Monday, 25 November 2013

The Paraiyars

Thirumavalavan, Dalit activist and president of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK)

The Paraiyars are among the most ancient Tamil clans which has stood the test of time. They were also mentioned in the ancient Sangam literature, the Purananooru.

The name of this clan comes from the percussion instrument known as Parai. The actual meaning of the Tamil word Parai is 'to speak' or 'to convey'. Malayalam language being a descendent of Tamil managed to retain the use of this word. 

Some of you who happened to hear spoken Malayalam would have come across the following:

Can you suggest another hotel? 

Vere oru hotel parayamo?

The Parai drum was used for religious occasions. The art performance which uses the Parai drum is known as Parai Aattam. It is also called as Thappu Aattam by the Telugu speaking Sakkiliyars.

After the social change that happened in ancient times, it lost its importance and became associated with funeral rites. 

Besides religious occasions, the Parai drum was also used as an instrument for official purpose. The drum beaters will beat the Parai to convey messages up to several kilometers. The Parai drum was also used during war.

The Paraiyars were once a respected community. It is believed that they lost their social status after the Vellalar colonization of Thondaimandalam in the 8th century AD.

Thondaimandalam is the northern region of present day Tamil Nadu. 

According to the census in 2001, there were 1,860,519 Paraiyars in Tamil Nadu. The Paraiyars are also known as Sambavar.

The Paraiyars consume beef. Skins of cows are used for their Parai drums. They had their own settlements in the past. It is usually located in the outskirts of the villages. Such settlements are known as Paracheri. 

When the British came to India, they noticed that the beef eating Paraiyars were living in the outskirts of the village. The word Paraiyar was then adopted into English as Pariah to refer to outcasts. It is used till today all over the world.

Besides beating drums, Paraiyars also practiced Shamanism. They were involved in black magic and ritualistic trance. There are several divisions among the Paraiyars. 

One of it is a priestly division known as the Valluvar. It is believed that the author of Tirukural, Tiruvalluvar came from this division of the Paraiyars. His real name is not known. The Valluvars also worked as weavers.

The author of Tirukural who came from the priestly division of the Paraiyars, the Valluvars. Hence, he is know as Tiruvalluvar - The respected Valluvar.

Many Paraiyar families migrated to Malaysia during colonial period. They served as indentured laborers in the rubber estates along with many other clans. 

The Malaysian Paraiyars managed to preserve some of the cultures of their ancestors. Some of them are still involved in Shamanism. The sound of the Parai can be heard in modern Malaysia due to their effort in preserving the art.

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