The Tipplers of Kerala

The Malayali and his drink

Numerous jokes can be seen circulating about the Malayali fondness for drink and so many scenes can be seen on television and the movies. The mimicry circuit is replete with many depictions of the drunken Malayali, while the somber and orderly queue in front of the beverages shop is testimony to the seriousness with which the average Malayali sets about the task of purchasing his liquor of choice in order to get thoroughly sloshed.

The statistics are staggering, for Kerala is right up there near the top when it comes to alcohol consumption. The World Health Organization finds that the average Indian drinks 4.3 liters of alcohol a year and in Kerala, it was 10.2 liters a year and the highest per capita (14.5 per cent) liquor consumption in the country. Borrowing the words from an evocative Malayali writer Yohan Chacko we can picture the drinker… Tying and retying his lungi/dhoti, each time a notch higher lets you know how many pegs he has downed by the level of the knot. At the pinnacle of intoxication the knot will be placed one palm’s width below his armpit almost like a girl wearing a towel on her way to the river for a bath. And they will sing. And sing and sing. For the amount of coaxing they would otherwise need to get on a dance floor, the drunk Malayali will put Shakira to shame.

Many ask the question - It is ok to have a recreational drink or two or even three, but why do these fellows insist on getting plastered ever so often? Let me assure you, it was not so easy to find an answer even after racking my brains a lot and checking out the backgrounds of every serious Malayali drinker I knew or know. Is it in the genes, the social make-up or is it the expected norm in Kerala?

In the hoary past, drinking was not very common or popular in the state. Toddy was tapped and the Thandan (palm tree climber and tapper) supplied the fresh drink to just a few. We know that the Nair soldier sometimes drank before setting out for war, this has been so attested. Rare members of the gentry perhaps did, but drink was largely abhorred by the upper classes. We also saw in an earlier study that the Romans brought in amphorae of wine, perhaps for their own consumption. While arrack became popular later, It is interesting to note that the prevalent form of alcohol distillation producing a more potent Arrack (itself an Arab term), has an Italio-Arab (the Chakanad Bhatti) Moghul origin dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries (they used to have much weaker Gandhara bhattis or stills before that).

Medieval Kerala had Namboothiris on the top of the social ladder, who drank rarely in those times but the Nairs had the sanction to drink by virtue of their being soldiers, fighting for various local chieftains. The lower classes did, but the Moplahs did not drink, whereas the Christians did. Richard Burton explains an interesting reasoning, in his diary dated 1850 – Although quite opposed to the spirit of Hindu law, intoxication and debauchery never degrade a Nair from his caste. The Christians had better relations with the Portuguese and the Dutch and therefore had access to more exotic drinks from the west, such as wine, brandy. The lonely Englishmen in India found solace in booze, sometimes drinking himself to a stupor setting the standard for the observant Malayali. The Malayali always looking for equality in society, quickly picked up on these aspects to show that he was no inferior to the Englishman, not realizing that drink is addictive. Drinking soon got popularized by the film crowd and the arty lot, so not only did the common man get affected, but also the intellectual, with the excuse that drink cleared up the mind and allowed thoughts to flow. But let’s take a deeper look.

In the very early times, Hinduism mentions use of many alcoholic beverages, starting with the Soma in Rig Veda. Some 13 different types can be found in early texts and while it was taboo only for Brahmins, were used by other castes. In almost all areas, the manufacture and distribution was done by the lowest castes. In early Kerala, we see the local chieftains in Kerala levying various types of kanams or taxes on liquor profits. They were Talakanam, enikkanam and kudanazhi. Talakanam was a tax paid by toddy tappers, enikkanam was the tax on the ladder used by tappers and kudanazhi was the custom of providing a nazhi (measure) of liquor to the taxing authority per pot of toddy (you may not believe it, but we also had a women labor tax called mulavila, manayira house thatching tax, Alkash or talavila, atimaikasu or slave tax, menippon gold ornament tax, mulaiattikaram etc. in those times).

1602 – Pyrarad Laval states- Had we not been liable to find our Nairs drunk with arac (which is a
kind of eau de vie made with the wine of the coco-tree), we should, in fact, have had no need of it at all, by reason of our letter of commendation, which ran in the name of the king: but that must not always be trusted to. Buchanan also details the method of toddy tapping and arrack brewing in Kerala which he documented while traveling through the country in 1799.

As the moral policies started to change with a change in governance, drinking became an accepted social pastime. That was obviously so when the British took over the reins in Malabar circa 1790. You can refer to the diaries of Wellesley who was campaigning against the Pazhassi raja and see that he had to have a number of arrack carts lugged by bullocks behind each troop movement of his. This was a requirement to keep his army motivated in the malaria infested and rain drenched jungles of North Malabar. That was how the British first created a quota of booze for the native foot soldier.

Many a family had a person or two serving that Army of the Raj in those times and later into the world wars 1 and 2. When they came home on furlough, they would bring the ration bottles, to have a merry vacation. We have seen this well documented in novels, short stories, dramas and movies. Very soon drinking became accepted and even popular amongst men, with the change of the social fabric. Class and caste distinction disintegrated and with the advent of socialism, people of all classes met more often in public, not just for important occasions but to discuss politics, the government, other local issues and their own problems.

In the early 1800’s the EIC implemented the abkari excise act, which was later imposed by the British government in 1858, and thus the sale of alcohol became a huge source of revenue to any government. In India. This was particularly of interest in places where controls never existed, and where tax collection was a huge issue for the ruling British, for it was a method of exhorting revenue for governance from the masses, i.e. by taxing the production and sales outlets.
Thus came about the abkari (excise) or ‘farming out’ system. In the so called Madras system the license to operate distilleries and open liquor shops were granted by auctions to the highest bidder. More and more such licenses were encouraged. Even though land tax was the main source of revenue, liquor revenue grew rapidly. Starting with 2% in 1874, you can trace a rise to 7% in the 1890’s, 10% in 1905 and 27% by the 1920’s, a whopping increase of 430%.

Kerala state's dependence on alcohol revenue echoes the British colonial era, says Dilip Menon, who has studied the issue. In the late 19th century, imperial rulers sharply raised toddy taxes, encouraging people to switch to more addictive, higher-octane and also highly taxed arrack, a distilled 34-proof brew made from fruit or grain, which stuffed state coffers and spurred alcoholism.

It was at this stage that some from the Madras presidency started to raise their voice against increasing cases of addiction. The Brahma Samaj started to incorporate it into its caste rules and the CMS took up the cudgels as well, telling its believers to abstain. But as regulations came about, we also see that the Madras system was fanned out to other parts of India and gaining acceptability. Heeding protests, taxes were raised to reduce consumption, police were authorized to act against illegal distillers etc., Gandhi arriving India in 1914 also took up the matter and the INA endorsed his words.

After independence, several states introduced prohibition as allowed by the constitution and even though neighboring Tamil Nadu did, the states of Andhra Pradesh, Mysore and Kerala did not due to their large fiscal demands and even refused central government compensation for the potential loss of revenue. Economic development and urbanization escalated the situation and instilled what we now see as class based drinking as against caste based drinking. The elite drank western style spirits while the lower working classes stuck to arrack and toddy, or sometimes lethal bootleg spirits. Soon foreign liquor and IMFL or Indian made foreign liquor became even more popular as the habitual drinker needed something stronger.

Just like the British got the masses of China addicted to opium, many governments in power in Kerala starting with the British, gradually increased the acceptance levels by integrating booze into state policy. Even though the statistics reported by the press are a bit skewed, you can still see the top tipplers list contains the names of the three states above, Andhra, Mysore and Kerala! Booze became a medium used to exhort the illiterate when larger body counts were needed by politicians and leaders, be it for meetings, agitations or processions. A promise of a free drink or a few would get the required headcount. Sometimes these drinks were spiked ‘for a higher kick ‘with all kinds of chemicals (varnish, methyl alcohol, battery skins / ammonium chloride) and many instances of mass deaths have been reported. And as you will observe, Kerala, an over-politicized and over-extended state has more than a procession or agitation every day.

But why did an otherwise literate Keralite get drawn into the negative world of alcoholics? The rapid increase in alcoholism and addiction in Kerala was thus brought about by easier availability, affordability and greater social acceptance of alcohol. Some might ask why religious and familial checks stopped working and how women also joined the fray. Well as regards gender, Kerala is one of the rare places where the gender border is but a thin line, though the drunkard’s wife is often the one who gets mistreated.

And as we all know supply of an addictive drink with some catchy advertising creates demand, and as demand increases, supply quickly catches up and this exponential growth created the situation we see in Kerala. Usually brakes are applied early by good governance, but the immense profits of the business created a very strong liquor (manufacturing & distribution) lobby which in turn started to establish indirect control on the decision makers and various arms of the government.

You could look at some depressing statistics culled from various reports, for some perspective - An ADIC-India study revealed that Kerala’s revenue from alcohol increased from US$ 6.5 million in FY 1987-88 to US$ 1.2 billion in FY 2013-14. In Kerala, where 22 per cent of the total government revenue came from the bottle, the total excise and commercial tax revenue from alcohol (IMFL and toddy) was close to Rs 8,000 crore. The Kerala State Beverages Corporation (KSBC) runs 337 liquor shops, all open seven days a week. Each shop caters on average to an astonishing 80,000 clients.

But blaming only the government is not necessarily right and the moral fabric of the user (who helped create the democratic government in the first place) has to be studied, so let’s go about trying to do that. The drinkers of Kerala are of many types. There is the occasional drinker, there is the habitual drinker, and there is the arty type. The occasional or recreational (as they are termed in the USA) drinker is relatively harmless, except that BEVCO sales are propped up by a large number of these people. The habitual or serious drinker drinks by choice, he has decided early in life that he has to drown his sorrows with the glass. Whether it is due to personal issues, a declining career or impeding bankruptcy, he somehow begs, borrows or steals to buy his drink as often as he can and is enveloped in a hazy alcoholic mist all day long. They are by nature dull and self-centered and difficult to change. He is the mainstay of all statisticians and is often studied by the academicians.

The interesting sort is the arty type, sometimes sporting a scraggly beard and generally looking unkempt. He is always rebelling about something and it could be as trivial as the dog show conducted by the bourgeois in town. He tries very hard to exhort others to follow his ideal, or his chosen brand of ‘ism’ (one of the many) or ‘ics’ (such as politics) failing frequently, thereby forcing him to choose a path of negativity as the day winds down. He can also be seen in the toddy or arrack shop or in the Bevco line. Some of them become famous later in the entertainment industry but are still influenced heavily by drink.

The intention of any of these serious Kerala drinkers is not to sip his drink, but to get drunk as quickly as possible. If they meet in a bar, the bottle once opened is never corked, but always finished in situ. In the old times, the bottle used to be military issue Hercules XXX (the drink of the proletariat), or the much venerated Old Monk rum - OMR but these days it is could be any of the many new brands popular in the global market.

In Kerala we see something else which is very interesting. Advertising is not required, but the booze joints have a rating based on the quality of low cost food they serve. In a state where there is little time and resource to cook good non vegetarian food, the lower middle class worker resorts to a drink and a bite at the ‘shop’. The toddy/arrack shop where the laborer retires to, after his days’ work (and very tiring bouts of grumbling), would sport an expert cook  well versed in the art of creating tasty ‘touching’s’ and great curries. Touching’s are usually very spicy ‘small eats’ chomped while polishing off the bottle. They are made of meat and sometimes with parts not used in larger hotels, making them very economical for the cook and the buyer, with the taste finely disguised with an abundance of spices. See a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Kerala if you want to get an idea of what I am talking about. If it is a party, it seems that they can even have (not so legal) mobile supply stations parked in the parking lot of your party site, replete with top class touching’s, from what I have heard.

Then there is the strong NRK (nonresident Keralite) influence - Check any airport arrival lounge in Kerala, almost all non-Muslim Malayali NRK’s (Close to 50% of NRK’s are Muslim)would be carrying the customary two bottles with him, mainly to please his parents, friends and in laws. Duty free shops in the Middle East as well as those in the arrival lounges have great pricing packages for the liquor being sold (typically - buy one, get one free), pricing them at a fraction of street prices, thus facilitating the purchase of these one and a half to two liter bottles of 50% proof alcohol per person. Take a look at some rough statistics. There are some 2 million NRI’s from Kerala (NRK) and close to 90% of them are in the Middle East. The Kochi and Calicut airports show some 5-7 million arrivals every year (Mumbai has 33 million arrivals). Imagine the amount of high octane booze which comes in, even after discounting the Moplah returnee!!

We also find that Kerala is a high salary state and so there is usually money left for recreation in a worker’s life (Only that the Keralite believes in a lot of recreation). It is also perhaps time to realize that the state is no longer economically deprived and has started farming out menial jobs to lower cost migrants from the North Eastern parts of India.

As justice VR Krishna Iyer aptly said - this is a trade where the turnover tempts the customer to take rolling trips into the realm of the jocose, the lachrymose and then the comatose. The jocose first sip, the bellicose second sip, the lachrymose third sip… And with the final gulp you become comatose and lie down somewhere, often not knowing where. If this happens at home, the wife gets beaten if she protests. With much of the income spent on the stuff, the family often ends up bankrupt.

He also asked - Who will dare dismiss a government for violating Article 47 of the Constitution written in 1949? The article for those who are interested is - ‘Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health’. It made me remember the story of the cat and the mice, with the question ‘who will bell the cat’?

So much of statistics is good for the policy maker or policy optimizer. But there could be another reason and that is the attitude of the Keralite. Ask yourself if it is an optimistic or pessimistic state. Check out your friends, your parents or relatives. An average person is always grumbling, hardly smiling, not happy with this or that, never contended with his life and always searching for utopia. This is also perhaps the reason why Kerala has a largest number of mentally ill persons (6% of population), a large rate of divorces (13K per annum) and a huge number of suicides (24 per lakh in 2014). Is that progress? Too complex a question I suppose and one that will require the average Malayali to nurse a stiff drink to come up with his valued opinion.

If I could comment in conclusion, I would say that instead of focusing on the Beverages Corporation or Chandy or Mani or whoever the CM is, focus on being happy, and you will soon discover that there are better routes to lasting happiness than the few pints of alcohol. Don’t get me wrong though, I am proud to be a Malayali though not at all proud of the above state of affairs. I am also not preaching nor will I, since I myself like a weekend drink, but then again, I do not get sloshed.


Economic History of Medieval India, 1200-1500 – Pages 55, 56
Goa, and the Blue Mountains, Or Six Months of Sick Leave - Sir Richard Francis Burton
Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: Volume 1 - Jack S. Blocker, David M. Fahey, Ian R. Tyrrell
Supplementary Despatches and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of wellington ..., Volumes 1-12

Pics - from the net - thanks to the uploaders, 

The Namboothiri Rawals of Badrinath

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 this 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 taken by the Pandavas during their 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 seeking 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 all 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 could not have created offspring!). After this time 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 among 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 over 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 own customs at the Badrinath temple??  hmm… food for thought?? Perhaps some wise person will answer me…

Ah! Well, spare a thought for those fellows who brave the inhospitable weather and spend years in those terrains. Someday I hope to meet one and tell you his side and 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