Friday, March 31, 2017

Family Priests through four generations

Most Hindu families, like ours, have grown through religious traditions and customs followed over generations.  Worship of the family deity etc. was part of the daily activities besides the festival days, which are also many in the calendar.  The specially allotted worship room is maintained with great sacredness.  It is a strong rule that if the family had a 'Saligrama stone' it had to be worshiped with a water ritual [ಅಭಿಷೇಕ] regularly.  If male members of the family, in spite of knowing the rituals cannot do it due to their study or work routines, a priest was employed to carry out these on behalf, for a monthly fee.

When I was young, it was priest Puttaramaiah who was coming on a regular basis.  A tall, lean man whose house was more than a mile away in Jayanagar from where he used to walk barefoot every morning, in clean loin cloth [a second one to cover his chest], holy ash on his forehead and usually white-hair stubs.  The first to wake up at home was my grandmother, at five a.m. She would quickly finish the ablutions and make ready the worship room and then prepare for cooking as my father used to have his first meal early at quarter to eight before he left for work. Puttaramaiah used to come around quarter past eight or half past. 

Puttaramaiah was not extraordinarily equipped with the knowledge of the Vedas.  But he could smoothly do simple ಶೋಡಷೋಪಚಾರ ಪೂಜೆ.   His mantra chantings, ringing the bell, the smell of camphor and incense burning were part of the morning air.  My mother or aunt would pluck flowers [Barleria - ಸ್ಪಟಿಕ, Jasmine - ಮಲ್ಲಿಗೆ, Night Jasmine - ಪಾರಿಜಾತ, Crape Jasmine - ನಂದಿ ಬಟ್ಟಲು, Hibiscus - ದಾಸವಾಳ] from the garden for worship.  A lady seller brought betel leaves, required for the rituals, from ಎಲೆ ತೋಟ.

Puttaramaiah would do the ಅಭಿಷೇಕ to the 'Saligrama stone' and this 'charged water' [ತೀರ್ಥ] would be served at the end of the ಪೂಜೆ [worship routine] along with camphor flame [ಮಂಗಳಾರತಿ] to the members available.  In between he would have extracted paste from sandal wood pieces, both yellow and black varieties. The male members were to apply the black paste on their forehead.  My grandfather would return from his morning office work and have his meal at quarter past ten before he went to the Court at eleven.  Before the meal, it was a must that he took ತೀರ್ಥ and apply that paste [see photo] as a dot on the forehead.  Every meal is viewed as God's gift [ಪ್ರಸಾದ] and that dot also indicated that he has had his meal. That is the custom. 

The 'worship room' we had in our house at Devaparthiva Road where Puttaramaiah used to come.  See the large piece of vintage sandalwood under the Mantapa. It serves decades!

The photo below is during the 60th birthday of my grandfather in 1956.  You can see him along with other 'lesser priests' assisting the main priest [seen extreme left] in the ritual of pouring water. To his left is the priest whom he had succeeded.

Closer view.

Puttaramaiah became old and could no longer continue his priesthood from late 70s.  He went to Bangalore to live under the care of his son till his end.  So someone had to do the rituals here.  At this time, another priest, Ramaswamy Shastri, who had also been coming for other special occasions even before Puttaramaiah's time had met with an accident.  He was well versed in the Vedas, so was too busy to come daily. He had nominated his young son who was still a novice to help us.  He came for some months managing his school time for a few days a week until he too felt difficult. Brother took this up for some time. 

Puttaramaiah's predecessor was Narayana Shastri [N].  He had been coming since my father's young days in the late 1920s. Photo below is of the same 1956 occasion as above.  See 'N' facing the camera.  Young Ramaswamy Shastri [R] is seated next to a renown Sanskrit and Veda Pundit Gundavadhani [G] whose house was a stone's throw away from ours. 

Narayana Shastri sported a thin tuft at the back of his head.  It was tied into a knot.  He must have been connected to one of the temples of Mysore Palace.  He lived in a very small humble house near the Palace, behind where the present JSS building is. He was a widower and lived with his daughter, separated by her husband.  Her brother was an electrician and lived on his own earnings.  It was not a secret that they fought on trivialities and lived separately.

His voice was not pleasing but distinct with a little crackle and a bit hoarse.  He was a short-tempered  and impatient character which might have had a negative impact on his humble profession.  Making ends meet was tough for him and that had probably made him a little greedy to expect more and he was not shy to ask straight.  He was employed for the post death ceremonies of my grandfather in 1976 and I remember the occasion when an umbrella was donated to him had passed a comment that it was not good, much to the displeasure of my grandmother!  Knowing him for decades it did not surprise her.

A couple of  years after my father died in 1981, Narayana Shastri was engaged to do the annual ceremonies which I did.  Age had been catching upon him.  Then Ramaswamy Shastri used to be engaged after he had recovered from that accident but he was not the same.  He was also getting weaker.  Gradually, he 'retired' from such work as his son had also grown up and his family was reasonably comfortable.

Narayana Shastri became old and frail.  But he managed to come as long as he could, occasionally, to our house asking for financial help as even a meal was difficult for him and his daughter.  Priesthood of those days were different and difficult, unless one was qualified in the Vedas.  One day we heard the bad news that he had died.  His daughter was alone and she continued to visit certain brahmin houses she knew and we would give her a small sum to keep her going.  She had managed a small room somewhere to live and slowly she too vanished. 

Ramaswamy Shastri used to come on his green Raleigh bicycle from his house near Anathalaya [Devamba Agrahara].  He was much above the level of ordinary priests in several aspects.  So he was called for special occasions.  He also had a busy schedule.  Any call from "Subba Rao family" [grandfather], he never hesitated to agree to come, unless he had very important engagements.  

Ramaswamy Shastri was another tall, bespectacled man possessing a personality one had to respect just by a look.  And his voice was a very special one, deep, loud and resonant, which surely must have been trained by his long experience in chanting the Vedas. His pronunciation of mantras was crystal clear, a true joy to listen.  It still reverberates in my mind. For the Sacred Thread Ceremony [ಉಪಾಕರ್ಮ] annually, he was the main priest who conducted this - it was a mass event as people from the street also came - fine days that people cherish even now!  He was also the one who conducted the 70th year birthday celebration of my grandfather in 1966.  Picture below. The rhythm in which he shook the bell was something wonderful. 

On that occasion, I find in this photo, all the 4 priests who succeeded one another are in this single frame!  N, P, R and S.

Shankaranarayana Bhat [S] was the son of the priest at Sri Prasanna Vishweshwara Temple at Gita Road since 1940s and lived in the out house provided behind the temple.  He had been coming for many of our family events from his younger age also and so had good acquaintance. I will shorten his name to 'Shankar', but we referred him as ಭಟ್ಟ್ರು.  He was another great priest of high repute, had attained fine knowledge of the Vedas and knew the traditions and customs very well.   

Shankar's forte was his knowledge of Sanskrit, the Vedas, the traditions.  He was also a Yoga exponent, sported a finely shaped body, large lungs and sinewy biceps.  As a young boy I used to see him in awe.  His conducting the activities was par excellence, despite his temper which people knew was due to workload stress in his later years. So he was never mistaken.  His voice again was special, pronunciation proper and clear to the sound the mantras meant. He got angry if someone mispronounced some word and corrected it then and there and warned that the meaning would change, with an explanation.

In the 1970s the onus of the temple rituals fell on Shankar after his father died of old age.
Shankar had yielded to our slight compulsion to do the daily ritual in our house despite his busy morning engagements at the temple.  But when managing time became too tricky he substituted his son Prasad.  He too felt tight on time as he was also working.   

In 1998 I had moved to our ancestral house in Lakshmipuram.  Shankar was the one who did the customary rituals before we moved in. 

Worship room at the Lakshmipuram house. This portion of the house is also history now. 

Shankar's 'enlarged heart condition' had become worse and felt too weak to honour all requests, but by then, he had his son Prasad trained, up to a level.  Shankar's end had created a big void esp. in the temple.  

He was my favourite after Ramaswamy Shastri and was the last one whom we engaged, also to do my father's death ceremonies annually until he was fit.

Gradually, situations changed in the family and observing father's death ceremony was also taking a different shape.  In the meantime, the Saligrama stones also could not be attended to by any.  It is believed that if it is kept at home, it has to be taken care of by rituals.  So it was given away to his temple in his lifetime itself. 

Priesthood demands honesty in their lives too.  They are supposed to and not to do certain things.  It is with great pleasure to have known that all the priests mentioned above were sincere and lived up to the expectations in that regard.

This post is a tribute to their honesty, wholehearted and invaluable service they have rendered to our family at various times honouring our requests during occasions both auspicious and otherwise. We were fortunate to have had such ones.

Recorded mantras started to become available in cassette tapes [now CDs] to assist.  "E-priest!"  But nothing can surpass the physical resonance of a priest's chants.  I silently miss these great humble men. 


Unknown said...

Fine narration dinu

Raghavendra D R said...

Excellent chronicle of family priests!

Your writings (especially regarding bygone times) are a delicate mix of information, nostalgia, naturalness and humour. I really enjoy reading them.

Such a fine mantapa in your old house. Also, I spot some rare framed prints of deities - Sathyanarayana, Udupi Krishna(?), Kailasa Parvatha/Mt. Kailash(?). Do you still have them? What is the photoframe next to Mt. Kailash?