Vatul is the name of my South Indian – Hindu – Brahmin clan. Vatula Maharishi, or Great Sage Vatul, was the progenitor of my father’s line. The lore goes that this was a man prone to great distraction, ascribed to deep, consciousness-expanding meditation. A Sanskrit term, Vatul means “enlightened, lashed by the wind to the point of losing one’s sanity, god’s madcap, detached from the world, and seeker of truth.” This explains a lot about my family. Furthermore, the terms Vatul and Baul are applied to mystics, originally Hindu and Sufi-Muslim respectively, who dedicated their lives to the quest for spiritual harmony and experience. Since Vatul in my case is solely a patrilineal designation and my mother married into the clan, the rest of this page hops between South Indian Hindu Brahmins in general and Vatul in particular.
Who knows where we started? Theories abound. For the last few millennia and up until the early 20th century, however, both my mother’s and father’s families lived in a small district deep in the heart of South India, specifically Thanjavur in the state of Tamil Nadu. Surprisingly, for as long as we have been around, little is published about the people and practises of this society, i.e. Tamil Hindu Brahmin Iyers. I hope to provide some background and documentation on this impressive community, and in a small way, to give respect to the forebears of whom I have heard numerous awesome stories. For instilling in me this value for family and culture, I credit my mother and grandmothers.
We are all the same. We aren’t all the same. Such is the human condition. As a geoscientist (long clock) who loves human peculiarities (much shorter time frame), I have to give a nod to the fact that we are, in the end, after all, Animalia Chordata Mammalia Primates Hominidae Homininae Homo sapiens sapiens. And then come more names.
“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.” See here for the rest of this fairly accurate description of Iyer. Iyers are primarily Siva worshippers. Our counterparts who prefer Vishnu are referred to as Iyengar.
Iyers and Iyengars are further subdivided into clans known as gothra, which then serve as lines of descent. To discourage inbreeding, marriage between members of the same gothram is strictly forbidden. Vatul was a rishi (sage) who gave his name to one such gothram.
As Lakshmi Narasimhan Madhavan informs, “Vatula gothram is prevalent in both Iyers and Iyengars.” This is seen in the presence of Bhargava, a Vaishnava rishi in our abhivaadaye (formal introduction to elders and at temple). The three main rishis of Vatula gothram are Bhargava, Vaitahavya and Saavedasa. Mr. Madhavan continues, “Bhargava refers to the lineage of Bhrigu Maharishi, the foster father of Goddess Lakshmi worshipped as Bhargavi.” (Still rather tenuous to me is the connection between Vatula and the three rishis.)
I now own a scanner, have interviewed both grandmothers several times, purchased Family Tree Maker and continue to fill in the blanks with incoming details. That counts for something, right?