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

Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Mon Jul 6 00:27:28 EDT 2009

I  do not mean to drag out this discussion either. In any case, I had ended 
 the last post with a quiz (:-)) and regrettably there was a typo in it. 
So, for  the benefit of the list, let me give the correct version of the two 
lines with  translations and some closing remarks.  
1.   “nan2mai niRainta nayavaru pANa” 
O  likeable bard filled with auspiciousness 

2.   “nan2maiyAl mikka nAn2maRaiyALarkaL” 
Brahmins  of four vedas abounding in auspiciousness 
The  first line occurs in Classical Tamil text puRam. 308.3. The second 
line occurs  in the post-Classical Tamil vaiSNava devotional text nAlAyirat 
tivviyap  pirapantam 940.1. As anyone can see, the two descriptions are 
semantically  virtually identical. In the Classical Tamil period, it is the bard 
who is  described as auspicious while in the post-Classical period it is the 
brahmin who  is called auspicious. In my opinion, one cannot interpret one 
group to be  untouchable and the other to be of high social status. The rest 
of the lines of  the devotional verse seen below should also be of interest 
to the  list: 
nan2maiyAl  mikka nAn2maRaiyALarkaL 
pun2maiyAkak  karutuvar Atalin2 
an2n2aiyAy  attan2Ay en2n2ai ANTiTum 
tan2maiyAn2  caTakOpan2 en2 nampiyE 
”Since  the brahmins of the four Vedas abounding in auspiciousness 
(nan2mai) will  consider my conduct as one of baseness (pun2mai <pul-mai), because 
of his  nature of accepting me as a disciple and being like my mother and  
father, caTakOpan2 (nammALvAr) is indeed my Lord.” 
The  author of this verse, maturakavi, a brahmin, composed verses on the 
foremost  Tamil vaiSNava saint nammALvAr alone. He  did not compose any verse 
on viSNu. For him, nammALvAr was everything. But  nammALvAr was a veLLALa, 
an upper caste non-brahmin but nevertheless considered  zUdra by the 
brahmins. As  a result maturakavi’s conduct would have been criticized as base by 
the  brahmins.   
One  should note here that nan2mai and pun2mai (<pul-) are considered 
opposing  qualities. So a bard described as filled with auspiciousness (nan2mai) 
cannot be  one of baseness (pul-mai).  
The  difference between the two texts shows the major socio-religious 
conversion that  has taken place in the Tamil society. The  bardic heroic Tamil 
age had come to an end and a largely brahminical Hindu  society with a 
significantly different value system --at least among the  upper echelons-- had 
come into being.  (Apart from nammALvAr’s poems cited in my  paper, the story 
of zaiva saint kaNNappar appearing in Tamil periyapurANam also  suggests 
such a conversion.)  
The  texts dealing with the earlier society were largely forgotten by the 
Tamils  after ca. 14th century until rediscovered and published in the 
19th-20th  centuries. The  upper caste Tamil scholarly community - which included 
a large number of  non-brahmins - had no idea about the heroic society or 
its values. There  were no differences between the casteist values of 
non-brahmins and brahmins  both of whom subscribed to the notions of pollution found 
in the Sanskrit texts.  With the added ignorance of epigraphy, comparative 
linguistics, and rigorous  philological approaches, these Tamil teachers 
have passed on erroneous  interpretations of ancient texts to their students, 
positing ritual pollution  where none exists.   
In  my paper I do cite Prof. Franklin Southworth, well-versed in 
Comparative  Linguistics and author of “Linguistic Archaeology of South Asia”, who 
agrees  with me now that the notion of ritual pollution cannot be 
reconstructed to  proto-Dravidian. 
In  any case, I have had no interest in proving that the Classical Tamil 
period was  an egalitarian golden age. Like any other scholar finding serious 
problems with  an existing theory, I chose to research and present an 
alternate theory which  fits the data better. I do agree with Hart that those 
interested can access our  publications online and come to their own 
conclusions. Thanks for an interesting  and useful discussion. 
S.  Palaniappan
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