Tithi hotels

A new and fairly lucrative business has developed in Bangalore over the last 10-15 years or so. An uncle of mine likes to call them “tithi hotels”. They are basically institutions that undertake contracts to help you perform the annual death ceremonies of dead ancestors (according to Hindu tradition, you are supposed to remember the dead on their death anniversary every year by performing a set of ceremonies. In kannada it’s called “tithi”) .

So conducting a tithi is fairly painful business, but until these tithi hotels came up, it was all supposed to be done at home. One had to get cooks, for there are restrictions on what can and cannot be cooked for such ceremonies. And then, one has to find a priest, and two “brahmins” who are supposed to be fed. And it’s a fairly messy affair and dirties up the house, and to put it mildly, not very pleasant.

These tithi hotels offer all these services under one roof. They arrange for the priests and the “brahmins” and the food, which is prepared according to exacting standards. And they provide a venue for you to conduct the tithi, and they even arrange for crows and cows to whom you feed the “pinDa”.

While doing my father’s tithi earlier today, I noticed some stuff I hadn’t really noticed today. So the two “brahmins” I spoke about – one is supposed to represent god and the other represents your dead ancestors, if I get it right. The former is “worshipped” wearing the sacred thread the right way, with rice, and doing things clockwise whenever there is circular motion involved. To “worship” the latter you wear the sacred thread the wrong way (right shoulder to left waist), use black sesame seeds, and performing all circular motions anti-clockwise.

My cousin, who is married into a family of priests, reliably informs me that several of her relatives make a living out of being “brahmins” at such ceremonies, where they take on the role of “god” and someone’s ancestors interchangeably, and collect a nominal fee (I think the tithi hotel I go to pays the brahmins 250 bucks a sitting) and a lunch heavy enough to last them the day. In fact, at my mother’s tithi last year one of the brahmins was an auto-driver, and he had taken a break from his driving duties to play god and collect his fee and lunch.

This business of tithi hotels is only bound to grow, since the population is increasing, which also means that the population of dead immediate ancestors is increasing. And I think the rate of growth of population is faster than the rate of growth of various forms of atheism, so this seems like a good business to be in. Actually this business has undergone some changes in the last 20 odd years.

Earlier, there used to be some large-scale tithi hotels, where they would do several tithis on the same premises, with priests and brahmins jumping from one to other and multitasking to cater  to a large number of clients. As you would expect, these places knew little about concepts such as hygiene (I’ve been to and conducted tithis in places like these, and haven’t understood at all the “cleanliness” (maDi) that is supposed to be associated with religious brahmins). But they think commercial and exploit economies of scale to provide tithi services at a reasonable cost.

Of late, these have been supplemented by “standalone” tithi hotels, which do only one tithi per day, thus ensuring greater cleanliness (though tithis continue to be messy affairs) and privacy, and allows you to invite a larger number of relatives to the tithi. Oh, and the one that I go to (twice a year, once each for my father’s and mother’s tithis) does serve up a damn good lunch.

Oh, and I don’t get this, but every tithi hotel I’ve been to has been largely staffed with Gults. Wonder why.

Death Ceremonies

Considering the number of times I’ve been through the death/post-death/death-anniversary ceremonies over the last three odd years it’s quite surprising that I haven’t really blogged about it. Maybe I considered the topic to be way to personal to blog about. Maybe I was so busy fighting relatives that I didn’t have the opportunity to observe things.

So most of the time during the death ceremony was spent with me shifting my sacred thread from left to right, and back, and back. The  basic idea is that for all death-related stuff, one is supposed to wear the thread from right shoulder to left waist (it’s normally worn from left shoulder to right waist). But then, considering that it’s a religious ceremony, large portions are also spent praying, and when you are praying to the gods, you are supposed to wear the thread the right way.

And then these two kinds keep alternating, so you spend a lot of time just doing that! To aid this and to save time, the upper cloth is tied around the tummy (like an auxiliary dhoti) rather than over the shoulders. And by the end of every such ceremony, you would have figured out when you’ll have to switch the orientation of the thread.

Then during the annual death ceremonies, there are two brahmins who help in officiating. Apparently there’s something special about these brahmins. Once, a couple of years back, one of these guys failed to turn up on time because of which the entire ceremony was getting delayed, and I hinted to an uncle that since he too is a brahmin he should deputise. And then this uncle (a rather religious character) gave me a long lecture about the processes and sacrifices that these “special” brahmins (who are paid a pittance – their daily rate is about half of what an average junior skilled worker (carpenter, painter, etc) makes) have to go through to allow them to perform their duty.

Now, it is as if one of these brahmins plays god and the other plays the devil (something of the sort). The “god” is always addressed with the thread in the normal position while the “devil” is addressed with the thread from right shoulder to left waist. The “god” is worshipped with rice, while the “devil” is worshipped with black sesame seeds. It seems as if the devil is somehow supposed to represent some kind of companion of the people in the afterlife – in whose memory the ceremonies are being performed.

This time we had struck a package deal (inclusive of all ceremonies, offerings, gifts, lunch, consumables, etc.) but on earlier occasions we were plagued by the priests trying to blackmail us by demanding that we give them expensive gifts, over and above the fees that we had agreed upon. And then once, by drawing upon a clever analogy, I managed to convince one of them that the gifts that I’d given earlier were like advance payment for services and that I’d pay only the balance. Unfortunately some relatives ridiculed me for fighting with the priest and made me pay him the full amount (yeah it was my money. none of these relatives coughed up a naya paisa)

The ceremonies are in general disgusting affairs and the only way to go through them is to just go through the processes. Sometimes, thinking about what kind of a blog post to write on the process can help take your mind away from random wanderings.