How Brahmin Neighbourhoods Near Temples Have Vanished In Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur Region
Thanjavur’s Brahmin neighbourhoods, agraharam as they are called, have given way to commercial establishments, and whatever is left of them do not any more reflect the tradition they so famously stood for.
“The cost of commercial space in Mayiladuthurai is the highest after Coimbatore and Chennai in Tamil Nadu. A square foot costs at least Rs 8,000 in a place like Pattamangalam Street, while on main shop street a square foot costs Rs 12,000,” says Narayanan Panchapakesan, a local who has lived here all his life.
Whenever a topic hovers around Mayiladuthurai in Tamil Nadu, the names of Pattamanglam and Mahadana streets pop up. Pattamangalam and Mahadana were popular for their agraharams (Brahmin neighbourhoods) a few years ago.
“A hundred families could have lived on these streets,” says Panchapakesan.
Both these streets were home to Brahmin neighbourhoods comprising houses constructed on lands which were donated by the Chola kings. Mayiladuthurai or Mayavaram is the base from where many temples that form part of the 108 must-see Vishnu holy sites, had risen. It also figures in the poetry of Tamil Shaivaite history in praise of Lord Shiva.
The agraharams have now given way to buildings and shopping complexes. “Now hardly five of the old families live on Pattamangalam street. The situation could be similar on Mahadana street,” he says.
Similarly at Kadalangudi, 25 kilometres from Mayiladuthurai, agraharams around the Varadarajah Perumal temple have given way to bigger, spacious buildings and commercial premises.
At Therezhundur, the village where Kambar, who wrote Ramayana in Tamil, was born, there is no trace of an agraharam around the Sri Devaadi Raja Perumal Temple. An Arabic college has come up at the place where once the agraharams had flourished.
At Needur, 10 km from Mayiladuthurai, too, agraharams have lost their identity and soul. In fact, it is common to find temples in the Mayiladuthurai-Kumbakonam region without agraharams in their vicinity.
There are two reasons why the Brahmin neighbourhoods around the temples, particularly in this region that is famous for the temples, have vanished.
One is that the younger generation has opted to move out. Educated, they find jobs in Chennai or any of the other metropolitan cities or abroad. Most of the youth who move out are not keen on returning. “If at all people come here, it is to worship their family deity. Otherwise, they all prefer to stay in the cities. Some people are mulling over coming back, though,” says Pachapakesan.
The younger generation has left behind aging parents or grandparents, who also are now compelled to move closer to someone who could take care of them in their old age. The agraharams are being vacated and leases of homes there are changing hands.
The houses are leased out to some known person or someone who approaches them. Normally, the occupants look for persons from their own religion, though they could belong to other castes, locals say, tracing the history of the change in the Brahmin neighbourhood.
This is one reason why the agraharam landscape has changed. The other reason is that these Brahmin neighbourhoods in the region have been taken over by Muslims.
“When the lease of any house in an agraharam comes up for a renewal, Hindus belonging to the Backward Class or Scheduled Caste buy it. Then they sell it off to a Muslim who might have offered a price higher than market rate,” says a local youth. Allegations are that some Muslims use these Hindus as fronts to take over the house on a lease.
These houses in the agraharams have been properly maintained, and the pujas performed there are believed to prevent any harm to its occupants. “Muslims seem to prefer these homes for such reasons, though no one has been candid about this,” says Ravi*, another local.
Also, since some members of the Muslim families make money abroad, they have more income at their disposal to offer a higher price for taking these houses on lease.
This has resulted in Pattamangalam and Mahadana streets totally becoming commercial. In Kadalangudi, the agraharams have given way to posh neighbourhoods. In Needur, Muslim residences surround the Somanatha Swami Temple with Brahmin residences reduced to a couple of families.
“It is not just the case with the Mayiladuthurai-Kumbakonam region or Thanjavur and Nagapattinam districts. All over Tamil Nadu, the Brahmin neighbourhood is undergoing many changes. Only here, the demography has changed,” says a 60-year-old local veteran.
The vanishing agraharams have resulted in the loss of customs, arts, tradition and culture. Once the homes in these Brahmin neighbourhoods are given away, they undergo radical changes. Pattamangalam and Mahadana streets have been turned into commercial spaces by those who have take over the houses.
“The agraharams played host to temple artistes like nadaswaram and thavil vidwans, Bharatnatyam dancers and other experts. With agraharams vanishing and temples not being able to pay rents due to income loss, this culture of hosting artistes has been lost. They have all gone away as there was no income, and the presence of Muslim families near temples turned out to be a deterrence,” says Nathan*, another local.
Maybe, the Vazhuvoor style of Bharatnatyam could have already been lost, he says.
An observer says, one way some agraharams can be preserved to follow the Kerala government’s example. The neighbourhood state has granted heritage status to many agraharams in the Palakkad district including the one in Kalpathy. A similar initiative is necessary in Tamil Nadu, he says.
*Names changed to withhold identity.
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