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

Dipak Bhattacharya dbhattacharya2004 at YAHOO.CO.IN
Sun Jul 5 01:08:46 EDT 2009

Dear Colleagues,
It seems that tho there is no such explicit statement, the correspondents assume an integral relation between casteism and medievaluntouchbilty.  There seems to exist an unwritten concensus on this among all scholars.
Untouchabilty of course existed in Paanini's time (c.400 BCE?) but with an extremely limited scope. They are called aniravasita in P.2.4.10. 
Patanjali (between 187- 151 BCE) includes two castes among them Candaalas and Mrtapas. Both of them dealt with dead bodies. And they were not graamvaahyas 'living outside the village'. Patanjali refers to their large neighbourhoods surrounded by Aryan neighbourhoods. Kautilya too speaks of  Candaalas, otherwise he is silent on untouchability. 
The violently excluded 'untouchables' of the North and the reciprocal untouchability of the South, should have grown much later. Their 'untouchability' had nothing to do with superstitions about dead bodies. This all pervasive untouchability is, according to my knowledge, till now, on the whole,an unexplored subject.The earliest evidence of their existence comes, perhaps, from the Dharmasuutras which are much later.
Casteim , as many scholars have thought, is of pre-Aryan Indian origin. But this cannot hold good of medieval Indian untouchablity.
Sometimes I pointed to this enigma of untouchability. But the views were expressed in India and that too in Bengali. 
Best wishes

From: George Hart <glhart at BERKELEY.EDU>
Subject: Re: Untoucables in Classical Tamil Society? (Re: New discovery in Tamil Nadu)
To: INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk
Date: Saturday, 4 July, 2009, 7:20 PM

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 conclusions.

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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