamil-speaking Brahmins – or the sobriquet Tambrams with which they call themselves these days – in Tamil Nadu and Kerala came to be known as Iyers (or its minor variant Iyengars who are followers of Lord Vishnu, thus the term Vaishnavaites for them, in contrast to Iyers who are Shiv bhakts), the Malayali Brahmins are known by their surnames like Namboodris, Bhattadhiris, Pottys, etc. A fellow-buildingwalla who gives me company sometimes in my evening walks is a gent by name Jani of about my age; for long I mistook him to be a Sindhi by his surname and also because my neighbourhood is dominated by the Sindhi community but he turned out to be a pucca Gujarati Brahmin, well-versed in the Vedas – he can quote chapter and verse from them and a learned Guru Maharaj from his sect is his close friend and frequents his home – and observes the Hindu festivals, functions and fasting days to the letter, even though he is a Research Director with a large pharma firm in Mumbai, otherwise with a highly scientific bend of mind! Actually his community went by the name Gyani (the learned one) once but his predecessors had it changed to Jani for ease of spelling and pronunciation in English.
I hail from Koduvayur, a small village, in Palakkad District (in Kerala) and which is about 10 kms from proper Palghat town. The Tambrams are thinly spread over the entire State but have a relatively higher concentration in Palakkad; the district has dozens of small villages and the town itself boasts of no less than 18 like Kalpatti, Noorni, Tharakkad, Nellisseri, Nellepalli, Peruvemba, Kollengode, Alampallam, Nochur, Volayumnnur, Pallassenai, Ramanathapuram, etc. with each village having a population of about 5 to 10000 and the Tambrams numbering a few hundreds in each.
The Tambrams separately lived in clusters of typical rowhouses in Palakkad unlike in the rest of the State and each cluster had two or more of such rows. The clusters were later christened as Agraharams - to give them an exclusive, distinct identity - in keeping with the custom prevalent in Tamil Nadu and they located themselves around the principal temple in the village. The various kingdoms that ruled ancient South India that included the Chola, Chera, Pandya and Pallava dynasties and the princely states, notable of which was the Travancore one, that came up later built huge temples so that the kings and their families could propitiate their favourite deities and be the recipients of Their blessings; for instance, at the famed Madurai temple, Goddess Meenakshi is the presiding deity; Chidambaram has Lord Nataraj in the famous dancing pose; Kanchipuram (that produces the Conjeevaram silks) has Goddess Kamakshi; and at Tanjore, Brigadeshwara lords over, the Tanjore temple gopuram built during the popular King Rajaraja Chola's reign is the grandest of them all – the fairer sex is said to rule Madurai and Kanchipuram, a euphemism for the Goddesses guarding the temple towns.. The Tambrams gradually gravitated to the neighbourhood of such temples in droves to serve as priests there and live on the charity and alms of the benevolent kings. It isn't correct to surmise that the Tambrams migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala for their livelihood because both the States came into being only after the Independence and the entire region was till then ruled by several small princely states each needing the services of the priestly class. Most of the ancient temples in Tamil Nadu and many in Kerala have the magnificent gopurams (towers) for superstructure, the towers decorated with carved figurines, in varied eye-catching hues, of men and women in various poses and acts. In contrast, the native Malayali-built temples are twin roofed and their entire walls covered with thousands of traditional diyas (oil lamps) – they present a divinely sight when lit on occasions, every temple has its own Utsav unique to that temple.
Mumbai has a few South Indian temples with impressive gopurams: the Vikhroli Tagore Nagar Siddhivinyak temple which was built by a sidekick of the ex-Matunga don, the late Varadaraja Mudaliar based on whose life the hotshot director, Mani Ratnam made a hit movie, Nayagan, with Kamal Hasan in the lead; the old Fanaswadi Balaji temple near Charni Road station; the magnificent Murugan temple in Chheda Nagar, Chembur, the sanctum sanctorum of which is atop the gopuram; the Asthika Samaj temple on Bhandarkar Road, Matunga; and the beautiful Shankara Maddam temple on Telang Road, Matunga.
Koduvayur, the village I grew up in, has four clusters of row houses in its Agraharam; New Street has two rows (each row usually has about a dozen houses); Gokula Street has three; Corner Street has two; and Double Street has two. The agraharam has 3 temples: the principal Shiv temple is on New Street; the second one is for Krishna on Gokul Street; and the third for Ganesh on Double Street.
The Shiv temple is the largest and is housed inside a compound wall and has a kitchenette to prepare the offerings – the neivedhyam – for the Lord; the neivedhyam is distributed as prasad among the devotees present after the pujas. Poojas and artis (called Deeparadhana down South) are conducted thrice a day: early morning; afternoon which is actually conducted around 11 in the morning as no rituals can be held in any temple after 12 noon; and evening around 7.00. The temple is served by a head priest who conducts the rites, his assistant and a paricharak (an assistant) who prepares the offerings. The temple is run by a Dewaswom or dewasthanam (management) that defray the expenses of the temple including salaries of its employees viz. head priest and others. Kids use the temple precincts as a play area in the evenings. The mamas and mamis usually congregate at the temple for the morning and evening pujas – offering of loose flowers and petals to the Lord - and for offering prayers; the temple also serves has a common meeting place for social interaction and plain gossip. Kids flock to the temple in droves only on days, e.g. the Pradosham day that falls on the 12th day in the phase of the waxing moon, when large amount of Prasad – payaru, a variety of pulse cooked with jaggery – is distributed. On some other days, such Prasad is also sponsored by a devotee family for fulfilling a wish or for the Lord having fulfilled its wish.
In Shiv temples everywhere in India the Shiv Ling is worshipped and is also used for anointment (abhishekam) e.g with milk. For the purpose of the abhishekam, usually a cone-shaped copper vessel is hung directly over the Ling and the abhishekam fluid drips through a tiny aperture at the bottom of the vessel on to the Ling. Apart from the principal deity's idol a temple houses icons of other Gods and Goddesses also; a Shiv temple will have that of the mandatory Nandi, the bull, too, the celestial vehicle of the Lord. The temple celebrates all the auspicious days as per the brahminic almanac, with special pujas.
Temple-going for prayer – it used to be – formed part of the way of life for most in the community in agraharams. Besides, every Brahmin household, whether in villages or anywhere else, has a specific puja area where the wall is decorated with framed pictures – prints of the works of Raja Ravi Varma - of Gods and Goddesses like Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganapati, the Shriram parivar comprising Ram, Lakshman, and Sita with their most devout bhakt, Hanuman with his hands folded in reverence; Balaji, etc. Every morning and evening the traditional vilakku - diya (brass oil lamp) - is lit; it is a mandatory practice in all families in the community; a lit lamp is considered very auspicious and an open invitation to the Gods and Goddesses to come in. The prerogative for lighting the lamp usually lay with the daughter-in-law of a home; no wonder, mothers with unmarried sons are usually greeted by other women who meet them after a period of time, with a poser, "when are you getting someone to light the lamp in your home?". Lamp-lighting is considered an auspicious must everywhere across the country and is done by a celebrity or the presiding officers at the time of inaugurating any programme.
The brass lamps come in varying sizes and heights but basically of two models: the classic Kerala-made ones with alternating indents in circles one over the other on its long stem and the more decorative, but lighter Tamil-nadu ones that have a more eye-pleasing design for its stem and an elegant peacock motif at its top; Kumbakonam is well-known for its lamp-making art. Brass and the more expensive silver lamps form part of the portmanteau in dowry given away to one's daughters when they are married off; the silver lamps are very rarely used as they tend to tarnish when exposed to atmospheric elements. Karthigai Deepam that falls in the Tamil month, Karthigai (October/November), is an occasion when all the different kinds of brass lamps a household has are lit.
Men, women, mostly the latter, and kids recite sthotras and slokas – either reading from prayer booklets that are available aplenty, or they have learnt by heart over the years - in praise of the Lords and invoking their blessings for health, wealth and prosperity of the entire household. This is a daily routine for most in the evenings and for some, in the mornings too.
Those who conduct the rites are classified as (1) temple priests and (2) vadhyars or shastrigals; the latter help perform the religious rites in functions such as a wedding, thread ceremony, obsequies, shraddhas, etc. at the places of the households. Normally both the professions are hereditary, handed down from generation to generation. Kids from the families are taught the Vedas and vedic rites from a tender age by the father. Interested pupils from the Brahmin community are also picked up at a young age and taught the same at a Veda Pathshala. The other day a shastrigal lamented to me that there is indeed a dearth in the profession in a city like Bombay and that people just do not come forward to join the calling in spite of he offering them a guaranteed income, after they are trained, of Rs.15-20,000 a month and also a two-wheeler to zip to go to a far off resident who needs their services. The shastrigals are indeed much in demand in cities and the best ones in the business – the ones who have earned a name and fame for themselves, through word of mouth, for their ability to intone the mantras in crystal clear fashion and conduct the rites briskly – earn lakhs in tax-free income. The shastris used to have large families and the joke doing the rounds in the villages was, having had sumptuous meals with sweetmeats deep fried in pure Coimbatore (the TN town is as famous in the South as Mehsana in Gujarat for its dairy products) ghee day after day for free and having nothing else to do, they expended all their energy breeding a large brood…! In my bachelor teen years I would imagine becoming at least an assistant to a shastrigal when I retired if only for the phukat swadisht bhojan!
The Tamil and Malayalam calendars are alike in all respects except that the names of the months in a year differ and have, among other things, 27 birth stars; everyone is born under one of these stars. The loonar month is divided into Krishna Paksha and Shukhla Paksha to correspond with the phase of waning moon and the phase of waxing moon. Each Pakasha has 15 days, each day called a thithi; the thithis are named Prathama, Dwidhiya, Thrithiya, Chathurthi, Panchami, Shashti, Sapthami, Ashtami, Navami, Dasami, Ekadasi, Dwadashi, Thriodashi, Chathurdashi, Panchadashi (Amavasya or the new Moon Day, and Pournami or the Full Moon Day fall on Panchadashi), all names being derived from Sanskrit. Though the Ekadashi, Amavasya and Pournami days in a month are considered special by the temple and the community members they have added significance when they fall in particular months. The community as well as the temples follows the Tamil calendar to observe certain religious festivals and the loonar calendar for certain others. As a thumb rule, the community follows the Tamil calendar, especially for the birth stars for auspicious occasions e.g. marriage, thread ceremony, birth-days, etc. and the thithis of the loonar calendar for obsequies, shraddha, etc. Panchangam, the Tamil almanac, gives exhaustive information on Tamil festivals; the ustavs the major temples celebrate and the dates they fall on; the most auspicious days for functions (e.g. wedding) in a month/year; every day's birth star, thithi and their duration (usually, the star and thithi don't apply for the entire day and often overlapped over two days); a day's auspicious and inauspicious time (e.g. Rahukalam, Guligai Kalam), etc. The festival and ceremony times are rejoicing times for the young and the old and are excitedly looked forward to with their mouth watering as every festival and ceremony calls for some sweetmeat, special dishes or savories unique to them to be made at home, though they add to the work pressure of housewives. "Brahmano bhojana priya", goes an old adage.
Every Tambram is, at least supposed to be, brought up on the teachings of one of the three Vedas, namely, Rig, Yejur and Sama; the Rigvedis and Yejurvedis constitute the bulk of the community; the Sama Veda mantras are chanted in a typical sing-song manner, as such the wording is difficult to comprehend; of course, the Vedas are all in Sanskrit and hence not many among the common folks anyway understand their meaning. The chanting of mantras is therefore a ritual in more than one sense. The community is divided into several sub-castes e.g. Vathima, Vadama, etc. And every Brahmin has his roots in one of the ancient rishis or maharishis; the gothram he is born in identifies his pedigree or bloodline. As with other Hindu communities, Tambrams have a well-entrenched patriarchal family system: only a male progeny can carry forward his family's Veda, sub-caste and gothram to next generation through his offspring; a daughter is a paraya dhan and once married, embraces her husband's family characteristics (Veda, sub-caste and gothram). This is why – the desire to propagate the family attributes - the Brahmin families pine for a male child. The Mahabharat hero, Ganga-putr Devavrat aka Bhishma is idolized, because he, with his twin terrible vows, sacrificed not only his right to the Hastinapur throne but more so, his supreme, inalienable prerogative to pass on his family traits by unilaterally deciding to remain a bachelor for life.
The Tambrams have always been great enthusiasts and patrons of the fine arts, namely the performing arts like classical dance, music and drama. Poet Thiagaraja, who lived 3 or 4 centuries ago, and who wrote scores of kritis (loosely they can be translated as lyrics) in praise of Lord Ram have all become all-time hit great Karnatic music songs and vidwans (music exponents) from all eras since have sung them. He is venerated and elevated to the status of a Saint and his birth anniversaries are celebrated in Chennai over a period of 10 days in November/December and musicians – vocalists and instrumentalists e.g. violinists, percussionists, etc. – from all over Tamil Nadu and Kerala voluntarily come and join in the celebrations by singing in chorus, a rare thing to witness. The poshest address in Chennai is T. Nagar, short for Thiagaraja Nagar named after the popular poet; T. Nagar is the perfect amalgam of modernity, culture and tradition: it is the home for several performing arts' sabhas, for the largest number of silk emporia within a limited geographical area – only after Kanchipuram, the silk-producing centre – for many large shopping arcades and for the many idyllic houses and apartments of the rich and famous. Oddly, Thiagaraja was of Telugu origin and wrote his kritis in his native tongue. In Bombay too where they are relatively in large numbers the Tambrams come together to form fine arts societies e.g. the Shanmugananda Sabha with its huge auditorium that can seat 3000 people, in King's Circle, the Chembur Fine Arts Society and Mulund Fine Arts society that periodically invite music, dance and drama troupes from Tamil Nadu and Kerala and arrange for their performance. Most parents, even in Bombay, send their daughters for training in Karnatic music, and some in Bharathanatyam, the South Indian classical dance form, to make them accomplished in the fine arts and make them even more attractive in the marriage market..! Yes, indeed, I grew up strictly on Tamil film songs diet – that were called light music but were all based on Karnatic music composed by music directors who were themselves trained talents in the Karnatic style. Later on, I gradually developed a taste for the classical music, thanks in no small measure to my wife who is trained in the fine art and has won several prizes in her school days.
Marriages are considered alliances between two families, not merely that between a man and woman. Though the horoscopes of the girl and boy have to match in the first place, we look for similarity in status and background before an alliance is finalized, so that there is no ego-clash hassles later on. Looks of the bride are not given as much importance as for her other accomplishments in education and fine arts. Usually most girls, on the constant prodding of their mothers. train themselves up in the culinary arts working with their mothers in the kitchen as they grow up. The girl's parents always, without exception, look for a boy who has a steady, secure job to ensure that their da'ling daughter or her kids do not suffer financially later in life. Marriages are an expensive proposition for the girl's parents but they foot the tab – easily a million bucks these days - cheerfully in the larger happiness of their daughters. Marriage breakdowns are a very rare exception. Marriage bureaus abound – formal ones charge a fee and the informal ones include elderly Good Samaritans and the neighbourhood josyar (astrologer) who is flooded with horoscopes of bachelor boys and girls; they help parents in the initial match-making process.
The Tambrams, whatever else they are, are not particularly known for their valour or entrepreneurial qualities. For instance, you will hardly find anyone from the community in any of the three military services or as captains of industry or commerce; the rare exceptions one can think of are the large Simpson group owned by the Anantharaman family, the TVS group of the TV Sundaram Iyenger clan and the respected Hindu newspaper group (which is however nowhere near the TOI group) owned by the Kasturi Iyengar family, all Chennai-based. They prefer to serve their masters, then the royal families, now the politicians and industrialists from other affluent communities. They love the 9-to-5 work schedule and spend the rest on community-related social activities. Risk-taking is not in their veins. Yeah, it has certainly something to do with their pedigree….
The Brahmins were always miniscule in number in proportion to the others obviously because you don't need the same number of Gurus to teach the rest. With the geometric progression of population, its absolute numbers have increased many, many fold, but its proportion in relation to the others has remained the same as population rise is a common, natural phenomenon that cuts across the classes or castes. And so every one in the community could not join the profession and be gainfully employed as a temple priest or shastrigal. Hence most others depended on the temples, most of which rich with large income-generating agricultural landed properties bequeathed by the erstwhile kings of the region, were reputed for their daily annadhans (providing free food) to the needy; these temples also erected large feeding halls for this purpose. Later many from the community took to teaching at schools or privately as a natural extension of their profession – my dad was a school teacher and my sisters, private tutors.
The temples started losing their attraction for the Tambrams since the 1930's and their desperation accelerated after the Independence when the new, linguistically formed States started taking over the temples' landed properties in the name of creating a socialistic, more egalitarian society; with that single sweep of the Government fiat, their source of free food dried up completely.. Thereafter began the Great Exodus of the Tambrams, suffering in penury and poverty, from their cocooned existence in agraharams to the cities of Bombay and Calcutta; those who (like lamba Krishna Iyer about whom I had written recently) arrived and settled down in Bombay (Matunga) in the 1940s were the first generation to make the city their new home. The Matunga-King's Circle-Wadala triangle provided the first base for them; a little later they moved into Chembur. The triangle had cubicle-sized one- or two-room tenements taken on pugree system whereby a couple of thousands were forked out to the landlord upfront and the sum was adjusted from the monthly rentals you paid, and later many Tambrams, finding their accommodation not large enough for their expanding families, sold them off in the mid-1980's and moved over to Mulund and some others, to Lokpuram at Thane's Pokhran Road that has turned out to be the most up-market residential address in Thane. However, their highest visibility in numbers is in Dombivli now.
The aspirations of the community have reached greater heights in recent times and it has firmly set its sights on the new El Dorado, the new Dream Destination, the U.S. However, I doubt if this time the migration is in the larger interests of the community, for how are the elderly citizens going to manage things alone in India in their sunset years after their kids are settled down in the U.S. for good and are in no mood return home?Cris Iyer