Monday, 29 July 2013

Dravidian Politics & Surnames

Since the 1950s, the Dravidian politicians have been promoting the eradication of surnames among Tamils. They claim that this will eradicate caste and eventually eradicate caste discrimination. 

However, after half a century, it seems like the whole idea backfired on the Tamil society.

According to the census conducted in 2011, 20% of Tamils are Dalits. Usually, people from the Dalit castes do not use surnames. 

However, the remaining 80% of Tamils have surnames. These surnames are mainly titular surnames used by everyone in a particular clan. Some surnames are paternal family names.

To understand this, we have to look at how castes are distributed in Tamil Nadu. Unknown to many people, castes are not based on occupation alone. It is actually regional. 

In one of my previous posts, I explained about the landscapes in the Tamil land and the different tribes that inhabit it. The modern day Tamil castes descended from those tribes that occupied different parts of the country centuries ago.

Although their surnames were removed from mainstream media, they hardly intermarry with someone outside their caste.

Of all the marriage that happened in Tamil Nadu in the year 2011, only 1.3% were inter-caste marriages. It makes one wonder why the eradication of surnames did not help promote inter-caste marriage.

What was the real motive to remove surnames more than 50 years ago?
E.V Ramasamy Naicker
One of the founding father of the Dravidian politics is Periyar. His actual name is Erode Venkata Ramasamy Naicker. Periyar was not even a Tamilan. He belonged to the Balija caste. His mother tongue was Kannadam.

Periyar was based in Tamil Nadu. He went on a crusade to eradicate surnames in Tamil Nadu.This practice was then continued by the other Dravidian politicians after Periyar's era.

But why? What do they gain?

Most of us know that surnames like Mudaliar, Thevar, Servai, Kavundar, Udayar are used by none other than Tamils themselves. 

We know that people like U.V Swaminathan Iyer, V.O Chidambaram Pillai, U.Muthuramalingam Thevar, G.K Moopanar , Ariyanatha Mudaliar, Marudu Servai are all Tamils.

But A.Vijayaraj Naidu is not a Tamilan. So if he wants to get into Tamil Nadu politics, he needs to remove the Naidu surname. Else it will be difficult for him to gain the Tamil support via the usual democratic means. 

A.Vijayaraj Naidu @ Captain Vijayakanth
By the way, A.Vijayaraj Naidu is none other than Captain Vijayakanth. He could some day become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

The Tamils of Tamil Nadu began to slowly realize this and have on several occasions questioned it.

'Tamil Naatai, Tamilar than aala vendum' 
(Tamil Nadu should be ruled by Tamils)

The idea of removing Tamil caste surnames did not eradicate the various castes, it only helped the none Tamils to gain political power in Tamil Nadu.

Ask yourself this question. Can someone from Tamil Nadu become a powerful politician in non-Tamil states like Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka?


It is not easy for a Tamilan to become a high profile politician among the natives of another state. But people from other state can do it in Tamil Nadu by hiding their surname.

Besides concealing non-Tamil origin, the other motive of eradicating surnames is to erase the history of certain Tamil castes. 

The same strategy of removing surnames is also used by many Tamil writers and editors in Malaysia. 

If you write something to the Malaysian Tamil newspaper, the editors will  most probably remove the surnames in the article before publishing it. But there won't be problems in publishing non-Tamil surnames like Rao or Nair.  

Have you wondered why?

Chinnaiahpillai Ganesan Mandrayar @ Sivaji Ganesan
Recently, someone from the Malaysian Tamil Writers Association picked up an argument with me. He turned it into a caste war. 

He was angry because I mentioned Sivaji Ganeson's full name as Chinnaiahpillai Ganesan Mandrayar. He did not like the word Mandrayar and wanted me to remove it.

I was puzzled that Sivaji's surname became an issue for this man.  
It does not matter to me who Sivaji was but truth should be told as it is. 

It is not right to remove his surname just because some writer in Malaysia don't want real facts to be published. I find it insulting to Sivaji himself.

There are so many other things he could have spoken about. Sivaji's acting skills, the movies, his charity work etc but he chose to highlight the surname and turn it into an issue.

So what if Sivaji's actual name is Chinnaiahpillai Ganesan Mandrayar? Will that stop the millions of Sivaji fans from watching his movies? 

Ilayaraja and his son Yuvan Shankar Raja are Dalits but that did not stop the non-Dalits like me from listening to their songs. Millions of people love their songs and most of the fans are not Dalits.

We all know that the Tamil speaking Chettiars were among the earliest people to trade in Southeast Asia. Their descendants are still around in Malaysia especially in the state of Malacca. We call them the Malacca Chetties. 

Imagine what will happen if we erase the word Chetty or Chettiar from being published. The history of one community will be gone. Some day someone might even claim that the Malacca Chetties were not even Tamils.

Raja Mariamman temple of Johor. Founded by the late Koothaperumal Vandayar.

There was another incident few years ago. It was concerning the Raja Mariamman temple in Johor. That temple was founded by the late Koothaperumal Vandayar with the help of the then Sultan of Johor in 1911, H.R.H Almarhum  Sultan Sir Ibrahim Ibni Sultan Abu Bakar. 

This is why the temple which was initially known as Mariamman Temple was renamed as Raja Mariamman (Royal Mariamman) Temple. It was renamed to express his gratitude to the sultan.

When someone wrote about it few years ago, the editor who published the article purposely removed the word Vandayar because he did not want people to know that a Vandayar built the temple.

Similarly, there were attempts to remove the word Kavundar from the name of freedom fighter Dheeran Chinnamalai Kavundar. These people didn't want others to know the full name because of the word Kavundar.

So what if the clan identity is revealed? Are we going to ignore their sacrifice? Does that make Dheeran less Tamil than the Tamil news editors themselves?

If we can accept non Tamils like Periyar or Vijayakanth and dance to their tune, why can't we accept our own Tamilans for who they really are? It is not right for any editors to alter their name simply because of a surname.

There are some out there who claim that surnames are erased for the sake of Tamil unity.

Let's be practical. 

The Chinese do not prevent their surnames from being published in the media. In fact, there are more Chinese clan associations in Malaysia than Tamil clan associations. Their clan members share a very close bond with each other. They form self help groups and provide assistance to their clan members. They even have clan temples and only members of the clan are allowed to manage it.

But when a Tamil clan does the same, it becomes an issue for everyone. The media paints a negative image and turns it into a caste war. 

For me, the real Tamil unity happens only when we respect and accept the various castes, tribes and clans within the Tamil society.

Eradicating surnames will only cause the Tamil people to some day loose their own identity. Tamil Nadu is already an example of how non-Tamils are taking over the affairs of the state.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

ON TAMIL MILITARISM - Part 11: The Legend of Cheran Senguttuvan

Part 11: The Legend of Cheran Senguttuvan

by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, November 15, 1992, pp.15-16; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]

"The lines of a song in today’s ceremony touched my heart. The lines refer to the Tamil flag which fluttered on the Himalayas. Although this may be a thing of the past, history can be re-established. Today this country is at war because the youth of this area were denied opportunities in education and culture…Our youth have not only done well in education but have shown that they have the self respect to achieve their aims through armed struggle. If nothing is done towards finding a settlement to the crisis in the north-east, the history related in the lines of that song will be reasserted."
- Joseph Pararajasingham, MP for Batticaloa, speaking at a school function on 26.9[Sept]’92 (reported in the Virakesari of 1.10[Oct].’92
The song referred to by the member of parliament is from an MGR film. The lines of the song about which the MP speaks, are "I see that era when Cheran’s flag fluttered on the Himalayas."*[see below the foot-note by Sachi Sri Kantha]. Joseph’s speech and MGR’s song invoke one of the most powerful narratives of modern Tamil nationalism – the conquest of north India by the kings of the three Tamil dynasties, the Cheras, Cholas and the Pandyas, which was accomplished by imprinting the Bow (Chera) or Tiger (Chola) or Pandya Fish (Pandya) emblems on the Himalayas.

The legend of Cheran Senguttuvan is the dominant episode of this narrative. Its political life in the Tamil nationalist project in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka has been more tenacious than the Dutugemunu – Elara episode in the narrative of Sinhala Buddhism’s struggle against the ‘South Indian Tamil threat’.

The legend of Cheran Senguttuvan, as we shall see later, was used by the Dravidian movement for drawing a compelling characterization of its anti-Hindi agitation. The legend forms the third part of the epic Silappathikaram, which was written by Ilango Atikal, Seran Senguttuvan’s brother – a Jain ascetic. It relates the story of Kannaki who became the goddess Pattini. The epic is divided into three parts (kaandam), named after the capitals of the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms; Vanji, Puhar and Madurai. Unlike the heroic Sangam poetry which preceded it, the Silappathikaram speaks for the first time about a Tamil Nadu as such, constituted by the three kingdoms, distinguished by a martial tradition superior to that of north India. It portrays the three dynasties conquering the north and imprinting their emblems on the Himalayas, together and separately. The Pandyan king who mistakenly causes the beheading of Kannaki’s husband, Kovalan, bears the title ‘He who overran the Aryan army’ (Aryappadai kadantha).

C.N. Annadurai
M.Raghava Aiyangar wrote a book based on the third part of the epic – the Vanji kaandam – called, ‘Seran Senguttuvan’. It was dedicated to Pandithurai Thevar. A recent work on Aiyangar’s contribution says, "This was the first book to give the Vanji kaandam in prose. It was after this that many scholars studied the Vanji kaandam and wrote books…the book made everyone realise and appreciate the golden era of the Tamils." (Annals of Tamil Research: M.Raghava Aiyangar Commemoration Volume, University of Madras, 1978, pp.18-19) The book went through four editions in the first two decades of its publication. "It can be said that after the appearance of this book, research on the Sangam period expanded. Many times it was made a text in the universities of Andhra, Mysore and Madras and in Ceylon, and is widely read." (Araichi Thohuthi, 1938, p.20).

We examined the life and politics of M.Raghava Aiyangar in the last issue. As we pointed out there, Aiyangar’s idea of Tamilian renaissance differed from contemporaneous Indian nationalists in one important respect. Whereas the Indian nationalists who upheld the cause of Tamil culture and history, especially saw them from a pan-Indian perspective, Aiyangar’s writings emphasised a south Indian, Tamilian uniqueness and martial superiority. His most famous work ‘Seran Senguttuvan’ and the essay he wrote later to supplement and support it are clear attempts to establish and popularise that idea. Three reasons can be identified for his attitude.

The first, as we noted earlier, was his close relationship with the Marava rulers of Ramnad – the Sethupathys. The second is that he was a Vaishnavite Brahmin – the Indian National Congress was dominated in the Presidency of Madras by Saivite Brahmins. Many Vaishnavites have, as a result tended to sympathise with the Dravidian movement (Sivathamby, 1989). In a lecture delivered to the 23rd annual conference of the Madurai Tamil Sangam, Aiyangar said,

"The three Tamil kings, the Cheras, Cholas and the Pandyas established their martial glory beyond Thamilaham (Tamil homeland) which lay between the Vengadam hills to the north and Comorin to the south; but their love for the Tamil speaking land was so great that they were not desirous of attaching lands where foreign languages are spoken, to Thamilaham…It will be appropriate to name the Madras Presidency as the Dravidian Province." (Araichi Thohuthi; 1938, pp.318, 338)

The third reason is related to his stay in Kerala, as head of the Tamil department in the University of Trivandrum. Kerala was the ancient Chera kingdom. Aiyangar’s writings during his residence at Trivandrum attempt to place Kerala history and culture within the tradition of Thamilaham. The Maharaj of the Travancore state at that time, Sithirai Thirunal had told Aiyangar, "Malayalam is the Tamil language that bathed in the sea of Sanskrit" (R.Veerapathiran; 1978, p.38).

Some aspects of Kerala and Tamil literature and ‘Chera Venthar Seiyutt Kovai’
Aiyangar’s ‘gothra’(section) name was Aiyanarithan, a poet of the Chera dynasty, who wrote the Purapporul Venba Malai – a treatise on Tamil martial culture. One of his most controversial essays which resulted from his work at Trivandrum was on the kinship system of the Chera dynasty. All this stems from his work on Seran Senguttuvan. This book which has to be read in conjunction with his essay, ‘The conquest of the Himalayas by the Tamil Kings’ (Thamil Ventharin Imaya Padai-eduppu) attempted to ground the story of Senguttuvan in epigraphical literary evidence. The work seeks to establish a story of Senguttuvan, related in the Silappathikaram’s Vanji kaandam, as a historical truth. The book as a school and university textbook has left a deep imprint on Tamilian cultural-political vocabulary.

Annadurai, Karunanidhi, MGR and the speakers of the Federal Party have invoked the example of Seran Senguttuvan to bestir Tamil youth. The Silappathikaram portrays his expedition into north India as the assertion of Tamil military might over Aryan kings who had in their ignorance disparaged the martial prowess of southern Tamils.
M. Karunanadhi
Senguttuvan vows to defeat two Aryan kings, Kanakan and Vijayan ("They who could not hold their tongue", says the epic) who had cast aspersions on what is called "Then Thamil Aatral" – south Tamil might. [Would] make them carry a stone hewn from the Himalayan mountain, back to Tamil Nadu for the deification of Kannaki as goddess Pattini. Senguttuvan is told, "You faced the thousand Aryan kings in combat on the day you bathed the goddess in the great flood of the Ganges…if you have decided on the expedition (to bring the stone), let the kings of the north fly the Bow, Tiger and Fish flags in their lands."

Senguttuvan, says the epic, was born to Nedun-cheralathan, who bears the title, Imaya Varamban (He who has the Himalayas as his boundary) and the daughter of a Chola king; and as such, he is seen as representing a Tamilian unity. (The Silappathikaram says that Gajabahu of Lanka invoked the goddess Pattini at Senkuttuvan’s capital to come to his country and give her blessings on the day Senkuttuvan’s father Imaya Varamban’s birth was commemorated there.)

The conquest of the north and the Himalayas is a leitmotif in the Sangam anthologies which precede the Silappathikaram. ("The Aryans screamed out loud in pain when you attacked them.", says a poem in the Sangam anthologies) The three parts of the epic emphasise the theme to glorify each dynasty. The first part refers to an expedition undertaken to the Himalayas by Thirumavalavan, who was known as Karikalan (Prabhakaran’s nom de guerre) – the founder of the Chola empire. He is shown as defeating the Maghadha, Avanti, and Vajjra kingdoms. The second part speaks of the Pandyan who conquered the ‘newly arisen Himalayas’ when his ancient land of the Kumari mountains and the Pahruli river were taken by the sea.

It is a theme in the inscriptions of the Chola empire at a later date. One Chola emperor takes on the title, the Conqueror of the Ganges. Minor poetry which arose after the decline of the Cholas praising military commanders and chieftains of the Tamil country also utilise the theme (Karumanikkan Kovai, Kalingathu Parani, etc.).

The leitmotif of the Tamil emblem on the Himalayas finds the most vivid expression in the story of Senguttuvan. Aiyangar takes it out of its epic context to emphasise a perception – that the Tamils were historically indomitable martial race. The story of Senguttuvan’s expedition repeatedly lays stress on the what is referred to as South Tamil martial might. Aiyangar’s later essay on the theme of Tamil expeditions into the north tried to prove again that these events were true on the basis of evidence, culled from the Imperial Gazeteer of India and the Hand Gazeteer of India.

M.G. Ramachandran
In this essay, he [Aiyangar] argues that Asoka did not think of invading Tamil Nadu because he and other northern Aryan kings were aware and scared of the martial prowess of the ancient Tamils who before their times had invaded and defeated the north and imprinted their emblems on the Himalaya mountains.
The first Tamil king to imprint his emblem on the mountain was Karikalan; the names borne by parts of the Himalayas such as the Chola Pass and the Chola Range prove the Chola king’s expedition is a historical fact, argued Aiyankar (Araichi Thohuti; 1938, p.184).

He did the ‘academic’ groundwork for the propagation of the narrative of Tamil military expeditions into the north as an expression of a unique and superior martial prowess and its symbol – the Tamil flag on the Himalayas. Dravidian propagandists and the politicians of the Federal Party transformed it into a nostalgic and powerful story of a golden era woven into the rhetoric and national liberation and youth mobilization.

*Foot-Note by Sachi Sri Kantha
There is some confusion here about which MGR song was played in the said school function.  The quote of Joseph Pararajasingham, cited by Sivaram, states "The lines refer to the Tamil flag which fluttered on the Himalayas," but the exact Tamil words of the song were not quoted.  Sivaram has cited the lines as "I see that era when Cheran’s flag fluttered on the Himalayas."  I am not sure whether Sivaram was a witness to that particular school event of September 26, 1992.  If Sivaram’s translated quote of the song is taken literally, then these lines appear in an MGR song: "Puthiya Vaanam – Puthiya Bhoomi enrum Puhal Mazhai Pozhikirathu" (Anbe Vaa movie).  An earlier MGR song by poet Kannadasan "Achcham Enpathu Madamaiyada" (Mannathi Mannan movie) provides a fuller version of the Tamil militarism spirit, including the flag fluttering on the Himalayas.  In my recent eulogy to Sivaram, I had presumed that the Kannadasan song in the Mannathi Mannan movie was the one which was referred to by Joseph Pararajasingham.  Despite this confusion, there is no doubt that MGR made use of the powerful historical scenario of a ‘Cheran Tamil flag fluttering on the Himalayas’ more than once in the lyrics of his movies.

Postscript (to the 11-part series) by Sachi Sri Kantha
The Significance of Sivaram’s study on the Maravar Caste and Tamil Militarism
It is unfortunate that D.P. Sivaram’s notable study [at least the published version in the Lanka Guardian journal] on the Maravar Caste and Tamil Militarism did not have a proper closure in 1992.  One is also not sure why Sivaram did not respond to two of his critics, namely Charles Hoole and T. Vanniasingham.  Maybe he felt that the expressed views of these two correspondents were half-baked and not worth a response.

Poet Bharathidasan
From my readings of the academic contributions of the late Charles R.A. Hoole (Principal, Baldaeus Theological College, Trincomalee; died on Sept. 28, 2003), I have inferred that he subscribed to the tradition of the 19th century Chrisitian evangelists, who came to Tamil Nadu and Eelam to retrieve the ‘savage natives from their sins and show the path to the Saviour.’  Evangelists belonging to this clan [which clan included Charles Hoole’s namesake Rajan Hoole and Rajani Thiranagama, among others] adhere to an obscurantist view that hardly any respectable culture and civilization among the Tamils existed before the Christian missionary campaigns in the Indian subcontinent which began in earnest in the early 1500s.

Correspondent T.Vanniasingham’s thoughts [Lanka Guardian, Oct.15, 1992] also partially reflected this Christian evangelist position.  His observation that "Poets and bards were hired-hands in the service of chiefs and could be paid to praise and exaggerate their struggles and victories" is somewhat na├»ve.  The quatrain of 12th century epic poet Kambar cursing the Chola king with disdain, "Mannavanum Neeyo – Vala Naadum Unatho – Unnai Arintho Thamizhai Othinen" [Are you still a King? Is this wealthy land only yours?  Did I study Tamil only to serve you?] disproves the fallacy of correspondent Vanniasingham.  Maybe there indeed were poets and bards of mediocre quality who praised and exaggerated the ‘glories’ of their Chiefs.  However, ranking poets and bards who had pride in their skills never stooped low for mundane benefits.  

Even in the 20th century, the ranking Tamil poets [Subramaniya Bharati, Bharathidasan, Kannadasan and Kasi Anandan come to my mind] have shown us in their lives that they would suffer poverty, indignity, humiliation, harassment and even prison terms; but they would never lick the feet of power-holders for mundane comforts.  Of the four Tamil poets I have noted as examples, the last three were our contemporaries, and Kasi Anandan is still living.

Unlike the two [or three, if one includes R.B. Diulweva] critics of Sivaram, a few non-Tamil academics from the USA who have made in-depth research on the Tamil literature and culture have provided corroborating reports to that of Sivaram.  These have been compiled as ‘Essays on South India’ (Asian Studies at Hawaii, No.15, University Press of Hawaii, 1975), edited by Burton Stein.  Thus, I provide excerpts below from the thoughts of Clarence Maloney, George L.Hart III and Burton Stein, to supplement the research of Sivaram on the Maravar caste.  This is vital since I believe that Sivaram may not have had access to these reports, which preceded his 1992 study.  The research ventures of George Hart and Burton Stein (1926-1996) in the 1960s and 1970s have questioned the credibility of the pro-Brahmanical views expressed by Nilakanta Sastri, the doyen of medieval Tamil studies in the first half of 20th century, and the author of The Cholas (Madras; University of Madras, 1935-1937) and A History of South India from Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar (Oxford University Press, 1966, 3rd edition).

George L. Hart III [‘Ancient Tamil Literature: Its Scholarly Past and Future’, pp.41-63]

"…A reading of any of Nilakanta Sastri’s books discloses many facts concerning the daily life and culture of the Brahmans of South India, who were never more than a tiny (though important) minority, but it reveals an almost total lack of information concerning other segments of the South Indian population, even those high non-Brahman castes in whose hands power has almost always been held.  Ancient Tamil literature, on the other hand, was written by high-class poets who followed the model of the oral poetry of the Paanans and Paraiyans, men of the lowest castes, and is devoid of both high-class and Brahmanical bias.  For this reason, it gives a more accurate picture of the social life and customs of the area to which it belongs than does any other classical literature of India." (pp.41-42)
Poet Kannadasan
"…It does not seem too much to hope that some day anthropologists will actually be able to trace the history of many Tamil castes.  Unfortunately, most work done by anthropologists on modern Tamilnad has been devoted to the descendants of the uyarntor, or ‘high ones.’  Much more study needs to be devoted to the low castes, who are, after all, just as important for a proper understanding of the customs of the area as their higher counterparts." (p.58)

Burton Stein [‘The State and the Agrarian Order in Medieval South India: A Historiographical Critique’, pp.64-91]

I quote below two relevant paragraphs from Burton Stein’s essay, but refrain from citing the complete references he had noted, only for reasons of convenience.  Stein also makes a passing mention of a Polonnaruva inscription of Sri Lanka during the period of King Vijayabahu.

"The maintenance of Chola armies and the requirements of warfare as central state functions requiring a bureaucratic structure constitute the ultimate defensive redoubt of the conventional view of the state and the economy.  Substantial chapters are devoted to territorial security and the organization of royal armies.  Where a military unit is identified, it is assumed to be part of a central military organization.  Thus the many velaikkarar military units of the period of Rajaraja are considered not only as the ‘king’s own’ but as soldiers who have vowed to sacrifice their lives, by suicide, if necessary.  The evidence upon which these conclusions about Chola armies are based is highly doubtful, and it is interesting to note that the early epigraphists Hultzsch, Krishna Sastri, and Venkayya held the view that the warriors called velaikkarar were probably made up of men from various occupational groups temporarily engaged in military activities.  Gopinatha Rao, Nilakanta Sastri, and Mahalingam have, in recent years, transformed these soldiers into a centrally recruited and controlled force completely devoted to the ruler.  The implication of the revised view is that the Chola state had a monopoly of coercive power which at once required an effective mobilization and centralization of resources through a bureaucracy and, simultaneously, provided the ‘central’ government with a powerful instrument of coercion for that purpose – a large, royal, standing army.  This proposition is indefensible and contrary to a considerable body of evidence that military power was distributed among many groups quite independent of the ‘centralized monarchy.’  We have substantial evidence that mercantile groups maintained a formidable military capability which was required by the extensive, itinerant trade network of the age.  Ayyavole inscriptions bear this out, as does the famous Polonnaruva inscription of Sri Lanka in the time of Vijayabahu (ca.1120) in which the Tamil idangai velaikkarar are referred to in association with the trade organization of the valanjiyar.  References to kaikkolar velaikkarar have suggested that artisans too were capable of maintaining armed units, though Nilakanta Sastri has questioned this.

Poet Kasi Anandan
 However, the major loci of military power were from those prosperous and populous tracts of agriculture throughout the Coromandel plain and parts of the interior uplands.  The logic of resources – human and non-human – would make the dominant peasant population the major source of armed power.  Local military authorities, local ‘chiefs,’ were conspicuous in the early Chola period, before Rajaraja I, and once again attained high visibility in the thirteenth century when the Chola overlordship weakened.  During he period of the great Cholas, from Rajaraja I through the time of Kulottunga I, these local chiefs almost disappear from view as that view is provided by inscriptions.  This may, of course, mean that as a class of local leaders these warriors were eliminated much as the ‘poligars’ were reduced later by Tipu Sultan and the British.  In a few cases there is evidence of this.  However, it is much more likely that this level of leadership continued intact, but submerged beneath the surface of a society only partially revealed to us in the inscriptions of the age." (pp.75-76)

Clarence Maloney [‘Archeology in South India: Accomplishments and Prospects’, pp.1-40]
"…The various Sangam literary works mention diverse occupations: kings, chieftains, scholars, sacrificial priests, purohita, poets, warriors, customs agents, shippers, foreign merchants, horse importers, blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, salt makers, pearl divers, caravan drivers, guards, tailors, fishers, dancers, drummers, plow farmers, shepherds, hunters, weavers, leather workers, and robbers.  So far archeology has not produced evidence of well-developed handicrafts such as this list suggests.  But for such a variety of occupations to be patronized there must have been an elite element leading an essentially urban way of life.

Flutist T.P. Jesudas, Dec. 1971
Named peoples may be considered as tribes, geographical or occupational castes, or ruling lineages: Kadambar, Velir, Oliyar, Aruvaalar, Maravar, Aayar, Kocar, Oviyar, Paratavar, Palaiyar, Velalar, Naagar and others.  These functioned essentially as castes; both Palaiyar and Paratavar were living in Korkai under the Pandiyas.  But caste as a structural system was not as rigidly hierarchical as it was to become in later medieval centuries." (p.17)

By means of his 1992 study on the Marava caste, D.P. Sivaram has joined the elite circle of North American academics who preceded him in focusing their attention on non-Brahmin Tamil castes.  These academics include Robert Hardgrave (Nadar caste), Brenda Beck (Kongu region’s Kavundar caste), Clarence Maloney (Paratavar caste), Bryan Pfaffenberger (Jaffna Vellalar caste) and Stephen Barnett (Thondai-mandala Kontaikatti Velalar Mudaliyar caste).

Sivaram’s study describing the paalayam and paalaya kaarar (‘Poligars’ of British) of Tinnevely district in Tamil Nadu aroused my interest when it appeared in the Lanka Guardian, since one formative influence in my life - for a whole decade of the 1960s - was from this region.  The native address of my music teacher and flute guru, T.P. Jesudas [the Radio Ceylon flute artiste of the 1950s and 1960s], which I remember very well is: Paalayam Kottai, Samathanapuram, Tirunelvely district.  Last but not the least, though Sivaram did not have a Bachelor’s degree from a university, it is my view that for his published academic contribution on the Marava caste, Sivaram truly deserves a posthumous honorary post-graduate degree [Master’s Degree at least] from a Sri Lankan university.  And I am sure that quite a number of Sri Lankans as well as non-Sri Lankans would concur with my suggestion.

ON TAMIL MILITARISM - Part 10: Warrior Sons and Mothers

Part 10: Warrior Sons and Mothers

by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, November 1, 1992, pp.17-18 and 20; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]

The Madurai Thamil Sangam was established by Pandithurai Thevar in 1901 with the assistance of his cousin Bhaskara Sethupathy, who was the Raja of Ramnad at that time. The institution and its journal – the Senthamil – played an important role in what could be termed the Tamil renaissance in the first two decades of the twentieth century among the Tamils of south India and Sri Lanka. Its importance also lies in the fact that it created a class of Tamil pundits through a well organized and prestigious system of examinations at a time when strong objections were being raised against creating a Chair for Tamil, in the University of Madras.
Pandithurai Thevar
The pundits qualified by the Madurai Thamil Sangam in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka have also been instrumental in shaping the vocabulary of Tamil identity when Tamil nationalism began to constitute itself as a political force on both sides of the Palk Straits. The Sangam was conceived as a nationalist project by Pandithurai Thevar who announced and took up the task of its formation at the Madras sessions of the Congress in 1901. Thevar upheld the view that "the love for one’s language is the basis of patriotism and the love for one’s religion." (Speech made at Tuticorin, quoted in P.S.Mani, p.39). Thevar’s desire to establish the Sangam was also linked to the traditional role of the Maravar and Kallar kings and chieftains of Tamil Nadu as the patrons of Tamil poets and pundits, despite the powerful inroads made by Sanskrit over the centuries.

Most of the Tamil texts that impelled twentieth century renaissance were unearthed from collections of manuscripts preserved by families of traditional Tamil poets and scholars who had been patronised by Tamil poligars and kings. Thevar appointed R. Raghava Aiyangar who was the court pundit of the Sethupathys, as editor of the Sangam’s journal ‘Senthamil’ in 1901. His cousin, M.Raghava Aiyangar succeeded him as editor in 1904 and served for eight years. M.Raghava Aiyangar and his cousin belonged to a family of Vaishnavite Brahmins who had attached themselves to the Maravar kings of Ramnad from the eighteenth century. The family produced many Tamil and Sanskrit scholars who were court pundits and ministers to the Sethupathys and the nobles of their clan. M.Raghava Aiyangar’s father was a renowned Tamil scholar in the court of Ponnuchami Thevar, the brother of the Ramnad king Muthuramalinga Sethupathy (1862-1873). Ponnuchamy Thevar was Arumuga Navalar’s patron in Tamil Nadu. Aiyangar’s father died when he was young and was looked after by Ponnuchami Thevar’s son Pandithurai Thevar.

Thus, Aiyangar’s life was bound with that of the Sethupathy clan of Marava rulers. Later in his life, he wrote a book in appreciation of Thevar and his father called, Senthamil Valartha Thevarhal (The Thevars who nurtured Sen Thamil). Aiyangar dedicated two of his most popular books to Bhaskara Sethupathy and Pandithurai Thevar. His involvement with the Indian nationalist movement was therefore closely related to the interests and perceptions of Thevar who was bestirred by the ideas of the revolutionaries and the Swadeshi movement. The Sethupathys had been resentful of the fact that they were coerced by the British to hand over the vast and profitable trade with Ceylon and Bengal. Thevar therefore was attracted by the Swadeshi movement’s campaign to rejuvenate local industry and commerce to undermine the hold of British capital on India. The revolutionaries were calling for the revival of the disfranchised kshatriya classes of India. The Senthamil incorporated these sentiments and ideas into its projects for Tamil renaissance.

Thevar formed the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company with V.O.Chidamparam Pillai in 1907, to break the British monopoly on the profitable Colombo-Tuticorin steamer service. Chidamparam Pillai was closely associated with members of the revolutionary movement in Tamil Nadu at that time. The company resolved in one of its articles of incorporation that it would contribute one percent of its monthly earnings to the Madurai Thamil Sangam, as long as it existed (Annual Report of the Sangam, 1907, pp.7-8). Aiyangar also contributed to the nationalist cause by buying a Rs.100 share in the company. The main financial assistance to the Sangam at this juncture came from Thondaman – the Kallar caste king of Pudukottai, who was its permanent patron, the Zamindar of Singam Patty (Maravar) and a Kallar caste leader called Gopalsamy Rajaliar, who had succeeded in a campaign with Thevar’s assistance to alter his caste name from the derogatory Kallan to a more respectable form Kallar (Annual Report of Sangam, 1907). The Dravidian school of Tamil studies on the other hand was keen to show its loyalty to the Raj and represented Vellala caste interests.

It was in this context that M.Raghava Aiyangar’s Tamil nationalist project took shape. He conceived of a martial heritage that was unique to the Tamil country constituted by the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms in South India, and was - according to him - far superior to the military powers of north Indian peoples. He, an erudite Tamil scholar, skillfully melded his politics into a compelling representation of a heroic Tamil past.
The politicisation of Aiyangar’s reading of the Tamil past begins with the event that kindled the revolutionary movement in 1905 – the victory of Japan over Russia. Japan’s example was proof that India’s traditional material values could prevail over British arms. The victory was hailed by those who subscribed to the ideas of Thilak’s militarism. Aiyangar wrote Parani poems (a form of Tamil heroic poetry to celebrate the victory of a warrior who slays 1,000 elephants in the battle) exalting Japan’s military might in the Sangam’s journal ‘Senthamil’. In 1907, when the activities of the revolutionary movement and the Swadeshi movement were gathering momentum, he wrote an editorial essay on ‘Warrior Mothers’ (Veerath Thaimar). The ideological agenda for what has been described as the ‘Mother politics’ of militant Tamil nationalism was set forth in this essay. 

He wrote, "Although there may be other reasons for the victory of the Japanese over the Russians, more numerous and belonging to a larger country, the main reason is the martial training given [to] them by their parents from childhood…the valour and patriotisms of Japanese mothers can be seen in the volumes called ‘The Russo-Japanese War’. These things may appear strange in our times but if we examine our history we will find such warrior mothers and their valorous children numerous…In ancient Tamil texts like Purananooru, the martial theme predominates. It should be noted how the mothers of that era created great warriors."

The essay is based on heroic poetry of the Moothinmullai category found in the Purananooru and the Purath-thirattu. Moothinmullai is a category in the poetics of codified Tamil martial culture in which the culmination [of] a woman’s motherhood is portrayed as the heroic martyrdom of her warrior son in battle. The mothers urge their sons to die valiantly in war. Aiyangar contrasts a Moothinmullai poem in which the warrior’s mother says her womb is the lair of the Tiger, who could be found only in battle fields, with another poem of the category in which a mother whose son has failed to attain martyrdom in battle, exclaims in anguish that she would cut under her womb that give birth to a coward.

V. O. Chidamparam Pillai
Aiyangar notes that the earliest Tamil grammar – the Tholkappiyam – defines and names the poetic theme of the mother who comits suicide on hearing her son’s lack of valour in the battle field. (‘These mothers belonged to Maravar clans’, he says. The Maravar are matrilineal.) He says that the warriors brought forth by these mothers made Tamil Nadu glorious in the Sangam era, in which "one does not hear of north Indian kings invading Tamil Nadu, but only the victories of Tamil kings who fought the northerners. This was so because of the greatness of Tamil martial might." He concludes that the decline of the Tamils was the results of the decline of what he calls Thamil Veeram (Tamil martial prowess).

Subramanya Bharathi saw immense political value in the essay for propagating the ideas of the revolutionary movement’s militarism among the Tamils. He serialized the essay in his paper ‘India’, and urged his readers to popularise it among their friends, relatives and ‘women at their homes’. The essay was used by Bharathy as an instrument for rekindling the martial ethos among the Tamils to achieve national liberation through armed insurrection. Bharathy and V.O.Chidamparam Pillai wrote to Aiyangar, saluting the nationalist spirit inspired [by] his essays.

The politics of the Thamil Sangam was muted next year, when the Swadesh Steam Navigation company was crushed following riots against the British at Tuticorin and Tinnevely. V.O.Chidamparam Pillai and the revolutionary leader Subramaniya Siva were arrested and imprisoned. The publisher of Bharathy’s paper ‘India’ was also arrested on sedition charges. Bharathy became an exile in the French cology of Pondicherry.

Nevertheless, Aiyangar developed the theme of a Tamil martial tradition that was superior to the north, into one of the most persistent and characterising narratives of militant Tamil nationalism – the Seran Senguttuvan legend of the epic Silapathigaram. His belief that the decline of the Tamil martial tradition caused the decline of the Tamil nation has been echoed in every Tamil nationalist project since his time. Raghava Aiyangar lamented the decline of martial values in Tamil society, for he saw himself essentially as a loyal Brahmin of one of the oldest ruling Maravar clans of Tamil Nadu. His Tamil nationalist project was rooted in that self-perception.

(1) Recent gender-oriented critique of the LTTE fails to take note of the fact that the Moothinmullai Mother is a leitmotif in the structuring and representation of the Tamil nationalist project. Hence in the BBC documentary on the Tigers – Suicide Killers – the Black Tiger Miller’s mother is presented to the TV crew as a woman who feels proud of her son’s heroic martyrdom in the suicide attack on the Nelliady, Sri Lankan army camp in 1987. The LTTE here is reproducing a fundamental structure of representing Tamilian identity. C.S.Lakshmi has examined the role of the concept of the heroic mother in the militant Dravidian movement and its strategy of mobilising women. She, however, fails to take note of the politics of Aiyangar and Bharathy and the impact of the Russo-Japanese war on them in the genesis of this concept. C.S.Lakshmi; Mother, Mother-community and Mother-politics in Tamil Nadu. Economic and Political Weekly, October 1990.

(2) [For] the role of the Sethupathys and Marava chieftains in the promotion of Tamil literature, see Sangath Thamilum Pitkalath Thamilum, U.V.Saminatha Aiyer, 1949, Kabir Press, Madras.

(3) Senthamil Valartha Thevarhal, M.Raghava Aiyangar; 1948, D.G.Gopalapillai Co., Tiruchi.

(4) Aiyangar was held in great esteem by the Tamil elite of Colombo and Jaffna. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan invited him to lecture in Jaffna. One V.J.Thambi Pillai translated his ‘Velir Varalaru’ and published it in the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon. K.Srikanthan gave an award to his work ‘Tholkappiya Araichi’. One of the earliest modern historians of Jaffna, A.Mootoothambi Pillai, who was a contributor to the Sangam’s journal Senthamil reflected Aiyangar’s thesis in his Jaffna history, when he lamented the decline of Jaffna’s martial values which according to him had flourished under the ruler Sankili. Mootoothambi Pillai, 1912, ‘History of Jaffna’.

(5) ‘Siranjeevi’; 1981. ‘Sethupathikal Varalaaru’ (History of Sethupathys), Jeevan Press, Madras.

ON TAMIL MILITARISM - Part 9: Bharathy and the Legitimation of Militarism

Part 9: Bharathy and the Legitimation of Militarism

by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, October 1, 1992, pp.6-8; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]

One of the main figures of the Indian revolutionary movement in Tamilnadu at the turn of the [20th] century was Maha Kavi Subramaniya Bharathy. One of its sympathisers was the Tamil scholar M.Raghava Aiyangar, who was the court pundit of the Maravar kings of Ramnad. Subramaniya Bharathy has been one of the most powerful influences in Tamilian cultural and political life in the twentieth century. The fundamental idea of modern Tamil militarism – that the Tamils were a martial race and that the rejuvenation of their martial traditions is necessary for national liberation, was enunciated by these two Brahmins in the first decade of the twentieth century. This idea has informed Tamil scholarship as well as the narratives of militant Tamil nationalism since then. It has been reproduced in many forms but its fundamental structure has remained the same. This narrative has been a basis of the vocabulary of Tamil nationalism in (a) The Indian revolutionary movement in Tamilnadu, (b) The Indian National movement in Tamilnadu, (c) The DK’s secessionist and Anti-Hindi movement, (d) Caste revivalist movements in Tamilnadu, (e) The DMK, (f) The Federal Party in Sri Lanka, and (g) The armed Tamil separatist movement in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

Subramanya Bharathy
Current (establishment) literature in the West on the use of history in national liberation organizations and terrorist groups, refers to what these organizations endeavour to disperse among their members and their people as ‘the’ authentic reading of the nation’s past and present, as projective narratives which are, it is claimed, "stories that not only recall the past, but also teach how to behave in the present."
"Narratives of this sort tell individuals how they would ideally have to live and die in order to contribute properly to their collectivity and its future."

It has been argued in an analysis which draws attention to the frequent use of these projective narratives by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, that the members of the Army are not marginal outcastes from Armenian society, but that projective narratives transform them into "paradigmatic figures of its deepest values." (Gerald Cromer: 1991). The projective narratives that shaped militant Tamil nationalism and its idea of nationl liberation were formulated as a reassertion of feudal Tamil militarism and its traditional cultural hegemony in Tamil society.

This was so because they were eseentially linked to the Indian revolutionary movement’s idea of reviving India’s traditional martial heritage as a precondition for national liberation. The importance of chiefly Bharathy and to lesser extent Raghava Aiyangar in the rise of modern Tamil militarism lies in the fact that they initiated a political reading of the ancient Tamil text Purananooru, in particular- an anthology of predominantly heroic poems – and a heroic Tamilian past in general, as basis of a Tamilian concept of national liberation. Their reading was conceived as part of the Indian revolutionary movement’s ideology of national liberation through armed insurrection.

It must be emphasised that they saw the Tamil martial tradition from a pan-Indian perspective. To them the heroic Tamil past was a reflection of a great Indian martial heritage, whereas the Dravidian school vehemently rejected the pan-Indian perspective as a myth promoted by Brahmin interests. Therefore the politics of the views propagated by Bharathy and Raghava Aiyangar have to be located at two levels; the pan-Indian and the south Indian.

At the first [pan-Indian] level, the following factors have to be considered; (a) British recruitment policy and its theory of martial races, (b) the cultural and political reaction to it among the educated Indian middle classes in Bengal and west India., (c) the kshatriya revivalism of Bal Ganghadar Thilak, (d) Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905.

At the south Indian level, the following factors shaped the two men’s thinking; (a) the movement for elevating the status of Tamil language, (b) the rediscovery of the Sangam anthologies, (c) the status and role of feudal Tamil militarism in Tamil society.

The shift in [military] recruitment to the northwest of the subcontinent toward the latter part of the 19th century was accompanied by the martial races theory which sought to elaborate the idea as to why some Indian people – Rajputs, Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims – were martial, while others – Marathas, Bengali upper castes, Mahars, Telugus and Tamils who had once been the predominant groups of the British Indian army – were not martial.

Lord Roberts of Kandahar, the commander in chief of the Indian army, 1885-1893, had made disparaging remarks about the martial character of the Tamils [and] Telugus who had once formed the backbone of the army’s largest group of infantry units.

"Each cold season I made long tours in order to acquaint myself with the needs and capabilities of the men of the Madras Army. I tried hard to discover in them those fighting qualities which had distinguished their forefathers during the wars of the last and the beginning of the present century…and I was forced to the conclusion that the ancient military spirit had died in them."
It was reasoned that long years of peace in the south had had a softening effect on them. There were protests and petitions from the de-recruited classes including Tamils and Telugus. A need to prove their ancient martial character arose among many classes that were thus affected.

At a Congress session in 1891, two Telugu Brahmins invoked the ancient Hindu law giver Manu in support of their contention that they were traditionally a war-like race, to refute Lord Robert’s alleged slights against the Telugu people. These sentiments had been already exacerbated by the Arms Act of 1878 which prohibited Indians from possessing arms without permission. This was seen as a loss of self respect. Raja Rampal Singh protested against it at the second session of the National Congress in 1886,

"…But we cannot be grateful to it (the British Government) for degrading our natures, for systematically crushing out of us all martial spirit, for converting a race of soldiers into a timid flock of quill driving sheep." (Cohen; 1990, chapters 1, 2)

The Marathas had also been particularly affected by these developments. Thilak arose as a national leader among them. He propagated the view that the kshatriya class which had been disfranchised by the British had to rise again. They were the traditional defenders of the realm and internal order. National emancipation could be achieved through the rejuvenation of that class and the traditional Indian social order.

U. V. Swaminatha Aiyar
Thilak’s ideas played an important role in the rise and dispersion of the Indian revolutionary movement. The movement got a big boost in 1905, when Japan defeated Russia. The victory demonstrated a point – that Asian martial spirit could prevail over European military might. Hence, for the revolutionaries (the Raj classified them as terrorists) India’s emancipation lay in the revival of its traditional martial values. The impact of Japan’s victory over Russia on the Indian revolutionary movement in Bengal and west India has been examined (in detail, in Dua: 1966).

At this time Subramaniya Bharathy was the editor of a nationalist Tamil paper called, ‘India’. He was an ardent follower of Thilak and the revolutionary movement and was one of the few in Madras who were bold enough to propagate its ideas through his paper. On Thilak’s fiftieth birthday, he wrote an editorial (14.7[July] 1906):

"The present condition of the country makes it necessary to have Veera Poojai (hero worship)…Veera Poojai is indispensable for a country’s progress. The people of our country who have always keenly observed Veera Poojai, should not be slack at a time when it is most needed."

A note in the paper says that, Thilak’s birthday was celebrated in Madras at Bharathy’s house at Lingaya Chetty street and that a pooja had been held for India’s martial goddess – Veera Sakthi – Bhavani (the goddess worshipped by the Maratha warrior king Shivaji). The revolutionary movement was spreading the Shivaji festival in many parts of India to rekindle the martial spirit which according to them had been systematically crushed out of the Indian nation and were establishing gymnasiums to improve its physical power.

Bharathy wrote an editorial titled in English as, ‘The Outrage of the Arms Act’, reminiscient of Raja Rampal Singh’s outburst – "An evil Viceroy called Lord Lytton introduced this Act in 1878. The people should have opposed it then. It is totally against divine law to make a great country’s people cowards who cannot wield weapons." (1.12[Dec] 1906)

Again he wrote an editorial titled, ‘Are Indians Cowards?’, on Japan’s martial example. "A few Asiatics soundly beat hundreds and thousands of Russians. This is enough to show the valour of the Asians. The warrior’s heaven – Veera Swarkam – is better." (29.12 [Dec.] 1906)

He [Bharathy] was opposed to those who upheld the value of English education. The ideas of the revolutionary movement had to be rooted in Tamil culture and its deepest values; and they had to be spread among the ordinary Tamil masses. This could be done according to him only by adopting a simple style of writing Tamil. This view underlies his poems and songs through which he propagated the idea of the rejuvenation of the Tamil martial spirit as part of the India’s heroic reawakening and liberation.

"Amongst us, the Tamils, manliness is gone, valour is gone. We don’t have a country. We don’t have a government. Will Saraswathy (the goddess of learning) appear in this country in such a situation?"

"Tamil Nadu has not lost its wealth, independence, physical strength, and mental strength and has descended to a low state. Hence good poets disappeared from this country."

In his Puthiya Aathisoody (a book of moral aphorisms for children), he wrote, "Dismiss fear. Do not fail in courage. Learn the art of War."

Thilak’s idea that the kshatriya class of India that had been disfranchised by the British, had to reasert itself in the struggle for the nation’s emancipation was more real and immediate to Bharathy, because he came from a Brahmin family from Tinnevely in the deep south, that had served the Poligars of Ettayapuram. He was hence, acutely aware of the traditional status of the Maravar in Tamil society and what had befallen them under the British. The great famine of 1876 had brought untold suffering upon the people in the deep south and had led to a further decline in the standing of the poorer sections of the Maravar. They were constantly harassed by the police which was formed by Brahmins and other non-military castes.

The poet, a Brahmin who had given up the holy thread, hated Brahminism and his castemen who were servile to the English. To Bharathy, the kshatriyas of Tamilnadu were the Maravar. (This view seems to have been common to Brahmin families that had served the Marava chieftains and kings. See also, Dirks; 1982; p.662). 

In a note to his ‘Paanjali Sapatham’, he says,
"Maram means valour – Veeram. Maravar are kshatriyar. Understand that, in our country, the class that is known now as Maravar are kshatriyar."

His ‘Maravan’s song’ (Maravan Paattu) relates the predicament of the traditional Tamil military castes under British rule and urges the reassertion of the Maravar, and their martial reputation. He portrays his own castemen in the police as a wretched and greedy lot, abject before the English master, framing criminal cases against the Maravar and fleecing them under various pretexts.

"Alas, we have to dig the soil today to earn our wage. The might of our swords and spears are gone! A bad name has come upon us in this world…The times when we made war with bows, blowing our chanks, are now a thing of the past…Can we bring disgrace upon our great warriors of yore by selling our honour? Aren’t we the valourous Maravar? Should we lead this useless life anymore?"
Thus the revival of traditional Tamil militarism – in its caste and broader cultural forms – was essentially linked to Bharathy’s project of propagating and kindling Tamil nationalism among the masses as a means of national liberation. The project has continued to be at the centre of all political schemes that have invoked Tamil nationalism from his time.

Bharathy’s convictions received a boost in September 1906, at the time when the activities of the revolutionaries were gathering momentum. It came from a talk given by U.V.Saminatha Aiyer on a poem from the Purananooru – an anthology of heroic Tamil poetry. U.V.Saminatha Aiyer, after many years of research, had discovered and published the Purananooru in 1894. It was considered to be one of the most ancient Tamil works. It is said that "the publication of Purananooru created a revolution in Tamilian thinking." (P.S.Mani; p.105. Bharathiyarum Thamil Pulavarhalum, 1981, Madras. "They – the Tigers – are writing the new Purananooru", Ulahath Thamilar, 1.5[May].1992)

The talk gave Bharathy what he was looking for – a sound basis for propagating the idea of reviving the martial spirit among the Tamils to achieve national liberation through violence. He wrote an editorial on the subject titled in English as ‘Ancient Tamil Lady of Ever Sacred Memory’, on 8.9[Sept].1906. The political life of Purananooru, the foundation text of Tamil militarism, begins in this editorial.

It was a time when very few Tamils knew about Purananooru or the Sangam corpus. He says,

"A Tamil work called Purananooru was written many centuries ago. It does not, like later works, relate Puranic fables. It tells of the condition of Tamilnadu in those times, the wars of the kings and many other natural events. A poem from this work was expounded by U.V.Saminatha Aiyer of the Madras Presidency College. There are some, who out of ignorance think that there is no use in learning Tamil and that it cannot inspire patriotism. Aiyer spoke on this poem to refute their erroneous notions. The poem is about the mother of a warrior (Rana Veeran). The woman had sent her son to the battle field, thinking that he will either die in war for his mother country or come back victorious. A liar came and told her that her son had taken fright and run away from the battle field. On hearing this the old woman exclaimed, ‘Did I bring up a coward to whom his life was more important than the love for his nation? I shall go to the battle front and if he has done so, I shall hack these breasts that gave him suck and will die there.’ Determined thus the old woman went to the field and was overjoyed to find her son slain in battle. She was at peace, because her son had given his life for his motherland. The woman’s name is not known now. But only if Lord Isvara blesses the continent of Baratha with many such mothers in these times, a solution to all our problems could be found."

Bharathy draws a parallel here to the story of a Japanese mother who had lost all her sons in the war but was found crying that she did not have more sons to send to the battle front. There were books on Japan’s victory over Russia like, ‘The Russo-Japanese War’ in circulation, particularly among the revolutionaries and their sympathisers at that time. The theme of the heroic Japanese mothers who nurtured the martial spirit in their sons during the 1905 war was emphasised in these books.

Japan’s victory over Russia had inspired another nationalist minded Brahmin to write Parani poems (A form of Tamil war poetry sung for a warrior who slays 1,000 elephants in battle) hailing its martial example. This was M.Raghava Aiyangar, who was the editor of the Madurai Thamil Sangam’s journal ‘Senthamil.

1. Bharathi Kavithaikal; 1982, Vanavil Pirasuram, Madras.

2. Bharathi Tharisanam (‘India’ essays, 1906), vol.1, New Century Book House, Madras.

3. Nicholas B.Dirks; The pasts of a Palayakarar – The ethnohistory of a South Indian Little King. Journal of Asian Studies, vol.XLI, no.4, August 1982. "Many of my informants (Brahmins as well as Maravars and Kallars) have told me that the Mukkulathors – the three Tamil military castes – are really the kshatriyas of Southern India." Dirks deals with the Poligars (Palayakarars) of Othumalai, who belong to the Kondayam Kottai subsection of the Maravar, the group to which most of the Southern feudal military chieftainsbelonged. The Sethupathys – the kings of Ramnad – belong to the subsection known as Sembi Maravar.

4. R.P.Dua; 1966. The Impact of the Russo-Japanese (1905) War on Indian Politics, S.Chand, Delhi.

5. Gerald Cromer; In the Mirror of the Past – The use of history in the justification of terrorism and political violence. [Journal name is missing here, due to author’s or printer’s slip], vol.3, no.4, winter 1991.

Letter of Correspondent C.R.A.Hoole [Ontario, Canada]:

Tamil Military Caste
[Lanka Guardian, September 15, 1992, p.12]

D.P.Sivaram’s claim that Bishop Caldwell’s writing served to "demilitarize Tamil society" (August 1) discloses a fixation on Tamil martial prowess and warrior bravery. The fixation is more explicit in Mr.Sivaram’s account of the ‘Tamil military castes’ (May 1 – July 1). The account cannot however be taken as an accurate reading of Tamil history. It may be better understood as a charter, providing historiographical legitimacy for the present-day glorification of warrior-heroes who earn fame and honour through gruesome deeds.

Crucial to his argument is the assertion that the pre-British society was dominated by martial values and only subsequently "under active British patronage the Vellala caste established its dominance, and its culture became representative and hegemonic in Tamil society" (May 15, p.18). Against this view, it may be pointed out that centuries before the Bishop launched his so-called pacification programme, the brahmans and their Vellala allies initiated a process of agrarian expansion that not only brought large tracts of land under cultivation, but its people under the sway of brahmanical values (B.Stein, 1980; B.Beck, 1979). Kallar and Maravar during the Chola times progressively converted their lands to peasant agriculture and also adopted Vellala titles. This process has been described as "Vellalization" or "brahmanization" and gave rise to the Tamil proverb, "Kallar, Maravar and Agambediyar becoming fat, turn into Vellalar". The caste society as we know it today, began to emerge from process in the tenth century, with its left-hand and right-hand structural divisions.

It would then follow that the dominant values of the Tamil society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are typically caste values that is, "hierarchy" and "consensus" – in opposition to "conflict" (M.Moffat, An Untouchable Community in South India, 1979). In this context, the Kallar and Maravar who continued to inhabit the remaining marginal or peripheral tracts at this time, may be seen to represent a classical ethosthat was receding into oblivion.

There is no doubt that the Kallar and Maravar remained an irritant to the British Raj, as they had been to the Chola and Pandya overlords. On the other hand because they existed outside the larger caste society, neither a Kallan nor a Maravan could during the time become a paradigmatic figure worthy of imitation by the vast majority of the Tamils. In short, Mr.Sivaram has exaggerated their influence on the Tamil society during that period.

Letter of Correspondent T.Vanniasingham [Canada]:

Maravar Militarism
[Lanka Guardian, October 15, 1992, p.21]

Please permit me to say a few words about Mr.Sivaram’s essays on Tamil military castes. In his account he is illegitimately glorifying them. He seems to be implying that they were treated unambiguously with awe and veneratio, at the time of their exploits. Tamil literary documents of the period are not reliable on this score.Poets and bards were hired-hands in the service of chiefs and could be paid to praise and exaggerate their struggles and victories. In any case there are other Tamil poems that portray the Maravar as blood-thirsty savages, uncouth, undisciplined and lawless who lived by robbing unarmed travellers. The Silapathikaram for instance mentions them as practising "the glorious art of stripping travellers of their wealth – for the brave Maravar virtue lies in the heartlessness of plunder."

There is no doubt that they established kingdoms of their own – and at other times they were mercenaries in the pay of other kingdoms. In fact there were many ruling castes in ancient Tamil society. The Maravar were one such group. These many castes were always in contention for power and the Maravar won, at times. 

They were not overpowering and dominant all the time and over the entire territory. In this respect, Mr.Diulweva’s claims (Lanka Guardian, 1 Sept.’92) were quite correct. In fact it is possible to show that they were a "fierce maravar tribe – who prefer to die a glorious death on the battle field to a village funeral pyre," as the Silapadikaram puts it, they lacked a theory of government and civil society. For them a civil society is not something that people live in but something that one robs and devours because the Maravar never produce anything. Long before the British came to suppress them, they had shown an inability to govern a civil society of many castes for any extended period of time. Governance needs intelligence, political wisdom, historical knowledge, forebearance and a capacity for trust, all of which, if we are to judge by the descriptions in the ancient Tamil texts, the Maravar conspicuously lack.

A readiness to kill and be killed, as we know only too well, is not the way to create a civilized society.

ON TAMIL MILITARISM - Part 8: The Twin Narratives of Tamil Nationalism

Part 8: The Twin Narratives of Tamil Nationalism

by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, September 1, 1992, pp.10-12; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]

At the turn of the Twentieth century Tamil nationalism was articulated in terms of two different interpretations of Tamilian identity, propagated by two distinct movements which were politically opposed to each other. The one was the Dravidian school; the other was the Indian revolutionary movement. The former was closely associated with English missionaries and unequivocally supported British rule; the latter strongly opposed the Raj and preached violence as the chief means of national emancipation from foreign domination.

Bishop Caldwell
The discourse that may be identified today as Tamil nationalism is constituted at its basis by these two interpretations – or more appropriately ‘founding’ narratives – which contended with each other to offer authentic readings of the Tamilian past and present, of what ‘really’ constituted Tamilian identity. The Dravidian school gave political and academic form to linguistic ethno-nationalism; the revolutionary movement turned traditional Tamil militarism into a liberation ideology, which evolved into militarist ethno-nationalism. The militarist reading has also characterised Tamil ethno-nationalism in the twentieth century not merely because it was "constructed and deployed to advance the interests and claims of the collectivity, banded and mobilized as a pressure group" but also because, as this study intends to show, it appealed to, and arose out of the structures of experience produced and reproduced through folk culture and religion in rural Tamilnadu.

This is how, as we shall see later, MGR became Madurai Veeran, the warrior god of a numerous scheduled caste in Periyar district in Tamilnadu. Jeyalalitha contested from an electorate there in the last election [i.e., 1991 general election]. However, it is essential to understand the politics behind the claims and silences of the early Dravidian school of Tamil revivalism and ‘historiography’ for examining the rise of modern Tamil militarism.

Caldwell and his followers who wrote and spoke about Tamil culture and history endeavoured to show that Tamils were essentially a peaceful people who had achieved a high level of civilization independent of and prior to the arrival of the ‘Aryans’ in the Indian subcontinent. This was the unique Dravidian civilization. The theory of Dravidian linguistic and hence cultural independence also contained in it the idea that the Tamils were originally a class of peaceful farmers. The politics of Caldwell’s teleology compelled him [to] introduce this idea into his writings. (It was seen earlier that it arose from the attitude he shared with the English rulers towards the Maravar.) The views of Bishop Caldwell were found to be extremely useful by the newly arisen Vellala elite which was contending for higher status in the Varna hierarchy of caste. Therefore the ‘histories’ which were written by the Dravidian school of Tamil studies at the turn of the [20th] century were underpinned by,
(a) The political and religious concerns of Caldwell and other missionaries like Henry Martyn Scudder and G.U.Pope
(b) The caste politics of Vellala upward mobility.
The interests of both were intertwined. Their express political interest was to show that Tamil culture in essence was pre-Aryan-Brahmin and non-martial. The first non-Brahmin Tamils to take up the Dravidian theory to examine theTamil past belonged to the Vellala elite and were supported and encouraged by Protestant missionaries (and sometimes by English administrators). The writings of Professor Sunderam Pillai of the Trivandrum University on Tamil history and culture inspired many of his castemen who had been seething at being classified as Sudras by the Brahmins, and worse, by the British caste census and courts of law as well.

Prof. Sunderam Pillai

Thus, the historical works of the early Dravidian school were produced as "social charters directed toward the census, where the decennial designation of caste status became a major focus for contests over rank between 1870 and 1930. The first Dravidian history of the Tamils, ‘The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago’, was written by V.Kanakasabhai Pillai, a Vellala from Jaffna who was a civil servant in Madras. Edgar Thurston thought it appropriate to quote the following excerpt from that work, in the section dealing with the Vellala caste in his ‘Castes and Tribes of South India’.

"Among the pure Tamils, the class most honoured was the Arivar or Sages. Next in rank to the Arivar were Ulavar or farmers. The Arivar were ascetics, but of men living in society the farmers occupied the highest position. They formed the nobility, or the landed aristocracy, of the country. They were also called Vellalar, the lords of the flood or karalar, lords of the clouds…The Chera, Chola and Pandyan kings and most of the petty chiefs of Tamilakam, belonged to the tribe of Vellalas." (Thurston, 1906: p.367-368)

The efforts of the early Dravidian school of Tamil ‘historiography’ culminated in the work of Maraimalai Atikal – the founder of the Pure Tamil movement which became a powerful force in the anti-Hindi struggles from 1928 onwards. He published a book called, ‘Vellalar Nakareekam’ – The Civilisation of the Vellalas – in 1923. The book was a lecture he had given at the Jaffna town hall on January 1, 1922 on the ‘Civilization of the Tamils’ A contribution of Rs.200 was made in Jaffna towards the publication of the lecture, as a book. The Jaffna Vellala of that time saw his interests as being bound with that of his castemen in South India, who were attempting to rid themselves of the Sudra status assigned to them in the Varna hierarchy of caste by Brahmins.
Prof. V. Kanagasabai Pillai

However, Maraimalai Atikal had decided to publish it as a book in order to refute a claim in the caste journal of the Nattukottai Chetti community, that the Chetties did not marry among the Vellalas because they (the Vellalas) were Sudras. In the English preface to the work, Maraimalai Atikal says that his book

"is written in scrupulously pure Tamil style, setting forth at the same time views of a revolutionary character in the sphere of social religious and historical ideas of the Tamil people…In the first place attention is directed to Vellalas, the civilized agricultural class of the Tamils, and to their origin, and organization…it is shown that at a time when all the people except those who lived all along the equatorial regions were leading the life of hunters or nomads, these Vellalas attained perfection in the art of agriculture…and by means of navigation occupied the whole of India. When the Aryan hordes came from the north-west of Punjab and poured forth into the interior, it was the ten Vellala kings then ruling in the north that stopped their advance."

Maraimalai Atikal goes on to claim that the eighteen Tamil castes were created by the Vellalas for their service; that they (the Vellalas) were vegetarians fo the highest moral codes;that Saivism and the Saiva Siddhantha philosophy nurtured by the Vellalas for more than 3,500 years were the pre-Aryan religious heritage of the Tamils; that the classification of Vellalas as Sudras was the result of an insidious Aryan-Brahmin conspiracy. Maraimalai Atikal was also defending fellow Vellala Dravidian scholars and their claims against attacks and veiled criticisms of Brahmin Tamil academics, M.Srinivasa Aiyangar, a respected Brahmin Tamil scholar who had worked as an assistant to the superintendent of census for the Madras Presidency.

Mr.Stuart, had made a devastating attacking on the claims of the Dravidian school of Tamil historiography, which derived its authority from the ‘scientific’ philological works of Bishop Caldwell. He debunked the theory of the Caldwell-Vellala school that Tamil culture was constituted by the high moral virtues of an ancient race of peaceful cultivators, on the basis of what he had studied of the religion and culture of the Tamil country-side, as an officer of the census, and on the basis of ‘pure’ Tamil works that had been rediscovered towards the latter part of the 19th century.

Maraimalai Atikal
Srinivasa Aiyangar noted in his ‘Tamil Studies’, "Within the last fifteen years a new school of Tamil scholars has come into being, consisting mainly of admirers and castemen of the late lamented professorand antiquary, Mr.Sunderam Pillai of Trivandrum." Aiyangar argued that contrary to the claims of the new school, the Tamils were a fierce race of martial predators. He wrote,

"Again some of the Tamil districts abound with peculiar tomb stones called ‘Virakkals’ (hero stones). They were usually set upon graves of warriors that were slain in battle…The names of the deceased soldiers and their exploits are found inscribed on the stones which were decorated with garlands of peacock feathers or some kind of red flowers. Usually small canopies were put up over them. We give below a specimen of such an epitaph. A careful study of the Purapporul Venba Malai will doubtless convince the reader that the ancient Tamils were, like the Assyrians and the Babylonians, a ferocious race of hunters and soldiers armed with bows and lances making war for the mere pleasure of slaying, ravaging and pillaging. Like them the Tamils believed in evil spirits, astrology, omens and sorcery. They cared little for death. The following quotations from the above work will bear testimony to the characteristics of that virile race. 

(1) Garlanded with the entrails of the enemies they danced with lances held in their hands topside down. 
(2) They set fire to the fertile villages of their enemies, and 
(3) plundered their country and demolished their houses. 
(4) The devil’s cook distributed the food boiled with the flesh of the slain, on the hearth of the crowned heads of fallen kings. With these compare same passages from the Assyrian stories of campaigns: ‘I had some of them flapped in my presence and had the walls hung with their skins. I arranged their heads like crown…All his villages I destroyed, desolated, burnt; I made the country desert.’ And yet the early Dravidian are considered by Dr.Caldwell as the farmers of the best moral codes, and by the new school of non-Aryan Tamil scholars…"

Aiyangar even claims, "We have said that the Vellalas were pure Dravidians and that they were a military and dominant tribe. If so one could naturally ask, ‘How could the ancestors of peaceful cultivators be a war-like race?" He argues that the etymology of the root Vel is connected to war and weapons, that it was not uncommon for cultivating castes to have been martial tribes in former days as in the case of the Nayar, the Pillai, the Bants, etc. He also cites an official census of the Tamil population in the Madras Presidency, which shows that Tamil castes with a claim to traditional marital status constituted twenty six percent of the total number of Tamils in the Presidency. (Srinivasa Aiyangar; 1915, pp.40-58)

Kasi Anandan
Aiyangar’s attack on the Dravidian theory of Caldwell and the Vellala propagandists had political undertones. Learned Brahmins of the day were acutely aware of the political interests that lay behind the claims of the early Dravidian school. Vellala Tamil revivalism and its idea of Dravidian uniqueness were closely related to the pro-British and collaborationist poltical organization that was formed in 1916, by the non-Brahmin elites of the Madras Presidency – the South Indian Liberal Federation. Its proponents were, therefore careful not to emphasise the narratives of the martial reputation of the Tamils that were embodied in the ancient ‘high’ Tamil texts or in the folk culture of rural Tamilnadu. (Tamil revivalism had been promoted by Protestant missionaries and British officials in the latter half of the 19th century, only in as much as it was seen to facilitate the social, economic and religious aims of demilitarizing Tamil society and diminishing the influence of Brahmins in it.)

This was done not only out of a desire to promote Vellala caste culture, as Tamil national culture, but also in conscious deference to the concerns of the Raj about the ‘seditious’ views of Tamil cultural revival that were being propagated by the ‘terrorists’ and their sympathisers which were aimed at stirring the "ancient martial passions" of the Tamils in general and the military castes in particular, by appealing to martial values inscribed in the caste traditions of the Maravar and linking them to a glorious past that had been sustained by, what according to them, was the unique and powerful Tamil martial tradition. The political life of Purananooru, the foundation text of Tamil militarism had been initiated by two Brahmins who were sympathisers of the Indian revolutionary movement at this juncture. (The one was the great Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi; the other was the great Tamil scholar M.Raghava Aiyangar, the court pundit of the Marava kings of Ramnad.)

These concerns, had compelled the Raj to take lines of action aimed at the terrorists and the military castes. One, it carefully sifted through the Tamil revivalist propaganda of the suspected sympathisers of the terrorist movement, to charge them with sedition. Two, it introduced the Criminal Tribes Act of 1911, with the express objective of throughly obtaining knowledge of, supervising and disciplining the Kallar and Maravar who were classified as dacoits and thugs under this act. The political mobilization of the Tamil military castes began as reaction against this act. The political leadership of this mobilization was inspired by the militarism of the terrorists. Modern Tamil militarism as a political force emerged from this conjuncture.

As we shall see later, Karunanidhi, Thondaman, Kasi Anandan and Prabhakaran are all, in varying degrees, products of the notions of Tamilian identity which arose from this conjuncture. Students of Tamil ethno-nationalism’s current phase will find that the martial narratives of Tamilian past and present are at work in two extremes of the Tamil political spectrum. Last month, an audio cassette was released in Jaffna by the LTTE and a commemoration volume was released in Singapore in Thondaman’s honour. Both are politically conscious efforts to root two personalities and their nationalist projects, to what has been portrayed as the most powerful manifestation of the Tamil martial tradition – the Chola Empire.

The LTTE cassette evokes a glorious past associated with Prabhakaran’s only nom de guerre, Karikalan – the founder of the Chola Empire. The commemoration volume, on the other hand seeks to emphasise the ‘continuity’ of a martial caste tradition between the leader of the CWC and the great general of the Chola Empire, Karunakara Thondaman. Thus the examination of Tamil militarism in this study is an exploration of the answer to the question – why does Tamil ethno-nationalism express itself thus and how does it sustain power to appeal to pan-Tamilian sentiments?

Letter of Correspondent R.B.Diulweva [Dehiwela] and Sivaram’s response:
Martial Tamils
[Lanka Guardian, September 1, 1992, p.24]

I read with wry amusement, and increasing bewilderment, Sivaram’s curious assemblage of ‘facts’ about Tamil ‘military’ castes. The recluse in the Vanni, and his acolytes in the diaspora, should be grateful to the L[anka] G[uardian] for providing a platform for this skewed rewriting of history.

Some random reflections on Sivaram’s thesis. Does he seriously believe that the buccaneering Portuguese had the time to indulge in sociological analysis of Tamil militarism (a la CIA) and strategically decide to erase/Vellalise the ‘military’ castes? This also applies to the Dutch and the Brits. Sivaram’s overall picture is of a truly fantastic war sodden people imbibing blood thirstiness with their mothers’ milk. Weren’t the vast mass of Tamils peaceable farmers, fishermen, craftmen? Or was their sole function to service these magnificent bravos? And whom did these ‘military’ castes fight during the eras of peace when Tamil civilization, in its truest sense, flourished?

Another fact for Sivaram. One of his ‘military’ castes the Maravar has made a contribution to the Sinhala language. To this day, a ‘marava-raya’ is synonymous with ‘thug’. This is, probably, all that these ‘warriors’ were!.

D.P.Sivaram states:
I suggest that Mr.Diulweva go on reading before he finally decides whether it is skewed history or not. He should also study Prof.K.Kailasapathy’s Tamil Heroic Poetry, which describes an earlier phase of the culture that I have tried to analyse. He might find the overall picture there even more gruesome.
I understand Mr.Diulweva’s concerns given the current situation of the country, and hence his wish to think that the vast mass of Tamils were peaceable farmers. His wish and concern have had precedents in the British era. As for the sociological analysis of the buccaneering Portuguese, it was based on Prof.Tikiri Abeyasinghe’s ‘Jaffna under the Portuguese’ (discussed there in detail). I deal with the Maravar in as much as they were a political fact in the rise of Tamil nationalism. A write up in the Sunday Times of 23.8[Aug].[19]92 by its Madras correspondent refers to the political influence of one Mr.Natarajan who he says "belongs to the powerful Thevar (the caste title of the Maravar) community in southern Tamilnadu." Mr.Diulweva will find, if he takes a closer look at the politics of Tamilnadu, still an important political fact.