Namboothiri Brahmins


19th c. Miniature

Oct 18, CANADA (SUN) — A study of Kerala's brahminical classes.

In a recent Sun Feature, we looked at the Pushpaka Brahmins of Kerala, a class of South Indian Brahmins characterized as having blended qualities of the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Today we consider the Namboothiris, who are the upper class Brahmins of Kerala. They consider themselves to be the most orthodox Brahmins in India. The Namboothiris perform Pooja in temples based on Tantra Vidhi. The other temple related activities known as Kazhakam are performed by the Ambalavasi castes.

There are also other brahmins called Sharada Brahmins, who have their own temples, mutts, ashrams, sannyasi sanghams and guru lineages. The unique thing about Namboothiris is that they follow the Poorva Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy, unlike the Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta school followed by most of the South Indians.


Some think that the name Namboothiri is derived from 'Nambu' meaning sacred (in Prakruta Tenugu) and 'Thiri', which is a suffix added to the names of certain upper castes in Kerala. Another view is that it is derived from Nam (Veda) and Poorayathi (who imparts).

Brahmins are supposed to have migrated from North, however it is unclear if all of them migrated after various South Indian kingdoms started taking shape. There were Namboothiri Brahmin settlements in Kerala as early as 2nd century BC, as said in Sangam literature, Dandi's story, etc.), and they settled in 32 gramams (villages) throughout the state.

The Namboothiris' own tradition holds that Parashuram, the Visnu avatar, recovered the land of Kerala from the sea and bestowed it upon them. Archeological excavations made prove that Kerala was once under the sea, as fossils of ancient marine animals were found in almost all parts of the state.

The belief of some modern historians that Namboothiries migrated to Kerala after 5th century is certainly wrong, considering the fact that even in geographically separated Sri Lanka, there were Sanskrit influences as early as the third century BCE. When the Mauryan Emperor Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka around 275 BCE, the capital of Sri Lanka was named Anuradhapura. As it is certain that Sanskrit coexisted with Aryan/Brahmin societies, it can be considered that Sri Lanka was a Hindu land with Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras along with outcastes (Chandalas).

The King had established marriage relations with Asoka and the whole Kingdom was then converted to Buddhism. Hinduism reappeared in the island only around 1,000 AD when the Cholas conquered it and established the province of Mummudi Chola Mandalam (Jaffna Peninsula), settling it with Hindu Tamilians.

The presence of Sanskrit speaking Aryans in Sri Lanka as early as 275 BCE proves that in geographically connected Kerala there were Namboothiri Brahmins as early as 275 BCE, and that the Chera Kings of Kerala of the time were noble Kshatriyas and not Dravidians.

The Mauryan inscriptions mention the Cheras as Kerala Putras. This proves that Vedic religion pre-dates Dravidian culture, Buddhism, Jainism and Communism in Kerala. The Christian Tradition of Kerala also confirms this as Syrian Catholics consider themselves descendants of those Namboothiries who were banished from Namboothiri community when they gave food and shelter to St. Thomas (who was considered a Mlechcha by the orthodox Namboothiri community), the apostle of Christianity who came to India in AD 52. Namboothiries are mentioned in Sangam literature as early as 200 BCE.

The legend of Parasurama also exists amongst Brahmins throughout India. He is worshipped in Uttar Pradhesh and Bihar by Bhumihar Brahmins, Chitpawan Brahmins in Maharashtra and Saraswat Brahmins in Goa. These Brahmin subcastes also hold that they are those Brahmins who were the followers of Bhagwan Parashuram (or Parashuraaman), and they were created by him.

According to the Namboothiries, Parashuraaman used his Parashu (Axe), to create new land for the Brahmins. This legend is also present in Kerala Mahatmyam (a Sanskrit text which is a part of Brahmanda Purana), and also in Keralaolpathy in Malayalam. According to this, the land area that Lord Parashurama created was of 160 "Katams" (a measure of area) in size. Since the Vedas holds that Kshatriyas are dependent on Brahmins and vice versa, and that Kshatriyas' prime duty is to protect the Brahmins and cows, Parashurama (Bhargava), the Great seer belonging to the line of the Saptarshi Bhrigu, wanted a King to protect the Namboothiries he settled in Kerala. Thus a Chera Prince who had surrendered to him was installed in the throne of Kerala, and made Mahodayapuram (Mezuris, as known to Romans) near Kodungallur his capital. The fact that the Namboothiries, who do not consider the Zamorin Rajah and the Maharajah of Travancore (who are Samanta Kshatriya or normal nair "madampi") as Kshatriyas, consider Cheras as noble Kshatriyas proves that the Cheras were of Aryan-Kshatriya race and not Dravidians, as said by modern historians. In addition, the Cheras are said to have helped the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war in the Great Indian epic.

A typical Namboothiri Brahman

Namboothiries in Kerala

At a time when the land was ruled by Kshatriyas and the world was overpopulated by powerful Kshatriyas like Kartha Veerarjunah, who had himself defeated the ten-headed Ravana of Lanka, and had him in chains; who could stop the waters of Holy Narmada with his thousand hands; the Brahmins of the world suffered. These Kshatriyas who are bound to protect the interests of Brahmins and cows became arrogant and Dharma Dweshis (Dharma Hating) began as they started harming Brahmins. At that time, Bramhanas worshipped Lord Achyuta (Sri Krsna) (Chyuti=destruction. Achyuta=death-less), who is Ajita (Invincible), who is both microcosm and macrocosm, who is dear to the Brahmins, who is present everywhere (omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient) fully, He who is present in all the infinite divisions of space of even a minute object as if all objects are made of him, He who appears as the Trimurthis, Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and Lord Bramha, He who is Ananta (infinite), He who is the body, the mind and the feeling of "I" or the self which is unique to living things known as the Atman soul) of all beings, He who assumes numerous forms using Maya, yet fully aware of His nature of Self, He who is the creator of all sounds and so though cannot be heard or associated to a sound, assumes a form using Maya and speaks to devotees, He who cannot be associated to a name, yet assumes the divine form and assumes infinite names, He who cannot be seen, yet assumes many forms from human to animal (like a boar) to a huge ball of fire and light; that Divine Achyuta was born as Parashurama (Rama of the Axe) to sage Jamadagni to protect the Brahmanas' interests.

Parashuram, the slayer of Brahmin/Dharma hating Kshatriyas, would challenge and fight the Kshatriyas. Since it is the Dharma (duty) of a Kshatriya to accept such a challenge and fight, most of them did so and perished. Only few noble-hearted Kshatriyas did surrender to Parashuram and since it is the Dharma of all beings to forgive those who seek asylum, Parashurama spared them. Parashuram, though a Brahmin who is not supposed to fight, kill or punish, did this deed of massacre when he was provoked by Kartha Veerarjunah's minister, who stole Jamadagni's cow. This dreadful deed resulted in great pain and misery for the whole Kshatriya race and Parashuram himself violated the Brahmin Dharma. But this as unavoidable as misery and death is always the result of Adharma. To shed his sins, Parashuram performed penance (Tapasya). He came to know that the land of Kerala had been submerged in water and he threw his axe from Gokarnam; the axe fell at Kanyakumari and thus Kerala was born. This land owned by Parashuram was given to the Namboothiri Brahmins as alms, as giving alms to Brahmins was known to be the way to shed one's sins.

Namboothiri Settlements and Temples

Parashurama established 108 Shiva Temples and 108 Durga Temples, like Cherpu Bhagavathy Temple, throughout Kerala. In every Grama he established a Temple which the people of that Grama considered as Grama Kshetra (the village temple). Every Grama has a Deity who is considered Grama Paradevata. Of all Namboothiri Gramams, the most important ones are Perinchellur, considered to be the first Namboothiri Grama established by Parashurama, the Panniyur Grama, the Perumanam Grama and the Sukapuram Grama (in the order of their importance). The Taliparamba (Perinchellur) temple and Panniyur temple are important to all Namboothiries and not just to the Namboothiries of the respective Gramas.

Vedic Sacrifices need Ritviks from all the three Vedas and only in Perinchellur, Panniyur and Perumanam were there all the three Vedic people. The Samavedic Namboothiries of today belonging to Panjaal and the Kottayam were originally from Panniyur and Perinchellur (Taliparamba). Today the Namboothiri Gramams with a tradition of Vedic Sacrifices (Yajna-Yaaga) are Perumanam, Perinchellur, Sukapuram and Irinjalakuda Namboothiri Gramam of Thrissur District. Once there were three thousand Namboodiri families in both Panniyur and Perinchellur; a thousand each belonging to Yajur, Rig and Sama Vedaas. But today there are only about 200 Illams (families) in Perinchellur who are mostly Yajur Vedi, and about 30 families in Panniyur who are all Veda-less. The Sukapuram grew at the cost of Panniyur when the latter was destroyed. Today however Perumanam Gramam is the biggest Namboothiri village with about 300 families (mostly Yajur Vedis and few Rig Vedis).

Every Grama has a Head Man who is known as the Tambrakkal, and used to have two Vydika families (Vydikan is one who perform Yaaga as Yajamana). Besides there are Oykkan families who are well versed in the Vedas and teach Vedas to Brahmacharis and Smartha (Smarthan) families who play a role in excommunicating fellow Namboothiries who have violated the Dharma-sutra rules. However it is the Vydikan who is the final authority in matters of Shodasa rituals, daily rituals and other Brahminic and Vedic rituals.

After Tambrakkal it is the Vydikan who is the most respected among Namboothiries. The head of all Tambrakkals of all Gramas (villages) is the Kurumathur Naickar (the Tambrakkal of Perinchellur (Taliparamba) village. The Sardar (head) of all Vydikans is the Azhvanchery Tambrakkal , the Tambrakkal of Alathur Grama. The prominent families of Perumanam, are Kirangatt Mana and Chittoor Mana of which Kirangatt are the Tambrakkals and Chittoor Family were the hereditory administrators of Perumanam Temple. Chittoor Family has Samudayam rights in Perinchellur and Panniyur Temples too.

In our next segment on the Namboothiri Brahmans, we will explore the temple rituals, Deity worship, chanting, and duties of the Brahmans and temple functionaries.


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