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Vedic Tradition of Namboothiris

Vedam: Vedic culture is believed to have been developed by a group of people who crossed the mountains that separate central Asia from Iran and Indian sub-continent, around 1000 to 1500 years before Christ. They imported rudiments of their social and religious system along with their Indo-European language, which developed into Vedic and later into Sanskrit. Whether this theory is believable or not, it is a fact that a new Vedic civilization was evolved, called after the four Vedams: Rigvedam, Yajurvedam, Saamavedam and Athharwavedam (or Atharwanavedam). Written in pure Sanskrit, these Vedams are poems, hymns and invocations of deities reflecting myth, rites, battles and insights of many kinds. It contains pleads to several Gods, human beings, things and animals. Some of the areas are dedicated to ethics in life and some others, to advices. Some other recitations express specific desires for health, knowledge, intelligence, strength, courage, sons, victory, heaven and immortality. Certain "Manthrams" are intended for specified occasions. These Manthrams are repeated several times in several forms and occasions, as it is believed (even now universally) that repetitions increase effectiveness. As described in the book "Agni" by Frits Staal, Vedic ritual is not only likely to be the oldest surviving ritual of mankind but also provides the best source for a theory of ritual. Vedic ritual is not primitive. It is sophisticated and already the product of long development. Frits Staal, from The Netherlands and now settled in the United States, is, in the whole Vedic history the first non-Namboothiri allowed to see and attend the 1975 Yaagam, a Vedic ritual. He organised, attended and studied the Athiraatram at Paanjaal, in Thrissur district, performed between 12th and 24th  April, 1975. Even then, he could not enter into the innermost circle of Yaagasaala (the sanctum sanctorum, where the most auspicious ceremony of Yaagam is performed). He later authored the highly authentic book "Agni" after consulting several Vedic experts among Namboothiris, some of them still alive. He visited Kerala several times, as also other parts of India. According to him, "The Namboothiri Performances are not artificial or scholarly reconstruction as have taken place in some other parts of India". Several other Europeans have also done extensive research on Vedic rituals, rites, chanting, recitation, and performances.

Rigvedam, as indicated above, is a collection of poems, hymns and invocations of deities, reflecting myths, rites, battles and insights of many kinds. Texts and procedures for rituals and rites of Brahmanans are generally derived from it.

Yajurvedam consists of verse and prose largely concerned with rituals.

Saamavedam, on the other hand, consists mostly of parts of Rigvedam set to music, and a few (less than 100) stanzas of its own. But the tune of rendering (chanting) Saamavedam is totally different from that of Rigvedam and Yajurvedam, and is melodious.

Athharwavedam is somewhat similar to Rigvedam, but with stress on the practical aspects, and is probably addressed to a different stratum of society. Each Namboothiri family is a follower of one of the first three Vedams, but not Athharwavedam. Two different recensions (divisions, versions) among Rigvedi Namboothiris are Kousheetakan and Aaswalaayanan. Kousheetakans follow the Baskala text of Rigvedam while Aaswalaayanans follow the Saakala text. Though both texts are intrepretations of Rigvedam, they give different versions. Yajurvedam also has two branches; Krishna Yajurvedam and Sukla Yajurvedam. Almost all Yajurvedi Namboothiris belong to KrishnaYajurvedam branch, of which, most families follow the Boudhaayana text, a very few (around 15 families), the Badhoolaka text and a negligibly few families follow the Apastamba text. The last group is practically extinct now after their conversion into other texts, basically due to lack of experts to guide them to perform rituals. All Yajurvedi Namboothiris follow Thaithareeya methods of Yajurvedam for performing rituals such as Yaagams. Samavedi Brahmanans also have different recensions namely Koudhumam, Raanayaneeyam and Jaimineeyam, but all present day Saamavedi Namboothiris are of Jaimineeya recension. All these five classes of Namboothiris differ in terms of rites, rituals, chanting, recitation and performances. All over Vedic India, such differences can be seen.

According to Manusmriti (the law book of Manu) a Brahmanan who does not know the Vedic verses (at least of one Vedam) is useless. The most popular part of Rigvedam is the Gayathri, a three-line verse from the Rigvedam "... may we receive the desirable light of God Savitr, who shall impel our thoughts" - (translation by Frits Staal).

Preservation of Vedam: Vedic teaching and preservation were done orally. Writing was unknown in the community to which the composers belonged. When writing was later introduced from elsewhere, it was considered taboo to the Vedic heritage. For a long time writing of Vedams continued to be considered impure and even offensive. Hence memory and sound of recitation played an important role in the preservations of Vedams. A later Vedic text, the Aitareya, Aaranyaka, states that a pupil should not recite Vedam after he has eaten meat, seen blood, or a dead body, had sexual intercourse or engaged in writing, until after a bath.

The oral transmission of Vedams from father to son or from a teacher to pupil is known as "Adhyayanam" (learning or recitation). This is contrasted with "Prayogam" or "application of text in rituals" which refers to the general use of the Vedic text in ritual, or "Viniyogam", which refers to the recitations of a particular "Manthram" at a particular point in the ritual. One or more priests during Vedic rituals recite Vedic passages. The structure and organization of this recited material follows the requirements of the ritual. As a result, sentences and verses are often taken out of their original context by those who recite and who were experts in arrangement and rearrangement of sentences and verses in "Prayogam". However, the original arrangement is followed during "Adhyayanam". Hence, a group of Namboothiris can be seen who are only experts in learning and teaching Vedams. Some are experts in modifications and rearrangements as well as insertion in between sentences of Vedams for use in rituals ("Prayogam"). A third group of Namboothiris preserved the ritual practice itself and know what, how, where, and when to act as well as recite ("Viniyogam"). Vedic learning, Prayogam as well as Viniyogam, in the proper way, requires excellent intellectual and memory capacity. Knowlegde in Vedam and perfection in chanting and recitation of each individual are tested routinely. (For more information on Vedic testing, Click here or read the article "Anyonyam").

Vedic rituals: The four Vedams are not similar in nature. Rigvedam contains numerous references to ritual practices. Many other portions of it have neither ritual connection nor visible ritual structure. Most priestly functions and names of officiating post for names of priests are mentioned, and there are terms for particular rites and ritual recitations, for altars and especially for rites concerned with Soma, the sacred plant. The arrangement and organization of Yajurvedam are done mostly with ritual considerations. Saamavedam consists for the largest part, of material taken from Rigvedam and set to music. This adaptation from text to melodies has resulted in numerous textual changes and in the insertion of much new material, originally perhaps necessitated by the requirements of melody. The structure of Saamavedam is complex. Athharwavedam itself, though perhaps as ancient as Rigvedam, has an entirely different background and was added later to the three Vedams. It is seldom employed in rituals.

Yaagam: Yaagam is a long and sophisticated Vedic ritual performed by chanting Vedic Manthrams and offerings to Agni (Fire, as God). There are several types of Yaagams namely Somayaagam, Agni (Athiraatram) and so on. Although researchers have obtained proof of a Vajapeya Yaagam performance in the 1st century AD at Perinchelloor (Thaliparamb), Namboothiris generally perform only Somayaagam and Athirathram. The Yaagam procedure consists of multifarious activities, distributed among priests from different Vedams, who officiate on behalf of, and for the benefit of a ritual Patron, the "Yajamaanan". Yaagam and the related rituals belong to "Sroutha Karmangal".

Around 550 BC, Vedic civilization began to decline. Still fragments of the original Vedic rituals continued. The original Vedic rituals survived to the present day in short domestic rites of Brahmanans and in their marriage rites. Several north Indian Vedic experts including the north Indian logician Udayana, in the 11th century AD, declared that the great and long Vedic ceremony was no longer performed. However, according to Frits Staal, "In a distant corner of South West India, Kerala, far away from the original home of Vedic civilization, a few families among the isolated and orthodox community of Namboothiri Brahmanans have maintained their Vedic tradition and continue to perform two Vedic rituals; Agnishthomam (Somayaagam), which lasts for five days and uses the sacred plant "Soma" (from which is derived, the name Somayaagam) and Agnichayanam (Agni or Athiraathram), which lasts for twelve days and continue through some nights (from which the name Athiraathram)." ( Click here to know more about the sacred plant "Soma").

Any Namboothiri having the following qualification can perform Somayaagam.
1. He should belong to the family which is entitled to do Yaagam (see Aadu class in the classification menu)
2. If his father is alive, and he had performed the same Yaagam.
3. If his elder brothers are alive and they had performed the same Yaagam or he is the eldest son.
4. He has performed a shorter ritual by name "Aadhaanam". Aadhaanam is the same as Agniaadhaanam referred in the article, Shodasakriyakal.
5. He is married and his wife is alive.

A Namboothiri after performing Somayaagam obtains the title of Somayaaji or Somayaajipad. A Somayaaji can perform the highest level Yaagam, Athiraathram (Agnyadhayam or Agni), if
1. he is married and his wife is alive
2. his father (if alive), and older brothers (if alive) have performed Athiraathram.

A Somayaaji after performing the Athiraathram obtains the title Akkithiri or Akkithiripad. Only very few Rigvedam, Yajurvedam and Saamavedam Namboothiris have this title. The chief consultants of Vedic rituals are the six families, Cherumukku, Thaikkat (both belong to Sukapuram Graamam), Perumpadappu, Kaplingaad (both of Peruvanam Graamam), Kaimukku mana, and Panthal Mana (both are of Irinjalakkuda Graamam). The last four families had performed Yaagam around fifty years back or much earlier while the first two have performed it even recently (in 1970s and 80s).

When Brahmanans all over the Indian sub-continent stopped Yaagam because of non-acceptance of this culture by Buddhism and Jainism, Namboothiris also became reluctant to continue with Yaagam for several years. It was Mezhathol Agnihothri ( Click here ) who took initiative to resume the Vedic culture. His efforts received support from seven Namboothiri Gramams, viz., Perinchellur (Taliparamb), Karikkad, Sukapuram, Panniyur, Aalathiyur, Peruvanam and Irinjalakkuda. Hence, only in these seven villages, we find Namboothiris having right to perform Yaagams. Seven Namboothiri families (other than the family of Mezhathol Agnihothri) joined him to resume performing Yaagam and together, they conducted 99 Yaagams. Looking from this angle the contribution of Mezhathol Agnihothri to preserve Vedic culture is far excellent. Today's Namboothiris are to thank primarily Mezhathol Agnihothri for his lifelong effort to co-ordinate and organise Namboothiris and to rejuvinate the Vedic culture.

The second largest Namboothiri contributor to preserve Vedic culture and to purify Namboothiri culture is Sree Sankaraacharya in 8th century AD.

Today's Vedic India: In the present day India, Vedic traditions survive in two main areas. One in western India with extensions to the north (Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh) and the other in south (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala). The southern tradition is stronger. Because of Muslim invasion and spreading of Budhism and Jainism, Vedic traditions moved to the extremities of the country, especially to the south.

Today, Rigvedam (Aaswalaayanan group), Yajurvedam and Saamavedam traditions can be seen in western India. Athharwavedam pocket can be seen in Sourashtra (Maharashtra) and Paippalaada (Orissa). There are a few isolated Vedic traditions in Nepal, exiled from other areas of north India. "There is hardly anything left in the original homeland of the Vedams, the north-west, and equally little in Bengal, in the far northeast", says Frits Staal.

The southern tradition is characterised by the preponderance of Yajurvedam, along with Rigvedam and Saamavedam. The Sukapuram Graamam of Namboothiris is probably one of the strong holds of Kousheetakan recension in Vedic India. The Athharwavedam never seems to have existed in the south. Though Rigvedam is the same in the west and south, its style of recitation is very different.

Vedic Culture in Kerala: The Vedic tradition in Kerala is unique and self-contained. It may be mainly due to the separation of Kerala from the rest of India by the Western Ghats. The Ghats, with an average elevation of 5,000 ft. but with a few peaks above 8,000 ft., and roughly parallel to west coast, some 30km from the sea in the northern and about 60km in the southern part of Kerala. There is one main gap, the Palakkad gap, through which most east-west communication takes place. Namboothiri settlements have mostly taken place through the coastal gap in north Kerala.

"In Kerala (which is small in area), we find a tradition that is relatively small, but quite different from the rest of India, and entirely self-contained", says Frits Staal in his book "Agni". If it had not been self-contained it could not have supported a homogenous Sroutha tradition. The Sroutha tradition of Namboothiris did not have to import Vedic experts to Kerala from the rest of Vedic India. , The Kausheetakan recension is found among Rigvedi Namboothiris, while it is no longer found anywhere else. Aaswalaayanan recension in Rigvedam, Baudhaayanan recension (more common), Badhoolakan recension (less common), both of Yajurvedam and extremely rare Saamavedam tradition (Jaimileeya recension) are also seen in Kerala. As mentioned earlier, there is no Athharwavedam among the Namboothiris. According to Frits Staal, the Namboothiri Vedic tradition makes an archaic impression when compared to the rest of India.

According to Burnell, based on his study on Vedic schools in Malabar (North Kerala) in 1890, 80% of Namboothiris follow Rigvedam, 19% Yajurvedam, and the rest 1% follow Saamavedam. Another estimate on Malabar, as quoted by Logan in 1885, showed that, out of 1,017 Namboothiri families, 466 families followed Rigvedam, 406 families followed Yajurvedam, and 6 families followed Saamavedam while 139 families were either excluded from Vedams or uncertain. The Vedic distribution in Cochin and Travancore (which were princely states while Malabar was under British Rule) was unknown till the studies of Staal in 1961. The study conducted in Malabar, Cochin and Travancore (the totality of these three areas is today's Kerala) estimated 35% Rigvedis, 50% Yajurvedis, 0.08% Saamavedis and the rest excluded from Vedams. The Thrissur belt (in erstwhile Cochin State), an area in Central Kerala, has important. Yajurvedam and Saamavedam centres.

The Namboothiris are probably unique to have a sub-caste of Brahmanans who are excluded from Vedams. They are called "Othillatha Namboothiris" (Namboothiris without Othu). "Othu" is the colloquial word for Vedam. These include Chaathira Namboothiris (who were engaged only in military exercises, in the form of games like Panemkali), Adukkala Namboothiris (who specialised in large-scale cooking), and, interestingly, some keezh-santhi Namboothiris (temple priests). The Astavaidyans, eight families of hereditary physicians, except Vaidyamadham, are Othillatha Namboothiris. All Othillatha Namboothiris study Samhitha (Vedic text) but not the remaining portions like Brahmanam, Aaranayakam and Upanishad. Also, they do not perform any Vedic Sroutha ritual, nor teach or practice Vedam recitation.

Among the original 32 Namboothiri Graamams (villages), Sukapuram (Chovaram), Perumanam and Irinjalakuda were the Vedic strongholds. Perinchelloor (Thaliparamba) Graamam has had a strong Vedic base in 9th and 10th century. In Sukapuram, there were originally only Rigvedis of Kaushitakan recension and Samavedis. Aaswalaayana-Rigvedam was added later when several Namboothiri families of Panniyoor Graamam joined Sukapuram. In Irinjalakuda, there is no Rigvedam. The Yajurvedic Namboothiris there are mostly of Baudhayanan recension and rarely Badhoolakan. In Perumanam, the Rigvedam is Aaswalaayanan and Yajurvedam, Baudhaayanan.

Vedic Teaching and Recitation: Namboothiris, who are entitled to recite Vedams, have evolved a rich and diversified culture of Vedam recitation. Their recitation is quite different from traditional vedam recitations in other parts of India. This is due to a variety of features, such as the pronunciation of Sanskrit in Kerala. An Important feature is nasalization, a feature of Malayalam in general which seems to be relatively ancient. (In Sanskrit it was called "anunaasika athiprasaram") Another reason may be that a much larger percentage of Malayalam words is of Sanskrit origin than is the case with Tamil. It may also be connected with the isolated development of the Namboothiri tradition, which was not exposed to contact with other traditions. And lastly, though there have been many Namboothiri scholars of Sanskrit, there has not been a tendency to bring existing practice in line with the norms established in the past. Rather, the living tradition has been left to prevail and develop freely.

The first four to six years of traditional education among the Namboothiris, (between Upanayanam and Samaavarthanam) is spent on the memorisation of the Vedam. Each boy memorises, of his own Vedam, most or all of the "Samhitas" (Vedic texts). This may be followed by more advanced recitations, in particular of the "padapantha" and of some of its "vikriti" modifications. There are particular "vikriti" modifications of Namboothiris that are not known in other parts of India. (Cf. Staal, 1961.47-49, 59-61). In both Rigvedam and Yajurvedam recitation, the Vedic accents Udaatha, Anudaatha and Svarita, are taught in a special manner: the teacher keeps the pupil's head straight for the Udaatha, bends it down for the Anudaatha and bends it to the right for Svaritha. When the accents have been properly learned and memorised, the head should no longer be moved. There are also special hand gestures ("Mudra") that accompany special features of Vedam recitation. The Namboothiri Saamavedis use different movements. While all Vedic recitations are taught at home, there are two special schools for the teaching of Rigvedam, one at Thrissur and the other at Thirunaavaaya, in Malappuram district. The Thirunaavaaya School was formed by a Namboothiri of Puthillath Mana supported by several other Namboothiris and financed by Saamoothiri Raja (King Zamorin) of Malabar. The Thrissur school was supported by the Raja of Cochin. There are differences in the style of recitation of the two Rigvedi schools. The Thrissur school (Brahmaswam Madhom) has a few students even now, while the Thirunaavaaya school is not functioning. The Thrissur school recently started admitting children of families, which originally followed Thirunaavaaya style.

There was an idea to form a school to teach Yajurvedam, in recent years, but it has not been successful yet. In the Yajurvedam, there are also two traditions that differ slightly in style of recitation, one following the Peruvanam Graamam and the other Irinjalakuda. The Yajurvedam and Saamavedam are being taught in homes. The Saamavedam tradition is the feeblest (with only 21 families) and will perhaps be the first to disappear. These 21 Manas are Nellikkaattil Mammannu, Muttathukaatil Mammannu, Thottam, Perumangad, Korattikkara (all in Paanjaal, Thrissur district), Moothiringod, Naripatta (Kodumunda, Palakkad dist.), Pakaraavoor, Mangalatheri (both in Mookkuthala, Malappuram dist.), Vadakkaanchery (Valiya), Mundaya (Kaattukulam, Palakkad dist.), Kaambram (Padinjaarangadi, Malappuram dist.), and the nine families based at Kidangoor, near Kottayam, namely Malamel, Muriyoth Malamel, Kallambilly, Nellipuzha Kallambilly, Paatyal, Onamthuruth Paatyal, Mulavelipuram, Vaatana and Podoor. Out of these 21, 20 have Othu (Vedam) while Kaambram Mana, due to its affiliation to Panniyur Graamam, is excluded from Othu. All the five Paanjal-basedfamilies along with Pakaraavoor and Mangalatheri have the right to perform Yaagam.

Extensive studies were conducted on the Namboothiri style of recitation of Vedams by Frits Staal, (1961), Gray (1959) and Howard (1977).

Conclusion: A time span of about two millennia separates the Vedic Indians from the Namboothiris, the Malayalam-speaking Brahmanans. "The difference in life style, practices and beliefs between Vedic nomads and Namboothiri Brahmanans is almost total", says Frits Staal in his book "Agni". In terms of caste and religious observances, the Namboothiri has remained orthodox until the beginning of the 20th century. (To know more about the changes of Namboothiri community in 20th century AD, Click here ) Devoted to their rituals, Tanthric as well as Vedic, from which outsiders are excluded, they were relatively unaffected by modern "English" education. "Most Namboothiris have been settled as peaceful villagers, country aristocrats, small land owners, connoisseurs of literature and the traditional arts (like Kathakali), scholars and gentlemen", observes Staal. According to Ananthakrishna Iyer in his paper on "The Cochin Tribes and Castes II " (Madras-London, 1912), "...the most conspicuous characteristics of Namboothiris are simplicity and exclusiveness, obviously the former predicate does not extend to their rituals".

| Article No:4. | Last update of this article:12th February 2002 |
Article edited by P. Vinod Bhattathiripad
Ref: "Agni" by Frits Staal, Asian Humanities Press, Berkeley, 1983.

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