The Ashtamangalyam set
The 8 auspicious objects
We have moved around a lot and the mini Ashtamangalyam set has been with us since ages, traveling through the continents. The other day Annu who saw it asked us what the significance of the set was. Assuming that they were the usual implements for a Pooja, I stated so. I am sure Annu would have figured out that it had to do with sacred or auspicious items being a Sanskrit student, due to the word mangalyam. But it is or shall we say was common in Kerala Nair houses for many years and still remains a popular item, adorning many a living room and forming part of the curio array, so there must have been some deeper significance, right? I decided to dig deeper into the topic to get to the details. I cannot say I was successful, but came to some conclusions anyway, which are detailed here for those interested , or those who want to spend a few minutes reading up something that may present some amount of nostalgia….
Click here if you want to read it.
Let us start with looking at the number 8. Each number had many associations in Hinduism and many stories attached to it. A great article covering many of those symbolisms can be read at the linked site, here. Let me summarize some of the connections with 8, briefly. The earliest Vedas mentioned eight Adityas (solar gods) and eight Rudras. Then again Goddess Lakshmi had eight forms, Lord Vishnu had eight Shaktis, Indras vasus (attendants) are eight in number, and of course space itself is divided into eight ruled by the Vedic gods Indra, Varuna, Kubera, Yama, Agni, Niruthi, Isana and Vayu. Coming to personal salutations, you did it in eight ways or did a sashtanga namaskaram with 8 limbs of the body. Yoga or ashtanga yoga itself has eight sections yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharna, dhyana and Samadhi. Eight further manifests itself in many ways, in the eight forms sexual enjoyment - Darshan, Sparshan, Keli, Kirtan, Guhya Bhashan., Sankalpa, Adhyavasaya and Kriyanavritti (Looking, touching, flirting, praising her qualities, speaking to her alone, wishing to acquire her, being near her and physical intercourse are the eight types of sexual enjoyment types defined in ancient scripts). The significance of eight continues on with eight brahminical qualities, eight visions, eight ears of Brahma, eight rasas or emotions in drama, eight auspicious visions, eight methods of worship, eight types of misfortunes, eight forms or Ganesa and Siva (ashta murthi), ashta bhogam, ashta abishekam and so on….in summary eight is a very important number.
But what is ashta mangalyam? It is perhaps related to the eight forms of Puja or worship? Marriage in Kerala always had ashta mangalyam associated with it. So was it related to worship? Let us check that out.
The eight forms of worship are apparently with water, sandal paste, flowers, incense, light, grains, sweet and fruit. So we have a Kindi for the water, a tail lamp and a mirror for the light, a tray for the flowers or fruits, a small vessel or a bronze urli for the sweet (perhaps kalkandam or sugar), a para for the rice offering, a cheppu for the vermillion/sandal paste..But while this was the concept, it evolved over time to include agar bathi stand, triple lamp, camphor stand, hand bell etc to make it more like a puja set. The set itself is constructed of bronze. But then again, it was not used for a Puja during the ceremony, but was associated instead for the welcoming of the ‘to be wed’ or newlywed or during the wedding ceremony itself as an adornment for good luck. It is also sometimes a gift given to the new couple, and associated with mangalyam as in a wedding as far as Kerala is concerned.
In one description, we note that this is a procession to the marriage pandal with eight auspicious objects…Just around the turn of the 20th century, we had a talikettu description as follows - The marriage itself begins with the Ashtamangalyam (a procession to the marriage Pandal with the eight auspicious things) and Pattiniruthal (seating for song), at the latter of which a Brahmani or Pushpini sings certain songs based upon suitable Puranic texts. The girls and other female members of the family, dressed in gay attire and decked with costly ornaments, come out in procession to the Pandal, where the Pushpini sings, with chenda melam and the firing of pop-guns at intervals. After three, five or seven rounds of this, a cutting of the jasmine placed in a brass pot is carried on an elephant by the Elayad, or family priest, to the nearest Bhagavati temple, where it is planted on the night previous to the ceremonial day with tom-toms, fireworks, and joyous shouts of men and women …... ( Census of India 1901)
Dr V Sankaran Nair opines that Ashta (eight) mangalyam (marriage or other holy occasions) consists of eight articles that carried on a large metal plate or bronze vessel for offerings. Ashta mangalyam are prepared in different ways. (1) Rice, paddy, tailed mirror, sandal, reddish kumkum, kajal, Grandh (book) and washed clean cloth. (2) Nira (paddy), Nazhi (rice), mirror, flower vessel, vilakku (small holy lamp), adorned girl, gold. (3) Paddy, rice, betel wine, areca nut, coconut, jaggery, banana and vilakku (small holy lamp). (4) Nirapara, Vilakku, mirror, gold, coconut, curd, book, cheppu (small pot). Brahmin, cow, fire, gold, ghee, adithyan (sun), water, king are also considered as Ashtamanglyams.
We find that in most Nair ceremonies, bringing the ashtamangalyam to the locale is a tradition. For example we see that it is done during Thiruvathira too - Just before midnight, when the Tiruvatira star sets, the women sing devotional songs, go to the place where the ten flowers (dasapushpa) are kept and bring them ceremoniously with Nilavilakku and Ashta-mangalyam to the house. Then follows Pathira Poochoodal or flower adornment at midnight.
The ashtamangalyam is also common when the bridegroom is received at home. From Thurston’s studies, we note that the eight articles are symbolic of mangalyam as in marriage. They, i.e the eight objects are placed on the floor Western room of the traditional nalkettu (Padinjatte) which is used as a bedroom. They should be present as the bridegroom enters it through the eastern door with his groomsman, with the bride entering through the western door together with her aunt (or another elderly lady),after which the bride stands facing the ashtamangalyma, towards the east. The grooms-man hand over the pudava to the bridegroom, who in turn hands it over to the bride. The aunt or elderly lady sprinkles rice over the heads of the bridegroom and bride and the lamps. The bridegroom then leaves the room, he gifts betel leaves and nuts to all elders in the Thekkini. Then he retires with the bride in the bedroom.
We note also that girls carrying lamps and ashtamangalyam receive the bridegroom at the bride’s place and in certain parts of Kerala, for the marriage function itself. The bride and bridegroom are received with lighted brass lamps (Some state that eight girls are involved in this reception) and Ashta Mangalyam and the groom is made to sit on the right side of the Kathirmandapam and the bride on its left, both facing the east. In a nambuthiri marriage, the groom according to old tradition is offered the ashtamangalym at the Illam. From lalithambika’s writings we come to note that widows are not allowed to touch the Ashtamangalyam, which signify that it is related to auspicious beginnings an luck.
Even for the marriage rites prescribed for Ezhavas by Narayana Guru, there would be a neat and beautiful wedding platform in the middle of which a sacrificial lamp and the ceremonial articles of Ashtamangalyam would be kept.
KM Panikkars description of the ancient talikettu kalyanam – A pandal or decorated tent is put up in the village. In the middle of the tent so erected is kept the Ashta mangalyma (Sanskrit word Ashta = 8, mangalyam = happiness giving). The ashtamangalyam consists of a measure of paddy, some rice, an absolutely white cloth (to show purity), an arrow (to show warlike character of nairs), lighted lamp ( uninterrupted prosperity), a looking glass, and a cheppu ( Malabar equivalent of a powder puff) and a blossom of the coconut palm.
A not so brassy and perhaps more authentic sounding explanation can be found in this video.
We see thus that as time went by the sacred objects were condensed into a portable tray, changed into Pooja items instead and are mainly symbolic and kept for luck and usually polished and showcased. Over time, the bronze tray nowadays more like a pooja tray has the following
A para – (Kerala rice measure) to hold paddy
A lamp (Nila vilakku) – signifying fire
A Kindi – vessel with spout for water
A mirror replica – Been always there…
A camphor/vermillion holder - Cheppu
A bell – new artifact for effect?
An Urli – vessel to hold rice
A changalavatta lamp – holding oil and the lighting wick, again a new entrant
The Grantham (holy book) the fresh cloth, paddy, rice, betel leaves, areca nut, coconut flowers etc form the elaborate floor setting. But with passage of time, and the need to have this as an auspicious package in a new home, the set took the shape you see in the picture. It was later a popular wedding gift, to close relatives.
Aspects of nair Life – KM Panikkar
Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Volume 1- By Edgar Thurston, K. Rangachari