Some think that the name Namboothiri is derived from ‘Nambu’ meaning sacred (in Prakruta Tenugu) and ‘Thiri’, which is a suffix added to the names of certain upper castes in Kerala. Another view is that it is derived from Nam (Veda) and Poorayathi (who imparts).

Brahmins are supposed to have migrated from North, however it is unclear if all of them migrated after various South Indian kingdoms started taking shape. There were Namboothiri Brahmin settlements in Kerala as early as 2nd century BC, as said in Sangam literature, Dandi’s story, etc.), and they settled in 32 gramams (villages) throughout the state.

The Namboothiris’ own tradition holds that Parashuram, the Visnu avatar, recovered the land of Kerala from the sea and bestowed it upon them. Archeological excavations made prove that Kerala was once under the sea, as fossils of ancient marine animals were found in almost all parts of the state.

The belief of some modern historians that Namboothiries migrated to Kerala after 5th century is certainly wrong, considering the fact that even in geographically separated Sri Lanka, there were Sanskrit influences as early as the third century BCE. When the Mauryan Emperor Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka around 275 BCE, the capital of Sri Lanka was named Anuradhapura. As it is certain that Sanskrit coexisted with Aryan/Brahmin societies, it can be considered that Sri Lanka was a Hindu land with Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras along with outcastes (Chandalas).

The King had established marriage relations with Asoka and the whole Kingdom was then converted to Buddhism. Hinduism reappeared in the island only around 1,000 AD when the Cholas conquered it and established the province of Mummudi Chola Mandalam (Jaffna Peninsula), settling it with Hindu Tamilians.

The presence of Sanskrit speaking Aryans in Sri Lanka as early as 275 BCE proves that in geographically connected Kerala there were Namboothiri Brahmins as early as 275 BCE, and that the Chera Kings of Kerala of the time were noble Kshatriyas and not Dravidians.

The Mauryan inscriptions mention the Cheras as Kerala Putras. This proves that Vedic religion pre-dates Dravidian culture, Buddhism, Jainism and Communism in Kerala. The Christian Tradition of Kerala also confirms this as Syrian Catholics consider themselves descendants of those Namboothiries who were banished from Namboothiri community when they gave food and shelter to St. Thomas (who was considered a Mlechcha by the orthodox Namboothiri community), the apostle of Christianity who came to India in AD 52. Namboothiries are mentioned in Sangam literature as early as 200 BCE.

The legend of Parasurama also exists amongst Brahmins throughout India. He is worshipped in Uttar Pradhesh and Bihar by Bhumihar Brahmins, Chitpawan Brahmins in Maharashtra and Saraswat Brahmins in Goa. These Brahmin subcastes also hold that they are those Brahmins who were the followers of Bhagwan Parashuram (or Parashuraaman), and they were created by him.

According to the Namboothiries, Parashuraaman used his Parashu (Axe), to create new land for the Brahmins. This legend is also present in Kerala Mahatmyam (a Sanskrit text which is a part of Brahmanda Purana), and also in Keralaolpathy in Malayalam. According to this, the land area that Lord Parashurama created was of 160 “Katams” (a measure of area) in size. Since the Vedas holds that Kshatriyas are dependent on Brahmins and vice versa, and that Kshatriyas’ prime duty is to protect the Brahmins and cows, Parashurama (Bhargava), the Great seer belonging to the line of the Saptarshi Bhrigu, wanted a King to protect the Namboothiries he settled in Kerala. Thus a Chera Prince who had surrendered to him was installed in the throne of Kerala, and made Mahodayapuram (Mezuris, as known to Romans) near Kodungallur his capital. The fact that the Namboothiries, who do not consider the Zamorin Rajah and the Maharajah of Travancore (who are Samanta Kshatriya or normal nair “madampi”) as Kshatriyas, consider Cheras as noble Kshatriyas proves that the Cheras were of Aryan-Kshatriya race and not Dravidians, as said by modern historians. In addition, the Cheras are said to have helped the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war in the Great Indian epic.

A typical Namboothiri Brahman

Namboothiris in Kerala

At a time when the land was ruled by Kshatriyas and the world was overpopulated by powerful Kshatriyas like Kartha Veerarjunah, who had himself defeated the ten-headed Ravana of Lanka, and had him in chains; who could stop the waters of Holy Narmada with his thousand hands; the Brahmins of the world suffered. These Kshatriyas who are bound to protect the interests of Brahmins and cows became arrogant and Dharma Dweshis (Dharma Hating) began as they started harming Brahmins. At that time, Bramhanas worshipped Lord Achyuta (Sri Krsna) (Chyuti=destruction. Achyuta=death-less), who is Ajita (Invincible), who is both microcosm and macrocosm, who is dear to the Brahmins, who is present everywhere (omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient) fully, He who is present in all the infinite divisions of space of even a minute object as if all objects are made of him, He who appears as the Trimurthis, Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and Lord Bramha, He who is Ananta (infinite), He who is the body, the mind and the feeling of “I” or the self which is unique to living things known as the Atman soul) of all beings, He who assumes numerous forms using Maya, yet fully aware of His nature of Self, He who is the creator of all sounds and so though cannot be heard or associated to a sound, assumes a form using Maya and speaks to devotees, He who cannot be associated to a name, yet assumes the divine form and assumes infinite names, He who cannot be seen, yet assumes many forms from human to animal (like a boar) to a huge ball of fire and light; that Divine Achyuta was born as Parashurama (Rama of the Axe) to sage Jamadagni to protect the brahmanas’ interests.

Parashuram, the slayer of Brahmin/Dharma hating Kshatriyas, would challenge and fight the Kshatriyas. Since it is the Dharma (duty) of a Kshatriya to accept such a challenge and fight, most of them did so and perished. Only few noble-hearted Kshatriyas did surrender to Parashuram and since it is the Dharma of all beings to forgive those who seek asylum, Parashurama spared them. Parashuram, though a Brahmin who is not supposed to fight, kill or punish, did this deed of massacre when he was provoked by Kartha Veerarjunah’s minister, who stole Jamadagni’s cow. This dreadful deed resulted in great pain and misery for the whole Kshatriya race and Parashuram himself violated the Brahmin Dharma. But this as unavoidable as misery and death is always the result of Adharma. To shed his sins, Parashuram performed penance (Tapasya). He came to know that the land of Kerala had been submerged in water and he threw his axe from Gokarnam; the axe fell at Kanyakumari and thus Kerala was born. This land owned by Parashuram was given to the Namboothiri Brahmins as alms, as giving alms to Brahmins was known to be the way to shed one’s sins.

Namboothiri Settlements and Temples

Parashurama established 108 Shiva Temples and 108 Durga Temples, like Cherpu hagavathy Temple, throughout Kerala. In every Grama he established a Temple which the people of that Grama considered as Grama Kshetra (the village temple). Every Grama has a Deity who is considered Grama Paradevata. Of all Namboothiri Gramams, the most important ones are Perinchellur, considered to be the first Namboothiri Grama established by Parashurama, the Panniyur Grama, the Perumanam Grama and the Sukapuram Grama (in the order of their importance). The Taliparamba (Perinchellur) temple and Panniyur temple are important to all Namboothiries and not just to the Namboothiries of the respective Gramas.

Vedic Sacrifices need Ritviks from all the three Vedas and only in Perinchellur, Panniyur and Perumanam were there all the three Vedic people. The Samavedic Namboothiries of today belonging to Panjaal and the Kottayam were originally from Panniyur and Perinchellur (Taliparamba). Today the Namboothiri Gramams with a tradition of Vedic Sacrifices (yajna-Yaaga) are Perumanam, Perinchellur, Sukapuram and Irinjalakuda Namboothiri Gramam of Thrissur District. Once there were three thousand Namboodiri families in both Panniyur and Perinchellur; a thousand each belonging to Yajur, Rig and Sama Vedaas. But today there are only about 200 Illams (families) in Perinchellur who are mostly Yajur Vedi, and about 30 families in Panniyur who are all Veda-less. The Sukapuram grew at the cost of Panniyur when the latter was destroyed. Today however Perumanam Gramam is the biggest Namboothiri village with about 300 families (mostly Yajur Vedis and few Rig Vedis).

Every Grama has a Head Man who is known as the Tambrakkal, and used to have two Vydika families (Vydikan is one who perform Yaaga as Yajamana). Besides there are Oykkan families who are well versed in the Vedas and teach Vedas to Brahmacharis and Smartha (Smarthan) families who play a role in excommunicating fellow Namboothiries who have violated the Dharma-sutra rules. However it is the Vydikan who is the final authority in matters of Shodasa rituals, daily rituals and other Brahminic and Vedic rituals.

After Tambrakkal it is the Vydikan who is the most respected among Namboothiries. The head of all Tambrakkals of all Gramas (villages) is the Kurumathur Naickar (the Tambrakkal of Perinchellur (Taliparamba) village. The Sardar (head) of all Vydikans is the Azhvanchery Tambrakkal , the Tambrakkal of Alathur Grama. The prominent families of Perumanam, are Kirangatt Mana and Chittoor Mana of which Kirangatt are the Tambrakkals and Chittoor Family were the hereditory administrators of Perumanam Temple. Chittoor Family has Samudayam rights in Perinchellur and Panniyur Temples too.

The Namboothiri Brahmans follow the Vedic traditions for their spiritual life and Smartha tradition for their social life. Their worship is an amalgamatio known as “Sankaranarayanan”, a combination of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. Namboothiris do poojas in temples based on Tantra Vidhi, a recent innovations. Tantra Vidhi clearly describes the moola (basic) mantras of the deities and their forms, paraphernalia, etc.

Temple Rituals

Namboothiries chant the mantra Dheenantu-daivatam, performing Kalasam in temples to reaffirm the divine presence in the deities. Worship begins with chanting of the Punyaha Mantram which is in the Samhita part of the Vedas. Many mantras from Tythireeya Samhita of Yajur Veda, Rig Vedic and Sama Veda are used in special poojas and Kalasam, Panchagavyam, Sree Bhootavali and Navakam rituals are done by Namboothiries in Temples.

In Shiva temples, the Namboothiries perform Abhishekam chanting the Sree Rudram which is one of the forty-eight modules of Tythireeya Samhita of Yajur Veda. In other temples Bhagya Sooktam, Purusha Sooktam, and Narayana Sooktam are chanted. Namboothiries also perform Othoottu in temples were the entire Samhita part of the Vedas are chanted.

Tantra Vidhi forbids the use of utensils made of iron or steel in temples. Only earthenware utensils are used, or those made of Bronze, Silver and Gold are used. Poojas are performed in a very satvik way consisting of Jala, Gandhah, Pushpa, Deepa, and Dhoopa traditions. Use of meat and alcohol is strictly forbidden. Offerings to the deities are mostly payasams, rice, puffed rice, coconut and Kadali Banana fruit. Flowers used for Pooja are different for different deities.

Namboothiries consider bathing in the river (floating water) to be the best, bathing in a pond/tank as medium, and taking bath in shower or taking bath drawing water from well as the worse kind of bathing.

The daily rituals in Kerala temples are traditionally performed by Namboothiris, and often by Embranthiri migrants from the neighbouring Karnataka, but not by Tamil Brahmanans. Even among Namboothiris, only certain designated families qualify to become “Thanthris”. Thanthris have to perform the incredible task of transferring (“Aavaahanam”) the aura (“Chaithanyam”) of God and energizing the deities. This process of deity installation is divided into three categories – Aagamams (Saivam), Samhithas (Vaishnavam), and Thanthrams (Saaktheyam). Aagamams include Nigamam versions too. The former are Sivan’s advice to Parvathy, while Nigamams are spoken by Parvathy to Siva.

Vedic Tradition Of Namboothiris

Namboothiries belong to three different Vedic groups, those who follow Yajur Veda, those who follow Rg Veda, and those who follow the Sama Veda. There are, however, Namboothiries who are barred from chanting of the Vedas. These Veda-less Brahmins lost their right to chant Vedas due to some violations of the Dharma-sutra rules at some point of time. The Yajur Vedic Namboothiries follow the Krishna Yajur Veda (prose and poetry combined Yajur Veda) and not the Sukla Yajur Veda (Yajur Veda with metre-poetry). The Yajur Veda is divided in to Samhita (literally ‘collection of mantras’), Bramhana part (philosophy) and Aranyaka. The Namboothiries follow the Tythireeya Samhita. Namboothiries divides the Black (Krishna) Yajur Veda into Samhita and Sakha (Bramhana and Aranyaka parts). Samhita consists of about 48 modules known as Parchams. Sakha consists of 36 Parchams. Each Parcham has sub-modules known as Anuvakam (Sanskrit) or oath (Malayalam).

The majority of Namboothiries are Rig Vedic and are spread throughout Kerala. Then comes the Yajur Vedic ones, whose prime settlements are Perinchellur or Taliparamba of Kannur district and Perumanam (Cherpu) of Thrissur district. Less important ones are Irinjalakuda (Thrissur Dt) and Karikatt (Malappuram Dt). Samavedic Namboothiries form a minority and are located in pockets of Kottayam District and in Panjaal near Wadakkancherry division of Thrissur District.

Vedic chanting

Namboothiris, who are entitled to recite Vedams, have evolved a rich and diversified culture of Vedam recitation. Basically Namboothiries follow the Seeksha rules while chanting the Vedas. The Six Vedangas (literally Veda-body parts) are Seeksha (which describes the Sandhi and other rules in Sanskrit and also tells how to chant Vedas), Chandas (metre in poetry – ChandoManjari), Meemamsa (philosophy), Nirukta (etymology of Sanskrit language), Vyakarana (grammer) and Jyotisha (astrology). Most of Yajur Vedic Namboothiries (especially Boudhaayanas) follow the Seeksha of Vasishtha (Sage Vasishtha).

The Veda chanting method divides all words into Udatha (high pitch), Anudatha (low pitch) and Swarita. The Namboothiri Veda tradition is orally transmitted over the generations and is thought by many to be the oldest and most traditional and correct way of chanting the Vedas. Their recitation is quite different from traditional Vedam recitations in other parts of India. This is due to a variety of features, such as the pronunciation of Sanskrit in Kerala. An Important feature is nasalization, a feature of Malayalam in general which seems to be relatively ancient. (In Sanskrit it was called “anunaasika athiprasaram”.) Another reason may be that a much larger percentage of Malayalam words are of Sanskrit origin than is the case with Tamil. It may also be connected with the isolated development of the Namboothiri tradition, which was not exposed to contact with other traditions. And lastly, though there have been many Namboothiri scholars of Sanskrit, there has not been a tendency to bring existing practice inline with the norms established in the past. Rather, the living tradition has been left to prevail and develop freely.

While all Vedic recitations are taught at home, there are two special schools for the teaching of Rigvedam, one at Thrissur and the other at Thirunaavaaya, in Malappuram district. The Thirunaavaaya School was formed by several Namboothiris and financed by Saamoothiri Raja (King Zamorin) of Malabar. The Thrissur school was supported by the Raja of Cochin. There are differences in the style of recitation of the two Rigvedi schools. The Thrissur school (Brahmaswam Madhom) has a few students even now, while the Thirunaavaaya school is not fully functioning. Fortunately, a few of its students are being taught at home. The Thrissur school recently started admitting children of families which originally followed Yajur Thirunaavaaya style. In the Yajurvedam there are also two traditions that differ slightly in style of recitation, the Peruvanam School tradition and the Irinjalakuda School tradition. Today, the Yajurvedam and Saamavedam are also being taught in private homes.