Monday, April 01, 2013

An Iyengar Family

Sunday noon: I am in Triplicane, the nucleus of everything Iyengar in Chennai.

The blazing sun has emptied the streets around the temple; only a sprinkling of shrivelled elderly men, naked except a thin white dhoti around their waist and the elaborate Vaishnavite mark on their foreheads, lie half-asleep in the shade of trees or verandahs of their crumbling houses.

I am in the home of Thirumalai, whose son Ramanujam is standing erect under the spinning ceiling fan. “Here, look,” the son tells me, “my head is not touching the fan. But my younger brother has to duck all the time. He is 6 feet 3, I am only six feet.”
Ramanujam may be narrowly missing the fan, but even he has to bend each time he enters his home and goes one room to another — so low the doors are. “Our house is like a hut, sir, the kind you see in villages. This must be about 150 years old,” smiles Thirumalai, 57, as he watches his strapping son demonstrate the negligible gap between his head and the spinning blades.

Thirumalai, who works in the advertisement department of a local paper, also grew up in such hut-like houses, including this one — all in Triplicane — but not tall enough to have to negotiate fans and door frames. But given his young sons’ heights and their lofty ambitions — Ramanujam, 22, wants to be a financial analyst and his younger brother, who is 17, a fast bowler for the Indian team — he may finally have to consider moving to a new dwelling someday.

That would also mean moving out from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first.

Over time villages metamorphose into towns, and towns into cities — but the bustling metropolis of Chennai, in existence for nearly four centuries now, still holds on to its bosom small clusters of such village houses that date back to the ancient times.

These houses are part of the agraharam, or the garland that the humble dwellings of Brahmins have historically formed around a big temple — in this case, the eighth-century Parthasarathy temple.

Whether these huts stick out like sore thumbs in a modern city, or whether modernity sticks out like a sore thumb in a setting that so belongs to a folktale — depends on which side of heritage you are in. But Triplicane is a living museum. Changing times may have stamped out the garland-formation but there are remnants from the holy necklace that continue to preserve the old — lock, stock and tradition.

Thirumalai’s house is right next to the temple; and the room we are standing in is the largest in the house, about eight feet long and five feet wide. Aged pictures of Lord Vishnu, in his various avatars, adorn its walls.

In Brahmin Triplicane (there is a Muslim Triplicane too, dating back to the times of Aurangzeb) it would be sacrilege not to have his pictures on the walls. Even greater sacrilege to display pictures of others gods, such as Shiva. Staunch Iyengars firmly believe that Vishnu is the tallest in the hierarchy of gods and that it is he who has appointed Shiva and Brahma to their respective divine positions.

In the space between picture-frames are scribbled mathematical equations and phone numbers that must remain handy. A Haier television set, resting on a low stool, adds to the clutter. “There are eight of us living here. My parents, me, my wife, my two sons, my sister and her son,” Thirumalai tells me as I survey his home. A small space abutting this room serves as the kitchen.

There must be a bathing area somewhere around — I don’t ask where — but I know there is no toilet. The houses in this agraharam use a common set of toilets located down the street.

We troop back to the living room, which is the only other room in Thirumalai’s humble dwelling. In the narrow passage that connects the two rooms sits a sleek desktop — broadband connected — on a table. It’s the only symbol of the present in a house so symbolic of the past. The background image on the computer screen is that of Lord Vishnu.

The living room, barely six by six, is furnished with a cot and two chairs. I share the cot with Thirumalai’s father, who is sitting uncomfortably upright — as if he has just recovered from a bout of coughing and is trying to suppress another.

“How old is your father?” I ask Thirumalai.


“What’s his name?”


“How does he spell it?”

The young Ramanujam points to an aged nameplate, which reads: ‘Sthalasayanathuraiwar Swamy.’

“Just Sthalasayanam will do,” Thirumalai interrupts as I open my fountain pen for the pleasure of putting it to use. “It’s one of the names Lord Vishnu is known by.”

“When did he move in here?”

“1970,” replies a hoarse voice. The father, who I thought was trying to suppress a bout of coughing, starts speaking. He tells me that he was born in 1929 in Mahabalipuram and spent much of his childhood in Kancheepuram before coming to George Town in Madras in 1942 to become a scholar in Sanskrit and Tamil.

Sometime in the 1950’s — he is unable to recall the exact year — he got the job of a Sanskrit teacher in a girls’ school in Triplicane. Ever since then he has lived in Triplicane, moving into this house in 1970, even though he went on to teach in Corporation schools across the city.

Suddenly it strikes me: in this six by six room, I am surrounded by three generations of devout Iyengars — Sthalasayanam, 83; Thirumalai, 57; Ramanujam, 22. What makes them family is not just the red flowing in their veins, but also the white they are attired in. Each is wearing a white dhoti, with a piece of white cloth thrown over bare shoulders, and the white Y-mark on his forehead.

There are two sects of Iyengars — the Vadagalais and the Thengalais. The Vadagalais paint a white ‘U’ on their foreheads; while the Thengalais wear the ‘Y’ mark—they have a tiny line descending from the ‘U’ to cover the bridge of the nose, making it resemble a ‘Y’. It is the Thengalais, considered more orthodox, who call the shots in Triplicane.

Thirumalai explains to me the significance of the Y-mark. The ‘V’ on the forehead stands for the feet of Vishnu, while the small line descending to the nose depicts a lotus: “the lotus feet of the lord.” And the thin red line that runs in the middle of the ‘V’ represents goddess Lakshmi. “We wear the mark twice a day,” Thirumalai tells me, “once in the morning, immediately after bath, and once in the evening. It doesn’t take long, not even five minutes.”

Wearing the Y-mark isn’t all that they do to prove their loyalty to Lord Vishnu, who lives, in their case, just a shout away. Thrice a day, they chant out 12 particular names of Vishnu by touching various body parts — each name corresponding to a particular body part — and also recite the Gayatri Mantra a minimum of 26 times, each time. And they know the Divya Prabandham — a collection of 4,000 Vaishnavite hymns — by heart.

I ask Thirumalai if they are always dressed like priests at home. “Always,” he emphasises, “only when I go to work do I put on a shirt on top of my dhoti. My sons, when they go out, wear shirt and pant. But at home we are always like this.” He seems rather proud to be living within the halo of the temple.

“Don’t you feel cramped?” I ask him.

“At times I do. But I can’t afford a bigger house with my salary. Here the rent is just Rs. 1,000.”
The rent is paid to a trust run by a family of Mandayam Iyengars —they are Thengalais who traces their origins to Melkote in Karnataka. Much of the sum collected from tenants in the agraharam is spent on maintaining the Thengalai temple the Mandayam family has built in Ayodhya. The landlords, says Thirumalai, have often wanted to demolish the huts and build new structures for the tenants, “but where will we go in the meantime?”

I ask him what’s going to happen once his sons get married: will the daughters-in-law fit into this house? He says he doesn’t know, but he is particular about one thing, that both his sons marry girls from the Acharya Purusha sect of Thengalais.

I turn to the young Ramanujam. I ask him if fellow students ever made fun of the Y-mark. “Yes, initially they would tease me. But they soon got tired of it.” I ask him if he was going to marry a girl of his father’s choice. “Of course, without doubt,” he replies shyly.

“Will you bring your wife here?”

“I don’t think she can adjust here,” says Ramanujam, “that is why, as soon as I get a job, I am going to take up a new house and move there with my parents. But getting a new house in Triplicane is impossible, it will be very expensive, so I will build a house in Kancheepuram.”

So he plans to kill two birds with one stone: Kancheepuram, less than 80 km from Chennai, is an important seat of Vaishnavism; and that’s where all the jobs are these days — the manufacturing plants of multinationals are all located in Kancheepuram district.

Seventy years ago, where the jobs were in Madras, his grandfather came to Triplicane to teach as well as to be near Lord Vishnu. And now, Ramanujam plans to move in the reverse direction for same dual purpose. Once he does that, life will come full circle for this devout Iyengar family.

A couple of weeks after I met the family, in June 2012, Sthalasayanam passed away.


Soumya said...

A peep into the life of a priestly family...
Vadagalai- Thengalai must be North-South. I find it interesting that Iyengars from Mandya (geographically N-W of Tamil Nadu) are referred to as 'Iyengars feom the South'....

Unknown said...

Lovely piece of writing! Finally an article that has been a a pleasure to read for both, its content & the skill.

Nivedita said...

Beautifully written.

Hawkeye said...

good article. loved reading it. minor nits

1. gayathri manthra Its 28 times (10, 28 or 108) never 26. I think your noted it down wrong. the family you met wouldve never said 26
2.(not a nit but FYI) People named Sthalasayanam are rarely from outside of mahabalipuram. Sthalasayanam temple is the equivalent of tricplicane temple in mahabs
3. Thenkalai are not more orthodox than vadakalai :-). its the other way around.

krishna said...


I agree with everything except point no 3. Just because vadakalais prostrate 4 times doesn't make em more orthodox :)

Anchor said...

Intriguing indeed. One rarely gets a chance to see how ancient traditions live cheek-by-jowl with the modernity of the twenty-first century. Thank you for sharing this!