It was the then Kanchi Shankaracharya Chandrasekharendra Saraswati’s timely intervention that helped save a centuries old tradition of Samavedic chanting in Kerala which was on the verge of disappearance in the 1970s.
Five decades down the line, there were not many efforts to preserve the rich tradition of the southern state, which was taught and transmitted to Rishi Jaimini by revered sage Vedavyasa, despite it being inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. However, 57 year-old Dr Thottam Sivakaran Namboothiri, one of the two remaining authorities of the Kerala style chanting of Jaiminiya Samaveda, has taken up it as a mission to preserve its unique oral tradition by starting a ‘Gurukulam’ at a village in this central Kerala district.
Launched in April this year, everyday at 6 am, Namboothiri takes lessons of traditional way of chanting of ‘Jaiminiya Samaveda’ for four young students belonging to Namboothiri-Brahmin families–teaching them the complex recitation techniques that are based on tonal accents, a unique manner of pronouncing each letter and specific speech combinations.
The ”Gurukulam style” classes are being held in a small classroom adjacent to the Lord Krishna temple in Kurichithanam village near Uzhavoor, the birthplace of former President of India, K R Narayanan.
After ending the class at 9 am, the students go to the school in the neighbourhood everyday for their regular studies.
”It is a 12-year-long mission. Learning the Kerala style chanting of thousands of hymns from the Jaiminiya Samaveda is very tough and boring as we have to ensure that the sound of each word remains unaltered,” Namboothiri told PTI.
A distant relative of legendary Communist leader and former Kerala Chief Minister EMS Namboothiripad, Sivakaran Namboothiri said Jaiminiya Samaveda, featuring musical arrangements of 1,700 hymns from the Rig Veda and other sources, is on the verge of disappearance as currently there are two persons who have got complete knowledge about the unique tradition of chanting.
Besides Sivakaran, it is his elder brother Thottam Krishnan Namboothiri who is settled in their traditional village Panjaal in Thrissur district, known for its rich vedic traditions.
”We learnt it from our father Thottam Subrahmanyan Namboothiri after ending our studies in school”, Namboothiri said.
Now, an Ayurvedic physician by profession, Namboothiri, born in a family rooted in Samaveda tradition, said his four students, studying in fifth and seventh standards, are from the Namboothiri families rooted in Rig and Yajur vedic traditions.
”There are only around 20 Samavedis among Namboothiri families in Kerala. None of the new generation members from these families have shown any interest in learning the chanting of Samaveda in traditional Kerala style. So, I decided to approach some of the Brahmin families rooted in Rig and Yajur traditions. My students are from these families”, Namboothiri said.
He said it will take at least 12 years for them to learn the skill of Kerala style chanting of ‘Jaiminiya Samaveda.’ Quoting from the UNESCO document of 2008, he said the value of this tradition lies not only in the rich content of its oral literature but also in the ingenious techniques employed by the Brahmin priests in preserving the texts intact over thousands of years.
According to him, when Vedavyasa classified ancient Vedic hymns into four parts based on their use in the sacrificial rites, Samaveda was taught and transmitted to Rishi Jaimini, who was one of his four disciples, and those who are following his tradition are called Samavedis in Kerala.
The Kerala tradition would have disappeared way back in the 1970s, had Kanchi Shankaracharya Jagadguru Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Mahaswamigal not taken the initiative to preserve it, Namboothiri said.
”During his visit to Lord Krishna temple, Guruvayur, in 1974, Jayendra Saraswati, the disciple of then Kanchi seer Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, sent his emissary to my father Thottam Subrahmanyan Namboothiri, who was an expert in Kerala style oral tradition of Jaiminiya Samaveda. Jayendra Saraswati, as per the wishes of the then Kanchi seer, offered all sorts of financial assistance to my father to transmit the knowledge to the next generation”, he said.
When a school was started in Kunnamkulam with the assistance of Kanchi mutt, Namboothiri and his brother were among few students who joined the class.
While others dropped out of the Vedic class after a few years, the Namboothiri siblings continued their studies under their father’s tutelage.
They completed their studies at special classes conducted by their father in the mid-1980s at Sringeri Mutt in Kalady in Ernakulam district, the birthplace of Adi Shankara.
A known figure in the Vedic rituals in Kerala, Namboothiri, however, is not against women and people from other castes studying the Veda.
”People, irrespective of their caste, creed and gender are eligible for learning and practicing the Vedas,” Namboothiri said and pointed out that Satyavati, the mother of Vedavyasa, was a fisherwoman.
He lamented that there were no efforts from the governments at the Centre and state to save this richest cultural tradition from going out of memory.
”Special initiatives should be taken by the government authorities to preserve our great Vedic tradition. Else, it would become an irreparable loss for the rich cultural heritage of our country”, said Namboothiri who pursued Ayurvedic medicine after completing SSLC and Pre-Degree in the late 1980s.
Although the Vedas continue to play an important role in contemporary Indian life, only 13 of the over 1,000 Vedic recitation branches have survived, according to UNESCO.
”Moreover, four noted schools – in Maharashtra (central India), Kerala and Karnataka (southern India) and Orissa (eastern India) – are considered under imminent threat”, the UN agency has said in a note prepared in 2008.