Agraharam - Brahmin community living space fast disappearing in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere !!

''Almost nothing is known about the true nature of the space-time continuum'' 
 ........The Lost Warship" by Robert Moore Williams

 In this transient world from  its  early beginning till now nothing is permanent. Old is always being replaced by new ones. Our heritage structures, living  space, culture, etc  face frequent changes with the march of time and  onslaught of modernity.  Caught in the ebb and flow of time  and change, the agraharams - once the serene, quiet and clean Brahmin settlements,
the space where one's early childhood life was spent and enjoyed, are gradually disappearing. However, some agraharams in Melattur,  Thippirajapuram, etc of Thanjavur District, TN and some  in Kerala still retain the past connectivity, old charm and the ambiance. 

''The agraharam: ....''the transformation of social space and Brahman status in Tamilnadu during the colonial and post colonial period''
                                                       C. J. Fuller
The name Agraharam or Agrahara is referred to the residential quarter of a village that may also have other communities belonging to different castes.  In some places an agraharam may include an entire village.  Also known as ''Chaturvedi mangalams'' in ancient times, agraharam has been in existence  for centuries across south India, in particular.  Several decades ago before (1950s) it was a living space exclusively for Brahmins only.  Brahmins,  by profession, were temple priests  in the very early days
A front par part of house in an agraharam, Palakad dist.

The name Agraharm itself refers to the garland shape of plan of the living quarter with  rows of houses on either side of the  street  and the temple to the village god at the center, thus resembling a garland around the temple. In some agraharam, as per traditional Hindu practice of architecture and town-planning,  the street  with rows of houses  runs north to south on either side of the road with one end of which there will be a temple dedicated to Shiva and at the other end  a temple dedicated to Vishnu.

In the early days  the traditional Brahmin settlement- agraharam was a unique feature of numerous villages. In Tamil Nadu  the composite district of  Thanjavur (prior to 1965), Trichy , Kanchipurm and Tirunelveli districts are good examples. Basically it is  a cluster of simple houses with common walls on either side, Madras terraces, country tile roofing, Burma teak rafters, pillars, lime plastering, proper ventilation and water facilities; an agraharam is a good model community living where they share the civic problems, temple festivals, etc., commonly. The settlement is located in such a way, the area slopes down to the near-by river. Proximity of  river  assures of copious supply of water,  as in such places the water-table is at higher level. 

Tazhvaram and Koodam, Agrahara house.

Above image: Tazhvaram and koodam, & adjacent  open spaces in agraharam (Photograph by Radhika Amin)

Brahmin women drawing Kolam, Sundarapandia agraharam

The following are some of features of an Agraharam:

 01. Based on the topography and  the nature of river flowing near-by and its banks, the settlement is built at higher levels. This way problems
related to water-logging and flooding  are avoided.

02. Invariably  the entire  agrahara village or the places where Brahmins used to live were grants from  the ruling kings of past era. Ganapathy agraharam near Thiruvaiyaru, Thanjavur District is a good example. The entire village is referred to as  ‘Agraharam'

 03. During the Chola, Pallava and Pandya  dynasties, the great rulers  granted agricultural lands for their household needs, etc., and  lands for housing the temple priests who had to take care of the temple administration, festivals,  rituals and six-kaala pujas regularly. Those  settlements  were later became known  as ''Chaturvedi mangalams.''   

04. The later rulers of Thanjavur, belonging to  Nayak  and Maratha dynasties  granted lands to the Brahmins. During the Maratha rule in Thanjavur, many agraharams were attached to the chatrams (travelers' inns) built by the  rulers.  Dabir Agraharam in Kumbakonam city (named after Dabir Pundit alias Naroo Pundit) who was a minister  under Pratap Singh (1739 to 1763) and later under Tulaja II. He introduced a unique revenue generating system called Dabir Muri system. Though this system was not implemented, it was the Collector of Thanjavur J. Cotton successfully adopted it.

05. Likewise, the agraharams and agricultural lands  in Kerala were donated by the rulers of Travancore and Cochin. The rulers of Mysore, now in Karnataka State,  donated many villages in the district of Mandya, etc., to the Brahmins who were temple priests. Further, in the earlier days the rulers patronized Mut  heads of Saivite  such as Aadheenams of Tamil Nadu and muts run by Shankaracharya's, Jeers and others.

06. In a typical agraharam  there used to be two or three potable  common water wells  in the same street for all the residents there.
07. In any house the common feature is the presence of a raised platform called Thinnai (pial) all along the front portion either side of the main entrance to the house with typical slanting country tiled roof, teakwood rafters and solid teak wood pillars. The overhang provides shelter from rain and reduces the glare in the building. It is a casual  lounging place/ seating area by day, where  visitors are received. Sometimes, it may used to discuss latest politics, agricultural matter or simply local gossip. In my early days the elders used to play cards to spend their leisure hours!!

 08. A typical Brahmin house consists of three  parts - the mudhal kattu (receiving quarters), irandaam kattu (living quarters) and moondram kattu (kitchen, etc.,). 

09. Almost all homes will have sky space or open court yard with gently sunken floor  above which there will be high tiled roofing  called mithaam ( a tamil word). In some houses with out sunken floor, in the above space, there will be what is informally called ' kalyana koodam'- tall Madras terraced roof with teak wood rafters and windows on side walls for better sunlight, aeration and reduced heat radiation. For extra safety to avoid burglary or entry of monkeys, etc the open space at ceiling level is covered with thick iron rods riveted to iron angles covering the entire open space. This space is used for conducting small family functions, ceremonies, etc.

The agraharam-style house . kalyana

 10. On the other side of the mudalkattu, the space around the mithaam  is used for receiving guests. and relaxation. This space will also have a swing (in Tamil oonjaal) with long wide wooden plank.  In some houses, there will be a small pooja room or space for puja.

 11. In the second portion (irandaam kattu) - the living quarters there will be bed rooms, additional rooms for storing valuables, etc.

 12. In the third portion (moondram kattu), there will be kitchen and dinning area, and storage space. There will be a separate room for storage of groceries. There will be a small puja room or recessed space  on the wall with door.
The kitchen will have a simple counter for cooking, etc., with  chimney above it. This part of the house will have well protected sky space for ventilation and provision for water. The hearth used to be a simple one. 

 13. All parts of the house will have sufficient gradient to drain water. Floor washing is done twice a week  and also on festival days. There will be a common spacious covered drainage provision and the  waste water will be collected  in the back yard garden where they will be absorbed by the soil and trees.

 14. Tulasi (basil plant) maadam (platform) and water well will be in the rear part of the  kitchen.  Since the advent of electricity in the early 1940s many rich families had installed pump motors to get water from the well.

15. Yet another feature is there will be a small  separate room with all facilities on one side of the house for the women who go through the monthly 'period' - menstruation cycle; normally women or girls  are not allowed beyond the room during this time.

16. The settlement is far away from the business district in the case of big towns,  so that it retains the residential character - quiet, peaceful, clean and tidy and no pollution.

17. A typical agraharam, 
a bastion of traditional Brahman community   in those days was not only a quiet residential settlement but also was a fusion of architecture and typical Brahmin culture. Life here starts in the early morning and by nine everybody will retire to his home. On weekends there will be Bhajans or some religious discourse in the temple there.  

Reasons for the disappearance of agraharams:

A garland with open ends - Agraharam - a remnant of our old heritage and part of Brahmin culture and ethos, has disappeared in many parts, particularly in Tamil Nadu after 1965  for several reasons 

a. Agricultural land reforms introduced in the 1950s and 1960s, 

b. Political ideology of divide and rule as propounded by the British and create enmity. That Brahmins occupied many government positions purely on merit prior to 1965 became an eyesore and a subject of serious debate. The Dravidian parties took advantage of the caste disparity in the society and the Brahmins scapegoats. 

c. Poor employment prospects in the state government due to introduction of quota system in the 1970s by the government in which merit was relegated to the backseat. 

d. Left with no recourse and option it resulted in the major migration of younger generation well- educated Brahmins to urban areas and western countries for higher education and  employments.

e. Because of fast phase of urbanization, existing houses are replaced by the modern building either by the Brahmin owner or a new owner. Maintaining the old styled homes with country tiles (Naattodu in Tamil) and  aging wooden rafters became costly and their availability was on the decline.

f. The  Kerala government  in the past was   making sincere efforts to preserve this old heritage site which is a good model of community living in the bygone days. Some agraharams come under the purview of the government and the owner had to get the permission to undertake some repairs. The government was particular about preserving the heritage value of the old living space.

Brahmin community is boasted  of high morality, integrity, Bhakti (devotion to God), ethics and practice of fine arts - Carnatic music - vocal and instrumental  and Bharata Natyam. They typified an intellectual community. The trend continues but not on a large scale in the present scenario. If there is one state in India where Brahmin-baiting is way high among politicians of a small section, it is Tamil Nadu.