Wednesday, 17 July 2013

ON TAMIL MILITARISM - Part 3: The Code of Suicide

Part 3: Tamil Militarism – The Code of Suicide

by D. P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, June 1, 1992, pp.13-15 and 24; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]

"You are to know that in this land of Malabar, there is another caste of people called the Nayres who have no other duty than to serve in war, and they always carry their arms wither so ever they go…they all live with the King and the other great lords; nevertheless all receive stipends from the King or from the great lords with whom they dwell. None may become a Nayre save he who is of Nayre lineage. They will not touch anyone of low caste…The most part of these Nayres when they are seven years of age are sent to schools where they are taught many tricks of nimbleness and dexterity…and when they are fully accomplished in this way they teach them to play with weapons to which they are most inclined. 

All Nayres are mighty warriors."(1)
observes Duarte Barbosa in his account of the Zamorin’s domain (a division of the old Chera kingdom) – one of the earliest records made by the Portuguese within a few years of their entry into the Indian Ocean. The feudal military system described by Barbosa was common to those parts of South India known to the Portuguese as Malabar. In its southern and south eastern parts the military castes were known as Maravar, Kallar and Ahampadiyar; of these the Kallar and Maravar had kingship traditions. This feudal military system was found in Jaffna as well when the Portuguese arrived. The Palk Strait was known to them as the Marava Bay.



The Tamil country was divided into a number of feudal domains, called Palayams, which literally means ‘military camps’ (2), the chief of which was the Palayakarar – the commander of the camp. Most of the Tamil Palayakarar were Maravar. Each maintained a body of Kallar, Maravar and Ahampadiyar warriors who "served on the battle field and in times of peace engaged in hunting and training in the military arts, nourishing a rugged and practical character", and serving as village guards (kaval) for a contribution (3). In Jaffna "the Maravar had to learn the art of war from the age of sixteen till they were twenty four years of age; then they had to become village kaval-karar, live on land given by the King and return to military service whenever the king required them to do so."(4)

The military system of the Tamil country was yet a dream in eighteenth century Europe; its armies were in the process of developing methods and regulations which "got rid of the peasant" in the new recruit and "gave him the air of a soldier." J.Servan, an 18th century French military theoretician wrote a treatise on the ‘soldier citizen’ (1780). He "dreamt of a military machine that would cover the whole territory of the nation and in which each individual would be occupied without interruption, but in a different way according to the evolutive segment, the genetic sequence in which he finds himself. Military life would begin in childhood, when young children would be taught the profession of arms in military manors; it would end in these same manors when the veterans right up to their last day would teach the children, exercise the recruits, preside over the soldier’s exercises…and finally make order resign in the country, when troops were fighting at the frontiers."(9)

The ideal Palayam was Servan’s military machine; the Kallar, Maravar, Ahampadiyar and Nayar were its ‘oldest citizen’. The Palayam was sustained by a codified martial culture. As we shall see later the practice of martial suicide was most prevalent in the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu, which had a very large number of Palayams.

Early Europeans who studied the military system of the Tamil country were inclined to read therein, some of the ideals embodied in the celebrated regulations of the Prussian infantry that the whole of Europe imitated after the victories of Frederick II. The 18th century British military historian Robert Orme’s description of the military castes of the Tamil country is typical. 

He says, "They are tall, well made and well featured. Their arms are lances and pikes, bows and arrows, rockets and matchlocks, but whether with or without other weapons every man constantly wears a sword and shield. In battle the different arms move in distinct bodies, but the lancemen are rated the most eminent, and lead all attacks. This weapon is eighteen feet long. They tie under the point a tuft of scarlet horse hair, and when they attack horse, add a small bell. Without previous exercise, they assemble in a deep column, pressing close together and advance at a long steady step, in some degree of time, their lances inclining forward but aloft, of which the elasticity and vibration, with the jingle and dazzle scare, the cavalry; and their approach is scarcely less formidable to infantry not disciplined with firearms."(6)

The boomerang - or Valai Thadi in Tamil – was another weapon that "played a considerable part in the Poligar (Palayakarar) ars". The Kallan and Maravan warriors plied it with deadly effect and "could at one stroke dispatch small game and even man."(7). Like the Japanese Bakuhan system, the Palayam system was based on a feudal class structure of warriors, farmers, artisans and merchants where the distinctions between the caste statuses of the constitutent classes were strictly enforced. To symbolize this society, the Tamil warriors, like the Japanese samurai, wore swords in everyday life because the system was maintained by their military power.

Mr. Lushington who was sent as Collector to Palayakarar (Poligar) country in 1799, desirous of wresting control of the vast revenues of the land, described the Palayam (Pollam) system of Tamil feudal militarism as extremely evil. "When this contribution (Kaval dues) is not quietly submitted to, torture and the whip are applied, the whole people of the village put into confinement, every occupation interdicted, the cattle pounded, the inhabitants taken captive to, and not unfrequently murdered in, the Pollams…and such is the dread which they have inspired into the cultivators of the circar lands by remaining armed in the midst of a country otherwise in profound peace, that these requisitions are never resisted."(7)


A fierce and ancient martial culture and religion was nurtured by the military castes. As in the other martial regions of India, traditional militarism permeated several levels of society. Therefore, despite the great temple centres, the heroes and godlings of Tamil martial culture were worshipped widely throughout rural Tamilnadu. In Japan, the Samurai nurtured the values of kyuba-no-michi (the way of the bow and horse). In the Tamil country, Maram was the martial ethos of the warrior castes. There are three characteristics of Tamil feudal militarism which set it apart from other pre-modern military cultures. They are,
(a) the detailed codification of the modes of war, the warriors’ martial life and rituals etc.; known as Purath thinai.

(b) the rejection of divine participation and perfidy sanctioned by religion in the conduct of war. The great medieval Tamil commentator Naccinarkiniyar says that norms which sanction "killing through perfidy and by virtue of divine powers given by gods" are to be disregarded and that modes of war involving gods are to be rejected and refuted as modes not belonging to the Tamil speaking good world."(8)
(c) the classification of war with flowers; and a practice of wearing a particular flower when engaging in the mode of war, denoted by that flower. The author of Ramayana had noted that, "the southerners wore flowers for war."
Codified Tamil feudal militarism was nurtured and transmitted as the Purath thinai division of high Tamil Senthamizh poetics and grammar. Tolkappiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar, the Buddhist grammatical treatise Veerasoliyam, the saivite Ilakkana Villakam (17th century) and Swaminatham, written in early part of the last [i.e., 19th] century are works which contain treatises in which Tamil martial culture is codified and annotated. The perfecton and codification of Tamil martial culture through the ages was paralelled by the thematization of several narratives of military gloty in Tamil culture through epics, inscriptions, minor forms of poetry etc.

An observation is made in the British Indian army’s recruitment handbook on the Sikhs that, "all sikh traditions whether national or religious are martial; in times of political excitement the martial spirit reasserts itself."(9) The culture and class interests of Japanese feudal militarism which survived the Meiji restoration partly impelled and characterized Japan’s militarist nationalism and its growth as a modern military power. Similarly it can be said that the culture and structures of codified ‘high Tamil’ and folk forms of Tamil feudal militarism partly impelled and characterized Tamil nationalism when it became militant. Therefore two aspects of Tamil feudal militarism which has been reasserted in Tamil revivalism and militarism will be briefly examined here. They are,
(a) narratives of Tamil military might, thematized in Tamil culture. The most important of these can be reduced to the basic form – Tamil King defeats the Aryans of north India and causes his emblem to be carved on the Himalayas. The Pandyan king Neduncheliyan bore the title ‘He who overran the Aryan army’. All three Tamil dynasties – Chera, Chola and Pandya – are distinguished by this feat in a wide range of texts and inscriptions. These narratives, like the kamikaze – divine wind – legend of Japan’s war with Mongols, have played an important role in the growth of Tamil nationalism.
(b) Codified practices of Tamil martial life.
1. Moothinmullai: the duty of the warrior mother to inculcate the martial ethos and to urge her sons to attain martyrdom in heroic battle. The concept of the warrior mother’s duty was central to the genesis of Tamil militarism and later in militant Tamil nationalism. It is a salient theme in LTTE’s current literature as well.
2. Avippali, Thannai, Verttal, Vallan pakkam, Pun Kilithu Mudiyum Maram and Marakkanchi: the forms of martial suicide and suicidal battle of the warrior as the ultimate expression of his loyalty to his commander. These six forms of martial suicide are defined as described by the works referred to above.
Pulla Vazhkai Vallan Pakkam – the martial attitude of the warrior who goes forth into suicidal battle is mentioned by Tholkappiyam. The other works refer to it as Thannai Verttal. Duarte Barbosa describes the practice among the Nayar (of the Chera kingdom). It was later noticed by British officials as well. It was also prevalent among the Maravar (of the Pandya kingdom) from whom the suicidal Aapathuthavi bodyguard was selected. Thannai Verttal also refers to the suicide of a warrior on hearing that his king or commander has died (Purapporul Venpa Malai). Punkilithu Mudiym Maram is the martial act of a warrior who commits suicide by tearing apart his battle wound.

Another form of martial suicide mentioned by all the works except Veera soliyam, is Avippali. Tamil inscriptions speak of it as Navakandam. Inscriptions found in many parts of Tamilnadu provide greater information on the practice. Navakandam is the act of a warrior who slices his own neck to fulfil the vow made to korravai – the Tamil goddess of war – for his commanders’ victory in battle. The Kalingathu Parani(10) – a work which celebrates the victory of the Chola king Kulotunga and his general Thondaman in the battle for Kalinga, describes the practice in detail. "The temple of korravai is decorated with lotus flowers which bloomed when the warriors sliced their own necks"(106); "they slice the base of their necks; the severed heads are given to the goddess"(111); "when the neck is sliced and the head is severed, the headless body jumps with joy for having fulfilled the vow"(113).

The epics of Chilapadikaram (5: 79-86) and Manimekalai (6: 50-51) mention the practice. To ensure the complete severing of the head, the warrior tied his hair to a bamboo bent taut before he cut his neck. Hero stones depicting this practice are found all over Tamil Nadu, and are called Saavan Kallu by locals. The warriors who thus committed suicide were not only deified in hero stones (saavan kallu) and worshipped but their relatives were given lands which were exempted from tax(11).

An area handbook (Tharamangalam) of the Tamilnadu archeology department notes that "the Nava Kandam sculpture which is found widely all over Kongu Nadu (Coimbatore, Salem) is to be seen at the Tharamangalam Kailasanathar kovil also. The people call it Saavan Kallu. "The practice of Nava Kandam existed in Kongu Nadu till the early part of this [i.e., 20th] century."(12)

A Saavan Kallu at Thenkarai Moolanatha sami Kovil in Madurai, depicting the act of a warrior holding his hair with his left hand and slicing his neck with his right – 14th century – is said to be annually worshipped by the Conjeevaram Mudaliyars.(13) The Conjeevaram Mudaliyars are Kaikolar, a weaving caste which was militarized under the Chola empire and was made into a special military body; there are indications that Kaikolar warriors practiced Nava Kandam(14). The founder of the DMK, C.N.Annadurai was a Conjeevaram (Kancheepuram) Mudaliyar, of the Kaikolar caste.


Apart from these codified forms of martial suicide, a method called Vadakkiruththal is mentioned in Tamil heroic poetry. It is the act of a warrior king fasting to death, if some dire dishonour were to come upon him(15). The Tamil teacher, and the Dravidian propagandist, turned the song of the legendary Chera king Irumborai who committed suicide when he was taken captive by his enemies into a compelling theme in Tamil renaissance.

The Avippali form of martial suicide as the ultimate expression of loyalty to one’s commander, is deeply embedded in the Tamil psyche. Senchorru-kadan (the debt of red rice) is a phrase that is widely used today by Tamils as an expression of loyalty. One frequently hears of it in a popular Tamil song. The phrase sands for the ritual of partaking of rice by which Maravar and other Tamil military caste warriors bound themselves to their king or commander to die in suicidal battle for him, or to commit suicide on the day he was slain. Of Avippali, the Puraporul Venba Malai ([verse] 92) says, "thinking of nothing but the red (blood) rice the Maravar give their life as offering in battle."

The ritual of red or blood rice was described by two Muslim travellers who had visited the Tamil country in the 9th century. "A quantity of cooked rice was spread before the king, and some three or four hundred persons came of their own accord and received each a small quantity of rice from the king’s own hands, after he himself had eaten some. By eating of this rice, they all engage themselves to burn themselves on the day the king dies or is slain; and they punctually fulfill their promise."(16) In modern times it has been observed that "when a Maravar takes food in the house of a stranger, he will take a pinch of earth and put it on the food before he commences his meal."(17) This act freed him from the debt of blood rice.

Foot Notes
(1) The Book of Duarte Barbosa, 1518; first published 1812 English translation by Mansel Longworth Dames, 1921 Hakluyt Society, 1866; reproduced by Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1989, vol.II, pp.38-40.

(2) R.P.Sethupillai, 1946: Thamilaham- Oorum Perum, Palaniyappa Bros, Madras, p.76.

(3) Robert Caldwell, 1881: History of Tinnevely, reproduced by Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1989, p.104.

(4) A. Mootootamby Pillai, 1912: Jaffna History, Navalar Press, Jaffna, p.104.

(5) Michel Foucault, 1991: Discipline and Punish, Penguin Books, translation Alan Sheridan, pp.135, 165.

(6) Quoted in R.Caldwell, op.cit. p.103.

(7) Thurston, op.cit. vol.III, p.71.

(8) Tholkappiyam Porulathikaram, Naccinarkiniyar’s commentary on verse No.68 & 90.

(9) Maj.A.E.Barstow, 1928: Sikhs, Handbook for the Indian Army, Calcutta Central Publications Branch, p.40.

(10) Parani – "A poem about a hero who destroyed 1000 elephants in war", Tamil Lexicon, vol.IV.

(11) South Indian Inscriptions, 1943: Madras, vol.XII, no.106.

(12) R.Poonkunran, 1979: Tharamangalam, publication No.58. Tamilnadu Dept.of Archaeology, no pagination. "Kongunadu was well known for its palayams", R.P.Sethupillai, op.cit, p.76.

(13) M.Chandramoorthy: ‘Kalvettu’ Quarterly of the Tamilnadu Dept.of Archaeology, no.8, January 1975, pp.21-22.

(14) South Indian Inscriptions 1967; vol.XIX, no.3.

(15) Purananooru; [verse] 212-223. Kopperun-Cholan who thus committed suicide was apotheosized. K.P.Aravanan examines this practice in relation to the ‘Sallehana’ form of fasting unto death among Jain saints: The Other side of Tamils, 1989; Paari Nilayam, Madras. Cheraman Peruncheralathan committed suicide thus when he accidentally received a wound on his back in battle which was considered a great dishonour to a warrior (Purananooru: [verse] 65).

(16) Thurston, op.cit., vol.V, p.287.

(17) Thurston, op.cit., vol.V, p.32.
Note: Swaminatham was first published in full in 1975, by S.V.Shanmugam, Annamalai University, based on a manuscript found in the British Museum library. It refers to Avippali as Poar Avikkoduthal, verse 141, p.233.
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