Wealthy Indians revive ancient fire ritual

IN MUNDUR, INDIA For dozens of centuries, Hindu priests have performed an elaborate 12-day fire ritual, chanting hymns, making offerings to the sun god and praying for a world free of negative energy.

The tradition faded in modern times, and pious Hindus fear it could die out as young Indians embrace a Western lifestyle and a culture of lavish spending.

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Shankaranarayanan Akkithiripadu teaches his 8-year old grandson, Shankar, to memorize and chant thousands of verses of Sanskrit rhythmic incantations from the ancient holy Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda, in the same manner that it has been taught for over three millennia.

Shankaranarayanan Akkithiripadu teaches his 8-year old grandson, Shankar, to memorize and chant thousands of verses of Sanskrit rhythmic incantations from the ancient holy Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda, in the same manner that it has been taught for over three millennia.

But in this rapidly modernizing country, new money is also reviving old traditions. A group of mostly urban professionals has teamed up to help conduct the fire ritual this spring in a village that last witnessed it 35 years ago.

"We want to do our bit to ensure that Indian culture survives," said Neelakantan Pillai, a banker and member of the newly formed Varthathe Trust, which is organizing the event. "In the new, emerging India, people are ready to open their wallets, write checks for such efforts."

Across India, wealthy professionals are expressing a newfound pride in the past, and using their money to preserve it.

Minor Hindu festivals are now being celebrated in big cities, thanks to corporate sponsorships. The chief of India's largest information-technology company, Infosys, donated more than $5 million to Harvard University for a project on Indian classical literature. Urban Indians are downloading Sanskrit religious verses as cellphone ring tones.

Some of the endeavors, analysts say, are building a critical bridge between globalization and God.

Only two old men in the lush-green southern state of Kerala still know how to perform athiratram, perhaps the world's oldest and longest religious fire ritual.

Every morning, Shankaranarayanan Akkithiripadu, a frail 77-year-old, smears sandalwood paste and ash on his forehead and arms, and ties his thin, gray hair into a tiny tuft above his left ear. He then begins teaching chants to young men, rushing to pass the tradition on before April, when the event will be held in the village of Panjal.

"This is the most supreme and the most difficult of all Vedic rituals," he said. "It cannot be learned from watching videos or hearing CDs."

Vedas, which means "knowledge" in Sanskrit, are Hinduism's oldest sacred scriptures. They comprise tens of thousands of hymns that describe the worship of nature, performance of rituals and the mysteries of existence.

Athiratram and other rituals have been transmitted orally over centuries to a chosen few - from teacher to pupil, or father to son in the elite Brahmin community, the highest group among India's rigid, vertical social hierarchy. Today, only 10 Brahmin families in Kerala are eligible to conduct this ritual, Akkithiripadu said.

The village last witnessed the ritual in 1975 when an American professor raised money around the world to revive it. Frits Staal, a professor of South and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California at Berkeley, filmed the event and wrote a book about it.

Before Staal's arrival, athiratram was conducted in private by a clutch of Brahmin families.

"For the first time, it was opened to outsiders, not just foreigners but also Indians of all castes," said Sivakaran Namboodiri, a doctor who will be one of the chanters in April.

Back then, the event was funded by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Humanities and Western universities. But this year, the money - more than $200,000 - will be raised in India.

Staal and a team of Harvard students are expected to attend.

A large altar will be prepared in the shape of a bird, dedicated to the ageless god of fire, Namboodiri said. Animals will be sacrificed, but only symbolically. Milk, butter, fragrant leaves, medicinal twigs and rice will be poured into the fire.

The stage will be set ablaze as an offering as the ritual ends.

The elders say that each time athiratram is performed, an unseasonable rain occurs and an eagle glides over the site.

Priests say that athiratram is difficult to perform. The chief conductor must survive on milk, fruit and wheat during the 12 days. He cannot scratch himself, or shave or speak to anybody. He must keep his fists closed tightly for the entire period; they are pried open with hot water and clarified butter after the ritual. The fire must be lit by rubbing two pieces of wood from a special tree against each other. Sometimes it takes hours to stoke a flame.

On the 11th day, priests believe that all the gods and goddesses come down from heaven to listen to the chanting of a special hymn.

"If it goes wrong, the main priest at the ritual will die the following year," Akkithiripadu said. "It is the ultimate ritual for chanters like us."

In 2003, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the tradition of Vedic chanting a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. That distinction has helped raise money and sharpened the focus on preservation efforts.

"How did our ancestors preserve this large corpus of Vedic material without written text?" said Sudha Gopalakrishnan, who helped conducted the government's research for the UNESCO proposal. "The chanters acted as human recorders and transmitters. But now, so much has been lost in the last 100 years."

When Gopalakrishnan was 12, she attended the 1975 ritual in Panjal with her grandfather. "It rained immediately after. It was a revitalization of a long-forgotten tradition," she said.

But many say that India's unbroken oral traditions stand little chance of surviving in the 21st century.

"Technology is the only way now. It will soon cease to flow from one generation to the next orally," said Vinod Bhattathiripad, 45, a cyber-crime investigator who created a Web site that documents the practices and scholarship of the Brahmins of Kerala.

Bhattathiripad said that his father "looks at my Web site and says, 'I wanted my son to become an engineer to move ahead, not to go back in time.' "

 
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