|Regions with significant populations|
|Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh|
|Brahmin Tamil, Sankethi|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Pancha-Dravida Brahmins, Tamil people, Iyengar, Madhwa|
Iyer (also spelt as Ayyar, Aiyar, Ayer or Aiyer) is the title given to the caste of Hindu Brahmin communities of Tamil origin. Most Iyers are followers of the Advaita philosophy propounded by Adi Shankara. The majority reside in Tamil Nadu, India.
The title 'Iyer' was used as a designation for all Tamil Smartha Brahmins during the medieval period, during which they were organised into single community. However, during the 11th century, a breakaway sect formed a new community called "Iyengars", worshipping Sri Vaishnava.
According to popular tradition, Iyers were thought of as descendants of Indo-Aryan migrants from North India. However, a recent study has shown that the Aryan migration theory is a myth. Iyers are sub-divided into various sub-sects based on cultural and regional differences. Like all Brahmins, they are also classified based on their gotra, or patrilineal descent, and the Veda they follow.
Iyers fall under the Pancha Dravida Brahmin sub-classification of India's Brahmin community and share many customs and traditions with other Brahmins. In recent times, they have felt affected by reservation policies and the Self-Respect Movement in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This has helped encourage a large migration to other parts of India and the English-speaking world.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Origin
- 3 Population and distribution
- 4 Subsects
- 5 Gotrās and Shākhas
- 6 Religious practices, ceremonies and festivals
- 7 Lifestyle and culture
- 8 Agrahāram
- 9 Language
- 10 Iyers today
- 11 Social and political issues
- 12 Criticism
- 13 Portrayal in popular media
- 14 Prominent individuals
- 15 See also
- 16 Notes
- 17 References
- 18 Further reading
- 19 External links
The word Iyer is derived from the title Ayyā which is often used by Tamils to designate respectable people. There are number of etymologies for the word Ayyā, generally it is thought to be derived from Proto-Dravidian term denoting an elder brother. It is used in that meaning in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Yet others derive the word Ayya as a Prakrit version of the Sanskrit word Aryā which means 'noble'. "Ayar" is also the name of a Tamil Yadava sub-caste. During the British Raj, Christian clergymen were also occasionally given the honorific surname "Ayyar".
In ancient times, Iyers were also called Anthanar or Pārppān, though the usage of the word Pārppān is considered derogatory in modern times. Until recent times, Kerala Iyers were called Pattars. Like the term pārppān, the word Pattar too is considered derogatory.
It has also been recorded that in the past, the Nayak kings of Madurai have held the title "Aiyar" while Brahmins have borne titles as Pillai or Mudali.
Iyer marriage rites, especially, are a mixture of some customs regarded Aryan and some considered Dravidian.
Population and distribution
Today, Iyers live all over South India, but an overwhelming majority of Iyers continue to thrive in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Brahmins form an estimated 3% of the state's total population and are distributed all over the state. However, accurate statistics on the population of the Iyer community are unavailable.
They are concentrated mainly along the Cauvery Delta districts of Nagapattinam, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Tiruchirapalli where they form almost 10% of the total population. In Northern Tamil Nadu they are found in the urban areas of Chennai, Kanchipuram, Chengalpattu, Sriperumbudur and Vellore. They are almost non-existent in rural areas of Northern Tamil Nadu.
Iyers are also found in fairly appreciable number in Western and Southern districts of Tamil Nadu. Iyers of the far south are called Tirunelveli Iyers and speak the Tirunelveli Brahmin dialect.
Over the last few centuries, a large number of Iyers have also migrated and settled in parts of Karnataka. During the rule of the Mysore Maharajahs, a large number of Iyers from the then Madras province migrated to Mysore. The Ashtagrama Iyers are also a prominent group of Iyers in Karnataka.
Iyers have been resident of the princely state of Travancore from ancient times. The Venad state (present Kanyakumari district) and the southern parts of Kerala was part of the Pandyan kingdom known as Then Pandi Nadu. There were also many Iyers in Venad which later on grew to be the Travancore state. The old capital of Travancore was Padmanabhapuram which is at present in Kanyakumari district. There has also been a continuous inflow from Tirunelveli and Ramnad districts of Tamil Nadu which are contiguous to the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. Many parts of the present Tirunelveli district were even part of the old Travancore state. These Iyers are known today as Trivandrum Iyers. Some of these people migrated to Cochin and later to Palakkad and Kozhikode districts. There were also migrations from Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu to Palakkad. Their descendants are known today as Palakkad Iyers.
These Iyers are collectively now called as Kerala Iyers.
According to the Buddhist scripture Mahavamsa, the presence of Brahmins have been recorded in Sri Lanka as early as 500BC when the first migrations from the Indian mainland supposedly took place. Currently, Brahmins are an important constituent of the Sri Lankan Tamil minority. Tamil Brahmins are believed to have played a historic role in the formation of the Jaffna Kingdom.
Apart from South India, Iyers have also migrated to and settled in places in North India. There are significantly large Iyer communities in Mumbai, and Delhi. These migrations, which commenced during the British rule, were often undertaken in search of better prospects and contributed to the prosperity of the community.
Iyers have many sub-sects among them, such as Vadama, Brahacharnam or Brahatcharanam, Vāthima, Sholiyar or Chozhiar, Ashtasahasram, Mukkāni, Gurukkal, Kāniyālar and Prathamasāki. Each sub-sect is further subdivided according to the village or region of origin.
Iyers, just like other Brahmins were required to learn the Vedas. Iyers are also divided into different sects based on the Veda they follow. Iyers belonging to the Yajur Veda sect usually follow the teachings of the Krishna Yajur Veda.
Gotrās and Shākhas
Iyers, like all other Brahmins, trace their paternal ancestry to one of the eight rishis or sages. Accordingly they are classified into eight gotrās based on the rishi they have descended from. A maiden in the family belongs to gotra of her father, but upon marriage takes the gotrā of her husband.
The Vedas are further sub-divided into shākhās or "branches" and followers of each Veda are further sub-divided based on the shākhā they adhere to. However, only a few of the shākhās are extant, the vast majority of them having disappeared.The different Vedas and the corresponding shākhās that exist today in Tamil Nadu are:
|Rig Veda||Shakala and Paingi|
|Yajur Veda||Kanva and Taittiriya|
|Sama Veda||Kauthuma, Jaiminiya/Talavakara, Shatyayaniya and Gautama|
|Atharva Veda||Shaunakiya and Paippalada|
Religious practices, ceremonies and festivals
Iyer rituals comprise rites as described in Hindu scriptures such as Apastamba Sutra attributed to the Hindu sage Apastamba. The most important rites are the Shodasa Samaskāras or the 16 duties. Although many of the rites and rituals followed in antiquity are no longer practised, some have been retained.
Iyers are initiated into rituals at the time of birth. In ancient times, rituals used to be performed when the baby was being separated from mother's umbilical cord. This ceremony is known as Jātakarma. However, this practice is no longer observed. At birth, a horoscope is made for the child based on the position of the stars. The child is then given a ritual name. On the child's birthday, a ritual is performed to ensure longevity. This ritual is known as Ayushya Homam. This ceremony is held on the child's birthday reckoned as per the Tamil calendar based on the position of the nakshatras or stars and not the Gregorian calendar. The child's first birthday is the most important and is the time when the baby is formally initiated by piercing the ears of the boy or girl. From that day onwards a girl is expected to wear earrings.
A second initiation (for the male child in particular) follows when the child crosses the age of seven. This is the Upanayana ceremony during which a Brahmana is said to be reborn. A three-piece cotton thread is installed around the torso of the child encompassing the whole length of his body from the left shoulder to the right hip. The Upanayana ceremony of initiation is solely performed for the members of the dvija or twice-born castes, generally when the individual is between 7 and 16 years of age. In ancient times, the Upanayana was often considered as the ritual which marked the commencement of a boy's education, which in those days consisted mostly of the study of the Vedas. However, with the Brahmins taking to other vocations than priesthood, this initiation has become more of a symbolic ritual. The neophyte was expected to perform the Sandhya Vandanam on a regular basis and utter a prescribed set of prayers, three times a day: dawn, mid-day, and dusk. The most sacred and prominent of the prescribed set of prayers is the Gayatri Mantra, which is as sacred to the Hindus as the Six Kalimas to the Muslims and Ahunwar to the Zoroastrians. Once a year, Iyers change their sacred thread. This ritual is exclusive to South Indian Brahmins and the day is commemorated in Tamil Nadu as Āvani Avittam.
Other important ceremonies for Iyers include the rites for the deceased. All Iyers are cremated according to Vedic rites, usually within a day of the individual's death. The death rites include a 13-day ceremony, and regular Tarpanam (performed every month thereafter, on Amavasya day, or New Moon Day), for the ancestors. There is also a yearly shrārddha, that must be performed. These rituals are expected to be performed only by male descendants of the deceased. Married men who perform this ritual must be accompanied by their wives. The women are symbolically important in the ritual to give a "consent" to all the proceedings in it.
However, the most important festival which is exclusive to Brahmins of South India is the Āvani Avittam festival.
A typical Iyer wedding consists of Sumangali Prārthanai (Hindu prayers for prosperous married life), Nāndi (homage to ancestors), Nischayadhārtham (Engagement) and Mangalyadharanam (tying the knot). The main events of an Iyer marriage include Vratam (fasting), Kasi Yatra (pilgrimage to Kasi), Oonjal (Swing), Kanyadanam (placing the bride in the groom's care), Mangalyadharanam, Pānigrahanam and Saptapathi (or seven steps - the final and most important stage wherein the bride takes seven steps supported by the groom's palms thereby finalizing their union). This is usually followed by Nalangu, which is a casual and informal event.
Lifestyle and culture
Iyers generally lead orthodox lives and adhere steadfastly to their customs and traditions. However, of recent, they have started abandoning their traditional duties as temple priests for more secular vocations, causing contemporary Iyers to be more flexible than their ancestors. Iyers follow the Grihya Sutras of Apastamba and Baudhayana apart from the Manusmriti. The society is patriarchal but not feudal.
Iyers are generally vegetarian. Some abjure onion and garlic on the grounds that they activate certain base senses. Cow milk and milk products were approved. They were required to avoid alcohol and tobacco.
Iyers follow elaborate purification rituals, both of self and the house. Men are forbidden from performing their "sixteen duties" while Women are forbidden from cooking food without having a purificatory bath in the morning. Food is to be consumed only after making an offering to the deities.
The bathing was considered sufficiently purifying only if it confirmed to the rules of madi. The word madi is used by Tamil Brahmins to indicate that a person is bodily pure. In order to practice madi, the Brahmin had to wear only clothes which had been recently washed and dried, and the clothes should remain untouched by any person who was not madi. Only after taking bath in cold water, and after wearing such clothes, would the person be in a state of madi. This practice of madi is followed by Iyers even in modern times, before participating in any kind of religious ceremony.
Until the turn of the last[clarification needed] century, an Iyer widow was never allowed to remarry. Once her husband dies, an Iyer woman had to tonsure her head. She had to remove the kunkumam or the vermilion mark on her forehead, and was required to smear her forehead with the sacred ashes. All these practices have, however, greatly dimimished with the enactment of reforms.
Iyer men traditionally wear veshtis or dhotis which cover them from waist to foot. These are made of cotton and sometimes silk. Veshtis are worn in different styles. Those worn in typical brahminical style are known as panchakacham (from the sanskrit terms pancha and gajam meaning "five yards" as the length of the panchakacham is five yards in contrast to the veshtis used in daily life which are four or eight cubits long). They sometimes wrap their shoulders with a single piece of cloth known as angavastram (body-garment). In earlier times, Iyer men who performed austerities also draped their waist or chests with deer skin or grass.
Patronage of art
For centuries, Iyers have taken a keen interest in preserving the arts and sciences. They undertook the responsibility of preserving the Bharata Natya Shastra, a monumental work on Bharatanatyam, the classical dance form of Tamil Nadu. During the early 20th century, dance was usually regarded as a degenerate art associated with devadasis. Rukmini Devi Arundale, however, revived the dying art form thereby breaking social and caste taboos about Brahmins taking part in the study and practice of the dance.
However, compared to dance, the contribution of Iyers in field of music has been considerably noteworthy. The Trinity of Carnatic Music were responsible for making some excellent compositions towards the end of the 18th century. Today, there are Iyers who give traditional renderings as well as playback singers in Indian films like Nithyashree Mahadevan, Usha Uthup, Shankar Mahadevan, Mahalaxmi Iyer, Hamsika Iyer and Naresh Iyer . Iyers have also contributed considerably to drama, short story and temple architecture.
In the field of literature and journalism, the Iyer community has produced individuals like R. K. Narayan, R. K. Laxman, Subramanya Bharathi, Kalki Krishnamurthy, Ulloor Parameswara Iyer, and Cho Ramaswamy to name a few. They have also contributed in an equal amount to Tamil language and literature.
The main diet of Iyers is composed of vegetarian food, mostly rice which is the staple diet for millions of South Indians. Vegetarian side dishes are frequently made in Iyer households apart from compulsory additions as rasam,sambar,etc. Home-made ghee is a staple addition to the diet, and traditional meals do not begin until ghee is poured over a heap of rice and lentils. While tasting delicious, the cuisine eschews the extent of spices and heat traditionally found in south Indian cuisine. Iyers are mostly known for their love for curd. Other South Indian delicacies such as dosas, idli, etc. are also relished by Iyers. Coffee amongst beverages and curd amongst food items form an indispensable part of the Iyer food menu.
The food is taken only after it is purified by a ritual called annashuddhi which means "purification of rice".
In ancient times, Iyers, along with Iyengars and other Tamil Brahmins, lived in exclusive Brahmin quarters of their village known as an agrahāram. Shiva and Vishnu temples were usually situated at the ends of an agrahāram. In most cases, there would also be a fast-flowing stream or river nearby.
A typical agrahāram consisted of a temple and a street adjacent to it. The houses on either side of the street were exclusively peopled by Brahmins who followed a joint family system. All the houses were identical in design and architecture though not in size.
With the arrival of the British and commencement of the Industrial Revolution, Iyers started moving to cities for their sustenance. Starting from the late 19th century, the agrahārams were gradually discarded as more and more Iyers moved to towns and cities to take up lucrative jobs in the provincial and judicial administration.
Tamil is the mother tongue of most Iyers residing in India and elsewhere. However, Iyers speak a distinct dialect of Tamil unique to their community. This dialect of Tamil is known as Brāhmik or Brahmin Tamil. Brahmin Tamil is highly Sanskritized and has often invited ridicule from Tamil nationalists due to its extensive usage of the Sanskrit vocabulary. While Brahmin Tamil used to be the lingua franca for inter-caste communication between different Tamil communities during pre-independence times, it has been gradually discarded by Brahmin themselves in favour of regional dialects. The Palakkad Iyers have a unique sub-dialect of their own. Palakkad Tamil is characterized by the presence of a large number of words of Malayali origin. The Sankethi Iyers speak Sankethi which borrows words from Kannada,Tamil and Sanskrit.
The traditional occupation of Iyers involved ministering in temples or performing Hindu religious rites. However, since ancient times, Iyers were never prohibited from taking to secular occupations. Iyers were frequently employed as administrators by ancient Tamil kings. During the rule of the Medieval Cholas, they even gave the kingdom its chief army commanders.
In addition to their earlier occupations, Iyers today have diversified into a variety of fields. Three of India's Nobel laureates, Sir C. V. Raman, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan hail from the community. It is a small percentage of Iyers who voluntarily choose, in this era, to pursue the traditional vocation of priesthood.
Social and political issues
Since ancient times, Iyers, as members of the privileged priestly class, exercised a near-complete domination over educational, religious and literary institutions in the Tamil country. Their domination continued throughout the British Raj as they used their knowledge of the English language and education to dominate the political, administrative, judicial and intellectual spectrum. Upon India's independence in 1947, they tried to consolidate their hold on the administrative and judicial machinery . Such a situation led to resentment from the other castes in Tamil Nadu, an upshot of this atmosphere was an "non-Brahmin" movement and the formation of the Justice Party. Periyar, who took over as Justice Party President in the 1940s, changed its name to Dravida Kazhagam, and formulated the view that Tamil Brahmins were Aryans as opposed to a majority of Tamils who were Dravidian based on Robert Caldwell's writings. The ensuing anti-Brahmin propaganda and the rising unpopularity of the Rajaji Government left an indelible mark on the Tamil Brahmin community ending their political aspirations forever. In the 1960s the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (roughly translated as "Organisation for Progress of Dravidians") and its subgroups gained political ground on this platform forming state ministries, thereby wrenching control from the Indian National Congress, in which Iyers at that time were holding important party positions. Today, apart from a few exceptions, Iyers have virtually disappeared from the political arena.
In 2006, the Tamil Nadu government took the decision to appoint non-Brahmin priests in Hindu temples in order to curb Brahmin ecclesiastical domination. This created a huge controversy. Violence broke out in March 2008 when a non-Brahmin oduvar or reciter of Tamil idylls, empowered by the Government of Tamil Nadu, tried to make his way into the sanctum sanctorum of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram.
Relations with other communities
The legacy of Iyers have often been marred by accusations of racism and counter-racism against them by non-Brahmins and vice versa.
It was found that prior to Independence, the Pallars were never allowed to enter the residential areas of the caste Hindus particularly of the Brahmins. Whenever a Brahmin came out of his house, no Scheduled Caste person was expected to come in his vicinity as it would pollute his sanctity and if it happened by mistake, he would go back home cursing the latter. He would come out once again only after taking a bath and making sure that no such thing would be repeated.
However, as a mark of protest a few Pallars of this village deliberately used to appear before the Brahmin again and again. By doing so the Pallars forced the Brahmin to get back home once again to take a bath drawing water from deep well.
Grievances and alleged instances of discrimination by Brahmins are believed to be the main factors which fuelled the Dravidian Movement. With the dawn of the 20th century, and the rapid penetration of western education and western ideas, there was a rise in consciousness amongst the lower castes who felt that rights which were legitimately theirs were being denied to them. This led the non-Brahmins to agitate and form the Justice Party in 1916, which later became the Dravidar Kazhagam. The Justice Party banked on vehement anti-Hindu and anti-Brahmin propaganda to ease Brahmins out of their privileged positions. Gradually, the non-Brahmin replaced the Brahmin in every sphere and destroyed the monopoly over education and the administrative services which the Brahmin had previously held.
However, with the destruction of Brahmin monopoly over the services and introduction of adequate representation for other communities, anti-Brahmin feelings did not subside.There were frequent allegations of casteism and racism against Brahmins very similar to the ones made by the lower castes against them in the decades before independence.
However, the very concept of "Brahmin atrocities" is refuted by some Tamil Brahmin historians who are keen to dismiss it as fictitious. They argue that allegations of casteism against Tamil Brahmins have been exaggerated and that even prior to the rise of the Dravida Kazhagam, a significant section of Tamil Brahmin society was liberal and anti-casteist. The Temple Entry Proclamation passed by the princely state of Travancore which gave people of all castes the right to enter Hindu temples in the princely state was due to the efforts of the Dewan of Travancore, Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer who was an Iyer.
Dalit leader and founder of political party Pudiya Tamizhagam, Dr.Krishnasamy admits that the Anti-Brahmin Movement had not succeeded up to the expectations and that there continues to be as much discrimination of Dalits as had been before.
So many movements have failed. In Tamil Nadu there was a movement in the name of anti-Brahmanism under the leadership of Periyar. It attracted Dalits, but after 30 years of power, the Dalits understand that they are as badly-off - or worse-off - as they were under the Brahmans. Under Dravidian rule, they have been attacked and killed, their due share in government service is not given, they are not allowed to rise.
Alleged negative attitude towards Tamil language and culture
The Dravidologist Kamil Zvelebil says that the Brahmin was chosen as a scapegoat to answer for the decline of Tamil civilization and culture in the medieval and post-medieval periods. Agathiar, usually identified with the legendary Vedic sage Agastya is credited with compiling the first rules of grammar of the Tamil language. Tolkappiar who wrote Tolkappiam, the oldest extant literary work in Tamil is believed to be a Tamil Brahmin and a disciple of Agathiar. Moreover, individuals like U. V. Swaminatha Iyer and Subramanya Bharathi have made invaluable contributions to the Dravidian Movement. Parithimar Kalaignar was the first to campaign for the recognition of Tamil as a classical language.
Portrayal in popular media
There have been extensive portrayals of Iyers in popular media, both positive and negative. This is because despite the fact that Tamil Brahmins form just 3% of the Tamil population their distinct culture and unique practices and strange habits make them strong targets of criticism,both positive and negative.
Brahmins have been mentioned for the first time in the works of Sangam poets. During the early Christian era, Brahmin saints have been frequently praised for their efforts in combating Buddhism. In modern times, when Iyers and Iyengars control a significant percentage of the print and visual media, there has been an appreciable coverage of Brahmins and Brahmin culture in magazines and periodicals and a number of Brahmin characters in novels, tele serials and films.
The first known literary work in Tamil to heap criticism on Brahmins was the Tirumanthiram, a treatise on Yoga from the 13th century. However, anti-Brahminism has been a more recent phenomenon and has been partly due to the efforts of Christian missionaries of the 19th century. The writings and speeches of Iyothee Thass, Maraimalai Adigal, Periyar, Bharatidasan, C. N. Annadurai and the leaders of Justice Party in the early 20th century and of the Dravidar Kazhagam in more modern times constitute much of modern anti-Brahmin rhetoric.
Starting from the 1940s onwards, Annadurai and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have been using films and the mass media for the propagation of their political ideology. Most of the films made, including the 1952-blockbuster Parasakthi, are anti-Brahminical in character.
Some of the early members of the community to gain prominence were sages and religious scholars like Agatthiar, Tholkappiyar, Parimelazhagar and Naccinarkiniyar. Prior to the 19th century, almost all prominent members of this community hailed from religious or literary spheres. Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswamy Dīkshitar, who constitute the "Trinity of Carnatic music" were probably the first verified historical personages from the community, as the accounts or biographies of those who lived earlier appear semi-legendary in character. During the British Raj, Iyers and Iyengars dominated the services by their predominance in the legal and administrative professions. Most of the Dewans of the princely state of Travancore during the 19th century were Tamil Brahmins (Iyers and Iyengars). Some of the prominent individuals of the period as Seshayya Sastri, Sir T. Muthuswamy Iyer, Sir P. S. Sivaswami Iyer, Shungrasoobyer, Sir K. Seshadri Iyer, Sir S. Subramania Iyer and C. P. Ramaswamy Ayyar all had a legal background. At the same time, they were also intimately associated with the Indian National Congress and the Indian independence movement. The most prominent freedom fighter from the community was Subrahmanya Bharati. Following independence, Iyers have diversified into a number of fields dominating the domain of classical arts in particular.
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