Untoucables in Classical Tamil Society? (Re: New discovery in Tamil Nadu)

Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Thu Jul 2 04:12:43 EDT 2009

I  agree that George Hart and I have disagreed on what the Classical Tamil  
texts say about caste. A discussion on his remark “that Dalits 
(leatherworkers,  washermen, drummers and the like) are called "izhicanoor" -- "low 
ones" -- in  the poems” can be used to illustrate the bases of our disagreement 
and hopefully  might help resolve the issue. (I apologize for the length of 
the  post.)
The  word in question is ‘izhicinar’ (using  Hart’s transliteration 
convention, but ‘izicin2ar’ in the convention I use). The  singular is ‘izhicinan’
 (‘izicin2an2’ in my convention).
Of  the three groups explicitly mentioned by Hart, even today Tamil 
washermen  ('vaNNAn2'  or 'Vannan') who service non-Dalits have not been considered 
 Scheduled Castes or Dalits in Tamil Nadu except in areas which were part 
of the  former Travancore state where the designation as Scheduled Castes 
follows the  Kerala pattern. (To avail themselves of the affirmative economic 
opportunities  provided by the government, recently Tamil washermen have been 
calling for  designation as Scheduled Castes. 
(http://www.hindu.com/2008/09/30/stories/2008093051950300.htm)   ) This is a very important point Hart has missed. 
(Those washermen who serve the  Dalits, puthirai vannan, are included in the 
Scheduled Castes. See _http://www.tn.gov.in/gorders/adtw/adtw1773-e.htm_ 
(http://www.tn.gov.in/gorders/adtw/adtw1773-e.htm)   for a list of Scheduled 
Castes in Tamil Nadu.) In my paper 
(http://www.soas.ac.uk/research/publications/journals/ijjs/file46109.pdf)  ), I have discussed K. K. Pillay’s  statement 
on the status of Tamil  washermen. To look at the Tamil washermen's social 
status  information uncontaminated by the influence of any government 
policies, let  us consider a paper entitled “Caste Society and Units of Production 
in  Early-Modern South India,” in Institutions and Economic Change in South  
Asia, edited by Burton Stein and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, OUP, 1996, pp.  
105-133, in which David Ludden presents interesting data for four taluks  from the 
1823 census of the Tirunelveli region. The people in the four taluks  are 
classified into the following categories – Brahmans (Smarta Telugu, Smarta  
Tamil, etc.), Religious Establishment (Othuvar, etc.), Sudras, (Pandy 
Vellala,  etc.), Muslims, Christians, Inferior Sudras (Elava, Shanar, etc.), and 
low caste  (Palla, Vallava, Pariah, etc.). In this list, washermen are 
included in the  category of Sudras and not inferior Sudras or low castes, as to be 
As  for the second group, the drummers, an inscription (ca. 9th century  
CE) from Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli District documents a person named pUvan2  
paRaiyan2 a member of the Pandiyan king’s staff bought some land from the  
brahmin sabha and endowed it as kiTaippuRam or endowment for Vedic 
education.  (SII 14, no. 56) Even if we assume pUvan2 paRaiyan2 was not a 'paRaiyan2' 
by  caste, why would a person of such a status have the name 'paRaiyan2' if 
the name  ‘paRaiyan2’ referred to an untouchable caste from Classical 
Tamil times? There  is a 11th century Chola inscription (SII 2, no.4) showing 
that  paRaiyar (from whose name is derived the English word pariah) were not  
untouchable at that time with the paRaiccEri (street of paRaiyar) being  
different from tINTAccEri (street of untouchables). (See paragraph 13 in the  
Translation section of 
tml)   ), Even after paRaiyar fall in status in South Arcot region in the  
12th century (SII 7, no. 912), we find 13th and  14th century inscriptions 
in the Coimbatore area in which we find  references such as “veLLAzan2 
paiyyaril caTaiyan2 nEriyAn2 paRaiyan2En2”.  paiyyar is the name of a veLLALa 
lineage here. If caTaiyan2 is assumed to be the  donor’s father’s name and 
nEriyAn2 is assumed to be the donor’s name, what is  the role of ‘paRaiyan2’ in 
the name of this obviously high caste veLLALa if the  name paRaiyan2 had 
always signified untouchable status? (See kOyamuttUr mAvaTTak  kalveTTukaL, 
tokuti 1, 2006, p. 342). Considering all these, it is diffilcult to  justify 
the case of paRaiyar being untouchable in the Classical Tamil  period. 
Coming  to the third group, the case of leather workers needs to be 
explored in detail  since I had not addressed in my paper a philological problem 
associated with the  traditional interpretation of the relevant poem Hart is 
referring to. The poem  is puRanAn2URu 82 which is given below in translation 
by Hart and Heifetz (1999,  p.61).  
“In  the hand of a low-caste leather worker stitching a cot, 
with  a festival impending and his wife in labor and the sun 
descending  while the rain comes pouring down, as he 
pulls  thread through and again through, the needle flies! 
When  the warrior tried to take the city, 
the  lord who wears a chaplet of laburnum fought with that  speed!” 
Hart  and Heifetz provide on p.267, the following note to this  poem. 
“1:  ‘Low-caste leather worker’ is the translation of izicin2an2, 
literally, ‘low  one,’ ‘despised one.’ This shows that in Sangam times, as now, 
leather workers  were one of the lowest castes.” 
(In  the following discussion, I shall refer to Hart alone since, as 
acknowledged by  Heifetz, the scholarly contribution to the translation was  Hart’
The  strange thing about this translation is that in the original Tamil 
poem, there  is no explicit mention of leather or leather worker. All that the 
poem says is  that the man (‘izicin2an2’) is using the needle (‘Uci’) to 
push/ force forward  (tUNTu) the ‘pOz’ (“pOz tUNtu Uci”) as he makes the 
cot. So why does Hart  translate ‘izicin2an2’ as leather worker? Hart seems 
to have assumed the man to  be stitching some leather material using a needle 
and thread. The 'presence' of  leather is traceable only to a commentator 
who interprets ‘pOz’ to be a leather  strap. Is the commentator justified in 
such an interpretation? I do not think  so. Nowhere else in Classical Tamil 
is  ‘pOz’ used to refer to leather. The only possible reason for this  
commentator (who is to be dated several centuries after the poems were 
composed)  to do so could have been the reference to ‘izicin2an2’ who is by now 
widely  interpreted as an untouchable. Probably, according to the commentator’s 
line of  interpretation, untouchables are known to work with leather and so 
‘pOz’ must  have been a leather strap. Hart interprets the situation 
slightly differently.  He does not explicitly call the material used in making 
the sleeping surface of  the cot as leather but introduces a thread to be used 
with the needle. But he  basically accepts the interpretation of the 
commentator that the base material  is leather and hence calls the cot-maker ‘
leather worker’. 
Now  what could have been the meaning of ‘pOz’? The verb pOz- means 'to 
split, cleave  open,' and thus the noun ‘pOz’ could refer to any material 
which is split or  cloven. In Classical Tamil poems we find ‘pOz’ being used 
to refer to things  such as palm leaf, and peacock feather. A Classical Tamil 
poem, kalittokai 117,  suggests a most probable interpretation of ‘pOz ‘in 
puRanAn2URu 82. In  kalittokai 117, a basket ‘puTTil’ is described as made 
of ‘pOz’. While the  commentator of kalittokai 117 assumes ‘pOz’ to refer 
to the tender leaf of  palmyra (not leather), in my opinion, pared rattan 
cane will probably fit  puRanAn2URu 82 better because it is capable of being 
made into thin long strips  which can be threaded through the eye of a 
needle (such as the packing needle  used for closing/sewing jute bags in India) 
and can be used to push forward  the rattan strip under and over crossing 
rattan strips.  Also pared rattan cane is a well- known  material used to make 
baskets as well as cots even today.  Moreover, containers to make offerings 
to murukan2 are described in CT as  'pirappu' (<'pirampu' meaning 'rattan 
cane') and thus a very well-known  material. 
If  one were to read Hart’s translation of puRanAn2URu 82 without referring 
to  the Tamil original, one would assume that the leather worker is 
explicitly  mentioned in the poem and that he is called a low caste person too so 
that Hart  draws the conclusion that “in Sangam times, as now, leather 
workers were one of  the lowest castes.” As we have seen that is absolutely not 
the case. Leather  makes its appearance only from the imagination of the 
commentator which Hart has  accepted as correct. As for the meaning of ‘izicin2an2
’, I have discussed in my  paper why it could not have meant a ‘low one‘. 
This  poem is a good example of how a Classical Tamil poem can  be 
misinterpreted by unwarranted acceptance of interpretations by  commentators who 
come several centuries after the the poems. These commentators  did not have 
access to tools such as comparative linguistics, data from  epigraphy, etc. 
Using such tools and data, in many cases, we can reach much  better 
conclusions than those earlier commentators. 
In  conclusion, calling the Tamil washermen Dalits results from a flawed  
understanding of the Tamil society of today as well as that of the Classical  
Tamil period. If one has to account for the inscriptional evidence 
regarding  paRaiyar, one cannot say paRaiyar were untouchables in ancient times . 
The  classification of leather workers as untouchables in Classical Tamil 
period is  most probably based on non-existent data. Thus the case of 
untouchability being  present in Classical Tamil times is very untenable indeed 

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