A Kariyam, a Tamil Death Ceremony

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A number of days—between 10 and 16, after a person has “Reached the Abode of Siva,” a special ceremony called a Kariyam is performed. Tamil tradition requires people to avoid saying that a person is dead. Instead, the person is said to have reached the world of Lord Siva, or to have reached the world of the dead or the ancestors. (My research indicates that Imachadagu Kariyam or Sapindikarana are other terms for this. In North India this is called Shraddha.)

Significance of the Kariyam

It is believed that the recently departed soul, the subtle body, known as the ativahika-sarira, goes to Preta Loka (the world of ghosts and spirits). The Kariyam marks the transition for the soul from Preta Loka to Pitru Loka, the Abode of the Ancestors. Pitru Loka is that place where our ancestors reside until they get a physical body (reincarnate). It said that three of our previous generations reside in Pitru Loka, waiting  to be born again. The Kariyam also marks the end of the time of mourning, and the most extreme restrictions for the family: refraining from cutting their fingernails, combing their hair, wearing jewelry or shoes, reading sacred texts, going to temples or to various celebratory functions, having sex, and cooking their own food. If all these restrictions are not properly honored, the soul may become a ghost that haunts its relatives.

Kariyam of Velu

Velu reached the abode of Siva on 19 August 2013. He had a heart attack, and passed away later that day at a local hospital. We know of him only though our friend, Dhakshinamoorthy, who runs Sathya’s Café and operates the Quality of Life Trust which cares for local old people and feeds aged and disabled sadhus. Velu was about 65 (in his day, people did not pay such close attention to birthdays), and is survived by his wife of 47 years, Shakuntala, and four sons and two daughters. The cremation was the same day as his passing, within 24 hours, as is usual here. The family, especially Shakuntala, took this unexpected death very hard. Velu was a Dalit, and farmed a few acres in a nearby village. Dhakshinamoorthy is the oldest son, and as such now has responsibility for his mother and the family, as the senior male in the family.

Velu’s family (his own and paternal-side blood relations) has passed the previous two weeks or so basically in seclusion, staying with the mother at Velu’s house. No food can be cooked there, so it is cooked by wives of the sons and brought into the house. Because they are seen as “polluted” (by the death), the family cannot go to the temple, so many of the deep religious acts of Hindu culture are not available to them. Every day, though, there are specific acts that they must do to ease Velu’s passing to Pitru Loka. Particularly this involves “feeding” him pindas, special rice balls, to build up his pitru body so that he can make the transition to Pitru Loka.

Often many members of the family are not able to attend the ceremonies and cremation since it happens so quickly. The rite of the Keriyam has a few days’ notice, so most of the family will be able to attend. This is seen as a major family responsibility, to attend and participate as you can.

Here is a picture of Velu. He was one of six brothers and three sisters. Indian families were quite large in his day.

Velu

This postcard was printed up to send out invitations to all family members.

Velu postcard

The Day’s Ceremony

We arrive about 12:30, when we have been told to come. We go to what was Velu’s house.

Outside there are many motorbikes parked, and pandals set up.

 

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Sitting in chairs beneath the pandals are many women. The men are elsewhere at the ceremony, and the women are supposed to wait until later to join the men.

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We walk out a small path between the fields.

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In the distance I see an area with green trees with many blue plastic chairs set out.

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As we get closer, I can see many men setting in the chairs.

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In the center of the chairs are the four sons of Velu, performing a pooja with a priest.

Though we arrived when told, the actual ritual had already begun. I attended another such rite several years ago and wrote about in this post, so I know what has already transpired:

Pooja at Father’s house.
Procession of men to ceremonial area.
Set up of pooja area.
Setting out Purna-Kumbha (temporary god, made from pot filled with water, topped with mango leaves and a coconut.
Eldest son getting facially shaved.
Wearing of Sacred Thread (needed since these men are not Brahmins, but the must perform as poojaris today).

The pooja is underway here. The four brothers are being given something by the priest.

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They sit in front of a sacred fire. Offerings have been made to the fire.

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Here is the Purna-Kumbha, dressed and adorned with flowers, with pooja offerings laid out before it.

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Below are the “plants of nine varieties,” the Navadhanyam, which include sprouts of bengal gram, wheat, horse gram, green gram, rice, white beans, black sesame seeds, chickpeas, and black gram. This will be used later in the ceremony. The Navadhanyam and its sprouting and growth are believed to bring peace, prosperity and joy in the household. The Navadhanyam is closely related to the Navagraha, the Hindu Nine Planets. There is one specific grain for each planet.

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The four brothers offer a camphor flame to the Purna-Kumbha.

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The priest pulls out a few pieces of Dharba (sacred grass).

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He is making something, I cannot see exactly what. It is not the ceremonial rings for the four brothers; they already are wearing these.

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He then sets it aflame.

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The four brothers sit. You can see their sacred threads worn today.

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Now a man is preparing rice. He is going to make it into pinda, rice balls that are said to feed the soul of the dead. I think these are made with rice and sesame seeds.

On the way to Pitru Loka the soul may encounter trouble. It can get stuck between heaven and earth, turning into a ghost or into an ever-hungry spirit. The pinda balls actually help the soul to proceed smoothly on its way. The balls symbolize a transferring body and offer a temporary asylum for the soul before it moves to Pitru Loka. The thing is, after death, the soul gets quite confused–what to do and where to go? And since there is no body anymore, it needs some anchor. This is what the pindas are for. A ball has been made and offered each day since the passing of Velu. Now more are being made.

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While the balls are being made, another ritual starts. A small ladder-like structure made of wooden sticks has been laid out. It symbolizes a stretcher, the one that was traditionally used to carry the body to the cremation grounds. This will be used to reenact the cremation for the benefit of those not able to come on that day. On the stretcher is a symbolic body, made of sacred grass. I guess this is what the priest was making a few minutes ago.  A brother is offering holy water to the “body” on the stretcher.

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The other brothers make this offering, too.

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The “body” is dotted with yellow turmeric and red kumkum.

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Then it is carried away by the brothers.

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It is placed on a bed of straw.

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Offerings are made to it by other family members. These include money.

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Then the straw is ignited – the funeral pyre. This invokes Booma, the Hindu Earth Mother.

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They let the fire burn out, and consume the grass body.

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Pour water on it to douse the fire.

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They then form the ashes into a body-shape.

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And dot it with turmeric and kumkum.

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Each brother makes offerings to it.

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Then the ashes are picked up. The priest makes sure that each brother does is with hands crossed at the wrists.

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The ashes are placed in a clay plate…

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…then carried off in a procession of male relatives, chiefly the four sons of Velu, but others also.

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They walk over to a nearby well, used by the farmers for water.

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And walk down to the water level.

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All four take the plate of ashes, then immerse it into the water. The son who lit the fire then submerges himself fully into the water to wash away the impurity that has been his since he lit his father’s symbolic cremation pyre. The other sons stand by…

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…then come back out of the well.

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Walking back I notice two grand turkeys! I might think of seeing them in the USA, but it surprises me to see them on a Tamil villager’s farm!

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The brothers sit and the pinda ceremony starts.

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The fourth brother takes a ball and hands it to the third one …

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…who hands it to the second one …

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…who hands it to the first one, who places it on a banana leaf plate as instructed by the priest.

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They are placed in rows of four. Each row is marked by a piece of sacred grass underneath.

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Finally there are sixteen balls, I think representative of the sixteen days after death. Note that this ceremony may be anywhere from ten to sixteen days after death, depending on the age and caste of the deceased. Velu was an old man by Tamil standards, so this is a “16-day ceremony.”

I think the four rows also stand for the four generations, the father and the three generations that preceded him to Pitru Loka: grandfather, great grandfather, great-great grandfather. Only three generations can be at Pitru Loka at one time, so when the father joins them, the great-great grandfather will reincarnate.

Here is one man’s commentary on this process:

I invited the spirits of the ancestors (my grand father, great grand father, and great great grand father) into new pindas, and asked them to receive the spirit of my father, which I had initiated into a separate rice ball. Then I broke the ball that represented father, and merged it into the ancestors. This process, known as Sapindikarana marked the end of father’s journey.

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The brothers all stand and offer pranams to the pindas.

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Then a brother, instructed by the priest, pulls out the pieces of sacred grass and tosses them to the four cardinal directions.

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The sixteen balls are merged together into one big plate of rice.

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Then the brothers start another procession.

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They find a good spot and stop and lay out the rice mixture on a banana leaf plate for the crows.

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They offer a camphor flame to the rice.

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Then stand nearby, calling “kaa, kaa, kaa!” to attract the crows.

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Crows come. This is a big step. If the crows do not come, it is because there is some unfinished obligation or desire of the father, Velu (which must then be taken up by his eldest son). This would be very bad since it would delay his departure to Pitru Loka. Today the crows come right way, a blessing.

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Now the brothers have returned to the pooja area.

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Many men sit and watch. I am told these are all relatives. Velu was a part of a big Tamil family.

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A plate of pooja items is set in front of the brothers.

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And the priest makes two rods out of the sacred grass.

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There is a clay bowl set out with three objects in it. They are small stones, wrapped with string. Nearby are two clay pots with the grass rods. The pots contain ghee and a sandalwood paste mixture. There are three, for each generation – the father, grandfather and great-grandfather, of who are in Pitru Loka (or will be once this ceremony is completed).

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These are dabbed onto the rocks, first by the brothers, then by other males present.

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About this time, I hear noises, and look up. There is the procession of women, coming to the ceremonial area.

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Here is a short video of the procession. It is lead by Nadaswarams, loud reed-horns.

Women’s procession

Here they come.

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Leading the women is Shakuntala, the wife of Velu. This is a very important and sad day for her.

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She is here with all the flowers. Other women hold and comfort her.

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The line of women just keeps coming. I think that there are about 100 women here today.

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Shakuntala comes, followed by all the women.

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I have read often about death and dying in India that, due to the idea of reincarnation, the people do not grieve as much as in the West. What I have seen previously, and see today, belies what I have read.

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Shakuntala first goes to where the clay plate with the three wrapped rocks are, and dabs them with ghee and sandalwood.

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The other women are massed behind her.

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She collapses to the ground, held by another women.

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She then stands in the center of a big circle of women.

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Nearby, women stack bags of clothes. They will gift these to Shakuntala and the family. None of the family can buy new clothes for the next year.

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Shakuntala sits in a chair now. I am touched by the love and care shown to her by the other women.

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Shakuntala is wearing flowers, many bangle bracelets, and other jewelry. With the exception of chains around her neck, she will not be able to wear any of these for the rest of her life. Today marks her transition into Indian widowhood. No longer will she be able to wear anything that would mark her as a wife.

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She seems emotionally drained.

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Men and women sit and wait.

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A triangular structure has been made, with woven palm leaves for the roof. Under it are plates of Velu’s favorite foods. There are five plates. Pooja items, the Navadhanyam — sprouted seeds of nine kinds, and a bowl with a flower mala and something else, I don’t know what, are also under the palm leaf roof.

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To the left of the food plates is one more plate. In it are three rice flour balls that have been made up by the priest (three for the three generations in Pitru Loka). These are covered by leaves. A camphor flame sit in front of all the items.

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The sons walk pradakshina around the structure.

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Another procession then starts. The sons are carrying the Navadhanyam sprouts, the bowl with the flower malas, and the plate of rice balls. There are three items representing the three generations.

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The procession heads towards the well.

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And goes down to it.

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They then dump each of the items into the water.

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First is the son with the flower-lined dish. He swims out into the well with the dish on his head.

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Then dunks under water to immerse it.

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Next are the Navadhanyam sprouts.

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You can see in front of the man to the right a faint green spot where he has pushed the green plants under the water.

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Then a white dhoti is spread out in the water.

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And the rice flour balls are put into it and mixed into the water.

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So the white flour is dispersed into the water. I am sure that all of these are thought to travel to and nourish the departed father and ancestors.

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As the last part, everybody in the close family (except the wife) takes a bath. This is to remove the “pollution” caused by the death in the family. After this bath they will wear new clothes and the period of intense mourning will be over, but other restrictions will continue for a year.

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While this is going on, the mother is getting a bath and having her flowers and jewelry removed. All the flowers and her bracelets have already been taken off.

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Women remove a golden necklace.

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Carol is standing above the crowd, trying to get good photos.

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Gold nose rings are taken off.

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They go to remove her toe rings, put on 47 years ago when she was married.

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The ring has been there a long time. They can’t get it off! They start using a piece of grass to help slide it off.

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The men of the family are receiving special tilaks, made of turmeric coated rice.

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Here is one of these yellow tilaks.

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They are still trying to remove the toe ring. They cannot get it off! Somehow they will do it, though. It must come off.

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Near the men’s pooja people have started to gather with gift bags for the men.

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First, family men receive curd as a blessing. They will eat it.

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There is a mad fury going on with the women. They have taken off the mother’s clothes and are draping her with new sarees.

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These women are huddled together, weeping loudly, I think in sympathy for this woman, once a wife, now a widow. They know that probably someday this will be their fate, too.

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The mad level of activity goes on near the mother, as many women get new sarees out and place them over her.

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The men are starting to get their new clothes (for them and their families). They give them to the priest.

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The priest says their name, and passes it to the brother indicated by the giver. Most bring four bags, once for each brother.

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The bags are passed to the right brother.

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The boxes stack up in front of each brother. At the end of this, they will get dressed in new clothes.

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The mother walks under a heavy load of new sarees.

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Here she is sitting. The sarees are placed over her head, as seen below.

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Another one is given, spread out over her.

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Mother wears one gold chain now. This was a gift today. This is all the jewelry she can wear now.

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Afterward, everyone is given food.

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Arunachala stands in the background, watching it all.

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These are ancient traditions, with roots deep in Indian history.

For the family of Velu, restrictions will go on for the next year, including things like no buying of clothes, and no participating in religious, village or family functions. For the oldest son, Dhakshinamoorthy, it means no temple visits for three more months. There will be another rite, one year after the passing, where these restrictions are lifted.

These ceremonies are so deep and moving. For the men of the family there were a number of what I think of as “releasing ceremonies,” where something is done to release the grief and to release the soul to its new journey. We had not seen before, though, what happens to the widow. This seem terrible to us, how she is transformed from a wife to a widow. It is surely better than the tradition of satee, ritual burning along with the husband’s funeral pyre, but it still seem so hard with the removal of all the signs that made this woman a wife for most of her life.

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13 Responses to “A Kariyam, a Tamil Death Ceremony”

  1. saravanan subramani Says:

    Hi,
    highly appreciate the people commented, please note that the financial constraint does not come in the rituals of our country and these are not done as formalities too, rather we try and find out why these rituals are done and try to do it better.
    like what i am doing now ( my father in law passed away 15 days back and we finished the rituals yesterday) accessing the web to find if we have done things properly.
    The future generation may utilize the web still better.

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      I tried to do a good job of showing what happened at this ceremony. It is an important time for the family. I am pleased that you appreciate it. Sorry for your loss

  2. Jayaprakash S Says:

    Hi Richard,
    this is a nice post. In my opinion, one must really love his/her father and mother and serve them.
    When we are born, we did not bring any thing to this world and when we die, we are not going to take anything from this world.
    But, the soul is going to the creator.
    Whatever we do, good or bad, we are accountable to God as Bible says.
    We live, let us use the time to know why we are here, who has sent us here and for what purpose we are here.

  3. Kasinathan Says:

    Great and wonderful Richard,

    Remind us some of our old cultural practices and rites are slowly fading away. Excellent and appreciated your great work.

    – Kasinathan from Singapore.

  4. eramanath Says:

    Reblogged this on ethirajan family and commented:
    A Kariyam, a Tamil death ceremony is documented well in this article.

  5. Shan Velan Says:

    Hello Richard, Beautiful lush green picture of Annamalai. Can I post it in Shivayashiva Facebook page.

    Thanks

  6. Lalitha Ramesh Says:

    I was lost in the narrative…….Arunachala stands in the background watching it all…… brought me back to the present tense……Thank you Richard…You bring us all so close to Tiruvannamalai, and to Arunachala. How to thank you ?

  7. kashluck Says:

    Thanks for the posts Richard.

    Though it is diificult for the family, grieving and feeling a sense of sadness would torment the soul and slow down it’s evolution.
    The departed soul is to be rememberd by the family with gratitude and happiness for all the good done to them while in the body of Velu. This would accelerate the evolution of the soul and that will be the best gift the family can give for Velu in return.
    May we also pray that the soul sees the light.

    Yes. It is unnecessary to do all those things to a woman when her husband passes away. They do no such thing to a man when his spouse passes away.
    In the eyes of God both Man and Woman are equal.

    Dr. Ganesh, thanks for the explanation on 10-14 days. I trust you are also aware of the significance of the bangle ceremony done during the 7th month of pregnancy.

  8. Ajurimar Fernandes Says:

    Richard and Carol, have access to knowledge of Indian culture for me is always a divine gift. Thanks again for you manage to pass this knowledge through this blog so divinely.
    Congratulations

  9. Ronald Faraldo Says:

    Again, the work of a professionally trained Anthropologist.
    I worked with the Catholic caste system in western India and realize the amount of hidden work in developing the “trust” to be recived as you have been in the community. And then the work you see is only the tip of the iceberg. Good stuff. Thank you.

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      Thanks for the good words. I appreciate it very much. This was the work from relationships I have been building for several years. We feel fortunate to be invited to such ceremonies and allowed to photograph them.

  10. Gowri Ganesh Says:

    nice post…thanks a lot for recording these ceremonies in web..i think that some years down the lane this type of ceremonies will become obsolete not only due to financial constrain but also due due to non availability of priest,,nowadays in urban india these as become a mere formality
    btw,, did u wonder why they do this ceremony on 10-14 th days after death????
    there is always some scientific explanation in dravidian / tamil rituals.the ova in female is released on (approximately) 14th day of menstrual cycle..meaning there was life before we are conceived…so when the body is dead there is 14 days still left for the soul..this 14 days is added to the death ceremony and rite of passage ceremony is conducted.
    forgive me for the long post( becoz this is the first time i am posting a reply to your blog..am regular follower though)
    Dr GANESH

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