In the previous post in this series, some introduction on Panjal Athirathram 2011 and Yagasala construction of Athirathra Yajnam in general were discussed. Continuing this series, we will look at History of Athirathra Yajnam as far into vast Hindu History as possible.
One most important perspective that is generally provided with respect to Athirathra Yajnam by many observers, enthusiasts is that it is a “secular” event. The desperate need to attach the word “secular” is understandable as we live in a country which would like to project itself as a Secular nation. However, history shows otherwise. Even if India’s history is seen from the perspective of a cynical European or Western Historian or any Indian who subscribes to their points of view, only Hindus supported and performed Athirathram and other Yajnams. There is no recorded document that can be found in sustained and persistent Google searches on topics related to Yajnas that were recorded from India’s History indicating that a Muslim King or father of a Church supported or encouraged Athirathram or any other Yajnam. It is most welcome if anyone can prove this wrong. Athirathram, in fact all Yajnas defined in Vedas, have been performed by several Hindu Kings. Some observations on both Syenachiti and Athirathram reveal some startling facts.
During Vakataka Gupta age – 200 AD to 250 AD
Pravara Sena I, who is placed around at 275 AD to 335 AD by the authors Ramesh Chandra Majumdar and Anant Sadashiv Altekar in this book, is said to have conducted all Yajnams successfully including the most difficult Vajapeya Yajnam, after which he was given the title “Samrat”, which can be loosely translated to Emperor in English.
While dates of Pravarasena I, Vakatakas and Gupta dynasty is a topic of huge controversy and discussion, one cannot disprove the argument that Pravarasena conducted Athirathram and other Yajnams.
ASI in its 1957-58 review (page 56) revealed Syenachiti at Kausumbi near Allahabad. ASI would like to believe that Purushamedha happened at the site, because of presence of Human Skulls. That is actually an interesting observation as ASI Review of the year 1997-98 (page 137) revealed another Syenachiti structure found at Mansar near Nagpur. ASI also found a Kurmachiti structure at the same site. While Mansar site finding is quite clearly syenachiti structure according to description of the site, even though no human skull was found unlike at Kausumbi site, ASI seems to have arrived at the conclusion that Purushamedha was performed at both sites. It is astonishing that ASI didnt consult a vedic pundit to ratify these conclusions.
It gets even more interesting as one reads ASI Review of the year 1988-89 (page 76). ASI found a huge structure of several altar constructions mostly in the form of a rectangular structure at Sanghol near Ludhiana in Punjab. From what has been described in the document, it could be the Peethan, which is considered as fully grown falcon. This picture would give an understanding (click to enlarge)
Once cannot ignore the dating of these sites. ASI puts 1997-98 to Vakataka time owing to a coin from Rudrasena III time and jewelery found at the site pointing to Vakataka period. While this is the case with Mansar site, ASI proposes that Syenachiti found at Ludhiana could have been of 2 BC or 1-3 AD or 3-15 AD. Given that this site has the structure of Chaturasra variety, which is considered as an advanced version, chances are that it could have been a 2 BC site or even older because the 2 BC date is proposed not because of the structure itself but because of beads, bottles, pendants and some jewelry found at the site. It is believed that this variety of chiti structure has been obsolete since about 150 years.
In case of 1957-58 site, ASI proposed a wide range of dates like 700 BC, 500 BC, 200 BC, 50 BC, 150 AD. All dates were based on the coins found at the site. However, due to finding of Human Skull at the site, ASI concluded that the site might have a Purushamedha Yajna site and so it should be a 2 BC site attached to the Mitra Dynasty as Purushamedha is traced back to that time according to some historians who worked on Shathapatha Brahmana.
A serious problem with the way all these sites are dated is in not giving importance to how each of the Somayagams are performed. All 7 somayagams (agnistoma, atyagnistoma, uktya, shodasi, vājapeya, atirātra and aptoryama) and three of Haviryajnams (cāturmāsya, niruudha paśu bandha, sautrāmaṇi) are performed in specially built Yagasalas on specially built chitis. The question of whether or not these sites could have been places where one of these yajnams have been conducted has been completely left out.
One may question the importance of dating these sites properly. The importance of such careful study lies in the fact that all these sites are miles apart. There was also a syenachiti structure found in Purola, Uttaranchal by ASI. This means Syenachiti strucutres were found in Northwest India, Central India, West India, Northern India. Given that Vakataka inscriptions indicate that Pravara Sena III also performed all Somayagams and he ruled from Malwa to Tungabhadra, there is a clear possibility that Somayagam practice was there not just in North/Central India but across India.
Some coins were found in Uttarakhand with Syenachiti imprinted on them. This means that Syenachiti might have been a very popular chiti structure in Soma and Havir yagams. However, the most important point with respect to Syenachiti structure is that Indus Valley civilizations have some fire altars. It is not very clear whether these were household fire altars are specialized fire altars where these yagams could have been conducted. The difference between these special yagams and nithya yagams like Agnohotra etc., lie in the type of material and length of the homa also. Pursuing investigation with this important piece of information could reveal a different story. But for such an open investigation, first we have to come out of the “vedic nomads” and separation of the periods when four Vedas were written. Such a paradigm shift is important in mapping India’s history as putting Indus Valley Civilization in sync with historical findings pointing to later years will mean direct connection that Indus Valley People later were known as Hindus and so invasion of Indus Valley people could have never happened.
Athirathram in Epics
While Athirathram and Syenachiti findings around 2 BC to 2 AD are one side of the story, Athirathram and all other somayagams find mention in two of the most important epics of Hinduism – Ramayana and Mahabharata.
In Ramayana, when Dasaratha conducted Aswamedha Yajnam, he did not stop with Aswamedha Yajnam. He is said to have conducted other Yajnams too. To quote this verse from Bala Kanda,
ukthyam dvitiiyam sa.mkhyaatam atiraatram tathottaram |
kaaritaaH tatra bahavo vihitaaH shaastra darshanaat ||
उक्थ्यं द्वितीयम् संख्यातं अतिरात्रं तथोत्तरम |
कारिताः तत्र बहवो विहिताः शास्त्र दर्शनात् ||
The ritual on the second day is called ukthyam, and the next one performed on third day is called athiraathra. These apart many of the preordained rituals are performed there in that ritual as envisaged in scriptures
Mention of Athirathram again occurs in another verse in the same sarga in Bala Kanda:
jyotiSToma aayuSii ca evam atiraatrau vinirmitau |
abhijit vishvajit ca evam aptoryaamo mahaakratuH
ज्योतिष्टोमत्म आयुषि च एवं अतिरात्रौ विनिर्मितौ |
अभिजित् विश्वजित् च एवं अप्तोर्यामो महाक्रतुः ||
The rituals called jyothiSToma, aayuSi, and atiraatra rituals are performed. And also rituals of great kind like abhijit, vishwajit, aptoryaama are performed.
However, the fascinating part is about the mention of chiti that was constructed for these yajnams. The same Sarga (14th) in Bala Kanda has some details:
iSTakaaH ca yathaa nyaayam kaaritaaH ca pramaaNataH |
cito.agniH braahmaNaiH tatra kushalaiH shiplakarmaNi ||
sacityo raaja si.mhasya sa.ncitaH kushalaiH dvijaiH |
garuDo rukmapakSo vai triguNo aSTaa dashaatmakaH ||
इष्टकाः च यथा न्यायं कारिताः च प्रमाणतः |
चितोअग्निः ब्राह्मणैः तत्र कुशलैः शिप्लकर्मणि ||
सचित्यो राज सिंहस्य संचितः कुशलैः द्विजैः |
गरुडो रुक्मपक्सो वै त्रिगुणो अस्ता दशात्मकः ||
The bricks for Altar of Fire are well designed and made according to rules and standard measurements. The Brahmans who are experts in the architecture of laying Fire Altar, by calculating the ritual field with a one-ply rope and decide where and how the that shall be, the Altar of Fire is layered well with bricks in that ritual. That Altar of Fire of that King, the Lion, is layered by expert Brahmans in the shape of an eagle with golden wings, with its size being three folds bigger than the altars of other rituals, thus it has eighteen separators, and fire is laid on it.
A mistake that has been done by the translators is in translating “garuda” to “eagle”. Garuda is not considered as an Eagle. Garuda is considered as a Falcon. Some think of Garuda as a Kite. However, Garuda has been referred to in other puranas as Syena i.e., Falcon.
A very important question that could be asked is “if syenachiti constructed was 18 layered as mentioned in Bala Kanda, did people of Ramayana times know detailed mathematics involved in constructing Syenachiti?”. This question requires investigation not just because a Syenachiti is mentioned in Ramayana, but Syenachiti also finds a mention in Mahabharata as well.
In Mahabharata, the word Atiratra as a reference to yajnam along with other yajnams, happens in Vana parva. Following verse clarifies:
कृत्तिका माघयोश्चैव तीर्थं आसाद्य भारत ||
अग्निष्टोमातिरात्राभ्यां फलं प्राप्नोति पुण्यकृत ||
kṛttikā maghayoś caiva tīrtham āsādya bhārata
agniṣṭomātirātrābhyāṃ phalaṃ prāpnoti puṇyakṛt
The one who takes the tirtha – piligrimage (of Prabhasa as referred to in preceding shloka) in the month of Karthika Or Krittika would acquire the same result as one who conducts Agnishtoma and Atiratra Yajnas.
As a side note, in this particular section, the whole conversation between Pulastya and Bhishma outlines several pilgrim centers in Indian subcontinent of the time. Most importantly, this section covers Saraswati and its related tributaries. This is one of the most important points to say that Mahabharata people knew Saraswati river. However, the counter argument that somebody tampered with the text needs to be disproved.
According to Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s translations, mention of Athirathram should be found in Vana parva, Drona parva, Anushasana Parva and Svargarohana parva. According to translation available on Google books and Sacred Texts website, in Drona Prava, there is some confusi0n on Chapters 54, 55 and 56. The translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli mentions a story narrated by Narada, which Vyasa narrates to Yudhistira who feels extremely depressed due to Abhimanyu’s death. However, Sacred Texts site doesnt mention any verses which speak of Athirathram which Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s translations mention. In fact Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s translations mention 203 chapters in Vana parva while sanskrit text available indicates only 173 chapters. This discrepancy is visible in Mahabharata sanskrit text available through other sources. Similar discrepancy is observable with Anushasana parva and Svargarohana parva. In Anushasana Parva, verses mention “agnihotra” but do not mention any of the soma or havir yajnas. In Svargarohana parva, sanskrit text in both Sacred Texts site and other alternative sources indicate 5 chapters while Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s translations indicate an additional chapter 6 extending “phalastuti” in chapter 5 into an additional chapter.
As another side note, these discrepancies are precisely the reason why text of our epics and vedas, smriti and sruti as referred to in Hindu culture, should be obtained from Vedic Pundits and translated properly under their guidance. There would definitely be many disagreements and heated discussions but such work is needed as English Translations of our texts by Indians and foreigners alike are filled with grammatical, metric and contextual errors.
The most important point, with Mahabharata text is, however with respect to Garuda shaped fire altar. That which we now call Syenachiti is not referred to as Syenachiti in available text but as Garuda shaped Chiti.
इष्टकाः काञ्चनीश्चात्र चयनार्थं कृताभवन् |
शुशुभे चयनं तत्र दक्षस्व प्रतपतेः ||
चतुश्चित्यः स तस्यासीदष्टादशकरात्मकः |
स रुक्मपक्षो निचितस्त्रिगुणो गरुदाकृतिः ||
iṣṭakāḥ kāñcanīś cātra cayanārthaṃ kṛtābhavan
śuśubhe cayanaṃ tatra dakṣasyeva prajāpateḥ
catuś cityaḥ sa tasyāsīd aṣṭādaśa karātmakaḥ
sa rukmapakṣo nicitas triguṇo garuḍākṛtiḥ
Bricks made of gold were used to build Chayana or Chiti. The Chayana made for the purpose resembled the chiti that was made by Daksha Prajapati. (meaning of only the first shloka above)
For translating the second shloka mentioned above, first compare it with the one describing chiti from Ramayana.
सचित्यो राज सिंहस्य संचितः कुशलैः द्विजैः |
गरुडो रुक्मपक्सो वै त्रिगुणो अष्टा दशात्मकः || [Ramayana description]
चतुश्चित्यः स तस्यासीदष्टादशकरात्मकः |
स रुक्मपक्षो निचितस्त्रिगुणो गरुदाकृतिः || [Mahabharata description]
Both descriptions are different, yet they both curiously use two words – अष्टादश, त्रिगुणो
The translation for अष्टादश is quite straighforward – 18. The translation for त्रिगुणो is different according to valmikiramayan.net and Kisari Mohan Ganguli.
valmikiramayana.net calls it “three times” where as Kisari Mohan Ganguli calls it “having three angles”. Defining त्रिगुणो as “having three angles” does not fit the context of Syenachiti structure – be it panchapatrika, shadpatrika or petthana because all these structures have at least four angles : at beak, two at wings and at tail. So, the meaning of the shloka
चतुश्चित्यः स तस्यासीदष्टादशकरात्मकः |
स रुक्मपक्षो निचितस्त्रिगुणो गरुदाकृतिः ||
The chayana was 18 layered and was three times bigger than usual chiti.
Thus, both Ramayana and Mahabharata clearly mention shlokas describing the use of Syenachiti of 18 layers. Since it is clear from Vedic ritual that the chiti structure is not built as a single monolithic structure but is built out of several bricks of different shapes arranged in an orderly fashion, one can come to several conclusions. These conclusions will be part of concluding post in this series.
During British Raj and Post Independence
Since Athirathra yajnam, which is one of the seven somayagams, occupies such an important place in Hindu history starting much earlier than Ramayana times (by Ramayana time, the complete procedure seems to be quite mature), it would be interesting to see if there is any record of Athirathram being performed during British Raj and after Independence. This investigation is important to understand, support or counter, whichever the case may be, the theory that “Dr. Fritz Staal’s generous funding of 1975 athirathram protected it from extinction”. It is quite well documented that yajnas were performed during British Raj. For instance, this news piece from 1944 Windsor Star Daily records a “maha yajna” conducted on the banks of Jamuna River. Unfortunately not many details are present in this digitized news piece. The photograph (though not very clear) shown in the copy shows a yagasala which is pretty much like the one required for Somayagams.
Also, there are also websites which record history of yajnas done by vedic pundits since 1930s. While there are several records of Agnishtoma and Aptoryama conducted in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, there is very little information on Athirathram being conducted between 1920s and 1950s. It is, however, a well recorded fact that 1956 saw an Athirathram near Panjal. Surekha Pillai who handled PR for Panjal Athirathram 2011 on behalf of Varthathe trust has taken pictures of 1956 and 1918 Athirathram sites. She says “it is amazing to see the site after so many years with a huge Banyan tree growing at the middle of the chiti”. Quite amazing indeed, as the picture itself shows.
Despite lack of direct evidence, there is one documented record from American Philosophical Society 1963 year book that Tamil Nadu was conducting all somayagams regularly.
To quote from the information available on Google Books:
While the Aiyars of Madras State continue to perform somayaga-sacrifices at the rate of 2 to 5 yearly, whilst all other six varities have been performed during the last decades, the Nambudiris used to perform only two i.e., agnistoma and (agnicayana-)atiratra, and this occurred last in 1956. That year may have marked the end of a tradition of millennia…..
This is an very important information, which basically may prove with some more evidence conclusively, that Kerala’s tradition of Athirathram was in danger but not Athirathra Yajnam as a whole. The notion that Athirathra Yajnam required foreign support to be preserved might as well be a misconception. However, the question still remains as to why “Kerala tradition was in danger at all?”. The plausible answer is
Lack of communication among Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala where vedic pundits and financial distress of the time could have been the reasons for such a desperate situation. Without much doubt, one can say the local administration didnt find these vedic procedures worthy enough to be encouraged.
Not that non governmental institutions were silent during this time. Some indepth reading indicates that several institutions were formed to ensure Vedic tradition continues. Several veda vidya peethams across South had collaborative programmes with those in Ujjain and Varanasi – a sort of knowledge sharing.
The history of Athirathram traces to as far as Ramayana. Depending upon which country one is from and the accepted school of thought, it could mean Athirathram goes back to 1400 BC or even further to 7000 BC or beyond Ice age (by Hindu Yuga structure). The most fascinating aspect of Athirathram is the Syenachiti structure. Popular thought and research links the form of structure to Sulba Sutras. But since Sulba Sutras are placed at 800-600 BC while Ramayana, in any school of thought, is at least 6 centuries earlier, it is another very important angle to Athirathram that would reveal some more interesting things.
Next in this series: Scientific aspects of Athirathram
Update: Thanks to good friend @NR_Tatvamasi, realized that I made a mistake in first para under the subheading ASI Reviews – ASI found human skulls at Kausumbi but didnt find any at Mansar. The error has been duly corrected.