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Agni and the Foreign Savants

(Editor's Note: This is a translation of Mammunnu Ittiravi Namboodiri's Malayalam article published in "Anaadi" in 1975 about the contributions of Prof: Frits Staal and Prof: Asko Parpola to the 1975 Athiraathram ( Agni ) at Panjal. The translator is Prof: T P Mahadevan at Howard University).
"What has not been lost over the past 50 years! Jaimineeya Braahmana recitation for example.... Now the last reciter of the complete Samhitha is also gone. Oh well." Michael Witzel, Indology List, 2-11-2003.
* * *
[The Translator's Note: I spent two weeks with Frits Staal at his house in Oakland, writing up our paper on the 2003 (April 6th to 12th) Thrissur Somayaagam. While browsing in his deep and ample library shelves, I came across 14 old copies of "Anaadi", a Malayalam monthly on Vedic matters with special emphasis on Srautha. Erkkara Raman Namboodiri, generally thought to be the foremost Namboothiri Srauthin of the second half of the 20th century, published it for about five years, starting from 1973. Naturally the 1975 Panjal Agnichayanam was a central event for the monthly. It published several articles about the ritual. One of these is being translated here.

The author of the article is Ittiravi Namboodiri, later listed as a co-author of Frits Staal's monumental "Agni" and mourned so elegiacally by Michael Witzel in the epitaph above. Ittiravi tells with characteristic energy and gusto how the 1975 Agnichayanam, after many years in planning and despite some last-minute problems that nearly de-railed the project, is now an imminent reality, within the month. (Significantly, like a sister article to Ittiravi's, appears next to it in the monthly Erkkara's detailed schedule of the 12-day ritual, something that a person attending the ritual might keep in hand to follow the proceedings.)

The story that Ittiravi tells at the eve of the ritual is about the collaboration between two Western Vedic scholars (Frits Staal and Asko Parpola) and the Namboothiri Srautha establishment, a collaboration that has made the impending ritual possible. He tells of his first meeting with these two scholars and of their interest in his birth Vedam, the Jaimineeya Saamavedam, leading to a complete taping by him -"textualization" of oral theory-of this very rare and early Saakha of the Saamavedam. Soon an interest in the actual performance of a Srautha ritual, manifest as early as 1961, unites the two sides, the Western scholars with access to funding agencies of the West and the other side, the Namboothiri community with its trained Srautha corps, resulting in the 1975 event. Ittiravi was its Udgaathan, the principal Saamaveda priest.

The 1975 Agni is a seminal event for the modern Namboothiri Srauthism. There have been three Srautha rituals by Namboothiris after the 1975 Agnichayanam, the 1984 Agnishtomam at Thiruvananthapuram, the 1990 Agnichayanam at Kundoor, and the 2003 Agnishtomam at Thrissur, all from native resources, but all thought possible by Namboothiris Srauthins today only because of the first one, the 1975 Agni.

Thus Ittiravi's article may be of interest to Vedists. It is also of interest as a piece of reverse anthropology, the instance of the observer observed. True, Ittiravi shows himself to be a little gaga over two "Saayips" gone "native," but otherwise his outlook is strict professional Vedism, that of millennia-old instinct of protection (Raksha) of the Vedam and how to advance its interests. Altogether it is a revealing exhibit of anthropology: The "native" never is, or was, wholly an inert object, contrary to all the post-modern lucubration on the matter, nor is the observer always the animate subject: The discourse flowed both ways, sometimes, as if by miracle, resulting in an Agnichayanam.

I have tried to capture Ittiravi's tone of informality and directness by being at times literal in my translation. I have provided explanations through footnotes for obvious vagaries-of facts and information. Here speaks Ittiravi.]

* * *

The president and the vice-president of the international committee that is organizing the performance of Agni are, respectively, Prof; J F Staal and Dr: Asko Parpola. I note here some details I know about them.

Professor Staal's current address is "South and South-East Asian Studies, California University, USA". He was born in Holland in 1930. His parents died in the Second World War. It was an adoptive mother who looked after him and protected him.

After his initial education [in Holland], he came to India to study German and Sanskrit in Benaras Hindu University1. He learned some Sanskrit in Madras as well. He came to Kerala in 1957.

Although he was professor then in England, he stayed in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and taped several parts of the three Vedams and took many pictures. He wrote then an erudite book called the Namboothiri Veda Recitation. It was on that occasion that I first met him. When he came to my house in Panjal, he was wearing just a Ddhoti and shirt. I thought it was a Namboothiri coming to my house; a very white Namboothiri. Only after exchanging information did I realize that he was a "Saayip" [White]2.

He had come to record a little Saamavedam. As there was no electricity in Panjal those days, he left after fixing a day to come to Cherpu at [younger] brother's place.

He came to Cherpu on the day arranged. He taped Yajurvedam's "Ghosham". And that day and night and the next day till 10' O clock we talked and taped Saamavedam.

Kerala was a place he loved. His opinion is that the cultural tradition of Kerala is very old. He has married a Kerala woman in the Kerala way, witnessed by fire or Agni. When he came to my house, he said that he wanted to examine the palm leaf manuscripts in the shelves. Their script was Malayalam. I saw him read these manuscripts, something Malayalees themselves can do only with difficulty. I also realized that he could converse in Malayalam to an extent.

It was in the month of February 1962 that he came back again to Kerala. The plan then was to perform a Yaagam (Agnishtomam)), filming it and tape-recording. We went to Kollengode to arrange for "Somalatha" (click here) and black deer skin (Krishnaajinam or hide of Black Buck or Antelope Cervicarpa). I took him there to show the Somalatha. I travelled with him in a car to many places in connection with arrangements for the Yaagam. We could not get anybody prepared to perform the Yaagam. At Maadambu's (Frits Staal's classmate from Benaras) place and at my house, he taped the Manthrams of the entire Yaagam (Riks, Yajus and Saamam).

It was in January of 1971 that he came to Kerala a third time. He stayed with me for a week. And he recorded parts of the Saamavedam. It would take about 100 hours to tape all of the Saamavedam. He bought a new tape recording machine and gave it to me. Is this not an aid ("Upayuktham") to me, I asked him. He asked me what I meant by aid, Upayuktham. I explained to him that that is the term used to describe items, like clothes, needed to do the Kriyaas of a ritual.

It crossed our minds if we should not try for a Yaagam. But there was not enough time that year. Then I remembered something. In April 1970, during the season of Yaagams, on the east side of the Yaagasaala, during a conversation among Erkkara Raman Namboodiri, Dr: Sreekrishna Sarma, Maareth Kaapra Narayanan Somayaajipaad and others, Erkkara had said, "We must perform a Yaagam". With this in mind, I said to Staal that we must perform the Agni itself. He became even happier. He said firmly that whatever the expenses we must perform [the ritual]. Thus we decided to try for the Agni in 1974. I told him that I would write to him after consulting with Erkkara. He knew Erkkara well through Sreekrishna Sarma.

It was in 1971 March that a Finlander named Asko Parpola came to Kerala. He is world-famous for his learning. He greeted me at our very first meeting with a book in English he had written about Yaagam. Saalaas, Dhishnyas, Kundaas and other such items that had been described in the book in detail, with their plans, and their numbers.

I began to understand him as a man who had worked for eight years to study all about Yaagam, as a man who had digested in addition the cosmic work, "Bhavathraatheeyam." His mission in Kerala was to study matters relating to the Yaagam in general and the Jaimineeya Saamavedam in particular. I shared with him what I knew about the function of the Saamavedam in the actual performance of a Yaagam. To talk about the remaining part, I took him to Erkkara at Mookkuthala (near Edappal in Malappuram district). With the help of my English-knowing son, they talked for more than five hours. His regard and reverence for Erkkara knew no bounds.

He went to Guruvayur later that day. Wearing a simple Dhothi around his waist and covering his upper body with another, both Aanjam Madhavan Namboodiri's gifts to him, he waited and watched that day's procession of god. He asked me if the sign on the hood of the snake in a picture outside the temple was not the mark of Krishna's feet. I began to realize that he was equally learned in the Hindu religion and its different stories and traditions.

While at Mookkuthala [Erkkara's house], we also went to Pakaraavoor Krishnan Namboodiri's place to photocopy Saamavedam manuscripts. He took pictures of hand movements and hand Mudras of Saamavedam.

He went afterward to Ceylon [Sri Lanka] and came again to Kerala on his way back. He went to the Narippatta Patteri Mana, near Kodumunda in Pattambi, home of Bhavathrathan, the author of Bhavathraatheeyam; thence to Kodanaattu Mana, a branch of Mezhathol Agnihothri's home; thence to Yajnesvaram where the Agnihothri performed his 99 Yaagams; and thence finally to the spot of Silver Rock on which Brahmadathan had spread his clothes for drying, leaving on the rock a white mark. And he took scores of pictures. On leaving he told me that he learned more about Yaagam in eight days with us than in eight years.

These two men do not wear shirts when they are in Kerala. They would sit smack on the floor and eat their meals. As it was mango season, we had at my house the Sour Mango dish. "Nowhere else in India was food as tasty," this was what they said. It did not seem flattery to me.

Within a year I taped all of the Saamavedam. I accomplished this task by myself and at my own convenience. I had some sit with me at some parts to be free of error.

In 1972 Parpola came to Delhi for the Veda Conference [World Sanskrit Conference]. He came here as well then. He took with him the tapes of the Saamavedam.

Had I thought of the performance of Agni, he asked. I also received Staal's letter. I talked to Nellikkattu Akkitiri, Erkkara Raman Namboodiri and Thaikkattu Vaidikan about this. After much calculation, I wrote that the cost for Vaidika and Laukika (cost for rituals and management) of would come to Rs.25,000. Staal was away in Japan and Nepal on official business at this time. Because of this, it was Parpola that handled all the correspondence.

Based on the estimates we had sent, Parpola wrote to the scholars of various lands asking for help and co-operation. He forwarded all the replies to me. Some had expressed doubts if all of the Yaagam could be recorded; some had wondered if foreigners could "come near". Some also pointed out that the estimate's amount would not be enough as the price of gold sovereign had doubled in 1973 from its 1972 price of Rs.120.

In 1973, there was a conference in France of scholars of Western culture and civilization. Parpola attended this conference. After consulting in this conference with many different scholars, the plans for the 1974 Agni were postponed to 1975. Their expectations were that the promised donations will begin to come in the course of 1974.

Staal was staying in the mountains of Nepal in 1973. He came to Delhi in December to find out what happened to the efforts for the Agni. It was certain now that there would be no Agni in 1974. Disappointed, even despairing, he went back to America without even seeing me in Kerala. He took over from Parpola the charge of planning and organizing work for the Agni. By then an international Agnichayana committee had taken shape. As is well known, a [Malayalam] translation of Parpola's circular of 5 February 1974 appeared in the October-November issue of the "Anaadi". This circular was sent to all the governments of the world. Many have made promises of help. We are still at work trying to raise donations.

In June 1974 I held another meeting with Erkkara on this matter. His opinions were optimistic and encouraging. At that juncture, Staal's letter came. He wrote that all the needed monies would be available in advance and the efforts for a 1975 Agni should begin in earnest.

The first task was to make arrangements for the making of 1,110 bricks. Toward that, a decision as to who is to be the Yajamaanan had to be first made. The length from the Yajamaanan's toes to the tips of middle fingers of his hands raised stretched above his head as in worship of god must be measured and a measuring stick of this length must be made. The dimensions of Saala, bricks, Mahaavedi and many other items are derived as a factor of the length of this measuring stick. I wrote to Erkkara to determine an auspicious day, the right venue and the Yajamaanan for the ritual [Kriya] of cutting this stick. Accordingly, Erkkara, Sreekrishna Sarma, I, Akkitham, and Amettoor met on June 29 at Thaikkattu Vaidikan's residence. The person we had intended as the Yajamaanan was not there, however. He was brought. Due to ill health, he wanted to be relieved of the arduous position of the Yajamaanan, agreeing instead to undertake Hautram. Efforts went on to find a person who was eligible to be Yajamaanan. I spoke to many people. I did not get proper replies from anybody, meaning: nobody was ready. Suddenly it was the opinion of some great minds that the plan to film the Yaagam would detract from the purity of the intention behind the Yaagam; the purity of the ritual offering [Dravya] would be compromised; the killing of the animal is violent and is a sin.

I believe it was in the 1140s [1964-66 AD], the time of registration at Sukapuram. It was the time when thousands of rupees were available from the Kuthanoor-Shoranur Madhams. Eight Yaagams took place from these monies. There was somehow no problem then of purity of intention for these great minds, no problem with the purity of oblations. And the killing of an animal was no violence. Now everything is the opposite. I leave it to my readers to conclude about this sudden mysterious change in people. I am reminded of the story of the fox that decides that grapes are sour when it is not able to reach them despite all the jumping.

It was our desire to hold the Agni at Thaikkat as an Agni has not taken place there in such a long time. When it became clear that this would not be possible, we went to Cherumukku house and met with Cherumukku Vallabhan Somayaajipaad. He said that there was not enough time for a 1975 Agni and we should plan for the next year. I wrote this to Staal.

I received two letters from Staal, in October and November of 1974. The summary of the letters was this: Under no circumstances can the Agni be postponed. Many institutions, the government of Japan, and governments of many other countries have undertaken to help toward the Agni. Many had already given money toward it. If it does not take place in 1975, it will never take place. This is a last chance.

Staal came here in December. We went and saw Cherumukku Vaidikan Somayaajipaad and Erkkara. It was decided that in this year itself, that is 1975, the Agni will be performed, and that Cherumukku Neelakandhan Somayaajipaad will be the Yajamaanan. Thus, preparations are under way for the Agni, scheduled to take place at Panjal on April 12, 1975.

If we have Sukapuram Dakshinamurthi's blessings, this and more will take place. Let us pray for them:

"Namassivaaya Saanthaaya, Suddhaaya Paramaatmane,
Sacchidaananda Roopaaya, Dakshinaamoorthaye Namah:"
1 It is not clear why Ittiravi lists German as a language Staal was learning at Banaras. It may be the obverse of the myth in India of the unique relationship between Sanskrit scholarship and Germany so that BHU, a place of Sanskrit learning, must also teach German. It may be just a slip.

2 "Saahib" : the term originally signifying the British, but later all Europeans or white people.

| Article No:35.7.1 | Last update of this article:18th May 2004 |
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