shrauta-tantric traditions related to the vIran ravi-s of the chera country

While the shrauta tradition all over bhArata preserves the archaisms of the early Aryans in certain parts, it has developed unusual local accretions. While the shrauta traditions in the interiors of Thanjavur and Maharashtra are amongst the most conservative (unlike what White Indologists have claimed) the nambuthiris of the chera country have some distinctive neomorphic accretions. Their R^igvedic recitation is unlike any other in the nation and largely lacks the usual svara renderings. Instead they have their own peculiar triplications next to each daNDa and the elongation of anunAsika-s next to naked vowels. However, this is not what we intend discussing here, instead we shall look into the legend of the vIran ravi-s and their role in the shrauta traditions of the chera country.

The vIran ravI or the nampiTi is the chieftain of Kollengode (the ironsmith’s town) known in Sanskrit as ayaskArapura. The chera text known as kAshyapa-kShetra-mAhAtmyam states that ramo bhArgava had constructed a medicinal tank in this region. The chief of nichuLapura was a certain dharmavartman and his wife was droNavatI. dharmavartman was afflicted by a skin disease and came with his wife to rAmo bhArgava and asked for treatment. The bhArgava asked him to bathe in his medicinal tank and on doing so dharmavartman was cured of his disease. There, the chief worshiped prajApati and was graced with a son name hemA~Nga. When they finally were returning to nichuLapura, hemA~Nga was swept away while they were crossing the ikShumatI (Malampula). An ayaskAra from ayaskArapura saved him and reared him up as his son and he lived in the forest as hunter. Around that time a fierce rakSha name bali was terrorizing the region. The bhArgava pursuing him attacked him in the forest. In the battle that ensued rAma was struck by an arrow of the rakSha and was lying wounded in the forest. While roving in the forest in search of prey, hemA~Nga found the bhArgava lying wounded and taking rAma’s axe went in pursuit of the rakSha. After a stiff fight hemA~Nga killed bali in the forest. Pleased by this the bhArgava made him the king of the region. But he remained a brahmachArin and died without successors. In the mean time dharmavartman had also died. So rAma brought droNavatI and installed her on the throne along with brAhmaNa-s with the 64 villages of the region as advisers.

Then sUrya assuming the form of a brAhmaNa came to ayaskArapura and impregnated droNavatI. As a result she had a son who was named vIra ravi, who after coming of age become the ruler of the region. During his reign the original brAhmaNa-s of the chera country performed a grand shrauta ritual to which the failed to invite the great rAmo bhArgava. Displeased with this the bhArgava invoked indra and implored him to teach the arrogant brAhmaNa-s a lesson. The great vR^itrahan assuming the form of a fierce shyeNa swooped down upon the yAga and carried away the soma, the darbha, the blackbuck skin and the fire. He deposited them at the “hill of kAshyapa” in vIra ravi’s palace. He told ravi that these objects would be in ravi’s control and that only ravi could give them to brAhmaNa-s seeking to perform rituals. He also stated that they could be released only with rAma’s permission. indra also granted vIra ravi 1/6 of the merit of the sacrificial ritual performed by the local brAhmaNa-s. Before leaving indra invoked the AgneyAstra into vIra ravi’s feet and giving him special sandals asked him to never walk barefoot. Then rAmo bhArgava arrived and instructed him to hand the ritual elements to the brAhmaNa-s only if they formally requested these from him and asked him to perform the worship of indra through the aindravrata from then on. He also initiated the womenfolk of the ravi clan headed by droNavati to perform the aindra-vrata and departed.

The vIran ravi-s claim ancestry from this clan. In recent practice they are matrilineal and the deceased vIran ravi’s nephew via the sister is initiated to become the next vIran ravi. His entourage consists of 999 nAyar-s who are warriors well-trained in high-level kaLari arts. His initiation ritual is conducted by a special nambuthiri who presides over the kAchAnkurichi temple and is known as avarodha. The nambuthiri using a tantricized form of the mantra: “yata indrabhayAmahe tato no abhyaM kR^idhi…” invokes indra and give the new vIran ravi a pearl necklace. By this he becomes an embodiment of indra. Then considering indra to be residing in the ravi he offers him ShoDashopachAra pUja. Then the nambuthiri ties a golden chain on the right leg of the new ravi. Then he writes the bIja raM on his feet, the bIja laM on his palms and vaM on the ravi’s forehead. Then the nambuthiri invokes agni into the ravi with the mantra: “raM jAtavedase sunavAma somamarAtIyato …”; indra with the mantra: laM trAtAram indram avitAram indraM…” and varuNa with the mantra: vaM dhIrA tvasya mahinA janUMShi…” and install the deities in him. With this the vIran ravi is fit to enter shrauta yAga-shAla-s when rituals are underway. Then the nambu invokes agni using the tantric AgneyAstra and dinAstra mantra-s into wooden sandals and gives them to the ravi to wear even in the temple from then on. After that the nambu makes the ravi take an oath that he would give soma, kR^iShAjina, and the sacrificial material to all legitimate brAhmaNa-s wishing to perform shrauta rituals, and that he would protect brAhmaNa-s and cows from kaNThaka-s and dasyu-s. The nambu then ties his hand to one of the four hands of viShNu in the temple and gives the ravi 12 tumblers of rice. At this point the ravi becomes the agent of viShNu. Then invoking the deities of weapons as in a raNa-dIkSha, the nambuthiri hands over to the vIran ravi, a club, sword and shield. The ravi is also then eligible to dine in the same room as brAhmaNa-s.

The matriarchal succession of the vIran ravi-s and their association with their 999 nAyar followers suggests that they might have been nAyar-s by origin. Even the origin myth involving the impregnation of droNavatI by sUrya in the form of a brAhmaNa suggests that the vIran ravi-s might have emerged from a nambuthiri-nAyar saMbandha. While inscriptions suggest that he used the title of varman, there is no evidence that he wears an upavIta like a kShatriya who has undergone saMskAra. On the other hand there is connection between at least some nAyar old pallava warriors who might have had a Iranic component. They were probably absorbed in the kShatriya functional guild but did not acquire the thread despite performing certain vaidika rituals.

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