Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Caste in D.P.Sivaram’s ‘On Tamil Militarism’ Essay

by Sachi Sri Kantha

I read with amusement the criticism – posted on June 24, 2005 - of a correspondent named Vetri Cholan [from Gangaigonda Cholapuram, Tamil Nadu] to the posting of the ‘On Tamil Militarism’ essay by the late D.P.Sivaram.  Because the editor aptly noted that, since "Sivaram cannot defend himself on the issue of caste, the Editor depends on other readers to respond to Mr.Vetri Cholan", it is my responsibility and duty to respond.  The consequent delay in responding was, among other things, in locating a couple of authentic records from the British colonial period of the 19th century to rebut the focal point of Vetri Cholan’s criticism.  I refrain from commenting on his tasteless asides, such as "He [Sivaram, that is] probably comes from the Thevar or Kallar community..."

The correspondent’s negation of Sivaram’s ethnographical portrayal of the Maravar caste, as "There are no such warrior castes in Tamilnadu" deviates from historical facts.  [See below] That Sivaram studied the Maravar caste history of Tamil Nadu diligently is supported by the factual information he provided and also by the authorities he cited. Thus, Vetri Cholan’s criticism of Sivaram’s analysis ["There are no such warrior castes in Tamilnadu"] is akin to attempting to hide a pumpkin in a plate of rice.  On the other hand, I should concede that Vetri Cholan may be technically right in asserting that "There are no such warrior castes in Tamilnadu" at the present time; but the evidence shows that there were members of such a Maravar warrior caste in Tamil Nadu in the pre-British eras.

In defense of Sivaram’s essay, I provide below excerpts from the writings of two British elites, namely Sir Walter Elliot and Dr. John Shortt, who have presented their observations on the Maravar caste of Tamil Nadu in 1869.  During that colonial era, so-called British gentlemen [even academic elites] writing in condescending style to academic journals about the brown/black natives living in their colonial territory was an acceptable fashion.  Thus, though jarring to read some lines now, we have to ignore their arrogant tone, which sometimes even seeped into the titles of their research communications.  Chieftain Veera Pandiya Katta Bhomman, now revered by Tamils as a revolutionary for his times to stand up against the British bullying, was then described as a "dumb chief" by Sir Walter Elliot.  The title of Dr. John Shortt’s communication was "On the Wild Tribes of Southern India."

Nevertheless, I provide a few excerpts to prove that late Sivaram’s scholarship on Tamil history is sound, and that of his critic Vetri Cholan is defective. 

(1) Excerpts from, Sir Walter Elliot: ‘On the Characteristics of the Population of Central and Southern India’ [Journal of Ethnological Society of London, 1869, vol.1, no.2, pp.94-128]

"…There is a third well-defined race mixed with the general population, to which a common origin may probably be assigned; I mean the predatory classes.  In the South they are called Poligars, and consist of the tribes of Marawars, Kallars, Bedars, Ramusis; and in the North are represented by the Kolis of Guzerat, and the Gujars of the North-west Provinces.  All of these present the same characters, physical and moral; being brave, athletic, warlike, addicted to robbery, and fond of the chase, in which they make use of a curved stick, throwing it with great dexterity like a bomerang.  They possess a skill in tracking men or beasts, equalled only by that of the North American Indian; and are unrivalled in the ingenuity with which they evade the most watchful vigilance in their plundering excursions.  They exist in numerous, independent communities, situated in the less accessible parts of the country, yielding a nominal obedience to the ruling power of the time, and paying a small tribute when the Government is strong enough to enforce it.  From their fastnesses they plunder the surrounding plains in time of trouble, or exact blackmail to purchase exemption from their inroads.

With the same view every village engaged the services of one of these, who was invested with the office of village watchman, and received remuneration in land and fees, for which he not only protected the place from the visits of his friends, but tracked and seized all other depredators.  Travellers, if they would proceed in safety, also engaged the services of one of these men, or failing to do so, were certainly plundered.  They have never risen to sovereign power, but have established many small principalities [Foot-Note in the Original: As the Bedar Rajas of Bednore or Nagar in Mysore; of Harponhalli, etc. in the Ceded Districts; the Matta-Rachawar chief of Carvatinagar, and the Tondiman, Raja of Puducotah, a Kallar chief, in Arcot; the Marawar chiefs of Ramnad, and Sivagunga in Madura; and numerous others scattered over the whole of the south.  Many of these exercised the privilege of coining money, which bore the impress of Siva and Parvati, or Durga] which have survived the rise and fall of kingdoms, both Hindu and Mohammedan.

Many tales are related of their successful plunder of military detachments, because trusting to their discipline, with extra vigilance and double sentries, they refused to hire the Kallar or Koli watchman.  When the Carnatic passed from the Nawabs of Arcot to the British, an organised system of exaction was in existence, which, being incompatible with good government [Foot-Note in the Original: See, Proceedings of the Madras Government for the abolition of Men-Kaval Fees. The Men-Kavalgars were the Poligar Chiefs; the Sthala Kavalgars were the village watchmen or Taliyaris, quasi Sthaliyaris or local guardians.], was abolished, and commutations in land, money, or abatement of tribute, were given in lieu; but the services of the village watchmen were retained.  This, however, was not effected without determined resistance, which led to the Poligar wars, and lasted several years.  One dumb chief named Kotta Bomma Naik made a memorable defence of his fort at Panjalam Kurchi, in Tinnivelly, in 1802-3.  On three several occasions his sturdy pikemen beat back the British detachments sent to reduce the place, and it was only by the despatch of a small army, including Europeans and heavy guns, that it was taken at last.  [Foot-Note in the Original: A romantic incident is connected with this siege.  The heart of the Bruce in its silver shrine had long been in the family of Sir Alexander Johnstone, late Chief Justice of Ceylon.  Its fame had reached the Marawar chief, and, believing it to be a talisman of soverign virtue, he despatched some of his most skilful followers to steal it.  It was found in the fort, and restored to its owner, but was afterwards lost in France.]

There can be little doubt that if the arm of the Government should be weakened, all these tribes would resume their predatory habits.  During the mutiny of 1857, the Gujar villages near Delhi, which had been long engaged in agriculture and other peaceful occupations, at once resumed their turbulent and rapacious instincts.  Unless thoroughly reformed, they will continue to be an element of danger in times of difficulty."


(2) Excerpts from, John Shortt: ‘On the Wild Tribes of Southern India’ [Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, 1869, vol.7, pp.186-194]

"…Maravers: These are believed to be the ancient inhabitants of the plains, who became subject to Hindooism by the influx of Brahmins among them from the north; who, having emigrated from their native place, settled down on the banks of the fertile rivers, carrying with them a knowledge of civilisation, and instructing the people in the knowledge of letters and divisions and subdivisions of castes, probably some six or seven centuries prior to the Christian Era.  The Maravers are believed to constitute the greatest bulk of the population of the [Tinnevelly] district, numbering over one hundred thousand, and to be descendants of lineal representatives of the Pandean dynasty, which flourished from B.C. 500 to the fifteenth century.  Subsequently the capital of the Pandean kingdom was established at Madura, embracing the Madura and Tinnevelly districts.  The Maravers are a robust hardy race, dark skinned (almost black), athletic, active, of medium height; muscular system fully developed; forehead rather low; cranium rounded, narrow in front; eyes large and full.  They are believed to be by birth and profession thieves and robbers; and have been from time immemorial employed as village watchmen, for which service they are paid in kind by the villagers for the protection of their property.

They are honest and honourable to their trust in their own village; but at night form large gangs, of from fifty to one hundred, at remote places, with a view of pillaging villages.  If thwarted in their designs on these occasions, they become reckless, and frequently commit murder.  To avoid being taken, they divest themselves of clothing and oil their skins freely.  Some notorious character having been selected for a leader, their meet takes place at some distance, and quite in a different direction, from the village intended to be plundered, so as to throw off suspicion.  They carry short stout sticks, having one end loaded with two, three or more iron ferrules, in the use of which they are great experts, more especially in the manner of throwing their sticks; they often kill game at full speed in this way.  They make use of all flesh meats, except beef.

Their hair is worn long, and put up after the fashion of the women of the Deccan.  They seldom cover their heads; the few who do so simply tie a long coloured handkerchief about the head…."


Posted July 15, 2005