‘Early Tamil society was free of caste’

Tamil professor V.S. Rajam.-Photo: Special Arrangement

Tamil professor V.S. Rajam.-Photo: Special Arrangement  

At a time when caste is all pervasive in Tamil society, a new book by V.S. Rajam, former professor of the Pennsylvania University, said the ideas of caste discrimination and untochability find no reference in Sangam Tamil literature.

“I could not find casteism and untouchability in Sangam literature, but found them only in the commentaries on Silapathikaram by Adiyarkku Nallar and U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer and Nammazhawar’s Thiruvaimozhi ,” she has said in her forthcoming book Sanga Ilakkiyangalil Saathi, Theendami, Inna pira (Caste, Untouchability etc., in Sangam Literature).

Ms. Rajam, whose important work ‘A Reference Grammar of Classical Tamil Poetry’, which was published by the American Philosophical Society, questioned Adiyarkku Nallar’s interpretation of Silapathikaram .

She contended that Ilango Adigal described the goldsmith as “ vilangu nadai selavin….kollan ” which was vastly different from Adiyarkku Nallar’s rendering of “as he was a man of low caste, he stood aside for the upper caste man”

The commentary on Nammalwars Pasuram Kulam Thangu Saathikal would explain the link between the caste and varna.

Tamil writer and publisher of the book Ravikumar said he was not surprised by the argument of some intellectuals that caste structure existed here hundreds of years because the current Tamil society is riddled with casteism. “They know neither classical literature nor sociology. Driven by politics of deep-seated hatred, they cite research work of foreigners, particularly George L. Hart, as the local evidence disappeared with time. I see this book as a rebuttal to Mr. Hart’s works,” said Mr Ravikumar, who first published the works of Ms. Rajam in his literary magazine Manarkeni .

Ms. Rajam, who co-authored ‘The Earliest Missionary Grammar of Tamil - Fr Henrique’s’ Arte da Lingua Malabar: Translation, History and Analysis,’ argued that the 16th century Jesuit missionary Fr Henriques was the first to use the word casta, which later became caste in English. The book was published by Harvard University. Henriques had worked among the p aravas of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu between 1546 and 1600 and authored the Tamil-Portuguese dictionary. He died in Punnaikayal and was buried in Our Lady of Snows Basilica in Tuticorin.

“I have great regard for Henriques. Even though he groups the terms chonaguaen (Moor),’ chonagathi, (the Moorish woman), Piramanan, (Brahman), Piramanathi (the Brahman woman), with the name of local caste, he does not characterise them as low caste or upper caste or untouchables,” Ms. Rajam argued.

“Cheri means only settlement”

Rejecting the argument that cheri was the habitat of low caste, Ms. Rajam marshalled substantial evidence from Sangam literature to prove that it means just a settlement and all the communities had their own cheri. “There is no evidence to prove that the residents of cheri lived in poverty. Everyone pursued his own profession and led a happy life,” she said.

Tamil professor argues in her latest book that terms such as casteism and untouchability exist only in commentaries of Silapathikaram and


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Printable version | Jul 6, 2020 9:43:31 PM |

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