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For other people named Iyengar, see Iyengar (disambiguation).
Regions with significant populations
Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra
Brahmin Tamil, Kannada, Telugu

Iyengar or Ayyangar ([əjːəŋɡɑːr]) is a caste of Hindu Brahmins of Tamil origin whose members follow the Visishtadvaita philosophy propounded by Ramanuja. They are found mostly in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

Iyengar are divided into two religious sects, the Vadakalai and the Thenkalai. As with other Hindu communities, they are also classified based on their gotra, or patrilineal descent.[citation needed]

The original language of the Iyengar Brahmins is Tamil, but they also speak Kannada and Telugu. The Iyengar community trace their origin in Tamil Nadu from the period of Ramanuja.

Iyengars display a mark on their forehead known as the Srivaishnava Urdhva Pundra as a caste mark.


There are various opinions regarding the etymology of Iyengar.

  • It means one who is characterised by five attributes (Aindu angangal).[1]

It derives from the word ayya-garu which turned into ayyangaaru and later on into ayengar. The term "ayya" is the prakrit version of the Sanskrit work "arya" which in Sanskrit means "noble". [2][3] Robert Lester says that the word “Ayyangaar”, an alternate transliteration, was first used by Kandhaadai Ramanuja Ayyangaar of Tirupathi around 1450 AD.[4]


Common origins[edit]

Bhagavadh Ramanuja

The Iyengar community traces its philosophical origins to Nathamuni, the first Sri Vaishnava acharya,[5] who lived around 900 CE. He is traditionally believed to have collected the 4,000 works of Nammalvar and other alvars,[6] the poet-saints of southern India who were intensely devoted to Vishnu on both an emotional and intellectual plane.[7] The belief is that he set this collection - commonly called the Tamil Prabhandams - to music,[6] and he introduced the devotional hymns of the alvars into worship, thus mixing their Tamil Veda with the traditional Vedas written in Sanskrit. A scriptural equivalence was accepted by the community that formed in acceptance of his works, with the Sanskrit texts considered to be metaphysical truth and the Tamil oral[5] variants to be based on human experience of the same.[8] This community became immersed in the dual-language worship in temples where issues of caste were of no concern.[5]

A century or so later, Ramanuja became the principal among religious leaders who formalised the efforts of Nathamuni as a theology.[5] Ramanuja developed the philosophy of Visishtadvaita and has been described by Harold Coward as "the founding interpreter of [Sri Vaisnavite] scripture."[7][a] While Anne Overzee says that he was a collator and interpreter rather than an original thinker, although showing originality in his method of synthesising the Tamil and Sanskrit sources,[10] Ranjeeta Dutta has said that the two sets of sources "continued to be parallel to each other and not incorporative" at this time.[5]

Nathamuni and Ramanuja were both Brahmins, while Nammalvar was of the Vellala caste which their community considered to be the lowest varna, known as shudra. All three men were Tamils,[b] although Ramanuja documented his thoughts in Sanskrit.[13]


Vadakalai caste symbol
Thenkalai caste symbol

Ramanuja was initially a proponent of the traditional bhakti philosophy that demanded adherents had a good command of Sanskrit texts and a ritualised approach to life and devotion. This outlook marginalised women and members of the shudra varna because they were disbarred from learning the Sanskrit Vedas, and Ramanuja later changed his position and became more receptive to an inclusionist theory.[14] His thoughts also contained what John Carman has described as a "significant ambiguity", of which Ramanuja may not himself have been aware: his metaphorical devices suggested that devotion through ritual "earned" salvation but also that salvation was given through the grace of god.[15] Subsequently, some time around the fourteenth century, the Iyengar community divided into two sects,[16] both of which maintained a reverence for his works[17] but which were increasingly divided due to the doctrinal uncertainties evident in them.[15]

The Vadakalai sect are also referred to as the "northern" culture or school, and the Thenkalai sect are the "southern" variant. These cultures reference the perceived prominence given by the sects to the terse style of Sanskrit traditions and the lyrical Tamil Prabhandams, respectively, although S. M. Srinivasa Chari believes this linguistic differentiation to be overstated. The Vadakalai favour Vedanta Desika as their acharya and the Thenkalai prefer instead the teachings of Manavala Mamuni but Chari notes that the sects share a common allegiance to Nammalvar and Ramanuja, and that their subsequent significant thinkers "wholly accepted the authority and importance" of both linguistic styles.[17][c] Harold Schiffman says that the linguistic schism reflects wider underlying doctrinal differences between the populist southern school and the social conservatism of the north, with Tamil historically being a language understood by the masses while Sanskrit was elitist and caste-bound.[19]

Vedic philosophy holds that the supreme goal in life is to attain the blissful state of Brahman through moksha, being the process of liberation of the suffering soul from the cycle of reincarnation.[20] Although eighteen points of difference between the two Iyengar sects are generally recognised, being referred to as the ashtadasa bhedas,[18] most of these are minor.[21][d] Abraham Eraly describes a principal difference, being

... their views on the nature of divine grace - while the Thenkalai holds that devotion is all that is necessary and that god will on his own initiative carry the devotee to salvation, like a cat carrying a kitten, the Vadakalai holds that man has to win god's grace through his efforts and he has to cling on to god, like an infant monkey clinging on to its mother.[22]

Coward considers this to be the difference between the two schools of thought,[14] and Carman says that "... both [sects] accord primacy to divine grace, but one group feels it necessary to insist that there is no human contributions at all to the attainment of salvation."[23] These variations in interpretation of the nature of prapatti - loosely, "self-surrender to god"[18] - are called marjara nyaya and markata nyaya, referring to the young of cats and monkeys. They give rise to another naming convention for the two sects, being the "monkey school" and the "cat school".[24]

Unlike the Vadakali, the Thenkalai Iyengar sect reject the caste system[25] and have accepted Shudras into its fold.[26][27][28] The sect was founded by Pillai Lokacharya.[29]

Vadakalai Iyengars believe that it is necessary to offer obeisance/prostration to God multiple times, while Thenkalai Iyengars believe that it is enough if you offer obesaiance/prostration to God once. This is the reason as to why a Vadakalai Iyengar is often seen prostrating four times, while Thenkalai Iyengars are seen prostrating only once.[30]

Sectarian rivalry[edit]

The sectarian rivalry has at times been bitter and, according to Andre Beteille, "aggressive".[31] Thomas Manninezhath notes an intensification of disputes at the time of Thayumanavar in the eighteenth century[32] and on other occasions legal processes have been used in attempts to settle the control of temples.[33]

Relations with other communities[edit]

See Also: Criticism of Iyers, Brahminism, Anti-Brahminism, Caste-Based Reservations in Tamil Nadu

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (right) has been the most prominent Iyengar in Indian politics

Prior to the independence of India, Brahmins had a significant presence in the government posts and education system of Madras province, a part of which is now Tamil Nadu.[34] Since independence, grievances and alleged instances of discrimination by Brahmins in Tamil Nadu are believed to be the main factors which fuelled the Self-Respect Movement and marginalised them.[35] This, in combination with the depressed economic and social conditions of non-Brahmins, 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.[36]

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.[citation needed]

Some Iyengars have worked to remove caste-barriers. Sir P. Rajagopalachari, during his tenure as the Dewan of Travancore, introduced legislation to give Dalit and Ezhava children access to schools, despite protests from Malayali upper-castes.[37] He also enabled the lifting of restrictions on the nomination of low-castes and untouchables to the Travancore State Assembly.[38] Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Madras Presidency, enacted a law similar to the Temple Entry Proclamation issued in Travancore that permitted the entry of Dalits into Hindu temples.[citation needed]

There were also accusations that they were Sanskritists who had a distorted and contemptuous attitude towards Tamil language, culture and civilisation[39][40] Kamil Zvelebil, a Dravidologist, argues from a study of the history of Tamil literature that this accusation is wrong. He notes that the Brahmin was chosen as a scapegoat to answer for the decline of Tamil civilisation and culture in the medieval and post-medieval periods.[41]


Geographical groups[edit]


The Hebbar Iyengars speak a Tamil dialect known as Hebbar Tamil. Once found only in the Karnataka towns of Belur, Shanti Grama, Nuggehalli, Nonavinakere, Bindiganavile and Hiremagalur, Hebbar Iyengars are now found in many parts of India, across Europe, and North America. It is believed that Hebbars are the descendants of Srivaishnavas who migrated to Karnataka from Tamil Nadu, following Ramanuja.[42]


Mandayam Iyengars are a sect of Iyengars, settled in various parts of Karnataka, predominantly Melkote.[43][44] Mandayam Iyengars also speak a different dialect of Tamil called as Mandayam Tamil.[45] Mandayam Iyengars follow Ramanujacharya and Manavala Mamunigal.[46]

Language and dialect[edit]

Main article: Iyengar Tamil

The mother tongue of most Iyengars in Tamil Nadu is Tamil. They speak a dialect that is almost identical to Brahmin Tamil, differing only in the degree of Sanskritization. Scholars have often refused to recognise this as a separate dialect, regarding it only as a sub-dialect of Brahmin Tamil.[citation needed]

However, Iyengars in Karnataka speak a dialect that has a significant Kannada substrate, which has descended from medieval Tamil. Iyengars in southern Andhra Pradesh speak both Tamil and Telugu.[citation needed]

Religious observances[edit]


A typical Iyengar wedding is made up of the following events: Vethalaipakku, Pandalkal, Janwaasam, Nischayathartham, Nandi or Vratham, Kashiyathrai, Oonjal, Piddishuttal, Kanyadaanam, Mangalya Dharanam, Akshathai, Homam, Saptapadi, Nagoli, Vasthra, Gruhapravesham, Sambandhi Virandhu, Reception, and Nalangu.[47][48]

Notable people[edit]

Main article: List of Iyengars

See also[edit]



  1. ^ The traditional biographies of Ramanuja place his life in the period of 1017-1137 CE,[9]
  2. ^ Nathamuni is thought to have been born at Viranarayana,[11] Ramanuja was born at Sriperumbudur,[9] and Nammalvar at Alvartirunakam.[12]
  3. ^ S. Dasgupta is quoted by Thomas Manninezhath: "Though the leaders themselves were actuated by a spirit of sympathy with one another, yet their followers made much of these little differences in their views and constantly quarrelled with one another, and it is a well-known fact that these sectarian quarrels exist even now".[18]
  4. ^ The eighteen sectarian differences are detailed in History of Sri Vaishnavism in the Tamil country (N. Jagadeesan, Koodal Publishers, 1977)


  1. ^ Aiyaṅgār, Maṇḍayam A. Nārāyaṇa (1898). Essays on Indo-Aryan Mythology. 
  2. ^ Nagendra Kumar Singh (1999). Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, Volume 7. Anmol Publications PVT LTD. p. 898. ISBN 978-81-7488-168-7. 
  3. ^ Edward Miller (2009). A Simplified grammar of the Pali language. BiblioBazaar. p. 49. ISBN 978-1-103-26738-5. 
  4. ^ Lester, Robert C. (1 January 1994). "The Sattada Srivaisnavas". The Journal of the American Oriental Society. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Dutta, Ranjeeta (September–October 2007). "Texts, Tradition and Community Identity: The Srivaisnavas of South India". Social Scientist 35 (9/10): 22–43. JSTOR 27644238.  (subscription required)
  6. ^ a b Overzee, Anne Hunt (1992). The Body Divine: The Symbol of the Body in the Works of Teilhard de Chardin and Ramanuja. Cambridge University Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-521-38516-9. 
  7. ^ a b Coward, Harold G. (2008). The Perfectibility of Human Nature in Eastern and Western Thought. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. pp. 139–141. ISBN 978-0-7914-7335-1. 
  8. ^ Carman, John B. (1994). Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 101–102. ISBN 978-0-8028-0693-2. 
  9. ^ a b Carman, John B. (1994). Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-8028-0693-2. 
  10. ^ Overzee, Anne Hunt (1992). The Body Divine: The Symbol of the Body in the Works of Teilhard de Chardin and Ramanuja. Cambridge University Press. pp. 30–31. ISBN 978-0-521-38516-9. 
  11. ^ Dasgupta, S. N. (1991). A History of Indian Philosophy 3. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 94. ISBN 978-81-208-0414-2. 
  12. ^ Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India: Its Inception, Cultural Encounter and Impact. Sarup & Sons. 2004. p. 28. ISBN 978-81-7625-436-6.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  13. ^ Carman, John B. (1994). Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-8028-0693-2. 
  14. ^ a b Coward, Harold G. (2008). The Perfectibility of Human Nature in Eastern and Western Thought. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. p. 139. ISBN 978-0-7914-7335-1. The distinction between the two schools is the degree of self-effort or God's grace required for one's surrender to the Lord and release from rebirth." 
  15. ^ a b Carman, John B. (1994). Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-8028-0693-2. 
  16. ^ Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India: Its Inception, Cultural Encounter and Impact. Sarup & Sons. 2004. p. 19. ISBN 978-81-7625-436-6.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  17. ^ a b Chari, S. M. Srinivasa (1997). Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 244. ISBN 978-81-208-1342-7. 
  18. ^ a b c Manninezhath, Thomas (1993). Harmony of Religions: Vedanta Siddhanta Samarasam of Tayumanavar. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 35. 
  19. ^ Schiffman, Harold F. (1998). Linguistic Culture and Language Policy. Routledge. pp. 183–184. ISBN 978-0-415-18406-9. 
  20. ^ Chari, S. M. Srinivasa (1997). Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 143–144. ISBN 978-81-208-1342-7. 
  21. ^ Chari, S. M. Srinivasa (1997). Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 240. ISBN 978-81-208-1342-7. 
  22. ^ Eraly, Abraham (2011). The First Spring: The Golden Age of India. Penguin Books India. p. 853. ISBN 978-0-670-08478-4. 
  23. ^ Carman, John B. (1994). Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 148. ISBN 978-0-8028-0693-2. 
  24. ^ King, Richard (1999). Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. Edinburgh University Press. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-7486-0954-3. 
  25. ^ Tamil Nadu, Religious Condition under Vijaya Nagar Empire
  26. ^ The World of the Weaver in Northern Coromandel, c.1750-c.1850 – by P.Swarnalatha, Pub’ by Orient Longman, ISBN 81-250-2868-4. Google Books. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  27. ^ Pg.443 – ''The Indian economic and social history review, Volume 22'', Delhi School of Economics. Google Books. 19 December 2009. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  28. ^ Pg.61- ''Textiles and weavers in medieval South India'', by Vijaya Ramaswamy, Oxford University Press. Google Books. 7 January 2010. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  29. ^ Pg.86 Encyclopaedia of Indian philosophy, Volume 1, by Vraj Kumar Pandey, Anmol Publications. Google Books. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  30. ^ Pg.128 Studies in social history: modern India, O. P. Bhatnagar, India. University Grants Commission, University of Allahabad. Dept. of Modern Indian History, St. Paul's Press Training School – 1964. Google Books. 20 March 2007. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  31. ^ Béteille, André (1965). Caste, Class & Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village. University of California Press. pp. 75, 96. ISBN 978-0-520-02053-5. 
  32. ^ Manninezhath, Thomas (1993). Harmony of Religions: Vedanta Siddhanta Samarasam of Tayumanavar. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 26. 
  33. ^ Ghurye, Govind Sadashiv (1969) [1932]. Caste and Race in India (5th ed.). Popular Prakashan. p. 209. ISBN 978-81-7154-205-5. 
  34. ^ "''Superiority in Numbers'' from ''Tehelka.com'', April 22, 2006". Tehelka.com. 22 April 2006. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  35. ^ Caste in Indian Politics by Rajni Kothari, Pg 254
  36. ^ Warrier, Shobha (30 May 2006). "'Education is the means of social mobility'". Rediff News. Archived from the original on 4 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-19. 
  37. ^ Ayyankali, Chapter 4:Kerala's First Workers Strike
  38. ^ Ayyankali, Chapter 8:Praja Sabha Member-2e
  39. ^ P.V.Manickam Naicker, writes in 'The Tamil Alphabet and its Mystic Aspect', 1917,Pg 74–75: "Even should Dutt's description of the aryanisation be true, the real Aryan corpus in South-India came to nothing. A cranial study of the various classes will also confirm the same. The lecturer, being a non-Brahmin, wishes to leave nothing to be misunderstood. His best and tried friends are mostly Brahmins and he is a sincere admirer of them. There is no denying the fact that the ancestors of the present Brahmins were the most cultured among the South-Indians at the time the said Aryanisation took place and got crystallized into a class revered by the people. As the cultured sons of the common mother Tamil, is it not their legitimate duty to own their kinsmen and to cooperate and uplift their less lucky brethren, if they have real patriotism for the welfare of the state? On the contrary, the general disposition of many a Brahmin is to disown his kinship with the rest of the Tamil brethern, to disown his very mother Tamil and to construct an imaginary untainted Aryan pedigree as if the Aryan alone is heaven-born
  40. ^ Zvelebil, Pg 197
  41. ^ Zvelebil, Kamil V. (1992). Companion Studies to the History of Tamil Literature. BRILL. pp. 212–213, 216. ISBN 90-04-09365-6. 
  42. ^ Pg.184 Census of India, 1951, Volume 14, Part 1; India. Census Commissioner, Govt. of India Press – 1954
  43. ^ [1]
  44. ^ [2]
  45. ^ [3]
  46. ^ [4]
  47. ^ Gariyali, C. K. (11 March 2002). "Iyengar Marriage Part 1". Chennai Online. Archived from the original on 16 October 2007. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  48. ^ Gariyali, C. K. (16 April 2002). "Iyengar Marriage Rituals – Part Four". Chennai Online. Archived from the original on 15 July 2006. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 

Further reading[edit]