Steeped in history

Print edition : August 15, 2008

Erode district, as part of Kongu Nadu, forms one of the six important political divisions of Tamil Nadu.

THE story of the Kongu region, particularly of Erode district and its people, is something similar to the cloth the people there weave, process and print on. Just as a woven cloth has weft and warp yarns coming together to produce myriad patterns, people of all castes and communities in the region have mingled to put the district, which as part of Kongu Nadu forms one of the six important political divisions of Tamil Nadu, on top.

Be it Kongu Vellalars, Vettuvars, Sengunthars or Muslims, they have all played an important role in the districts development and all of them have left an imprint on its social fabric as well. This imprint is as inimitable as the design they produce on batik and tie-dye fabrics. Take for example the Kongu Vellalars, who constitute the biggest community of the district. Originally from the Chola country, they migrated to the Kongu region several centuries ago by moving along the river banks. Their entry into the region resulted in clashes with the Vettuvars, who had migrated there earlier. Pulavar S. Raju, an authority on Kongu history and the author of over 100 books, says the conflict had nothing to do with caste. The Vettuvars, as the name suggests, were engaged in hunting for food. They had a stake in the forest, which the Vellalars destroyed to create agriculture lands. It was a pure professional rivalry and nothing more, he maintains.

The title Gounder, which evolved from the term Kaamindan, belongs to these two communities. The term refers to people who protected land, people and country. It got corrupted to Kaamundan and has now become Kavundan, or Gounder.

The Sengunthars, popularly called Mudaliars, are the next important community of the region. Traditionally weavers, they were into trading as well. It is to their credit that this region is today a weaving and processing hub. The Sengunthars, right from the early days, were highly educated and also artists. In 1828, only 1.3 per cent of the population in the Kongu region was educated, and most of the literate were Sengunthars. Raju says Census records state that at that time 82 of the eight lakh women were literate. Most of the literate women were again Sengunthars. He also quotes historical records to show that the people of this community ran schools, which were then called thinnai pallikoodam.

There were other communities in the region such as traditional hairdressers, cobblers, oil merchants and priests. There is enough evidence that they all lived in harmony. Though the Gounders were the landed gentry, they included people from all castes in social functions. To quote Raju: Each community had a social duty and also a right. For example, Gounder marriages remained incomplete without the participation of hairdressers and cobblers. The tradition continues to date.

Because of the districts proximity to present-day Karnataka, it was influenced by the happenings in that State. The district was once under Hyder Alis and then Tipu Sultans rule. Even today, Erode district has three or four mosques that were built and patronised by Tipu Sultan. And, there is evidence that he also patronised Hindu temples. During Hyder Alis and Tipus reigns, a number of Muslims migrated to this region from Mysore and other areas. The arrival of a new community brought out new cultural patterns. Their arrival led to men having names such as Thulukkanna Gounder the first name referring to Muslims, says Raju in his book on Erode history. He adds that people also worshipped Allah as Thulukkanna Samy.

Being under Mysore rulers, Erode was affected by Tipus battle with the East India Company. By the end of the Mysore Wars, Erode was almost destroyed. Francis Buchanan, fellow, Royal Asiatic Society, Calcutta (now Kolkata), records this in his visit to the region in October-November 1800. He says, In Erode, there was a large mud fort occupied by the British soldiers. During Hyder Alis time, there were 3,000 houses in Erode but the number came down to 1,000 during Tipus time and the whole was completely destroyed during the invasion of Gen. Meadows.

With the arrival of the British, first under the East India Company and then under the Crown, administrative reorganisation took place. The region was divided into two districts Noyyal North and Noyyal South. Dharapuram, which today is a revenue divisional headquarters, was then Noyyal Souths headquarters. And, Bhavani, also a revenue divisional headquarters, was then Noyyal Norths headquarters. Coimbatore was then a part of Noyyal North district.

This set-up continued until 1805, with Colonels Macleod and Hurdis as Collectors of Noyyal North and Noyyal South districts respectively, when Coimbatore was made the district headquarters. For a long time, Erode remained a part of Coimbatore district. Only in September 1979, nearly two centuries after the British took over the regions administration, did Erode become a separate district.

Right from early days Kongu Nadu gave birth to great men. Two of them stand out because they contributed significantly to the regions development. The first is Kalingarayan, who 725 years ago built an irrigation channel that today is known by his name. Born Lingaya Gounder around 1240, he rose to become Veera Pandians (1265-1280) chieftain. He constructed a 56-mile-long (almost 90 km) canal, which today irrigates 15,743 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare). The Kalingarayan ayacut is one of the important agricultural areas in the district.

The second person to have contributed in significant measure to Erodes development is the freedom fighter M.A. Easwaran. He too was responsible for an irrigation canal in the district: the Lower Bhavani Project. This canal irrigates nearly two lakh acres. These two canals have put Erode on the agriculture map of Tamil Nadu.

There is a lot more to Erode district than just agriculture and textiles. For instance, the cave inscriptions in Arachalur town, about 20 km from Erode. These are Isai Tamil one of the three literary divisions of Tamil inscriptions which date to the 2nd century B.C. The inscriptions, which were discovered by Raju, are important as they talk about dancing notes (tala).

Jain monks of the Chandragupta Maurya era, who travelled down south, stayed in Erode. Raju says the Jains, who belonged to the Digambara sect, stayed on until the 14th century and played an important role in Tamils development. Present-day Vijayamangalam, about 25 km from Erode, and neighbouring Jeenapuram (from Jaina Puram) saw many an author presenting Tamil texts among scholars for acceptance. Today, there are six Jain temples left in the district.

As important as the cave inscriptions is Kodumanal, a port town on the banks of the Noyyal river. Referred to as Noyyal Civilisation, it coincides with the Sangam Age more than 2,000 years ago says Raju, who discovered the site. The people of the area traded gems, notably beryl, with Greeks, Romans, Persians and other old civilisations. Excavations have yielded many Roman coins and a clay head of the Greek god Apollo. In later days, the regions people traded goods with the Mysore kingdom through the Kaveripuram pass, which is now submerged at the Stanley reservoir, better known as the Mettur dam. The region continues to trade. The district is known for turmeric, banana, paddy and, of course, textiles. Its educational facilities are also of high repute.

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