DER Documentary

Altar of Fire

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by Robert Gardner and J.F. Staal
for The Film Study Center at Harvard University
color, 58 min, 1976

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This film records a 12 day ritual performed by Mambudiri Brahmins in Kerala, southwest India, in April 1975. This event was possibly the last performance of the Agnicayana, a Vedic ritual of sacrifice dating back 3,000 years and probably the oldest surviving human ritual. Long considered extinct and never witnessed by outsiders, the ceremonies require the participation of seventeen priests, involve libations of Soma juice and oblations of other substances, all preceded by several months of preparation and rehearsals. They include the construction, from a thousand bricks, of a fire altar in the shape of a bird.

Around 1500 B.C., nomads who spoke an Indo-European language entered India and evolved a complex ritual involving the cults of fire and Soma, a hallucinogenic plant that grew in the Western Himalayas. Their Vedic language developed into Sanskrit, the classical language of Indian civilization. Among the later religions of India, Hinduism accepted and Buddhism rejected the Vedic culture. But both retained many of its ritual forms and recitations. Some of these have traveled all over Asia. Agni, the fire, is still worshipped with the help of Vedic mantras in Japanese Buddhist temples. In India itself, the preservation of the Agnicayana, though partly explained by the extraordinary conservatism of the Vedic Brahmins and their dedication to the culture of their spiritual ancestors,remains one of the miracles of history.

Robert Gardner of Harvard University is an ethnographic filmmaker (Dead Birds and Rivers of Sand) and Frits Staal of the University of California, Berkeley, is a philosopher and Sanskrit scholar (Exploring Mysticism and Agni, The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar).

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