Skip to content

Nationalist Suppression of the Tamil Past to Create Dominant Self-Images: Individual and Collective

by S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole | UGC Coordinator for Engineering, University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka (Now with Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI)

Presented at Tamil Studies Conference Session 3F, University of Toronto, May 12, 2012

Chairman Sir/Madam Chairman, Friends: In this presentation I will attempt to show that Tamil images of our past are full recreations (through suppressed memory, the theme here), to assert our superiority over others and often have little to do with accuracy.

Simply put, we look down on others. That is the basis of modern Tamil historiography.

Thus we have Navalar our Jaffna Vellala Sudra hero promoting Manu’s orthodoxy, claiming that while Brahmins and Chetti-Vellalas (whatever that means in his vain quest for Vaisya status) became Christian in India, no Brahmin or Chetti-Vellala in Jaffna did; that while Indian Brahmins sat with Pariahs to learn English, we in Jaffna refused to sit down even with Vannaar – washer men; that while kulath-theivams are Devils in India, in Jaffna it is Subramaniam. etc.

We imagine a past to feel superior because we Tamils are all moulded by Manu. Those who write only in Tamil or are nationalistic are generally unreliable because they are the most influenced by Manu. Reliable histories are only from Tamils who read outside literature – that is, read and write also in English. These are but general statements. So we have Leftists who wrote only in Tamil and are reliable because they are exposed to outside literature. Likewise there are some scientists who write good English and are unreliable social scientists because their English reading is limited; for a comparative perspective provides analytical tools to examine critically many taken for granted assumptions.

My sources are textual, photographic and from my own experience growing up as a Tamil and interviews with friends to confirm that my experience is shared by other Tamils.

What is the basis of this assertion of mine, of a sense of superiority leading to an imagined mythical past? Prof. Daya Somasundaram has advanced the idea of a community as a collective suffering from trauma – mental illness suffered by a whole community as against individuals.

I will argue that we have a collective split personality. I will in my own way as a non-psychiatrist put to you that this stems from our attitude to Manu – at once obeying him in the minutest details of his commandments and, at the same time, in contradiction, asserting that we Dravidians have our own independent, ancient culture free of the North. Because this will be denied by most of us, I will take some time to show that our behavior is completely dictated by the teachings of Manu – the Manu Tharmam, or Tharma Saastram.

It is easy to show that we Tamils claim independence of anything North Indian, asserting our ancient Dravidian heritage. The whole Dravidian movement is about that. Some of the key tenets of this movement are 1) A Dravidian language independent of Sanskrit 2) A Tamil language that is 5000 years old 3) Three Tamil Changams 4) The Tamil subcontinent called Lemuria which has gone under sea. 5) Racial distinctions of Dravidians from Aryans based on skin color. 6) The Dravidian race indigenous to India and 7) Saivism of the Dravidians. Suffice it to say that this is all repeated in our popular literature by politicians, and unemployed and less educated Tamil writers, but discredited by modern scholarship. To expand on this here is inappropriate.

Let me now proceed to show how we obey Manu in the minutest detail. Whether Hindu, Christian or Muslim, we follow him without ever having read the Tharmasaastram. A simple example is marrying within caste – at least for most of us. A king of ours even titled himself Manu Neethich Cholan. Manu is so embedded in our culture through our way of life that we do not need to read him to know him.

Time was when the University of Ceylon made Tharmasaastram required reading for every history major – for it explained many things about us and our history and the debt we Tamils and Sinhalese owe Vedic literature. Today, perhaps because Tamils as well as Sinhalese live in an imagined world free of Manu, these readings in Manu are avoided for our separate reasons.

Focusing on Tamils, the issue here, let there be no doubt that in written history we were never free of Sanskritization. For Tolkapiyar, the author of the oldest Tamil work known, was the son of the Brahmin sage Jamadagni. Changam literature shows Sanskritization in emphasizing Vedic sacrifices and the importance of a male heir to break the Transmigratory Circuit.

Manu commands us “Let him not answer or converse with (his teacher) reclining on a bed, nor sitting nor eating, nor standing nor with an averted face.” Anyone who grew up as a Tamil knows how we are scolded when not observing these.

We all know of the doom and gloom that overtake a family when a daughter’s marriage is delayed. It is because Manu says, “Reprehensible is the father who gives not his daughter in marriage at the proper time.” We all know of the eldest Tamil boy having to postpone his marriage and work for the family till the younger girls are settled. The responsibility and respect accorded to the eldest son come from Manu: “As a father supports his sons, so let the eldest support his younger brothers, and let them also in accordance with the law behave towards their eldest brother as sons behave towards their father.”

It is from Manu that we have the rule about not beating our elder brothers at marriage: “Allowing ones younger brother to marry first, marrying before ones elder brother, giving a daughter to [such a younger brother]… are all minor offenses, causing loss of caste.” I can tell you that there were family discussions when I got married before an elder brother. Indeed, by Manu’s rule, I lost caste as a result.

We will all recognize the rule “Let him not eat in the company of his wife, nor look at her, while she eats, sneezes, yawns or sits at her ease.” Our women are therefore told to not sit around and encouraged to relax only in private. My mother ate with us, but my grandmother ate leftovers in the kitchen.

Further restrictions on women are observed to this day. Says Manu: “Drinking spirituous liquor, associating with wicked people, separation from the husband, rambling abroad, sleeping at unseasonable hours, and dwelling in other men’s houses, are the six causes of the ruin of women.”

We Tamils would recognize these as still the practice. Our mothers sleep late and wake up early, and are not encouraged to spend the night away from home. Women who drink are seen as low caste or of poor character. At our funerals the local lower caste women are paid and fed strong liquor and they beat their breasts and cry loudly in the ritual known as oppaari.

Again according to Manu, “Offering presents to a woman, … touching her ornaments and dress, sitting with her on a bed, all these acts are considered adulterous (samgrahana).” So we men do not give a birthday gift to the woman of the house we visit (unless our wife gives it) and are uncomfortable sitting on a sofa with an unrelated woman when visiting, even when there is a vacant space in between.

Our names too are from Manu who commands us, “Let … a Brahmana’s name denote something auspicious, a Kshatriya’s be connected with power, and a Vaisya’s with wealth, but a Sudra’s express something contemptible.” So our kings had names like Changili or Singhi connoting power. In my time as a boy I have seen lower caste estate labourers named madaiyan – fool – and karuppan – blackie.

Likewise little do we realize that our girl names also flow Manu: “A woman’s name should be easily pronounced … and end in long vowels.” Thus we have Malathi, Padmini, Soundari, Revathi, Latha, Swarna, Rosa, etc – all ending in long vowels. However, we seem to be losing this as we adopt the names of cinema actresses with consonants without a vowel in the middle so that the names are difficult to pronounce – like Kshanika, Aashyana, Jyeshta, etc.

Those from the 1970s will recognize easily where the shame of admitting to wearing high quality English bale clothes used for ship ballast came from: “Let him not use shoes, garments, a sacred string, ornaments, a garland, or a water-vessel which have been used by others.” This also explains why in Jaffna we never ate out using shop utensils.

If only we read Manu, we would surely recognize him in our parental insistence about our morning duties: “Early in the morning only let him void faeces, decorate his body, bathe, clean his teeth, apply collyrium to his eyes and worship the gods.”

Our toilet habits regarding the left hand are also from Manu: “He who desires to be pure, must clean the organ by one application of earth, the anus by applying earth three times, the left hand alone by applying it ten times and both hands by applying it seven times.” The use of water also is from Manu: “When he has voided urine or faeces, let him, after sipping water, sprinkle the cavities.” Ironically many of us, who once passed racist comments on those who use toilet paper, now in the West, are forced on occasion into the same habit at least at work.

While we stick to water and have dispensed with sand, our debt to the Middle East is seen in observant Muslims whose rules include using stones in their cleaning process. For Muslims dust and three stones are prescribed in place of using earth three times. The Bible has God punishing us with His left hand and upholding us with His right. In fact Manu might have learnt from seeing cats licking themselves and dogs using earth for the same purpose, rubbing their bottoms into the earth.

I remember up to the 1960s it was common to see men always squatting to urinate by street sides in Jaffna. For Manu says, “Let him not void urine while he walks or stands.” For this reason at the university where bathroom doors were broken, it was common to see men squatting on the modern toilet seats instead of sitting. Perhaps sitting was seen as half-standing and a violation of Manu. In time the seats would crack as a result and all of us took to squatting on the commode brim to avoid sitting where there was no seat.

Those of my age may recall that older men always wore their shawl on their heads while going to the toilet because Manu says “He may ease himself, wrapping up his body and covering his head.”

For Muslims too urinating while standing is prohibited in their scriptures and they are further ordered to handle their penis only with their left hand. With modern trouser zip flaps opening on the right, standing at a urinal, it would be impossible for an orthodox Muslim to squat and to use his right hand. Indeed, like Halal and Kosher meats, there is a market for Islamic trousers with zip flaps opening on the left, to be exploited by the enterprising. I can go on, but I think the point is made that we are Manu’s disciples. If Tamils here are uncomfortable, I think the point is also made that we are uncomfortable when our false self-image as a modern people is violated.

Manu’s laws are about upholding caste and social hierarchy; about punishing those who do not accept the social order and to say who is clean and who not.

When we accept it so well and completely, our attitude of wanting to be superior sets in. Manu surely is the source of our veneer of class and superiority.

An imagined past sets in. Our memories are skewed as we remould and recreate our past. We can see this in everything about ourselves, even our race.

In our imagined past we are a pure Dravidian race when in fact we are an admixture of the pigmy Negritos who occupied India long ago, the Dravidian and Aryan speakers from the Mediterranean and the Caucasus, Europeans who came in colonial times, African Negros who came with the Portuguese and many other smaller strains. Thus we see the Negrito features appearing. Most of us are dark skinned. Our hair is thick-cross-sectioned and crinkly under the microscope. Sometimes it does not take a microscope to see this as with Sai Baba. The Cafrinhas brought in by the Portuguese are today Tamils and are seen singing at Colombo’s Barefoot Café.

The European strain also sometimes shows up, through green and blue eyes and blond hair. A friend with green eyes at my Nallur Saathanaa Paadasaalai was called Poonai.

Agnes Thambynayagam in her most interesting book has produced the drawing of an old Portuguese soldier whose descendants must be proud light skinned Tamils today. Her book I sense in not too popular among some proud Vellalas because she reopens hidden memories of being descended from a Dutch governor.

Abeysinghe records that the Portuguese controlled the kingdom of Jaffna with just 60 odd troops by marrying the daughters of the Modliars of Jaffna on orders from Lisbon. Peiris records the ruler of Thenmaraatchi soliciting the Portuguese for a Portuguese bride. With marriage of their highly-sought after, light-skinned girl progeny into other families and the changing of surnames into Tamil names with nationalism, our European forebears vanish from our memory except when we boast of our light skin.

There is even a Chinese strain among us. A Brahmin Tamil friend did a genetic trace offered by National Geographic for $50 and was told that he is from a Mongol strain. Presumably during the Mughal period a person from there used his political power to become a Brahmin and settled down. Before my very eyes I have seen a Chinese trader family – their motto was “Good things no cheap. Cheap things no good” – settle down in Kaikulanj Chanthai and become one of us.

Despite all this, we claim Dravidian purity and being free of European blood. Yet, we will not easily marry the Black Beauties amongst us. We all know how the marriage market goes. There are Tamil parents who assign a bigger dowry to their darker daughters to bargain for a husband, as the dark skinned Navalar bemoans in Yaalpaanach Chamaya Nilai.

An aunt of mine, still living, did divide her dowry property to favor the darker daughter and openly admits to it. As a daughter is born, the first question is whether she is fair or dark. This denial of our values is part of our split personality that I speak of.

Sambanthar in his Thiru Angamalai has claimed that Chaivam is Tamil and Tamil is Chaivam. We claim that Saivism is ancient and that it is ours.

But if so, we are yet to explain how the Lingam has been found from Mesopotamia to Greece, sculpted well before those from the Tamil country which are relatively recent.

We are in denial that we were Buddhists and Jains well before we were Saivites, writing the Manimekalai and Silappadikaram.

This brings me to vegetarianism. As a vegetarian I am puzzled when Saivite friends ask me “Chaivamaa?,” to ask if am vegetarian. This is another aspect of our false representation of the past. Manu is explicit when he tells us that there is no sin in eating meat: “One may eat meat when it has been sprinkled with water, while Mantras were recited” – just like for the Muslims who would call the Mantras Prayers.

More explicitly he says, almost in Biblical terms, “The eater who daily even devours those destined to be his food, commits no sin; for the creator himself created both the eaters and those who are to be eaten for those special purposes.” Ironically nearly all those who ask me if I eat “Chaiva Chaapaadu”, are Saivites who relish meat. It is a classic example of schizophrenics who do not recognize their delusions. A correct description of vegetarianism, if it is to be given a religious label, would be Jain or Buddhist or Pythagorasean Transmigrationist Food; not Saiva food by any stretch of the imagination! (The earliest recorded vegetarians Gautama, Pythagoras and Mahavira lived at the same time).

This sense of superiority also leads to our asserting our political views as if they are the majority views. Consider His Worship, Alfred Duraiappah, the assassinated mayor of Jaffna. The official majoritarian narrative holds that he was a traitor fit only for death. But consider his support in the Jaffna electorate. His support grew steadily from 1965 to 1970 when he got 35% of the vote, almost the same as CX Martyn, the Federalist. He got far more than GG Ponnambalan, the Tamil Congress leader, whom the federalists held as a traitor at the time. If Duraiyappah was a traitor, then all of Jaffna too was – especially because Martyn also broke with the FP and voted for the 1972 constitution with the Congress MPs, so that 100% of Jaffna voted for so called traitors.

In rewriting history, we never admitted that we used child soldiers. Any Tamil who spoke of it was termed a traitor. In 2009 our dominant ideology did not admit that Tamil civilians in the Vanni were being used as human shields. But now that our side has been wiped out and no one from our side has survived to be punished for his war crimes, we have embraced the UN report to seek punishment for the Rajapakse regime for its own numerous war crimes.

In recreating a past to suit our egos, we have Navalar about whom almost everything is a hoax. A man who knew no Hebrew or Greek is said to have translated the Bible into Tamil. Indeed the Tamil Bible existed even before Navalar was born. He is claimed to have been a clever student even though at the age of 26 in 1847 the Morning Star says he was still a student when he walked out of Central College to protest a Nalava boy’s admission.

The only portrait we have of him is not his but that of another man. He is said to have been handsome whereas Kanagaratnam describes him as having a big head and Poolahasingam describes him as looking like a tadpole. They say he was of Vellala Saivite background whereas he had Chetti relations and his father could never have been the lowly Aratchi he was under the Dutch without having been baptised.

Navalar is said to have exuded rectitude but he has lied about Ramanathan being educated at Presidency College, has engaged in fisticuffs, objected to the education of Nalavas, used insults like drinker of a “kusinip-Pariah’s kopee [kitchen Pariah’s coffee],” and called the Karaiya caste people dirty, acts we do not associate with rectitude or gentlemanliness. I can go on, but enough on that except that it says much about us Tamils for admiring such a man.

Our filtered memories judge Navalar by his school texts like Paalar Paadam for children. These are in simple Tamil and carefully written because they were perused by English school inspectors whose financial support for his schools he was seeking. The real Navalar – casteist, crude, of uncontrolled vulgar tongue, freely using English words in bad Tamil with poor spelling – is in his books for the public like Yaalpaanach Chamaya Nilai. I venture that today’s A. Level boys can write better Tamil than the much touted Navalar. This crude Navalar is there for all to see. But we do not see.

We now have an Ellalan force in Jaffna which demands that women not expose their bodies and dress traditionally. No cleavage, no tight clothes etc.. No appurtenances of the modern Tamil woman! “Or else!”, our modern girls are warned. What do they mean? What is our tradition they want to enforce?

Do they mean like our Vellala women without blouses and the chest covered by the end of the sari as I have occasionally seen in Nallur up to the 1960s? With breasts exposed from the sides?

Or did their memory recall the lower caste girls whom we forced to expose their breasts? I say lower caste and not low caste, because Vellalas too are low caste Sudras. The late Prof. Karthigesu Sivathamby has told me of his bathing in a pond in Vadamaraatchi in the 1930s when a lower caste girl came along in a blouse and umbrella. Vellala men then beat her up, tore off her blouse and broke her umbrella. Events like the Thol Seelai Poraatam for Nadar Women in Kanyakumari (1858-1950) are part of our suppressed memory.

Or did they mean the fisher-caste Kurukkuk-kattu? Because the Karaiya caste is independent of the Velllalas, they could not be forced into the Vellala mores of exposed breasts the Vellalas imposed on the other Sudras lower than themselves.

Here is the grandeur that our memories like to recall – of our old royals in borrowed colonial clothes which we like to think we have always worn. Observe how the very ordinary Sudra, Kannuchchaami, adhering to Manu, has taken on the powerful name of a lion – Weera-singhe – the courageous lion!

This western blouse with our Christianized sensibilities is what our memories have stored. Some sari styles from the 1930s are indistinguishable from European dresses. That the Colombo newspapers took note of the cutlery and clothes of these people in Nallur and their parties and dances reflects a model, trend-setting forgotten Nallur culture that all admired just like when we read the social pages of the weekend newspapers today. The Muthiraichanthai area of Nallur, you may know, was the Colombo 7 of Jaffna until slowly displaced by Chundikuli after St. John’s College moved there. Nationalism likes to forget how we once lived.

Here we see ladies from Nallur as the sari evolves as it is draped like the western dress. They are wearing shoes and stockings like the European royals they emulated.

We must recognize the past which we all recreate. My great grandmother’s photograph here shows her with a pleated sari and brooch. This is her public image in our recreated past – flood level sari and horse-tail at the back with no bit of her midriff exposed. Her daughter, my grandmother’s sister, went to church like this. But at home early in the mornings as my mother cooked breakfast before we were up, she would relax in the kitchen, occasionally wearing a sari without blouse, and smoke a cheroot as she chatted to my mother.

In the past being recreated for the benefit of us children, no one smoked. So she would hide her half-smoked cheroots in the cadjan leaves of our thatched roof for later use. Even the fact that we lived in a thatched house like many of us at one time, is not part of this recreated past.

When my mother’s brother was at Imperial College London and his professor wanted to see his family, he asked for a family photo to be sent to him. My mother had no shoes or stockings because she wore slippers. These she borrowed and that photograph today presents our family’s recreated memory of our past.

Caste too is like that. Here are my great grandmother and my grandfather Sangarapillai Somasundaram. He was heir to the Maviddapuram Temple’s Chief Trusteeship and flag raising rights with the honorific title Kodi-Mara-Sangarar. The men-folk of the family used the Devadasi’s of the temple freely.

When the family is spoken of as in Somasundaram’s biography, it is as if our illustrious forebears like him and Thamotharampillai are our only ancestors. Suppressed are the memories of our less illustrious forebears. As a respectable Protestant family there are only brief references in our memory to Somasundaram’s sinfulness prior to conversion into The Rev. Canon Samuel S. Somasundaram, Dean of St. John’s College. The Devadasis and our relations through them are cleaned out of memory.

Names are another aspect. When the Aryans moved in, we adopted names like Shankara and Skantha, Tamilised as Sangarapillai and Kanthapillai, having no meaning in Tamil. Then when the Europeans came in, we took on names like Anthony and Phillip, Tamilised as Anthonypillai and Philippupillai. Thereafter we had names like Hoole and Kingsbury, paralleled by names such as Keshan and Jyeshta having no foundation in the Tamil lexicon but meanings elsewhere. Today as we try to suppress memory of the colonial period, many of the English names are being exchanged for Sanskrit names.

The Kingsburies, Rogerses and Carols have disappeared completely like the once numerous other British and American missionary names. So too have some Hooles. In Canada and America as the western identity ascends once more, we see a new kind of memory suppression as Markandu becomes Mark, Kavin Kevin and Shan Shawn, and the suffix -pillai after biblical and saint names is quietly dropped.

In short our recreated past is imagined and flawed, with a view to making us feel great and superior to all others in the best traditions of our fond Lord Manu.

We must understand why all peoples desire a more illustrious or “respectable” past. For us Tamils especially, our collective trauma – pain, fear, loss – has created strong ingroup-outgroup divisions based on ideas of superiority and inferiority, and loyalty and disloyalty. But it is important to remember what our past really is and not erase it ourselves. To so erase memories completely is an internal injustice that we have to be responsible for correcting,

As the former Jaffna University sociologist, Dr. Richard Antony, says, the next step is to consider the broader issues of this study – ‘the implications of the complexity of the construction of identity and community’ – and the extent to which such aspects could connect to the various elements of this paper.

Thank you.

View~ Print on File of this Presentation ~ Nationalist Suppression of the Tamil Past to Create Dominant Self-Images: Individual and Collective

The comment may need to be approved by Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting; generally approved/posted if they are not abusive of the topic as well as the author and/or another commenter.