VIRTUAL COLLECTION OF ASIAN MASTERPIECES

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A collection of Agnicayana fire altar ritual implements
VK5874-290,291-364
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Why this is a
Masterpiece

The Vedic Agnicayana ('piling the fire altar') ritual developed around 1000 B.C. is one of the oldest and most elaborate sacrifices in the world. It dissappeared from North India in the 11th century A.D., but has survived in the South, e.g. among the Brahmins of Kerala. Still, as the ritual is very complex and very expensive to organize. The Brahmins who master the ancient Vedas are no longer numerous. The Agnicayana has become very rare. Before the ritual performed in Panjal in 1975, the previous one was held in 1956, and the following ones in 1990 and 2006. Yajamāna or the sacrificer is the person who has the ritual performed for the wellbeing of his household and in order to gain social and religious merit. Traditionally, he is responsible for the costs of the ritual. Brahmin priests representing the different Vedas are needed to complete the Agnicayana which lasts for 12 days. As a symbol of time and space, a large bird-shaped and five-layered main or fire altar is built ceremonially from more than one thousand bricks (a wooden model illustrated). Five statues representing the original human (illustr.) and animal offerings are put under it, as well as a golden statue representing the Creator God Prajāpati and the sacrificer, and pairs of male and female clay pots. The construction takes five days. During the ritual the sacrificer, Prajāpati and the whole cosmos are symbolically reproduced. The Soma and animal offerings are in the central place in the Agnicayana, which is among the most elaborate šrauta rituals. The blood sacrifices have been substituted for a long time by other symbols. A recitation hall for the priests and an other one for preserving the sacrificial substances, such as the Soma (a wooden Soma cart illustrated) are erected at the main altar space. An offering area called the 'old hall' with three fire altars is situated on the west side of the main altar space. Besides Agnicayana, it is used in minor šrauta rituals.

History of the Object
Agnicayana is performed only by high Brahmins. At the end of the ritual, all the equipment is destroyed by burning. In other words they are offered to the Fire God Agni. This collection was made as a parallel set of the implements actually used and destroyed in the Agnicayana performed in the Panjal village in 1975.

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Type
Other 
Materials
Wood, clay 
Measurements
Diverse 
Creator name
Unknown 
Creator date
Unknown 
Where it was made
India; Kerala; Trichur District 
Geography
India 
Time period
AD 20th century ~ AD 20th century 
Creation date
20th Century; 1975 
Function
A collection of ritual implements for the complex and lenghty Vedic fire altar ritual Agnicayana, including sacrificial ladles and cups, soma cups for the priests, clay vessels and clay statues depicting a sacrificial human head and animals. 
Acquisition
The collection was acquired in collaboration with Professor Asko Parpola, a Finnish expert of Sāmaveda. He was involved with the international research group, sponsoring and documenting the Agnicayana performed in Panjal (Kerala) in 1975. 
Copyright
 
Acknowledgements
Text by Pilvi Vainonen Photos: Asko Parpola (ritual), 1975 Markku Haverinen (objects), 2006 Literature: Staal, Fritz: AGNI. The Vedic ritual of the fire altar. Vol. I-II. Motilal Banarsidas 1983. Film: Gardner, Robert and Fritz Staal: Altar of Fire. 1977. 
Owner
State property, National Board of Antiquities, Finland 
Museum
Museum of Cultures, National Museum of Finland 
Credit line
 

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