Saturday, November 17, 2007

TN’s anti-Brahmin movement hits tradition, boosts real estate

Kannan’s house, which sits across the street from the ancient Parthasarthy temple in the heart of Chennai, has not changed in 500 years: the palanquin his forefathers used now hangs on wooden beams and he draws water from the same well as them. In his backyard, a brown calf chews cud.

For centuries, Brahmin families such as Kannan’s have lived and worked in the streets or villages around ancient temples. These four streets, called the agraharam, created a subculture where Brahmin priests lived a chaste life and performed traditional duties as priests and teachers by running the temple and teaching the Vedas to students. They essentially formed the ecosystem that ran the temples of south India.

Yet, against a backdrop of Tamil Nadu’s anti-Brahmin movement, government policies outlawing the Brahmin-only colonies, skyrocketing real estate prices and Brahmins’ declining social relevance, the culture of the agraharam and people such as Kannan, who uses one name, are becoming a rarity.

Earlier this year came another policy change—temple authorities will now train their own priests, and priests no longer have to be Brahmins, making older Brahmin priests all, but irrelevant.

With growing economic prosperity and migration, many of the streets occupied by Brahmins in south Indian cities are finding it hard to resist selling out.

Just memories? Interiors of Kannan’s 500-year-old house that sits across the street from the Parthasarthy temple in Mylapore.

Just memories? Interiors of Kannan’s 500-year-old house that sits across the street from the Parthasarthy temple in Mylapore.

From Kannan’s house, it is easy to see the new white, pink and yellow coloured buildings of residences, malls and coffee shops. Another being constructed adjoins his backyard. He insists he will hang on—to the past; to the identity.

“I would get about Rs3 crore for it (my house). But I will not sell. I want my children and grandchildren to own it. Without this house, what am I?” says Kannan, who has a postgraduate degree in economics.

Brahmins are finding ways to survive in changing times, while clinging to old traditions.

Babu Das grew up helping his father run a canteen, or mess as it is called in south India, inside his pink-coloured home at the Kapaleeshwar temple agraharam in Chennai’s Mylapore area. The Karpagambal Mess is famous for its authentic Tamil snacks, home-made idlis and dosai served on on banana-leaf platesVishnu Sahasranama.

Das inherited the canteen from his father, but does not know how old the building is. “I love everything about this place. No one wants to change anything about it. The people who come here to eat like it for what it is. After all, money can buy you the latest trends, but will it bring back this tradition?” he asks.


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