Agraharam - a forgotten cultural heritage space!

Agraharam. Tamil Nadu.

The Agraharam is a cultural heritage space in Kerala, but else where it is not.  The Agraharams, once a center of cultural activities a few decades ago,  came up on a land granted to Brahmins by the local  ruler or king for the simple  reason:  to look after the temples  and to reside there with their families. This is the reason why many Agraharams existed in close proximity to the temples - be they Shiva, Vishnu or Shakti temples.  Rulers from the Chola, Pallava Nayak and Maratha dynasties did build Agraharams and grant lands to the priests for livelihood and sustenance.  Practice of religion and maintenance of temples were the main reasons for setting up Agraharams close to the places of Hindu worship. 

 A small house in an Agraharam.

India being a land of  tens of thousands of temples, day to day life is evolved around  the temples.  Daily (Nithya) puja protocols/ rituals,  numerous temple festivals  had to be done acceding to certain Agama rules or norms, etc.,  required the presence of temple priests close to the Agrahara space.  The Palani  Murugan temple, Palani (Pazhni),  Madurai Meenakshi temple and Andal temple of Srivilliputhur are good examples. The traders and others near by depend on  visitors to these temples there. 

The general plan of an Agraharam is simple - rows of almost similar looking  self- contained houses with a common wall. They were built  on either side of the street  with a well or more than one to  get potable water depending on the places.  At the end of the street  there will be  a Vishnu temple and on the other end  there will be a Shiva  temple. The masonry structure will have just only one floor - ground floor and tiled (mostly  curved country tiles with a few stacked  layers; locally known as naatoddu) roof. Some may have a two-story structure consisting of a small part  with Madras terraced roof and the rest with tiled roof. Open yard (miththam in Tamil) inside the house, wide  front thinnai (raised platform/ pial with a slanting tiled roof  are common features. The number  and the size of open yards  inside the house may vary, depending on the financial status of the families, but it will be commonly three - for  reception, living space and kitchen. Open yard provides good aeration and light  and is also used for conducting household ceremonies. It may  be partly covered  atop. Many houses may have a  separate self- contained room meant for the menstruating women. Entry into the house is through a narrow passage - roughly 8 feet by 6 feet (locally called razhi). In the 1950s  toilets were set  a bit away from the living quarters. Some houses did have a separate shed to keep the cows and also bulls to  be used for pulling the cart. 

The question mostly asked by a Brahmin diaspora is: Why have the Agraharam houses in Tamil Nadu  disappeared fast in the last three   decades? (please refer to  the post  at: 

Indeed, it is a moot question and there are many reasons. Beginning in the 1960s young brahmin boys started venturing out of their native places upon graduation to seek  jobs in Chennai or elsewhere. Since the Brahmin communities of the Delta districts and other places had difficulty in getting adequate  income from their small land spread parents  did not mind sending their educated boys to take up  jobs in far-off places  to supplement the family income.  Farm labor had begun to  squeeze the land lords, both small and big.  As a section of  ambitious  young men armed with good academic records started going abroad to the US, Canada, Europe, etc., on scholarship, many households became deserted with no young men to take care the land and the house.  With dwindling younger generation, senior people in the Agraharam began selling their agricultural lands and also the house. The local temples can not give employment to a member of each family in the Agraharam. On top of it, priests (Archagas) taking care of the temple do not get enough income to run their families.  They received a paltry amount as  salary and were dependent on the ''Thattu Panam'' ( money placed on the Aati plate. Taking care of daily  puja rituals and keeping an eye on the expensive temple jewelry is a tough job. In the last one decade or more,  theft of temple jewelry and expensive antique metal  idols of god is on the increase giving heart burns to the temple priests and the management.   

Consequently in the gradually  shrinking  space in the left over Agrahara  one can see  Brahmin families that can be counted on our finger. Of course there are a few exceptions.  Labor and material costs being prohibitive, many owners have difficulty in repairing the crumbling structure. If the house is near an urban or a semi urban area it may fetch enough money to buy a house elsewhere. On the other hand, if the Agraharam is in a remote place it is worthless to repair the house. 

When the young people move out leaving behind their aging  parents, they would prefer a place closer to their son or somebody  to take care of their needs particularly,  health care. In the case of parents with insufficient income, situation will be pathetic.

Yet another underlying reason for the disappearance of remaining  Agraharam houses in Thanjavur district and elsewhere is due to political and social reasons.  Consequently, countless temples in the interior places of Tamil Nadu are either in a dilapidated state or no responsible persons are there to take care of them. In course of time in the future, they will become vestiges of once flourishing places of worship.