The Nambudiri Brahmins (Malayalam: നമ്പൂതിരി nambũdiri, also transliterated Namputiri, Namboothiri) are the upper class Brahmins of Kerala, who are considered the most orthodox Brahmins in India. Its members regard themselves as the true repositories of the ancient Vedic religion and of the traditional Hindu code. They perform rituals in temples of Kerala based on Tantra Vidhi, a complex and ancient branch of Tantric traditions found only in Kerala, and some Mahakshetras ("Great Temples") around India (which have a Nambudiri acting as the Head Priest). Namboothiris follow the conservative and ritualistic Śrauta traditions and the ancient Purva Mimamsa, unlike the majority of other Brahmins in India who follow the Vedanta.
Nambuthiri Brahmins have the sole right of conducting rituals in Kerala (also including Kanyakumari). Some major Mahakshetras around India (including North India) have a Nambudiri priest as the Head Tantri. Only a Nambudiri can become the Rawal, Head Priest, at Badrinath in Uttarakhand,and the Chief Priest at Mookambika Temple in Kollur, Karnataka, Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal and other Mahakshetras around India. The reason behind this practice is that these temples were founded and sanctified by the great Saint Philosopher Adi Shankaracharya, who was born as a Nambudiri Brahmin.
The Nambudiri Brahmins are renowned for their rigid orthodoxy and sense of caste and purity (Shudham). Although untouchability is now absent in India; in the past Nambudiris considered themselves polluted by even the touch of other Brahmins: Embraan Shudham (by the touch of Tulu Brahmins), Eda Shudham (touch of Tamil Brahmins such as Iyer, Iyengar, Pattar which required the Nambudiri to bathe before resuming activities). Also the Nambudiris were one of the only Hindu communities in India where women were required to wear a veil (Ghosha) in public (a practice abandoned since the 1930s). Members of the community who did not abide by these regulations faced excommunication (Brashtu), the last case occurring in 1918.
The Nambudiri caste follows a distinctive marriage alliance with the important warrior caste of the Nayars. Though the eldest son of a Nambudiri household customarily marries a Nambudiri woman, thus observing the typical caste practice of endogamy, the younger sons marry Nayar women and obey the matrilineal-descent system of the Nayars. In contrast to other Brahman castes in southern India, the Nambudiris place great emphasis on their priestly status and do not normally engage in profitable professions. They derive their wealth from their landholdings, previously having been one of the chief landowners of Kerala along with the Nayar (before the Land Reforms Ordinance).
Female Nambudiri Brahmins have the surname Antharjanam which literally means "People inside the house".
The legend of Parasurama also exists amongst Brahmins throughout India. He is worshipped in UP 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 or they were created by him. Hence it has to be seen as a myth not exclusive to Namboothiris and Kerala alone. This legend is also present in KeralaMahatmyam (a Sanskrit text which is a part of Brahmanda Purana) as also in Keralaolpathy in Malayalam.
According to this, the land area that Kerala Lord Parashurama created was of 160 "Katams" (a measure of area) in size. The land from Gokarna in the north to the River Chandragiri Puzha in modern Kasargod District of north Kerala is Tulu Nad where Lord Parasurama established 32 villages. South of Chandragiri river he established another 32 villages which are normally referred to as Namboothiri Gramams or villages. Although there are 32 Namboothiri villages spanning from Kasargod in north Kerala to the south, all the important Namboothiri villages both in number of Namboothiri population and importance with respect to Veda prominence and the like are located between river ChandragiriPuzha (Kasargod District) and River Karivannoor Puzha just south of Cherpu in Thrissur District. The Namboothiri Gramams between these two rivers are ten in number. They are Perinchellur(Taliparamba), Payyannur, Alathur, Panniyur (Anakkara, Palghat District), Karikatt(Manjery) and Sukapuram(Edappal); both in Malappuram District, Perumanam or Peruvanam(Cherpu) in Thrissur District and three more. The other 22 Gramams are located in southern parts of Thrissur District and Southern Districts of Kerala. Malayalam was not developed at the time of Adhi Shakaracharya. Hence the etymology could be taken from Tamil language which he know. There are two aspects in finding the etymology. Oneis that in Tamil'nam'means'our' and puthiri is from putham which means something of immensity. Namputhiri simply means our 'great people'. The other aspect is that the ancient Tamil Grammar of Tholkappiyam was from Kerala. In the section of Marabial, mention is made of the five elements of earth, water, fire, skies and space. These are even now called the five puthams or buhthams. These learned Namputhiris incorporated it from the Greek source. Hence they are called Namputhiris.
The original Namboothiris are classified into ten sects: These ten classes and their rights and duties are
Bhattathiripad and Bhattathiri are surnames of some Namboothiri families. They are titles gained due to their scholarship. The three types of bhattathiris are Saasthra Bhattathiris, Smaartha Bhattathiris and Bhaagavatha Bhattathiris. The Saasthra Bhattathiris are Namboothiris who were honoured by this title after receiving the "Bhatta" title from the Zamorin raja of Kozhikode after passing various examinations conducted during the famous "Pattathaanam", on their scholarship in Sanskrit, Vedam, Linguistics, Astronomy, Astrology, Architecture, Meemaamsa, Tharkam (logic) and so on. Many elite Namboothiris became Bhattathiripad in this way. The Smaartha Bhattathiris specialised in conducting trials and bringing out the evidences from the mouth of the culprit, if a Namboothiri (man or woman) committed sins in social life. Bhaagavatha Bhattathiris specialize in oratory and recitation of "Puraanams" (epics) like Bhaagavatham. Many Namboothiris became Bhattathiris in this manner.
However, neither they nor those who retained the Embraanthiri surnames may participate in rituals along with original Namboothiris. There is no ritual to convert others into Namboothiri community. So, practically, original Namboothiris do not accept these Embranthiris to participate in their ritual. Those Tulu Brahmins who are called Embranthiries still speak Tulu and are considered as Tulu Brahmins. The Malayalam speaking Embranthiris who have the Namboothiri surnames of "Namboothiri" and "Potty" are now considered Namboothiries but as secondary citizens. However there are very few Embranthiris who have assimilated to Namboothiri community fully and are now considered equal to original Namboothiries. In south Kerala, many old Namboothiri families keep the surname of Potty. (E.g the Thanthri family of Taazhman).In earlier times, males of there families were used to affix 'ru' to the end of their names (E.g Kantharu Sankararu). This practice is still continued by some families. The ending 'ru' is a honorific suffix in the Dravidian languages.
Each Namboothiri male (or unmarried female) is identified by his/her respective paternal family name. A married female adopts her husband's family name. Each family is affiliated to a Gothra and Pravara. The Gothra name demonstrates the family's traditional style of knowledge acquisition and expertise in ancient theories. Based on the fact that cross-breeding of excellent but different species yields better quality, marriage from a family belonging to the same Gothra was and is still banned for Namboothiris. Looking from another angle, Namboothiris believe that marriage from the same Gothra has a better chance of generating mentally retarded or physically handicapped children or at least children of less intellectual capacity. Each Gothra has several sub-classes known as Pravara. If by mistake, a boy marries a girl of same Gothra, he is not allowed to have sex with her. He has to treat her like he treats his mother.
Common gothra (and their pravara in brackets) among Namboothiris are Bharadwaajam (Amgirasam, Bhaarhaspathyam, Bharadwaajam), Kousikam (Viswaamithram, Akhamarshanam, Kousikam ), Vaatsam (Bhaargavam, Chyavanam, Aapthavaanam, Ourvam, Jaamadagnyam ), Koundinyam (Vaasishtam, Maithraavarunam, Koundinyam), Kaasyapam (Kaasyapam, Aavatsaaram, Naidruvam), Vaasishtam (Vaasishtam, Indrapradamam, Aabharaswath), Jaamadagnyam (Bhaargavam, Chyavanam, Aapthavaanam, Ourvam, Jaamadagnyam), Viswaamithram (Viswaamithram, Devaraatha Oudalam), Gouthamam (Amgirasam, Aayasyam, Gouthamam ), Athri (Aathreyam, Archanaanasam, Syavaaswam). Eight more Gothras also exist among Namboothiris, as branches of the Gothras listed above. They are Kutsam, Mudgalam, Aamgirasam, Gaargyam, Naidruvam, Saandilyam, Dhaananjayam, and Samkhyaayanam.
Namboothiries belong to three different Vedic groups, those who follow Yajur Veda, those who follow Rig Veda and those who follow the Sama Veda. However there are Namboothiries who are barred from chanting of Vedas. These Veda-less Brahmins lost their right to chant Vedas due to some violations of the Dharma sutra rules at some point of time. The Yajur Vedic Namboothiries follow the Black Yajur Veda.
Namboothiries divides the Black (Krishna) Yajur Veda in to Samhita and Sakha (Bramhana and Aranyaka part). Samhita consists of about 48 modules known as Parchams. Sakha consists of 36 Parchams. Each Parchams have sub-modules known as Anuvakam (Sanskrit) or Oath (Malayalam). Hence the Namboothiri name Oath for Vedas. Sree Rudram is a parcham with eleven Anuvakas(Oaths) dedicated to Lord Rudra (Shiva). Another important Parchams are Chama koottam(Chamakam), Arunam and Aswamedham. All these Parchams are important to Namboothiri Yajur Vedi Bramhanas. The collection of the last three Anuvakas(Oaths) of the last Parcham (named Valli) of Sakha is known as the Tythireeya Upanishad. All the ten major Upanishads belongs to the three Vedas mentioned above. Majority of Namboothiries are Rig Vedic and are spread throughout Kerala. Then comes the Yajur Vedic ones, whose prime settlements are Perinchellur or Taliparamba of Kannur district and Perumanam (Cherpu) of Thrissur district. Less important ones are Irinjalakuda (Thrissur Dt) and Karikatt (Malappuram Dt). Samavedic Namboothiries form a minority and are located in pockets of Kottayam District and in Panjaal near Wadakkancherry division of Thrissur District.
Some Vedic scholars are called "ghanapaathins". It means they have learnt the chanting of the scripture up to the advanced stage called "Ghana". "Paathin" means one who has learnt the "paatha". Ghanapaathins chant the Ghana by intoning a few words of a mantra in different ways, back and forth. The sonority natural to Vedic chanting is enhanced in Ghana. Similarly, in the other methods of chanting like karma, jata, sikha, mala, and so on the intonation is nothing less than stately. The chief purpose of such methods is to ensure that even not even a syllable of Vedic chanting is altered to the slightest extent.
There two special schools for the teaching of Rigvedam, one at Thrissur and the other at Thirunavaya, in Malappuram district. The Thirunavaya School was formed by several Namboothiris and financed by Saamoothiri Raja of Malabar. The Thrissur school was supported by the Perumpadapu Swaroopam (Raja of Cochin). There are differences in the style of recitation of the two Rigvedic schools. The Thrissur school (Brahmaswam Madhom) has a few students even now, while the Thirunavaya school is not fully functioning. Fortunately, a few of its students are being taught at home. The Thrissur school recently started admitting children of families, which originally followed Thirunavaya style. In the Yajurvedam, there are also two traditions that differ slightly in style of recitation, the Peruvanam School tradition and the Irinjalakuda School tradition. Now mostly, the Yajurvedam and Saamavedam are being taught in homes.
The three types of Atiratra altars constructed by Namboothiris are six-tipped, five-tipped and Peetthan. The six-tipped Agnichayanam and five-tipped are the most common and Namboothiris still practice them. The Peetthan (square bird) has not been constructed for some 150 years. The Yajnamana (master / leader) is the person who actually performs Yagna. Not all Namboothiris are permitted to perform Yanjna. Only Namboothiris of Aadu class can perform Yajna. The Yajnamana has to be a male Namboothiri having several pre-requisites and qualifications. After yajna, the Threthaagnis (the three spiritual fires attained through Yaagam) are shown (Kaachi) at and invoked back to the Arani. Once the Threthaagni is invoked back to Arani, the remaining fire in the Yaagasala has conceptually become forest fire with no spiritual content. Also, the Yaagasala has lost its divine nature. The Yaagasaala is set fire to with this fire. The Threthaagni is taken to the Yajamaanan's residence (Illam) and placed in an appropriate location like Vadukkini or Padinjaatti (two rooms in a Namboothiri Illam). The Somayaaga (or Athiraathra) is now over and the Yajamaanan now becomes a Somayaaji (or Akkithiri) and his wife (wives), Paththanaadi. It is using this Threthaagni that the Somayaaji (or Akkithiri) and Paththanaadi perform the rituals, viz., Agnihothram, twice daily, and other rituals through out their married life.
The daily rituals in Kerala temples are traditionally performed by Namboothiris, and often by Embranthiri migrants from the neighbouring Karnataka, but not by Tamil Brahmins. Even among Namboothiris, only certain designated families deserve to become "Thanthris". Thanthris have to perform the incredible task of transferring ("Aavaahanam") the aura ("Chaithanyam") of God and energizing the idol. There have been numerous books on this topics, written by Namboothiris. The treatises may be divided into three categories - Aagamams (Shaivam), Samhithas (Vaishnavam) and Thanthrams (Saaktheyam). Aagamams include Nigamam versions too. The former are Shivan's advice to Parvathy, while Nigamams are spoken by Parvathy to Sivan. Other classifications are regional, like Vishnukraanthaa, Rathhakraanthaa and Aswaakraanthaa, and also like Yaamalams and Daamarams. Usually, all branches of knowledge are dealt with in Thanthra Granthams.
In Shiva temples Namboothiris perform Abhishekam chanting the Sree Rudram which is one of the forty eight modules of Tythireeya Samhita of Yajur Veda. In other temples Bhagya Sooktam, Purusha Sooktam, Narayana Sooktam are chanted. Namboothiries also perform Othoottu in temples were entire Samhita part of Vedas are chanted.
The Namboothiri believed that the girl, during infancy, childhood and youth, is under the wings of gods Soman, Gandharvan and Agni respectively. God Viswavasa protects her virginity. Hence the bridegroom has to thank Viswavasa for protecting her till marriage and then marry her in the presence of Agni. Namboothiri marriage is a four day long ritual.
Until 1933, only the eldest brother in a Namboothiri family was entitled to legitimate marriage within the Namboothiri caste. His younger brothers were supposed to practice pure Brahmacharyam by being unmarried and to dedicate themselves towards the study and preservation of the Vedas and rituals. Apart from this, those younger brothers, who opted to marry within the caste were excommunicated from the family. Except for a few intelligent and studious ones, most younger brothers turned to more lucrative and worldly affairs like Sambandham.
Sambandham was the system of marriage amongst the Kshatriya,Nair and Ambalavasi communities in Kerala. Namboothiris entered into Sambandhams with Nair, Kshatriya and Ambalavasi women. Since these castes followed the matriarchal system of family and inheritance, known as Marumakkathayam and Tharavadu respectively, the issue of Sambandhams with Namboothiris were considered as members of their mother's Tharavadu and caste. Thus the father had no legal duties towards the child.
Sambandham was beneficial for both the groups involved. For the Namboothiris is prevented disintegration and division of property. For the matriarchal castes, particularly the Royal Kshatriya families and the Nairs, Sambandham was a matter of prestige. Thus Sambandham as a system was encouraged by both, the Namboothiris and the Marumakkathayam savarna castes.
The rituals in Sambandham are not sanctified according to Vedic rites, since Sambandham is not supported by blessings from God through Mantras and advises to the bride, through "Veli Othu", a part of Rigveda which is considered legitimate marriage. This is why Sambandham was considered a unsolemnised marriage. However Sambandham did have a Hindu religious aspect to it as the actual ritual included the necessity of the presence of Agni or sacred fire in the form of a simple lamp as also a piece of red silk, the colour of matrimony. Thus it was considered a form of marital alliance which was held legal and the children of such alliances were considered legitimate. Thus the children of a Namboothiri, from his "Veli" Namboothiri wife as also from his Nair Sambandham wife were considered legitimate. The only difference was that while the issue of the former, being Namboothiris, succeeded their fathers while the latter had no right of succession to their patrimony being inferior in terms of caste as also due to the existing law of Marumakkathayam.
Till the early ages of the common era there was no practise of Sambandham and the practise might have started and encouraged by the Malayala Kshatriyas of Kerala in the later ages when Kshatriyas of Kerala who fought amongst themselves found it difficult to establish marriage relationships among themselves. Sambandhams, besides, gave the Namboothiris a position of importance in the politics of Kerala. By marrying girls from powerful Kshatriya Royal houses and Nair families they secured a hold over both, the royalty and the nobility of the land, which benefitted their establishment in Kerala. Thus, till recently the princesses of the Cochin Royal Family were espoused only by Namboothiris while the princes consorted with Nair ladies known as Nethyar Ammas.
The practise of Sambandham badly affected the Nambudiri community. Though it avoided partition of property and Temples administered, it prevented the family size from increasing. Newer Namboothiri families also didn't rise due to this practise. Namboothiri population became dependent on the number of houses (Illams) already existent while the population of Nair and other savarna castes steadily increased and Namboothiri population remained stagnant due to Sambandham. This led to a steady decrease in the percentage of Namboothiri population in Kerala. Today there are only an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Namboothiries world wide.
With the spread of western education by the late 19th century modern thought within Kerala moved towards the end of Sambandham connections between the Namboothiris and Nairs. With the passage of legislation in 1933 in the Madras Presidency district of Malabar and previously in the princely states of Travancore and Cochin, by which Sambandham was considered equal to "Veli" or legitimate marriage, thereby giving right of succession to the non Namboothiri children of Namboothiri men to their paternal estate, within a short period of less than a decade, the Sambandham system of informal marriage which bound the Namboothiris and Nairs together came to an end.
Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, famously declared Kerala "a lunatic asylum of castes" after observing the strange caste practices in the society.
Namboothiri Yogakshema Mahaasabha, an association of Namboothiris founded in 1908, took a decision in 1919 and agitated for marriage of all Namboothiris within the community. Sabha declared the marriages of younger brothers from within the community as official, irrespective of whether the elder brothers were married or not. The aim was embodied in the Madras Namboothiri Act of 1933. In the same year, the Madras Marumakkathayam Act was passed, by which Sambandham was considered as a regular marriage, conferring on the children the same rights of inheritance and property as held by children whose parents were both Namboothiris. The declaration and these Acts led to a sudden decline in the number of Sambandham marriages, and this unethical practice ended shortly (in about ten years). Following these acts, Namboothiri land was increasingly partitioned and property dispersed.
The stoppage of Sambandham led to a liberation of Namboothiri wives and girls. They were the major sufferers due to unavailability of Namboothiri boys for marriage because of the above mentioned social taboos, and lot of these girls were married to the same Namboothiri and polygamy was the norm of the day.
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