culture series...

A brief note on the brahman communities of Andhra Pradesh
by v ramchandra rao

Brahmins of Andhra Pradesh

The collective traditional priestly/educated groups in India are called Brahmins or Brahmana. While they are associated with Hindus today it appears long ago, it was a far more generic term for anybody who was learned. There are several sects and subsects of brahmins in Andhra Pradesh today, and I've received several emails asking for some information on the roots and so forth. Here are some details.

note:-- Don't yell at me if what I write varies with your notions. I have been objective and detached about the subject : this is what I have found. Your inputs are welcome. Not just as reaction : spend some time writing your own opinion as independent article and send to us.

there is _NO_ one specific root of brahmins. It seems they are derived from the priests and learned/wisemen of innumerable peoples and various tribes. As the tribes fused and cooperated, so also did the families of the various tribal priests. (This process of tribes merging is far older than any mythical 'aryans', it is also pre-dravidian, pre-mundari, pre-anything known to us today.) It also means in our context, every large group or tribe or community had their OWN specialised keepers of traditions. If there was a large migration due to varied causes, naturally the tribal /community priests would be part of it. And eventually the families of the specialised groups of various (hitherto unrelated) large groups would MERGE.

In short, forget notions of racial purity and the like :-)

As even the early Rg Veda shows, the social system was not at all rigid in ancient times : any individual who showed an inclination and aptitude for memorising, reading and writing and diligently following the teachers was able to take up the brahmanic profession. Later it became an occupational caste with exclusiveness characteristic of most caste groups.

Function of brahmins:
Their function was to preserve the traditions of the community or tribe, which included not just the rituals but also the knowledge required for day to day living, like geography, agriculture, medicine and so on. They were not supposed to accumulate wealth, but concentrate on knowledge and the practice of yoga. They were to restrain themselves in all aspects. So they were vegetarian, for instance. Also they were to remain peaceful and mild and supposed to be detached in their views and advice. ( Please note: this is the theory. In reality, overall one finds there's not much difference from the rest of the population except in the importance given to education)

Aryan connections:--
The aryans date so far back in time that any derivation from "arya" is meaningless today. Any such connection spoken of TODAY is connected more with today's political matters than any genuine link. Of course there is some tradition, which cannot be dismissed. But there is a great deal of SPURIOUS and fake tradition which has been fabricated for various purposes over the years. Quite entertaining nonsense, really, but it sometimes gets out of hand.

What of the old tradition?:--
There are several groups not just brahmins who maintain various community traditions. There are the singers and storytellers attached to many castes. The herbal medicine groups, the tribal priests, musicians, balladers and saga story tellers of a community have to better 'educated' than most of the community members: slowly they form a distinct group. It appears through the ages, such groups have combined to form the "brahmins" of India.

In the classical context, Brahmins who have a link with early pre-buddhist times are all connected to "books" or "schools" of the vedas. Various small tribal republics and kingdoms would maintain their little centers of learning where learned teachers from large centres like Taxila, Varanasi, Nalanda, Ujjain etc would be invited to settle in these places by the kings. They would be granted the revenues of villages/regions for the upkeep.

As far as the old vedic schools are concerned, today only a few are extant: the classical brahmins were all connected to some school or the other. The vedas are Rgveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharva. There is a large time difference between them and they clearly reflect the changes in the society. Groups of people memorised the various vedas, and each such 'school' further developed more books on various topics and they had to learn them by rote.

In India, the school with its books intact is the Apastamba branch of the Yajurveda. Most classical brahmans in Andhra area belong to the Apastamba section of the Krishna Yajurveda school. Apastamba was a very early law maker of peninsular India and lived on the Godavari banks before the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. He formulated the Apastamba dharma sutra and related smritis, which are well preserved. (Traditionally, the people of the region followed Apastamba smriti and NOT the well known manu smriti.) There are also other yajurvedis of various schools like vajasa, madhyandin etc. Some followers of the Rg vedic schools also are to be found.

The Smarta or smaarta community

In Andhra Pradesh state area, the brahmins who follow some residual vedic traditions are found only among the Smaartas, i.e. followers of the Smritis, who follow Adi Sankaracharya's reforms after Buddhism faded away. They don't take sectarian sides as other sects do. The old vedic families, including the numerous migrations seem to have merged into smaartas, with additions from other local communities and (...unemployed) buddhist teachers. The Smaartas in the peninsula (maharashtra-karnataka-andhra) are traditionally associated with the old Sringeri monastery of sankaracharya.

(* Please note there is no clear unbroken link to any genuine "vedic" time. It is most likely several UNRELATED groups at various times got "promoted" to status of "brahmins" after they fulfilled the then-accepted relevant criteria. This also explains the several layers of interpolation in the old books. )

These smaartas were divided in medieval times (probably chalukya) into secular bureaucrat brahmins called Niyogi and temple brahmins called Vaidiki. Those of the Vaidikis who retain the vedic school traditions and are highly accomplished in scholarship are considered top of the hierarchy. .The niyogis are of lesser ritual rank. The niyogis were the civil servants of most of the medieval kingdoms. Until recently they were also the karnams (village accountant) for many centuries. They have left most of the villages today. The niyogis are progressive and insist on education (modern education). many are erudite scholars and since they are quite aware of the development down the centuries of Indian society, thought and culture they are conseqently sceptical of various exaggerated claims and rituals too.

In the case of Vaidikis, however, most are actually from very poor temple servants who follow the later medieval reformers, and are not connected to any vedic tradition. In many cases, their idea of education, learning and wisdom is often mere superstition and fabricated symbolic and clueless ritual. But they too are getting out of the villages and migrating to the cities, and their children also are emphasising higher education rather than ritual. Now in Andhra pradesh, Hindus seem to prefer "conservative" rituals in matters like weddings, festival observances, funerals etc. This is particularly so in rural areas, and ritual priests are in demand. But apparently there is a shortage (?!).

Subsects :-
Two divisions of subsects are found among the Smaartas, Vaidiki and Niyogi. Further some geographical differences are seen. For instance niyogis---Arvela ( also written aruvela), Telagaanya, Nandavaarika, Paakalanati, and Yaagnavaalkya : Most of the stories explaining the terms are false. Telagaanya indicates hailing originally from Telangana. Some researchers say Arvela is not aru-vela "6000 village" but Aar-vela ie greater velanadu ( expanded velanadu. i.e. northern and southern bank of Krishna river.)
A section of Telangana niyogis seem to have a marathi origin and are called Golkonda vyaapari. There is a small section called prathama sakhi, they are not part of the main Apastamba group, but instead follow the sukla yajurveda. Now the schools of the sukla yajurveda are many, and yagnavalkya was one of the early founders. Many irregular 'brahmins' also claim affiliation to yagnavalkya, and the good hearted yagnavaalkis merely shrug, smile and remain silent. So in the enumeration of the schools of the sukla yajurveda, yagnavalkya clan is called 'prathama sakhi' i.e. the first among the sukla yajurvedic schools. (the bulk of the AP brahmins belong to Apastamba sakha of Black Yajyurveda and not the various sukla yajurvedic schools )

Among vaidikis are , Mulakanadu ,Telagaanya or Telanga, Kaasalnaadu and Yaagnavaalkya---most of these seem to be regional in origin...e.g. Mulkinadu is old Mulaka, somewhere around today's Medak district or to its north. .

While the vaidiki-niyogi claim to be aryans, (and even from the harappans !), they cannot show any hard proof at all, like anyone else who claims anything like this. In reality they are quite mixed as anybody else. Since some do seem to resemble tajiks and north iranians kazakh etc peoples, they might also be connected to central asia ...scythians--sakas-kambhojas-pallavas --kushans --huns etc , who immigrated to peninsular India via various routes and regions like haryana rajasthan and gujarat--even maharashtra. Among the various roots there are clear connections to khajar / gurjar / white hun invaders. More later.

The smaarta brahmins also have a distinct tribal admixture, hill tribe as well as coastal plains tribes. (some are very dark complexioned, tall and powerfully built. Some have very fair complexions..but tribal features.) May not be any existing tribes of today, but something similar to yanadi-chenchu -boya as well as various eastern ghats hill tribes.

So where did they come from..?

First of all there were many ancient tribes in the area from prehistoric times. The specialist "medicine men" or tradition keepers are the old root of brahmins...or for that matter any priesthood anywhere in the world. Post -vedic literature has some details. There are specific notices of large scale immigrations down the ages.

Earliest reference are the sons of Vishvamitra banished to south of vindhyas. Why they were banished is interesting. Vishvamitra was an aryan kshatriya who became a rishi ( brahman) and experimented with leftwing ideas... tried out some social changes. An old friend was unfairly cursed by a sorcerer to look like a Chandaala, a member of a despised and poor community. This chandaala went to Vishvamitra, who recognised him. He asked his sons to do a yagna (ritual) for his friend to restore his old form. But they were sort of right wing, they refused and kicked his friend instead for being uppity. Vishvamitra in a fit of temper, expelled them to south India and decided to send his friend to heaven, run by Indra, in his despised bodily form. But Indra and his bouncers in heaven threw him out, so Vishvamitra flew into a rage, stopped the free fall midway, and started creating, not just a heaven but a complete parallel universe for Trisanku. Indra panicked, informed everybody so they all requested Visvamitra not to disturb things too much. So Vishvamitra placed Trisanku midway between heaven and earth. (A group of stars is identified as Trisanku since then.)

Apart from interesting legends, the puranas state Andhra original homeland was near river Oxus, along with the Daradas in central asia. This may refer to a tribe called Andhra and not necessarily all the people of today's state of Andhra.

Further a section of the Yadus migrated from Jamuna area to the Deccan, and these people could be the ancestors of the historical Andhra janapadas or tribal republics.

But any connection claimed to harappa is likely to be fanciful: the gap between 2400 BC (late harappan) and 600 BC (apastamba) is very large. (Also, there is NOT a SINGLE indus valley artefact/design/object found anywhere in south India either neolithic or megalithic or early historic. So you can forget 'dravidian=indus valley', as well. For that matter neither is it proved it is 'aryan'. The culture elements seem to be quite "mixed" even at that time. For all we know it could be Mundari or Mon-Khmer or Polynesian or African or some lost culture. i.e. for those who know these things, of a previous manvantara.)
Coming back to the old references, the law codifiers Apastamba and Baudhayana have a connection to Godavari river area. Not clear where exactly--it could be anywhere along the course of the river, like Paithan, Maharashtra, via Kalesvaram in Telangana all the way to the delta.

Pre- satavahana and pre-maurya, the notices of brahmins and Andhra are meagre except perhaps in the puranas. There may be some buddhist era links from bihar area but I dont have any direct evidence. (The links attested in early buddhist literature are cultural, are to the area as a whole not any particular community). There were andhra jaanapadas, well organised and powerful tribal republics, who issued huge number of punch marked silver coins which are quite commonly found even today. ( i.e. they aren't rare.) The satavahanas are said to be in folk legend to be of mixed naga-brahman stock. No one knows for sure who these "nagas" were, except that they are found all over India in ancient times and had great prestige. Then there were lots of migrations between rajasthan malwa and the andhra area via maharashtra.

Actually Buddhism flourished in satavahana times which was marked by buzzing economic activity by trade associations and manufacturing guilds. Guilds were later called "nagaras" or "nakkaras".) These guilds have left many inscriptions of gifts, but "brahmins" don't figure here. Brahmins are mentioned indirectly, however, in kingly inscriptions which claim all sorts of dharmic-political achievements (like the Rajasuya, asvamedha vedic sacrifices) so some brahmans must have been around. Then, for some unknown but very significant reason the trade and manufacturing activity declined steeply, but agriculture got a fillip. Some say it was because the Deccan-Rome world trade collapsed, due to nomad activity in central asia. This led to a crisis in export-commodity production, and pressure on agriculture.

After this one sees less buddhist inscriptions and more "puranic" hindu inscriptions. We have several inscriptions by kings promoting agriculture : one component was by importing brahmins, settling them in newly cleared areas. It appears one of their duties was to popularise/teach agriculture. Most dynasties of the times did the same: in one tradition, Pallava kings, in order to promote agriculture, imported brahmins from Ahicchatra, UP. (near today's Bareli). Ancient Pallava and Chola kings are known for these activities. Also, during folk movements, each time a large group or tribe migrated, the group's 'brahmins' (i.e. the tribal priests or administrators) also came along. e.g. the eastern chalukyas brought along brahmins from karnataka and settled them in guntur area. The earliest brahmins with records extant today are the smaartas.

Note that they are not some single monolithic genetic ethnic bloc either. DNA analysis is now available for the public --eg Dr. Spencer Wells's Genographic project--and eventually we'll get a better idea of ancient migrations etc. I'm making a seperate detailed page for this, your additions are welcome.

Smartas today--various opinions
The smaartas have been making a mark for centuries, not just priestly activities but literary, administrative, military etc as well, but now they are mostly peaceful educated urban professionals. They make good doctors, scientists, teachers, even administrators, according to most people I asked : savvy people say they are excellent in staff functions like advisers, but a bit rigid for line functions.

Because their numbers are small compared to the overall population and they are rarely involved in active agriculture or business, and are inclined towards teaching and education, and generally not directly into money making pursuits --- it is seen the general public ---even today-- still trusts them for advice for all sorts of things. (Apart from being the professional custodians of people's traditions, this detachment could be one simple reason why they have so much prestige still. Someone without a direct interest in the problem / dispute/ matter at hand is more likely to come up with a good idea.)

They always try to live within their means....which are generally meager, so they appear miserly to some ;-). It is difficult to sway them with money, but they can always be suckered into doing one's bidding by giving them exagerrated 'respect' say some respondents. ("dabbuluki padaru gani respekt tho kottachu").

Everybody seems to get a great kick out of the highly sanskritized dialects and humorous dialogues the Smaartas are supposed to use --- and are often portrayed as particular characters in Telugu films. (This actually reflects something which vanished a hundred years ago, but people insist on stereotypes. A curious point--earlier brahmins used to get annoyed but now they seem to genuinely appreciate it and laugh.

Names and surnames

Smaarta vaidikis are the traditional family priests of all old clans and communities of Andhra Pradesh. If a "traditional" or 'conservative" community doesnt have smarta vaidikis as their family priests, it indicates they are recent arrivals or still upwardly mobile, or reformist- rebels against the old systems. (such communities usually have reformist-protestant priests. see link below). Some vaidiki surnames are Sastri, Nori, Kota, Puranam.

Some smaarta niyogi surnames end in --raju (--senior civil servant) like Pemmaraju, Akkiraju, etc, and --pragada (--minister) Rebba pragada, Maanapragada, Dharani pragada. etc. 'Preggade' is the old form, same as kannada 'hegde' and means minister, or sponsor of the vedic ritual

Nowadays, commonly among both these groups one sees names like Rao, Sharma, Deekshitulu ( Deekshit), Bhatlu ( Bhat), Murthy, etc.

Often the surnames are derived from the place name ("village name") where their ancestor received some grants of land or revenue from ancient kings, sometimes "agraharam" as the estate is called. e.g. Abburi from village Abbur, Uppaluri from Uppalur , Nidamarthi from the village of Nidamarru , Valluri from Vallur, Dharanikota (the fort of dharani) , Kocherlakota, etc. These agrahaarams and ghatikas are very ancient and usually found along the lower deltas of the large rivers. When the forests were being cleared these agraharams were sort of frontier outposts. Later large villages and towns grew around the agrahaarams.

Apart from the few brahmans the agrahaaram -associated groups were numerous. Many of these people ALSO immigrated ALONG with the few brahmins from various areas. (This has interesting implications. One of them is that most of these accompanying persons regardless of their work or occupation, gave themselves a social promotion .... and were accepted as "brahmins". Especially if they shifted again to some distance like Tamilnadu. Later.)

The "agrahaarams" had a few "brahmins", but associated with the complex were several persons, including soldiers/ policemen/ guards, crop watchmen, various merchant groups, physicians, weavers and dyers, barbers, specialist cattlemen, handicraftsmen like blacksmiths, potters, carpenters, farm labourers, also cleaners (but kept at a distance from the main village), One important reason for the long term, enduring prestige of 'brahmans' in south India is most probably due to this efficient resource control in ancient times rather than their learning and education. ( --but people's stubbornly held opinions still generally reinforces the stereotype even today, even among rebellious and protesting communities. I recall the look of total incredulity long ago at Moore market, chennai, when I didnt show interest in "mathematics" and asked for DK books. I was "obviously" from "north".)

The lands were granted by the kings who imported these 'brahmins'. After a tax holiday of some years these agrahaarams generated good revenue for the feudal state. They were centres of education too and produced most of the educated people of the times ---not just "brahmins" by the way (--- and the 'degree' awarded was a thread...).

Apart from the ancient times, there is evidence of the crumbling residual old buddhist monasteries being transformed into such agraharams...same stuff under ostensibly new management.

Closely related groups
The Marathi deshastas, some Kannada brahmins like Haviks (Bhats and Hegdes) and kannada Smaartas, some Tamil Iyers, some Nambudiris, Narmada and Morvi area brahmins, certain subsects of Oriya brahmins seem to be closely related to the Andhra smaarta. Similarly some northern groups like Kaanyakubja appear to have a close connection. (Actually, all over India, the smaartas who are connected to the sankaracharyas are all quite closely related.). Additionally, there is also a close link to the Karhadi, some of the Koknastha, Keluskars, and some of the konkan saraswat/ gowda-saraswats and also some kashmiri saraswat and a section of Bengalis like Mukherjee-Gangulys (raaDhiya, west bengal)) as well as Varendras (e.g. lahiri bagchis) of North Bengal, Assamese and Bhumihars (bihar) too.

Inspecting all this seems to form a route in the direction of Ujjain, the Gurjara Pratiharas, Multan - Seistan- Iran, Afghanistan -Tajikistan- Central Asia, even Siberia-Mongolia ...and NOT ANCIENT ARYANS...most likely fairly recent HUNNISH -KUSHAN related recent immigrants. Of course, they have mixed with indigenous tribals and previous inhabitants as well as old traditional "brahmins" who don't exist separately anymore.

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