The ancient Athirathram yagam will be performed between April 4 and 15 at Panjal village in Kerala.

At a time when nuclear leaks and Wikileaks are occupying headlines, Panjal in Kerala's Thrissur is busy preparing to go back nearly 5,000 years in time! The non-descript village is gearing up once again for what is believed to be the ‘world's oldest Vedic ritual' titled Athirathram (meaning ‘building up of a fireplace and performing yagna over night.')

Being performed after 35 years, the yagna, to be held between April 4 and 15, is being revived as a public event by the Varthathe Trust, formed by a group of like-minded individuals from India and abroad.

Dr. Sivakaran Namboothiri, an Ayurvedic doctor and a participant of this large-scale Somayagna, elaborates, “The yagam hopes to achieve two goals – propitiate world peace, and energise and protect the environment by destroying undesirable elements. Fire is believed to cleanse, and that is what this ritual is all about.”

On why the sleepy hamlet of Panjal has been chosen as the venue, Dr. Sivakaran explains, “The exact spot where the yagam is held has to be uniquely positioned to imbibe the sun's energy. Panjal has that geographical advantage.”

Interestingly, only Namboothiri families have been traditionally engaged in performing this ritual, and only someone who had led a Somayagam (a six-day ritual) earlier, can lead the chanting for this unique event. “This year, the Yajaman or the main conductor is Puthillathu Ramanajan Somayaji. He is currently training a group of Vedic scholars on how to chant the Sama Vedas with the right intonation for maximum positive impact on the environment.”

Whether it is the shape of the main fire place or the kind of utensils and ingredients used, every aspect of Athirathram stands apart. For example, the main fireplace is in the shape of a bird. Says Dr. Sivakaran, “Every aspect has to be in exact concurrence with what the Vedas have prescribed. So, 1,000 specially designed bricks are made, special pottery and vessels are designed, darba grass is acquired and so on. The most important offering is somarasa, extracted from somalatha, a herbal plant (Sarcostemma acidum) believed to be the nectar of life. The fire itself is created by rubbing two pieces of wood.” Each day will commence with Vedic chanting and homam. On the last four days, the rituals will be held throughout the day and night without a break.

Historical facts

This cleansing ritual is believed to have emerged around the 10th century BC. In post-Vedic times, it was revived several times under the Guptas and the Cholas. However, as time went by, only the Namboothiris of Kerala practised it and still do.

(For more information, contact the Varthathe Trust, Door No.6/483, opp. N.S.S. Training College, T.B. Road, Ottapalam - 1, Palakkad-679101, Ph: 466 224 6214 or call 098470 33646/ 098211 07359. Email: info@athirathram2011 .com)