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The Atiratra Agnicayana (ati-rātrá agní-cayana "the building up of the fireplace performed overnight") or Athirathram (Malayalam: അതിരാത്രം) is the piling of the altar of Agni. It is a Śrauta ritual of the Vedic religion and is considered to be the greatest ritual as per the Vedic ritual hierarchy. It has been claimed as the world's oldest surviving ritual. Its mantras are first attested in the Yajurveda Samhitas (Taittiriya, Kathaka; Vajasaneyi) of the Kuru Kingdom, c.1000 BCE, and its theological explanations are in the Brahmana texts. The practice of this ritual was generally discontinued among Brahmins by the late Vedic period, during the rise of Jainism and Buddhism in India. Nevertheless, a continuous, unbroken 3,000 year tradition has been claimed to exist among a few Nambudiri Brahmin families in Kerala, South India.
The entire ritual takes twelve days to perform, in the course of which a great bird-shaped altar, the uttaravedi "northern altar" is built out of 1005 bricks. The liturgical text is in chapter 20 to 25th of Krishna yajurveda. The immediate purpose of the Agnicayana is to build up for the sacrificer an immortal body that is permanently beyond the reach of the transitoriness, suffering, and death that, according to this rite, characterize man's mortal existence.
The ritual emerged from predecessor rituals, which were incorporated as building blocks, around the 10th century BC, and was likely continuously practiced until the late Vedic period, or the 6th century BC. In post-Vedic times, there were various revivals of the practice, under the Gupta Empire in the north (ca. 4th to 6th century), and under the Chola Empire in the south (ca. 9th century), but by the 11th century, the practice was held to have been discontinued, except for the Nambudiris of Kerala.
To observe the ritual, goat sacrifice is essential. Since animal sacrifice is frowned upon by Hindu society since the end of the Vedic age and is a punishable offense in modern India, all documented Agnicayanas have been performed without sacrifice and may therefore be deemed incomplete.
In 1975 Indologist Frits Staal documented in great detail the performance of an Agnicayana performed by Nambudiri Brahmins according to Samaveda tradition at Panjal, Kerala. The last performance before that had been in 1956, and the Nambudiris were concerned that the ritual was threatened by extinction. It had never before been observed by outsiders. The scholars contributed towards the cost of the ritual, and the Nambudiris agreed that it should be filmed and recorded. The ritual was performed from 12 to 24 April 1975. An effigy was used to symbolize the goat sacrifice, due to overwhelming opposition by animal protection groups. Staal (1989) bases a general analysis of the similarities of grammar and ritual on this performance.
After the 1975 Agnicayana, there have been several more Nambudiri performances: in 1990 Agnicayana was performed at Kundoor, and in 2006 at Sukapuram. Belief holds Sukapuram to be one among the 64 villages originally established by Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Vishnu after creating Kerala by throwing his axe into the ocean. The Somayagam (Agnistoma) was performed for the first time in 222 years at Aluva from 25 April till 1 May 2009.
An Athirathram Yagna was conducted at Panjal (Trichur district, Kerala), home to most of the yagnas in Kerala including the 1975 one and where most of Samavedic Namboodiris reside from April 4–14, 2011.
Since then two more Athiratrams were conducted at Kodakara (Trichur district, Kerala) from March 23 to April , 2012, featuring rare Aaswalaayana (Pakazhiya) –Boudhaayana combination. The last Athirathram of this type was performed 112 years ago.
The ritual was also performed for the first time outside kerala by Nambudiris from 21 April 2012 to 2 May 2012 at Bhadrachalam (Khammam district, Andhra Pradesh).
- Tull, Herman (1989). The Vedic origins of karma: cosmos as man in ancient Indian myth and ritual. SUNY Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-0-7914-0094-4.
- Staal, Frits (1975-76) The Agnicayana Ritual in India, 1975-1976 (supplied) 76.2.1 1975-1976
- Hyla Stuntz Converse (November 1974). "The Agnicayana Rite: Indigenous Origin?". History of Religions 14 (2): 81–95. doi:10.1086/462716. JSTOR 1062002.
- Schechner, Richard (1989). Between theater and anthropology. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-8122-1225-9.
- "Officials in Yaga". Athirathram.org.
- Frits Staal (1983) Agni, the Vedic ritual of the fire altar
- "Worshipping the sun". The Hindu. 2005-08-05.
- "SOMA YAGYAS" (PDF). The Vedic Society.
- More information can be found at http://athirathram2011.com.
- Frits Staal, Agni, the Vedic ritual of the fire altar (1983).
- Frits Staal, Rules Without Meaning. Ritual, Mantras and the Human Sciences, Peter Lang: New York- Bern-Frankfurt am Main-Paris, 1989.
- Itti Ravi Mamunne, Agni and the Foreign Savants EJVS 10 (2003) 
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- Forizs, L. Apāṃ Napāt, Dīrghatamas and the Construction of the Brick Altar. Analysis of RV 1.143 (pdf, 386 kB) paper read at the Vedic Panel of the 12th World Sanskrit Conference, Motilal Banarsidass, 2007 (in preparation)