Part 6: Bishop Caldwell and the Tamil Dravidians
by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, August 1, 1992, pp.11-12 and 24; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]
Robert Caldwell (1819-1891) was the father of the Dravidian movement. He was the Bishop of Tinnevely – the heartland of the Maravar Poligars – during the times when the British were engaged in suppressing the Tamil military castes in the Tamil region. His monumental work, The Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages, which was published in 1856, laid the theoretical foundation of the political, academic and cultural movement that came to dominate Tamilian life in the twentieth century. The work argues that all south Indian languages (and a few others elsewhere in the subcontinent, like Brahui) belong to a distinct family of tongues called the Dravidian languages. This challenged the widely held view of the time that most of India’s cultivated languages were derived from Sanskrit.
It followed therefore that the culture and civilization of the Dravidian peoples of south India were intrinsically unique. The role of these ideas in the inception of the Dravidian movement has been examined in detail elsewhere (Irshick; 1969, Hardgrave; 1965, Sivathamby:1978). These studies have been in terms of the cultural and political contradictions between the newly arisen non-Brahmin elites and the Brahmins who had achieved a pre-eminent place under colonial rule in the Madras Presidency.
The intention of this study however is to show that the fundamental tenets of the nascent phase of the Dravidian ideology were essentially linked to the political and cultural legacies of the British attempt to demilitarize Tamil society.
The writings of Bishop Caldwell presuppose a teleological project which was not uncommon to what were conceived as great intellectual undertakings in that era of empire building. The assumptions of the project formed the basis of his Dravidian theory. They were,
(a) That the British empire was destined to finally bring order amongst Tamils, a large portion of whom had been more prone to the habit of war than to the arts of peace from the dawn of history in south India,
(b) That this order would be the one in which the imminent protestant ethos of the Dravidian civilization would reach its full expressional ethos which the English administrator saw as the virtue of those classes which "contrasted favourably with the Maravar", and whom the Bishop considered the legitimate Tamilians,
(c) That the rediscovery of Dravidian linguistic and cultural uniqueness would help consolidate the position of the ‘lower classes’ among the Tamils who had played an important role in the military expansion of British rule in the subcontinent – the Tamil Christian soldiers who were the Empire’s alternative to the traditional Tamil military castes.
In the concluding remarks of his ‘A History of Tinnevely’(1888), Caldwell says, "A mixed government…came thus to an end and was succeeded by a government purely English, at unity with itself, and as just as it was powerful. The results of this change have been most important and valuable. Professor Wilson…places in a striking light the course things would have taken if the English Government had not been enabled to interpose its authority. It may be concluded," he says, "that had not a wise and powerful policy interfered to enforce the habits of social life, the fine districts to the south of Kaveri…would have reverted to the state in which tradition describes them long anterior to Christianity, and would have once more have become a suitable domicile for the goblins of Ravana."
The first reflection that arises in one’s mind on reading the foregoing sketch of the history of this district is, that war seems to have been the normal condition of Tinnevely, as of the rest of the old Pandya country…from the beginning of man’s abode in these regions till A.D. 1801 (the year in which the Tamil country was ceded to the British).
Caldwell also notes that, "Of the beneficial changes that have taken place since then, the most remarkable is that which we see in the Poligars themselves." He claims with satisfaction that many among the regions martial classes were taking to agriculture; and of the Maravar, he says "the change wrought amongst the poorer class of the Maravas is not perhaps quite so complete…though once the terror of the country they are now amenable to law and reason…" Tamil society was thus ‘unity with itself’ and was realising its destiny under the British Empire. He asserts that "Race after race of rulers have risen up in this country, has been tried and found wanting, and has passed away." But that the Tamils "accept our government readily and willingly as the best government they have ever had and the best they are likely to have in this age of the world."
Under the "paternal government" of the English, Tamils were becoming a peaceful and industrious nation. The last "race of rulers" which had risen up and passed away in the Tamil country were the turbulent Maravar. English rule was the only one that was not found wanting because its principles and protestant ethos were in consonance with what Caldwell assumed were the ‘true’ religious and moral ideas of the Dravidian race.
Although as a historian, he was well aware of the hegemony of the Maravar’s martial culture in Tamil society, its exclusion from what he desired to portray as the true Dravidian civilization was central to the imperial and religious interests of Caldwell’s teleologial project. The English, in suppressing the martial castes, were restoring the soverignty of Tamil society’s "legitimate rulers" – the peasantry and lower classes.
In Caldwell’s view, the Tamil military castes had to seek "the safer and more reputable occupation of husbandmen" (Caldwell: 1888, p.229). However, he was deeply suspicious of their peace. Commenting on the Poligar wars, he wrote, "The population of the sequestered Pollams (Palayams) seemed to be delighted with the opportunity afforded them of trying their strength with the English once more, being thoroughly discontented, no doubt, with the peaceful life now required of them" (p.197). And he condemned a suggestion ventured by the author of the Tinnevely Manual, Mr.Stuart that the Palayam system of the Tamil military castes was histocially inevitable as the fiefdoms of medieval Europe – "It is so seldom that one hears a good word about Poligars that I quote these remarks of Mr.Stuart with pleasure…I fear, however, that the misdeeds of the Poligars were more systematic and audacious than those of the feudal nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages." (p.59)
Apart from concerns shared with the British Government, the Bishop’s hostile attitude towards the Maravar arose from the bloody violence they unleashed on the Shanar, large numbers of whom were embracing the Protestant faith. For him, if the idolatory and the Sanskritic culture of the articulate Brahmins was a spiritual threat to the propagation of the Gospel, the violence and misdeeds of the Maravar against the faithful was a dire physical threat. In his scheme of Tamilian history, the culture and ethos of the classes through whom the British government and the Anglican Church sought to consolidate the gains of Tamil society’s demilitarization were seen by Caldwell as the true characteristics of the Tamils. The martial habits of the Maravar and the Sanskritic culture of the Brahmins were alien to the social order and moral ideals of the ‘true’ Dravidians.
These views were shared by many English missionaries of the 19th century who worked among the Tamils. Missionaries and administrators found evidence for this in many religious and didactic Tamil texts. Henry Martyn Scudder published a book in 1865, in which he "used Tamil texts and poems to support the missionary position that even in ancient Tamil texts many Christian ideas were present." (Irshick; 1976, p.15). This belief led to the introduction of what were thought to be Tamil works, with little or no extraneous influence in institutions of higher education run by missionaries.
The college curriculum created a market for the publication of such works. This in turn gave an impetus to the rediscovery of many ancient Tamil works (U.V.Saminatha Iyer; En Sarithiram, p.714)., which paradoxically led to the publication of Purananooru and the Purapporul Venba Malai, texts that portrayed the ancient Tamils as a fierce martial race and lay the foundation of modern Tamil militarism. Thus Caldwell’s teleology assumed that Tamil revivalism would help consolidate the protestant ethic and the allegiance to English rule among the non-military castes in Tamil society, by giving expression to the moral and religious ideas which he assumed were imminent in their ancient Dravidian culture and language.
The administrative manual of the Madurai district commended a section of this class of Tamils thus, "They…contrast favourably with the Maravars, being very orderly, frugal, and industrious". Other section, the Shanar it was stated, "have risen enormously in the social scale by their eagerness for education, by their large adoption of Christianity, and by their thrifty habits. Many of them have forced themselves ahead of the Maravars by sheer force of character." (Thurston: 1906, p.373). It was to these ‘loyal’ classes of Tamils that Caldwell referred to when he wrote in the introduction to his Grammar that
"All throughout Ceylon, the coolies in the coffee plantations are Tamilians; the majority of the money-making classes even in Colombo are Tamilians; and it seems not unlikely that [?]ere long the Tamilians will have excluded the Singhalese from almost every profitable employment in their own Island. The majority of the Klings or Hindus, who are found in Pegu, Penang, Singapore and other places in further East, are Tamilians; a large portion of the Coolies who have emigrated in such numbers to the Mauritius and to the West Indian colonies are Tamilians; in short wherever money is to be made, wherever a more apathetic or a more aristocratic people is waiting to be pushed aside, thither swarm the Tamilians, the Greeks or Scotch of the East, the least superstitious and the most enterprising and persevering race of Hindus." (Caldwell: 1856, p.7).
Caldwell’s Dravidian theory thus gave rise to a vocabulary in which the word Tamil came to connote the non-Brahmin, non-martial aspects of Tamil culture. Bishop Robert Caldwell in laying the foundation of the Dravidian movement also endeavoured and partially succeeded in dispersing the impression that the Tamils who, only a few years before his time were thought of as being "prone to the habit of war", were a peace loving and industrious nation. The intellectual endeavours of the learned missionary made the British Empire cherish an ulterior hope that the ‘Dravidian’ Tamils would remain the faithful among the faithless, the bedrock of the Raj for a long time to come – the events of the great mutiny and the rise of the Dravidian movement proved them correct.
I am thankful to Mr.Joganathan of Wellawatte for drawing my attention to the fact that the Panivar clan of Myliddy is also connected to Ramnad. My information, however, was based on (a) Place Name Studies – Kankesanthurai Circuit, by Dr. E. Balasunderam of the Jaffna University, 1988, pp.5-6. The book was published for the Mani Vizha of S. Appadurai of Myliddy. (b) An interview with Mr. Ratnalingam of Myliddy, politburo member of a Tamil militant group who I believe is a relative of Mr. Joganathan. The foot-notes could not appear due to an unavoidable circumstance.
Letter of Correspondent Sachi Sri Kantha [Osaka 565, Japan]:
[Lanka Guardian, August 1, 1992, p.2]
D. P. Sivaram’s thought-provoking analysis on the history of Tamil militarism (May 1, May 15, June 1 and July 1) was a delight to read. However, he has omitted an essential contributing factor to the militarism of the LTTE. It is too simplistic to believe that the historical traditions of the different castes among Tamils in Tamil Nadu and Jaffna alone contributed to the emergence of the Tamil Tigers. If that is so, which caste does Clint Eastwood belong to? I pose this question because Prabhakaran had gone on record to acknowledge the influence of Clint Eastwood movies in developing his own martial acumen.
While Sivaram had commented on the links the current DMK leader M. Karunanidhi developed with the Maravar community, he has failed to note that more than Karunanidhi’s journalistic skills, it was the movies of Kandy-born M. G. Ramachandran which brought a sense of martial pride to the Tamil masses, both in Tamilnadu and Sri Lanka. In the late 1940s and whole of 1950s, MGR acted in a series of Tamil historical costume-adventures to highlight the Tamil martial tradition.
Especially successful as box-office ‘hits’ were the movies with names that began with the first syllable ‘Ma’. The names of these movies told the past glory of Tamil. These include, Manthri Kumari (Minister’s Daughter), Marutha Naatu Ilavarasi (Princess of Marutha Land), Marma Yogi (Mysterious Ascetic), Malai Kallan (Mountain Thief), Madurai Veeran (Hero of Madurai), Maha Devi (The Great Devi) and Mannaathi Mannan (King of Kings).
In all these movies, MGR exhibited his martial skills to thrill his fans. There is no doubt that Prabhakaran and his original band were more influenced by these MGR movies than by anything else.
A Post-script in 2005 by Sachi Sri Kantha to this 1992 Correspondence:
In 1992, I was fully aware that Mervyn de Silva, the editor of Lanka Guardian, exercised his editorial pen sharply; thus I had to limit my critical comments to a maximum of 300 words for this type of unsolicited correspondence, if I wanted to see my letter in print. Thus I exercised word economy, as well as ‘hooks’ to tease Mervyn de Silva’s erudite eyes. The sarcastic sentence, "If that is so, which caste does Clint Eastwood belong to?" was one of such ‘hooks’, and I didn’t mean it to undermine author Sivaram’s scholarship.
Also, I didn’t elaborate further on the probable significance of MGR’s fascination with the alphabet ‘Ma’; call it a cryptic acknowledgment to the warrior ‘Maravar’ caste. For a whole decade [the 1950s], MGR named quite a number of his costume-adventure movies with the first syllable ‘Ma’. It is also not inconsequential, that his ancestors belonged to the Manradiyar caste of Kovai district, Kangeyam constituency, who settled in Maruthur in Kerala state [see, Puratchi Nadigar MGR (in Tamil), edited by Lena Thamilvanan, Manimegalai Publishers, Chennai, 1994, 2nd edition, p.6]. Then in the 1960s, when contemporary social themes became his movie vehicles, MGR chose ‘Thaa’ as the first syllable for a number of his movie titles or the word Thai as suffix in the movie titles.
Can one attach any significance to these word games of a movie star? Cynics may say no. But, movie stars – like politicians and sportsmen – also have superstitions on success for ‘gains’, ‘hits’ or ‘runs’, and image-making via movie careers is not necessarily limited to Tamil Nadu. Hollywood had given birth to Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thus, MGR and his illustrious contemporary Sivaji Ganesan - as actor-politicians – who dominated the Tamil movies from 1950s to 1970s and made producers and directors dance to their wishes and whims - may not have been exceptions. Sivaji Ganesan also had a series of successful movies, which began with the short syllable ‘Pa’ or long syllable ‘Paa’ in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Finally, the theme of kaval-karar - described by author Sivaram in part 5 of his series – did receive attention in MGR’s movies, especially in his successful Madurai Veeran (1956) movie. Kavalkaran was also the title of another MGR movie released in 1967, under the banner of his own company, Sathya Movies.