R. Ranganathan tells of his boyhood in Tamil Nadu. He describes,
among other things, the schooling, festivals, and daily rites in the brahmana
quarters around his village’s Vishnu temple
BVS: You are Mr. R. Ranganathan. What does the “R” stand for?
R: “R” stands for Ramanujam. That is my father’s name. Among the Tamil people, we don’t have surnames, but we keep the father’s name as an initial. And among the Sri Vaishnavas, we always prefer to give boy children a name of God, such as Ranganathan, Srinivasan, Gopala Krishnan, Ramanujam and so on.
Previously, any respectable brahmana could remember his whole lineage going back so many generations: his father’s name, his father’s father’s name, and so on, giving their family tree.
BVS: So they took great pride in the family.
R: Yes. And “family” didn’t just mean four or five people living in a rented apartment. It meant the whole extended family: aunts, uncles and cousin brothers all living together in the same house, under the leadership of the eldest in the family. Our houses were big, because four generations of brothers, aunts, cousins, and so on used to live together in the same building. Every family would have at least five cows and a big piece of land for growing food. Each home would have a big well, a garden for growing vegetables and flowers, and a barn for storing big piles of straw for the cows.
We lived on the same land that our forefathers had lived on for more than a hundred years. Our forefathers were honorable, principled people, and lived a blissful life fully dedicated to God. They also expected us to maintain the Vaishnava family traditions.
BVS: In which year were you born?
R: I was born in 1946, in Serangulam, a village near Mannargudi town, in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu. In my family, all together we are six brothers and two sisters. The sisters are the youngest.
BVS: You were born in a brahmana family?
R: Yes. In Serangulam there is a temple of Lord Srinivasan that is more than a thousand years old. In South India, brahmanas engaged in the service of the Lord live in an area around the temple called the agraharam—the brahmana housing quarters. The temple would have a high square wall around it, and on all four sides would be the agraharam. In our village the agraharam consisted of about 200 Vaishnava houses, all big houses with big families. So there must have been at least 2,000 people living in the agraharam, and together with other castes, a total of about 5,000 people in the village.
Behind the houses of the western street there was a rivulet called ‘Pamaniaar’, a branch of the Kaveri river. There was also a big tank just south of the temple walls. It was filled with water from the Pamaniaar, to which it was connected by a short canal. Beyond the agraharam there was a temple of Lord Siva, facing the Srinivasan temple.
BVS: Yes, the worship of Lord Siva and of course Murgan is prominent in Tamil Nadu. But the Sri Vaishnavas keep themselves aloof from demigod worship and exclusively devote themselves to Lord Narayana and Lakshmi.
R: In our village there was only one smarta family, which was the family of the archakar of the Siva temple. That temple was not very prominent. The Vaishnavas in our village would never go to any temple other than Lord Srinivasan’s temple or Lord Rajagopalan’s temple in Mannargudi, three miles away. The Sri Vaishnavas were very strict on this principle.
BVS: Did anyone follow any of these bogus incarnations or yogis?
R: We never heard of any so-called guru, baba, or whatever. We only knew the Supreme Lord Vishnu and His bona fide servants.
BVS: So tell me something about your early life. What was your father doing?
R: He was mainly looking after land and properties. The annual income came from land, as it did for most of the brahmanas at that time.
BVS: Didn’t the brahmanas in the agraharam have duties in the temple?
R: Yes, but most of them didn’t have daily duties. That was only for certain families, who were called archakars. Others would have duties only on festivals, and worshipped a saligram at home.
BVS: But wouldn’t they all visit the Srinivasan temple daily?
R: Of course. No one could think of conducting their daily affairs without first having darshan of the Lord. Everyone was eager to see He who was the center of their lives. Their normal morning routine was to get up at four thirty or five, go to the field for passing stool, and then take bath. They would always go to the river for taking bath. The family well was used only for house work, cooking, puja and gardening, and the communal well was used only for drinking water and doing the abhisheka of the saligram.
After taking bath they would put on tilaka and perform their sandhya vandanam and chant the gayatri mantra 108 times. Sandhya vandanam, if done fully, would take about 20 minutes. Many brahmanas would perform these morning prayers on the bank of the river just at sunrise. Others would first come home to do it. They would go and come from the river chanting hymns from the Sama Veda. Beautiful, so sweet.
Around 6:30 the temple bell would ring loudly, resounding throughout the village, and everyone—men, women and children—would at once hurry to the temple. That bell meant that the bhoga (food offering) was being offered. After that the curtain would open and it would be time for darshan. The elder men would stand at the front, the younger men and boys behind them, and the ladies at the back. Altogether the devotees would recite prayers from the Divya Prabandham for about fifteen minutes.
BVS: Women would chant with the men?
R: The women in restrained voices, not loudly.
BVS: Also you mentioned how women stood at the back. Wouldn’t they get the chance to come close to the Lord?
R: They would. After the chanting, the group would disperse and everyone would come forward individually and take close darshan. They would be given in the hand three drops of water that had bathed the body of the Lord, and would drink that with great veneration and pleasure. They would have the helmet representing the Lord’s lotus feet placed on their heads and take His prasadam in their hands. So at that time the women would have close darshan.
Then everyone would go to their homes. The men would do the daily worship and rituals for the Saligram Deities.
BVS: Would all men in the house do puja, or just some of them?
R: In our home, mainly my father performed it, and we young boys would watch him every day. In this way we gradually learned what to do. We would also help in collecting flowers for offering to the Lord and in setting up the paraphernalia for worship. We were taught the mantras to chant in worship by the local purohit, and we would practice chanting them along with our father.
BVS: What about the ladies? What were their morning activities? Would they also bathe early in the morning?
R: Yes. Everybody had to first take a bath. Only then could they enter the kitchen or perform worship. Cleanliness and purity were essential. They were very strict about that. Women were not allowed to cook during their monthly period. During that time, they stayed in a separate place, away from everybody else. And when the women were cooking, the young children would be looked after by older children. Because children are always dirty, they could not enter the kitchen, nor could the women touch them at the time of cooking.
Anyway, the women would first boil the fresh milk and offer it to the Lord. Then after the offering, they would distribute the milk to everyone—except my father, who would not eat or even drink water until the morning worship was finished.
Then the ladies would clean the whole house inside and the yard outside with a mixture of cow dung and water. They would decorate the entrance to the home with various intricate designs made by sprinkling rice flour. Mostly they made symmetrical patterns with no particular meaning, but some resembled objects like a fish or the sun. They were pleasing to look at, and each house would attempt to present the most attractive figures. In the month of Maghsirsa pumpkin flowers standing in little patties of cow dung would be interspersed among the designs. At the front of each house at least three dozen flowers would be placed in this way. I don’t know the significance of it but it looked very nice. From a young age the girls would be trained to very deftly make these designs.
They would quickly do all this to be ready in time to visit the temple. After coming back home, the women would start cooking. In another part of the house, the men would be doing puja, and just when it was coming to an end, the women would have the preparations ready to offer to the Lord. The puja would take about half to one hour, and the cooking would take about two hours. Including the time to prepare the puja, collect flowers and so on, the puja and the cooking would finish at about the same time.
The food was cooked in brass pots. All these big pots would be carried in before the Lord and everything would be offered to Him. In those days, the real brahmana and Vaishnava families had to offer everything before anyone could eat. At home, no one would take any food cooked outside or not offered to the Lord. Some of them are still very strict about that.
The real orthodox Vaishnavas would eat only in a temple or a house of another Vaishnava brahmana. Some would only eat in the houses of relatives. I have heard of brahmanas in some places who are so scrupulous that they do not drink even water from outside their own home, or eat their grownup children’s cooking because they do not consider them strict enough.
Anyway, right after the food was brought for offering, the kitchen would be cleaned. And the ladies would clear off any prasadam that had been kept for more than three or four hours. They would not keep anything except rice, which was kept in water overnight. But they never wasted anything. Absolutely not. The ladies generally cooked just the right amount, and any extra prasadam would be given to the young boys in the afternoon.
The offering would take about fifteen minutes, then the prasadam would be transferred from the cooking pots and we would have a sumptuous full breakfast between 9:30 and 10:00.
Taking food together was an important part of our life. It was not like in the West, where someone comes home and just fixes himself something from the fridge. For example, no lady would eat until after her husband had taken. Eating was a family event. There are still joint families where fifty or sixty people sit down at a certain time to eat together.
Eating brought us all together. It nourished not only our bodies, but our whole sense of being. In those days people used to take good food and plenty of it. They were strong, hale and healthy, and clear-minded. All the food was cooked, prepared and served with love and care. It was so nice—not just the flavor, but everything about it. Everything was homemade. Even now, traditional families do everything at home, as much as possible. They husk their own rice, make their own pickles and papadams, and so on.
Nowadays you can go to the grocery store and buy something in a package already mixed up and you can serve it out very easily. But those days even everyday cooking was a whole art, with so many techniques, and a lot of labor and a lot of love went into it. It was certainly more pleasing in that way. The women would take the trouble to make it nice. After all, it was to be offered to the Lord. Then everyone would be satisfied to take tasty prasadam and would be happy to eat plenty. And that was the ladies’ pleasure: cooking and seeing everyone happy by taking prasadam.
The head lady of the house would take charge of serving out prasadam to everybody, making sure that everyone got enough and that they were satisfied. Only on special days like shradha, when we invited many guests, were ladies not allowed to serve. Even on ordinary days, only ladies who were clean and who had been by initiated would be allowed to work inside the kitchen, or to touch cooking pots.
BVS: So women were also initiated. But not into the gayatri mantras, presumably.
R: Immediately after marriage women would get initiation by the acharya. There would be a ceremony with a fire sacrifice, and the marks of Lord Vishnu’s conch, mace, lotus and disk would be impressed on their arms with hot stamps, the same as for men. They were accepted fully as devotees, but the tradition was that gayatri mantras were only to be chanted by brahmana men.
BVS: What did the daily morning meal consist of?
R: Water was served before anything else. Then a little fruit and sugar and a few drops of milk would be placed on plates of freshly cut banana leaves—not the plastic and china rubbish they use today. Next came the vegetable preparations, usually one solid and one liquid, and cucumber mixed with curd. After that they served rice, the main item, a big pile on each plate, and they would pour a good amount of ghee on it. At this point we would all say various prayers and sprinkle water around our plates from our hands, drink a little water from the palms of our hands. Then sambar would be served and we would begin to honor prasadam.
Everything they served was purely Vaishnava style food. People had not even heard about onion and garlic. No one in the whole agraharam knew even the smell of onion.
BVS: What about coffee and tea?
R: No one had ever heard of it. We had milk. We didn’t want or need anything else. Plenty of milk was always there in the house. We never knew of shortages. Sometimes they also prepared milk with a mixture of a few powdered cereals, known as ‘dhanyam kanji’. Coffee only started penetrating around 35 years ago, when I was 13. I had not even tasted coffee until I was 17.
BVS: But now coffee is everywhere in South India. Pretty much everyone takes it, including Sri Vaishnava priests.
BVS: Were there certain vegetables that people didn’t use?
R: They would not cook English vegetables like tomatoes, cauliflower, or potatoes.
BVS: Only the traditional vegetables.
R: They were very particular about it. But so much variety was possible with the traditional vegetables alone. From just one vegetable, they could make three preparations, having three different tastes. They would make one thick curry, one a little liquid and another thin, like a soup.
Also, they would use only vegetables that were picked the same day. Every household had a garden, from which vegetables were plucked early in the morning and then cooked and offered. Even today, in Srirangam , the vegetables sold in the markets are freshly picked the same morning.
BVS: What would people do after the morning meal?
R: Maybe look into some work, or relax for some time. And at midday they would do madhyannikam.
BVS: Which means?
R: The same as sandhya vandanam, but performed at midday (madhyanam). That would be finished around eleven or eleven thirty—a little early; strictly speaking it should be done precisely when the sun is at its zenith. Then around one o’clock they might have a cup of milk, sometimes with some small tiffin, like vada. But most people would not eat again until the evening, and then also only light food. The morning meal was solid, and pretty much sufficient for the whole day.
From about 2 o’clock to 4:30 they would read Bhagavatam in every house. Or some people would go to the house of some local scholar, who would give a two or three hour lecture. And preaching would be done in the temple hall also. Everyday some Hari-katha would be held. Sometimes people would come from outside of the village to hear, but mostly they were locals.
BVS: Didn’t they take some rest in the heat of the afternoon? That’s standard throughout India.
R: No one would sleep in the afternoon. That is prohibited in Vaishnavism. Day sleeping was allowed only if someone was sick. But we didn’t get sick much. We all slept in the evening only, and on the floor. Nowadays they use thick pillows and velvet and all that, but previously we never used big pillows or mattresses. We would just sleep and then get up in the morning. We had no trouble getting to sleep. By the time night came we were so tired.
BVS: One thing I like about living in the tropics is getting to sleep outside in the fresh atmosphere. I would imagine that being from so far south in India, you probably slept outside most of the year.
R: Yes. Every house had a veranda at the front facing the road. There was a wide tiled roof, so it was breezy and also protected from rain. There was a sort of elevated platform there for people to sit on during the day and sleep on at night. So in all four seasons people would sleep under the veranda.
BVS: Even in December? Wasn’t it too cold to sleep outside?
R: We would use a blanket. I never slept inside until I was 16, except on the rare occasions when I was sick.
BVS: What about during the rains?
R: Yes, in the rainy season also we would sleep there, as no water could seep through the tiled cover. We would only go indoors if there was too much wind blowing the rain in from the side. Otherwise none of the men normally slept inside, although the ladies often would. There were no separate bedrooms; everyone used the common area to take rest. So everyone had to get up early, as all the others would be up early.
The males would usually sleep outside with just a straw mat, or spread out cotton cloth, and in the winter they would use light blankets. After rising, the place used for sleeping was swept and mopped because it was considered to have become impure. No one would touch the bedding during the day, either. It would all be kept in one corner. At the time of waking they would fold it and put it in the loft. Once a week they cleaned the blankets. In some houses they even cleaned them daily.
BVS: You were talking about going to school. Please tell me more about that.
R: The local school went up to elementary level only. That school started at ten thirty. So before ten, the younger children would join their parents for a meal and then leave for school. The older children, who were attending the higher school, had to walk four miles to school. They would come back in the evening by four thirty or five. Upon returning from school, the children would immediately wash and change into dhotis and chadars.
BVS: What did you wear to school?
R: Short pants and slack shirts. That was the uniform. After coming home from school our parents would insist that we take bath, change our clothes, put on tilaka, perform sandhya vandanam, and chant gayatri. After evening sandhya vandanam we would recite the sahasra namam, which took about 25 minutes. Then only could we take prasadam.
BVS: What about wearing tilaka at school?
R: Yes, putting on tilaka in the morning was a must. Even today you can hardly see my father without tilaka.
BVS: The Sri Vaishnava tilaka is very nice; thick white lines with red marks in the middle. It strongly proclaims the devotees’ allegiance to Vishnu.
R: My father used to say that a person without tilaka looks like a ‘brahma hatti’.
BVS: A killer of a brahmana.
R: Yes. If we did not have tilaka they would say “What is this? Your forehead is empty?” Sometimes the elders would even hit us for it. We have this tilaka as a representation of Radha and Krishna.
BVS: You were saying that the older children had to go some distance to school. At what time would they eat?
R: In the morning they would eat with the rest of the family around nine thirty, as I described before. Then they would take some curd rice to school with them. That was made from rice cooked the previous day and soaked in water. The water was removed from the rice, then curd and a little salt were added. The boys would take that at school with some pickle. Or if the morning prasadam at home was late, they would take the same thing for breakfast also. After coming back in the evening, they would have a cup of milk, and then dinner at night. Dinner was light, not a heavy meal. The ladies would cook sambar and various types of vegetables and offer it to the Lord.
BVS: You were saying that they used to teach Ramayana in the secondary school.
R: Yes. That was in the Tamil class, taught by Vaishnava brahmanas—real brahmanas, real scholars. Mostly they taught the Tamil versions of Mahabharata and Ramayana, scene by scene. And they didn’t just teach them as an academic subject, but with real feeling. The teachers were absorbed in the description, as if they were living in there in the forest with Sita and Rama. They would immerse the students in Tamil. It’s difficult to explain if you don’t know, but in the intricacies of the language there are all kinds of subtle expressions and poetic descriptions.
BVS: I have some idea from knowing Bengali.
R: That was the one class we all liked best. We relished it and looked forward to it. They would tell us how Valmiki described an episode in his Ramayana, and would compare it with how Kamba dealt with the same in his Ramayana. At every stage they would explain the verses according to the commentaries of the previous acharyas.
And there was Sanskrit class, where we learned many verses. They used to teach us rhythmic chanting of the verses. Unfortunately, Sanskrit studies have now been stopped. So much valuable knowledge is practically lost to human society, due to the influence of politically motivated forces.
BVS: You said that after school you used to have a debating club.
R: Yes. They invited the top students from various schools in the surrounding villages, and all local people would attend. They would hold debates on different topics, mainly from Ramayana, Mahabharata and the history of the Alwars. The topics would be like ‘Which character is the best, Rama or Sita?’, or ‘How do you like Ramayana? Why do you like it?’ Everybody would express their views, and try to impress the audience and judges. Each debater would interpret the topic in various ways, and try to establish the superiority of his arguments. For example, they might argue that even Ravana was good in some ways.
BVS: It seems that it was strongly oriented towards bhakti. Would Sankara’s advaita philosophy be presented at all?
R: No, this was totally Vaishnava. Only topics from the Vaishnava scriptures were entertained. Gradually it started to deteriorate though, and other topics were introduced, including non-philosophical ones. They picked those topics to attract people, but they lost the original beauty of the debates.
BVS: What else was taught at school?
R: The traditional subjects were there: Tamil and Sanskrit and the scriptural stories. In the elementary school we were taught a few parts of the Divya Prabhandam and the vishnu-sahasra-nama, and how to perform the sandhya vandanam. At secondary school there would also be modern science and English.
BVS: Did they teach Darwinian evolutionary theory?
R: Generally they taught basic things like “H2O means water,” and that it contains hydrogen and oxygen. Evolutionary theory was also taught, but not in detail.
BVS: The idea that we descended from animals is completely against Vaishnava philosophy.
R: Definitely. Against common sense even. The British set up the modern educational system to gradually inject Western philosophy and ideas. Thus everything started to decline, and the original purity of Indian society was lost. Nowadays there is no more teaching of Ramayana in the schools. Previously a person was considered educated if he was well versed in Ramayana and Mahabharata, but it is now forbidden to teach scripture in the schools. Instead we are taught that our forefathers were monkeys.
BVS: How was the relationship between the teachers and the students?
R: Teachers had command over the children, and the power to punish them if necessary. The children had a lot of respect for them, and some fear also.
BVS: Teachers were much respected, weren’t they? No one would expect a teacher to say or do anything wrong.
R: Yes. Teachers were looked up to and trusted. The parents would not interfere in the dealings of the teachers with their children. The teachers were always considered to be right. They would call the parents and advise them as to how to correct their ward and get him to behave. If necessary, they would insist that the parents mend the life of the student at home.
The teachers took interest in the students and tried to improve them. Theirs were lives of selfless service, kindness and discipline, without any hidden motives.
BVS: Were they mostly from the brahmana class?
R: Ninety nine percent were brahmanas.
BVS: The teacher was respected like a guru.
R: Definitely. The boys were afraid of him also. Naturally, as boys, we could be quite frivolous, but the teachers kept us in line. Discipline was strict. The boys were scared that a teacher would complain to their parents. That would be a disgrace.
BVS: What about education for the girls?
R: Girls would go to primary school only, and learn to read and write. Everything else they needed to know they would learn at home.
BVS: In the Sri Vaishnava tradition there are many festivals. Could you tell us about some of them?
R: Practically every month we had a festival. The yearly Brahmotsavam was one of the main ones. At the Srinivasan temple it lasted for ten days, but it took up the whole attention of the people of Serangulam and the surrounding villages for at least 20 days before also. We would all be engaged in cleaning the temple inside and out, whitewashing the walls, repairing and restoring the chariots, and so many other works.
The Brahmotsavam at the Rajagopalan temple would last for 18 days. Actually, in other temples, the Brahmotsavam lasts for just 10 days. I believe that only for Lord Rajagopalan at Mannargudi is it celebrated for 18 days. Mannargudi is also known as “Dakshin Vrindavana”?“Southern Vrindavana.” The temple there is very big and the Deity of Rajagopalan is extraordinarily beautiful. He holds a flute, and is accompanied by a cow and other paraphernalia.
Every morning the Deity would go out on procession on a palanquin in a very grand way. Different varieties of decorated palanquins would be used. There were the pushpa ratham (decorated with flowers), Surya prabha (looking like the sun), Adisheshan (representing the divine snake bed of the lord), Garuda (the eagle carrier of the Lord), swan, elephant, horse, and others. Every day we would help in setting up the gorgeous decorations. We would all go along with the procession around the temple streets. At every house they would stop, and the members of each family would come and make offerings to the Deity.
The last day there would be a ratha yatra. All the schools would declare a holiday to encourage and facilitate the participation of the students in pulling the chariot. The procession would go around all the streets adjoining the temple in the evening. It was a huge chariot. It was very difficult to move, even though thousands of people would come to pull it. The chariot would never be stationary except when an offering was being made. It would go on for long hours, throughout the day. Sometimes the chariot would not reach its destination by the end of the day and the festival would have to continue for one or even two days more. We never felt tired at the time, but afterwards our bodies would be aching.
Then on the tenth day of the festival there would be a big function called annakuttu, when the Lord would come to the beautiful green lawn near the temple well.
BVS: He had his own garden?
R: Yes, inside the temple compound. They would spread plain white cotton cloth on the lawn, and put different rice preparations and other offerings on it in a lavish pattern. So in the evening the Lord came there and a huge offering was made to Him and then distributed to everybody. Several thousand people would participate.
BVS: And everyone was happy.
R: Yes, everyone was very happy. They would enjoy this, and looked forward to it every year.
BVS: Would people come from all the adjoining villages?
R: Yes. People would come in huge numbers from all the surrounding villages for several miles around.
BVS: Where would they all stay at night?
R: Those from adjoining villages would go home and come back every morning. Others would sleep in the temple hall or on the verandas of people’s houses.
Every day during the festival, people would come to the temple in the early morning. After the morning abhisheka and procession, prasadam was served in a very big dining hall. A few thousand people could dine there at the same time. During the biggest festivals, more than ten thousand people would take prasadam every morning. They would distribute first class curd rice, and other dishes offered to the Lord.
Before prasadam was served, the area would first be purified by chanting the Gayatri mantra, and grass mats for sitting would be laid out on the floor. The archakar would bring water that had been poured over the saligram. Everyone would sip this water and then begin to honor prasadam.
Every day of the festival they served a first class breakfast consisting of curd rice and sambar. Then at midday there was a sumptuous lunch. For lunch there would be three varieties of vegetables, different types of liquid vegetables, sweets, sambar, rasam, which is a very light soup to be taken with rice; and different types of mixed rice preparations like tamarind rice, coconut rice, curd rice, lemon rice, sweet rice, and mango rice.
BVS: You were telling me that the boys used to help in the temple festivals.
R: Yes, we assisted the cooks in bringing and cutting vegetables and firewood, placing plantain trees everywhere as decorations before festivals, serving prasadam, cleaning the area, and various other services. We had to learn to serve systematically. For serving we would transfer the prasadam from the cooking pots to smaller serving pots.
When everything was ready, we put samples of all the different preparations on the plantain leaves. The elders would give out tirtha (sanctified water) and everyone would sip it. Then they started to take prasadam, chanting “Hari Bol”. Everybody would take to their capacity, and then return home.
In this way, one group after another would be served, often going up to six or seven groups. Generally everyone in each group would finish simultaneously. Then, after each batch, we would remove the leaves immediately, clean the hall with cow dung water, and mop the area for the next people—another 1500 or 2000 people.
We would serve prasadam to everyone without discrimination, but for cooking and serving the person had to be clean and had to be initiated.
BVS: Would everyone wear dhotis and top pieces and other traditional dresses?
R: Of course. Everybody would come clean after a morning bath, with tilaka, and wearing the top piece around the waist, South Indian style. At that time Western dress was practically never seen. If anyone had dared to enter the temple in Western dress, they would probably be slapped and told to leave.
BVS: On festival days, would the women dress up with jewelry and everything?
R: Yes. Naturally, all the women had some ornaments that they would wear all the time: earrings, noserings, toerings, bangles. But on festival days the women would dress extra well with silk and extra jewels and go to the temple.
BVS: Only to the temple.
R: And other places also. But everyone had to be dressed up nicely to go to the temple, especially on Deepavali and Pongal day.
BVS: Would they dress up every day to go for darshan?
R: Every day. They would put on good clothes and ornaments, to show themselves to the Lord. They would only wear nice clothes to the temple, then come back home and put on ordinary clothes. For everyday dress both men and women wore simple cotton clothes.
BVS: Would non-brahmanas come to the temple also?
R: Yes. They would come, participate in the Ratha Yatra and other functions, and take prasadam. But certain areas were restricted. Non-brahmanas were not allowed to enter the Deity room or the kitchen.
BVS: So, in the Ratha Yatra the brahmanas didn’t mind touching the bodies of non brahmanas?
R: No. That way they wouldn’t mind. This Ratha Yatra was open to everybody. Everyone was allowed to pull the ratha.
BVS: But normally the brahmanas wouldn’t even touch the non-brahmanas.
R: No it was not like that.
BVS: Not so strict.
R: No. But only the brahmanas could take the Deity around the streets. Although the others were always allowed to have darshan, they would not be allowed to go very near the Deity. Nowadays it is much different. Now they permit non brahmanas to take the Deity on procession too.
Festivals were also held on the birthdays of Ramanuja, Namalwar, and other big acharyas. On these days they would prepare prasadam items which these acharyas used to like, and distribute them to everyone.
In the winter, in the lunar month of Margasirsha, there was another grand function. Early every morning, the people would perform sankirtana on the streets surrounding the temple, and then the party would return to the temple.
BVS: What names were they chanting in the sankirtana?
R: The names of lord Hari. It was known as ‘Govinda nama sankirtanam’. One person would sing, and everybody would follow, accompanied by mridangam and kartalas. In the early morning, some young boys would be sleeping on the granite floor outside the temple, and on hearing the sankirtan they would suddenly come and join in, without even washing their faces. But the five or six elders who led the kirtana would first take a bath, apply tilaka, and then start by four or four thirty. Mostly it was all young men and boys, from ages five to 35, who participated. It would go on for one and a half to two hours.
Later, they would chant the 30 verses of the ‘Thiruppavai’. ‘Thiruppavai’ is a work in Tamil where Andal sings in the mood of the gopis. It begins: (Sings in Tamil)
“Birth after birth my only duty is to serve You. I have no other concern...” It is a very beautiful song.
Then they offered hot pongal and distributed it to everyone in the morning. And by 7 o’clock all the festivities would be over and everyone would disperse.
During festivals, many Vaishnavas would come together in the temple to recite the Vedas and Divya prabandham. A hundred people would recite together, divided into two groups chanting in turns. At the end of a verse chanted by one group, another group would start the next. They would chant very beautifully and feelingly. Then they would sing mangalam for the Lord.
BVS: What is that?
R: Mangalam is a Sanskrit word that means “welfare” or “auspiciousness.” These were prayers invoking auspiciousness for the Lord. “May Your fame be widely spread,” “May You always be victorious and happy,” and so on. Of course the Lord is Himself the source of all auspiciousness, so there is nothing we tiny beings can do to improve His condition. He is always automatically situated in the topmost happiness. But it is a tradition to pray like that. The prayers were concluded with a verse which means that, “Everything is being done for the pleasure of the Lord. ”
Then the temple archakar offered tirtham (water offered to the Lord) to everyone, and placed a kind of helmet which represents the Lord’s feet on the heads of all the devotees. Then everyone would take prasadam.
Sri Vaishnavas also celebrate festivals for the appearance days of the great acharyas. Just after my upanayanam, when I was seven years old, my father brought me to the birthplace of Ramanujacharya at Sriperambadur. For days before, he had collected rice, dahl and other items from our village people. He sent these goods ahead of him by truck to Sriperambadur, and brought me by train along with cash he had collected. It was the time of a ten day festival celebrating the appearance of Sripad Ramanujacharya. When we got there my father presented everything to the jiyar. The jiyar knew my father very well. My father loved and respected the jiyar, and the jiyar was very affectionate and kind to him. The jiyar would engage my father in helping to oversee kitchen duties at the festival, making sure everyone got well fed and on time. There was a group of boys there from the gurukula ? young, just my age?who would recite the whole Divya Prabhandam, 4,000 verses, by heart, and so beautifully too.
We also held a grand festival in our village when an acharya or jiyar would visit us. The entire village would come and offer respects to him. He would be accompanied by a huge retinue of followers and also many cows and horses, and five or six elephants, all in a procession. He would look naturally majestic and very respectable. And the villagers would receive him with ‘Purna Kumbha’, a traditional offering of rice and coconut.
BVS: Can you explain more about the acharyas and jiyars?
R: In the Sri Vaishnava line, every disciple must have a guru, who is the link between the Lord and the devotee. The guru was called the acharya, meaning one who teaches by his example. The functions of the acharya were to lead daily prayers, give discourses on the scriptures, and generally enlighten and inspire the devotees in the values of Vaishnavism.
Every Vaishnava family would be connected to a parampara acharya. They were attached either to a family of acharyas, or to a sannyasi head of a temple or monastery. The latter were called jiyars. In other words, generation after generation, members of a family would all be initiated by the descendants of the acharya family they were connected to, or to the incumbent jiyar of a particular temple. Even the acharyas who were grhasthas lived very simple, ideal lives, and performed only spiritual activities.
BVS: Would the acharyas and jiyars come on foot? They were very strict about the old traditions, one of which was that a saintly person or sannyasi should not use any kind of vehicle.
R: Yes, they would come by walking. And a big tent would be erected wherever they halted, for keeping the animals in. The jiyar and his party would stay in houses. One or two houses would be vacated for them to stay in, and the occupants would stay in someone else’s house during that time.
BVS: Would the same jiyar come every time, or different ones?
R: The same jiyar would come, as most of the residents in a given village would be from the same parampara. The jiyar would normally stay for a month. During his visit, a function was celebrated every morning in a different house every day. Everybody would join together in the presence of the jiyar and recite many hymns in praise of the Lord. The jiyar would give lectures on Bhagavatam and Bhagavad Gita—more Bhagavatam lectures than Gita lectures, as the Bhagavatam was considered the supreme scripture. At the end of the lecture, the people would present him with offerings of fruits and money, and sometimes cows or land. The jiyar would distribute akshata prasadam to everyone. Then full prasadam would be distributed to all.
And on one day during the jiyar’s visit there would be a grand ceremony to felicitate the local scholars. All the local brahmanas would come together, and the jiyar would honor those among them most reputed for devotional scholarship. He would accolade them by placing a symbolic cloth on their shoulders or wrapping it on their heads, and would praise their achievements. The scholars would give speeches, and the local people would take pride and pleasure in the erudition of their compatriots.
BVS: So learning was much looked up to.
R: Oh yes, it was a great tradition. Scholarship was considered very important and was highly respected. Scholarship meant knowledge of the scriptures, not this M.A., B.Sc. stuff. Even an ordinary brahmana was expected to be well versed in scripture and the teachings of the sampradaya. And there were many real scholars who were extraordinarily learned, people you could ask any question to and they could give the answer. They had a great gift from God, otherwise they could not know so much. Of course, they had to work for it also. Great scholars were said to be, “crossed over to the other shore of scriptural knowledge, having spent long years studying from and serving the feet of self-realized souls.”
Especially to be an acharya, tremendous erudition was required. It wasn’t just an honorific post. In those days, there were many learned scholars of opposing schools also, so an acharya had to have deep learning, and realization also, to defeat all challenges.
So by their scholarship they had to maintain the prestige of the sampradaya. They could also extract so many devotional meanings out of the verses of Bhagavatam, to give pleasure and enlightenment to the other devotees. Therefore such scholars were called Bhagavatas, meaning, “those who know and personifiy the teachings of the Bhagavatam,” and were treated with the highest respect.
But actually, every Vaishnava was brought up to respect every other Vaishnava, not only the most exalted devotees. Every Sri Vaishnava, on meeting another devotee, would immediately say, “I am a servant of the servants of the lord”: “Narayana dasa, dasanu dasan”. Immediately both devotees would offer mutual obeisances. Neither of them would simply remain standing to receive respects. It was also customary for the ladies to offer respects to the elders in the family each evening. They would even go to the neighbors homes to offer obeisances to the elderly Vaishnavas, who would be sitting outside.
BVS: Can you tell us about any other family traditions or functions? Among brahmanas the upanayanam samskara is an important family event.
R: Upanayanam was normally done at the age of seven, or even earlier, to see to it that the children did sandhya vandana properly. For instance, my father gave a clear instruction to my mother that “Unless he does sandhya vandana you should not even feed him. You have to make him do sandhya vandana and madhyannikama together before he leaves for school”. So I was made to do these. Another important festival was the thread changing ceremony and gayatri japam the next day. This came once a year, when all the brahmanas ritually change their old sacred threads. So many ceremonies and festivals were there, all centered around worshipping the Lord, so that even in our family life we could never forget Him, nor forget that the goal of life is to serve Him.
There was also a big function for observing a person’s death. As a person’s end was nearing, the relatives would bring a cow with a calf to give to some poor brahmana. Then, at the stroke of death, they would give away the cow and calf. It was believed that the departed soul catches hold of the tail of the or cow, which takes him to the spiritual world. Both on the day the person died, and the twelfth day afterwards, they would offer a cow and a calf in donation to a brahmana. A very good cow would be offered, which provided like five liters of milk every day.
BVS: What about observing Ekadasi?
R: Ekadasi meant taking only tulasi water. People wouldn’t take anything else that day, and they performed more spiritual activity than usual. They would not use a mattress for sleeping—just the floor.
BVS: What about the night before?
R: On the eve of Ekadasi they would have very light food. They would not take heavy foodstuff, as they actually wanted to fast. On Dwadasi morning they would break the fast by 7 o’clock. On dvadasi they offered food to the brahmacharis first, and then only would the others accept prasadam.
BVS: Did they cook many varieties of food on the Dwadasi day?
R: Yes. The preparations were scientifically chosen so as to help soothe the stomach after the 24 hour fast. We took ‘cool foods’, intended to soothe the burning, empty stomach. We didn’t just fill the stomach indiscriminately after a day’s fasting.
BVS: The most famous and important festival in Tamil Nadu is Pongal.
R: Yes. We have another name for it. There is always some Vaishnava name for every festival and even every food. Mostly some name related to Hari was used for everything. That’s why our Vaishnava brahmana language is sometimes difficult for others to follow.
The day after Pongal was a Pongal festival for cows, known as Mattupongal. ‘Madu’ means cow—“Cow’s pongal”. On that day, early in the morning, different varieties of pongal prasadam would be taken by the ladies to the riverside and spread out on turmeric leaves. Naturally, so many birds would come and enjoy a feast. The ladies would pray that, just as the birds live together and eat together, so they hoped for their families to stay together. This is the day also when brothers gave gifts to their sisters, of ornaments, clothes and cash, according to their means.
For Mattupongal, the cows were bathed in the river, and then decorated with kumkum, tilaka and flowers. Later, a congregation of a few thousand cows would be brought together in a big open area. And first class pongal would be prepared for feeding the cows. The cows would enjoy pongal and plantains.
In the temple they used to keep thousands of cows. One would feel a difference in the atmosphere just by entering the temple. It was such a wholesome and sacred feeling to be among the cows. We used to always hear the mooing of the huge number of cows. The temple would also maintain two or three elephants, so we would hear them roaring from time to time.
In our house we had a cow named Lakshmi. She was so sensible that my mother would put me on the floor next to her when I was a baby only one year old. Then my mother would just see to her household chores and Laxmi would oversee me. She wasn’t even tied up. She would just come and go in and out of the house as she liked.
Even the ladies of the house would handle the cow without any fear. One of our family elders was 86, and still he would walk the cow in and out every day, guiding her by a rope tied to her nose. We would warn him not to take the risk, as he was so old and frail. The cow was big and strong, with long horns, but she was so tame that no one would expect her to misbehave. If the cow wanted, it could have lifted him off his legs effortlessly with its horns. But our relative would tell us “This is my cow, and it is so nice and tame that it would never do such a thing. From a very young age we have been handling cows. It is our family tradition. The cow would not do us any harm.”
BVS: When cows are treated well, they reciprocate. Nowadays cows are mostly mistreated and people are afraid to go near them.
R: Some rich families would have a hundred cows. And of course bulls also, for ploughing the fields. They would all be taken care of very nicely. There was a community known as konar in south India, whose main occupation was to take care of the cows of different households. The brahmanas did not personally milk the cows. Every family had a konar, who would milk the cows, feed them, take care of their health, and churn the milk.
So this community would perform many of the functions on Mattupongal, and on that day the members of their community would be honored. Every house would give their konar new clothes for his entire family, donations, various oils and other gifts.
There were also hereditary barbers, serving specifically the brahmana families, who would shave their heads. And there were hereditary washermen, who would wash the women’s and children’s clothing. Normally the gents would wash their own clothes while bathing, but sometimes they would also use the services of the washermen to whiten their formal dresses.
BVS: Who looked after the home garden?
R: Invariably there were at least a dozen people in the house, so maybe half a dozen of the boys would cultivate the garden in the evening. It was a hobby. Outside people also sold vegetables every day in the market place.
BVS: Did you also make your own oil at home?
R: Sometimes, but there was also a place in the village where they used to produce oil. The bulls used to grind sesame oil seeds by walking round a mortar, to which they were attached by ropes. We used that oil to light lamps in the morning and evening.
BVS: Before we were talking about religious rituals. In India the marriage function is still one of the most elaborate.
R: But nothing like before. Now marriages are just hurriedly done in one or two days. Slip, slap, over and finished. Previously, all the rituals were celebrated elaborately, keeping in mind their meaning and purpose.
Marriages were grandly celebrated—at least a five day function. The whole village would attend. Even the bridegroom’s family’s invitation to the bride’s people, and the reciprocation involved, was all done as a grand function. The marriage itself would consist of various rituals and rites, which often depicted the pastimes of Lord Krishna and Rukmini devi. Various indigenous instruments like the nadasvaram would provide background music. The bride and the groom used to participate in games to test their physical and mental strength. And there was a song that depicted the pastimes of the Lord when he came to wed Andal. There were so many aspects to the wedding, but nowadays very few people even know they exist, let alone appreciate their significance.
BVS: At what age would the boys get married?
R: At 14 or 15—the age later became 22 or 23, and now it is around 30. As the boys were young, they did not know what marriage was. The elders would fix the marriage and make all the arrangements. There were also cases of people having a second wife, but they would be treated somewhat differently, and looked down upon.BVS: Who would be looked down upon—the second wife, or those who took a second wife?
BVS: But wasn’t it common in Hindu culture to accept another wife, especially if the first wife was barren or produced only girl children?
R: Not among the people I knew. Only if someone’s wife died young was remarriage considered acceptable.
BVS: Marriage partners were settled by the parents.
BVS: Before marriage, would the boys know who the girl would be? Were they from the same village, or would they be chosen from different villages?
R: They would meet for the first time at marriage. Generally they selected the bride from another village, although in some cases she was from the same village. The main thing was to consult an astrologer. If their horoscopes matched, they would be sure that there would be compatibility between husband and wife.
BVS: Nowadays marriage seems to be so troublesome and burdensome that simply for there to be peace between husband and wife is considered a great achievement.
R: We hardly knew or heard of such problems. People were very happy. Their simplicity and innocence kept them out of misunderstandings. Whatever the man preferred, the ladies would cooperate with and abide by. There was no question of differences. Very rarely would we see such cases.
BVS: So the women had to accept whatever the husband said.
R: That was the custom, but at the same time, the women were treated very well. There was no question of fighting. You see, the whole way of thinking was that everybody saw themselves as servants of God and their only aim was His service.
BVS: So after marriage they would continue to engage in the service of God.
R: Yes, they would continue in service of God under the instructions of the elders. There was no question of not abiding by the elders of the family. Some discipline was observed. What the elders said would not be transgressed.
BVS: They had great respect for the elders.
R: Yes. Because very elderly people, of eighty or a hundred years, were present in the family, the youngsters had no chance to lead, and they had to listen to the elders. When the younger generation see themselves as the leaders, the problems start to come in.
BVS: There must have been at least some family quarrels.
R: A few stray cases were there, but now gradually it has come down to the level of the husband and wife shouting and arguing in public. Previously it was not like that.
My father used to say that all of us from one gotra hail from the same ancestors, so even if we cannot relate to someone, we should remember that we are all from the same family and somehow or other keep the peace.
Even today, that is our culture. I am living here in Dubai and my elder brother is in India, but still I have to respect him and follow what he says. Not that he tells me what to do in my day to day life, but if there is some family matter that involves us all, ultimately I have to do what he says. Sometimes I ask his advice also, even though I have grownup children myself.
BVS: So, if there was a quarrel, the elders would settle it.
R: Yes. Most of the quarrels arose from differences regarding land and property. Another important factor was the selection of a girl for marriage. If the girl was good, there was no problem in the house. If not, then the problem would start. Once a quarrel started, if it couldn’t be stopped in the early stages, then it would continue and be a permanent thing. Sometimes brothers of the same family would end up living separately. But that was rare—maybe two or three cases in the whole agraharam.
But there was no discord in my family. I have never seen my father or mother fight, not even once. Sometimes there was a difference of opinion between them, but they would keep it to themselves so that we children would not be disturbed by it. Our parents went through some rough times, but they did not let us know about their problems. We only came to know about their difficulties many years later, when by the course of time things had anyway changed and the problems had passed over.
BVS: What type of problems did they have?
R: Sometimes there was a lack of money, such as when the land was washed away by floods, or when there was no income from the land.
BVS: What about those who didn’t even have land? Were there beggars?
R: No professional beggars like today. Everyone had some occupation. They had at least enough self-respect not to live as professional parasites. If circumstantially the poorer people occasionally couldn’t make ends meet, still no one was allowed to beg. Someone would at least give them prasadam. It would be considered a disgrace to the whole village if there was no one to help the poor. But now many people are begging on the road.
BVS: Would people always cook extra food?
R: Yes, they cooked extra food and often fed the poor. When some hungry person happened to come, my mother would go and attend to them immediately.
BVS: What about police and law and order?
R: We had never seen any policemen, or even heard of them. The atmosphere was peaceful. The houses were left open, but there was no fear. The houses were not locked, but still no one would touch anything.
BVS: What about the government?
R: We knew very little about it.
BVS: So how was the temple being funded and managed?
R: The temple had huge lands, and there was a group of trustees who managed it. They were highly respected people, chosen from among the Vaishnavas only.
BVS: They cared for God and the temple properties.
R: They took care of the Lord’s properties, income and everything. The people were happy that by the Lord’s grace they had such a nice Deity and temple.
BVS: So the government did not levy any tax there?
R: No, nothing. The Vaishnavas managed the temple and its affairs.
BVS: It seems that for people born in the original culture of India, it wasn’t a struggle to be Krishna conscious. It was most natural for them. They didn’t know anything else. Their minds weren’t cluttered with so many doubts or nonsense ideas or dreams or schemes for sense gratification. They had their home and family lives, but it was all centered around Krishna. There must have been hundreds of thousands of people leading normal, ordinary lives who were saintly devotees. It was easy for people to remember Krishna and go back to Godhead. Bharata-bhumi was so blessed.
R: But look at her condition today.
BVS: Still the culture is alive. In Jaipur there are always a few hundred devotees for mangala-arati at the Radha-Govinda temple. Even during the winter, when the temperature drops to zero, there are regulars who won’t miss. And during Kartik, the temple is packed all around throughout the whole day. And throughout India there are still some learned saintly people and scholars.
R: Still, the general spiritual condition of the country is not good.
BVS: That I have to admit. How has this come about? How did such a great culture become degraded in such a short time?
R: Just like I was telling you about the temple administration. Now the government has taken away the temple’s lands. The original trustees were replaced with government officers, and then all this corruption started. Things just degraded overnight. They instituted policies like ‘land to the tiller’, which meant that all of a sudden, the land owned by the brahmanas did not belong to them any more. If someone was engaged in ploughing your land, he would take the bulk of the crop. So the land owners ended up being at the mercy of the tillers. The owner could not even sell or control his own land. The brahmanas were badly hit, as the land was their only source of income.
So the younger generation were forced to take up jobs elsewhere. Basically the brahmanas are intelligent people, so wherever they went they did well. Many South Indian brahmanas are highly placed government officers, or hold other responsible posts in India and around the world. Even in my company in Dubai, the top positions are mostly held by South Indian brahmanas.
Many became envious by seeing the brahmanas at the top, and they brought in job quotas to deny them most options in the government. So today these jobs are often given to some idiot who does not know anything. And see the nasty situation now: government in India means bribery, corruption and inefficiency.
BVS: You were telling me that when you returned to your village after a long absence, you were very disappointed.
R: Oh, terrible! Even now I feel like crying when I talk of the situation in these ancient temples. The last time I went to Mannargudi temple, the priest asked me for ten rupees. I literally wept. I have seen with my own eyes how respectably the priests used to live. Seeing their position now, I just want to cry.
The temples are filthy and run down. No one seems to care. The same temple that was filled with bliss, that was so joyous and vibrant, is now gloomy, almost deserted. I doubt whether they are even doing the proper daily worship. The goshala has been converted into a warehouse, full of rice bags. Hardly any cows left, and those not properly looked after. Things have come to such a bad condition. I become really mad when I think how these temples are being managed. The spirit of participation has been broken, and we have to revive it.
That is why I would like to suggest that the Hare Krishna people acquire these Vaishnava Sthalas and bring them back to their past glory, instead of constructing new temples. At least the main 108 Vaishnava divya desha temples have to be renovated, decorated, and reinstated to their past glory. We should ensure that the ceremonies are observed in time, the priests are honored, and that there is some arrangement for their sustenance.
I fear that constructing new temples in this atheistic period might only leave more temples neglected in course of time. The way Kali-yuga is going on, constructing new temples seems very risky. If you build some temples today, you may not be able to manage and maintain them over a long period of time.
BVS: The government has a program to restore noteworthy old buildings.
R: That’s all right, but what about the culture that inspired people to make such buildings? What about using them for what they were built for—worshipping the Lord? They may repair a temple as an archeological exhibit or tourist attraction, but they destroy the culture that was its life. A temple isn’t just a building to come and look at. A person visiting a temple should get involved, and be swept away by the atmosphere of devotion. “Archeological Department” means the temple is already dead. Therefore this work has to be taken up by devotees—those who feel for the Lord—not bureaucrats.
I still remember very well the surcharged atmosphere that prevailed in my youth. I still relish the memories of those festivals, and of listening to the Divya Prabandham. There are many things regarding the specific practices that I have forgotten, or may be inaccurate about, but I remember how gloriously those people lived.
We were very happy in our daily lives. In the morning we used to go pick flowers to offer to the Lord, singing His glories as we went. Throughout the day we would be engaged in various spiritual activities, directly or indirectly. We didn’t feel the need for anything else. We had no ambition to go anywhere or do anything else. We didn’t need more money or material possessions.
Nor did we hanker for modern ways. Modern life just happened to us without our realizing it. I never even saw a car in my childhood. I never rode in one till I was 20 years old. Now driving to work, driving to see friends, driving everywhere for everything is intrinsically part of my life. Even to get food we have to drive. And food comes wrapped in plastic bag, stored in a refrigerator.
I never knew any of these things before. I never imagined that I would live in an apartment, perched in the sky like a bird, crammed in a building with so many people who do not even know my name. But here I am today, living in the Gulf, with a good job, a car, enough money, and all comforts of life. But these things have not made me happy.
By Krishna’s mercy, I have no more material aspirations. But do you know what I want? I want to go back to that simple village life centered around the Lord. That’s why we Indians here participate in these kirtanas and festivals, cooking and sharing prasadam together. This is only due to Srila Prabhupada’s mercy. These things have brought us life again. Otherwise, we were in maya.