by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, October 1, 1992, pp.6-8; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]
One of the main figures of the Indian revolutionary movement in Tamilnadu at the turn of the [20th] century was Maha Kavi Subramaniya Bharathy. One of its sympathisers was the Tamil scholar M.Raghava Aiyangar, who was the court pundit of the Maravar kings of Ramnad. Subramaniya Bharathy has been one of the most powerful influences in Tamilian cultural and political life in the twentieth century. The fundamental idea of modern Tamil militarism – that the Tamils were a martial race and that the rejuvenation of their martial traditions is necessary for national liberation, was enunciated by these two Brahmins in the first decade of the twentieth century. This idea has informed Tamil scholarship as well as the narratives of militant Tamil nationalism since then. It has been reproduced in many forms but its fundamental structure has remained the same. This narrative has been a basis of the vocabulary of Tamil nationalism in (a) The Indian revolutionary movement in Tamilnadu, (b) The Indian National movement in Tamilnadu, (c) The DK’s secessionist and Anti-Hindi movement, (d) Caste revivalist movements in Tamilnadu, (e) The DMK, (f) The Federal Party in Sri Lanka, and (g) The armed Tamil separatist movement in the North and East of Sri Lanka.
Current (establishment) literature in the West on the use of history in national liberation organizations and terrorist groups, refers to what these organizations endeavour to disperse among their members and their people as ‘the’ authentic reading of the nation’s past and present, as projective narratives which are, it is claimed, "stories that not only recall the past, but also teach how to behave in the present."
"Narratives of this sort tell individuals how they would ideally have to live and die in order to contribute properly to their collectivity and its future."
It has been argued in an analysis which draws attention to the frequent use of these projective narratives by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, that the members of the Army are not marginal outcastes from Armenian society, but that projective narratives transform them into "paradigmatic figures of its deepest values." (Gerald Cromer: 1991). The projective narratives that shaped militant Tamil nationalism and its idea of nationl liberation were formulated as a reassertion of feudal Tamil militarism and its traditional cultural hegemony in Tamil society.
This was so because they were eseentially linked to the Indian revolutionary movement’s idea of reviving India’s traditional martial heritage as a precondition for national liberation. The importance of chiefly Bharathy and to lesser extent Raghava Aiyangar in the rise of modern Tamil militarism lies in the fact that they initiated a political reading of the ancient Tamil text Purananooru, in particular- an anthology of predominantly heroic poems – and a heroic Tamilian past in general, as basis of a Tamilian concept of national liberation. Their reading was conceived as part of the Indian revolutionary movement’s ideology of national liberation through armed insurrection.
It must be emphasised that they saw the Tamil martial tradition from a pan-Indian perspective. To them the heroic Tamil past was a reflection of a great Indian martial heritage, whereas the Dravidian school vehemently rejected the pan-Indian perspective as a myth promoted by Brahmin interests. Therefore the politics of the views propagated by Bharathy and Raghava Aiyangar have to be located at two levels; the pan-Indian and the south Indian.
At the first [pan-Indian] level, the following factors have to be considered; (a) British recruitment policy and its theory of martial races, (b) the cultural and political reaction to it among the educated Indian middle classes in Bengal and west India., (c) the kshatriya revivalism of Bal Ganghadar Thilak, (d) Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905.
At the south Indian level, the following factors shaped the two men’s thinking; (a) the movement for elevating the status of Tamil language, (b) the rediscovery of the Sangam anthologies, (c) the status and role of feudal Tamil militarism in Tamil society.
The shift in [military] recruitment to the northwest of the subcontinent toward the latter part of the 19th century was accompanied by the martial races theory which sought to elaborate the idea as to why some Indian people – Rajputs, Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims – were martial, while others – Marathas, Bengali upper castes, Mahars, Telugus and Tamils who had once been the predominant groups of the British Indian army – were not martial.
Lord Roberts of Kandahar, the commander in chief of the Indian army, 1885-1893, had made disparaging remarks about the martial character of the Tamils [and] Telugus who had once formed the backbone of the army’s largest group of infantry units.
"Each cold season I made long tours in order to acquaint myself with the needs and capabilities of the men of the Madras Army. I tried hard to discover in them those fighting qualities which had distinguished their forefathers during the wars of the last and the beginning of the present century…and I was forced to the conclusion that the ancient military spirit had died in them."
It was reasoned that long years of peace in the south had had a softening effect on them. There were protests and petitions from the de-recruited classes including Tamils and Telugus. A need to prove their ancient martial character arose among many classes that were thus affected.
At a Congress session in 1891, two Telugu Brahmins invoked the ancient Hindu law giver Manu in support of their contention that they were traditionally a war-like race, to refute Lord Robert’s alleged slights against the Telugu people. These sentiments had been already exacerbated by the Arms Act of 1878 which prohibited Indians from possessing arms without permission. This was seen as a loss of self respect. Raja Rampal Singh protested against it at the second session of the National Congress in 1886,
"…But we cannot be grateful to it (the British Government) for degrading our natures, for systematically crushing out of us all martial spirit, for converting a race of soldiers into a timid flock of quill driving sheep." (Cohen; 1990, chapters 1, 2)
The Marathas had also been particularly affected by these developments. Thilak arose as a national leader among them. He propagated the view that the kshatriya class which had been disfranchised by the British had to rise again. They were the traditional defenders of the realm and internal order. National emancipation could be achieved through the rejuvenation of that class and the traditional Indian social order.
U. V. Swaminatha Aiyar
Thilak’s ideas played an important role in the rise and dispersion of the Indian revolutionary movement. The movement got a big boost in 1905, when Japan defeated Russia. The victory demonstrated a point – that Asian martial spirit could prevail over European military might. Hence, for the revolutionaries (the Raj classified them as terrorists) India’s emancipation lay in the revival of its traditional martial values. The impact of Japan’s victory over Russia on the Indian revolutionary movement in Bengal and west India has been examined (in detail, in Dua: 1966).
At this time Subramaniya Bharathy was the editor of a nationalist Tamil paper called, ‘India’. He was an ardent follower of Thilak and the revolutionary movement and was one of the few in Madras who were bold enough to propagate its ideas through his paper. On Thilak’s fiftieth birthday, he wrote an editorial (14.7[July] 1906):
"The present condition of the country makes it necessary to have Veera Poojai (hero worship)…Veera Poojai is indispensable for a country’s progress. The people of our country who have always keenly observed Veera Poojai, should not be slack at a time when it is most needed."
A note in the paper says that, Thilak’s birthday was celebrated in Madras at Bharathy’s house at Lingaya Chetty street and that a pooja had been held for India’s martial goddess – Veera Sakthi – Bhavani (the goddess worshipped by the Maratha warrior king Shivaji). The revolutionary movement was spreading the Shivaji festival in many parts of India to rekindle the martial spirit which according to them had been systematically crushed out of the Indian nation and were establishing gymnasiums to improve its physical power.
Bharathy wrote an editorial titled in English as, ‘The Outrage of the Arms Act’, reminiscient of Raja Rampal Singh’s outburst – "An evil Viceroy called Lord Lytton introduced this Act in 1878. The people should have opposed it then. It is totally against divine law to make a great country’s people cowards who cannot wield weapons." (1.12[Dec] 1906)
Again he wrote an editorial titled, ‘Are Indians Cowards?’, on Japan’s martial example. "A few Asiatics soundly beat hundreds and thousands of Russians. This is enough to show the valour of the Asians. The warrior’s heaven – Veera Swarkam – is better." (29.12 [Dec.] 1906)
He [Bharathy] was opposed to those who upheld the value of English education. The ideas of the revolutionary movement had to be rooted in Tamil culture and its deepest values; and they had to be spread among the ordinary Tamil masses. This could be done according to him only by adopting a simple style of writing Tamil. This view underlies his poems and songs through which he propagated the idea of the rejuvenation of the Tamil martial spirit as part of the India’s heroic reawakening and liberation.
"Amongst us, the Tamils, manliness is gone, valour is gone. We don’t have a country. We don’t have a government. Will Saraswathy (the goddess of learning) appear in this country in such a situation?"
"Tamil Nadu has not lost its wealth, independence, physical strength, and mental strength and has descended to a low state. Hence good poets disappeared from this country."
In his Puthiya Aathisoody (a book of moral aphorisms for children), he wrote, "Dismiss fear. Do not fail in courage. Learn the art of War."
Thilak’s idea that the kshatriya class of India that had been disfranchised by the British, had to reasert itself in the struggle for the nation’s emancipation was more real and immediate to Bharathy, because he came from a Brahmin family from Tinnevely in the deep south, that had served the Poligars of Ettayapuram. He was hence, acutely aware of the traditional status of the Maravar in Tamil society and what had befallen them under the British. The great famine of 1876 had brought untold suffering upon the people in the deep south and had led to a further decline in the standing of the poorer sections of the Maravar. They were constantly harassed by the police which was formed by Brahmins and other non-military castes.
The poet, a Brahmin who had given up the holy thread, hated Brahminism and his castemen who were servile to the English. To Bharathy, the kshatriyas of Tamilnadu were the Maravar. (This view seems to have been common to Brahmin families that had served the Marava chieftains and kings. See also, Dirks; 1982; p.662). In a note to his ‘Paanjali Sapatham’, he says,
"Maram means valour – Veeram. Maravar are kshatriyar. Understand that, in our country, the class that is known now as Maravar are kshatriyar."
His ‘Maravan’s song’ (Maravan Paattu) relates the predicament of the traditional Tamil military castes under British rule and urges the reassertion of the Maravar, and their martial reputation. He portrays his own castemen in the police as a wretched and greedy lot, abject before the English master, framing criminal cases against the Maravar and fleecing them under various pretexts.
"Alas, we have to dig the soil today to earn our wage. The might of our swords and spears are gone! A bad name has come upon us in this world…The times when we made war with bows, blowing our chanks, are now a thing of the past…Can we bring disgrace upon our great warriors of yore by selling our honour? Aren’t we the valourous Maravar? Should we lead this useless life anymore?"
Thus the revival of traditional Tamil militarism – in its caste and broader cultural forms – was essentially linked to Bharathy’s project of propagating and kindling Tamil nationalism among the masses as a means of national liberation. The project has continued to be at the centre of all political schemes that have invoked Tamil nationalism from his time.
Bharathy’s convictions received a boost in September 1906, at the time when the activities of the revolutionaries were gathering momentum. It came from a talk given by U.V.Saminatha Aiyer on a poem from the Purananooru – an anthology of heroic Tamil poetry. U.V.Saminatha Aiyer, after many years of research, had discovered and published the Purananooru in 1894. It was considered to be one of the most ancient Tamil works. It is said that "the publication of Purananooru created a revolution in Tamilian thinking." (P.S.Mani; p.105. Bharathiyarum Thamil Pulavarhalum, 1981, Madras. "They – the Tigers – are writing the new Purananooru", Ulahath Thamilar, 1.5[May].1992)
The talk gave Bharathy what he was looking for – a sound basis for propagating the idea of reviving the martial spirit among the Tamils to achieve national liberation through violence. He wrote an editorial on the subject titled in English as ‘Ancient Tamil Lady of Ever Sacred Memory’, on 8.9[Sept].1906. The political life of Purananooru, the foundation text of Tamil militarism, begins in this editorial.
It was a time when very few Tamils knew about Purananooru or the Sangam corpus. He says,
"A Tamil work called Purananooru was written many centuries ago. It does not, like later works, relate Puranic fables. It tells of the condition of Tamilnadu in those times, the wars of the kings and many other natural events. A poem from this work was expounded by U.V.Saminatha Aiyer of the Madras Presidency College. There are some, who out of ignorance think that there is no use in learning Tamil and that it cannot inspire patriotism. Aiyer spoke on this poem to refute their erroneous notions. The poem is about the mother of a warrior (Rana Veeran). The woman had sent her son to the battle field, thinking that he will either die in war for his mother country or come back victorious. A liar came and told her that her son had taken fright and run away from the battle field. On hearing this the old woman exclaimed, ‘Did I bring up a coward to whom his life was more important than the love for his nation? I shall go to the battle front and if he has done so, I shall hack these breasts that gave him suck and will die there.’ Determined thus the old woman went to the field and was overjoyed to find her son slain in battle. She was at peace, because her son had given his life for his motherland. The woman’s name is not known now. But only if Lord Isvara blesses the continent of Baratha with many such mothers in these times, a solution to all our problems could be found."
Bharathy draws a parallel here to the story of a Japanese mother who had lost all her sons in the war but was found crying that she did not have more sons to send to the battle front. There were books on Japan’s victory over Russia like, ‘The Russo-Japanese War’ in circulation, particularly among the revolutionaries and their sympathisers at that time. The theme of the heroic Japanese mothers who nurtured the martial spirit in their sons during the 1905 war was emphasised in these books.
Japan’s victory over Russia had inspired another nationalist minded Brahmin to write Parani poems (A form of Tamil war poetry sung for a warrior who slays 1,000 elephants in battle) hailing its martial example. This was M.Raghava Aiyangar, who was the editor of the Madurai Thamil Sangam’s journal ‘Senthamil.’
1. Bharathi Kavithaikal; 1982, Vanavil Pirasuram, Madras.
2. Bharathi Tharisanam (‘India’ essays, 1906), vol.1, New Century Book House, Madras.
3. Nicholas B.Dirks; The pasts of a Palayakarar – The ethnohistory of a South Indian Little King. Journal of Asian Studies, vol.XLI, no.4, August 1982. "Many of my informants (Brahmins as well as Maravars and Kallars) have told me that the Mukkulathors – the three Tamil military castes – are really the kshatriyas of Southern India." Dirks deals with the Poligars (Palayakarars) of Othumalai, who belong to the Kondayam Kottai subsection of the Maravar, the group to which most of the Southern feudal military chieftainsbelonged. The Sethupathys – the kings of Ramnad – belong to the subsection known as Sembi Maravar.
4. R.P.Dua; 1966. The Impact of the Russo-Japanese (1905) War on Indian Politics, S.Chand, Delhi.
5. Gerald Cromer; In the Mirror of the Past – The use of history in the justification of terrorism and political violence. [Journal name is missing here, due to author’s or printer’s slip], vol.3, no.4, winter 1991.
Letter of Correspondent C.R.A.Hoole [Ontario, Canada]:
Tamil Military Caste
[Lanka Guardian, September 15, 1992, p.12]
D.P.Sivaram’s claim that Bishop Caldwell’s writing served to "demilitarize Tamil society" (August 1) discloses a fixation on Tamil martial prowess and warrior bravery. The fixation is more explicit in Mr.Sivaram’s account of the ‘Tamil military castes’ (May 1 – July 1). The account cannot however be taken as an accurate reading of Tamil history. It may be better understood as a charter, providing historiographical legitimacy for the present-day glorification of warrior-heroes who earn fame and honour through gruesome deeds.
Crucial to his argument is the assertion that the pre-British society was dominated by martial values and only subsequently "under active British patronage the Vellala caste established its dominance, and its culture became representative and hegemonic in Tamil society" (May 15, p.18). Against this view, it may be pointed out that centuries before the Bishop launched his so-called pacification programme, the brahmans and their Vellala allies initiated a process of agrarian expansion that not only brought large tracts of land under cultivation, but its people under the sway of brahmanical values (B.Stein, 1980; B.Beck, 1979). Kallar and Maravar during the Chola times progressively converted their lands to peasant agriculture and also adopted Vellala titles. This process has been described as "Vellalization" or "brahmanization" and gave rise to the Tamil proverb, "Kallar, Maravar and Agambediyar becoming fat, turn into Vellalar". The caste society as we know it today, began to emerge from process in the tenth century, with its left-hand and right-hand structural divisions.
It would then follow that the dominant values of the Tamil society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are typically caste values that is, "hierarchy" and "consensus" – in opposition to "conflict" (M.Moffat, An Untouchable Community in South India, 1979). In this context, the Kallar and Maravar who continued to inhabit the remaining marginal or peripheral tracts at this time, may be seen to represent a classical ethosthat was receding into oblivion.
There is no doubt that the Kallar and Maravar remained an irritant to the British Raj, as they had been to the Chola and Pandya overlords. On the other hand because they existed outside the larger caste society, neither a Kallan nor a Maravan could during the time become a paradigmatic figure worthy of imitation by the vast majority of the Tamils. In short, Mr.Sivaram has exaggerated their influence on the Tamil society during that period.
Letter of Correspondent T.Vanniasingham [Canada]:
[Lanka Guardian, October 15, 1992, p.21]
Please permit me to say a few words about Mr.Sivaram’s essays on Tamil military castes. In his account he is illegitimately glorifying them. He seems to be implying that they were treated unambiguously with awe and veneratio, at the time of their exploits. Tamil literary documents of the period are not reliable on this score.Poets and bards were hired-hands in the service of chiefs and could be paid to praise and exaggerate their struggles and victories. In any case there are other Tamil poems that portray the Maravar as blood-thirsty savages, uncouth, undisciplined and lawless who lived by robbing unarmed travellers. The Silapathikaram for instance mentions them as practising "the glorious art of stripping travellers of their wealth – for the brave Maravar virtue lies in the heartlessness of plunder."
There is no doubt that they established kingdoms of their own – and at other times they were mercenaries in the pay of other kingdoms. In fact there were many ruling castes in ancient Tamil society. The Maravar were one such group. These many castes were always in contention for power and the Maravar won, at times. They were not overpowering and dominant all the time and over the entire territory. In this respect, Mr.Diulweva’s claims (Lanka Guardian, 1 Sept.’92) were quite correct. In fact it is possible to show that they were a "fierce maravar tribe – who prefer to die a glorious death on the battle field to a village funeral pyre," as the Silapadikaram puts it, they lacked a theory of government and civil society. For them a civil society is not something that people live in but something that one robs and devours because the Maravar never produce anything. Long before the British came to suppress them, they had shown an inability to govern a civil society of many castes for any extended period of time. Governance needs intelligence, political wisdom, historical knowledge, forebearance and a capacity for trust, all of which, if we are to judge by the descriptions in the ancient Tamil texts, the Maravar conspicuously lack.
A readiness to kill and be killed, as we know only too well, is not the way to create a civilized society.
Previous installments of 'On Tamil Militarism' by D. Sivaram:
Tamil Military Castes
The Code of Suicide
Militarism and Caste in Jaffna
The Suppression of Tamil Military Castes
Bishop Caldwell and the Tamil Dravidians
The Tamil Soldier and the Dravidian Diaspora
The Twin Narratives of Tamil Nationalism
Posted June 11, 2005