Friday, June 1, 2018

After death ceremonies – Brahmin Iyer (Bangalore circa 2018)

Here is a post that touches on a sensitive topic : Rituals (and Cost) of after-death Brahmin’s rituals

I am neither an extremely staunch follower of Vedic traditions nor am I an agnostic or an atheist. Perhaps the closest term I can use to define myself is a ‘karma yogi.’ My parents, on the other hand, are more traditional, believing a bit on scriptures and the need to follow some aspects of the tradition.
At the time of my dad’s passing, I realized that I was expected to plan for the funeral and after-death ceremonies in accordance with the (implicit) wishes of the departed. 

The reason I say implicit is because I had been unable to have a candid conversation on ‘planning’ for my father’s passing although it was imminent for a while. My situation is not unusual since most Indian families and caregivers are probably going to be in the same boat. They are expected to plan for ceremonies immediately after death, at very sensitive time when families and loved ones are emotionally vulnerable. 

The decisions and ceremonies are as much as for those surviving, as they are to remember and eulogize the departed. Haggling or ‘negotiating’ over the elaborate nature of ceremonies with rest of the family and the priests can be a delicate matter. One wrong remark can lead to a barrage of emotional responses from others and one risks sounding callous or insensitive.

The reason for this post is two fold – to share my experiences with those interested, also give some tips that will be useful if needed.

The funeral rituals and ceremonies performed after death of a relative vary across cultures and religions across the globe. Even for a religious sect – like South Indian Brahmin community that I belong to – the ceremonies and details vary widely.

A few days after week dad’s funeral in May 2018, I began reviewing process of ceremonies that Hindu Brahmins engage in. These ceremonies consist of a detailed series starting from the 3rd day or the 9th day. If started from the 9th day as I did, it combines the ones from the previous days.

I talked to our family priest – who was also my dad’s confidant, Ganapadigal in Malleshwaram, Bengalure - about the ‘process.’ We also touched on the costs. He explained a few details of the rituals that “must” follow be followed.  He explained that Brahmin priests like him had made the process convenient for working professional like me; and most of the arrangements would be made at the Vedic Dharma Samaj in Malleshwaram.

Vedika Dharma Samaj is located at 16th Cross in Malleshwaram (next to Chowdiah Hall main entrance). The venue is a dedicated location for religious and cultural needs of the Hindu community; primarily for such after-death and other annual ceremonies.

Image result for Vaidika Dharma Samaj
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The priest briefly explained the nature of the ceremonies that my wife and I would participate until the 13th day. He also explained a bit about the series of ceremonies that would follow, and the days on which I would have to get lunch catered  for our family and visitors etc. Note to self: many of these ceremonies and catering of food from outside is perhaps designed to give some respite to the women and others at home who traditionally fret over culinary arrangements.

The priest said that the costs range from 75 thousand to 1.75 lakhs Rupees (about US$1,000 to  $2,300 at current exchange rate) . He explained that if the budget were at the lower end, it would only cover cost of the room rentals and the bare essentials. The higher slab rates were to provide for additional dakshina (charity) for the Brahmins. I thought about it and called him back and confirmed that  I’d prefer to spend around 1 lakhs, and requested him to proceed with the arrangements.

In case you are wondering, in 2018, it costs about 7-8,000 rupees for catering a traditional multi-course Brahmin feast for a dozen people.

A summary of ceremonies follows

9th day ceremony

My wife and I reached the venue around 8.30 am, and asked for our priest, and we were told to wait. There were a lot of rooms in the two-story building, and the manager explained that a room (5F on 1st floor) had been dedicated for our ceremonies for the next few days. The room was rather small (about 8 feet by 10 feet) and some basic arrangements were already in place. On the floor were laid out
  • A Havan area (homa kunda) with bricks laid in the middle of the room
  • A pot of cooked rice lay in a corner
  • A bucket of water with some sand alongside was kept in the middle, and another bucket with sand was kept under a canopy of coconut leaves at the other end of the room
  • The vedic samaj folks had also arranged other samagri (items) like ghee, some milk, curd and a tray of till (sesame seeds), wheat rice etc
  • I took a kalas (pot) and wore a veshti
Our priest Keerti, deputed by the ganapadi (head-priest), came in a few minutes and the ceremony commenced. The ceremony revolved around rice pindams ‘depicting’ the departed soul. A few stones were placed in the bucket filled with sand. All this was followed by chanting of Sanskrit mantras.

At the end of the ceremony, the priest Keerti escorted us downstairs with a bundle of 10 rupee notes and a bag of rice. A row of Brahmins suddenly congregated around us and I was asked to donate ‘two hands’ (a tumbler full ) of rice and a couple of raw bananas along with a 10 rupee note.

I casually asked keerti if the folks really used the two tumblers of rice and he said in earnestness, “sure, the rice is edible when cooked. And these brahmins need it!”

After that we packed up with the balls of cooked-rice (pindam) and drove by a nearby pond (Sankey Tank) where we dropped the pindams to dissolve in a tank of water nearby that is meant for such offerings.

10th day ceremony

The 10th day ceremony is rather more elaborate that the previous days’. I was told that it signifies the departed soul finally leaving the middle-loka to the ‘other world’. It consists of a few themes
  • Preparing more pindam and taking the stones out of the bucket of sand (left the previous day)
  • Now the ‘new body’ of the preta is formed out of the pindam and stones and “It suffers from terrible hunger.”
  • Prabhuta bali ( bali in abundance ) –  an offering of food - idli, vada, dosa etc to the departed
  • There is a Havan at the end
  • After a ritual purification, the widow (my mother) was offering of new sarees by her brothers
The ceremony in many parts took about 2 hours (starting at about 9.30 to 11.15) after which the invited guests came home for a ‘feast’ arranged by a caterer.  The multi-course feast had been catered in and the caterers had been instructed on a menu suggested by my aunt and others.

11th day ceremony

Only I was required for the 11th day ceremony that began at 9.40AM with a homam. About 7 Brahmins including Keerti were lined up around the room before Ganapadigal arrived.

The ceremony consisted of Homam, generating a lot of smoke and fire – a couple of logs of Neem tree and a lot of coconut husks were placed at the center. A bit of camphor was lit using the long spatula and dropped in the center of the logs that lit the dry husks first. I had to endure the fumes and smoke while the chanting of mantras continued.

The seven Brahmins in attendance were given a dakhina (donation) of about 650 rupees each. At the end of the homam, 1 brahmin had to be fed a meal.

The Vedika samaj folks had arranged the multi-course meal, and after the homam, the Brahmin sat to eat while I watched and ritually ‘served’ him. I was asked to chant a few mantras while he began to eat. The food consisted of a few varieties of cooked vegetables, paisam, with rice and ghee.  After he finished, the Brahmin came back to the room with homam, accepted his dakshina and left.

12th Day ceremony

Suja, my wife and I reached Vedika samaj around 9.30 and the Ganapadi was already ready with the homa material etc.

The homam continued along with chanting of mantras during which time, Suja was asked to prepare 9 pindams of cooked-rice balls. These were laid out in a plantain leaf depicting the departed. An elongated pindam was also kept in the side, depicting his ‘body’

During the chanting of mantras, I was asked about the names of our ancestors from father’s side – grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather. This was to ensure that my father joined his lineage in the after-world.

After the havan, three Brahmins had been summoned and I was asked to wash their feet and ‘invite’ them for lunch. The lunch, like the previous day’s was a platter of a few curries, kootu and helping of rice. They eat the food with some kesri that Suja had prepared from home.

After they finished their lunch, the three brahmins came and were offered dakshina. After the brahmin’s feast, there was more chanting of mantras.

In the meantime, the Ganapadi had prepared ‘gift hamper’ with an assortment of gift items symbolizing things the departed would need in after life. About 15-20 brahmins were summoned to the door of the room 5H. They stood by while Ganapadi took out the wide assortment of r items – a brass Bell, a pair of slippers, veshtis, an umbrella, a sloka book, paper fan, stainless steel plates, cups and other utensils. The amount of dakshina ranging from 500 to 10 Rupees was offered along with the gift items to the Brahmins. Most of them went away happy.

Towards the end of the of the ceremony, we collected the pindams again for the day and dropped them at Sankey tank on the way home.

13th Day ceremony and ‘purification’ - at home

The 13th day ceremony essentially consists of a ‘purification’ havan at home, after which the family symbolically leaves the grief behind and moves forward with ‘shubh karyam’

The havan for this ceremony was arranged at home, not the Vedic Dharma Samaj. The Ganapadi came at about 8.30 am to setup things and we were ready by then. Three more priests joined him. The chanting of mantras continued and I tried to follow along by reciting.

Towards the end, I was escorted to the verandah where a kalas of water used for the havan was poured on my head. That mug of cold water had a rather chilling effect on me; in more ways than one.
I changed over the veshti and came back to sit near the havan. After the ceremony concluded, I offered the dakshina – the 100,000 rupees – that we had agreed on earlier.

Catering had been arranged for about 12 people. The feast consisted of a variety of dishes including sambar, rasam, beans curry, paruppu-uasli, Mango thokku, curd. Paysam (kheer), vada, papad with a generous helping of rice. In addition, a couple of paruppu cones (boondi cones) were ordered and offered to guests as ‘tamboolam.’

#1 I have chronicled my personal experiences here and figured it will be useful for those looking for some insights. There may be inaccuracies in my interpretation of terms or the rituals, which you may verify from other sources. Costs are indicative and will vary based on your budget and inclination to perform the rituals.
#2. The amount quoted is just based on my experience. I could afford the cost and effort of the rituals so I did; and I recognize that not everyone may be in the same position.