Stuart Forster visits the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam, a school providing a traditional Vedic education in Kerala, India.
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Thrissur, in India’s southern state of Kerala, is well-regarded for its educational establishments. A dozen engineering institutes, four medical colleges and Kerala Agriculture University number among the places of learning based in the city. Yet none matches the long tradition of the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam, one of the world’s last remaining Vedic schools.
The Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam, sometimes called simply the Brahmaswam Madham, traces its history back approximately half a millennium. It is a residential school in which its pupils, all boys aged between seven and 12, from Kerala’s Namboodiri Brahmin community, learn via an ancient oral technique that has all but died out elsewhere. Teachers write nothing down and pupils make no notes.
Reciting the Rig Veda
Using this method, the boys are taught the complete Rigveda, the collection of more than one thousand hymns in the Sanskrit language, numbering 432,000 syllables, composed in India sometime between 1700 BC and 1100 BC. By the conclusion of their education, the pupils have memorised and can recite and chant the entire Rigveda. Remarkably, the lads have the ability to start their recitals anywhere within its cycle.
Traditionally, young men who had studied at the school would find employment as priests but, increasingly, graduates of the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam are finding that their ability to memorise details is a useful skill to have in the world of Information Technology. They can command good salaries as software professionals or engineers.
The intense oral system of learning used in the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam is known as the Gurukula system. The school has seven teachers and just 32 pupils, most of whom are from Kerala but two are from Maharashtra. The teaching takes place in small face-to-face groups within the various darkly shaded rooms of the school; the shade helps ensure that the classrooms remain cool while summer temperatures outside can soar above 40°C.
Strict discipline and guidance
The teachers impart strict discipline upon their charges, beginning each verse with a hand gesture known as a mudra. The mudras act as a visual aid to the pupils’ memories.
With guidance from their teachers, the students learn to chant the intonation of the verses correctly. This is an important aspect of the education, as the sound itself is deemed to have an air of divinity. The teachers sit cross-legged with the pupils and, if necessary, will move the pupils’ heads with their hands as verses are recited, in order to ensure that their positioning is correct and their vocal chords elongated by tilting back the head. Repetition is a key aspect to the learning process.
The school’s daily routine
The pupils undergo an intensive day of learning, which begins at 5.30 in the morning, with yoga asanas, and carries on until the early afternoon. After a group lunch and time to play outside, the pupils have time to learn Hindi and science in a conventional classroom environment. The discipline of the school day is regarded as an important aspect of the Gurukala system and the boys close their day with prayers and a fire ritual at 9.00 pm.
The school is located just a short distance from Thrissur’s Vadakkumnathan Temple, a well-known landmark, Hindu pilgrimage site and tourist attraction. Remarkably, few of the visitors who come to visit the famous temple are aware of Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam.
Long ago, schools similar to the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam would have existed throughout India. A “madham” is an institution which encourages Vedic studies, which Hindus regard as central to the understanding of their religion and religious philosophy.
A history of the schooling
Thrissur was once home to four influential madhams, monastic schools founded by disciples of the philosopher Adi Shankaracharya, the thinker who played an important role in developing the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta. His statue is displayed in the school and a frieze depicting Adi Shankaracharya overlooks the courtyard at the entrance to the school. His follower Hastaamalaka established the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam. The Thekke Madham, established by Padmapapa, the Etayil Madham, set up by Thotaka, and the Neduvil Madham, established by Sureswara, are now consigned merely to the history books.
Approximately 400 years ago the head of the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam endowed agricultural lands, buildings and property to the Madham. 400 families from the Namboodiri community became the trustees of the institution. The madham thus ceased to be a monastery and became a centre of teaching (Maha Vedavidyalaya).
The Brahmins were deemed custodians of the Vedas, which were preserved as part of daily ritual and worship. The study of Vedic texts and sadangas – the teaching, interpretation and performance of the Vedic texts – is believed to be a Brahmin duty. The Namboodiris are just one of the Brahmin communities of India.
Kerala’s Namboodiri Brahmin community
The Namboodiri Brahmin community were once major land owners but following Indian Independence, in 1947, the Communist Party, which was elected to power in Kerala, introduced land reforms. The reforms significantly reduced the amount of land owned by members of the Namboodiri community and, in their eyes, deprived the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam of the income from land rents that had previously provided for the upkeep of the school. It now has just three acres of land in Thrissur and consequently now receives financial support from the Government of India.
Nonetheless, the long-established traditions and oral teaching methods of the school live on.
Map of the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam
Map showing the location of Thrissur’s Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam:
Thank you for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post about the Vadakke Madham Brahmaswam in Kerala, India. Planning a trip to the region? You might be interested by this post about houseboating on the backwaters of Kerala, India.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, spend five years in India. He is an award-winning travel writer and has contributed to Rough Guides, National Geographic Traveller and many other publications.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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A version of this post was initially published on Go Eat Do on 16 December 2013.