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

George Hart glhart at BERKELEY.EDU
Thu Jul 2 15:55:35 EDT 2009

Palaniappan has ingenious arguments, but for me they don't work.  He  
says pooz does not mean leather strap, but then how about Akam 281.5,  
"Winding a long pooz on his bow."  Clearly this does not mean rattan  
or palmyra.  And it's quite difficult to imagine someone using a  
needle on either rattan or palmyra.  In any event, there is much more  
to indicate that certain castes were considered "low" because of their  
connection with things dead and the spirit world in the Sangam works.   
If anyone is interested, I'll send a pdf of a paper I wrote (and to  
which Palaniappan responded -- he will, I'm sure, send you a link to  
his paper also).  As far as washermen go, the issue is not how they  
were classified at period x or y, but how they were regarded in Sangam  
texts.  It is obvious that the position of castes changes over time  
and in different places -- the Nadars are an example.  My own view is  
that the caste system grew from the bottom up, not from the top down.   
It is based on the concept that people who have contact with and  
manipulate the spirit world are dangerous and should be kept out of  
the ordered world of the upper castes.  G. Hart

On Jul 2, 2009, at 1:12 AM, Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan wrote:

> 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_
> (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_
> (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
> expected.
> 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
> _http://whatisindia.com/inscriptions/south_indian_inscriptions/volume_2/no_4_south_wall_second_tier.html_
> (http://whatisindia.com/inscriptions/south_indian_inscriptions/volume_2/no_4_south_wall_second_tier.h
> 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’
> s.)
> 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
> Regards,
> Palaniappan.
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