by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, November 1, 1992, pp.17-18 and 20; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]
The Madurai Thamil Sangam was established by Pandithurai Thevar in 1901 with the assistance of his cousin Bhaskara Sethupathy, who was the Raja of Ramnad at that time. The institution and its journal – the Senthamil – played an important role in what could be termed the Tamil renaissance in the first two decades of the twentieth century among the Tamils of south India and Sri Lanka. Its importance also lies in the fact that it created a class of Tamil pundits through a well organized and prestigious system of examinations at a time when strong objections were being raised against creating a Chair for Tamil, in the University of Madras.
The pundits qualified by the Madurai Thamil Sangam in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka have also been instrumental in shaping the vocabulary of Tamil identity when Tamil nationalism began to constitute itself as a political force on both sides of the Palk Straits. The Sangam was conceived as a nationalist project by Pandithurai Thevar who announced and took up the task of its formation at the Madras sessions of the Congress in 1901. Thevar upheld the view that "the love for one’s language is the basis of patriotism and the love for one’s religion." (Speech made at Tuticorin, quoted in P.S.Mani, p.39). Thevar’s desire to establish the Sangam was also linked to the traditional role of the Maravar and Kallar kings and chieftains of Tamil Nadu as the patrons of Tamil poets and pundits, despite the powerful inroads made by Sanskrit over the centuries.
Most of the Tamil texts that impelled twentieth century renaissance were unearthed from collections of manuscripts preserved by families of traditional Tamil poets and scholars who had been patronised by Tamil poligars and kings. Thevar appointed R. Raghava Aiyangar who was the court pundit of the Sethupathys, as editor of the Sangam’s journal ‘Senthamil’ in 1901. His cousin, M.Raghava Aiyangar succeeded him as editor in 1904 and served for eight years. M.Raghava Aiyangar and his cousin belonged to a family of Vaishnavite Brahmins who had attached themselves to the Maravar kings of Ramnad from the eighteenth century. The family produced many Tamil and Sanskrit scholars who were court pundits and ministers to the Sethupathys and the nobles of their clan. M.Raghava Aiyangar’s father was a renowned Tamil scholar in the court of Ponnuchami Thevar, the brother of the Ramnad king Muthuramalinga Sethupathy (1862-1873). Ponnuchamy Thevar was Arumuga Navalar’s patron in Tamil Nadu. Aiyangar’s father died when he was young and was looked after by Ponnuchami Thevar’s son Pandithurai Thevar.
Thus, Aiyangar’s life was bound with that of the Sethupathy clan of Marava rulers. Later in his life, he wrote a book in appreciation of Thevar and his father called, Senthamil Valartha Thevarhal (The Thevars who nurtured Sen Thamil). Aiyangar dedicated two of his most popular books to Bhaskara Sethupathy and Pandithurai Thevar. His involvement with the Indian nationalist movement was therefore closely related to the interests and perceptions of Thevar who was bestirred by the ideas of the revolutionaries and the Swadeshi movement. The Sethupathys had been resentful of the fact that they were coerced by the British to hand over the vast and profitable trade with Ceylon and Bengal. Thevar therefore was attracted by the Swadeshi movement’s campaign to rejuvenate local industry and commerce to undermine the hold of British capital on India. The revolutionaries were calling for the revival of the disfranchised kshatriya classes of India. The Senthamil incorporated these sentiments and ideas into its projects for Tamil renaissance.
Thevar formed the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company with V.O.Chidamparam Pillai in 1907, to break the British monopoly on the profitable Colombo-Tuticorin steamer service. Chidamparam Pillai was closely associated with members of the revolutionary movement in Tamil Nadu at that time. The company resolved in one of its articles of incorporation that it would contribute one percent of its monthly earnings to the Madurai Thamil Sangam, as long as it existed (Annual Report of the Sangam, 1907, pp.7-8). Aiyangar also contributed to the nationalist cause by buying a Rs.100 share in the company. The main financial assistance to the Sangam at this juncture came from Thondaman – the Kallar caste king of Pudukottai, who was its permanent patron, the Zamindar of Singam Patty (Maravar) and a Kallar caste leader called Gopalsamy Rajaliar, who had succeeded in a campaign with Thevar’s assistance to alter his caste name from the derogatory Kallan to a more respectable form Kallar (Annual Report of Sangam, 1907). The Dravidian school of Tamil studies on the other hand was keen to show its loyalty to the Raj and represented Vellala caste interests.
It was in this context that M.Raghava Aiyangar’s Tamil nationalist project took shape. He conceived of a martial heritage that was unique to the Tamil country constituted by the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms in South India, and was - according to him - far superior to the military powers of north Indian peoples. He, an erudite Tamil scholar, skillfully melded his politics into a compelling representation of a heroic Tamil past.
The politicisation of Aiyangar’s reading of the Tamil past begins with the event that kindled the revolutionary movement in 1905 – the victory of Japan over Russia. Japan’s example was proof that India’s traditional material values could prevail over British arms. The victory was hailed by those who subscribed to the ideas of Thilak’s militarism. Aiyangar wrote Parani poems (a form of Tamil heroic poetry to celebrate the victory of a warrior who slays 1,000 elephants in the battle) exalting Japan’s military might in the Sangam’s journal ‘Senthamil’. In 1907, when the activities of the revolutionary movement and the Swadeshi movement were gathering momentum, he wrote an editorial essay on ‘Warrior Mothers’ (Veerath Thaimar). The ideological agenda for what has been described as the ‘Mother politics’ of militant Tamil nationalism was set forth in this essay. He wrote,
"Although there may be other reasons for the victory of the Japanese over the Russians, more numerous and belonging to a larger country, the main reason is the martial training given [to] them by their parents from childhood…the valour and patriotisms of Japanese mothers can be seen in the volumes called ‘The Russo-Japanese War’. These things may appear strange in our times but if we examine our history we will find such warrior mothers and their valorous children numerous…In ancient Tamil texts like Purananooru, the martial theme predominates. It should be noted how the mothers of that era created great warriors."
The essay is based on heroic poetry of the Moothinmullai category found in the Purananooru and the Purath-thirattu. Moothinmullai is a category in the poetics of codified Tamil martial culture in which the culmination [of] a woman’s motherhood is portrayed as the heroic martyrdom of her warrior son in battle. The mothers urge their sons to die valiantly in war. Aiyangar contrasts a Moothinmullai poem in which the warrior’s mother says her womb is the lair of the Tiger, who could be found only in battle fields, with another poem of the category in which a mother whose son has failed to attain martyrdom in battle, exclaims in anguish that she would cut under her womb that give birth to a coward.
V. O. Chidamparam Pillai
Aiyangar notes that the earliest Tamil grammar – the Tholkappiyam – defines and names the poetic theme of the mother who comits suicide on hearing her son’s lack of valour in the battle field. (‘These mothers belonged to Maravar clans’, he says. The Maravar are matrilineal.) He says that the warriors brought forth by these mothers made Tamil Nadu glorious in the Sangam era, in which "one does not hear of north Indian kings invading Tamil Nadu, but only the victories of Tamil kings who fought the northerners. This was so because of the greatness of Tamil martial might." He concludes that the decline of the Tamils was the results of the decline of what he calls Thamil Veeram (Tamil martial prowess).
Subramanya Bharathi saw immense political value in the essay for propagating the ideas of the revolutionary movement’s militarism among the Tamils. He serialized the essay in his paper ‘India’, and urged his readers to popularise it among their friends, relatives and ‘women at their homes’. The essay was used by Bharathy as an instrument for rekindling the martial ethos among the Tamils to achieve national liberation through armed insurrection. Bharathy and V.O.Chidamparam Pillai wrote to Aiyangar, saluting the nationalist spirit inspired [by] his essays.
The politics of the Thamil Sangam was muted next year, when the Swadesh Steam Navigation company was crushed following riots against the British at Tuticorin and Tinnevely. V.O.Chidamparam Pillai and the revolutionary leader Subramaniya Siva were arrested and imprisoned. The publisher of Bharathy’s paper ‘India’ was also arrested on sedition charges. Bharathy became an exile in the French cology of Pondicherry.
Nevertheless, Aiyangar developed the theme of a Tamil martial tradition that was superior to the north, into one of the most persistent and characterising narratives of militant Tamil nationalism – the Seran Senguttuvan legend of the epic Silapathigaram. His belief that the decline of the Tamil martial tradition caused the decline of the Tamil nation has been echoed in every Tamil nationalist project since his time. Raghava Aiyangar lamented the decline of martial values in Tamil society, for he saw himself essentially as a loyal Brahmin of one of the oldest ruling Maravar clans of Tamil Nadu. His Tamil nationalist project was rooted in that self-perception.
(1) Recent gender-oriented critique of the LTTE fails to take note of the fact that the Moothinmullai Mother is a leitmotif in the structuring and representation of the Tamil nationalist project. Hence in the BBC documentary on the Tigers – Suicide Killers – the Black Tiger Miller’s mother is presented to the TV crew as a woman who feels proud of her son’s heroic martyrdom in the suicide attack on the Nelliady, Sri Lankan army camp in 1987. The LTTE here is reproducing a fundamental structure of representing Tamilian identity. C.S.Lakshmi has examined the role of the concept of the heroic mother in the militant Dravidian movement and its strategy of mobilising women. She, however, fails to take note of the politics of Aiyangar and Bharathy and the impact of the Russo-Japanese war on them in the genesis of this concept. C.S.Lakshmi; Mother, Mother-community and Mother-politics in Tamil Nadu. Economic and Political Weekly, October 1990.
(2) [For] the role of the Sethupathys and Marava chieftains in the promotion of Tamil literature, see Sangath Thamilum Pitkalath Thamilum, U.V.Saminatha Aiyer, 1949, Kabir Press, Madras.
(3) Senthamil Valartha Thevarhal, M.Raghava Aiyangar; 1948, D.G.Gopalapillai Co., Tiruchi.
(4) Aiyangar was held in great esteem by the Tamil elite of Colombo and Jaffna. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan invited him to lecture in Jaffna. One V.J.Thambi Pillai translated his ‘Velir Varalaru’ and published it in the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon. K.Srikanthan gave an award to his work ‘Tholkappiya Araichi’. One of the earliest modern historians of Jaffna, A.Mootoothambi Pillai, who was a contributor to the Sangam’s journal Senthamil reflected Aiyangar’s thesis in his Jaffna history, when he lamented the decline of Jaffna’s martial values which according to him had flourished under the ruler Sankili. Mootoothambi Pillai, 1912, ‘History of Jaffna’.
(5) ‘Siranjeevi’; 1981. ‘Sethupathikal Varalaaru’ (History of Sethupathys), Jeevan Press, Madras.
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
Bharathy and the Legitimation of Militarism
Posted June 11, 2005