Namboothiri Websites, Calicut, Kerala
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(Purity and Impurity)
Namboothiris were traditionally very fastidious about cleanliness - Sudham and Asudham, almost to a level of obsession, so much so the concept of cleanliness got absorbed and strictly codified into their daily routine and integrated into the overall caste system. Although, as time progressed, this produced adverse feeling among the lower castes, the Namboothiris themselves also suffered and often viewed it with awe since they had to be vigilant all the time. In the modern age, of course, the prescribed codes are quite difficult to be followed, as is the case with other traditional observances and rituals. The discussions given here are only to document the traditional prescriptions on the subject of Sudham/Asudham.

Sudham means cleanliness and Asudham, pollution or defilement. Ayitham is the colloquial form of the Sanskrit word Asudham. If one gets Ayitham or polluted, bathing is necessary to return to Sudham. Depending on the environment or reason for Asudham, the degree of pollution varies. Accordingly, the remedial exercise also vary. Some of the several Asudhams are:

1.Sraadha Sudham: The highest rank of Sudham is the one that has to be observed while performing rituals connected with death anniversaries, which is known as Sraadha Sudham or colloquially Chaatha Sudham. For this function, clothes, which are washed and dried the previous day, are not permitted to be worn. For performing these rituals, one should bathe twice, the first one follows Sandhyaavandanam and then the second. Participants dip clothes in water during the first bath and spread them on the floor for drying before proceeding to Sandhyaavandanam. Only these clothes (even if only partly dried) are allowed during the ritual.

2.Oupaasana Sudham: As given in "Shodasakriyakal", Oupaasanam is another ritual done by married Namboothiris, daily. Oupaasanam refers to the fire in the presence of which Namboothiri marriages are held, and kept burning by him throughout his lifetime. During this, only pure (Sudhamaaya) clothes should be worn. Unlike Sraadha Sudham, clothes washed and dried the previous day may be used for this ritual; but dipping in water and drying should be done without touching anybody. Since a similar one has to be observed by priests in temples, it is also known as Saanthi Sudham.

3.Embraan Sudham: Tulu Brahmanans are known as Embraanthiris (or Embraans in short) in Kerala. If a Namboothiri happens to touch or comes in physical contact with an Embraanthiri, he gets the Embraan Sudham, which is supposed to be one step lower in rank among various types of purity of Namboothiris. Widows and boys (before Upanayanam) should avoid this Asudham. It is taboo for Brahmachaaris (boys between Upanayanam and Samaavarthanam). But it is not compulsory that an adult male Namboothiri should bathe before performing "sandhyaavandanam" if he is polluted due to "Embraan sudham".

4.Eda Sudham: This is the Asudham resulting from contact with Tamil Brahmanans (Iyer, Pattar, Iyengar). Namboothiri women (and not men) are not permitted to eat if they become Eda Sudham. For doing Sandhyaavandanam, Namboothiris should take bath if they are polluted with Eda Sudham.

5.Kuliyaasudham: The first thing a Namboothiri does in the early morning is to take bath. For some reason, say sickness, if a Namboothiri is unable to take bath, he is in Ayitham mode, which is better known as Kuliyaasudham. This is transmitted to others by contact. The mattress, mat, pillow, bedspread, etc. have also this impurity. Therefore, in Namboothiri Illams, such items are usually kept in a separate room or at least in a corner of a room. Brahmachaaris and widows should never take food with this Asudham. Male members may take food, but definitely should bathe before performing Sandhyaavandanam.

6.Impurities related to birth/death: A Namboothiri attributes highest degree of impurity to menstruation, child delivery and corpse. If someone becomes defiled by any one of these, he or she should change the dress (after bath) with one washed or purified by a special caste of Hindus known as Mannaan (females Mannaathi). This cloth is known as "Maattu". Then the Namboothiri (men or women) gives his or her clothes to the "Mannaan/Mannaathi" who washes it. Here washing means just dipping in a container of water in which some ash is sprinkled. After changing his/her own clothes, the person has to be purified by Punyaaham (sprinkling sacred water after chanting "Manthrams"). For more on Punyaaham, Click here.

7.Menstruation: If a girl or woman menstruates, she should remain in complete isolation for three days and on the fourth day, a special function or purification has to be performed. This is called Thulli Neeru Veezhthal (pouring a drop of water in the traditional manner). After completing bath, the servant symbolically cleans her up with a drop of water, and then with a paste prepared by grinding fresh turmeric and castor seeds. Earlier mentioned Maattu is applicable here too.

8.Desom Maaral: Namboothiris will be treated impure if they go from one Desom (sub-division of a village) to another. This is called Desom Maaral. Brahmachaaris should take bath if they go from one Desom to another; they should hold a stick (about 35 cm long) of the plant Plaasu (flame of the forest; Bot. Name Butea frondosa) as also a towel. For adult Namboothiris, even though there is no Ayitham, there is a slight degree of impurity. This is known an Vazhi Sudham (road impurity). As in many other cases, Brahmachaaris and widows should not eat with this type of Sudham. In any case, taking bath after such a trip is a must, before Sandhyaavandanam.

9.Soucham: Namboothiris and other high caste Hindus used to clean the excretory pores with water after urination. This is known as Soucham. Even mothers suckle a urinated baby only after cleansing (insisted only from 11th day of delivery onwards).

10.Vattu, Echil and Nirmaalyam:
       10.1  Vattu:  The terms Vattu and Echil have been assigned meanings different from the usual ones, by Namboothiris. The literal meaning of Vattu is grains of boiledrice. According to Namboothiri customs, boiled rice has a slight impurity. Therefore, one has to wash the hands if he/she touches boiled rice; else the pollution transmits to other items on contact.

       10.2   Echil:  In normal circumstances, Echil refers to the left-over of eaten food items. But Namboothiris use this term also for plates and plantain leaves in which food is normally served. The inside of the mouth also has the impurity called Echil, for example, teeth, tongue inside of lips, etc. Therefore, if you touch your tongue with your finger, the finger also becomes Echil. Washing hands with water is a must in order to make it pure. Hence, generally, Namboothiris do not hold or cut threads or sticks with lips or teeth. The Echil has greater degree of impurity than Vattu. Things that become Echil has to be dipped in fresh water pond. It is not enough to pour water over it to wash. Another person will not eat the left-over food items of one person. Moreover, while drinking water, coffee or tea from a glass or other containers, Namboothiris do not sip. They pour it straight into the mouth without touching the lips. This is the degree of cleanliness and hygiene practised by Namboothiris.

The above two Asudhams are practised not only by Namboothiris, but also people of other communities in Kerala, such as the royal families, temple employees, Nairs, etc., who are closely associated with Namboothiris. Other South Indian Brahmanans also follow this custom.

       10.3  Nirmaalyam: A slight impurity is attributed to the Nirmaalyam, which is the set of flowers, sandalwood paste, water used for anointing (Theertham), etc., offered to gods in temples or in a Namboothiri houses. Like Vattu and Echil, all items that have come in contact with Nirmaalyam should also be washed with water to remove impurity. But this impurity is of a minor nature and therefore, need be observed strictly only for Pooja materials. Rice, flowers, oil, etc. if become impure by contact with Nirmaalyam should not be used for Pooja purposes.

New unbleached clothes have no impurity. Such clothes worn while going outside the house, may be used while visiting temples also. But if it is soaked or washed, the case is different. Clothes washed by washerman or washerwoman (Veluthedan or Veluthedathol) has no impurity. Clothes washed by Veluthedath Nairs, if touched by other Nairs, are not impure. But if touched by a person below the rank in the hierarchies of caste system, it becomes impure.

A Namboothiri should not talk to a Nair or anybody below that rank, before or during Sraadham, Oupaasanam or Pooja. If he does, he should perform Kaalkazhukal and Aachamanam, as stipulated in Vedic rules, before continuing such rituals.

Thus goes the story of Sudham and Asudham. Taking all these into consideration, one has to accept that by practising Sudham and Asudham, it was the Namboothiris of Kerala who suffered more than any other castes.

| Article No:8.3 | Last update of this article:28th September 2000 |
Article prepared by Prof. V.M.N.Nambudiripad and K.D.Nambudripad.

Ref: "Ente Smaranakal"-Vol-1 by Kanippayyur Sankaran Nambudiripad, Panchangam Publishers, Kunnamkulam.

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