Age-old Kerala fire ritual a natural purifier?

Scientists are trying to establish that the ancient Vedic ritual is a natural purifier of air, soil and  micro-biological life - impacting plants, animals and man - through an extensive network of research in the lush village and in neighbouring Kochi.

The 12-day ritual started April 4.

"The ritual of athirathram could open up a new branch of scientific study if the results of the experiments being carried out by a team of 40 researchers prove that human intervention can affect growth and cell-division in microbes," V.P.N. Namboodiri, head of the research team  of the Panjal Athirathram, told IANS in an interview.

Namboodiri is a former director of the International School of Photonics at Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) and emeritus scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The scientist said: "The new science of socio-microbiology will probe how society's intervention acts on the microbes positively through rituals involving medicinal herbs, fire, chants and smoke that can neutralise toxic microbes (micro-organisms) in the atmosphere, living objects and soil with new non-toxic ones."

Microbes as a genre include a variety of unicellular organisms like bacteria, fungi, archaea (an ancient form of life) and plankton.

"We could ask the Cochin University and advise the government later to include socio-microbiology in the curriculum as a stand-alone subject," Namboodiri said.

Citing an example on how the rite purifies the atmosphere and "prevents microbe contamination",  he said: "Tests of soil collected from two earlier ritual altars, located 100 metres from the site of the current one, has shown zero microbe contamination for more than 50 years."

There are two bird-shaped altars, laid out like an eagle in five layers of terracotta bricks, barely 100 metres from the venue of the current "yagnya" where athirathram was conducted in 1918 and 1956, the scientist said.

Panjal, which according to ancient Indian Vaastu Shastra, abounds in positive energy and has played host to four mass athirathram - the oldest of the Vedic ritualistic invocation of fire.

The last fire ritual was held in 1975.

He said the "ritual and by-products, including two thatched marquees, will act as insecticides on the fertile soil of Panjal, a fertile paddy growing area."

"My team has collected water and soil from the yagashala (the ritual hearth) and from a vicinity of two kilometres to assess the impact of the ritual. Samples of seeds that germinated before the ritual and those that were planted during the ritual have been sent to a laboratory in Kochi to compare the impact," he said.

The data is being collected by local school children for handing over to the researchers at the Cochin University.

The scientist is also looking into the phenomenon of "local rain" that the ritual brings in its wake on the last day when the "marquee and the hearth" are set on fire.

"The particulate matter goes up into the atmosphere, generates convection and condenses into rain," he said.

Athirathram combines elements of  Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and  Sama Veda.

According to Namboodiri, "the fire and the herbal ingredients apart, the accompanying Vedic 'mantras' or the chants also have special implications".

Every ritual act has a corresponding mantra, or sacred chant, alluding to the milking of the cow.

"It harmonises the rhythm of nature to the cadence and the rhythm (tala) of the pitch and tone in which they are chanted. The Sanskrit mantras are chanted in a particular rhythm that is typical to Kerala.

"It is symbolic of the perpetuation of the ancient oral tradition of 'strauta' (shruti) of Vedic culture and the 'guru-shisya' system of learning. Each mantra is a prayer affecting the mind and the surrounding in a different way," Namboodiri said.

At a make-shift laboratory a few hundred feet away from the venue, Parvati Menon, head of the post-graduate and research wing of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Mahatma Gandhi College, is working on a project "on the ritual plants, including the fabled Somalatha".

The team will publish its first report in May and its final findings later in the year.

The essence of the ritual is pure science, the scientist said. "It is a way of celebrating the big bang or the creation of universe which began with a ball of fire," Namboodiri said.

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