Day long recitation of Srimad Bhagavata used to mark all important occasions in Nair families in Central and South Kerala, especially Onattukara in Central Kerala till the early 1990’s. Be it a birthday celebration or festivals at family’s Kavus (sacred forest) or any other special occasion, Bhagavata recital was a must. The Bhagavata which was used in the region was Bhagavata Purana Kilippattu (Malayalam version) written by Tunchath Ramanujan Ezhuthassan (father of Malayalam language)
(Onattukara comprises of areas extending from Haripad, Kayamkulam and Mavelikkara in Alappuzha district, Karunagappaly in Kollam district upto Pandalam in Pathanamthitta district).
Wealthy Nair homes employed professionals for recitation of Bhagavata during birthday celebrations. All Hindus of neighbourhood irrespective of caste differences used to come there and sit to hear it .Cake Cutting and “Happy Birthday To You” English Songs were absent. There would be sumptuous vegetarian feasts at noon along with Payasam (a sweet meat made mostly of jiggery, rice, coconut etc). Poor people in the neighbourhood used to demand that it be made and the whole neighbourhood celebrated. Bhavata would be placed on a specially made stand before the Lord Krishna’s photo or idol and singers would sit cross legged on the floor and read. Some used to explain also.
Even when somebody is critically ill or dies it was a practice to read Bhagavata at home. It was believed that listening to the Lord’s life will make the soul’s journey to the other world effortless. Normally on such occasions only parts of Bhagavata would be recited. Moreover, it used to provide peace to people who are otherwise worried because of illness or death of their beloved.
Wealthy Nair families used to conduct Bhagavata Saptaham at their homes. This involved recitation of Bhagavata by three or four people. The recitation would be completed in seven days and thus the name Saptaha. There were specialized singers for Saptaha, many of whom were proficient in language as well as Carnatic music. Special Panadals (Shamiana) would be erected and there would be many listeners. Important parts of Bhagavata like “Rukmini Swayamvaram” (Marriage of the Lord with Rukmini) would be specially celebrated. Girls dressed up as Rukmini would garland the Lord when that part is recited.
Saptahams used to feature religious discourses in the evening when the recital ends. Even if it was held at a house, the whole neighbourhood used be immersed in the joy of devotion to Lord those days. Neighbours would join to help the family make food, clean the place and make arrangements for pooja. People would come at night also and spiritual discussions would be a feature of gatherings. Instead of Ritualistic Tantric customs, Bhagavata Saptahams provided a fresh experience of Hindu religion to the laymen. Learned men would explain philosophy in simple terms which would give meaning of real Hinduism to listeners. In this context, the name of Karuvatta Swami who popularized saptahams needs to be remembered.
Saptahams used to end with Avabhrita Snanams as it was believed that the singers and listeners were performing ceremonies after the Lord returned to Vaikunta from earth ending his human Avatar.
Many poor people used to find a livelihood in Onattukara reading Bhagavata. It used to give society a sense of unity. It used to transport common man to a spiritual realm. Unlike festivals of “Kalakettu” or Kuthirakettu where village groups fought with each other at temple ground in the name of rituals, Saptahams were a quiet spiritual affair provoking thought and inculcating spirituality among Hindus. It did not involve show off of wealth or show of caste supremacy. Everybody was welcome to hear the Lord’s story and brought peace to the minds of listeners.
Poor old people used to travel from one family to another on occasion of Saptahams. This would help them to get food for their physical and spiritual needs. I personally know an Old communist worker who during the fag end of life becoming an expert singer of Bhavata to survive.
Unfortunately the custom of Bhagavata recital is slowly dying in Onattukara. Saptahams are being held at temples only and not at homes. Some swamis across Kerala are doing it at their ashrams or auditoriums but holding it at homes used to give it a popular character which has been lost. Birthday celebrations now mean cake cutting and happy birthday songs and there is no Bhagavata recital. Earlier there were open compounds and neighours were welcome to one’s home at any time. Now it is difficult to get help of people to organize a Saptaha and perhaps it is this that prevents people from organizing it at homes.
The custom of reading Bhagavata when people die is also slowly vanishing. It would be wise if organizations like Nair Service Society could revive the practice. Or social organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) could also do something to revive such pious practices.