Part 4: Militarism and Caste in Jaffna
by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, July 1, 1992, pp.9-10 and 14; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]
Tamil secessionism and Tamil militarism are two sides of the same coin. Both are legacies of the attempt by the British to demilitarize Tamil society in the 19th century. Tamil militarism arose from the grievances of the disfranchised Tamil military castes. Tamil secession was the result of the political ambitions of the classes which were promoted by the British to consolidate the gains of demartialization. Therefore it is necessary to understand the colonial strategies which were aimed at depriving the traditional power and status of the Tamil martial castes in Tamil society.
In those regions of India where military service was confined to specific castes, other castes had no desire to abandon their traditional occupations for soldiering or for violence. Since the ability for violence was caste bound, disfranchising or removing a region’s military caste could negate its potential for violence and rebellion. The earliest attempt to thus demilitarize Tamil society was made by the Portuguese in Jaffna. A brief examination of their effort and its impact on the subsequent evolution of society in Jaffna will help understand better the social and political consequences of demilitarization in Tamilnadu two centuries later under British rule.
The Maravar were the traditional soldier caste of Jaffna when the Portuguese arrived. Once they took control, they set about dismantling the feudal military system of the peninsula. Military titles such as Rayer, Athirayer were banned. The traditional soldier castes were seen as a threat to Portuguese control. In 1627 Lancarote de Seixas, Captain Major of Jaffna, put forward the idea that the peninsula’s security lay in having none there, but cultivators. Thus began the rise of the Vellalas in Jaffna. The Portuguese seem to have also favoured another caste called the Madapalli. The Vellalas were not only cultivators, but a section of them which had developed scribal skills, provided the local officials, interpreters and karnams (accountants). Successive colonial powers found Vellala scribal groups useful where Brahmins were not forthcoming. Histories of Jaffna were written and presented to the Portuguese, which showed the Vellala and the Madapalli as the original and dominant community of the peninsula.
The Kailaya Malai and the Vaiya Padal, the earliest works on the colonization of Jaffna, appear to be such histories. They name the chieftains of Tamilnadu who had brought Tamil colonists to the peninsula with them. All of them are described as Vellalas. But eleven of them have Kallar and Maravar caste titles. The Jaffna Maravar were able to resume their caste occupation under the Dutch, who met troop shortages through Jaffna’s feudal military system which the Portuguese had attempted to dismantle. The Dutch governor and director of Ceylon, Thomas van Rhee informed his successor Gerrit de Heere in 1697, that in the Jaffna peninsula "the Marruas are bound to serve the Company as Lascoryns (native soldiers) and pay t[w]o Fanams a year without anything more". But 93 years later, a Dutch census (1790) of all males between the ages 16-70 in Jaffna recorded that there were only 49 Maravar males in the peninsula, as against 1,570 Vellala males. This was due to a widespread process in Tamil society where military castes, finding their traditional status gone, simply adopted the Vellala caste title and returned themselves as peaceful Vellala cultivator, to the colonial census; and in time became endogamous subdivisions of that caste.
In 1834, Simon Casie Chitty recorded in his Ceylon Gazetteer, that Kallar, Maravar, Ahampadiyar and Palli (Vanniyar) were sub-divisions of the Vellala caste. It is clear that the Tamil martial castes of Jaffna had swelled the ranks of the Vellalas when faced with unfavourable conditions under colonial rule, as they later did under the British in Tamilnadu. This gave rise to the saying in the peninsula, "Kallar, Maravar and Ahampadiyar came slowly, slowly and became Vellalas." But, unlike their counterparts in Tamilnad, the Jaffna Vellalas didn’t generally change their military caste titles. "In former days the Vellalas had the titles of Rayan, Thevan, Kizhan and Mazhavan."
Today, one of these military caste subdivisions of the Jaffna Vellala community, bearing the Kallar caste title Mazhavarayar is a dominant land owning clan in the peninsula. The Mazhavarayar clan is also connected with the history of Thambiluvil in the Eastern province. The Mattakkalappu Manmiyam, a work which deals with the colonization of Batticaloa, mentions the mazhavar frequently among the groups which peopled the Eastern province. Although the ‘vellalization’ of Jaffna’s Tamil military castes predates the same process in south India, Vellala cultural hegemony was achieved in the peninsula only during the early decades of the twentieth century. The persistence of endogamous subdivision identities was one reason for this.
The Vellalization of culture and religion in the peninsula began with Arumuga Navalar’s attempt to convert the Jaffnese from their folk religion which was dominated by the heroes and godlings of the Tamil martial castes.
The martial caste elements also figures in narratives related to the founding of Valvettithurai and Myliddy – Karaiyar caste villages on the Jaffna coast, which are key. Whereas the Sri Lankan karava (Karaiyar) caste in general has claimed kshatriya status – that they are descended from the Kuru dynasty – a strong narrative is found among the Karaiyar of Myliddy which states that three Marava chieftains who were brothers came with their caste-men from Tamilnadu, married among the karaiyar and founded the village. Its dominant clan, known as Thuraiyar – the others are known as Panivar – was connected by marriage to Ramnad, the home country of the Maravar, until recent times.
The martial arts of Maravar were popular among the Thuraiyar of Myliddy, before their youth were introduced to modern methods of military training in the last decade [i.e., 1980s]. A narrative related to the founding of Valvettithurai, based on folk etymology states that the village arose on land given to a Marava chieftain, called Valliathevan, by the eponymous founder of the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna. But a strong tradition was prevalent among the Karaiyar of Valvettithurai that they had fought the Portuguese as the soldiers of the last king of Jaffna, Sankili. This tradition, as we shall see later, was greatly exploited by TULF propagandists to mobilise people in that part of Jaffna. The tradition seems to be related to the trade wars between the early colonial powers and the Maravar kings of Ramnad.
The Portuguese, Dutch and the British tried to wrest control of the profitable rice and chank trade between Burma, Bengal and Ceylon which was in the hands of the Thevars (title of the Ramnad kings) and their Muslim and Tamil tradesmen, on either side of the Palk Strait, among whom were many Karaiyar schooner proprietors of Valvettithurai, Point Pedro and Thondamanaru. The British found that one Vaithianathan of Jaffna was among the few confidantes of the Thevar, who were looking after his chank trade in Calcutta. Karaiyar families carried on with the rice and chank trade in collaboration with Muslims, Chetties and military caste families on the south Indian coast from Ramnad to Tanjore, even after the British finally wrested control of it from the Maravar kings of Ramnad.
A large number of Thandayals (traditional navigators – captains of ocean going craft) from Valvettithurai, Point Pedro were employed in the Thevar’s domain of sea trade. This became the basis of a vast ‘smuggling network’ between south India, Sri Lanka and southeast Asia, after independence in1948. The powerful Vandayar family (Maravar) of Tanjore maintained very close relations with a leading business house of Valvettithurai until 1983. Sometimes such connections between the coastal military castes of south Tamilnadu and the Karaiyar of Jaffna were cemented through marriage. Although Jaffna Tamil society was the earliest to have been de-martialized, and was the only part of the south Indian Tamil region where traditional Tamil military castes were completely subsumed by Vellala identity, it has become the ground in which the most fierce manifestation of Tamil militarism has taken root in modern times. How was this possible? Three reasons can be identified.
(A) The pro-colonial politics of the Jaffna Vellala was not formulated as an attitude against traditional militarisms because the Tamil military castes having assumed the Vellala identity early, were not present as a social threat in the peninsula to the consolidation of colonial authority, after the Portuguese period. Furthermore, the nature of the Vellala caste composition in Jaffna was in itself not amenable to the scribal-agrarian conservatism of the pure Vellala elites, which the British found useful in Tamilnadu. The pseudo-Vellala component of Jaffna was large. A fundamental distinction between the Vellala elite of Tamilnad and Jaffna would illustrate the point.
Arumuga Navalar campaigned against the activities of Christian missionaries and his efforts received support from Ponnuchami Thevar, the chief Marava noble of Ramnad. In former days, the Maravar had opposed the spread of Christianity, by massacaring missionaries. On the other hand, in Tamilnad, an ideologue of Vellala elitism – J.M.Nallasami Pillai, who like Navalar worked for the propagation of saiva siddhanthism among the Tamils, was closely associated with and supported by Anglican missionaries in his efforts.
As we shall see later, while Nallasami Pillai carefully and deliberately played down the martial component of Tamil culture and history, attempting to establish that Tamil civilization was constituted by the peace-loving Vellalas, his counterpart in Jaffna, Mootootambi Pillai lamented the decline of the peninsula’s martial heritage.
He wrote in 1912,
"When Sankili – the last king of Jaffna – fought the Portuguese, most of his soldiers were warriors of Jaffna. Even the Portuguese have praised their valour. The victory of the Portuguese was not gained through their bravery, but through Kaakai Vanniyan’s treachery. Wasn’t it the warrior of Jaffna who conquered the whole of Ceylon? The people (of Jaffna) who are descended of those warriors have lost their martial traits and become a despicable race, having been subjugated long under the Portuguese and the Dutch and as a result having become weak and losing their self-identity."
Mootootambi Pillai was reflecting a sentiment that had been expressed in the Madurai Tamil Sangam – established by the Marava noble, Pandithurai Thevar (the son of the noble who had earlier helped Navalar) that the decline of the Tamil nation was caused by the deterioration of its ancient and unique martial heritage.
(B) The closure of the avenues by which Vellala upward mobility and conservatism under successive Sinhala governments in Sri Lanka. The colonial powers opened these avenues to promote the class and culture of Vellala conservatism as a bulwark and gurantee against the turbulence of Tamil feudal militarism. The restrictions placed on university admissions and on government jobs seriously undermined the class and culture of Vellala conservatism and its politics of non-violence and compromise. The other narrative that was contending at this juncture, for Tamilian identity – Tamil militarism – began to assert itself as the bulwark built by colonial powers against it crumbled.
(C) Non-Vellala pockets in the peninsula where the values of Vellala conservatism had made little impact.