Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Those who study the Vedas consider that among all sanskara rituals, the initiation rituals of Upanayanam are the most important.
Upanayanam, also known as the sacred thread ceremony. is usually performed at the age of seven or eight because that is the age when a child stops getting the benefits of the karmas of his parents and will have to learn and perform his own karmas. Upa means near and nayanam means going; that is the act of going to a teacher to learn.
The meaning of the word upanayanam can also be interpreted as nayanam meaning eye prefixed with upa- (auxiliary), making for the interpretative meaning: bringing (the ultimate truth nearer in sight).
There is plenty about Upanayanams on Wikipedia.
According to Aapasthambha Maharshi, a brahmachari should not

  • Sleep during the day

  • Use cosmetics or perfumes

  • Have close contact with girls

  • Engage in gossip

  • Indulge in entertainment

  • Indulge in boasting

He should be disciplined, quiet, self confident, tireless, soft spoken and without ego or jealousy. Chanting of Gayatri Mantra regularly gives him the strength to follow the above rules. This gayatri mantra is taught to the brahmachari by the father taking the position of guru, which is known as Brahmopadesam.
The Upanayanm function starts with Punyahavachanam followed by Yagnopaveethadharanam. The Muhurtham is the time of Brahmopadesam.

After yajnopaveethadhaarnam is Kumarabhojanam. Kumarabhojanam is common both for Upanayanam and choulam. According to the vedic karmas, the vatu (the boy whose upanayanam is being performed is commonly referred to as vatu) should be served with rice, ghee and milk without salt or spices. The vatu (disciple) is supposed to eat bland food throughout his brahmacharya (the period during which he is supposed to do vedadhyana) and taste good food only when he enters Grihasthashrama with the vratha ritual of his marriage. At this time he is blindfolded and when he opens his eyes, he is fed neiyappam (from when he starts eating tasty food) and shown the mirror, from when he starts beautifying himself.
During Kumarabhojanam, another kumara who is not yet a brahmachari is made to sit with the vatu and served food. At some places, another brahmachari is seated along with the vatu and also the food served is rice cooked with turmeric powder and dal, along with fried rice pappads.

After Kumarabhojanam is the vapanam, or shaving of the hair for the vatu. The first locks are cut by the father and then by the barber. Usually, this is a noisy scene during choulam, as this is the first time the boy gets a hair cut.

After the vapanam, the boys are given bath, dressed in new clothes and taken to the temple. In the olden days, this bath was given at the stream and the ladies would all accompany them and dress up the boys at the stream side. From there, they come in a procession to the temple. The maternal uncle of the boy is supposed to carry the vatu during this procession. Aarati is done to the boys in all the houses and also they are given a small gift, usually a piece of jaggery, sugar candy or banana. In return, a packet containing a murukku and laddu is given to all the houses. The aarati water is poured on the dhoti of the uncle. This procession goes upto the temple and returns to complete the rituals.

The rituals of Choula karma is almost over after the boy comes back from the temple and the homa and ashirvadam.

Agnimukham is performed and the boy is given all the symbols of a brahmachari. First the boy made to stand on a stone and the father says, “You should be as strong-willed as this stone”.

Then the father ties a long cloth (known as kuttai) around the brahmachari’s waist and prays, “May the Gods give you long life, strength, health and wealth” (In the olden days, the brahmachari was supposed to wear this cloth for 3 days). A cord made of three strings of Durva (Moujibandhanam) is also tied around the brahmachari’s waist, symbolizing the three sections of Vedas which will protect him from all evils. A piece of deer skin (krishnajinam) is also tied around bramachari’s waist, which will make him bright in intellect as the blazing sun. He will be endowed with health, wealth and prosperity. He will become strong spiritually and intellectually.

Then the brahmachari is taught the most sacred Gayatri mantra by the father. He is taught all the rules of Brahmacharya vratha. He is also given Palasha Danda (a small twig of the peepul tree) as a symbol of brahmachari.

The brahmachari is supposed to live on the food he receives as alms by going from house to house. As a symbolic representation of this now forgotten system, the brahmachari asks for alms from his mother and all the other ladies of the congregation.

Followed by Ashirvadam and aarathi, the upanayana karma comes to a happy end.

The brahmachari is supposed to be in a sort of vrata for the following three days, doing all the nityakarmas of the brahmachari but not going out. On the fourth day, a Pranava Sradha Medha Puja and homa is done, when the kuttai is removed and given to the Acharya and the moujibandanam, krishanjinam and palasha danda are also taken from the bramachari. In the olden days, new palashadanada, moujibanda and krishanajina were given to the brahmachari.
The Upanayanam is the most sacred ritual in the life of a boy as all through the ceremony the Guru (father) appeals to the Supreme beings to take care of the boy and give him long life, health, happiness, intellect and lead him through the right path and give him strength to face all odds in life and also mental strength to lead good life and turn back from all evils. It is an earnest prayer from the father, having brought the child up to his adolescent age, to all powers in this universe, the earth, the water, the sky, the ether, the fire, all the stars, all the deities who are the devatas of all the eight directions (ashtadigpalakas), all the vedic scholars and elders of the community and all the pitrus to take good care of the boy from then onwards. And also by teaching him the Gayatri Mantra he makes the boy responsible for his well being and also advises him on the various dos and don’ts of the life, when he is going to be away in the Gurukula in pursuit of knowledge.
This karma has a very powerful influence on the boy and the family, if the purpose and meaning of each ritual is properly understood and followed.
It is one ritual no one should avoid or postpone as it gives the boy great strength of mind. Practicing the Gayatri mantra everyday makes him strong willed, confident, intelligent and pure in his thoughts and deeds.
Explaining the meaning of all rituals will take lot more space and time; perhaps, I should be able to give the meanings of some of the rituals more elaborately some other time.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


Our elders have deemed some vedic functions as very important in our lives. Jatakarmam, Namakaranam, Annaprasanam, Choulam, Upanyanam, marriage, pumsavanam-seemantham, shahtyabdapurthy santhi, satahbhishekam, and kanakabhishekam are part of this list. Such functions are performed elaborately often over two days or more. They are normally preceded by Purvanga rituals. The purvanga rituals are aimed at purifying the person, purifying the puja upakaranas and invoking the blessings of the Gods and forefathers. Accordingly udakasanthi, angurarapanam, pratisarabandhanam and nandisradham are performed either in the morning of the day of the function or on the previous day, depending upon the length and complexity of the main function, the hours of the muhurtam etc. On occasions where Ashtotharam is performed it will have to be done on the previous day as it is quite elaborate and time consuming. Similarly, Nandisradham also will have to be performed the previous day if “feeding of Brahmins” is done as part of it. Sometimes for various reasons it is performed by inviting the Brahmins, invoking the forefathers and then giving them dakshina, rice and vegetables. As this function takes hardly an hour it can be performed on the day of the main function itself. Further, these days as vadhyars are scarce and most of the functions are conducted at mantapams rented at exorbitant costs for this purpose, and also the difficulty in entertaining the guests for more days etc, all the functions are compressed and conducted within a single day. The luxury of performing the functions over two or more days can be had only in villages as in the present case. In the present case we had the added advantage of easy availability of a sufficiently large hall for the purpose. Accordingly the rituals were extended over three days as follows:
Ashtotharam on the first day, nandisradham, angurarapanam and pratisarabandanam on the second day, and the main functions of the upanayanam and choulam on the third day. Being a village taking care of the guests was not a big problem. Space, accommodation and other infrastructure were not major constraints. Being summer holidays many elderly guests who had nostalgic memories of village life in their childhood had converted this occasion into a long cherished holiday in the village; later they went on pilgrimage in Kerala or to visit other relatives and friends in Kerala and adjoining states. I would like to mention here that all villages in Kerala these days are as good as small towns elsewhere in India in respect of communication and transportation facilities, availability of other infrastructure etc. Connectivity by mobile phones, landlines, public transports, availability of taxis, autos on telephone call, internet cafes and departmental stores at street corners, availability of emergency medical attention, provision of safe water in the households are all the hallmarks of most of the villages in Kerala now; while retaining the old rustic charm.
Nandisradham is performed to get the blessings of the forefathers before an important ritual like Upanayanam. Some people perform it before marriages also, in a small way of course. Nandi in Sanskrit means the beginning, so with Nandi begins the actual rituals for the functions. Usually during the Nandisradham before Upanayanam, the Brahmins are fed and various Upacharams are offered to them, whereas during the Nandisradham before the marriage, they are only given rice and vegetables and dakshina. I have not seen an elaborate Nandisradham being performed before marriage.

In a recent marriage we attended I talked to the vadhyar about the nandi sradham being performed during the marriage rituals. He mentioned that the rituals are performed in a very simple way by chanting the mantras and the dakshina is kept aside to be given away to the brahmins later. He also said that the sight of rice and raw banana during the marriage functions was simply not acceptable in many homes, thereby rendering the performance explicitly impossible. Some families rule out the performance simply stating that it was not done in their families. However, in the present case it was done elaborately by drawing nine kolams on the mantapam immediately after the vratham, placing a plantain leaf on each kolam conaining rice, vazhakkai, thamboolam, dals, pazham etc and nine brahmins were seated , one each against each leaf. The groom’s father then invoked the deavas and the forefathers two at a time and mahavishnu at the end in the following order:
Sathyavasusamyak visvedaeva (2), Prapitamahi and Pithamahi (2), Prapitamaha and pitamaha (2), Sapatnika matuhprapitamaha and sapatnika matuhpitamaha (2) and Mahavishnu (1), thus making a total of nine. Each Brahmin was then offered the contents of the leaf along with dakshina; again invocaion was done two at time as described above. It may be noted that in case the nandisradham is performed on a day prior to the main function the brahmnins are given more upacharams like vastram, jalapatram, umbrella, footwear, fan, stick etc and are also fed sumptuously as explained elsewhere ( feeding being done in place of rice, dal and vazhakkai, as in the present case).

The Nandisradham differs from the regular Sradham (anniversary) though both are meant to get the blessings of the forefathers. Nandisradham is known as Shobanasradham and no homam is done. The happy mood of the function going to be performed next day prevails during the Nandisradham also. There is festivity in the air. As no homam is performed in which havis is offered to the Agni and then offered to the pitruswarupa Brahmins, there is no pitrusesham and all can partake of the food after the Brahmins are fed, whereas during the Pratyabdikasradham, the pitrusesham can be partaken only by the immediate blood relatives. Further, for the pratyabdikasradham the month, paksham and thithi are fixed as on the day of the death of the parent, no particular thithi needs to be chosen for the performance of the nandisradham. Normally it is performed on the day previous to the main muhurtham.
During Nandisradham, Kolam is drawn and the rituals are performed on that. Usually there are 9 Brahmins on whom the father, paternal grandfather (or paternal grandfather and his father, if father is alive) mother and paternal grandmother (or paternal grandmother and her mother-in-law if mother is alive), maternal grandfather and grandmother, 2 vishwedevas and one Mahavishnuswarupa are invoked. In some places, there are 2 mahavishnuswarupas, thus taking the number to 10.
Before the Nandisradham, Udakasanthi, Angurarpanam and Kanganadharanam is performed. As we were having the choulam and upanayanam for two of my nephews on the same day, all the above rituals, except Nandisradham, were done for both the boys simultaneously.

Choulam is the first mundan ceremony for boys and is usually conducted between the age of 2 and 3. According to Sastras, this should be the first occasion when a razor is used on the child’s head. Due to various reasons, we could not perform the choulam for our handsome and charming younger son till the age of 5. So he had long hair when he went to kindergarten causing his teacher to send a note saying, “Please cut your daughter’s hair.” Eventually, we took him to Palani and offered his hair to the God there.

These days, it is only in very few families the choulam ceremony is conducted; if not, just the vedic rituals are conducted along with Upanayanam. Last year when we wanted to conduct the choulam for a nephew in Bangalore, our vadhyar said that there was no vadhyar who knows to conduct the choulam in Bangalore and we had to get our family vadhyar from Puthucode.
Udakasanthi involves invoking the presence of Varuna, the God of rain and water, and the other devatas and the holy rivers like Ganga, Jamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu, Cauvery, in the water kept in the kumbham(pot) through the chanting of mantras from the Vedas and doing abhisheka (pouring over the head) with that water to the boy whose upanayanam or choulam is to be performed. This is the ritualistic bath given in functions like upanayanam, choulam, seemantham (it is done for the wife), shastiabdapoorthy, shathabhishekam etc., seeking the blessings of the Gods and the holy rivers to protect the ward and praying for long life, health and happiness.

After Udakasanthi is Angurarpanam or Paalikai, in which navadhanyas (seeds of nine cereals and pulses) soaked in milk are purified by mantras and sown into 5 pre-prepared pots or paalikai kinnams by 5 sumangalis. Colloqially it is called paalikai thalikal. The privilege for sowing the seeds into paalikai goes to the boy’s mother, followed by grandmothers, athai, mami etc. These days, to accommodate very important invitees, the list gets longer and longer and instead of 5 sumangalis, there are at times, 11 or more. In a recent marriage I had seen a similar function being performed by quite a few ladies. The list went on and on until the vadhyar put a stop to it, to continue with other functions. The ladies are then given thamboolam and dakshina.

The sown seeds need to be watered for 3 or 5 days by which time they sprout and grow to a good height. This symbolizes long life and prosperity. Actually twice a day, in the morning and the evening, the wife of the Kartha (the mother of the boy whose upanayanam, choulam or wedding is being performed) does a small neivedyam of betel leaves and 2 plantains and sprinkles water and prays for the well being of all. After 5 days, the sprouts are immersed in running water (preferred), or in a tank or well. This immersion of the sprouts is to be done by 2 young girls accompanied with vadyam (a boy accompanies them beating a plate with a stick). On return, aarati is done to the girls and they also get a cash reward (when we were young, we used to get 25 paise).
After angurarpanam, is the kangandharan. A thread sanctified by mantras, is tied to the boy’s right wrist to ward off all obstacles and give him long life and prosperity. It is believed that once the kangandharan is done, the proceedings of the function cannot be stopped.

Only after Kangandharan is Nandisradham performed. As said earlier, 9 Brahmins are invited and the late forefathers are invoked on them and blessings from them are sought for the successful conduct of the functions and the long life and prosperity of the whole family. The Brahmins are given new vastrams, dakshina, jalapatrams and meals. Here again, the menu is satvic or samaradhanai samayal.
The Nandisradham is different from the annual pitrusradhams in many ways. The mood itself is different. Whereas, during the pitrusradhams, the mood is somber during nandisradham there is a festive mood. No kolam is drawn during pitrusradham and kolam is drawn during nandisradham.

The food is offered as neivedyam to Grihadevathas during Nandisradham.

In the case of Shashtyabdapoorthy and Satabhishekam , normally udakasanthi and rudrekadasini are conducted on the previous day.
During the Nandisradham conducted at our house the menu was as follows:

We had Jangiri, Parippu vadai, Rasavadai, Banana and Jackfruit chips, Palpayasam, Chakka ( jackfruit) Pradhaman, Mambazha Pulisserry, Chakka kari, Thoran, Thayir Pachadi, Rasa vadai, Thogayal, Curds. Again, no pappadams for Nandisradham.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Recipe: Idiyappam/Noolpittu

Noolpittu or Idiyappam is also a favorite Kerala breakfast item and Kerala Iyers prepare Sevai a cousin of Noolpittu. This again is a very simple oil free snack.

1. Rice flour: 1cup
2. Salt
3. Hotwater 1 cup

Roast the rice flour very lightly. Cool. Add the hot water and salt and mix with a spatula to firm dough. Fit the Anju thattu nazhi with the plate with tiny holes. Fill with the prepared dough. Press onto perforated plates or idli plates and steam until done.

Remove and serve with sweetened coconut milk.

Needless to say, this is my second post for JFI Rice (first: Aappam).

Recipe: Aappam

When I saw that the topic for the current JFI was “Rice” I was thinking, I have posted all my favorite rice recipes. What can I post when I have already posted Palpayasam, the king of rice recipes and Idichu Pizhinja Payasam which is an all time favorite of all Kerala Iyers and in particular Puthucodians and now of many others . Our elder son suggested Idiyaappam or Noolpittu and Aappam.

Neither of the above is a Kerala Iyer specialty. In fact, I had never heard of these two items until our elder son started going to school. In school he had a close Malayalee friend, Krishnakumar, who used to bring aappam for lunch. Our son used to come home and ask me to give him, white dosa for his lunch. I only knew the conventional dosa and I tried making them white in color, by under cooking them. He used to say, “Amma, this is not the one, make white dosas for me”. This continued and it was not until I took up a full time job and I had malayalee colleagues, that I came to know about this secret of this white dosa. The white dosa he was referring to was Aappam and I got the recipe from the colleagues and started preparing them to my son’s delight. Our younger son never liked it though, as his liking was always roast dosa. Then I realized the reason why this preparation never entered the orthodox kitchens of Kerala Iyers. The main reason is the fermentation agent most commonly used in the preparation of the batter. Usually an alcohol prepared from the coconut palm (fresh toddy, country liquor or kallu ) was used in the fermentation process. Therefore, it is also referred to as Kallappam, Kallu being the name by which such alcoholic preparations are known. Even the mention of the word Kallu was banned in Iyer households in the olden days, let alone bringing it home for fermenting the dough. Now coconut water kept overnight, or yeast is used as the fermenting agent. Use of these items in Iyer households is no longer taboo and therefore this recipe. Partaking of this fresh toddy early in morning is quite common among the non-brahmin communities in the villages even today. Moreover cooked rice kept overnight (which also ferments) is also added during the grinding, which was taboo in the orthodox kitchens (pazhaya satham).

Aappam is a typical Kerala breakfast item and is comparatively oil free and full of vitamin B as it has been fermented. Usually train travelers from other parts of India travelling to Kerala, are greeted by Chaaya Velleppam as the train reaches Palghat, the first railway station in Kerala. As the train always reached Palghat early in the morning and we could reach home by breakfast time, we never even thought of trying this Velleppam. To this day, I have never tasted Velleppam other than what I myself have cooked.

As I have already mentioned, people later on started fermenting the batter with yeast and I ferment my batter with a home made toddy I prepare thus:

Whenever I break a coconut, I preserve the elaneer (coconut water) with a spoonful of sugar added to it. The next day, I make the batter for Aappam by soaking the rice in this home made fermenting solution.

Coconut : 1
(It is better to use a medium ripe coconut, as it will yield more milk. The shell of the medium ripe coconut is white in color, in contrast to the dark brown color of fully ripe coconut).
Coconut milk : 1 cup
Grated coconut : ½ cup
Yeast: 1 tsp.
Raw rice : 1 cup
Cooked rice : ¼ cup
Sugar 1 tbsp.
Salt to taste
Soda-bi carb. ½ tsp.

Method I:
Make the fermenting solution thus:
Break the coconut and reserve the coconut water with a tbsp. of sugar added to it. Keep it overnight. Grate the coconut and preserve. Next day, wash and soak the rice in the reserved coconut water for 4 hours. Grind the rice, cooked rice, grated coconut and salt to a very smooth batter. Leave it overnight.

Method II
If using yeast, soak the yeast in little warm milk with a tsp. of sugar. Soak the rice in water and grind with yeast solution, grated coconut, cooked rice, sugar and salt to a smooth batter. Leave it overnight.
The aappam is prepared in a special earthenware aappa chatty (kadai) with a lid. These days, non-stick aappa chattis are available; yours truly makes it in a regular cheenachatty with satisfactory result.
Add the soda-bi-carb, just before preparing the aappams.
Heat the aappa chatty and smear with a drop of oil. Add a big ladle full of batter and swirl the kadai so that the batter spreads on all the four sides. Keep the kadai closed with a lid and cook on moderate heat. After 2 or 3 minutes open the lid and remove the puffed aappams. Repeat the process.

Along with my recipe for Idiyappam, this is one of my entries for JFI Rice.