AGASTYA Biography - Religious Figures & Icons


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Legends say Hindu sage Agastya, or Agathiyar in Tamil, lived 4,000 to 5,000 years ago in southern India.
The squat, bearded holy man, hoping to help mankind, prayed to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god and jotted down the inspirations that struck him soon after on palm leaves. The divining sessions are said to have yielded predictions of the lives of people living in Agastya’s time, and of those destined to be born in coming centuries.
Families belonging to the priestly caste say they have looked after the predictions, stored in neat bundles between two slabs of weathered wood since they were first written by Agastya.


Devout local Hindus and curious foreigners come in droves to Kanchipuram, a town in southern India, to seek their futures hidden in piles of browned leaves. They wait for hours, sometimes days, at a hut in Kanchipuram, 70 km (45 miles) southwest of Madras, as Brahman priests hunt for the palm leaves with predictions etched on them in archaic Tamil. More often than not, the foreign visitors go back with an eerie sense of surprise after their futures are foretold. The leaves are written from the visions of ancient sage Agastya, an awesome Nostradamus-like figure in Hindu mythology. Visitors answer a barrage of yes-or-no, personal questions used by the pundits at Kanchipuram to zero in on the right leaf, once a set of possible profiles are found using only a thumb impression. “The past, present and future of a person is written on each leaf and they can also provide direction for specific problems regarding marriage, disputes and other matters,” says Srinivasan, who reads and translates the faded ancient Tamil script for visitors. A modern newspaper correspondent found her parents’ names correctly guessed from the leaves.


Most of the pundits are in their 20s or 30s, mainly because reading the faded, round script requires sharp eyesight.
Srinivasan belongs to the fourth generation of a family of “nadi” readers. The pundits say they can read the ancient script, but do not themselves make the predictions. “There are several copies of the leaves, but we are the only ones with the complete set,” Srinivasan said. Each consultation costs 100 Indian rupees ($2.31).
“Everyday, about 75 people come here to see their leaf, as they have been doing for the last 200 years or so,” says the barefooted priest, dressed in an immaculate white dhoti, or sarong, and shirt.
Many Indians have family astrologers who draw up horoscopes for new-born babies and who are consulted at important stages in life. Consulting soothsayers is not unusual. Visitors take Agastya’s prophesies seriously.


A sombre mood hangs over the waiting room outside the three small consultation cubicles.
There is a hushed silence in the cubicles, disturbed only by whirring ceiling fans and the pitter-patter of barefooted priests moving in and out of the room where the leaves are kept. “I want to start a business and want to know if I will be successful or not,” said R.S. Singh, a Sikh businessman with a blue turban who came to Kanchipuram to see his leaf. In recent years, the number of foreign visitors, mostly Japanese, has increased. At least one or two foreigners await their turn in the straw-matted waiting room every day. The popularity of Agastya in Japan was ignited by a book called the “The Leaves of Agastya.” The book was published at a time when Indian spiritualism, in the form of Sathya Sai Baba, an Afro-haired Hindu holy man, was gaining popularity and became a bestseller. The nadi readers refuse to mail the prophesies and Japanese astrologers like Takashi Ariga have made a business out of searching for leaves for the many who cannot come to Kanchipuram. Fortune-tellers from all over Japan make regular trips to this temple town with thumb impressions of their clients and personal information essential to finding the exact leaf.


Once the leaf is found, the prediction is read aloud by the nadi reader and translated by a Tamil interpreter into Japanese. The entire process is recorded on tape and given to the client. Agastya’s prophesies are not fatalistic. Predictions can be avoided – it’s up to the individual. This flexibility appeals to the Japanese whose faith in soothsayers in general is not very strong, says Ariga. “Everyone who consults the stars, a psychic or Agastya is seeking an answer, whether they are Japanese or Tamil,” says Ariga who has taped predictions for more than 150 people. “Agastya wanted to help people and that is why there is always a leaf for those who are seeking them,” he adds.