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Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Caste, Dowry and Arranged Marriage in Tamil Society

by Renuka Kumarasamy, 2006 Sangam AGM souvenir booklet

The decision of a couple to carry this identity and pass it on to their children is what assures the passage of a culture from generation to generation.  The Tamil Youth, while discarding many of the negative aspects of caste, dowry and arranged marriage, would hopefully choose to carry forward the positive aspects of Tamil identity, language and culture into the next generation.

Tamil wedding The rituals and practices of any culture change with the passage of time.  Time changes both the practice and the beliefs and motives beyond the practice.  Sometimes a practice that began with a positive intent might degenerate and become destructive. And, on rare occasions, a negative practice might get transformed into something positive. Exploring the origins and the transformation of caste, dowry and arranged marriage in the Tamil society might provide us with a better understanding of where these practices are headed in the future.

One of the most popular misconceptions about caste within the Tamils seems to be that the Tamil castes belong to the Varna caste system (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra). But linguists and scholars, such as George L. Hart (in ‘The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom’), R.Prathasarathy (in ‘The Tales of An Anklet’) and Dr.N.Subrahmanian (in ‘The Tamils’), have asserted that the Tamil castes are indigenous to the Tamils and are distinct from the Varna caste system.

Unlike the Varna system, there was no hierarchy within the Tamil castes and there seems to have been relatively less snootiness between the various groups. But that does not mean that there were no inequalities within the Tamil castes. What seems to have existed is a land ownership-based feudal system, where the various groups that owned land, generically termed the Vellalars, seem to have gained political and economic power. Whatever the origins and evolution of the the Tamil castes, they have generally played a very divisive and negative role within Tamil Society.  Focusing and strengthening the common Tamil identity should automatically diminish the impact of the caste system and hopefully lead to the eventual elimination of castes.

If we look back at Tamil History and Literature, one would be very hard pressed to find any reference to dowry, as it currently exists. Nevertheless, dowry is a reality of the modern Tamil Society.  What would have at some point started as a voluntary gift at weddings has apparently deteriorated into a demanded dowry.

The matrilineal system of property inheritance practiced by Eelam Tamils is particularly fascinating. From one perspective, this practice gave women right to ownership and inheritance of property, at a time when women in most cultures did not have this right. But when this practice turns into something that could be demanded as a pre-condition for marriage, then it deteriorates into the dowry system; and what could have empowered women, demeans them.  The increased Education of women and the increase in professional and career women should have made dowry irrelevant. But, unfortunately, that has not happened in India or Sri Lanka.  It is at least refreshing to note that caste and dowry have become irrelevant  among the Tamil Americans.

Joseph Campbell in his book ‘The Power of Myth’ asserts that the idea of marriage,  based solely on personal, romantic love did not exist in Europe until the 12th  century.  Long before that, Tamil poets of the Sangam Period glorified the various dimensions of romantic love, in some of the most beautiful romantic poems. In  ‘The Interior Landscape’, an English translation of Kuruntokai, an anthology of Tamil Love lyrics recorded during the first three centuries A.D,  translator  A.K.Ramanujan notes, ‘passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design,  impersonality by vivid detail, spareness by richness of implication’.  It would be quite an interesting undertaking,  if one were to explore how a society that valued romantic love in the Sangam Period transformed into one that has been dominated by arranged marriages in the last few centuries. 

And, quite often during this period, marriages are arranged based more on social status and economic criteria than on the wishes of the bride and the groom.  Granted, marriage based on romantic love, as described by the Sangam poets, might be the best suited for our modern times, but the practical reality is that it is difficult for many to find that partner on their own.  There are many who might need a helping hand in finding their partner and, if the current ‘arranged marriage’ could be transformed into ‘arranged meetings’, then it could play a positive role in our society.

The choice of a marriage partner is probably one of the most personal decisions one could make. But, paradoxically, this personal choice has a profound impact on society at large.  For any culture, even a culture with over two thousand years of literary heritage, depends for its survival on the decision of young couples to carry forward this identity.

The decision of a couple to carry this identity and pass it on to their children is what assures the passage of a culture from generation to generation.  The Tamil Youth, while discarding many of the negative aspects of caste, dowry and arranged marriage, would hopefully choose to carry forward the positive aspects of Tamil identity, language and culture into the next generation.