potters, brahmins, and RSis

Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Tue Sep 30 07:22:42 UTC 1997

I have always wondered about the meaning of the Tamil word �pArppan2ar�
meaning �brahmins�. Commonly, the word �pAr� means �to see�, and so the word
�pArppan2ar� can be translated as �seers� (DED . But, we know of no use of
�pArppan2ar� to denote seers. It just meant brahmins. Even in the Sanskrit
tradition, all brahmins were not seers. Nor were all seers brahmins. So what
was the basis for the Tamil word �pArppan2ar�? The clue was provided by my
research on the Tamil root �pA� meaning �to extend, spread, stretch�. 

The semantics of the root �pA� meaning �extend, spread� and related words are
really fascinating and they give some interesting insights into the
Tamils�/Dravidians� view of things. There are several words in Tamil which
can be translated as �to see�. They are 'kaN/kAN, nOkku, pAr', etc. Tamil
also uses nouns of the form �pAr� derived from the root �pA�. One such use
denotes �earth/world�, because it is an extended/spread place. The word �pAr�
can then be explained as indicating the fact that eye sight is the most
extended sense of perception. We can see stars lightyears away. The distances
over which we can perceive through other senses are much more limited. In
other uses of the noun form, �pAr� also means the axle of a vehicle
presumably because it is an extended rod as well as the coral reefs under the
sea which by their nature extend/spread.

Another word with the meaning �extend/spread� is �para/paravu� (DED 3255),
which, I strongly feel, is related to the root �pA�. (I think the process is
similar to tA-taru, and vA/varu.) In fact, conventionally �pAr� (DED 3255),
the earth, is explained on the basis of  �para�. Interestingly, �paravu� with
the basic meaning �extend/spread� also denotes �worship, reverence, adore,
sing� (DED 3257). For instances puRanAn2URu 335.12 has �nel ukuttup paravum
kaTavuLum ilavE� which can be translated as �there was no god to sing/worship
along with the pouring/offering of paddy�. 

The use of �paravu� in verbal worship is a known fact in Tamil. What has not
been realized so far is the use of �pAr� in the same context. This can be
inferred from �pAr� occurring as part of �pArATTu� meaning �to applaud,
commend, eulogize� (DEDS 656). �pArATTu� is a compound made up of �pAr� and
�ATTu�. One of the meanings of ATTu is �to shower, bathe, immerse�. This can
be seen from the following.

mAtiram nan2antalai putaiyap pAay
Ogkuvarai miLira ATTi�����.                                   (naRRiNai 347.1-3)

"The rain cloud having spread to cover the wide space in all directions and
bathing/showering the tall mountain in such a way as to make the mountain
fall over.."

�ATTu� as a noun meant �bath� as seen in the following example.

ATTu ayarntu aripaTum aivirai mANpakazi                                 (paripATal 10.97)

"having enjoyed the bath, the excellent arrows of five-fragrant flowers (i.e.
the eyes of girls) with lines.. "

�ATTu� occurs as part of the compounds nIrATTu and neyyATTu as shown below.
..nIrATTi���= (nIr + ATTi) - having bathed in water ('nIr')             (puRanAn2URu
..neyyATTu�. = (ney +ATTu) - bathing (covered) in oil ('ney')               (naRRiNai.

Thus �ATTu� forms compounds with the first part of the compound denoting that
which is the substance bathed in. This means the first part of the word
�pArATTu� ,i.e., �pAr� must mean �praise�, giving the compound meaning of �to
bathe in praise�or �to extol�. The verb form �pAr� is the same as the noun
�pAr�.       The verb form of �pAr� used in the sense of �worshipping/praising�
in a religious context is shown by the following text.

"MaNikkural noccit teriyal cUTip
palikaL Arkaip pArmutu kuyavan2
iTupali nuvalum akanRalai manRattu.."                                   (naRRiNai 293.1-3)

This can be translated as "in the wide common public space where with the
worshipping/praising old potter with hands filled with sacrificial offerings
who is wearing the garland made of bunches of  blue-green nocci flowers,
announcing/uttering the offerings". Some scholars translate �pAr� in this
context as �obese� or �corpulent�. They probably base it on a literal
interpretation of pAr as �spreading� . Taking into account the sacrificial
context of the poem, the most logical alternative is to interpret it as
referring to worshipping/adoring/singing nature of the potter. The next
question is, is there any other evidence that a potter was customarily
involved in religious ceremonies? Look at the following text.

KaNNi kaTTiya katira an2n2a
oNkural noccit teriyal cUTi
yARu kiTantan2n2a akal neTun teruvil
cARu en2a nuvalum mutuvAyk kuyava�                                    (naRRiNai 200-1.4)

"O potter with words of experience/ wisdom, wearing the garland of nocci made
with bright bunches of buds like ears of grain, and announcing in the
river-like street that it is festival time�." 

The role of the potter in announcing the festival implies that he performed
some religious rituals. Further, the religious role of the potter is shown by
another name for potter in Tamil, �vETkOvar�. This is again a compound of
�vEL� and �kOvar�. �vEL� as a verb means �to desire, sacrifice�. �kOvar�
means �potters� with the combined meaning, �the sacrificing potters�. Thus at
least some potters were involved in performing sacrifices.  Given the use of
�pAr� to denote the actions of the potter in naRRiNai 293 cited above, it is
probable that a priest or a religious officiant was called �pArppAn2� or �one
who worships by praising/singing�. But the word �pArppAn2� in Classical Tamil
may not always indicate a brahmin as it is usually interpreted until now. At
least in some cases, we could think of �pArppAn� as referring to non-brahmin

This result leads us to the conclusion that �pAr� not only meant �to see� but
also �to worship, adore, sing, praise�. This conclusion will provide a very
logical explanation for the origin of the word �pArppAr� for brahmins who as
priests can be defined as �those who worship, sing, adore� etc. However, they
were not �seers�. It was also probable that some of the priests were potters.

Now the question is this. In a similar vein, on the Indo-Aryan side, is there
any reason to attribute the origin of the Sanskrit word �RSi� to the supposed
�seeing� of the hymn rather than �singing� of the hymn? When a RSi such as
KavaSa AilUSa is described as �seeing� a hymn, could it be that he was
�singing� the hymn?   Is it not interesting that the quintessential RSi,
VasiSTha, and his brother Agastya are supposed to have originated in a pot?
Do we have here a vestigial connection to the priestly tradition of the


S. Palaniappan

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