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Iyer is the name given to a community of Brahmins (members of the priestly class / caste) of India whose members migrated from the Northern part of India to settle in Tamil Nadu. Iyers are therefore Tamil Brahmins. Though Iyer is used as a suffix to names, it does not strictly constitute a family name.

The term Iyer derives from the term Ayya used by the indigenous people of the Tamil country to denote respect to the Brahmins. Ayya in turn derives from the word Arya referring to Aryan. In general opinion, the Tamil Brahmin is considered to be of Aryan origin as opposed to the original inhabitants of South India who are considered Dravidian in origin. Though uncontested, this is not a proven historical fact and is a sensitive topic that indirectly relates to the formation of castes and the Aryan invasion theory.

Iyers follow Adi Sankara's advaita, a branch of Hinduism that believes that the human soul is liberated from the cycle of rebirths through acquisition of knowledge of its true nature (See external links). Important in the advaitic philosophy is the tenet that Brahman, the Supreme Being is nirguna, or devoid of attributes. However, humans postulate attributes to God for the purpose of worship, thus creating various deities. As followers of this philosophy, Iyers are secular in their worship of the large pantheon of Hindu deities, include Shiva, Vishnu, Rama, Krishna, Ganesha, Karthikeya, etc.

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 Under British rule
3 Iyers today
4 Some notable Iyers
5 External links


Many members of the Brahmin community, originally based in the Northern part of India, migrated to the rich kingdoms in the South, particularly that of the Cholas in the Tamil country, in the first millennium AD. This migration was in response to the invitations of the powerful rulers who needed them to perform the various rituals, specifically yajnas, that would help secure and extend their power. In return for their services, the Brahmins were given agricultural land, entire villages and other gifts. The Iyers diversified into agriculture and other trades. There was thus a consolidation of both wealth and education in the Iyers and the Chola territory of Thanjavur, a fertile land watered by the Cauvery river, became their home.

The migration to the South features in legends of the sage Agastya; once the Vindhya mountain range in central India continued to grow higher and higher showing its might. Sage Agastya, sent to control it, asked it to stop growing until he returned from his sojourn in the South. The Vindhya bowed its head to Agastya and promised to comply with his request. Agastya never returned and the Vindhyas never grew further.

All the Iyers trace their origin to one of the eight major rishis or sages. Iyers classify themselves under different Gotras, those of the same Gotra share common ancestors. Thus in the Iyer community, marriage among people of the same Gotra is prohibited. This is generally cited as an example of scientific practices followed even in the distant past. Iyers are also divided into subgroups such as Vadama, Brahacharanam, etc., based on details such as their context of migration and land of settling; vadama(meaning of the North) comprise the Iyers most recently migrated from the North. Recent migrations from the South too merit unique names- Palakkad Iyers are those who migrated from Thanjavur to Kerala. The superiority/ inferiority of the various gotras and subgroups with reference to each other and their stereotyping is the subject of many debates, often considered amusing by the current generation.Iyers today are found all over the world.

Under British rule

After their migration to the South, there was a rising hegemony of Iyers in terms of their staking claim to the Vedas and the attendant complex rituals. This was further strengthened by the British rule in India when they secured most of the bureaucratic jobs with their good educational background, becoming lawyers, government employees, teachers, etc., (Many Tamil Brahmins were later also active in the freedom movement). Such a situation led to a major resentment from the other castes in Tamilnadu, particularly the educated and elite. There was an anti- Brahmin movement and the Justice party was formed to retrieve dignity to the other castes. Some time after independence, in the 1960's, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (rough translation- Organisation for Progress of Dravidians) and its subgroups gained political ground on this platform forming state ministries. However, with changing conditions today such as strong reservation policies this platform has lost some of its steam.

Iyers today

In addition to their earlier occupations, Iyers today have diversified into a variety of fields- their strengths particularly evident in the fields of science, mathematics and computer science. A miniscule percentage of Iyers today choose to pursue the vocation of priesthood, though most priests are Iyers. Iyers have been active in the cultural field too. Music has always been integral to the Iyer community; Carnatic music forms a sacred tradition including within its fold, apart from vocal music, instruments such as mridangam, naadaswaram, veena, ghatam, etc., Bharata Natyam, though a dance form that had origins considered unrespectable, has been ardently pursued by female members of the Iyer community from the time of its reinvention in early 20th century. Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam together enjoy a rich patronage during the Chennai cultural season in the months of December and January.

Because of their origins, the Iyers were generally an insular community strictly following traditions in their private realm. However, in the public realm, they were very progressive. Though today the situation has changed a lot, the way of life of an Iyer retains a considerable amount of continuity with the past. The unique culture of the Iyers is easily identifiable and is sometimes open to parody, especially in movies and television today. However, mostly the Iyers choose to ignore this or view it in the positive sense. One vivid image which is parody and truth at the same time is the picture of an Iyer priest complete in traditional dhoti,hair knot and sacred thread(poonal) riding a motorbike rushing to conduct a ritual.

There are many essentialising features/ practices/ stereotypes of the Iyer community that are open to interpretation. Some may be factual while others may be either fictitious or obsolete, many a time the sterotypes even contradict and cancel out each other! To mention a few random ones- vegetarianism, filter-coffee drinking, shrewdness, intelligence, discipline, lesser loyalty to one's community and more to one's individual self, honesty, uprightness, valuing truth rather than loyalty, aversion to violence and confrontation, flexibility in changing one's opinion, resilience, objectivity, proclivity to rational thinking rather than emotion, bourgeois mentality, lesser importance to fields such as sports and trade, more emphasis on those related to thinking,and so on and on! One phrase which seems to strike a chord in most Iyers is "simple living, high thinking".

Some notable Iyers

External links