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This article is an excerpt from
Castes and Tribes of Southern India
By Edgar Thurston, C.I.E.,
Superintendent, Madras Government Museum; Correspondant
Étranger, Société d’Anthropologie de Paris; Socio
Corrispondante, Societa,Romana di Anthropologia
Assisted by K. Rangachari, M.A.,
of the Madras Government Museum.

Government Press, Madras


The Bairāgis are a class of religious mendicants, who roam about all over India, and are for the most part recruited from North Indian castes. They are followers of Rāmānand, who founded the order at the end of the fourteenth, or beginning of the fifteenth century. According to common tradition, the schism of Rāmānand originated in resentment of an affront [131]offered him by his fellow disciples, and sanctioned by his teacher. It is said that he had spent some time in travelling through various parts of India, after which he returned to the math, or residence of his superior. His brethren objected to him that in the course of his peregrinations it was impossible he could have observed that privacy in his meals, which is a vital observance of the Rāmānuja sect; and, as Rāghavānand admitted the validity of the objection, Rāmānand was condemned to feed in a place apart from the rest of the disciples. He was highly incensed at the order, and retired from the society altogether, establishing a schism of his own.19

The name Bairāgi is derived from the Sanskrit vairāgya (vi + rāg), denoting without desire or passion, and indicates an ascetic, who has subdued his passions, and liberated himself from worldly desires. The Bairāgis are sometimes called Bāvāji or Sādhu.

The Bairāgis are Vaishnavites, and bear the Tengalai Vaishnava mark (nāmam), made with sandal-paste or gōpi, on the forehead. Bairāgis with a Vadagalai mark are very rare. The Bairāgis wear necklaces of tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) beads or lotus (Nelumbium speciosum) seeds. Every Bairāgi cooks his food within a space cleansed with cow-dung water by himself or his disciple, and will not leave the space until he has finished his meal. The Bairāgis are not particular about screening the space from the public gaze. They partake of one meal daily, in the afternoon, and are abstainers from flesh dietary. They live mainly on alms obtained in the bazars, or in choultries (rest-houses for travellers). They generally carry with them one or two [132]brass vessels for cooking purposes, a sālagrāma stone and a conch-shell for worship, and a chillum (pipe) for smoking ganja (Indian hemp) or opium. They are, as a rule, naked except for a small piece of cloth tied round the waist and passed between the thighs. Some wear more elaborate body-clothing, and a turban. They generally allow the beard to grow, and the hair of the head is long and matted, with sometimes a long tail of yak or human hair tied in a knot on the top of the head. Those who go about nearly naked smear ashes all over their bodies. When engaged in begging, some go through the streets, uttering aloud the name of some God. Others go from house to house, or remain at a particular spot, where people are expected to give them alms.


Some Bairāgis are celibates, and others married. They are supposed to be celibates, but, as Dr. T. N. Bhattacharjee observes,20 the “monks of this order have generally a large number of nuns attached to their convents, with whom they openly live as man and wife.” The Bairāgis are very particular about the worship of the sālagrāma stone, and will not partake of food without worshipping it. When so doing, they cover their head with a piece of cloth (Rām nām ka safa), on which the name Rāma is printed in Dēvanāgiri characters. Their face and shoulders are stamped, by means of brass stamps, with the word Rāma in similar characters. For the purpose of meditation, the Bairāgi squats on the ground, sometimes with a deer or tiger skin beneath him, and rests his hands on the cross-piece of his yōga-dandam, or bent stick. A pair of tongs is stuck in the ground on his right side, and sometimes fire is kept [133]near it. It is noted by Mr. J. C. Oman21 that “a most elaborate ritual has been laid down for the guidance of Bairāgis in the daily routine of the indispensable business and duties of life, prescribing in minute detail how, for example, the ascetic should wash, bathe, sit down, perform pranayam (stoppage or regulation of respiration), purify his body, purge his mind, meditate on Vishnu, repeat the Gāyatri (hymn) as composed for the special use of members of the sect, worship Rāma, Sita, Lakshman, Bharata, and Satringah, together with Rāma’s bows and arrows, and, lastly, the monkey god Hanumān.”

The Bairāgis have a guru or priest, whom they call Mahant. Some visit the celebrated temple near Tirupati and pay their respects to the Mahant thereof.

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