Wealthy Indians revive ancient fire ritual

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.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 11:33 PM

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.

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.

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