South Indian Brahmins – The Iyengars – Part II

South Indian Brahmins – The Iyengars – Part II

The philosophical, devotional cult propounded by Ramanujam can be called the pre-runner of the medieval Bhakti (devotional) movements in North and South India. Following Ramanujam, a spate of Bhakti schools and saints continued to attract the masses towards the God almighty through their devotional, philosophical writings. The Bhakti cult got divided into two schools in India, namely the Nirguna and Saguna School. The Nirguna School was devoted to God without form – like in Islam and Sikhism. On the contrary the Saguna School was devoted to God in a visual form, like that of Rama, Krishna or Vishnu, clearer to the masses.

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The major exponents of Bhakti cult in India were Guru Nanak, Eknath, Surdas, Tulsidas, Meera Bai, Rahim, Raskhan, Kabir, Ravidas, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (Krishna consciousness) and many more. However, a majority of them belonged to Saguna School of Bhakti. Nanak and Kabir were ardent followers of the Nirguna School. Guru Nanak eventually became the founder of Sikhism and his devotional verses written by him are chanted everyday in the Gurudwaras around the world and Kabir’s immortal poetry is widely taught in the textbooks as Bhakti literature. Within the Nirguna and Saguna School there were poets and philosophers who saw God and themselves as one entity and those who saw God and themselves as two separate entities. These were known as non-dualistic and dualistic schools of Bhakti. The prominent examples of the Saguna dualistic school are saints like Surdas, Tulsidas (the writer of Ramcharitmanas), Meera Bai and Andal. 

The birthplace of Andal, Srivalliputtur, is one of the famous Vaishnavite centres in Tamilnadu; others being Alwarthirunagari, Sriperumpudur, Tirukoilur, Kancheepuram, Thiruvaikuntham, Thiruvendipuram and Srimooshanam. In fact, out of the 108 Vaishnavite centres in India a large number is located in Tamilnadu. In Srivalliputtur, there is a shrine dedicated to Andal and she is given the status of a Goddess. Andal was the daughter of the priest of the Vishnu temple at Srivalliputur and was fascinated by the Lord from a very young age. Like Meera, she was wedded to the Lord and wrote the most beautiful devotional and love poetry. In her sleep she dreamt of her wedding to the Lord and has described it in her poems. It is believed that the Lord himself asked her father for her hand. She is recognised as one of the Vaishnavite Alwars (Saint poets). The poetry of the Alwars is known as Divya Prabhandams which contains nearly four thousand verses. Some of the famous Alwars are Perialwar, Bothatalwar, Tirumangaialwar etc. The poetry of Andal is also known as Nachiyar Thiru Mozhi. The love songs of Andal are sung during the Vaishnavite marriage rites. 

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Iyengar marriages are very elaborate and have a lot of singing associated with them. There are interesting ceremonies like the Unjal (swing) ceremony when both, the bride and the bridegroom, are made to sit on the swing and maidens sing around them. They are also made to play games with each other. This is a practice from the days when child marriages used to take place and the child bride and groom needed to become friends. Andal songs dedicated to Durga are called Thiru Pavai and are sung during the month of Marghazi. Marghazi (December – January) is the most sacred month for prayers and vritams (vows). The unmarried girls keep Katyayani Vritam for thirty days and pray to Durga for a good husband. In Thiru Pavai all the verses end with the word ‘yen Pavai’ (our Durga). The Shivaite parallel to Thiru Pavai is Thiruvam Pavai, the verses of which are similar to Thiru Pavai and are also dedicated to Pavai (Durga). During the sacred month of Marghazi, the devout in the temple towns of Tamil Nadu, go round the town singing Pavai songs after an early morning bath. There is total concentration on the prayers that no other distracting activity is entertained. Traditionally, during the month of Margazhi, in Tamil Nadu, no marriages are conducted, no buying or selling of property takes place, and no one changes the house. Everything is postponed till Pongal, the harvest festival.

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It is believed that about three hundred years ago, a group of South Indian Brahmins took Thiru Pavai to Cambodia and Thailand and propagated Vaishvanism in that part of the world. Dr. Nagaswamy, who just returned from Cambodia, saw a version of Thiru Pavai in the Cambodian script. According to Dr. Padma Subramaniam this fact was also known to the Pramacharya of Kanchi. He urged Padma to compose a dance based on Thiru Pavai and Thiruvam Pavai and perform it in Thailand. This she did, along with her students, during the festival of India in Thailand in1995. My daughter Priyadarshini, one of her students, also accompanied her. The Raj Guru of Thailand was present at the performance. Next day he showed the dance troupe the Thai Version of Thiru Pavai and also recited it for them. Even though his pronunciation was quite Thai they could still recognise the Tamil words. After hundreds of years and many generations of being in Thailand, the Raj Guru and other priests look just like other Thai men. However, they are the descendents of the South Indian Brahmins who brought Thiru Pavai to Thailand and are proud of their heritage. The songs are written in Thai script, but the words are the same. For generations these songs have been recited by people without even knowing their meanings. 

According to Dr. Padama Subramaniam, “a big swing (unjal) festival used to take place during the month of Marghazi in Thailand. It was celebrated around a huge wooden swing located in the centre of Bangkok. The ancient swing gave way about thirty years ago. The supporting pole can still be seen there. Thailand also has a dance tradition as per Bharata, author of the Natya Shastra. They call him Bharata Munni. A mask of Bharata Munni is on display at the Academy of Music and Dance in Bangkok. In fact, not only Bharatanatyam but all the dance forms in India like Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, Mohiniattam are based on Natyashastra. Hence, Thai dance being based on Natyashastra should not come as a surprise to us”. 

Thiru Pavai songs are also sung, in Thailand, on the occasion of the coronation of the Thai kings. Even though the Thai kings have become Buddhists, over a period of time, they have kept their Hindu traditions and have retained the office of the Raj Guru. The coronation of the Thai kings is still conducted by the Raj Guru and the sword and crown for the king to be coronated are taken in a procession from the house of the Raj Guru. The kings belong to the Rama Dynasty and the present king is known as ‘Rama the IX’.

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