Panjal Athirathra Yajnam – A Perspective – 1

For about last 6 months, news about Panjal Athirathra Yajnam has been consistently reported by some Indian Media Houses and some International Media Houses as well. Thanks to relentless efforts of Varthathe Trust and Namboothiri Brahmins, Panjal Athirathra Yajnam started on April 4th 2011. The whole Yajnam takes 12 days to complete and is a very complex process involving Rig, Yajur and Sama Veda recitation and procedural details. Though Athirathram had been performed in 1990 and in 2006 as well, the importance of this Athirathram is that it is again being conducted in Panjal after a gap of 35 years. Panjal in Thrissur District in Kerala is considered as Yajna bhumi as it has a history of several Yajnas in the past.

Last occasion of Athirathra Yajnam was in 1975. For 1975 Athirathram, Namboothiri Brahmins accepted request of Indologist Dr. Fritz Staal to record the event on camera. There is no direct evidence but one tends to feel that Namboothiris agreed to the request of Dr. Staal in return for some financial funding as last known athirathram in Panjal was conducted in 1956. Without any doubt, Dr. Fritz Staal used 1975 recordings to come out with his epic and voluminous book “Agni – The Vedic Ritual of Fire Altar” in two volumes. The most remarkable aspect of Dr. Fritz Staal’s work is that he came down to Madras (now Chennai) and Benaras (or Varanasi) to learn Samskrit before he embarked on Indology, for which every Indian should feel indebted to Dr. Staal. However, it is really a pity on our part, that a foreigner like Dr. Staal had to take pains to preserve the tradition, and Namboothiris had to compromise on some things because of sheer lack of financial resources.

Panjal Athirathram 2011, should be treated as the Dharma Karyam of the year. In fact, one would have expected Governments of both Kerala and India to show support and make arrangements to ensure success of this project. However, Government of Kerala is going for polls while Government of India is busy supporting other causes. Vedic Rituals like Athirathram evoke immense sense of history among Hindus, the battered ones of this wretched and ungrateful country. As our tradition is slowly eroding in the waves of modernization, events like Athirathram give some hope that future generations may know that ancient Hindus were not barbaric lot as pictured in some History books, but were masters of various sciences.

A description of Yagasala

Yagasala or Yajnasala is the place where the yajna would take place. Sandeep Varma, a columnist and TEDx Chennai Organizer, recorded several aspects of Athirathra Yajnam and Yagasala in detail in these blog posts[1, 2, 3, 4, 5].

To quote Sandeep,

The goal of all yaagams is the prosperity of the people at large y energizing and protecting the environment. As Sun is the main supply of energy, fire is considered as the representation of Sun and yaagam is an offer to Fire and inturn Sun, as a God.

Probably this is the reason why Agni occupies such an important part of Hindu Tradition.

The most important source that is used by historians in speaking about Athirathra Yajnam and its structural details is Fritz Staal’s book: Agni. However, the main site made by Varthathe quotes a series of articles published by Erkkara Raman Namboothiri Sr. in a magazine calleed “Anaadi” in May 1975. This document from the Athirathram 2011 site based gives some details on the Yagasala structure. A pictorial top-view representation of Yagasala is available in Athirathram site maintained by some enthusiastic individuals. Refer to the picture (click to enlarge):

Basic outline of Yagasala for Athirathram

Yagasala (Click to enlarge) Image Courtesy: http://www.athirathram.org

In this picture, east is to the right. Each structure has specific dimensions, though the picture is not to scale. The most fascinating aspect of our vedic rituals is the attention to detail and how carefully these details have been handed over from one generation to the next.  The picture describes Yagasala as in 1975 athirathram. 2011 Athirathram is a replica of the same. To describe in brief, Yagasala has 7 main parts:

  1. Pathneesala – West most. This is where Pathni (consort of Yajaman, the head of Yajnam) would stay during some part of Yajnam like Pravargya where her presence is prohibited.
  2. Abutting Pathneesala, to its East, is Prachinavamsa where Agnihotra is preserved using three chitis – Avahaniya, Dakshinagni, Grahapatya. More on these three agnihotras in a moment.
  3. To the east of Pathneesala, in a physically separate hut, is Sadas. This is the place where Rithwicks perform Sakhyam promising each other that they would ensure success of Yajnam. Also this is the place where rithwicks sit and wait when they are not active in Yajna process.
  4. To the east of Sadas, in a physically separate hut, there is Havirdhanam. This is the place where Soma is prepared. Soma is a creeper from Sacrostemma Brevistigma of Asclepiadacea family. Some scholars hold the view that it is from Sarcostema Viminalis family.
  5. To the east of Havirdhanam, in the same hut, is Syenachiti. This is the place where the Syena (Falcon) Structure – the main Homa Gundam (altar) is constructed.
  6. To the south of Havirdhanam, is Agnirdhiyam. This is the place where some utensils required for Yajnam are placed.
  7. To the north of Havirdhanam at precisely the same distance as Agnirdhiyam is from Havirdhanam, is Marjaleeyam. This is the place where Yajna Goat is tied.

Also, a Donkey and a Horse have a role to play. At the start of the Yajnam, a Horse is taken to East, Earth is lubricated and mud is collected from four spots. The Horse and Donkey are then taken to western side of Yagasala and tied there. One is not sure what is effect or necessity of following but these are details that have been kept alive by Namboothiris in Athirathram.

One other hut which is generally not mentioned is “Gosala” – Cow hut. It is constructed south of Pathneesala and the cow is placed there. Cow plays a very important role, especially in Pravargya ritual, where the cow is milked. Yajaman and Pathni drink boiled milk as a part of this rite. Current 2011 Athirathram Yagasala is exact replica of what has been recorded in 1975. Take a look at this picture (click to enlarge):

Yagasala as seen from East.

Yagasala as seen from East. (Click to enlarge)

An important point here is with respect to dimensions of Yagasala. On first day of Yajna, the two lengths of Yajaman and his wife are calculated. One from tip of middle finger, when hands are raised up right, to tip of hair and from tip of hair to knee cap. These are very peculiar dimensions. These dimensions are used in calculating dimensions of various other utensils etc. involved in the Yajna. Why these dimensions and what kind of mathematics is involved in calculating rest of the dimensions is an interesting area which would require a lot of investigation.

Syenachiti – Garuda (Falcon) shaped Chiti (altar)

Despite such impressive structural details of Yagasala itself, the most attractive part of the whole Yajna is Syenachiti. A quick investigation reveals that there are many other structures which, by name seem more complex than Syenachiti, described in some literary resources. One example is from Veda Rakshana Samithi Site. To quote from this page:

An agni (a technical term not to be identified as fire) is a raised altar made of bricks for keeping the fire and is considered as the seat of fire (agni-kshetra). The fire-altars were of two types, the perpetual one called nitya and the optional one called kamya. The perpetual fire-altars are the garhapatya (round), the ahavaniya (square) and the daksinagni (semi-circle) on which the nitya sacrifices like agnihotra, ishtis, etc. are performed. The syena-chiti, the prauga-chiti, the kanka-chiti, the drona-chiti, the ratha-cakra-chiti, the alaja-chiti, the chandas-chiti, the ubhayata-prauga-chiti, the paricayya-chiti, the kurma-chiti and the smasana-chiti are included in the list of kamya-chitis. For our purpose, scaled down models of all kinds of vedis would be taken up in different phases. With regard to the chitis also scaled down models involving the same geometircal propositions as described in the Sulba-sutras (a branch of the srauta sutra (Kalpa) texts) will be made in wood, painted with different colours to show the difference in the shape of the bricks involved. A full size brick of all different shapes used in a chiti according to the different srauta traditions could also be exhibited along-side showing the methods of calculations and construction.

So basically, Syenachiti is only one type of structure for Homa Gundam. For Nithya Chitis, where daily practices like Ishti, Agnihotra are performed, Garhapathya – Circular shaped, Avahaniya – Square shaped, Dakshinagni – Semicircular shaped, which are already part of Yagasala Prachinavamsa in Athirathram, are used. For kamya Chitis, where complex structures are made, there are (some are explained here)

  1. Syenachiti – Falcon shaped. Falcon could be 5 winged i.e., Panchaptrika or 6 winged i.e., Shadpatrika.
  2. Praugachiti – Triangular shaped.
  3. Kankachiti – Flying Heron bird shaped.
  4. Dronachiti – Dronakalasam shaped. Dronakalasam is a kind of a pot.
  5. Ratha-chakra-chiti – Shaped like the wheel of a chariot.
  6. Alajachiti – in the form of an alaja bird with four furrow like paths leading out in the cardinal directions.
  7. Chandaschiti – chanda means The Moon. So it could mean Moon Shaped. But what it exactly means is a point that needs investigation.
  8. Ubhayata prauga chiti – Ubhayata means “on both sides”. Probably a chiti with two triangles sharing one side.
  9. Paricchayyachiti – Circular.
  10. Kurmachiti – Turtle shaped.
  11. Smasana chiti – chiti that we generally see during cremation according to Hindu funeral.

There are several such chitis that have been used. The key point behind all these structures is that they are all constructed on several layers and are not made as one monolithic clay structure but using several bricks. Syenachiti in this athirathram is built as 5 layered structure. However there is at least one place where much complex Syenachiti has been observed. The geometrical details that guide the construction of these structures would prove the adeptness of ancient Indians with Geometry.

Next in this series: Description of Athirathram in Ramayanam.

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11 comments

  1. Interesting read Vivek, a small correction, in 2000 athirathram happened at Kundur, a place near thrissur and 2006 (if am right) alsoo athirathram happened. In 1975 The Yaga happened at Panjal

    1. Thank you Sandeep. I remember reading in an IE report that Athirathram happened in 1990 in Kundur and 2006 in Sukapuram. Didnt know about 2000. You have a link to some article about it?

  2. Vivek,
    Just a reminder. We have a discussion outstanding on the questions of the Mahabharata’s story within a story narrative particularly your thoughts on the slants based on the motives of the Nagas.

    1. Yes DD, I remember. I had a very interesting discussion with a gentleman recently on the controversial point of “Vaisampayana fudged with Vyasa’s narrative”. I will post partly edited conversation on this blog. I will leave a tweet with your handle once I publish it. It should happen as soon as I am done with Athirathram related posts I am doing right now.

  3. syamukamath · · Reply

    Great read on Athithrathram. I was googling to get info, and this is best i got. And i found ur blog interesting, ill be following.(beware.lol)
    Thank you
    Syamkrishna g Kamath.

    1. Symakrishna ji, thanks a lot. The experience was amazing. So much more to learn there. Also, Atiratram is again to be held in AP during Apr 21 and May 2 near Badhrachalam. Check this out: http://athirathram2012apyagna.in/index

      1. syamukamath · ·

        Great please keep updating so that we can know. As studies restrict me i wnt be able to attend. But will surely, someday.

  4. syamukamath · · Reply

    Sir please provide ‘share buttons to share in fb.

  5. Chaturvedi · · Reply

    Here is a link to a PDF document about Soma-Yagyam and history of Agnisayana Rituals.

    http://www.namboothiri.com/articles/FRITS%20STAAL-MAHADEVAN.PDF

    M Chaturvedi

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