Dutch Indophile back in India after 35 years

New Delhi, March 31: Indologist and heritage crusader Johan Frederik ‘Frits’ Staal, a driving force behind the preservation of the world’s oldest surviving Vedic ritual Athirathram, will return to Kerala’s Panjal village after 35 years on April 4 to witness the Athirathram festival.

Staal, emeritus professor of Philosophy and South & Southeast Asian studies at the University of Berkeley in California, carried the festival to the world when he documented the ritual of Athirathram in his path-breaking treatise — “Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar” in 1975, a statement issued by the Varthathe Trust said.

The two-volume book, first published in 1975, is being reprinted by Motilal Banarasidas. Staal is likely to carry forward his work on the Vedic fire ritual during his visit to India.

The 81-year-old Vedic scholar and philosopher is an authority of the scientific exploration of Vedic rituals, Sanskrit grammar and Indian mysticism. Staal’s recent study concerns Greek and Vedic geometry.

“It is indeed our privilege to have Staal with us to see us recreate what he recorded in 1975,” Sivakaran Namboodiri, a trustee of the Varthathe Trust, said.

Staal’s preface to Agni offers a glimpse of what prompted him to record Athirathram.

“While pyramids, temples, cathedrals, and skyscrapers were built and fell into decay, languages and religions came and went, and innumerable wars were fought, the Vedas and their ritual continued to be transmitted by word of mouth, from teacher to pupil, and from father to son,” Staal wrote in his book.

Staal’s book is used by many scholars and priests as reference material on the fire ritual.

Preparations are currently in full swing in Panjal for Athirathram. The construction of the hearth or the yagnyashala has begun. As part of the preparation, 1,110 bricks specially made to construct the altar (chithi) of the “yagnyashala” for Athirathram were recently transported from Chittissery in Thrissur to the venue in Panjal, also located in the district.

The ritual will be performed just as it was done 4,000 years ago with mud and wooden vessels. The ritual fire will be lit by rubbing two pieces of wood in an elaborate and time-taking ceremony.

Provisions will also be made to provide ‘Anna Dhanam’ to around 10,000 people every day during the 12 days of the ritual. During the last three days, this number of guests is expected to double and hundreds of volunteers will ensure smooth flow of events.

The former director of International School of Photonics, Cochin University (CUSAT) and Emeritus Scientist at Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR) V.P.N. Nampoori will lead a delegation of scientists to study the impact of the ritual on nature and micro-organisms.