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The Brahmins of South India - Ayyars

An Officer's Diary

Over the last two thousand years the Brahmins have migrated, in waves, from different parts of India to South India. They came to the South not only from Varanasi and other parts of the Gangetic plains but also from Kashmir, Gujarat and Goa. Some of these waves could be closely attributed to certain political upheavals. The destruction of the temple of Somnath by Mohammad of Gazni and Mohammed of Gauri and the large-scale persecution of Brahmins in Kashmir after the Buddhist king of Kashmir became a Muslim contributed to this southward migration. The forced conversion to Islam and levying of Jajiya tax on the Hindus in the later part of the Mughal period forced many Brahmins to move to the South. Subsequently, the forced conversion of Brahmins to Christianity by the Portuguese, unsettled the Brahmins on the Konkan Coast and many of them were given refuge by the Maharajas of Travancore and Cochin in Kerala. It must be noted that one of the important reasons for the decline of the Mughal Empire has been the non-secular policy of Aurangzeb, which were totally opposite to the secular policies of his own great grandfather, Akbar the great.

The repeated raids on Somnath, the richest temple in India, by the Muslim invaders not only forced priests but other temple employees including the architects and sculptors to migrate. These migrants have greatly contributed to the temple building activity of South India. There is another theory that those Brahmins who could not get employment as priests took up the jobs of sculptors and temple architects. Some of the Sathapathis (temple sculptors) in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka still trace their ancestry to Somnath. Many of them wear sacred thread, are well versed in Sanskrit texts, specially 'Vastu and Shilpi Shastra' and observe a highly Sanskritised culture.

I visited Somnath temple in the year 1997 and met the hereditary priests of the temple. For several centuries the hereditary priests of Somnath temple had remained dispersed in Gujarat, Maharashtra and other parts of South India. A small number of them have come back to Somnath after Sardar Vallabhai Patel rebuilt the temple. Sardar Patel had taken an oath to rebuild the temple as soon as India gained freedom. Somnath is located in Junagarh, which had been ruled by the Muslim Nawabs for many centuries. It is quite possible that the invaders enjoyed the tacit support of the local Muslim rulers of Juna Garh in looting the temple. Incidentally, the Nawab of Juna Garh, where Somnath is situated, quietly escaped to Pakistan in his private plane, taking along his family and wealth, on the eve of independence.

It is interesting to note that the gold looted by Muhammad Gauri and Muhammad Gajni was later confiscated from the Afghans by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, the Lion of Punjab. He wanted to return the gold to the Somnath temple but since the temple was still very vulnerable to attacks, the priests of Somnath temple requested the maharaja to retain the gold with himself. The benevolent Maharaja then put the gold on the domes of the golden temple and installed the golden gates of Somnath around the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Apart from the forced migrations, the sustained inducement to migrate to the South was created by the great Chola and the Vijaynagar kings from the very ancient times. These kingdoms respected and encouraged scholars by giving them grants, teaching positions, employment opportunities and priesthoods in the temples. Many of these great rulers conducted 'Vedic Yajnas' on a regular basis, which needed to be performed by a large congregation of Brahmins. This further induced Brahmins to come to South India. The Chola kings also extended patronage to Vedic Astrology and Ayurvedic-Medicine and invited the great exponents of these sciences to come to Tamilnadu. 

It is believed that the Saraswat Brahmins from Kashmir did not settle in the Tamil country and migrated to the coast of Mangalore. The majority of Brahmins who came to Tamilnadu are generally known as the 'Ayyars'. The word Ayyar is supposed to be a corruption of Ayya (Sir), a term of respect. Ayya itself is derived from the word Ajja that is supposed to be a variation of Araya 'the noble one' in Sanskrit. The common man in Tamil Nadu believes that the Ayyars/Iyers are the Shivite Brahmins as against the Vaishnavite Iyengars. This is not entirely true. Actually, the Ayyars can be loosely defined as Samartha Brahmins, the followers of the 'Smritis (the texts) and having an association with the Tamil land. Since the geographical composition of the Tamil country has been fluctuating continuously they are spread all over South India. Compared to the Iyengars, there are many groups among the Ayyars. 

The earliest group of Brahmins to come to Tamil Nadu is largely known as Gurukuls. They have been here from very ancient times and were primarily invited to be temple priests in the early Chola period. Many of them were great Vedic scholars. They conducted the coronation of the kings and acted as their spiritual advisors and Gurus. They also acted as the Gurus to the villages and the towns where the temples were located. They advised people on various matters including fixing of auspicious time for commencing important ventures. Many of them were the great exponents of Vedic Astrology and Ayurvedic Medicine.

They are supposed to be followers of Baudhyana Sutra and are divided as 'Kanchipuram', 'Tiruvalangadu' and 'Thirukazhakundram' Gurukuls. It is interesting that all the three are the names of ancient towns and temples around Kanchipuram. This clearly indicates that the earliest migration was to Kanchipuram. Kanchipuram is one of the two most ancient cities of India. The other being Varanasi (Kashi). The linkage between the Varanasi (Kashi) and Kanchi has existed from earliest times and has been facilitating the migration of priests between the North and the South. It is possible that Kanchipuram, Tiruvangadu and Tirukalikundram were the first destinations for the Gurukuls who arrived. They stayed and worked there till they were redeployed to other interior temples and towns. 

One of the best known of the early Gurukuls has been Saint Shri Sundarmurthy Nayanar, the famous 7th century saint poet. He married a temple dancer in Nagapattinam. A very devout lady who was later 'deified' and a shrine was built for her in the temple. It is possible that the many early settlers married ethnic Tamil non-Brahmin women since those days women did not normally travel over such long distances.

Among the Gurukuls, those who have remained, today, in isolated small rural temples have fallen on bad times due to lack of patronage and income to small and remote temples. Some temples do not possess the means to conduct even one time Puja or light the evening lamp. In such places the possibility of earning a proper wage by the temple priest does not exist…

(To be continued…) 

Please visit the http://www.bharatavarsha.com/iyer.html for more information on Iyers.

Published on 06th September 2002


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