I grew up in Mumbai, very close to what is the heart of the tambram community in the city, Matunga. Where we lived was a 15 minute walk to the heart of the community, to the market and the temples, to the flower shops and the vegetable vendors, some of whom though they came from the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, but could banter with the mamas and manis in Tamil. Before COVID-19 stuck and life changed, my mother used to make the thrice weekly trip every week to Matunga to get her fix of all of the above.
The other day while I was thinking about this, I realised that I actually grew up in an urban agraharam. So what is an agraharam you may ask? An Agraharam or Agrahara was a grant of land and royal income from it, typically by a king or a noble family in India, for religious purposes, particularly to Brahmins to maintain temples in that land or a pilgrimage site and to sustain their families. Agraharams were also known as Chaturvedimangalams in ancient times as well as known as ghatoka, and boyas. Agraharams were built and maintained by dynasties such as the Cholas and Pallavas. The name originates from the fact that the agraharams have lines of houses on either side of the road and the temple to the village god at the centre, thus resembling a garland around the temple. According to the traditional Hindu practice of architecture and town-planning, an agraharam is held to be two rows of houses running north–south on either side of a road at one end of which would be a temple to Shiva and at the other end, a temple to Vishnu. An example is Vadiveeswaram in Tamil Nadu.
Where we grew up was a collection of about 50-60 two to three storey buildings set in a sort of square with roads intersecting them. We were framed by educational institutes on three sides and a main road on the fourth. While our small community comprised of people from different communities across the various states of India, if I look back, I can see the Tamil Brahmin community most predominant here, with most of them from Kerala or the Palakkad Iyers. Most buildings, with some exceptions which only had people from a certain community as residents, had a few tambram families in residence. Everyone was a mama or mami and not uncle or aunty and everyone knew everyone, or at the very least knew our parents and grandparents, many of whom they were either together at school, in the same class or from the same village in Tamil Nadu or Kerala.
In my own building, the bulk of our neighbours were from my own community and this is why I call my small slice of area an urban agraharam. Everyone was solidly middle class and if you probed enough, you found some connection with them, either through family or friends and once the connection was made, you were part of them. I know now that even living in a secular and multi-community city like Mumbai made us quite insular when it came to Tamil culture. The only Tamil culture I knew was the Tambram one and coming to Singapore, to a culture similar to my own was actually a culture shock to me.
But, growing up in a community made mostly of people who had the same values, the same traditions as us was just as charming. Festivals which are unique to my community was commonplace here and I never questioned why the rest didn’t celebrate it. For example, the annual Avani avittam festival which is the only festival for the men who on this day would change their sacred threads used to be held in a nearby school with a few priests from one of the temples in Matunga coming over to conduct the rituals. Since there were enough men who wore the sacred thread, it probably made sense for the organizers to hold a mini session in our area. Since the day was not a public holiday, they used to do the session fairly early so the men and boys could then go on to work and school. And in all the years my grandfather and then father went here instead of to our temple in Matunga, I never questioned why. It all seemed normal to me. We loved going to each other’s homes for festivals like Diwali, Navratri and Ganesh Chaturti in our pavadais and sing songs and gorge on the delicacies.
That was a lovely time growing up. Everyone looked out for each other and mamas and mamis didn’t heaitate to scold or tell on a child they knew if the said child did something wrong. We thought nothing of going into anyone’s house for a drink of water or to use the bathroom. We were also quite safe in our little enclave and most of us pretty much lived our whole lives there till we moved out.
Life in our small community has changed now. Many buildings are being knocked down to make way for high rises, especially since this area is now a prime area, within what is considered the original Bombay and close, but not too close to the city. A lot of people from the community moved to suburbs like Chembur, Thane and Dombivili when the real estate prices here started picking up in the nineties. I think my grandparents and parents even explored the idea of moving to Chembur, but thankfully dropped the idea very soon. Life goes on, but in our area, the percentage of tambrams has reduced tremendously, so much so it can’t be called an agraharam anymore. I mourn for this loss, but c’est la vie and life must go on. The chakra of life never stops and I am sure in some of the suburbs I mentioned newer urban agraharams have been created.