Sunday, July 14, 2024

Traditions & Customs -

Old age & Deathமுதுமையும் இறப்பும்

Shashtiaptha poorthi or Mani vizha

Shashtiaptha poorthi is celebrated when the husband completes 60 years if the wife is alive and both living together. This is similar to renewal of marriage laws and silver anniversary in the Western countries. These celebrations can be performed either in the home of the elderly couple or a hall. It is usually arranged by the eldest son and celebrated as second wedding to the couple bringing some cheer in their lives. It also provides an occasion for the entire family to get together. Neighbours and friends are also invited to attend and a big feast follows the celebrations. Very few families perform these celebrations and mostly in South India this is celebrated in Thirukadaivur temple in Tamil Nadu.

Death of a person

The last and saddest event in anyone's life is death which is a natural event that occurs to every individual irrespective of caste, religion or social status and that is the only thing that everyone on this earth is sure of in their life. There were variations in different castes and religions, but here we give a description of the funeral of a Jaffna Hindu Tamil and how they approach death.

Most rites are fulfilled by the family including the children and all of whom participate in a traditional funeral service. Certain rituals are performed by a priest but may also be performed by family members if priest is not available.

As death approaches

Traditionally Hindus die at home. When death is imminent, spouse, children and relatives are informed who arrive at the home to keep a vigil. The person is moved to a central place in the house and kept their head facing east. Oil lamps are lit near their head on a small table. Holy ash and sandalwood paste are applied to their forehead. They chant mantra and Thevarams -Hindu hymns are sung day and night. If the person was in a hospital even then chanting of mantra takes place in a confined place. If the dying person is unconscious, then the mantra is chanted in their ears usually they chant ‘Om Nama Sivaya' repeatedly in the ears. Occasionally few drops milk and holy water from Ganges and other holy rivers are fed to the person. Some people invite a priest who recites the Veddhas (வேதங்கள்) with pure mind, devotion and faith for a save journey of the soul and he receives gifts in the form of cash, rice and vegetables, called Thanam. Some give a cow to the priest - Kodhanam (கோதானம்). The spouse and children stand close to them. The above does not apply in cases of sudden death.

At death, it is announced to the neighbourhood by the crying of those in the house and this will be heard well and the story spreads quite fast by word of mouth. The body is turned round to face the south; an oil lamp is kept near the head. A brass vessel with water is kept under the bed. The big toes of their feet are tied with a piece of cloth and another piece of cloth is tied round the chin and top of the head the eyes are closed. Holy ash is applied to the forehead and Santhanam pottu is placed in the centre of the forehead. If it is woman with her husband alive, she will have a kunkuma pottu as well on the forehead. The body is covered with a white cloth. All pictures and posters are turned the other way or covered. If the person died at home, a death certificate should be obtained from the Registrar of Birth and Death, if died at hospital, this will be issued at the hospital. The body lies there for relatives and friends to pay their last respects and chanting and singing hymns continue.

Funeral services

Normally funeral services are held at the home of the deceased and if the space required is insufficient, then a special Panthal which is a temporary shelter is erected. On the roof the Panthal, on top of where the body will be kept during the time of services, a white cloth is tied along the length by the dhobi. At the entrance of the house two plantain trees (Cooking variety) with raw fruits are tied to the posts to announce the place of funeral. There are no decorations at a funeral.

A special funeral priest is employed to conduct the funeral services. The chief mourner usually the eldest son if the deceased is a man or the youngest son if it is a woman performs the last rites. This was later modified to include all the sons in a family irrespective of sex of the dead person. The female children do not do the rites and if the dead person has no sons, his brother's son does the rites provided he has already done this to either of his parents. The general rule is that anyone performing the last rites will do so first to either of their own parents. There are variations on this matter. In some family circles the performer will have his head and face shaved by the family barber before he takes part in the ceremony.

The priest starts the services by performing the Sangkalpam by giving the performer holy ash to apply on his forehead, a Thetpai for his ring finger on the right hand, and a Poonool to wear on the right shoulder. The priest then performs a fire ritual to bless nine brass vessels and one clay pot containing water. The performer scatters puffed rice over the body and performs the Theepa pooja by showing and waving lit camphor. The adult close relatives and those friends attached to the dead apply gingelly oil and Arappu to the head of the dead, performer being the last one to do so. This symbolises that these people saying good bye to the dead and sever their relationship. Following this the body receives a bath and the water in the brass vessels are used last to wash the body.

The body is then draped in verty and shawl for a man and in the wedding attire- Koorai which she keeps for this occasion, and appropriate jewellery including the Thali, for a married woman if the husband is living. Holy ash and pottu are worn appropriately. Also a flower garland is worn. The dead person is dressed smartly for their last voyage. Then the priest performs certain pooja and rituals. Arugam pullu and turmeric powder are pounded in a mortar using a pestle by the performer while chanting hymns - ThiruPotChunnam (திருபொரற்சுண்ணம்). The grand children if there are any hold a lighted Pantham - a stick with a bundle of cloth wrapped round the top and soaked in oil and lit, and singing Thevarams stand round the body. The product of the pounded material is mixed with water into a paste and applied to the forehead and placed over the eyes of the dead. The women in the household will put rice with grated coconut and coins in the mouth of the dead person (வாய்க்கரிசி) symbolising nourishment and safe journey ahead. Usually a cloth will be placed over the mouth and this being carried out removed by the barber and he takes them. Once this is done the women relatives will walk round the body bidding farewell. This is an occasion when even an enemy of the dead comes round to pay their respects. The men do this at the cemetery. The most painful event is when the dead person is a married man and his wife is asked to remove her Thali and chain and place it on his chest. Everyone present will be very emotional at this point and the wife becomes a widow thus losing her social status and she wears a white sari hereafter. This is not true these days. If the person dead is a married woman with her husband alive, the Thali is removed by her husband at the cemetery. The Parai Melam which is the equivalent to Thavil in ceremonial events, as well as singing of Thevarams will be played throughout the process and during the journey to the cemetery. The coffin is now covered and placed inside a Padakai which would have been made by the dhobi out of timber and decorated with flowers. This then is carried by
men. The performer carries the clay pot with water on his left shoulder; the barber carries the burning embers in a pot and they lead the way. The barber also blows the conch shell. Some people set off fire crackers and they say this is to chase off the evil spirits. At the gate of the house, closely related women including the wife, if she is there go round the body anticlockwise three times in a way to bid farewell; they are not allowed to go to the cemetery. The procession then continues to the cemetery and all the men follow. So the custom was, when the body leaves to the cemetery the women relatives stay indoors, the wife stops at the gates, the son goes until the cemetery and there is no one to accompany for the rest of the journey except the good and the bad the dead has achieved in their life.

At the cemetery

Once in the cemetery, the body is carried anti clock wise three times round the funeral pier, coffin removed from the Padakai and placed on the pyre. The coffin cover is removed and the men put rice and coins in the mouth as was for the women. The last person to do this will be the person who is doing the last rites. If it was a married woman, the husband removes the Thali and chain from her; this was tied by him in the first place at the wedding. Incidentally every woman's wish is that she dies before her husband so she will go with her Koorai sari and Thali as a married woman and not as a widow.

Then with the clay pot on his left shoulder, the performer walks round the pyre while holding the fire brand on his right hand behind him, three times. The barber walks behind him blowing the conch shell. At each time he passes the head of the body, the barber knocks a hole on the pot with a sharp knife letting water out signifying life is leaving its vessel. At the end of three rounds, he stands at the head of the body facing away from the body, drops the pot in front of him and then without turning to face the body, he places the fire brand - Kolli (கொள்ளி) to the head of the body. He then walks over to the feet of the dead, removes the Poonool and Thetpai and throws them into the fire and before leaving he bows his head and performs worship. Having done his last rites he leaves the cremation grounds without looking back. Now the body of the deceased is covered with more firewood and the flames take over. Everyone leaves and one of the Paraian - drum party remains at the cemetery to supervise the cremation and to oversee that things are going well and when done he reports to the family and receives his payment.

Returning Home after cremation

While the men were at the cemetery, the whole house is cleaned and washed with fresh water. The women and those present there will also wash and wear fresh clothes. The performer carries an iron knife to ward off evil spirits following him from the cemetery. On arrival at home, chews Neem (margosa - வேம்பு) leaves and spit them, walk over a wooden pestle (Ulakkai - உலக்கை). Then he washes his hands and feet and proceeds for a bath. A small table is placed where the body lied in state and a photo of the deceased; a lit oil lamp and a cup of water are kept on the table. A plate of rice and some curries is served in front of the photo. Everyone joins in a meal which had been prepared by relative or neighbour and brought there. Those who eat at the house will be impure - Thudakku- for 31 days. The oil lamp will burn all the time until the 31st day. The water in the pot is changed daily. This is done with the belief that the spirits of the dead person will come round to visit.

Relatives, neighbours or friends will arrange to bring meals to the household after the funeral for some time varying from days to weeks sometimes up to a month only to relieve the burdens during the mourning period. After the funeral, a period of 31 days is considered to be impure and those who had a meal at this house during this time, the mourners, spouse and children and the male descendants on the father's or husband's ascending line ancestors are impure. Closest relatives like spouse and children may observe this for up
to a year. Even though mourning is not denied, it is advised that excessive and prolonged grieving should be avoided because it is believed that the departed soul can actually be held in earthly consciousness inhibiting full transition to the heavenly worlds, if grieving continues.

Ash gathering ceremony- Kaadaththu (காடாத்து)

On the day of the cremation or third or fifth day 3, 5 or 7 men including the chief mourner return to the cemetery to collect the remains which they do in a clay pot. At the cemetery, Vairavar Pooja is performed in honour of Vairavar, the deity of cemeteries and seeks permission to perform the rites. Water is sprinkled on the ashes to put off any existing fire and ashes from five parts of the body collected and placed in a clay pot. The rest of the ashes are also placed in the pot. The place where the body was incinerated is cleared and sprinkled with Navathaaniam, water and milk. They then go to the nearest sea beach or river usually fast flowing river, the performer walks into the water and immerses the pot and dissolves the ashes with flowers and let it mix with the water. He then discards the wet clothes and wears new ones and return home.

The Eddu Chelavu (எட்டுச்செலவு)

On the 5th or 7thday after the death, relatives gather for a meal of deceased's favourite foods which are cooked in the premises and offered to the deceased (to a photo usually) and the rest shared by all there. The tray of food offered to the deceased is taken and left at an abandoned place.

31st day memorial- Anthiyeshti -அந்தியேஷ்டி

This ceremony is to help to alleviate the sins of omission the soul might have committed during its life time. On the thirtieth day after the death, the person who did the last rites goes to the sea beach or river to perform the Anthiyeshti. At the beach or river bank, a priest conducts the ceremony where a Pooja is done on a stone or brick denoting removal of hunger, thirst and the form of dead body. Then he steps into the water and the relatives or guests hand over the material like Pindum (பிண்டம்) etc and he releases them into the water. He then bathes so will others in that congregation and wear new clothes. The performer carries an iron knife to ward off evil spirits while travelling home, on arrival at home he crosses a wooden pestle and chews Neem leaves just like when returned from the cemetery. Then he washes his hands and feet and two women perform an Aalathi.

While this group is spending their time at the sea beach, the whole house is thoroughly washed, curtains removed and replaced with clean ones and everyone takes a bath and wear clean clothes. The pictures that were turned around at the funeral are turned the right way. A priest performs pooja to remove the Thudakku - Punniyagavasanam and purify the house and people, then he leaves and as he leaves, holy water is sprinkled on him implying he is going away with all impurities. The house also is sprinkled with holy water.

Veeddu Kirththiyam - வீட்டு கிறுத்தியம்

When the Anthiyeshti has already been performed, another priest arrives and performs a memorial service for the dead. This is a long process and the priest receives gifts of new things that the deceased had been using like clothing, slippers, umbrella etc. Offerings are made to the ancestors by the priest and the chief mourner takes part in all the rituals in this ceremony. This concludes with a sit down vegetarian meal served on plantain leaves. This of course is a happy occasion. In some houses, due to the lengthy time consumption at each performance, the Anthiyeshti and Veeddu Kirthiyam are performed separately on two consecutive days.

Kalvettu – கல்வெட்டு

On the day of the Veeddu Kirthiyam, some people print and distribute a small booklet among those present at this ceremony. This is called Kalvettu.

Kalvettu literally means stone inscriptions or engraving on stones. This means whatever written on stone is permanent and undestroyable. It remains in everybody’s memory and can be looked at any time to recollect memory. This is the purpose of this publication and distributing it on this day.

This booklet is prepared by relatives of the dead person and gives information on date and place of birth as well as a short history of their life up to the time of death. A photo is also a must in this booklet. Also given is a family tree of this person and their relatives like parents, children and grandchildren, in short a heritage map is shown as a diagram which can be easily understood. This also will give detailed information on the day and time of death and hence assist the relatives and friends in determining the precise time for the annual rites.

Also included are some narrations from well wishers and prominent people giving an account of the achievements and contributions the deceased made to the society. Sometimes children and grandchildren do write up verses about the deceased and express how they miss them. There are also some verses and Saiva hymns like Sivapuranam, Thevarams etc printed.  They are included so people who read them will remember the deceased due to whose grace they have access to these hymns.

During the year after death -Masiyam - மாசியம்

During the first year of death, at the same Thithi (lunar calendar day) every month, a pooja is performed by a priest in memory of the dead and the son or sons will take part in carrying out these rituals called Masiyam. The priest will receive TThetchanai, and Thanam in the form of vegetables etc. Some people perform all these together at the 31st day ceremony for convenience.

At the end of first year - Aatu Thivasam - ஆட்டுதிவசம்

On the first anniversary, according to the lunar calendar on the Thithi on which the person died, a memorial service is performed and a priest officiates in this ceremony which is similar to the monthly Masiyam but is called Aatu Thivasam. Some relatives are invited by some families and a meal will usually follow. Sometimes a pooja is carried out in a temple instead and offerings are made to the Gods. Usually affordable people feed the poor and or orphans in memory of the dead.

After one year -Annual Thivasam or Varuda Sirartham - வருடதிவசம் / வருடாந்தசிரார்தம்

Every year at the Thithi, a pooja is carried out remembering the dead just like the Aatu Thivasam. Most people do this at a temple for convenience or feed the orphans in their favourite orphanage in memory of their dead.

After these the dead are remembered by the sons, every month on new moon days (அமாவாசை) for the father and full moon days (பறுவம்) for the mother. They fast on these days to remember their dead.

There are other certain special days which are also important for remembrance when son or sons take part in;

  • சித்ராபறுவம்) - Full moon day in the month of Chithirai or April for the mother,
  • ஆடிஅமாவாசை) - New moon in the month of Aadi or July for the father when rituals are performed at a sea beach by a priest for the souls of their fore fathers to rest in peace.
  • புரட்டாசிமாளையம்) - In the month of Puraddasi or September between the day after the full moon and the New moon day, the son or sons having forgotten the Thithi on which the parents died, perform the ritual to satisfy the ancestors and their souls.


At a funeral in contrast to a wedding there is no breaking of coconuts, drums are different, plantain trees are different, and also notice that the Panthal has no decorations. It is a sad occasion.