ONE OF THE MANY uses of history is to illuminate and clarify ‘genealogies of the present’. Since Independence, the writing of history (or histories) has been an important ongoing project in our country. In this quest for clarity and understanding, grand narratives, encompassing kingdoms and empires, have claimed the lion’s share of our attention and resources. Study of local histories and cultures has inevitably lagged behind.
However, in a state like Tamil Nadu where a kind of sub-nationalism has held sway for nearly six decades now, documentation—albeit selective—of local histories and cultures, has become something of a political necessity. Growing differences with the central government on issues like Hindi imposition and allocation of resources have exacerbated this need.
Home to an ancient civilisation that conducted trade with distant lands and produced anthologies of exquisite poetry, Tamil Nadu reached the zenith of its glory under the Cholas, when it excelled in dance, literature, architecture, administration, and most notably in wars of conquest. Conquered in turn by the Delhi Sultanate first and then by the Vijayanagara empire during 14th century CE, Tamil Nadu remained in whole or in part under foreign rule for nearly 600 years, right up to 1947. Naturally, such an eventful history has wrought countless changes in the Tamil country’s demographics, social relations, political economy and power structures, cultural and religious practices, and so on. It’s only through being informed, to some degree, about this complex trajectory that an average citizen in Tamil Nadu can make sense of the society around them and situate themselves in the history of the state and the present historical moment.
Easier said than done, of course. Many historical studies dealing with various facets of this history have been published by research scholars, both from India and abroad, over the past hundred years and the effort is still ongoing. These studies are based not only on archaeological evidence, inscriptions, artefacts, texts and archives, but also on folklore and oral histories. It is in this context that we must situate Tho Paramasivan’s The Sweet Salt of Tamil, a compilation of short essays, which is presented as the outcome of “his explorations into the unknown aspects of Tamil culture.” What sets apart Tho Pa (as the author is referred to) is his focus on material and local cultures. Whereas the revival of Tamil in the 20th century was constructed entirely through the classical texts, Tho Pa foregrounds the link between the culture of ordinary people and Tamil identity in his work.
Ariyappadatha Tamilagam, the original Tamil text, was published in 1997 to great acclaim precisely because it was rooted in the lives of ordinary Tamils. In this book, Tho Pa covers a mind-boggling variety of subjects in the manner of ‘a cultural storyteller.’ They range from food, clothes, household implements and family relationships to gods, festivals, castes and death rituals. Of particular interest is the chapter on the rise and ebb of various religions in Tamil country and accounts of inter-religious conflicts at various junctures. Tho Pa also throws light on the contributions made by Buddhism and Jainism to the cultural life of Tamils. The coda of the book is a chapter that tries to explain why the Tamil people, who had always considered black as beautiful, have come to privilege fairness of complexion over their natural colour. The explanation offered is both startling and original.
The exposition on each subject is narrated like a folktale, with fascinating sub-plots and digressions. Tho Pa deploys his erudition in classical texts, immersion in local cultures, and intensive field research as he weaves these tales. At times, this book feels like a leisurely and instructive stroll through a museum of cultural history. This quality is at once its strength and weakness.
What sets apart Tho Paramasivan is his focus on material and local cultures. Whereas the revival of Tamil in the 20th century was constructed through the classical texts, he foregrounds the link between the culture of ordinary people and Tamil identity
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Since there is no chronological or geographical or even social coherence to this ‘series of essays’, it often feels partial and incomplete. In several places, the author’s inferences are speculative rather than evidence based. Tho Pa uses ‘must have’ and ‘might have’ quite liberally in building his stories. In the absence of any evidence, such inferences may strike the reader as meaningless. Sometimes, assertions are made without any basis. “While the Aryans placed fire high among nature’s great manifestations, the Dravidians accorded primacy to water.” In other places, he is plain wrong. His assertions that Brahmins don’t worship “small gods” as a deity of choice or family tradition and never tonsure their heads in a ritual context are verifiably false. Finally, Tho Pa doesn’t seem to have heard the principle, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Hence, he is wont to say things like, “The custom of oil baths to free oneself from the memories of the dead must have originated during this period [reign of Vijayanagar empire]. There are no records of such customs in older texts or inscriptions.”
Details apart, the book suffers from at least two serious conceptual flaws. The first is its implicit negation of the composite cultural and demographic reality of Tamil country in the present in favour of a pristine Tamil identity from the distant past. The corollary of such an assertion is the othering of centuries-old religious beliefs, social structures and cultural practices, and even literary texts, as ‘foreign’ influences, as the ‘dross and grime’ that obscure the depth and richness of Tamil culture. Otherwise, the fervent worship of Hindu and puranic deities by subaltern Tamils, such as the Vanniyar-led Draupadi Amman festivals in northern Tamil Nadu accompanied by performances of Mahabharata koothu, would have found a mention in the book.
Similarly, it’s possible to see ‘the great tradition’—worship of gods from the Hindu pantheon—as foundational to the establishment of kingdoms and empires over large territories. If kings needed to establish ritual legitimacy of their right to rule, fostering the ritual preceptors and building large temples were logical steps in the pursuit. Even the Chola kings, of pure Tamil stock, followed those steps. Meanwhile, worship of local gods in the villages, or “the little tradition”, has endured over the years, subject only to the general impact of social change. There is no logical reason to posit a generic conflict between the two on racial lines, contrary to lived experience, just to emphasise a pristine pre-Vedic Tamil identity.
The other flaw lies in Tho Pa’s exposition on caste. Much attention is paid to Brahmins, referring to “their proximity to royal power centres and [..] the cultural oppression that resulted from such closeness.” However, the wealthiest and the most powerful landed castes in the history of Tamil country, the Vellalars are passed off as farmers, with no reference at all to their status and position in the power structure under the kings, who endowed them with hereditary rights over vast tracts of cultivable lands. Similar is the case with the chieftain castes—Maravars, Kallars and Agamudaiyars. The book has space for the theological battle fought in the last decades of the 19th century by ‘fearless Saivites’—mainly Vellalars—in the face of challenges from Vedic philosophy and Christianity, but none for the 1899 raid on the prosperous Sivakasi Nadars, then considered ‘untouchables’, by a coalition of caste Hindu communities. It is easy to see that Tho Pa’s perspective on caste—as an abstract religiously ordained system of inequality unrelated to political and economic arrangements—aligns closely with that of the 100-year-old Dravidian movement, which was founded on the politically expedient binary of Brahmin and non-Brahmin.
Many recent studies based on inscriptions and archives, by scholars such as Nicholas Dirks, Noboru Karashima and Rupa Viswanath among others, have shed more light on the social history of Tamil country from 800 CE up to the end of colonial rule, with particular reference to caste dynamics and social relations. There is a lot more that lies beyond the limits of what Tho Pa has revealed to us about the ‘unknown’ Tamil country. It’s important to read this book in the context of evolving new knowledge and frameworks.
The translation from the Tamil original by V Ramnarayan, a seasoned journalist and accomplished translator, is simple and lucid throughout.
Finally, a word of appreciation for the publisher’s annotations, an important feature in the book. Given the free-wheeling nature of the text, these crisp notes, providing relevant supplementary information and references, greatly enhance the value of the book for the reader. One wishes that they had gone a step further and checked the text for accuracy of facts and rigour of argument. With this book as the starting point, one hopes that more coherent and more comprehensive textbooks for young students would be produced in the future on the rich and diverse history and cultures of Tamil country.
Anxiety to Stay Relevant Amit Khanna
Return to Greatness Zakia Soman
‘This Is Not Fusion’ Akhil Sood