Oct 2, 2015

The Namboothiri Rawals of Badrinath

Maddy @ Friday, October 02, 2015
Now, what connection can Northerly Uttarakhand have with the Southern state of Kerala? Look at the map, the distance is so great, the cultures so different and though there is an extravagant mention by some history enthusiasts that the Nairs originated from the Newar community of Nepal, is there any connection between Kerala and Uttarkhand? Well, there is one, an interesting connection actually, and it has nothing to do with the cricket players Sreesanth and Dhoni.

The story starts around the 9th century, a period when many in India were followers of Jainist or Buddhist practices, be it in Kerala or Uttaranchal. Brahmanical Hinduism was on the rise and Sankaracharya from Kaladi in Kerala set out on an arduous trek crisscrossing most of India, propounding his principles. Just imagine what an amount of walking he would have done. 

Uttaranchal or Brahmpur as it was known then, is certainly a locale of beauty, at the foothills of the Himalayas, near the southern slope of the great and young mountain range which I wrote about in a previous article, once densely wooded and under an immense roof of snow, ice and glaciers. It is said that the 16 mile drive from Govind Ghat to Badri, is perhaps the most incredible drive you can do anywhere in the world. One district in that region goes by the name Chamoli. It is also the district of “Garhwal’’ the land of forts. Today’s Garhwal was once upon a time, the kedar-khand of the past, the abode of God.

In the Chamoli district, which is some 11,000 feet above sea level, just south of Nandadevi, grew jujube berries locally known as Badri (plum). The particular spot where the Nar-Narayan resided was called Badri-Nath i.e. the Lord of Plum forest and it was during the Sat-Yuga. It is said that Lord Vishnu did a long penance in Badrinath, since time immemorial for the welfare of all living entities. (It is also believed that the black statue was originally that of Budhha seated in padmasana and was re-consecrated as Vishnu by Adi Sankara in what was originally a Buddhist temple). This place was apparently on the way taken by the Pandavas on their way to the heavenly ascent and somewhere near Mana is a cave where Vyasa purportedly composed the Mahabharata. So this sleepy little area with a lot of berries lay on the route for mendicants trekking to find the route to heaven or nirvana and these days is on the way of mountaineers ascending some of the peaks in the Himalayan range. But well, let us get back to Adi Sankara and his experiments with Advaita Vendanta.

Worry not reader, I will not get into that tricky subject, but just gloss over it for now. It was a time when ritualistic mimansa or Vedic norm of worship was popular (what is still practiced by Nambuthiris) in Kerala and Sankara from Kaladi (near Cochin) propounded the concept of non-dualistic monastic order (it goes thus – your true self is the Brahman - I do not understand all this, as yet). Anyway at a young age he decided to become a sanyasi and trekked along to Uttar Pradesh to find a suitable guru to further his learning. His first stop was Kasi in UP and later he stopped at Badri, composing various works along the way. His meeting with Mandana Mishra and Ubhaya Bharti, makes very interesting reading, especially the arguments about married life. Later he crisscrosses Maharashtra, Srisailam in AP, Gokarnam, etc after which he does his digvijaya tour of India preaching Advaita, supported by Sudhanva and his soldiers. He thus wandered far and long and finally attained Samadhi at Kanchi (or as some say, in Trichur) after spending a long time at Kedarnath and Badrinath.

Now Uttarakhand as we saw, is considered an abode of gods and the legends behind it are many. But
continuing with Sankara, the young lad, all of 11 years old and his fellow disciples (many Dandi sanyasis) arrived at Badrinath in 814AD. As the story goes, he reached there early in the morning and the fresh breeze from the Sushmaand Gandhmadna Mountain got him going and he spontaneously started reciting the Ashtapadi. After diving into the Naradakunda in the Alakananda River, he found a saligrama idol of Vishnu on the third attempt and this was consecrated as Badrinath. The rituals and procedure of worship as laid out by Adi Shankaracharya some 1200 years ago since the consecration are being practiced at Badrinath even today.

While I will not get into details, the saligram (mollusk fossils) idol form of Vishnu consecrated as Badrinath was attributed to the angry curse of Jalandhara’s wife Vrinda who cursed Vishnu for seducing her by taking the form of her husband, while at the same time Siva went about killing Jalandhara who incidentally had previously tried to seduce Parvati after taking the form of Siva. All very confusing, but mythology is usually full of that and Vishnu ended up as a stone fossil and Vrinda as the root which became a Tulsi plant, duly associated with Vishnu.

Some of the Dandi (staff bearing senior) Brahmins remained to do the rites at the temple. It is mentioned that members of their clan remained on to continue this until the 17th or 18th century till they became extinct (which I doubt since these celibate sanyasis would not have created offspring!). After this time the appointment of Namboothiris from Kerala were appointed as priests of the temple as a norm.

Interestingly, Namboothiris themselves are not clear where they came from, other than that the Parasurama and/or the Kolathiri rajas brought them from Gokarnam. Nevertheless, it is stated by some that the original priests were Dandi Brahmins from the south and were Namboothiri associates of Adi Sankara. It is perhaps due to this reason that they continue to choose a rawal from amongst the Namboothiri community so that the same special Kerala Pooja format is continued.

The Rawal is assisted by a deputy and the rituals are all based on the Tantra-Vidhi of Shrauta, just like in the temples of Kerala. As explained by MP Verendra Kumar, Sree Sankara is also believed to be behind some other stipulations prevalent in the Char dham: Joshis from Kashi, Kashmir, Nepal, or Maharashtra should be the Poojaaris at Rameswram; the Chowbey Brahmans from Orissa should be the Poojaaris at Dwaraka; and the Poojaaris at Jagannath Puri should be the Pandas from Gujarat. No doubt, Sree Sankara ordained all these to ensure the inter-linking and integration of the various pan-Indian trends and traditions.

So as we saw, the Rawal (chief priest) was selected by erstwhile rulers of Garhwal and Travancore and accorded ‘his holiness’ status by the state governments of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh as well as being held in high esteem by the Royals of Nepal. These days, over 400,000 pilgrims come every years to Badrinath from all over India, traveling on roads constructed after the border war with China in the early 1960s.

As you can imagine, the temple is completely snow encased (As the legend goes, during winter months we have Narada performing daily worship, in the absence of humans) in the winters and so open only for six months in a year, from May to November. The idol is taken downhill, to Pandukeshwar, to continue daily worship till next May, after which it goes back to Badrinath. For six months in a year (during May to October i.e. roughly Vaisakh to Kartika), the Rawal performs his duties as a temple priest. Thereafter, he either stays in Joshimutt (a temple dedicated to Narasimha, another incarnation of Vishnu) or goes back to his ancestral village in Kerala. The Rawal should not cross the river till Vamana Dwadasi, must be a Brahmachari, and is the only person allowed to touch the image of the presiding deity.

Starting at 4AM The Rawal gives the idol the ceremonious bath and bhoj (breakfast) and then offers various poojas until 8AM after which he goes home, and returns at lunchtime to offer the idol lunch and again later in the evening until dinner time. The rawal retires at 930PM. The Nayab Rawal or deputy Rawal is also a nambuthiri.

The rawal’s routine goes thus, typical to a Kerala temple - Early before sunrise, the Raaval awakens
the Lord from his sleep, disrobes him and wipes off the stale sandal paste. Then he performs ritual ablutions of abhishekam first with the warm water, and then with milk, yogurt, honey and some perfumed rinses. He then systematically decorates the idol with lotus, Thulasi (sacred basil) and rose flowers. The adornment is completed with the gems "Kausthubham" and "Sreevatsam". This is followed by "Baala bhojanam", the first pooja offering, which will include various fresh fruits, raisins, sugar candy, etc. offered on five silver salvers. This leads on to "Deepaaraadhana", worship with the lamp. The doors of the sanctum will close after ritual worship in the morning, open again for midday worship and close mid-afternoon.

These days, the Uttaranchal government writes to the Kerala government to recommend a rawal, he being a Namboothiri with deep Sanskrit knowledge and well versed in pooja methods of Kerala and also a bachelor. The person must possess a degree of Acharya in Sanskrit and be of robust health and suitable for a tenure at the higher altitudes. A few recommendations are passed on and the Gahrwal head has the responsibility to choose one from the lot. The Rawal had to be a bachelor lest the ritual impurity arising from the birth of a child (sutakashaucha – Birth and death pula as we know in Kerala) render him unable to perform his duties.

The name is thus forwarded to the king of Tehri or the Tehri Garhwal who is the Bhalond-badri or tutelary head of Garhwal. At a tilak ceremony where a crimson tilak is ceremoniously applied on the chosen candidate, the rawal’s appointment gets completed. He was also provided a ceremonial Khilat or robe and a gold brocade umbrella. While this is theory, in practice it could be so that a deputy or nayab rawal, also a nampoothiri, applies for the post and gets promoted.

Others who support the rawal are the Nayab Rawal, the Dharmadhikari or astrologer, the Vedapati (Veda reciter), other smaller priests, cooks, treasurers, singers, pandas, guards and so on. A panda (not the bear) or assistant leads each pilgrim group and one much choose his panda carefully, for the panda must possess good humor, be knowledgeable and energetic.

In the very old days, the shrine was patronized by the kings of Bengala and later by the King at Benares. Until 1939, the position of Rawal was very powerful and the priest had rights for all the offerings at the temple. The 1939 act changed it to a 7.5% percentage of offerings plus a fixed salary, much like the priests at Guruvayur. The Rawal himself takes up the responsibility at Badrinath while 2 or 3 others reside as back up and support at Joshimutt.

A 1903 article provides this interesting description - The priests at Kedarnath, Badrinath, Guptkashi, Ukhimath, Jungnath, and Joshimath are all Madrasies. The principal burial-places (I would assume the British writer actually meant cremation grounds) of these priests are at Ukhimath and Joshimath. The High Priest of Kedarnath is directly under the British Government. The High Priest of Badrinath is a servant of the Raja of Tehri-Garhwal. These Madrasies seem to enjoy excellent health, and most of them live to a great age. They usually wear white woolen clothing, gold worked belts round their waists, and handsome Madras puggries. They keep up a certain amount of state. They are in correspondence with the priests in the chief temples throughout India, as the pilgrims are drawn from every province and from every rank of society.

Another interesting aside is that the same priest conducted the pujas at Badrinath and Kedarnath, in the old days. This is implausible and one Rawal explained that there was perhaps a tunnel between the two centers which by the way are separated by 25 miles.

Quoting Eric Shipton (1934) the famous Himalayan mountaineer while mapping the Nanda Devi route with Tilman– There existed a tradition 'many hundreds of years ago' when there was no high priest at Kedarnath temple, and the high priest of Badrinath or the namboodiri rawal used to hold services at both temples in the same day. Shipton could not believe this and decided to test the theory. He was a swift climber, and took many laborious days to cover the high altitude distance.

Now as we all know, the Namboothiris (not any I have ever come across) are not the most active types who can swiftly cover a tough mountain terrain in a fraction of the time taken by an experienced mountaineer, but Shipton wanted to check it himself. As it went…

Shipton’s and Tilman’s party traveled upto the head of the Satopanth glacier and climbed to the watershed saddle. Ahead an icy precipice plunged 6000 feet into a lush valley. It was so steep that they had to rope down a narrow gulley, an irreversible move which heightened their respect for the Namboothiri Rawal who apparently traversed these terrains with consummate ease. The gorge they entered was not quite the lush paradise, but a bamboo forest full of thorny bramble. It took a day to cover a mile in the heavy rain. Food and gear became moldy, the Sherpa’s were terrified of yetis and bears and were sometimes non cooperative, but on the whole very difficult. The only conclusion they could draw after the very difficult journey was that if the Rawal indeed did the puja in both places on the same day, he must have flown on the back of a tiger such as the Padma Sambhava. When they asked the presiding rawal about it, who proved to be of great help to them, he replied with a twinkle in his eye that there must have been a tunnel between the two places, aiding quick transport. But I think this belief gained importance since both places had Nambuthiris as priests, and some people thought it was the same person. Even today, as a gateway to the Himalayas, many mountaineers pass the Badrinath temple and seek blessings, meeting up with the Rawal as well and gives him some ‘foreign’ gifts.

Most of these rawals are perhaps normal youngsters from Kerala and not necessarily staff bearing holy sanyasis devoted to spending a lifetime serving the god.  Some of the Rawals are modern ecofriendly persons, and one Rawal, concerned about the adverse impacts on the environment, joined forces with Indian scientists to consecrate saplings in a series of ceremonial plantings intended to re-establish the sacred forest. Yet another was responsible for gifting an ancient and valuable copper plate grant to the archeological society.

On the other hand, a recent rawal proved to be not so celibate and got caught in a honey trap and was eventually disciplined. Other rawals have been involved in litigations with the Tehri king over management issues and remuneration. One report by Gibson mentions an ever helpful intelligent rawal clad in a winter overcoat, leather shoes and sporting pan stained teeth and lips. Once the president Rajendra Prasad went up there and the rawal’s representative or friend used the opportunity to tell the Indian president about the problems (very meagre allowances and emoluments, high travel expenses to Travancore etc) faced by the priest and as they say, secured his future. Some of them also mastered the art of horse riding and a 1939 report by Heim and Gansser states that they were given to understand that the Rawal of that time was not really a bachelor, but was married and that his family was in Kerala. Perhaps the rules require rawals to be celibate only while serving in Badrinath.

These worldly men have always been good talkers and listeners and being from Kerala are usually educated and speak a reasonable amount of English (though not possessing more than a working knowledge of Hindi). So they have been quoted over centuries by foreigners visiting the shrine, especially their chats during the afternoon times when the rawal meets visitors. In one such discussion during 1985, the Rawal informed that there was a bhairavi chakra cave beneath the idol. It appears that a former king used to ride into battle wearing the arm band of Bhairava which was kept under the Badrinath image. Donald Macintyre writing in the late 19th century recalls meeting the rawal from Kerala who was not so spiritual and more of the worldly type. The rawal he met actually accepted a box of gunpowder as a gift which he said would pass on to his son who was a shikari (I think that was a bluff- I am still to come across a namboothiri shikar!).

They are also not the fanatical kind and lent a calm ear to visiting missionaries who tried to teach them otherwise, as is evident from the account of Rev Sabine Mansell who wrote in 1896 – I made a tour towards Badrinath and walked to Mana village, the most northern inhabited point on that road. I distributed pamphlets and tracts to the pilgrims and resented a New Testament to the Rawal Sahib or high-priest, telling him that this is the only book in the world which will prevail and all the other false things will pass away.

The 1853 meeting between a Rawal and the Rev JH Budden is very interesting and ended with the reverend gifting the rawal with the New Testament and a copy of the genesis. But what is interesting is how the Namboothiri rawal explained his conviction - He is rather a young looking man, and has the appearance of a southern. His speech also bewrayeth him. He affects great liberality of sentiment in religion; and, after the usual formalities, began by saying that God is one, though there are various methods of worshipping him on earth, all equally acceptable to him, as many roads all lead to the same place; and that the various objects of worship were but so many different manifestations of him. He continued by declaring that kindness or benevolence was the chief thing. I am not recounting this in full as it goes into a number of pages, for those interested please study - The Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, Volume 31, pages 49-53.

A question remains – Sankara, a Nambuthiri himself, abhorred Nambuthiri rigidity following the issues he faced with his mother’s death rites, but insisted on one and his customs at the Badrinath temple, hmm… food for thought?? Perhaps some wise person will answer me…

Ah! Well, spare a thought for those guys who brave the inhospitable weather and spend years in those terrains. Someday I hope to meet one and tell you his side on the life he spent in the abode of the gods…

The sacred complex of Badrinath – Dinesh Kumar
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism V2
Hinduism Ancient and Modern: Baij Nath (Lala)
For details of a trip there, read the Badrinath & Mana Story 
Indian Engineering, Volume 34 edited by Patrick Doyle
Eric Shipton: Everest and Beyond - Peter Steele
Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism edited by Alf Hiltebeitel
The throne of the gods: an account of the first Swiss expedition to the Himalayas - Arnold Albert Heim, Augusto Gansser

Note: Originally, the Char Dham referred to a pilgrimage circuit encompassing four important temples—Puri, Rameswaram, Dwarka, and Badrinath—located roughly at the four cardinal points of the subcontinent. The Chota Char Dham, is an important Hindu pilgrimage circuit in the Indian Himalayas. Located in the Garhwal region of the state of Uttarakhand, the circuit consists of four holy sites—Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath