Casteism and Untochability
Untouchability, a social disease, has almost disappeared from our midst now. It had been instrumental in developing a perverse attitude in the society. It was a contagious disease rooted in casteism. Many atrocities were perpetrated on the downtrodden people in the name of caste and creed. The lower castes were treated as untouchables and their presence abhorred in the society. They had to cry out their very presence in order to save privileged castes from the sin of seeing those despised ones. This part of the subcontinent was a hell for the lower caste people. Vaikuntar chose to eradicate this practice by the following reforms.
Vaikuntar organized Samapanthibojana in each and every place of worship in the name of annadharmam. People irrespective of their castes had to sit together and have food prepared in temple. He did this too in a unique way.
During the festival season, from the very first day onwards, they used to set out to different places for collecting alms. On the eighth day of the festival food would be prepared, out of the alms collected, and served. The food is called as unpan and Ayya asked His followers to serve it out with their own hands. Ayya asked them not to use any spoon of or any such thing to make the people understand that everybody is equal and there is no difference among human beings. This practice is followed even today and thousands of people assemble here to participate in the samapanthibojan.
It was a time when one cannot imagine eating food cooked by lower castes. The Lord used to send His disciples to different villages and advised them to have meals with the low caste people. Once Vaikuntar sent a group of people with two of his disciples to a small village called Karupaarai, near Thalakulam. He asked his disciples to have meals in one Pitchammal’s house. She was a dhobi woman. The disciples returned to Swamithoppu without going to that village. Pitchammal, who had prepared food for the disciples as per the wishes of Ayya Vaikuntar, was awaiting them for quite a long time. But they did not turn up. Disappointed by this, she dug a pit and buried the rice and other items she had cooked for them. Knowing this, Ayya Vaikuntar instructed His disciples to go back to Pitchammal’s house and have food there. They reached there on the third day. On seeing them, Pitchammal dug open the pit and found the rice and other items as fresh as just cooked. The disciples had the food and praised Ayya Vaikuntar.
The second thing He did was the construction of community well. During those days, casteism was so rigid that each caste had separate wells. No person from different caste was allowed to draw water from the well. The Lord silently started to cleanse this dirt from the society by establishing the muthirikinaru. This was the first well in this part of the country where people from different castes came together and used the water.
The third and most important weapon devised by him was Thottu namam chattuthal – the practice of applying sacred namam on the forehead of devotees. In those days, lower castes were not allowed to enter the temple premises. Later, after the period of Vaikuntar, entry into temple was granted to lower castes. But, even today you can see Poojaris throwing the sacred ash and sandalpaste at devotees, Instead of applying it reverentially.
Vaikuntar advised the Gurus, to follow the practice of thottu namam chattuthal in every nizhal thangals. One has to bring the fore finger and the first finger together to apply the namam on the forehead. The namam is in the shape of Jothi.
During those days wearing a turban was a matter of social respect. There were rules restricting the lower castes from wearing a turban and dressing like that of the higher castes. The lower castes were not permitted to wear dhoti extending below their knees Vaikuntar wanted to eradicate this discrimination from the society and uphold the self-respect of the lower castes.
Previously, urimaikattu, now called cas urumalkattu, was a ritual in the lower caste homes. A turban was ceremoniously worn on a boy’s head when he attained the age of sixteen and it was celebrated in a grand manner. The practice was discontinued due to the harassment to the upper caste people. The lower caste people were not allowed to wear dress covering the upper part of the body. They were not permitted to wear a towel even on their shoulders. They could wear the towel only around their waist. They were not allowed to wear a turban even while carrying head loads. They were permitted to have a Summad made of paddy straw and palmyrah leaf.
Ayya Vaikuntar asked those people who came to him to wear a turban and a dhoti up to the toes. They did. Ayya practiced this democratic siddhantha to bring equality among the downtrodden.
“Kanthai thunikullei thanthen
Nan Kanagamani muthiriyum”
Now-a-days, both the Government and other Organizations conduct a training Programme before implementing a Project. Ayya’s novel way of conducting Ayyavazhi training was thuvayal panthy. Thuvayal panthy means integration and purification of a group. Vaikuntar integrated his followers and purified them at thuvayal panthy.
In those days, cleanliness was most wanting among the lower castes. Consumption of toddy and tobacco was a daily routine. Further, the lower castes would not forego fish in their diet. Vaikuntar wanted to bring a social change among the lower castes. So, he conducted thuvayal panthy. Ayya wanted his people to be vegetarians so that they could gain automatic respect in the society. So, he advised the thuvayalaras to be strict vegetarians. At thuvayal panthy, people were disciplined and they had sea bath thrice a day and they washed their clothes thrice a day. They used to have only raw rice and green gram cooked in salt water. They had food only once a day. This was practiced for six months at Vagaipathi.
Later, they moved to Muttapathi and thuvayalpanthy was continued there. At Muttapathy, they used only vegetables and bathing. After the completion of training at thuvayalpanthy, Ayya advised the thuvayalkaras to move to various parts of South Tamil Nadu. They went to different villages and spread Ayya’s cult throughout South Tamil Nadu.
Integration Through Love
Ayya Vaikuntar designed a flag for His movement. The flag is even today called as anbukodi, meaning flag of love. It is a saffron coloured flag with a single namam in the shape of jyothi on both the sides. Ayya preached that only love can integrate a society. The flag was hoisted at every nizhal thangal and at many houses in those days.
On the 20th day of Masi, thousands of Ayyavazhi followers march towards Swamithoppu carrying this flag. It is really fascinating to watch the march. The devotees ahnd over the anbukodi at the temple and have a darshan. This flag is the symbol of Ayyavazhi. Akilathirattu refers to this as vetrikodi, dharmakodi, virdhukodi, ottaikodi and also chandravarnakodi.
Ayya Vaikuntar established nizhal thangals to convene people at a common place and to take his holy words to the masses, Ayya established nizhal thangals at Chettikudiyirupu, Agasteeswaram, Paloor and Sundavilai in Kanyakumari District and Kadambankulam, Vadalivilai and Pambankulam in Tirunelveli District. Thousands of people have come here from throught Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The nizhal thangals have two small rooms. Some have a Unpanpurai also. Those who are conducting the daily rituals of the thangals are called as panividaikaras. The nizhal thangals attracted people and they served as the primary learning places of this cult. In some villages, the nizhal thangals served as basic schools.
Ugapadippu and Uchipadippu are chanted at least once in a week in the nizhal thangals. Annadharmam is part and parcel of a festival in the nizhal thangals. Normally, annadharmam is done once or twice a year. In many nizhal thangals, palvaippu is conducted once in a month preferably on the first Sunday of evey Tamil month. They prepare raw rice gruel and offer it to Ayya Narayanar.
The nizhal thangals are also called as Ayyapathi, Narayana swamypathi and Narayanaswamy koil. We could see people from different castes congregating here and chanting ayya siva siva arakara, arakara. Idol worship is totally prohibited in the nizhal thangals. Usually, a saffron cloth is spread over a chair, a Rudraksha is placed over in and a mirror is mounted on the wall behind it. The panividaikarar lights the kuthuvilakku daily. Ayyavazhi nizhal thangals played a major role in the socio-religious revolution.
“Avaravar thedum muthal Avaravar Vaithandidunko”
Ayya Vaikuntar advised his followers not to remit their full earnings as tax. In those days, the lower castes had to pay a large amount as penalty taxes. Further, the higher castes imposed taxes on the lower castes in the name of pari. Ayya Vaikuntar asked the King to desist from the collection of penalty taxes. Moreover, the lower castes had to work for the state with out wages. The lower castes, particularly Nadars, disobeyed the King by not paying the penalty tax and revolted against work without wages.
Before and during the period of Ayya Vaikuntar, Hindu religion was in the grip on Brahmains. They conducted day-to-daypoojas of temples in Sanskrit. Marriages were conducted chanting manthras in Sanskrit. This language was dominating the Hindu religion. The Brahmins considered Sanskrit as the language of the Devas and prohibited other castes from learning it. Ayya Vaikuntar was totally against this practice; so, he preached everything in tamil.
Ayya Vaikuntar designed a unique marriage ritual which is latter on called as Ayyavazhi marriage. In this marriage every thing is conducted in Tamil only. Ayya depicts this marriage as the marriage of lord kantha. Lord Shiva is the Guru and the marriage is assumed to have been conducted in the presence of Lord Vishnu. In this marriage the Bride and the Groom are seated facing the south. A Guru, preferably and elderly man of the villages, performs the marriage rituals. The Guru applies the sacred namam on the forehead of the bride and the groom.
The kalyana vazhthu, a part of Akilathirattu, is recited during the marriage. The Vazhthu begins with the line
”mavuni kalyana manavolai vazhthaluku” It contains fifty six lines. It normally takes seven minutes to recite the vazhthu. When the Guru recited this, everybody in the pandal repeats it.
In the course of the Kalyana Vazhthu the Guru will chant the following lines five times.
“Arakara endru solli Ammaiumai than ezhunthu”
Now the netire gathering chant the same lines after the Guru and the Guru gives the Mangala sutra (Thali) to the bridegroom. The next line is .. “siva siva endru solli thiru charadu serthanare” While chanting this line the bridegroom ties the Mangala sutra around the bride’s neck.
The remaining lines of the kalyana vazhthu praises the couple and bless them in the name of Ayya Vaikuntar. After the completion of the vazhthu, the couple will go round the manavarai five times. Thus begins their married life. This kind of marriages are being conducted for the past 150 years. Marriages are conducted at Swamithoppu temple also.