"vELAppArppAn2": potter-priest or non-sacrificing brahmin?

Palaniappa Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Tue May 19 00:12:46 UTC 1998

There is a poem in the Classical Tamil text akanAn2URu which has the follwing

vELAp pArppAn2 vALaram tumitta
vaLai kaLaintu ozinta kozuntin2 an2n2a
taLai piNi avizAc curimukap pakanRai

This has been conventionally interpreted as " the unloosened spiral-faced
pakanRai flower like the tip of the conch shell remaining after the conch
shell is cut for bangles by the saw of the non-sacrificing brahmin". This text
has been used as evidence for the practice of some brahmins to be engaged in
making bangles from conch (shank) shells in ancient Tamilnadu. For instance,
Clarence Maloney, in his article "Archeology in South India: Accomplishments
and Prospects", uses this to state that in Sangam period, there were "non-
sacrificing" Brahmans who cut conch shells. Also according to a medieval poem,
nakkIran2, the Classical Tamil poet, put down ziva by saying that nakkIran2
had a caste/lineage that was one of cutting conch shells while ziva had no
lineage whatsoever. Based on this story, nakkIran2e is claimed to have been a
non-sacrificing brahmin.

I have always wondered about this interpretation. As far as I know, there is
no other evidence in Indian texts that says that non-sacrificing brahmins were
engaged in making conch shell bangles. (I am willing to be corrected on this.)
> From what I know of the brahminic concept of pollution in those days, such a
job would have been considered to be working with a dead animal and hence
unclean. When I understood the etymology of "pArppAn2" as a priest in general
including potter priests, the interpretation of "vELA-" in the compound
"vELAppArppAn2" as a negative adjectival participle seemed suspect. It rather
looked like a case of assimilation of the word "vELAr/vELAn2". Compare the
name "vELAkkuTi" in colloquial usage to refer to the potters' hamlet. If one
were to interpret it at face value, one would take it to mean "non-sacrificing
hamlet". Similarly, there is also a village called vELAkkuLam in Tamilnadu
(meaning non-sacrificing pond/tank  if one were to interpret it literally).
One would rather expect the name to be either vELAn2kuLam or vELAGkuLam if the
first part of the word were to be singular vELAn2 or vELArkuLam if the first
part were to be plural vELAr. (Consider another village name pAppAGkuLam <
pArppAn2kuLam, pond/tank of pArppAn2.) In none of these cases, normally you
will expect to find vELAkkuLam where the gemination is due to assimilation.
But the prevailing form indeed shows gemination. I think a similar
assimilation is what has happened in the case of vELAppArppAn2. As the poem
was being transmitted over the centuries, when the term "pArppAn2" lost its
general meaning and came to apply only to brahmins, the text with assimilation
(error) could have been easily accepted as the correct text.

In order to justify my interpretation, we have to have some information that
the potters had the habit of using saws and they had made bangles using conch
shells. Also, one would normally expect coastal residents such as fishermen to
have easy access to the conch shells and hence are likely to make bangles
using them.  Since we would expect the potters to live further inland, we need
some evidence for conch-shell bangle making further inland.  Shereen
Ratnagar's book, "Enquiries into the Political Organization of Harappan
Society", gives some information which seems to confirm the interpretation
that "vELAppArppAn2" referred to potter priests, if we assume that the skill
set of the potter priests remained intact for a very long time.

Talking about the Harappan seals, Ratnagar says, "For example, a few
unfinished seals have been found (Marshall 1931:378; Mackay 1938: 345-346),
either unperforated, or with incomplete boss, or with saw marks.....In the HR
area, section B, house X, sawn or partially worked pieces of steatite were
found in one room (Marshall 1931:184)...." (p.26) Also, she says, "The
excavations of Marshall and Mackay uncovered some 1245 seals at Mohenjo-Daro.
In addition, there were about 90 message sealings, casts of seals in faience
or terracotta, presumably dispatched with goods or information when the sender
could not travel or communicate himself, and obviously could not dispatch his
own seal." (p. 41) She also mentions,"On a rectangular clay sealing from
Harappa (Vats 1940:332, pl. XCIII.309) is depicted a human figure..."(p. 148)
Thus the IV seal manufacturing seems to have connections with both the use of
saw and clay. If one assumes potters to be the ones most familiar with clay
working, they were probably familiar with the use of saws also.

Discussing the craft work using shells, she says, "Surveys of the unexcavated
areas of the site have revealed shell-work debris in three other parts of the
site (Kenoyer 1983:190ff): north of the L area (inlay work); eastern HR area
(bangles, ladles, and inlays); and also 500m to the east of the main
residential area (preliminary preparation of shankh shells for bangle-making).
The last may have been located outside the habitation because of the stench
raised by stacks of uncleaned shells." (p.26-27) To me this unpleasant aspect
rules out any potential brahmin participation in bangle-making using conch

Regarding the regional distribution of bangle manufacture, she says, "At the
same time the manufacture of bangles from shankh was not confined to coastal
settlements like Balakot, Lothal, and Nageshwar, but also occurred at Mohenjo-
Daro, Harappa, and Amri, far inland..."(p.55-56).

I had posited that the potters and chieftains were from the same group.
Ratnagar says, "Ceramic production probably took place at all MH settlements,
so that, if the uniformity of ceramics is confirmed, we would have to suggest
that a standard process of manufacture, with controls on clays and firing
technology, was established, as also controls on the number of potters, and
that producers had particular functions in mind when they made particular
vessel forms. Thus pottery production may also have been a matter of state
direction and organization." (p. 98) Also, Ratnagar says, IV culture used clay
for defensive purposes. She says, "Hoards of clay sling stones, large and
small, were found behind this parapet." (p. 46) This seems to imply a state
interest in clay technology.

Regarding the manufacture of shankh bangles, she says, " At MH sites where
shankh shell bangles were made, Kenoyer (1983:171ff) finds a uniform
manufacturing technique and evidence for the use of similar metal tools......I
suggest that shankh bangle manufacture was under state direction..." (p.98)

Thus the assumption that the potters/potter priests and chieftains of early
Tamil society were descendants of the same ruling group from Indus Valley
culture would seem to agree with Shereen Ratnagar's findings. That both
pottery and conch shell (shankh) bangle making crafts were state-directed
would imply that if the potters were part of the state establishment, they
would have the knowhow related to the manufacture of both.

Thus, interpreting "vELAppArppAn2" as "potter-priest" seems to make more sense
than "non-sacrificing brahmin". In light of this, the poet nakkIran2 should
also belong to the potter community. His link to the potter community seems to
be also strengthened by his father's profession revealed by the full name,
"maturaik kaNakkAyan2Ar makan2Ar nakkIran2Ar", i.e., nakkIran2 who was the son
of mathematics teacher of Madurai. (

Both mathematics and accounting professions deal with numbers. In fact, one
can interpret the word kaNakkAyan2 as one who investigates/examines accounts
or mathematics. Although the later connotation of kaNakku relates to numbers,
originally it meant whatever was incised. That is why the Tamil alphabet is
called neTuGkaNakku. The eighteen minor didactic works in Tamil literature are
called by the collective noun "patineNkIzkkaNakku". The potters' connection to
the accounting profession was noted in another posting "Leiden Plates, other
inscriptions, and potters." Tamil Lexicon even mentions a sub-caste among
potters by the name "kucakkaNakku" specializing in the 'numbers' profession.

Any comments would be appreciated.


S. Palaniappan

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