Thanks to a couple of curious minds and synchronicity, I learnt something totally new and awesome.
On Friday evening, Meeta and her husband Megh had dropped in for some snacks and a chat and Meeta asked me if I had been branded to signify that I was a brahmin. When I replied in the negative she was mystified as her brother in law, her sister’s husband, a brahmin was and was planning to get his children branded too. On enquiry I found that her brother in law is an Iyengar whereas I am an Iyer and I undertook to investigate and let her know.
Lo and behold, synchronicity working again, my Iyengar friend from Sydney called me later for a chat on Skype and the first thing that I asked him was about the branding. Without saying anything. Prasad simply removed his pullover, shirt and vest and showed me the two brands he had on his torso! He explained the ritual to me and guided me to Wikipedia for more detailed information.
Apparently it is a rite of passage somewhat akin to the Christening, Bar Mitzwah, etc of the West. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the rite. It is however practiced in the breech more than as a norm now a days. Sad.
Amongst all Srivaishnavas, there is a unique initiation ceremony into the Vaishnavite Brahmin brotherhood along with the Upanayanam. The Vasihnavite youngster is initiated into Iyengar fraternity by branding him with the Chakram(wheel) and the sanghu(conch), which are holy symbols associated with Lord Vishnu. The ceremony of initiation called Samashrayanam is usually carried out by the head of a Vaishnavite mutt. The knot in the sacred thread worn by Vaishnavites is known as Vishnu Grandhi as opposed to those worn by Smarthas which is known as Rudra Grandhi.
The sanghu is the shell on the right of the picture below and the chakram is the wheel on the left below. The image in the center is called a Naamam.
India comes up with surprises, even for an Indian like me!