Several years ago, I had an agitated Italian guest, a Tamil teacher in an American university, lamenting about the natives not knowing their own great language. He had just returned from Tamil Nadu, and was shocked that even in Madurai, the land of senthamizh (classical Tamil), people were so unmindful of grammar and ignorant about their rich literary heritage. Generally, a similar attitude can be seen among the non-Indian Sanskritists, who see themselves as carrying the burden of knowledge of the Sanskrit language and culture which Indians have lost or do not appreciate enough.
The Sweet Salt of Tamil: Things We Do Not Know About Tamil Country
At one level, this attitude may be traced to the institutionalisation of the study of language, literature, and culture in the colonial period. Then again, the transformation of the traditions of knowledge transmission across India, in some cases with even breaks in transmission, have resulted in warped ideas about culture, particularly since English is increasingly the language of academic communication and therefore not quite accessible to the diverse worlds of the vernacular.
Thoppaidas Paramasivan’s AriyappadathaTamilakam (The unknown Tamil country), first published in 1997, does not have any such pretensions. ThoPa, as he was popularly known, does not claim any superior status nor does his work patronisingly presume the intellectual incapacity of the native. On the contrary, he speaks to the Tamil reader intimately and as an equal, offering the wisdom of one who has spent years dwelling on issues, ideas, and concepts that draw upon the rich literature, culture, and history of the Tamil land, underscored by the fact that it is written in the language of the very culture he is celebrating. The first lines of the text set the mood for the intellectual feast to follow: Tamil is sweetness personified for the Tamilian, and lexicographical works like the PingalaNighandu aver “sweetness and coolness are the hallmark of Tamil”.
This English translation of ThoPa’s iconic work brings the intuitive and informed interpretation of the literary historian, anthropologist and humanist to an audience that may not have had access to his scholarship in Tamil. In his foreword to the Tamil work, the historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy describes ThoPa as causing ripples with his writings; 25 years later, the English translation again carries a deeply appreciative tribute by the same scholar. ThoPa’s activism as a votary of Dravidian politics, his Marxist leanings, and the narrative style of a folklorist that came so easily to him, his teaching career over two decades in the Thiagarajar College, Madurai, and his reputation as a raconteur are vividly presented in the foreword.
It is understandable that AriyappadathaTamilakam was chosen as a text exemplar by the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation (TNTB&ESC) for publication in English, so as to widen the understanding of Tamil culture across the world. The Tamil book has seven chapters, while the translation by V. Ramnarayan is arranged in six chapters with each having several themes, and a postscript. There are overlaps and repetitions as well as, at times, disconnected ideas woven together. Perhaps this is why the translator has taken the liberty of giving a broad description of the sub-themes under a new chapter title, as for instance the first part is simply “Tamil” in ThoPa’s rendering but in the translation it is the first subheading under the title “The Lie of the Land”.
The title of the translation is also interesting—it is the translator’s take on the contribution of ThoPa to the appreciation of Tamil. “The sweet salt of Tamil” is a condensation of a pithy verse by Valluvar in the Tirukkural. Verse 1302 says, “uppamaintarral pulavi atuciritu mikarral neela vital”—a little reserve or sulking is like salt to food, which in excess will spoil the taste.
The first chapter traces the literary references to Tamil, from the collection of early historic war poems, Purananuru, to the early medieval Saiva Tevaram hymns, to the folk traditions, playing on the thin line between language and literary culture. Be it Sambandar’s evocation of Tamil as pattu (“These are the ten Tamil verses recited by Sambandar”) or the lullaby “your maternal uncle will come to teach you golden Tamil”, the author presents a plethora of evidence to show that the land, social relationships, and the environment hold a special significance in relation to the language. This leads to a fascinating discussion on water, and the social and religious dimensions of food.
Reinforcing the choice of title of the translation, ThoPa discusses the importance of salt in Tamil, which in essence means “taste”. He argues that the word campalam or salary is a combination of paddy (campa nellu) and salt (alam) indicating that payment for work rendered was earlier in kind. From the peralam or big salt pans of the Chola and Pandya kings to the salt satyagraha of Gandhi to the protests against the multinational Cargill being given a licence to set up a salt manufacturing unit in Gujarat, the material and symbolic value of this ubiquitous commodity is brought out. Particularly evocative is the description of salt on the plate as an upper-caste privilege.
“Among the many admirable qualities of ThoPa’s scholarship, his celebration of Islamic and Christian traditions within the larger evocation of Tamil stands out.”
There are interesting discussions on housing and clothing (Chapter 2), indigenous religious traditions versus external beliefs and practices (Chapter 3), board games like pallankuli and atu-puli (goat-tiger), their reflection on the institution of state and issues of social inequality (Chapter 4) that bring together snippets from fieldwork and literary analysis. Religion and social identity, an issue much-discussed in the present times, is flagged through a discussion of Buddhism, Jainism and the Siddha tradition (Chapter 5). The discussion on the 19th and early 20th century linguistic and cultural milieu of Tamil, in terms of Western missionary influences and the Saivite attacks on Christianity and the retaliation (Chapter 6), makes for interesting reading.
Celebrating the secular
Among the many admirable qualities of ThoPa’s scholarship, his celebration of Islamic and Christian traditions within the larger evocation of Tamil stands out. The legend of Tuluka Nachiyar associated with the deity Alakar in Azhagarkoil narrates that the deity consorted with the Turkish “princess” here, after his visit to Madurai to attend the marriage of his sister Meenakshi was thwarted.
The same Turkish figure appears in Srirangam but the legend here revolves around the daughter of a Sultan falling in love with the idol of Vishnu that was looted from Srirangam and brought to Delhi. ThoPa believes the source of the first legend to be the thriving Arab trading community in the region, as evinced by the mercantile corporation called Anjuvaṇṇam, and the second to be a result of brahmanical mythmaking after the 14th century invasion by the Delhi Sultans.
In other examples, non-Muslims visiting the Nagore dargah (shrine) as well as Muslims worshipping in the Vriddhachalam Bhu-Varaha Perumal temple, and garlands from the latter temple being sent as offerings to the dargah of a Sufi saint at Killai, are presented as evidence for the intermingling of cultures.
An activist’s zeal
Equally, ThoPa’s unequivocal condemnation of caste inequalities and privileges can be seen in numerous instances. Be it the discussion on meat-eating, burial customs, worship of ferocious meat-eating village deities, or even the proscriptions on lower castes with regard to their residential areas and clothing, there is the activist’s zeal for social reform that can be discerned.
“ThoPa’s unequivocal condemnation of caste inequalities and privileges can be seen in his discussions on meat-eating, burial customs, worship of village deities, and the proscriptions on lower castes with regard to their residential areas and clothing.”
Caste came in with the north Indian brahmanical rituals and gods, and communities like the paraiya, who made the parai, or leather drums, that were an important cultural marker in Sangam poems, gradually came to be ostracised. An interesting story of brahmanas becoming afternoon paraiyas is recounted: the priests were performing a sacrifice when Siva, dressed as a paraiya, entered the Tiruvarur temple with a dead calf slung over his shoulder. The priests claimed that the temple had been defiled, and Siva punished them by turning them into paraiyas, only relenting when they pleaded for mercy and reducing the curse to apply to just the afternoon time!
The correlation between caste and class is also something that is brought out by ThoPa. For instance, begging was looked down upon in texts like the Tirukkural, but gradually came to be accepted because of deep social cleavages that emerged with the development of state society. Interestingly, beggary (piccai) is shown to derive from the Jaina practice of seeking alms (irattal), with the term itself derived from the Sanskrit bhiksa.
On the one hand, caste marked social discrimination and oppression; on the other, there was an attempt to integrate different castes through the ideology of bhakti or devotion. Interestingly, ThoPa lays the blame for the solidification of caste as well as a brahmanical/Hindu identity in the Tamil region on the Vijayanagara period. He does not seem to be concerned with the ample epigraphic evidence for the widespread prevalence of caste hierarchy in the Chola period itself.
Noboru Karashima and Y. Subbarayalu have drawn our attention to the separation of the paraiya ceri (settlement) in villages in early medieval Tamil Nadu, and even separation in death institutionalised by the separate cutukatu (burial grounds) for castes like paraiya and izhava. Further, historians have drawn attention to imprecations against paraiya and pulaiya and the specificity of left- and right- hand (idangai and valangai) caste formation during this time.
By pinning the blame for casteism on the outsider—the Telugus or the Vijayanagara rulers—ThoPa seems to lose that catholic quality that allows for accommodation. For instance, in the chapter “Karuppu” (“Black”), he argues that since all the ruling and social elites from the 14th century onwards were fair-skinned, it resulted in dark skin being reviled and looked down upon. One wonders whether this distinction of native from outsider is the natural culminating logic of the exercise undertaken by the author. This exclusionary argument has serious connotations for our times, where Indian cultural identity has been projected as Hindu from ancient times despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary, and hence cannot pass without criticism.
Lastly, ThoPa gets so carried away with his raconteuring that custom and belief are validated in terms of tradition, even when there are obvious patriarchal, androcentric, and even anti-women ideas at their core. Issues of honour and saving face when a widow is pregnant, or the significance of the tali, a chain tied at the time of marriage around the neck of the woman by her husband, or of cross-cousin marriage are discussed almost with admiration. This brings us back to the dilemma that we started out with, of the etic and emic perspectives in anthropological studies—the outsider’s view versus the insider’s.
While there is much to recommend the view from within, as exemplified in the work of ThoPa, one also has to tread warily, for historical contexts at times get elided, and description passes for interpretation. Nevertheless, ThoPa is successful in bringing out much that is unknown about Tamil, and the translation is effective in offering the right amount of salt to taste the richness of Tamil.
Dr R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
- This is an early medieval Tamil lexicographical work, dated variously around the 9th-10th or 12th-13th centuries CE.
- “Tamil enra col Tamilarkku inimaiyānatu. ‘Inimaiyum nīrmaiyum Tamilenal ākum’ enru Pinkala Nikantu kurippitukiratu.”
- “Jñāna Campatan conna Tamilivai pattume”.
- “Tanka Tamil pēca unka tāy māman varuvānka”.