Ambalavasi is the name of a
Keralacommunity (not to be confused with caste) composed of a number of Hindu castessuch as Pushpakas ( Unni, Nambeesan, etc.), Chakyars, Moothaths, Ilayaths, Kurukkals, Warriers, Marars, Nambiars etc. Traditionally, they perform temple related jobs and art forms. [K. Rama PisharotiThe Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 56, 1926 (1926), pp. 83-89]
The term "Ambalavasi" is derived from two words namely "Ambalam" (Temple) and "Vasi" (Inmate). The members of Ambalavasi community were originally dwellers and assistants in the Temples. Since they resided in the premises of temple, they came to known as Ambalavasis, meaning Temple-inmates.
Profession and Social Status
The main profession of the
Ambalavasis was assistance in temples. Each caste of the Ambalavasi community had fixed duties to perform. The Ambalavasis had to perform duties known as "Kazhakam". This included everything associated with the management of the temple save for the actual ceremonies which were performed by the Namboothiripriests. Even in these ceremonies the Ambalavasis assisted the priests outside the sanctum sanctorumof the temple.
Castes in the Ambalavasi Community
The Ambalavasis were broadly classified into two groups; the
sacred threadwearing castes and the non threaded castes.
Among the former are included
Chakyar, Nambiar, Unni, Nambeesan, Ilayathu, Mūttatu(Moosad), Warrier, Marayar (Marar), Pothuval, Pisharody, Nambidi, Adikaletc. These threaded castes perform the Upanayanam, wear the sacred thread "Yajñopavītam"(Pūnūl) and adhere to Gayatri mantra. They are known as Yajnopaveetadharis.
The latter include Warriers,
Pothuvals, Pisharodys, Marars etc.
Each of the Ambalavasi castes claims to be greater than the other, but historically speaking they all had more or less equal status. Wearing the sacred thread doesn't mean that the former is a greater caste. It can be said that
Mūttatuheaded the threaded while Pisharodyheaded the non threaded Ambalavasis.
The major castes in the ambalavasi community are listed below.
A brief description of each of these castes are given below:
Pushpakas are lower class
Brahmins in Kerala. The Pushpaka Brahmins show attributes of both the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Hence this caste is generally considered as an intermediate caste between Brahmins and Kshatriyas. They are commonly known as Arddhabrahmanar i.e. Semi- Brahmins. The Pushpakans are believed to be the lowerclass of brahmins in Kerala. Although they wear the " Yajnopaveetam" or the sacred brahminical thread and perform the Upanayanam, they were not considered Brahminsin the true sense of the term, but superior Ambalavasis.
There are various sub-castes within the Pushpaka caste. These include
Nambeesans, Unnis, Nambis and Nambidis. The surname Nambeesan is used in North Kerala while Unni is used in South Kerala. In the Middle Kerala, both surnames are common.
Males of pushpakas served as teachers in Pathasalas, as assistants to the main priest and as lamp-bearers (vilakkeduppukaar), while females served as garland makers and as cleaners of inner cortyard of temples.
As per the famous Parasurama myth, the warrior sage
Bhargava Rama( Parasurama) is said to have brought a group of Brahmins to Kerala of which 64 families were allowed to conduct the ceremonies in the temples. They became the Namboothiris. The remaining families of Brahmins became their assistants and were not allowed inside the Sree Kovilor main shrine of the temple. They came to known as Pushpaka Brahmins as their work was associated mainly with flowers.
Muthatu and Elayathu
Also known as
Moosad, they are considered the highest of the Ambalavasi castes and are said to be degraded Brahmins, the cause of degradation being that they tatooed themselves with Shaiviteimages. The Elayathu was considered the lowest of Malayali Brahminsand was the priest of the Nairs.
Varyers were temple administrators. The word "Variyar" has originated from Tamil, meaning a person who maintains the accounts (in short, "
Accountant"). In the pre- Namboodiriera of Keralam, the agricultural property of every village belonged to a village temple. There was an elected committee to administer the temple and the properties. The Manager or Accountant of this committee was called Variyar, and he was accountable to the Committee. Managing the temple and providing materials required for "nivedyam," cleaning vessels used for the preparation of "nivadyam" and "puja", daily maintenance of the temple premises, etc., were responsibilities of the Variyar's family. Warrier ladies were known as "Warasyars"
Marars are considered the lowest of Ambalavasis. This is so because the Marars are the higher classes of the Maarans who are mentioned in the "Jati Nirnayam" as among the eighteen Sudracastes known as Nairs. However these higher classes who were solely engaged in temple service were subsequently elevated and considered Ambalavasis in Malabar, Cochin and North Travancore. In Central and South Travancore these higher classes, known as "Asupanis" are still included among the remaining Maarans and hence considered Nairs. The customs and ceremonies of the Marars are the same as the Nairs, including pollution after death for 16 days, though the lifestyle is typically Ambalavasi.
Pisharodys have originated from a Brahminwho was on the verge of becoming a Sanyasinas per the then existent customs but ran away in the last moment.That is also the reason why Pisharodys did not burn their dead. Another story about the origin of Pisharodies is that they are the Hindus converted from Buddhist religion in the period of Sankaracharya. The origin of the name is traced from the name Bhikswaradiakal, associated with Buddhismin Kerala. Pisharodyladies were known as "Pisharasyars" or "Sharasyars".
Ambalavasis formed an intermediate class between
Brahminsand Kshatriyas. There are similar Brahmin communities found all over India. NiyogiBrahmins of Andhra, Chithpaavan Brahmins of Maharashtra, Bhumihars of Bihar, Mohyalof Punjab, Tyagisof West Uttar Pradeshetc. are Brahmin communities which have the same status of Ambalavasis in Kerala. Besides all, the foreign travellers in Kerala classed the Ambalavasis with the Foreign Brahmins like KonkanasthaBrahmins, Iyers etc while making records.
Following is a Nagam Aiya's description of the general social customs of the Ambalavasis:
Of the various castes the Yajñopavītadhāris (Sacred-thread wearing Ambalavais) like
Unnis, Nambeesans, Mūttatuetc. belong to the Viswamitra Gotram. They adheres to the ' Gayatri' mantra.
The non-threaded Ambalavasis belong to Kaushika
Gotram and adheres to Panchakshara mantra. However, some of the non-threaded Ambalavasi castes claim different Gotras. For example,the Pisharodys claim that they belong to the Vaikuntha Gotram and the Warriers claim that they belong to the Kailasa Gotram as they are mentioned in the "Keralolpathi" text as "Vaikuntha Vasis" and "Kailasa Vasis"respectively. Pothuvals donot have a Gotra.
Ambalavasis were temple employees but they were not aristocratic like the Namboodiris. In the past they resided within the temples in their quarters and were sustained by the temple. They were simple people who lived at the benevolence of the temple. The main ceremonials in the temples were carried out by the
Namboodiris while assisting them was the duty of the Ambalavasis. Each of the castes in this community was associated with specific jobs.
Other than their services in the temple the Ambalavasis were the priests for the lower castes as well.
Mūttatu(Muttatu/Moosad), Ilayatu(Elayathu), Nambidiand Nambeesans conducted the various religious sacrifices for the Nairs, though not in the temples while the Marayars conducted the birth, wedding and death ceremonies of lower Nairsubcastes in Travancore. Elayatu is the traditional purohit (priest) of Nayars who conduct the after-death rites for them in Malabar.
The Ambalavasis, specially the Pushpakans and the
Pisharodys were masters of the Sanskritlanguage. They worked as teachers in Pathasalas associated with Temples.
The contribution of Ambalavasis of Kerala to the cultural heritage of India in the fields of art is substantial in everysense. Ambalavasis has through the centuries developed several art forms of a religious or quasi-religious character. The major art forms developed by Ambalavasis are:
Customs and Ceremonies
For the Yajnopaveetadhari Ambalavasis, many customs are similar to the
Namboodiris though not exactly the same. While namboothiris are following 16 karmas, these ambalavasis are following only 12. And there are many other differences in their customs also. While Namboothiri women were only white dress at the time of marriage, it is not allowed for these Ambalavasi castes.
Likewise the non-threaded Ambalavasis followed most of the
Naircustoms and traditions though not exactly the same. Period of pollution after births and deaths for the Ambalavasis was always lesser than that of the Nairs.
Kottarathil Sankunni- Famous Malayalam writer; Writer of Aithihyamala
Shadkala Govinda Marar- Legendary Carnatic musician
* Kunchan Nambiar - Inventor of the performing art called
Ikkanda Warrier- Prime Minister of Cochin
* P.S Warrier - Visionary Ayrvedic Doctor and founder of Arya Vaidya Sala of Kottakkal
* Prof. P.R. Pisharoty - Famous
Unnayi Warrier- a great author from irinjalakuda, composed nalacharitam in malayalam
* Kottilil Gopala Marar - Swami
Siddheshwarananda- and founder of the Ramakrishna Ashrama, France
Neralattu Rama Poduval- Sopanamartist, recipient of kendra sahitya akademi award
K.Karunakaran- former Chief Minister of Kerala
K.Chandrasekharan- former Education and Law Minister of Kerala
G.Sankara Kurup- poet and first recipient of the Jnanpith award
Manju Warrier- Actress
Divya Unni- Actress
Sharath Marar- Film Producer
List of Ambalavasi Families
* [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0307-3114(1926)56%3C83%3APR%3E2.0.CO%3B2-2 Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 56, 1926 (1926), pp. 83-89]
*Travancore State Manual by V.Nagam Aiya
* [http://www.warriers.org Variars Website]
* [http://www.pisharodysamajam.com Pisharody site]
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