The Atiratra Agnicayana (ati-rātrá agní-cayana "the building up of the fireplace performed over-night") or piling of the altar of Agni is a Śrauta ritual of the Vedic religion. Its mantras and theological explanations in the Brahmana texts are first attested in the Yajurveda Samhitas (Taittiriya, Kathaka; Vajasaneyi).
The entire ritual takes twelve days to perform, in the course of which a great bird-shaped altar, the uttaravedi "northern altar" is built out of 10,800 bricks. The liturgical text is in chapters 11 to 18 of the White Yajurveda; the corresponding exposition of the ritual is in Books 6 to 9 of the Shatapatha Brahmana.
The ritual emerged from predecessor rituals, which were incorporated as building blocks, around the 10th century BC, and was likely continuously practiced until the late Vedic period, or the 6th century BC. In post-Vedic times, there were various revivals of the practice, under the Gupta Empire in the north (ca. 4th to 6th century), and under the Chola Empire in the south (ca. 9th century), but by the 11th century, the practice was held to have been discontinued. Nevertheless, a continuous, unbroken 3,000 year tradition has been found to exist among a few Nambudiri Brahmin families in Kerala, South India.
In 1975 Indologist Frits Staal documented in great detail the performance of an Agnicayana performed by Nambudiri Brahmins in Kerala. The last performance before that had been in 1956, and the Nambudiris were concerned that the ritual was threatened by extinction. It had never before been observerd by outsiders. In exchange for a financial participation of the scholars towards the cost of the ritual, the Nambudiris agreed that it should be filmed and recorded. The ritual was performed from 12 to 24 April 1975. Staal (1989) bases a general analysis of the similarities of grammar and ritual on this performance.
After the 1975 Agnicayana, there have been several more Nambudiri performances: in 1990 Agnicayana at Kundoor, and in 2006. The Agnistoma was performed for the first time in 222 years at Aluva from 25 April till 1 May, 2009.
- Forizs, L. Apāṃ Napāt, Dīrghatamas and the Construction of the Brick Altar. Analysis of RV 1.143 (pdf, 386 kB) paper read at the Vedic Panel of the 12th World Sanskrit Conference, Motilal Banarsidass, 2007 (in preparation)
- Frits Staal, Agni, the Vedic ritual of the fire altar (1983).
- Frits Staal, Rules Without Meaning. Ritual, Mantras and the Human Sciences, Peter Lang: New York- Bern-Frankfurt am Main-Paris, 1989.
- Itti Ravi Mamunne, Agni and the Foreign Savants EJVS 10 (2003)