Aiyya Vazhi Cult


Aiyya Vazhi Cult 
1.Introduction
In India, the Brahmin myth called caste system determined the socio-religious, and economic rights of the people.  It was initiated to articulate the division of labour in the society.  In due course of time caste system became an oppressive force through the misinterpretation of it by the people of the high castes.  People in the lower strata of the society were torn, suppressed, subjugated, abused, tormented, and dehumanized by this unjust social, religious, and political structure.  Right to food, right to equality, and right to self-determination has been negated to a vast majority by the crude means of caste system.  The need for equality and social justice was realized a long time back in the history of humanity that produced new models for realizing it.  One of such model was the concept of Common Humanity.  In order to establish the concept of common humanity and its relevance we have chosen the Aiyya Vazhi cult as a model for our elaborate discussion.

1.1.        Common Humanity
Common Humanity[1] is a principle that stands for the total well being of the entire humanity.  It stands for the survival of all sections of the society irrespective of their social, religious, economic, gender, cultural, and caste differences.  Common Humanity envisions a world of Peacefulness, justice, and equality for the entire humanity.  For achieving common humanity, various attempts were taken from time immemorial, because, it encloses the whole humanity under one umbrella.  The importance of this concept is recognized when the place of peace, harmony and justice among human community is being robbed off by the vested interests of a particular religious or social or cultural or ideological group of people.  Thinkers and religious leaders envisioned restoration of the ideals of equality and establishment of an ideal living condition for humanity whenever necessity arose.  Therefore, the glimpses of this concept is scattered in all the religious traditions.  However, we will be using this term as an archetype of a socio-religious, political and economic order that negates discriminations based on caste, class and gender differences.  We have chosen the Aiyya Vazhi cult, as a model for its vision for establishing a just economic, social, political, cultural, and religious world for all.

1.2.        Evolution of the Concept of Common Humanity
The arrival of the English colonizers, the works of the Christian missionaries, the Oriental studies, and English education shook the foundations of Hinduism that was overpowered by the caste restrictions.  This awakening has led people to question the oppressive and inhuman forces in the form of protest and rejection.  In order to protect Hinduism from the colonizing forces and to reform and revive Hinduism from its caste restrictions, socio-religious reform movements like Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, and Rama Krishna Mission emerged.  In Travancore, it was Vaikuntar of Aiyya Vazhi cult [1808-1851], and Sri Narayana Guru [worked among the Ezhavas of Travancore] endeavoured to liberate the people of the lower castes from the clutches of caste prejudices and accomplish the task of achieving equality for the downtrodden masses.  In the paper, therefore, we have made an attempt to identify the ideological basis of Aiyya Vazhi Cult with a special focus on its vision for common humanity and its significance in the socio-religious and political context of Kanyakumari district, today. 



2.    Aiyya Vazhi Cult in Travancore

2.1 People of Travancore
Kanyakumari District was part of the small princely state named Travancore till 1956[2].  Travancore was inhabited with people of upper and the lower caste, namely, the Brahmins, Nambudiris, Nairs, Nadars, Ezhavas, Pulayas, Pariahs, and Kuravas.  Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam were the major religious traditions of the People of Travancore.  Discriminations on the basis of caste were exercised.  People of the lower castes were not even allowed to enter the Hindu temples.  Below the Sudras or Nairs there were Shanars called as Nadars in the South.  The Shanars cultivated and climbed the palmyra palm from which they drew the sweet juice that they turned into coarse country sugar to eke out a living.  The Nadars of Travancore claimed that they had been warriors and rulers, and had migrated into the state at the request of the kings of Travancore to be of service to them.  They are believed to have migrated from and through Tirunelveli from Jaffna.  Bishop Caldwell described them as belonging to the highest division of the lowest classes or the lowest of the middle classes.  They were considered as half-polluting caste and had to keep spatial distance from the high castes.  They were not allowed to carry umbrellas, to use footwear, or carry water-pots on their hips.  They could milk cows but could neither build houses above one storey nor tile them.  Kings ruled even at the arrival of the East India Company.  The Kings were forced to pay a large amount to the Britishers as tax, and in response they enforced heavy tax on the Nadars[3].  Religiously, Nadars were not allowed to enter into the temples.  Socially, the Nadars were considered as avarnas on the basis of the classical Hindu caste division.  They were considered as untouchables and as a result they were obliged to stay at least twelve feet away from the Brahmins.  Nadar men and women were not allowed to wear jewels or upper clothes.  On the other hand, the Nambudiris[4] enjoyed high privileges in the socio-religious arena at the cost of the underprivileged people.  Thus, the community of the Nadars suffered under the prejudices of caste hierarchy.  Their basic human rights were negated.  They lost their right to equality, self-determination, and living was negated.

2.2 Birth of Lord Vaikuntar
Mudi Soodum Perumal’, who was later called as Lord Vaikuntar, was born in a poor Nadar family at Swamythoppu, a village five miles northwest of Kanyakumari, in South Travancore, on 2nd Marth 1808 CE[5].  Vaikuntar’s parents were Ponnumadan and Veiyilal.  They were ardent devotees of Lord Vishnu, and therefore Vaisnavites of Hinduism.  As they had no right for property, they had their hut in the palmyrah gardens and coconut grove of landlord Poovander[6].  According to R. Ponnu, Vaikuntar’s parents themselves were praying for egalitarian society beyond all caste distinctions and the dominance of one caste over the other.  He got the vision of Lord Vishnu and claimed himself as Vishnu’s incarnation.  He challenged caste Hinduism and built new temples, named as pati’s where every one is allowed to enter inside and worship God.  He proposed a new religion of common humanity in the then emerging context of struggle for social equality and liberation.  Religious education was imparted and was intended towards liberation from social evils and discriminations that led to a new identity, self-respect and freedom in all spheres of the subjugated people.[7]

2.3 Religious Thought of Aiyya Vaikuntar
The preaching of Aiyya Vaikuntar and the ritual practices enunciated by him had two basic aspects.  At one level, he tried to alter the folk Hinduism of the Nadars and make it cohere with that of the upper castes.  At another level, he challenged the caste based inequalities suffered, by the Nadars and promised to eliminate the present Kaliyuga [age of despair] and usher in a golden age of Dharma [age of justice and peace].[8]  The cult’s propagation of several practices such as giving up ‘devil’ worship and animal sacrifices and adopting cleanliness and vegetarian food were all part of the upper caste Hinduism in Travancore.  This was an effort to bridge the gap between the folk Hinduism of the Nadars and the elite Hinduism of the upper castes.   The only exception to this was Vaikuntar’s opposition to idol worship that was his effort to wean away his followers from the numerous folk deities who were worshipped in idol form.[9]
            Vaikuntar taught that his mission was to save the souls from Kali.  He wanted to make a beginning for the slow demise of the unseen enemy Kali.  He strongly believed that in the previous yugas the enemies existed there in the name of Soora, Hiranya, Ravana, and Thuryothana.  Then, god came as Subramanya, Naraimha, Rama, and Krishna and killed them.  But in Kali yugam, the enemy is the unseen kali.  It has no structure: but is present everywhere.  It is within every human soul.  To destroy it, god wanted the entire power of the good, and therefore Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu incarnated as a single god in Aiyya Vaikuntar.[10]  Therefore, Vaikuntar himself laid the cornerstone for the liberation of the subjugated people and the establishment of an era of common Humanity.

2.3.1 Temple Worship
The temple of Aiyya Vazhi Cult is unique.  Unlike other temples in India, there is no idol, deepa arathi, priest to perform pujas and above all no hundi in the temple.  The presiding deity of the temple is Aiyya Narayanar.  The trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva united in one being is believed to have come to earth to save humankind at the end of kaliyugam.  Though there ar no priests in the temple in the traditional sense, there is one guru in this temple.  The devotees in chorus repeat the hymns sung by the guru.[11]  The presiding deity is a spear, holding a cloth folded in the shape of namam and with a large mirror behind it in the sanctum sanctorum.  The mirror is supposed to tell the devotee ‘first see yourself and you can visualize God within you’.  In the morning the worship starts with the chanting of a newly coined mantra ‘Aiyya siva siva arakara arakara’ and the main worship is done five times a day.[12]
            One who comes to worship the deity should make five pradakshanams and prostrate before the deity.  The idea behind it is that one has to control all the five senses before surrendering to the almighty.  The traditional Hindu practice of lighting the camphor and incense is prohibited in this temple.  Betel leaves, betel nuts, lemon, flowers and coconut are given as offerings.  After the worship is over the guru applies the sacred mud [Thiruman] on the devotees’ forehead in the form of namam.  A specially made gruel is given as prasadam to the devotees.[13]  The offering made to the deity is distributed to the devotees present in the temple.  The devotees offer prayer to the deity with their towels tied around their head, unlike the traditional Hindu practice of tying the towel around the waist.[14]

2.3.2. Simplification of Religion
Vaikuntar wanted to simplify the religion so that is could reach the common people.  In Hinduism, people worshipped several deities and each and every deity should be worshipped in a particular way.  The norms and customs were very difficult for the common people to practice.  The way of worship was also much complicated.  It was even believed that the different kinds of oil used for lighting the lamp yielded different favours.[15]   But Vaikuntar’s simplification started with the structure of the temple itself.  The nizhal thangals were very simple buildings and the worship at these places was also very clean not only mentally but also physically.  One can worship Aiyya according to his / her own will and pleasure.   No poojas; no poojaries; no karpooram; no agarbathi; no hundies.[16]  Equality is also strictly maintained here.  There is no difference between the rich and the poor.  When a devotee enters the temple with a turban on the head, and a full length dhoti around the waist and without any dress on the upper part of his body [for men only], he/she can see all other devotees dressed in the same way.[17]

2.3.3. Ahilahirattu Ammanai
Ahilathirattu Ammanai, is a historical ballad and the scripture of the Aiyya Vazhi cult is written by Hari Gopalan, one of the five prime disciples of Sri Vaikunda Swamigal vividly discusses the life and work of Swamigal along with a number of puranic and mythological accounts.  Along with the life of Sri Vaikunda Swamigal the incarnations of Lord Narayana have also been narrated.  The ballad clearly reveals its central theme as the story of the emergence of sri Vaikunda Swamigal to establish dharma Yuga.  Hid preachings and foretelling have been discussed spontaneously.[18]  The Ammanai sheds tears on the social and economic oppression and disabilities of the lower caste people.  A detailed list of taxes, imposed on the lower castes is also discussed in the ballad.  It is the sacred book of the Vaikunda Swamigal sect.  In the month of Karthigai eduvasitthal, the reading and the explanation of the ballad is very common in the pathis and Nizhalthankals.  Arulnul, a supplementary work to the ballad also gives various information on Sri Vaikunda Swamigal.  It also contains many prayer songs, which are recited by the people of the sect on various occasions in these days.[19]  Since the Ammanai criticized and condemned the then ruling king and the higher caste people, the printing of the ballad was delayed for some time and remained only in the form of palm leaves.  Fearing the opposition of the caste Hindus, the balled was not at all opened for systematic study.  It was only in 1939, the ballad took its printed form and circulated among the people.[20]

2.3.4. The Religious Language
The Vedas and Upanishads were the religious books of classical Hinduism.  These were in Sanskrit and hence, could not be learned by the common people.  Therefore Vaikuntar instituted that the language used in the temple and the nizhal thangals must be strictly in Tamil.  Aiyya Vaikntar used Tamil in temple worship so that even common people could understand the meaning of what they hear.  It is also very easy for the non-privileged communities to practice.  The marriage mantras are also in Tamil only.[21]

2.3.5. Protest Against Animal Sacrifice
Vaikuntar was a severe critic of animal sacrifice.  It was a period of superstitious beliefs that the lower caste people never prayed properly to their gods for blessings and gifts and attributed to their gods’ feelings, gentleness and compassion.  In order to prevent the evil influence of devil deities, the people tried to appease them to secure their fovour.  They sacrificed goats, cocks and hens.  The reigning sentiment was one of fear rather than of piety towards God.[22]  In ancient days, animal sacrifice was conducted even in very big temples by high caste Hindus.  The palipeedam as seen in almost all the temples bear testimony to this fact.  Swamigal condemned such religious customs and fought against animal sacrifice and libation of blood.  He never permitted His devotees even to break coconuts in temples.  We can see this being strictly followed by Aiyya vazhi devotees in the nizhal thangals.[23]  He said those who practiced sacrifice were not His people.  His followers took his words in the right sense and, there is no room for this evil practice in Aiyyavazhi.  His followers say that God who created all the living beings will not be happy if we snuff life out of his creatures.[24]

2.3.6. Abolition of Devil Worship
Contrary to the pre-existing religious practices of the Nadars, Aiyya Vaikuntar instructed his followers to give up ‘devil’ worship and idol worship. During this period devil-worship was firmly established and most commonly practiced among the lower caste people.  The belief in the power for mischief possessed by the devils…………………that even the Brahmins were not free from it.  The avarnas believed that the sorrow and trouble that befall them are all the work of invisible and malicious spirits.  And they believed in numerous inferior spirits, most of which were evil and destructive.  They used to offer prayers and sacrifices by way of propitiation.  Large numbers of pey-koils or devil-temples were found in the villages of lower castes.[25]  Their staunch belief in the evil forces made their life very miserable.  They thought that the primary cause of all natural disturbances and troubles were because of the evil spirits.  They considered the occurrence of disease as the result of demon possession.  They feared the devil-gods and made numerous offerings for pleasing them.[26]  Vaikuntar attempted to liberate the people from the influence of the evil spirits.  He openly declared that he had burnt all the devils [Ahilam:247]

2.3.7. Denunciation of Idolatry
Vaikuntar’s preaching about the temple worship was of great significance.  He discouraged idol worship.  He discouraged keeping Hundis [offertory box] in temples and also giving Kanikkai [offerings].[27]  Vaikundar asked the people not to offer sacrifices of goats, roosters and pigs to the deities.  Not merely animal sacrifices, he preached, but no other offerings such as eggs, fried meat and local edibles like ponkal, murukku, paniyarram, avalurundai and kadaiapal were asked for by the gods.[28]  Rather, leading to all sorts of meaningless ritualistic practices and giving birth to superstitions, the idol worship led the priests to exploit the illiteracy and ignorance of the common people.  Hence, he denounced idol worship and compelled his followers to detest and resist the same.  During the period of Vaikuntar, the lower caste people worshipped their gods in the form of images or idols.  Although they had no temples for their gods, they erected small pyramids of mud or bricks in their honour, plastered and white washed.  A large number of such pyramids existed all over rural areas.  He considered this kind of worship as an uncivilized custom.  He protested against worshipping images by his followers. He also disapproved animal worship.[29] 

2.3.8. Nizhal Thangal
Vaikuntar established simple hut like structure in seven places, namely Chettykudiyiruppu, Agastiswaram, Palur, Sundavillai, Vadalivillai [all in Kanyakumari District], Kadampankulam, and Pampankulam [in Tirunelveli District], where all the preaching were practiced.  These structures were locally known as Nizhal Thangals or Inanthangals.[30]  In appearance, the Nizhal Thangals werenothing but small huts that give Nizhal [shadow] to the people.  The people considered these Nizhal Thangals as the abode of dharma.  Vaikuntar used these Nizhal Thangals as an instrument to unite all the people, to feed the poor, to propagate his ideas, and to preach and practice equality among the people of various castes.[31]
            The common people call these Nizhal Thangals as Narayanaswamikoil or Narayanaswami pathi.  People of various castes come to worship in such Nizhal Thangals.  Festivals namely Palvaippuvizha are conducted generally twice or thrice in a year during which people offer dharma [offerings]to the poor.  Thus, it is obvious that these Nizhal Thangals served as the centers of Dharma Paripalana.[32]  Apart from feeding the poor, these places of worship, where caste based restriction on entry was not ……………………………………..Thangals, but only mass prayers, affirming the communitarian orientation of the cult.  Over the years, such Nizhal Thangals had proliferated in number and some of them doubled as village schools.[33]  Thus Nizhal Thangals are the places where religious rituals, idol worship and offerings were prohibited.  Worship for them is nothing but offering dharma in the name of Aiyya.  Thus, it served us an important institution in the socio-religious realm of the Aiyya Vazhi cult, because it revolutionized the mode and formalities of worship in temples

2.3.9. Thuvayal Panthy
Thuvayal Panthy was a set of practices[34] that was essentially meant to establish the importance of cleanliness and simple food [vegetarian], and it was first introduced at Vagaipathi near Kanyakumari.  The devotees who participate in Thuvayal Panthy had to take bath thrice a day and wash their clothes before attending Vaikuntar’s discourses on utchipadippu, ugapadippu, pathiram, sivakanda adikarapathiram, and other social aspects.  They had to give up their usual fare of fish, which the Shanars and other lower castes were obsessively fond of, and drink gruel made of rice and green gram cooked in seawater, that too only during noon they were allowed to have food.  A number of families participated in Thuvayal Panthy, and it was claimed that, at one point, seven hundred families participated in it.  The principle of cleanliness propagated through Thuvayal Panthy seemed to have become a general norm to the members of the cult.[35]  And the people those who participated in the Thuvayal Panthy were called as the Thuvayalkaras.  Vaikuntar asked them to go throughout the country and preach the Practice of Thuvayal Panthy.[36]
            Thuvayalkaras took only vegetables and boiled rice and used fresh water for cooking and bathing.  Thuvayal Panthy was also practiced while they were in family life.[37]  Through this organization Vaikuntar trained his followers to inculcate the idea of purity of thought and action and initiated the process of a sort of sanskritisation.  However, the Thuvayal Panthy established by Aiyya Vaikuntar was also an important factor that led to the abolition of the caste inequalities.  In practice, it was a movement aimed at achieving equal status for the downtrodden people.  The people of lower caste were less accustomed to cleanliness and proper sanitation due to their incessant work.  They were in a poor hygiene condition.  It was one of the reasons claimed by the high castes why the people of lower caste were considered untouchables.  Vaikuntar took notice of this situation and tried to mend the poor sanitary condition of the Lower castes.  Therefore, the Thuvayal Panthy initiated by Vaikuntar could be considered as one of the major movement to lift the status of the downtrodden people.

2.3.10. Dharma and Dhama Yuga

What is Dharma? Dharma is righteousness that underlies the law.  When this righteousnessis thought of as God, temple and religion, there will not be any interreligious rivalry, religious unrest ad conversions, Vaikuntar said that dharma yuga will dawn in the world gradually, not all of a sudden.  He says that dharma is the only way to reach God.  He preached that annadharmam is the most important of all the dharmas and whenever people reach a place of worship, they should worship God and go back with their stomach full.  Only then, people will have time to think of God and righteousness.[38]  Moreover in dharma yuga, there will be no caste but a single creed and religion.  There will be only one government.  There won’t be any difference between the ruler and the ruled.  There will be neither poverty nor disease. Dharma will be the God.  There won’t be any temple, police station or court because there won’t be any crime.  Dharma yuga will be a world of wholesomeness.[39]  His idea of the reign of dharma yuga made him a great humanist and an advocate of universalism.  His proceedings had an undercurrent of philanthropic approach.

2.3.11. Aiyya Vazhi Cult as a New Religious Sect
Vaikuntar’s religious reform was closely associated with the social reform, for they were complementary to each other.  The reason is that in the early nineteenth century religion had to be the principal and leading force in implementing all social changes in India.  Moreover, in a state like Travancore where religion was used as the pivotal force for conducting the day-to-day administrative affairs and where even kings themselves were enslaved to the Brahmin priests, Swamigal thought social reform would be possible only with religious reform.  He never established any religious system like Buddhism or Jainism.  However, with the emergence of his reform movement, a new sect of Hinduism appeared as a curious phenomenon in the religious history of Travancore.[40]  The followers of Aiyya are called as Aiyya Vazhi makkal [people who follow the path of Aiyya]
            The religions reform of Vaikuntar therefore left an everlasting influence on South Travancore society.  Though his religions reform challenged the Hindu orthodoxy, it neither encouraged the people to worship any particular God, nor to construct any temple or to conduct any ceremony.  He laid emphasis only on dharma or charity to attain salvation.  His principle, in its essence, is to see God in the smiles of the poor.[41]
He Said:
            Those who help the poor are my people.
            And they will attain the lotus feet of God [Ahilam: 170-171].

According to the religious doctrine of Aiyya Vazhi cult, one can see the invisible hands of God in the poor because God is with none but the poor.  Universal brotherhood and prosperity to one and all is the motto of this cult.  This ideology cuts across the narrow limits of caste, creed and religion, and his universal religion is applicable to all.[42]

2.3.11.1. Reverence as Aiyya
Vaikunda Swamigal assumed the status of Aiyya [father] to all his followers, who are generally called Aiyya vazhi [people who follow the path of Swamigal] or anbukkodi makkal [people who adopt the love-flag].  The followers of Swamigal affirmed that the worship of their Aiyya was really a worship of the Supreme Being.  His devotees became a separate sect of Vaishnavism in Hindu religious, for he had been worshipped as a manifestation of Lord Vishnu.  Though the followers were within the fold of Hindu religion, they apprehended the Brahmin priests and never entertained worship in Brahminical temples.[43]

2.3.11.2. Wearing of Namam
In Travancore, disparity was seen among the people in getting the holy ash from the Temple priests.  In the case of Sucindram temple, till 1928 A.D. the prasadam or holy ash was given in the hands of Brahmins by the Vattappalli or his assistant.  While it was thrown on a raised platform of stone near the rsabha mandapa to be picked up by the non-Brahmin worshippers.[44]  Therefore Vaikuntar  instituted the practice of wearing namam.  As a result the followers of Vaikuntar smeared tiruman [sacred soil] on their forehead and at times on the parts of their body as well.  It is a customary practice in pathis and Nizhalthankals to put the mark on the forehead to each and every worshipper in person and give tiruman to each individual in his / her hands.[45] 
            The emergence of the Aiyya Vazhi cult, thus, is basically bound to the socio-religious and political context of the 18-19th century Travancore.  Travancore was inhabited with people of upper and the lower castes.  Discriminations on the basis of caste were exercised.  People of the lower castes were not even allowed to enter the Hindu temples.  Economically, people of the lower castes were further subjugated through the imposition of various taxes.[46]  The jenmam and jenmies system and the ritual status added to the land denied the right of owning land for the lower caste people.  Politically the people of the lower castes were voiceless.  Dehumanization prevailed on the upper castes.  Punishments were severe for even minor mistakes.  People of the lower castes were forced to do menial jobs, which negated their identity.  Altogether the socio-political, economical, and religious context of Travancore was hostile towards the lower caste people, and therefore the groaning for freedom from the shackles of bondage was felt all over Travancore.
            The arrival of the English colonizers and the works of the Christian missionaries, on the other hand, shook the foundations of the Hinduism that was overpowered by the caste restrictions.  Therefore, the socio-religious and political situation of the 18-19th century Travancore paved the way for the emergence of aspiration for liberation in the form of Aiyya Vazhi Cult.[47]  The birth of Vaikuntar was a long a awaited one among the people of the lower castes of Tavancore, who were struggling under the caste restrictions.  When the English missionaries worked for the betterment of the Christian concerts from the lower castes, the condition of the Hindu lower castes was disheartening.  This could be the other reason for the emergence of this cult.  Therefore, it is the milieu in which people were groaning under the unjust social, political, religious, and economical conditions based on caste hierarchy, and the threat of colonization instigated Vaikuntar to oppose such unjust and mean treatment of the people of the lower castes.

2.3.12 Present Status of Aiyya Vazhi Cult

The Temples of this cult are known as pathis.  There are five important pathis viz., Thamaraikulam pathi, Samithoppu pathi, Muttapathi, Pallattu pathi and Duvaraga pathi [all in Kanniyakumari District].  Besides these, there are innumerable small pathis which are known as Nizhalthankals or Inanthankals.  At present, thousands of pathis are seen throughout the various parts of South India.  People of various castes like Nadars, Vellalas, Tevars, Nambiars, Yadavas, Pariahs, Barbars, Vannars, Nairs and Panikkars conduct these Pathis.  However, majority of the followers of this sect are Nadars.[48]
            The followers of this cult hold three festivals in Swamithoppu pathi in the Tamil months of Avani [August-September], Thai, [January-February] and Vaikasi [May-June].  Each festival is conducted for eleven days beginning with a flag-hoisting ceremony and ending with a car festival Interdining is an ordinary occurrence in the pathi.  Where the devotees bring rice and vegetable for the purpose of preparation of the sacred meal, called unban.  On the eighth day of the 11day festival, people of various castes, come from far and near, take their meals jointly with great enthusiasm.  An important feature in the major pathis is the presence of pandarams,[49] a group of mendicants who depended solely on the dharma, given by devotees.  They are ascetics who cast off their secular attachments and abandon all means of kinship.  In general, these pandarams are staunch devotees of Vaikunda Swamigal who always praised their Aiyya.[50]

2.4. Social Thought of Aiyya Vaikuntar
2.4.1. Radical Approach to Caste System

Aiyya Vaikuntar opposed caste-based inequalities.  In his preaching he condemned the excessive taxes and the uliyum services imposed on the Shanars by the Travancore king.  He told his followers that one of the crimes of Ravana, the mythological opponent of mythological Rama, was excessive taxation, and a just king, like the ancient Chola rulers, would not demand more than a sixth of the total produce a tax, and such a king would not even insist upon that.  Vaikuntar characterized the Travancore as Neesan [oppressor] and emboldened his followers that if a Shanar woman cursed the king everyday, the king would die.  He claimed, unless the king announced through drum beating that the Shanars were relieved of uliyum services, he would lose his right to rule.[51]

2.4.2. Head Turban
Vaikuntar made an appeal to the lower caste people to lead an independent life without any fear of the dominant castes.  He vowed to remove the humility which was imposed on the Nadars by the government and by the upper caste people.  During the time of Vaikuntar, the lower caste people were prohibited to wear cloth below the knee and above the waist.  They were even prohibited from using turban to carry any luggage on their head.[52]  They were permitted to use only a bunch of dry hay and palm leaves, locally known as summadu, on their heads.  He asked his followers to wear a turban while entering his place of worship.[53]  To use head turban was no less than a social revolution, for it had negated the caste supremacy and openly violated the prevailing custom.  It was a means of providing a sense of freedom to the oppressed people.  Through this practice Vaikuntar installed confidence and self-respect in the minds of his followers.  It led them to the shedding off their fear and all shades of subservience.  The practice of wearing a turban while entering the temple still continues among his followers during the time of worship at Swamithoppu.

2.4.3 Muthiri Kinaru
To Practice equality, Vaikuntar dug a community well at Swamithoppu.  This well was known as Muthiri Kinaru.  This was the first well of the region where all the caste, were permitted to scoop out water.[54]  While in Travancore society access to well was discriminated on the basis of castes [people of lower castes were prohibited from using the public wells in the village], Muthiri kinaru offered its water, which was believed to have curative power, to all castes-mostly of those castes that were below the Shanars in the caste hierarchy.[55]  The holy water was called as Muthiripatham.[56]

2.4.4. Table Fellowship
Vaikuntar regularly organized inter-dining or table fellowship among different castes around the Muthiri kinaru in order to abolish the feeling of untouchability.  People belonging to different castes brought uncooked food, cooked it with the water of Muthiri kinaru and ate it in a community feast along with Vaikuntar.[57]  Vaikuntar enacted this practice when people of the lower castes were forced to live in seclusion outside the village.  Also individuals of different castes were prohibited from seating in a single row or eating together during those days.  Therefore, it was an attach on caste Hinduism that avoided such fellowship on the basis of purity pollution and caste hierarchy.  Thus, Vaikuntar has successfully initiated the movement towards the achievement of equality.

2.4.5. Samathuva Samajam
Vaikuntar was very much longing for the establishment of equality among people of various caste groups.  His teachings were mainly centered on the protection of the rights of the underprivileged and guarantees equal rights for all.  R. Ponnu claims that Vaikuntar founded a society based on his ideals for the propagation of samattuvam [equality] known as Samattuva Samajam or Samattuva Sangam.[58]  But the present guru Bala Prajapati denied the claim of Vaikuntar forming an independent society as Samattuva Samajam.  Rather, he admits that all the teachings of Vaikuntar were centered on the central doctrine called equality.[59]  N. Elango has opined that the Thuvayal Karas [those who attended the Thuvayal Panthy] went to different villages and spread the doctrines of Samattuvam [equality] among various castes, and thereby gradually the society for equality gained momentum in the name of Samattuva Samajam.[60] 

2.4.6. Anbu Kodi
Vaikunda Swamigal gave much importance to love and charity in social life.  He considered these qualities as the bedrock of his movement.  In keeping with the cult’s spirit of undiscriminating love, Vaikuntar adopted a saffron flag with a white patch in the middle, known as anbu kodi [flag of love].[61]  He called his followers anbukodimakkal [people of love-flag].  The flag is red ochre in colour that is the symbol cf sacrifice and strong mind, with a white tridental mark that stands for purity, peace and love.  The mark is also in the shape of a lamp that expresses the idea of wisdom and justice.  In the pathis and Nazhal Thangals, the followers of Swamkgal even now hoist this love-flag.  The direction of the flag hoisted at Swamithoppu forecasts good and evil things.  If it flies towards the south, rain will be scarce, but if it flies towards the north, it will mean assured rains.  The devotees of Swamigal carry this flag in their procession on the incarnation day [Masi 20] of every year.[62]  Thus, the reign Vaikuntar envisioned was not on the basis of power, violence, or force, rather it was based on love, justice, and truth.  It was an endeavour of reclaiming the rights of the people, who were subjugated, ill-treated as non-humans, tortured, brutally assaulted, and massacred. 

2.4.7. Equal Status to Women
The socio-political, religious, and economic condition of 18th century Indian women in general was miserable.  They were uneducated, and were considered as mere animals kept for burden or for slaughter.  Traditions and customs were heavily loaded upon them.  In Travancore the social circumstances and daily life of the poor, low caste or slave women who are obliged to labour for their daily support, and sometimes have nothing to eat on any day on which they remain idle, present a direct contrast to the comfort of higher section as might be expected from the condition of extreme and enforced degradation in which they have been so long kept, and the contempt and abhorrence with which they are universally regarded, yet they are human as well as their superiors.  They work hard, suffer much from sickness and often regarded, appears in the laws by which a man’s partner in life may be sent off at a moment’s notice.[63]  Caste regulations required low-caste female to carry the water pot only on the head, not on the hip or side.  Even in the early part of the 19th century, Vaikunda Swamigal urged for their liberation from the oppression of caste-ridden society.  He exhorted women to fight against every form of oppression.  He stressed the chastity of womenfolk.  He appealed to the people to protect women and to discourage their vice.

2.4.8. Upper Cloth Revolt
The Brahmanical tradition says that Parasurama prohibited the lower caste women from adorning themselves with jewels and from covering their bosoms.  The Brahmin women alone could enjoy the right to wear jewels and breast clothes.  Of course, they also moved about in their houses exposing the upper part of their body.  The Nair women were not accustomed to cover their body while in the house but, when they went out, they covered the bosoms with a piece of light white cloth.  The Nair women were required to appear with bare breast before the Nambudiris.  They would cover their middle with a long piece of cloth hanging down but seldom going below the knees.  They felt no shame to expose their charms by leaving the upper portion of their body above their waist uncovered.[64]  The Nadars like the other lower castes were prohibited to cover their bosoms.  The manner of dress prescribed for the Nadars consisted of a single cloth of coarse texture, to be worn by males and females alike not lower than the knee or higher than the waist.[65] 
            Vaikuntar opposed the denial of right to Nadars women to wear shoulder cloth.  In order to put the deprived classes on equality with the upper caste people, he encouraged his people to wear shoulder cloth and to carry pot on their hip.  There were strong reactions among the upper caste people to this.  It was an affront, and the defiant attitude enraged the government and the upper caste people.  The result was that retaliation in a murderous manner with impunity followed.  Orgy was let loose.  The upper caste people beat the lower caste, females, stripped their cloth, prevented them from carrying the pot on the hip and forced them to follow the past customs.[66]  However, the Nadars continued to strengthen their right to wear upper cloth and finally succeeded. 

3.   Evaluation of Aiyya Vazhi Cult’s Attempts for Common Humanity
The Socio-religious reform movement organized by vaikuntar produced far-reaching changes among the downtrodden people.  Hailing from a depressed community, he vehemently criticized the upper strata of society and their governmental machinery.  His revolutionary teachings gave a rude shock to the feudal social set up of South India and Travancore, in particular.  This was the first open mass agitation against the fossilized customs of society.  Through his reform activities, he became the pioneer of the social reformers of modern South India.  However, the common assumption is that the Aiyya vazhi cult is exclusively related with the empowerment of the Nadar caste, aline.  And the questions put forward by critics are: what is the role of Aiyya vazhi cult in the achievement of common humanity in general?  What are the attempts of Aiyya vazhi cult in attaining equality for the people of the lower castes other than the Nadar community?
            In answering to these questions it is interesting to note that initially the adherents of this cult were from the Nadar community alone.  One of the reasons could be that Vaikuntar himself belong to the Nadar caste.  On the other hand, it is equally important for us to notify the development it underwent in the past two centuries.  Also, the intention of Vaikuntar was not to establish an exclusive cultic worshiping community for a particular caste, rather his vision was inclusive in its content.  It is evident from the teachings of Vaikuntar himself that the avatar of Vaikuntar is for the restoration of equality and dignity for eighteen castes [which includes Nadar caste also].[67]  And through the field research the researcher has identified the devotees of this cult is not only limited to the Nadar caste of Kanyakumari alone, but people of different lower castes of Kanyakumari as well as neighbouring districts of  Tamil Nadu are given equal importance in conducting worship and ownership of the Nizhal Thangals [worship places].  An ideal society is the one that provides individuals the right to freedom and protection, the right of equality through the cessation of all discriminations, and the right to participate in governance of the society and its decisions.  This is actualized through this cult.
            The divine intervention in the restoration of peace, justice, harmony, and total well being of the humanity finds another evidence through this cultic formation.  Vaikuntar himself had to undergo the atrocities on the basis of caste system through which he became aware of the cruelty of caste system.  This could have motivated him to instigate a movement against the caste system.  On the other hand, western colonizers in regard to the social religious and economic arenas propagated a wave of new ethos of freedom.  This also influenced the people of Travancore to aspire for restoration of human dignity and respect in the form of cultic formation.

            The consolidation of Aiyya Vazhi cult through the years was fruitful in such a way that much of its efforts were highly appreciated even by the new generation.  The shift in its function from a mere movement of protest against caste inequality to the emergence of a well furnished religious cult beyond caste, religious tradition that stands for equality and human dignity that we name as common humanity.   Here we have one humanity; one religion; and one caste.  And the whole humanity is the descendents of God; no one is superior or inferior, rather everyone is equal.  Ideologically it is sound, but its effects are little short when we consider the present situation of Kanyakumari district.  The existence of caste differences can still be traced in Kanyakumari.  Therefore, new modes of praxis-oriented religious doctrines based in the realization of the vision of Vaikuntar needs to be evolved. 

Conclusion
The emergence of the cult of Aiyya Vazhi was for a wholistic development of the humanity.  The attempts of Vaikuntar were centered on reclaiming dignity and well being to the followers.  The self-respect achieved through this cult is remarkable.  It is people’s movement for the attainment of equality, human rights, and self-respect.  Society is envisioned not as the force of enslavement rather the place where love peace, justice and harmony is assured.  A shift in the understanding of religion is achieved through breaking the backbone of the religious setup, where the religious Hinduism was used to subjugate and manipulate the people of the lower castes.  The practices of Thuvayal Panthy, Samathuva Samajam, and Nizhal Thangals are revolutionary as well as self-redemptive in its content and essence.  The concept of common Humanity finds its maximum fulfillment through the model of Aiyya Vazhi Cult.










[1] Common Humanity’ is a term use by S. Wesley Ariarajah to prove the universal relationship of God. For him, there is only one God who is the creator of everything and everybody.  Bible speaks about the whole human family in which Adam and eve are the prototypes of the common humanity of all people, S. Wesley Ariarajah, The Bible and people of Other Faiths [Geneva: W.C.C., 1985], 1-3.
[2] Joy Gnanadason, Forgotten History: The Story of the Missionary Movement [Madras: G.L.T.C.R.I. 1994], 24.
[3] Ibid., Joy Gnanadason. Op.cit., 24-25. Cf. also Bishop R. Caldwell.  A History of  Tinnevelly, [New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 982], 4.
[4] The Nambudiris are an exclusive group of Brahmins peculiar to Malabar.  They were at the apex of the social structure and who functioned as the trustees of temples and misappropriated for themselves vast temple properties and endowments.  They extended their power and domination in the socio-economic, religious and political arena whereby exploited the Nadars of Kanyakumari Cf. Joy Gnanadason, op.cit., 20-21. Cf.also. L.A. Krishna lyer. Social History of Kerala:vol:II-Dravidians [Madras: Book Centre Publications, 1970], 46-47.
[5] R. Ponnu, op.cit., 40. Scholars like N. Elango, and Vijaya Shanthi Elango suggest that the year of Vaikuntar’s birth could be 1809 C.E. Cf, N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, op.cit., 5. Cf., N. Vivekanandan, Ahilathirattu Ammanai: Moolamum Uraium Part-I [Nagercoil: Vivekananda Publishers, 2003], xiv.
[6] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, op.cit., 5.
[7] R. Ponnu, op.cit., 40.
[8] M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 179.
[9] M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 180.
[10] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 14.
[11] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997, 17.
[12] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 17.
[13] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 18.
[14]N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 17.
[15] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 36.
[16] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 36.
[17] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 36.
[18] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 90.
[19] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 91.
[20] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 90.
[21] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 36.
[22] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 37.
[23] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 37.
[24] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 38.
[25] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 67-68.
[26] Samuel Mateer, Land of Charity [London:n.p., 1871], 213-214.
[27] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 15.
[28] M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 179.
[29] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 66.
[30] M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 179.
[31] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 56-57.
[32] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 57-58.
[33] M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 179-180.
[34] N. Elango and Vijaya Shanthi Elango claims that it was a kind of penance initiated by Vaikuntar that which the followers are obliged to practice, Cf, N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World, op.cit., 13.
[35] M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 180.Cf. also, N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World, op.cit., 13.
[36] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World, op.cit., 13.

[37] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World, op.cit., 13.  Cf also., R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 58-59.
[38] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 38.
[39] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 39.
[40] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 64-65.
[41] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 62.
[42] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 62-63.
[43] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 68-69.
[44] K.K. Pillai, The Sucindram Temple [Madras:n.p., 1953], 265.
[45] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 69-70.

[46]Ivy Peter and D. Peter, Samaya Thondarkalum Samudaya Marumalarchium [Tamil], [Nagercoil: Kanyakumari Institue of Development Studies, 1999], p.60; NagaaaaaaaaAiya, V., op,cit., 25-29; R.N. Yesudas, op.cit., 5, 30-31; Ward & Connor, op,cit., 102-104;C.M. Agur, Church History of
Travancore
[Madras:n.p., 1903], 573-586.
[47]R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 40.; M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 177;  N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 5; K. Pachaimal, Ahilam Vasana Kaaviyam [Nagercoil: Krishna Press, 1971], ix; N. Vivekanandan, Ahilatlurattu Ammanai: Moolamum Uraium Part-I [Nagercoil: Vicekananda Publishers, 2003], xiv.
[48] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 100.
[49] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 102.
[50] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 103.
[51]M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 180.
[52] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 53-54.
[53] M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 180.

[54] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 8.
[55]M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 181.
[56] N. Elango & Vijaya Shanthi Elango, Ayya Vaikuntar: The Light of the World [Theru: Jeya Press, 1997], 14.
[57]M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 181. Cf.also., R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 55-56.
[58]R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 54-55.
[59]Interview with Bala Prajapati on 10.01.2006.
[60]Interview with N. elango on 10.01.2006.
[61] M.S.S. Pandian, “Meanings of ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Nationalism’: An Essay on Vaikunda Swamy Cult,” Studies in History 8/2 [July-December, 1992], 181.
[62]R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 60-61.Cf also., S.M.L. Lamshmana Chettiar, Folklore in Tamil Nadu [New Delhi: n.p., 1973], 28.
[63] R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 61-62. Cf als., Samuel Mateer, Native Life in Travancore [London: n.d., 1871], 203-208.

[64]Samuel Mateer, Native Life in Travancore [London: n.d., 1871], 112.
[65]R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 75.
[66]R. Ponnu, Sri Vaikunda Swamigal and the Struggle for Social Equality in South India, [Madurai: Ram Publishers, 2000], 62.
[67]R. Harigopalan, Ahilathirattu Ammanai [Nagercoil: Aiyya Vaikuntar Thirukudumba Pathippagam, 2000], 253.

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