Kaliyur Iyengars – Part I

In the year 1840, a group of scholarly, Tengalai Iyengar Brahmins migrated from Mannargudi in Tanjavur and came to settle down in the village of Kaliyur near Cheyyar in North Arcot District. It is said that a plague like epidemic made people leave Mannargudi. Another reason attributed for this migration is the invasion of the neighbouring South Arcot by the Muslims. Kaliyur is situated 18 km. from Kancheepuram and 3 km. from Cheyyar. The Brahmins living in Kaliyur are one of the oldest, most exclusive and homogenous groups of Iyengar Brahmins of Tamilnadu. Their origin is lost in antiquity but they might have been around at least from the time of Ramanuja. They believe themselves to be the followers of the Mudaliandavan who is supposed to be the first and the dearest disciples of Sri Ramanujam. They follow Mudaliandavan Thirumaligai and consider Mudaliandavan as their Acharya (Guru). 

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After their resettlement in Kaliyur, the village became a cradle of Vedic scholars, purohits and astrologers. The Brahmin families lived in the Agraharam (first row of houses built around the temple and occupied by the temple priests) and the families of the dominant community of rich and landed Arcot Mudaliars lived in a nearby locality. In fact, Brahmins first arrived in this village due to the invitation of the Mudaliars. The patronage of the Mudaliar Community has been extremely good and constant through the years and is a classical example of the ‘patron client’ relationship existing in India from ancient times between different communities. The Agraharam is located around the temple of ‘Sri Adhi Keshava Perumal Swamy’, which was also built and maintained with financial support from the Mudaliars.

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It is believed that the Brahmins, carried the idol of Adhi Keshava all the way from Mannargudi on their head to Kaliyur and reinstalled it in the newly built temple of Adhi Keshava Perumal. It is not a practice to abandon Gods even in adverse circumstances. The idol, four feet tall, is in a standing position and is made of granite. It is believed that in ancient times there was a temple dedicated to Goddess Kali at that spot. That is why the village is called ‘Kaliyur’ the home of Goddess Kali. The Kali temple might have been abandoned centuries ago with the decline of the cult of Mother Goddess in Tamil Nadu. This has been the case with the temple of Nataraja in Chidambaram also. The prime site of Nataraja temple also originally belonged to a Kali temple. After establishing the temple of Nataraja in the important location in the heart of the town the Kali was moved to an insignificant shrine at the outskirts of the Chidambaram town. Kali can still be seen there and is worshipped as the Tillai Kali (Kali of Chidambaram). It is significant that the rising suppression of the female sex has historically been manifested with simultaneous suppression of the female deities. 

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After moving to Kaliyur the Brahmins engaged in agriculture apart from performing the temple related activities. Due to this reason they are also called the Mannar Mudumbai families. These families are very religious, orthodox and are considered to be an authority on Vaishnavism. Unlike other South Indians who carry the name of village and the name of the father as their initials; the Kaliyur Brahmins use the initials K. M. meaning Kaliyur Manner. It is a definite attempt to retain their Mannargudi identity. The priests from Kaliyur have been much in demand in other Vaishnavite temples. They have been dominating the scene in Tirupati hill since 1940s. In 1950s, they monopolised the Paracharat (cooking service to the Lord) at Tirupati and have been taking the contracts for making ladoos, vadai and other offerings to the lord. Kaliyur is also closely connected with the Ramar Sannadhi (shrine of Lord Rama) and the temple of Shree Govindaraja at the foothills of the Tirupati temple. Only the Brahmins from Kaliyur were chosen to carry the offerings from the Lord of Seven Hills at Tirumalai to the temple of Govindaraja at foothills. The priests walked bare-footed all the way down the hill carrying the offerings on their head.

In 1960, when the Tirupati temples were first launched in USA, the Kaliyur Brahmins like Sri. K.M. Manavalan Iyengar, Arvamudhan Iyengar and Chakravartiyar were chosen to start the first temple at Pittsburgh, by the Tirupati Devasthanam.

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