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When an Iyer met an Iyengar

If you see my parents, they look like the quintessential arranged marriage couple. After nearly 35 years together, they still take care not to touch each other while posing for a photograph and my mother’s smile dangles precariously between a smile and a grimace. But this image discolours the truth a tad.

Some 40 years back, they met at work, fell in love and got married. The talking point of the union being mom’s status as an iyengar and dad’s as an iyer. Simply put, the iyers and the iyengars are two castes of the Brahmin community, each, when given the chance, profess superiority to each other on all counts. If you listen closely, an Iyengar talking about an Iyer will say ‘Iyer a?’ in a condescending tone. And vice versa.

Mom tells me that when she told her dad about the marriage, he vowed to stand by her at any cost. Dad never told me what happened, but allow me to hazard a guess. His mother (my grandmother), threatened to go on a fast unto death. My dad threatened to go on a parallel fast unto death. Paati (grandmother) couldn’t fathom her son going without mother’s food and made him his favourite more kozhambu and parpoosali curry to pacify him. And grudgingly accepted his choice of an iyengar bride.

When I was younger, these questions never struck me as obvious. Why does thatha (mom’s dad) apply a namam and why does appa (my dad) apply a vibuthi? An image vividly comes to mind, where in a moment of unawareness, I applied a namam. My paati (dad’s mom) nearly suffered her first heart attack (the first of many mini-heart attacks), furiously rubbed it off and promptly applied three lines of veeboothi on my head. The permanent crease on my forehead can be attributed to the constant twitching it was subject to each time I applied a naamam and was furiously rubbed off to make way for a vibuthi. And vice versa.

Over the years, paati tried to brainwash me into believing that all iyengars were inferior. My mother use to tell me that all iyers had an inferiority complex that showed outwardly as a superiority complex. As my love and affection for both these women was immense, all this, as one may assume, left a dent on my psyche. Whose side should I take? I suspect at some point this caused a mild case of multiple personality disorder. Worried, my parents carted me to a shrink, who attempted to demystify the many me’s. His first question – ‘iyer or iyengar?’ "Ottha naaye, adekeda onkitte vandhein. Ennake therile."(moron, that’s why I came to you. I don’t know).

For a large part of my life, I led a charmed existence, unaware of the baggage I was carrying, until people started asking me if I was an Iyer or an Iyengar. When I tell them I am half iyer and half iyengar, their eyes light up. ‘Your parents must have been very brave’, ‘in those days, it was considered travesty’, and other such comments which paint a picture of super heroism. When they got married, I presume both sides came armed with truckloads of vibuthi and chandanam respectively to make a point.

This dichotomy exposes itself in many functions. At some point in time, one of them devised an order of how food was supposed to be served. Not to be outdone, the other made some changes. So whenever a function is held, an iyengar guest will instruct the server to serve in one manner. The iyer guest will instruct the server in a manner contrary to the iyengar. Inevitably, this causes some terse moments.

One day, in a bid to set the record straight, I asked my grandmother (while eating), what the actual difference was between an iyer and an iyengar. Maybe the setting influenced her answer but this was her reply– “you know, iyengars always serve rice first and iyers never serve rice on an empty plate.” For the lack of an appropriate response, I burst out laughing. She showed her displeasure by forgetting to add salt to the food the next day.

Actually, it is all of these nitty gritties that make the iyers and the iyengars what they are. They maybe two sides of the same coin, but now and forever, they shall hold their respective forts. Until one of them falls in love with the other that is.


  1. :) ha ha.... I loved the line "“you know, iyengars always serve rice first and iyers never serve rice on an empty plate.” For the lack of an appropriate response, I burst out laughing." As unimportant as that sounds, it is more than enough to spark off a huge debate if the iyers and iyengars are ever at a function together.

    I loved how you made it funny but not insulting... Good job

  2. Loved the post. It was funny and very true.

  3. Very nicely written.. would like to point out the hypocratical attitude of some well to do Iyer /Iyengars..based on personal experiences of observing in my friends circle .

    Present day Social status/money /career and residing abroad etc are the main criterion.

    Tamil Brahmin community(majority except a few minority ) ...Today respects only those brides and grooms who are employed in IT /earning in lakhs or working/residing in United states etc .

    .They welcome if their boy/girl fall in love with such wealthy Iyer/Iyengar .... If these criteria are met No one cares who is Iyer/Who is Iyengars..

    When Iyer/iyengar inter- marriage happens in other families with lesser social status or ordinary employed people ...These *so called* high class people tend to criticise and advise saying One should not encourage such marriages because it would end the separate identities of Iyer/Iyengar..

    But when the same thing happened in their own family they arranged an engagement very lavishly and had the priests from both Iyer/Iyengar on either side chanting as per the groom or bride belonging .showing to others that they were really broad minded and respected each other ..and same thing for marriage when marriage happened also the same thing Both priests were present ..and both rituals followed except perhaps Mangalyam which happened as per bridegrooms

    Why is this hypocracy In Brahmin community?

  4. What we forget is the first ever Iyer..Iyengar marriage...a kind of All Time Greta Alliance made in heaven and all that...Parvathy, sister of Vishnu marrying Shiva....a love marriage, an inter denominational alliance and a match fully endorsed by the brother...he gives her away in Kanyadaana!!
    Did you know that Saama Vedic Iyers wear a Gopi..chandanam vertical streak in the middle of the horizontal three lines of amalgamation of both Iyers and Iyengaars.

  5. Ooh... you are talking of what happened one generation before, but things have not changed much even now!! I am an Iyer married to an Iyengar. Starting from the way Madisaaru is worn, to Oonjal ceremony in weddings (Once after Pani Grahanam for Iyer and Twice for Iyengars) to the way we speak (Annam Saadhikardhu - Saadham Parimarardhu, Saathamudhu - Rasam, Karamudhu - Kari, Thirukannamudhu - Payasam etc) to the days when festivals are celebrated (Example, Iyers Celebrate Krishnar's B'day on the Ashtami of Avani Masam and Iyengras on Rohini Nakshathram) it's a huge change!!

    When my relatives come, I need to serve food in one order and when my husband's relatives come, I need to do it in another order. & Namaskarams are done 4 times!!

    & the funniest thing - On Vinayaga Chaturthi (Which is not celebrated by many Iyengars), a namam is put on Vinayagar and he is called Vishwaksenar or Thumbikkai Alwar!!

    All that apart, its fun to mix the cultures and have some fun in it!! Every Pillayar Chaturthi, I tease my in-laws that I would put Pattai to Krishnar on Janmashtami!! ;) But amidst all these fun is life and that makes it enjoyable - Atleast for me :)

  6. Forget the difference - iyer-iyengar-madhva- need of this hour is total unity amongst Brahmin community, if we need to survive the onslaught of anti brahmin--sentiments this is very imperative. I would encourage more inter Brahmin sect marriage for our survival. I hope and wish our Madha Gurus will realize this and help the Brahmin community

  7. I am a samavedi Iyer and till today. I did not know that Samavedis put a Chandaanam vertices streak spanning the three vibhooti lines. I did not either what the difference between the Tharpanam Dharbais used by Smartha Iyers and SriVashnava Iyengars is. The other day before. I left for USA I went to Giri Trading and the guy asked me did I want Iyengars Dharbai set or the Iyer set. I am on 80 and learning never ends. I am a keen follower of the Kanchi Matham and have seen how our Paramacharyal bestowed his kindness on Sri Annaswami Iyengar.
    Although an Iyer I had to decide between Srirangam and Thirukadaiyur to do my Shathabhishekam and. I had to opt for the latter because. I was told that it may not be appropriate to render Sri Rudram at Srirangam..
    Why all this fuss I do not know when neither Ramanujar nor Adisankarar advocated.
    Having said the above in a lighter vein I would say the Akkaravadishal neiveyam prepared. By an Iyengars lady can be matched by anybody else.

  8. Very interesting read. “you know, iyengars always serve rice first and iyers never serve rice on an empty plate.” That was the best line LOL!!!!
    Keep writing!!!!

  9. Awesome post indeed :) Being a PI, I can totally understand this comedy of sorts

  10. Hi it was interesting to read your article. :-) I have a question.. Me and my husband have an Iyer -Iyengar marriage so I sometimes wonder what identity our kid would have. I'm religious (though not strictly so), whereas my husband is not at all. I know a lot of people say it doesn't matter etc but i wanted to get your unique perspective.
    So i had a few questions, hope you wouldn't mind answering them..

    Are you comfortable being both Iyer & Iyengar or do you sometimes find it hard to reconcile both points of view in your mind?

    Do you feel like 'technically' you are your father's caste or do you embrace both of your identities? Like if you HAD to, what would you put down on paper?

    Looking back on your childhood, do you feel it would've been better if you were raised in one particular sampradaya while having knowledge about the other or having equal knowledge of both but not being particular one way or the other (I've noticed that parents from different communities often do this and kids raised like this usually aren't particularly inclined towards religion, and i'd like to know if that's really the case)?

    And lastly, is there one of the two you lean more towards naturally, and if so what's the reason?

    Thanks in advance!


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