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  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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  Service to Vedas  
  Life-long devotion  
  A MISPLACED comma can make a world of difference as the judge realised when he pronounced a person guilty and decreed, "Hang him not let him free". Accidentally, he put the comma after "not", much to the delight of the defence counsel and convict. I remembered this apocryphal story when we found ourselves at Vadakkanchery in Palakkad district, instead of Wadakkanchery in Thrisoor district.

When my nephew and latter-day chauffeur Febin installed a GPS-based navigator in our car, I had implicit faith in his ability to reach any place without asking for directions. I was busy listening to the interview of a Malayali socialite from Mumbai on the Government of India conferring the status of an ancient language on Malayalam.

The interview on an FM station was hilarious and left us convulsed with laughter. What else could we do when she mentioned the names of three Malayalam poets as Jesudas, Mohanlal and Priyadarshan? She knew only a smattering of Malayalam and was dumbstruck when she was asked to recite two lines of any Malayalam poem. Finally she recited a popular advertising jingle, laden with English words.

Like a true devotee of technology, Febin was following to a T the constant directions given by the invisible female voice. So complete was his faith in the voice that we ignored every signboard which indicated that we had crossed Thrisoor. We finally reached the heart of Vadakkanchery, parked the car on the roadside and set the next destination as the State Bank of Travancore branch at Pathiyaram behind which lived Agnisarman Namboodiri.

For once we realised that something was wrong when the navigator showed the distance as 54 kms, when according to the direction SMS-ed by my friend Vijayan Punnathur, it should not have been more than 5 kms. Such was Febin's faith in the navigator that he did not even want to check with a local person. I remembered that though Adi Sankara was guided by a celestial voice to reach Mahishi to meet sage Mandan Mishra, he did not feel awkward about asking a local woman for final direction. She told him that Mishra lived in a place where even the birds spoke chaste Sanskrit.

I would not have been surprised if the person I asked for direction had told me that Agnisarman Namboodiri lived at Vrindavanam, where even birds could not but listen to the constant chanting of Sanskrit shlokas. Instead, he told me that we reached Vadakkanchery, instead of Wadakkanchery.

Suddenly we realised why the machine said the SBT branch was 54 kms away. No, it was not the navigator's fault but Febin's in feeding the wrong input. As we began following the shortest route being given, we feared that we would be late for Namboodiri's 88th birthday celebration. I wanted to reach early to witness whatever religious ritual was followed in honour of the birthday boy.

"Go straight, turn left and you will reach Mana (Malayalam word for a Brahmin's house)", said a lady we accosted. While I was happy that we reached the right Pathiyaram, my eyes fell on the teenaged boy clutching at the lady’s finger. He was mentally challenged. Among the disabled, the plight of the mentally challenged is the worst as few bother to care for them, save their parents.

A row of cars parked on the small road leading to Vrindavanam convinced me that we had reached the right place. However, a Christmas star that hang in the portico caused some confusion, which was soon removed when Vijayan's younger brother Satheesan Raja came running to receive us. "I was expecting your call on mobile", said Satheesan, attired in a saffron shirt with Vedic symbols, the primordial sound 'Om' and names like 'Radha' written all over it.

The single-storied modern house, set in the middle of a large, lush-green compound was swarming with people, all relatives of Agnisarman Namboodiri. Attired in their best, they all seemed to be in a celebratory mood. I did not have to look for the paterfamilias, whose 88th birthday had brought all of us together.

Bare-chested with sacred ash smeared on his forehead, the dhoti-clad, short-statured Namboodiri stood apart in the crowd as an epitome of dignity, nobility and solemnity. I learnt how considerate and caring he was when he asked his only grandson Yedu Krishnan to show us the bath room so that we could freshen up.

I remembered how the Zamorin of Calicut had asked Vasco da Gama, the stinking Portuguese trader and navigator, to go and take a nice bath before they could sit down to talk business. As I took out my notebook, he told me that we could begin our discussions once we had our food. Sadhya (feast) was already on in the adjoining room.

In the meantime, he enlightened me about the sacred thread that he wore. It was made of three threads and the knots were in accordance with some specifications. "For a modern person, this thread may not have any significance but for a tradition-bound person like me, it is a symbol of our very existence", said Namboodiri. "Even our women wear the thread". But then, is wearing tight-fitting jeans in Kerala's humid weather a sign of modernity?

If that was the yardstick, Namboodiri was a living relic of the past. But when he tells you that the essence of Christianity does not lie in the spires that pierce the sky but in the belief that there is only one God who created the Universe and who favours being good, and helps himself and humans act morally and survive, since everyone makes mistakes, you appreciate the catholicity of his views.

We were ushered into a small room, close to the kitchen, where we were served simple but delicious vegetarian food on banana leaves. I watched Namboodiri eat as I myself partook of the feast. Not many people know when to eat pappad, when to taste the tamarind chutney and when to have the small banana. There is as much science to eating as there is to cooking. Incidentally, a good eater like Namboodiri won't waste even a morsel of food.

I saw many rounding off the sadhya with betel nut and pan leaves kept in a brass plate. Tobacco in any form was not served with pan. Before I go further, I must tell my readers what compelled me to travel all the way from Kayamkulam to Wadakkanchery to meet Agnisarman Namboodiri. I have great respect for people who can memorise.

As a Sunday School student, I took up the challenge of learning by heart Psalm 119, which would have fetched me a special prize. All I could do was learn Psalm 117, which is the shortest. I remember one of my classmates winning the coveted prize.

This experience was at the back of my mind when a few years ago, while speaking at a church in Kerala, I offered to pay Rs 10,000 to the first Sunday School student who could learn Psalm 119 by heart within a month. Nobody came forward to claim the prize.

Thus when Vijayan told me that his father could recite all the 10,472 riks of the Rigveda, the world's oldest religious text composed between 1700 and 1100 BC, in both ascending and descending order, I literally stood up in wonderment. One reason why I always respected my friend and classmate Parameswaran Unni, an expert in Islamic banking, whose services Kerala Minister P.K. Kunhalikutty had requisitioned to set up an Islamic bank in Kerala, was his ability to recite Sanskrit shlock's.

If Vrindavan is the place where Lord Krishna was born, Vrindavanam is not the place where Namboodiri was born. "I was born at Edappal, near Ponnani in Malappuram district. Our mana was close to the residence of A.V. Kuttimalu Amma, one of the tallest Congress leaders during the freedom struggle".

When I asked him whether he was related to the late leader, Namboodiri chuckled and said, "There was no relationship. Don't we all claim association with the rich and the famous?" His sense of humour and his ability to laugh at himself were secrets of his health.

Born in a conservative family, Namboodiri was not sent to school for fear that he would lose his caste purity. Instead, he was taught at home. He began learning Sanskrit and the Vedas at the feet of his guru Narayanan Namboodiri. When he said, "I learnt by listening, not reading", I remembered the story about how Krishna and his elder brother Balarama used to learn by just looking at the letters and markers that their teacher would write for their benefit.

"I learnt at my Guru's feet 15,000 shlokas. He never took any fees from us." When it was time for gurudakshina, he was satisfied with Rs 5 and four dhotis that we gave, unlike Krishna's guru who insisted on delivering alive all his five children, who had died young. The first thing that he does in the morning after ablutions is to chant the shlokas section-wise so that they remain as fresh in his mind as ever.

That is exactly what one of my friends, whose melodious chanting I have heard to my heart's delight, does every morning. It was another teacher, Manthetta Narayanan Namboodiri, who knew that reciting Sanskrit verses alone would not fetch kanji and payar (rice and lentils), if not bread and butter, and, therefore, initiated him into learning Hindi. When the time came to marry, he took as his bride Radha Thampuratty from an aristocratic Kshatriya family of Thrisoor called Punnathur. Today her Tharavadu (ancestral home), known as Punnathur Kotta, is more famous as Anathavalam, the single largest place for captive elephants in the world, attached to the Guruvayooor temple.

Namboodiri took learning of Hindi so seriously that he acquired postgraduate-level qualifications in the language. For his first job as teacher of Hindi that fetched him a salary of Rs 25, he paid a "bribe" of Rs 500. When he left the job, sooner than later, he was promised that the money would be refunded. Fifty-six years later, he still waits for that Rs 500!

Incidentally, the first time he entered the portals of a school was to teach. The job gave him experience that enabled him to get a full-time job with Malabar District Board, which had 28 schools under it. He served in several schools before retiring from the Government Girls Higher Secondary School at Wadakkanchery. Since his retirement, he has been with Guruvayoor Devaswom as a Vedic teacher.

"Even today I am a teacher there, though there are no students to learn the Vedas. Nobody has the patience to learn the sacred texts. I won’t blame them. Who will learn by heart 15,000 shlock's?" No, he was not acerbic, just sad. His own children -- three sons and a daughter -- did not follow in his footsteps. There was a reason for it.

Since they followed the matrilineal system, his children were not considered Brahmins, as they took the caste of their mother. In traditional Brahmin families, it was the eldest son who usually married a fellow Brahmin. In his family, it was his elder brother who married a Brahmin. They had five sons and three daughters. All the sons learnt Sanskrit. One of them, Parameswaran Namboodiri, is capable of performing Vedic Yajnas. Another, Narayanan Namboodiri, who taught at Dayal Singh College in Delhi, before taking up a teaching job in Kerala did his Ph.D on Sriramacharita Kavyam, a Sanskrit text.

Agnisarman Namboodiri's own children took to non-Sanskrit-based professions. The eldest, Nanda Kumar, was a dealer in elephants, until laws made it almost impossible to transport the pachyderms across states. "I visited Sonepur in Bihar several times to buy elephants", said Kumar. Sonepur, where the world's largest cattle fair is held, is also where the schism between the Vaishavites and the Shivites first came to the fore.

Nanda Kumar's wife Rama Devi is a well-known film actor while his daughter Kripa anchors a TV programme and acts in movies. I was surprised that Namboodiri knew many places in our area. But then he stayed at Sabarimala for nine months to teach Vedas to Shri Krishnan Namboodiri, the then head priest, a few years ago. One loss he is yet to reconcile to is that of his younger brother, Bhavathrathan Namboodiri, a bachelor, who spent his life-time reading.

Every year Namboodiri attends Kadavallur Anyonyam as an examiner. To pass the test, a candidate has to recite Vedic verses. "For instance, I would ask the candidate to recite the 16th shloka of a particular section of the Rig Veda. If he delays even for half a minute, he will lose some mark". He was happy to show me the prestigious Nagakeerti Puraskaram, which he was recently bestowed with.

"I do not have much speed in reading as I learnt through listening, not reading. I also could not learn English. My English is limited to reciting lines like, "Ashoka was the youngest king of Ancient India. Ashoka is the subject. Was is the verb. Youngest is an adjective…" He speaks Hindi and Sanskrit fluently and grammatically. Even at this advanced age, he is a voracious reader and spends at least four or five hours to read books in Malayalam, Hindi and Sanskrit.

As we took leave of him, he gave me a dhoti and each of us a token cash gift as part of his blessing. Before I left him to his chantings, the purpose of which can be described as Om lokah samasta sukhino bhavanthu (May all beings everywhere be happy and free!), I promised him that I would return to Vrindavanam to celebrate his 100th birthday.

The writer can be reached at
Courtesy: Indian Currents
  By  A.J. Philip  
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