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

George Hart glhart at BERKELEY.EDU
Sat Jul 4 09:50:08 EDT 2009

I can understand -- and share -- Palaniappan's desire to see the old  
Tamil society of the Sangam works as casteless and egalitarian, just  
as I wish modern society were casteless.  This belief about the old  
"golden age" of Sangam times has had enormous political consequences  
for modern India, and it is proved an extremely powerful idea.  And it  
is true that in the Sangam works, we encounter views and poetry that  
seem almost modern and have elements of egalitarianism.  This,  
however, does not make old Tamil society an anomaly in a premodern  
world in which virtually every culture had a deep and abiding belief  
in various sorts of magic and in a world of spirits.  I can only say  
that, in my view, whatever "pooz" may mean (and surely the needle was  
not used just to push around pieces of bamboo, and I haven't seen any  
instance of peacock feathers being wrapped around bows), my reading of  
the texts shows clearly the existence of a varied group at the bottom  
of society who were technicians of the sacred and who interacted with  
the spirit world.  These people are described as "of low birth" and  
words from the root pulai are applied to them (e.g. pulaitti).  I  
can't accept Palaniappan's etymology of this word as related to  
"poli," shine -- for the root is used in many other Dravidian  
languages to mean a stain or to apply to very low-caste people.  Its  
meanings in the Lexicon are "1 baseness 2 uncleanness 3 defilement 4  
vice, evil way 5 lie 6 adultery 7 animal food 8 outcaste 9 stench."   
In any event, the papers of myself and Palaniappan are available and  
anyone interested in this subject can read them and come to their own  

On another note, it's interesting to see "uuci" < suuci used for  
"needle" -- it shows how technology from the north spread among every  
group in old Tamilnadu.

And finally, T.P. Mahadevan suggests that somehow in North India, the  
caste system went from the top down.  I would disagree, as I don't  
think the whole system was somehow the result of a political  
imposition by the top 3 "varnas."  No one from outside India has ever  
seen the 4 (or 5) varnas -- post-Vedic North India has always, in real  
terms, been characterized by many endogamous jaatis, though no doubt  
they have often identified with one or other varna.  If one wants to  
get an idea of the pre-Aryan system, it is my impression that a great  
deal of insight can be gained by looking at the far north (Nepal) and  
far south.  It is, of course, true that in the north, the Brahmanical  
system had great power and influence (as it did later in the South),  
but I think it is still possible in the North to see the basic  
outlines of an older system in which Dalits were given low status  
because they dealt with spirits.  George Hart

On Jul 3, 2009, at 11:29 PM, Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan wrote:

> In  an earlier post Hart had included Tamil washermen among those  
> called  ‘
> izicin2ar’ in the Classical Tamil texts. I forgot to mention in my  
> last
> post that contrary to what Hart has said there is not a single  
> instance where
> washermen are called ‘izicin2ar’ in those texts. Instead, a  
> washerwoman is
> called pulaitti in these texts. The difference is significant since  
> the
> meaning  of ‘izicin2ar’ had something to do with drumming and  
> nothing to do
> with being  low or despicable.
> Coming  to Hart’s question regarding Akam 281.5, pOz refers to a split
> piece of peacock  feather. I see no leather there. That 'pOz' is  
> used in
> connection with peacock  feather (“pIlip pOz”) is clear from  
> paripATal 21.7. It is
> also possible to  interpret ‘pOz’ as referring to the split wood one  
> might
> think the bow is made  of. In either case it is the peacock feather
> material that is wound around the  bow.
> Another  important philological point about Puram 82. Hart has  
> failed to
> consider the  semantics of the verb ‘niNakkum’ (< DEDR 3668 ‘niNa-‘  
> 'to tie
> up, fasten,  braid') used in connection with making the cot. The  
> sleeping
> surface of the  cot (‘kaTTil’) is made by fastening or braiding or
> interlacing long strips  of material. There is no need for a  
> separate thread and
> needle for  stitching the material as in tailoring. The post- 
> Classical Tamil work
> peruGkatai  1.34.144 calls the base surface of a royal throne (also  
> called ‘
> kaTTil’)  made of interlaced string as 'niNavai'. In fact, the modern
> editor UVS refers to  puRam 82 in his note for the line. UVS also  
> points to
> peruGkatai 1.42.28 which  mentions "mUGkil paimpOz niNavai" where  
> the interlacing
> (for what object we do  not know) is done using green bamboo 'pOz'.   
> The
> function of 'Uci' must  have been to push forward the braiding/ 
> interlacing
> material and not to  stitch using needle and thread. It is possible  
> the ‘Uci’
> might not  have had a hole and might have had some means like a hook  
> to grab
> the lacing  material.
> As  for the relevance of considering the status of castes in the
> post-Classical  Tamil period, Hart frequently points to the  
> contemporary castes to add
> support  to his statements. For example, consider his note for Puram  
> 82
> which I  cited earlier ("This shows that in Sangam times, ***as  
> now***, leather
> workers  were one of the lower castes." Emphasis mine.). Also in the  
> same
> work (p.xxi),  in the section “Society: The Low Castes” he says,  
> "The three
> most prominent of  these castes were the drummers, called kiNaiyan2s
> (***probably modern  paRaiyan2s***)..." (Emphasis mine) The problem  
> is that he
> ignores historical and  contemporary data contradicting his theory.  
> For
> instance, how  do the Tamil washermen considered to be untouchable  
> by Hart in
> Classical Tamil period become non-untouchable in Tamil Nadu  
> throughout  history?
> There is no epigraphic or anthropological evidence of such   
> washermen being
> considered untouchable. There have been no recorded  movements for  
> upward
> mobility of washermen like that of Nadars in the 20th  century. As for
> paRaiyar, Hart is very willing to cite their status in modern  times  
> but ignores
> their higher status before the 12th century.
> One  does not need any ingenuity for an explanation of the classical  
> Tamil
> society. One would hope that any explanation considers that the data  
> are
> primary  and theory should be made to fit the data, all the data and  
> not
> ignore  'inconvenient' data or grammatical facts. There should also  
> be internal
> consistency in statements. Hart's positions that immigrant brahmins  
> took up
> occupations held in high esteem by the Tamil society, Tamil society
> considered  funerary priests as untouchables, and Vedic brahmins  
> became funerary
> priests who cut dead bodies and bury them do not make sense.
> I  have mostly presented information which was not included in my  
> paper.
> For  a more detailed analysis of the question of untouchability in   
> Classical
> Tamil period, please see my paper in which I have cited a link to   
> Hart's
> paper in PDF too :-)
> Regards,
> Palaniappan
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