On Tamil Militarism - a 11 Part Essay

 Part 1: Origins and Dispersion in South India and Sri Lanka - by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)


Tamil nationalism in South India and Sri Lanka can be described in terms of two sets of ideas and beliefs. The one, the purity and uniqueness of Tamil language and culture; the other, Tamil traditions which exalt military virtues and ideals. These ideals and beliefs have dominated the vocabulary of anti-Hindi and secessionist agitations and propaganda of the Dravidian movement in South India in the [19]50’s and [19]60’s. The nationalism of the movement for Tamil language rights and regional autonomy in Sri Lanka was articulated in the same vocabulary after 1956.

The LTTE’s nationalism is also expressed in terms of these two sets of ideas and beliefs. But militarism – the spirit which exalts military virtues and ideals – has been the dominant and characterizing component of the LTTE’s Tamil nationalism from its inception. The stated aim of the Tigers is to build a modern military structure.(1) The ideology of militarism plays an important role in their effort to create an efficient and advanced military organization. Therefore, in addition to standard modern methods of discipline, organization and training the LTTE inculcates the belief among its cadres – and propagates the idea among Tamils – that it is part of an ancient and powerful martial tradition, to develop and sustain a motivated and fierce fighting force.

The Tiger symbol is considered the most important manifestation of this tradition. “Prabhakaran had a reason for selecting the Tigers as the national insignia of Thamilzh Eelam. The Tiger insignia is an image rooted in Dravidian civilization. It is a symbol that illustrates the martial history (Veera varalaru) and national upheaval of the Tamils. Our national flag is the symbol of the independent state of Thamizh Eelam to be created, rooted in the martial traditions (Veera marapuhal) of the Tamils.”(2)

How is the LTTE able to thus define its militarism as being rooted in “Dravidian civilization” and Tamil traditions whereas the Sri Lankan Tamils have usually projected their cultural ethos as one which made them a community devoted to education, government employment, commerce and agriculture? Tamil politicians and intellectuals have in fact claimed that Tamil militancy arose from a perceived threat to these avenues of social advancement. The LTTE’s militarist definition of Tamilian identity is possible because Tamil militarism is an unexamined but important feature of Tamil culture and nationalism.

This study therefore intends to examine Tamil politics in South India and Sri Lanka by addressing to questions,
(a) What is Tamil militarism?
(b) What were the social and political conditions of its genesis and diffusion in South India and Sri Lanka?

The Dravidian movement has been studied primarily in terms of the Brahmin-non Brahmin contradiction, in terms of the pro-British regional politics of non-Brahmin elites of South India,(3) the Pure Tamil and Self Respect movements, linguistic nationalism and secessionism.(4)
But the other important component of Tamil nationalism – its militarism has not figured in studies of the Dravidian movement.(5) This is partly attributable to the influence of a historiographic tradition that has shaped concepts of Tamil culture and society in Dravidian studies. It arose from a strong political compulsion in the nascent and early phases of the Dravidian ideology to portray the Tamil people and their culture as peaceful and unwarlike.

Maraimalai Atikal, the father of the Pure Tamil movement wrote in English that, “as we come to the study the life of the ancient Tamils from their most ancient literary work, I mean the Tolkappiyam, the age of which on the best internal evidence goes back to 1,500 B.C., we see them already settled into a highly civilized community for the most part peaceful, but for a few infrequent feuds between one Tamil King and another. It is to this continuity of a peaceful and highly civilized life enjoyed by the Tamils that we owe the existence of the Tamil language still in its pristine purity, vigour and glory.”(6)

 Maraimalai Atikal’s views are representative of the early Dravidian movement. We can see that, the nascent Dravidian school of Tamil studies – the concepts and beliefs of which have influenced the study of the Tamil nationalism is no small measure – is marked by its patent inclination to present the history of the Tamil people as the “continuity of a peaceful and highly civilized life.”

If this was the view of the founders of the Dravidian movement, then where can one locate the ‘origins’ of Tamil militarism? Although South India in general and Tamils in particular have an insignificant place in the modern Indian army – the Madras regiment being the only unit of the southern region – the origins of Tamil militarism is closely related to the question of military and society in India.

The preponderance of north Indian peoples in the Indian army has lead to the study Indian militarism mainly as part of the evolution of society and politics in the northern parts of the subcontinent. The rise of the martial castes and classes of north India in the development of Indian army has been skillfully analysed elsewhere.(7) That ethnic, religious and caste groups which consider military service as their hereditary or natural occupation make better fighters in a modern army, is an idea that has played an important role in the formation of the Indian and Pakistani militaries.

This idea – the martial races theory, which dominated British recruitment policy toward the latter part of the 19th century, is another orientalist discourse that has shaped modern perceptions of India’s people’s, the martial north and the non-martial south. Thus in a book published under the official auspices of the government of India, recounting the martial traditions of the Indian army,(8) there is not one tradition connected with a South Indian caste or class.(9) The ‘martial races’ of independent India’ military – the Sikhs, Rajputs, Jats, Gorkhas, Marathas, Punjabis, Dogras, Garhwalis, Mahars and Kuomanisare all north Indian castes and classes. Yet we find that in the early history of the Indian army, South Indian groups such as Tamils and Telugus had distinguished themselves in the crucial wars which subjugated India to British rule.(10)

There are two phases in the decline of the South in the Indian army and the shift in recruitment towards the ‘martial races’ of the north in general and the north western parts of the subcontinent in particular; - what Stephen Cohen calls the Punjabization of the Indian military.(11).
In the first phase the reorganization of the army after the mutiny of 1857 on the basis of recommendations made by the Peel Commission in 1859 and the Eden Commission in 1879 defined service and recruitment on a territorial basis to suit the policy of divide et impera.

Drastic reductions were made in the Bengal army. Brahmins and upper caste Hindus were dropped in large numbers. Active Service for Sepoys was limited to their home Presidencies. And as there was no major internal security problems in the Bombay and Madras Presidencies, they became military backwaters. This was followed by claims that the fighting qualities of the classes in these regions had deteriorated. Reductions were recommended and made in the Bombay and Madras armies.

In the second phase the great threat of the Russian empire on the north western frontier of the Raj in 1885, followed by the Burma war of 1887-1889 created a massive need for manpower “belonging to races whose martial qualities were well authenticated.”(12) As a result the territorial basis of recruitment for divide and rule was given up and castes and classes mostly from India’s northwest where the bulk of the fighting was done, were extensively recruited. Special social and economic privileges were extended to these peoples to ensure a reservoir of martial manpower. “To preserve their loyalty, conserve their martial spirit and enhance their prestige, the colonial state attempted to make time stand still on the northern plains”.(13) Thus began the rise and dominance of the Rajputs, Sikhs, Jats, Punjabi Muslims and Gorkhas in the Indian army. The ideology of this process – the martial races theory – is another orientalist discourse with its 19th century ‘scientific’ paraphrenalia that has contributed in no small measure to the evolution of modern perceptions of India’s peoples and regions. It sought to establish why some Indian peoples (those who were being extensively recruited) were martial and while others (those who had been dropped in large numbers) were not.

Foot Notes
(1) ‘Viduthalai Pulihal’ (official organ of the LTTE), April-May 1991, editorial.
(2) Viduthalai Pulihal; Article of the Tiger insignia, p.3, Feb-March 1991. The flag with the Tiger insignia was declared as the national flag of Thamil Eelam on Great Heroes Day, 27 Nov 1990.
(3) Baker, C.J. 1976: The Politics of South India (1920-1937). Vikas, Delhi; Irshick, Eugene F 1969: Politics and social conflicts in South India, Berkeley, California.
(4) Sivathamby, K: Politics of a Literary Style, Social Scientist, No.68, March 1978.
(5) It has been noted in passing in another context, “…all actions and activities (of the DMK) were presented as activities of warriors preparing for battle. The protest against Hindi became a battle like Purananooru battles…”, C.S.Lakshmi: ‘Mother-Mother community and Mother-politics in Tamil Nadu’, Economic and Political Weekly, October 20-29, 1990.
(6) Maraimalai Atikal: pp.34-35, Chintanai Katturaikal, English preface to second edition, Kazhakam, 1961.
(7) Stephen P.Cohen: The Indian Army – Its Contribution to the Development of a Nation, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1990. revised Indian edition. The first edition appeared in 1971. “In the 18 years since this book was first published no other study has appeared which either duplicates or replaces it.” Introduction to revised edition, xi.
(8) Dharm Pal: Traditions of the Indian Army, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt.of India, 1961. A second revised edition was put out in 1979. National Book Trust, Delhi.
(9) Twelve “traditions of Gallantry” in the Indian army are related in part one. The only one of South India is that of the Madrasi soldier, an amorphous term, for the Madras regiment, is a totally mixed one like the Parachute regiment and recruits any eligible Indian from the South. The other traditions of gallantry which are recounted ‘The Rajput Soldier’; The Sikh soldier etc. refer to specific ethnic caste, religious or regional groups of north India.
(10) Madras Infantry, 1748-1943. Lt.Col.Edward Gwynne Phythian-Adams, Madras Govt.Press, 1943. History of the Madras Army, Lieut.Col.W.J.Wilson, Madras Govt.Press, 5 vols, 1882-89.
(11) Stephen P.Cohen: op.cit, chapter 2.
(12) A phrase used in instructions given to recruiters in the Madras Presidency.
(13) David Washbrook: South Asia, The World System and Capitalism, Journal of Asian Studies, 49, no.3 (August 1990), p.480.


Part 2: Tamil Military Castes

Thus, towards the latter part of the 19th century, there were large, disgruntled groups with a military past in the Bengal, Bombay and Madras Presidencies. They felt that the vast field of opportunities opened by the expanding Indian army was being unfairly denied to them. This grievance was further exacerbated by views of the British military leadership which relegated them to a non-martial status as races that were not fit to bear arms; in whom fighting qualities had declined.

The reaction of these groups was marked by a compulsion to emphasise the martial credentials of their cultures. Opposition to British rule which emerged among classes affected by the shift in recruitment toward the ‘martial races’ of North western India took shape into an ideology that asserted a national spirit which exalted military virtues and ideals as the cure for the ills of Indian society under the British yoke. Bal Gangadhar Tilak who emerged as a spokesman for the disfranchised military groups became the ideologue of this nationalist Indian militarism. Stephen Cohen has attempted to define Indian militarism in terms of Indian attitudes towards the British-Indian military structure and recruitment.

“There are two fundamentally different sets of Indian attitudes towards the British-Indian military structure, both of which may legitimately be labelled Indian militarism: modern militarism and traditional militarism…emerged in Bengal and western India and spread to other regions. Modern militarism stressed the value of the military as a national universal solvent; as an expression of the national will and demanded equalitarian recruitment. ‘Traditional militarism’ resulted from regional traditions and the recruiting practices of the British. It was confined to those castes and classes which exercised the use of arms as matter of birth right and was unevenly distributed throughout India…”(14)

At the turn of the [20th] century there were two groups in the Tamil region which had a decidedly militarist and anti-British outlook. (a) the adherents of modern Indian militarism – the terrorists – and their sympathizers. (b) the disfranchised traditional military castes.
The dispersion of modern Indian militarism’s basic tenet – that the revival of India’s ‘heroic age’ and its war-like traditions and valus was necessary for national emancipation – invested the heroic past and martial cultures of the disenfranchised traditional Tamil military castes with a nationalist significance and cogence. Modern Tamil militarism – the political idea that military virtues and ideals ‘rooted in Tamil martial traditions’ is essential for national resurgence and emancipation – was enunciated at this specific conjuncture in the school of Tamil renaissance established by Pandithurai Thevar – a noble belonging to the sethupathy clan of the dominant traditional Tamil military caste – the Maravar.

Tamil militarism then, is the effect of inter-related modern and traditional components; the former as nationalist renaissance ideology, the latter as caste culture. Traditional Tamil militarism in the Tamil region as elsewhere in India was confined to a group of castes which considered “the use of arms as matter of birth and right”. The Maravar were, according to the Madras Presidency census report for 1891 “a fierce and turbulent race famous for their military prowess” and were “chiefly found in Madura and Tinnevely where they occupy the tracts bordering in the coast from Cape Comorin to the northern limits of the Ramnad Zemindari.”(15) The Dutch found them to be the traditional soldier caste of Jaffna and availed themselves of their caste services as such (16) – one of the earliest instances of a colonial power making use of a specific military caste in South Asia.

Cohen notes two categories of traditional Indian military castes with different grievances at the turn of the 19th century. (a) “members of classes which were no longer recruited or recruited in small numbers”, (b) “those classes which constituted the army but sought even greater status as commissioned officers.”(17)

The Maravar and their grievances, however belong to a third category. They were a people whom the British attempted to totally demilitarize by depriving them of their traditional status in Tamil society through social, economic and penal measures. This was in direct contrast to the social and economic privileging of such castes and classes in the north, during the same period. They were not only disfranchised but were turned into and classified as a delinquent mass – the subject of a disciplinary and penal discourse – relegated to the fringes of the new social pact which was being established in the Tamil South of the Madras Presidency. The obliteration of their traditions and memory was considered essential to complete the process of demilitarization and pacification of the Tamil region. The martial races theory of recruitment and the subsequent martialization of the north further erased their martial legacy and that of the Tamil South from the military ethnography of the subcontinent.

David Washbrook argues that “the subvention and protection of the north Indian dominant caste communities, and the martialization of their culture, were but two of the many ways in which south Asia paid the price of liberal Britain’s prosperity and progress.”(18) On the other hand the strategy of emasculating and destroying the hegemony of Tamil military caste communities and the demartialization of Tamil culture were two important ways in which the Tamil South paid the price of India’s development as a nation.

The legacy of these strategies in the north and south of the subcontinent, embodied in the structure of the modern Indian army, is central to the emergence of modern Tamil militarism. The gains of this demartialization were consolidated by favouring and encouraging non-military castes in Tamil society which “contrasted favourably with the Maravar”.(19)

The more important of these were the Vellalas, Nadars and Adi Dravidas. The culture and values of the “peace loving” (Madras census, 1871) Vellalas who had “no other calling than the cultivation of the soil” eminently suited the aims of demartialization and suppression of the traditional military castes. In this the British were following local precedents which had been based on the principle that the best way to ensure control and security was to “have none there but cultivators” (21). Thus, under active British patronage the Vellala caste established its dominance, and its culture became representative and hegemonic in Tamil society. The Nadars and Adi Dravidas were considered amenable to conversion. A large section of them had become Anglicans. The recruitment base of the Indian army in the Madras Presidency was constituted strongly in favour of these groups. The Dravidian ideology emerged as the cultural and academic basis for their pro-British politics, led by the newly arisen Vellala elite.

The nascent Dravidian movement was clearly underpinned by the concerns of British administrators and Anglican missionaries (22) in consolidating the social, economic and religious gains of demartialization. This is why the early Dravidian school of Tamil studies and historiography had a strong political compulsion to reject, ignore or play down the dominant role of the traditional military castes in Tamil history and culture, and to assert that Tamil civilization was Vellala civilization. (Maraimalai Atikal, was the chief proponent of this view.) 

Thus in the early decades of the twentieth century we find two contending narratives (23) of Tamil national identity – the ideology and caste culture of the anti-British and “turbulent” military castes and the ideology and caste culture of the pro-British and “peace loving” Vellala elite – claiming authentic readings of the Tamilian past and present. The one claiming that the “pure Tamils” were Vellalas. The other claiming that all Tamils are Maravar and that the Tamil nation was distinguished by its ancient martial heritage. How then did Tamil militarism which originally was related to a political and social milieu that was opposed to the Dravidian movement become its dominant feature in the [nineteen] fifties and sixties to the level of strongly impacting on the Tamil nationalist movement in Sri Lanka’s north and east?

It was related politically to changes that took place in the Dravidian movement and the changes that took place in Maravar – Indian National Congress relations after the [19]30’s. In the Dravidian movement the change was connected mainly with, (a) the rejection of the pro-British elitist leadership of the Justice Party in 1944. (b) the radical change in the attitude towards British rule and imperialism in 1947048 which gave rise to sharp differences within the movement.

Relations between the Indian National Congress and the Maravar began to deteriorate when the moderate Brahmin leadership of the Madras Presidency Congress preferred not to oppose the harsh measures of the British against the Tamil military castes. The contradiction became sharp when Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar the powerful and influential Marava leader, joined the Indian National Army under Subash Chandra Bose and began organizing the Forward Bloc against the Congress in the Tamil region.(24) The antagonism climaxed in a violent caste conflict in 1957. The Congress government arrested Muthuramalinga Thevar in connection with the riot. The DMK which had very little influence in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu at that time made a strategic intervention at this juncture in Maravar affairs. M.Karunanidhi, the only DMK candidate to be elected in the southern parts at that time, was chiefly responsible for co-opting the Maravar into the DMK; and for making the culture of the Tamil military castes a dominant and essential component of Tamilian national identity.

For many years, until he became chief minister, Karunanidhi wrote under the pen-name Maravan. His weekly letter to party cadres was known as Maravan Madal (25) – the Maravan’s epistle. Tamil militarism thus became integral to the Dravidian movement. The secessionist militancy of the DMK in the [nineteen] fifties and early [nineteen] sixties wad dominated by the vocabulary of Tamil militarism. This was the nadir of the Dravidian movement’s impact on Sri Lankan Tamils. DMK branches were organized in many parts of the north, east and the hill country. It was during this period that ayoung student named Kathamuthu Sivanandan from Amirthakazhi, a small village near the Batticaloa town who was studying in Tamil Nadu took part in the militant agitations of the DMK. Karunanidhi described him as “the appropriate weapon for Tamil upheaval.”(26). The student who was later known as Kasi Anandan wrote for a fortnightly called Dhee Mu Ka (DMK) (27) when he came back to Sri Lanka. In it appeared his poem, ‘The Maravar clan’- Maravar kulam (28):

“The Tamil army is a Maravar Army…
the enraged Tamils are a Tiger Army (Pulippadai)…”

These lines of the poem are now part of the history and myths of the Tamil Tigers’ genesis.

Foot Notes -
(14) Stephen P.Cohen: op.cit, p.58.
(15) Edgard Thurstan, K.Rangachari: Castes and Tribes of South India, vol.V, 1909, Govt.Press, Madras, pp.22-23.
(16) The Maravar’s connections with Jaffna will be examined elsewhere in this study, especially in view of a recent attempt by a Jaffna historian to show that the early colonists of Jaffna were Maravar and that the rulers of Jaffna belonged to the Sethupathy clan of that caste. He has claimed that Vadamaradchi was in former days Vada Maravar Adchi [the domain of north Maravar]; ‘Yazh Kudi-etram’, K.Muthu Kumaraswamippillai, 1982, Chunnakam, Jaffna.
(17) S.P. Cohen: op.cit, p.59.
(18) David Washbrook: op.cit, p.481.
(19) A phrase used by the British to describe castes which were found suitable for the new order.
(20) Edgard Thurston: op.cit, pp.369-370, VII.
(21) The Portuguese had applie this principle to establish their control in Jaffna. Tikiri Abeyasinghe: Jaffna under the Portuguese, 1986, Colombo, p.24.
(22) The father of the Dravidian ideology, Robert Caldwell was Bishop of Tinnevely, the seat of Marava power.
(23) For the idea of ‘contending narratives’ in the formation of national identity in another Indian context, the Ayodhya crisis, see Barbara Stoller Miller: Presidential Address, Journal of Asian Studies, vol.50, no.4, Nov.1991.
(24) The Forward Bloc was found by Subash [Chandra Bose]. I am grateful to Subash Chandra Bose Thevar, the chief subeditor of the ‘Virakesari’, a Maravar himself, for drawing my attention to this phase of Maravar history and for the valuable comments and material on the subject, when I began this study in 1990.
(25) This was also the name a main DMK party paper, in the [19]60s.
(26) ‘Uyir Thamizhukku’, Kasi Anandan, Fatima Press, Batticaloa; Preface, p.2, 3rd edition, [publication] year not given.
(27) Two other papers called ‘DMK’ were published in Sri Lanka during this period.
(28) DMK (fortnightly), 10.7 [i.e., July].1962, Colombo, editor and publisher Vasantha Appathurai.
Note: I am greatly indebted to Prof.K.Sivathamby for his valuable comments on Tamil history and culture and for drawing my attention two years ago to the role of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu in Tamil renaissance.



Part 3: Tamil Militarism – The Code of Suicide
Heading 1

“You are to know that in this land of Malabar, there is another caste of people called the Nayres who have no other duty than to serve in war, and they always carry their arms wither so ever they go…they all live with the King and the other great lords; nevertheless all receive stipends from the King or from the great lords with whom they dwell. None may become a Nayre save he who is of Nayre lineage. They will not touch anyone of low caste…The most part of these Nayres when they are seven years of age are sent to schools where they are taught many tricks of nimbleness and dexterity…and when they are fully accomplished in this way they teach them to play with weapons to which they are most inclined. All Nayres are mighty warriors.”(1) observes Duarte Barbosa in his account of the Zamorin’s domain (a division of the old Chera kingdom) – one of the earliest records made by the Portuguese within a few years of their entry into the Indian Ocean. 

The feudal military system described by Barbosa was common to those parts of South India known to the Portuguese as Malabar. In its southern and south eastern parts the military castes were known as Maravar, Kallar and Ahampadiyar; of these the Kallar and Maravar had kingship traditions. This feudal military system was found in Jaffna as well when the Portuguese arrived. The Palk Strait was known to them as the Marava Bay.

The Tamil country was divided into a number of feudal domains, called Palayams, which literally means ‘military camps’ (2), the chief of which was the Palayakarar – the commander of the camp. Most of the Tamil Palayakarar were Maravar. Each maintained a body of Kallar, Maravar and Ahampadiyar warriors who “served on the battle field and in times of peace engaged in hunting and training in the military arts, nourishing a rugged and practical character”, and serving as village guards (kaval) for a contribution (3). In Jaffna “the Maravar had to learn the art of war from the age of sixteen till they were twenty four years of age; then they had to become village kaval-karar, live on land given by the King and return to military service whenever the king required them to do so.”(4)

The military system of the Tamil country was yet a dream in eighteenth century Europe; its armies were in the process of developing methods and regulations which “got rid of the peasant” in the new recruit and “gave him the air of a soldier.” J.Servan, an 18th century French military theoretician wrote a treatise on the ‘soldier citizen’ (1780). He “dreamt of a military machine that would cover the whole territory of the nation and in which each individual would be occupied without interruption, but in a different way according to the evolutive segment, the genetic sequence in which he finds himself. Military life would begin in childhood, when young children would be taught the profession of arms in military manors; it would end in these same manors when the veterans right up to their last day would teach the children, exercise the recruits, preside over the soldier’s exercises…and finally make order resign in the country, when troops were fighting at the frontiers.”(9)

The ideal Palayam was Servan’s military machine; the Kallar, Maravar, Ahampadiyar and Nayar were its ‘oldest citizen’. The Palayam was sustained by a codified martial culture. As we shall see later the practice of martial suicide was most prevalent in the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu, which had a very large number of Palayams.

Early Europeans who studied the military system of the Tamil country were inclined to read therein, some of the ideals embodied in the celebrated regulations of the Prussian infantry that the whole of Europe imitated after the victories of Frederick II. The 18th century British military historian Robert Orme’s description of the military castes of the Tamil country is typical. He says,

“They are tall, well made and well featured. Their arms are lances and pikes, bows and arrows, rockets and matchlocks, but whether with or without other weapons every man constantly wears a sword and shield. In battle the different arms move in distinct bodies, but the lancemen are rated the most eminent, and lead all attacks. This weapon is eighteen feet long. They tie under the point a tuft of scarlet horse hair, and when they attack horse, add a small bell. Without previous exercise, they assemble in a deep column, pressing close together and advance at a long steady step, in some degree of time, their lances inclining forward but aloft, of which the elasticity and vibration, with the jingle and dazzle scare, the cavalry; and their approach is scarcely less formidable to infantry not disciplined with firearms.”(6)

The boomerang - or Valai Thadi in Tamil – was another weapon that “played a considerable part in the Poligar (Palayakarar) ars”. The Kallan and Maravan warriors plied it with deadly effect and “could at one stroke dispatch small game and even man.”(7). Like the Japanese Bakuhan system, the Palayam system was based on a feudal class structure of warriors, farmers, artisans and merchants where the distinctions between the caste statuses of the constitutent classes were strictly enforced. To symbolize this society, the Tamil warriors, like the Japanese samurai, wore swords in everyday life because the system was maintained by their military power.

Mr.Lushington who was sent as Collector to Palayakarar (Poligar) country in 1799, desirous of wresting control of the vast revenues of the land, described the Palayam (Pollam) system of Tamil feudal militarism as extremely evil. “When this contribution (Kaval dues) is not quietly submitted to, torture and the whip are applied,the whole people of the village put into confinement, every occupation interdicted, the cattle pounded, the inhabitants taken captive to, and not unfrequently murdered in, the Pollams…and such is the dread which they have inspired into the cultivators of the circar lands by remaining armed in the midst of a country otherwise in profound peace, that these requisitions are never resisted.”(7)
A fierce and ancient martial culture and religion was nurtured by the military castes.

As in the other martial regions of India, traditional militarism permeated several levels of society. Therefore, despite the great temple centres, the heroes and godlings of Tamil martial culture were worshipped widely throughout rural Tamilnadu. In Japan, the Samurai nurtured the values of kyuba-no-michi (the way of the bow and horse). In the Tamil country, Maram was the martial ethos of the warrior castes. There are three characteristics of Tamil feudal militarism which set it apart from other pre-modern military cultures. They are,

(a)    the detailed codification of the modes of war, the warriors’ martial life and rituals etc.; known as Purath thinai.
(b)   (b) the rejection of divine participation and perfidy sanctioned by religion in the conduct of war. The great medieval Tamil commentator Naccinarkiniyar says that norms which sanction “killing through perfidy and by virtue of divine powers given by gods” are to be disregarded and that modes of war involving gods are to be rejected and refuted as modes not belonging to the Tamil speaking good world.”(8)
(c)    the classification of war with flowers; and a practice of wearing a particular flower when engaging in the mode of war, denoted by that flower. The author of Ramayana had noted that, “the southerners wore flowers for war.”

Codified Tamil feudal militarism was nurtured and transmitted as the Purath thinai division of high Tamil Senthamizh poetics and grammar. Tolkappiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar, the Buddhist grammatical treatise Veerasoliyam, the saivite Ilakkana Villakam (17th century) and Swaminatham, written in early part of the last [i.e., 19th] century are works which contain treatises in which Tamil martial culture is codified and annotated. The perfection and codification of Tamil martial culture through the ages was paralleled by the thematization of several narratives of military glory in Tamil culture through epics, inscriptions, minor forms of poetry etc.

An observation is made in the British Indian army’s recruitment handbook on the Sikhs that, “all sikh traditions whether national or religious are martial; in times of political excitement the martial spirit reasserts itself.”(9) The culture and class interests of Japanese feudal militarism which survived the Meiji restoration partly impelled and characterized Japan’s militarist nationalism and its growth as a modern military power. Similarly it can be said that the culture and structures of codified ‘high Tamil’ and folk forms of Tamil feudal militarism partly impelled and characterized Tamil nationalism when it became militant. Therefore two aspects of Tamil feudal militarism which has been reasserted in Tamil revivalism and militarism will be briefly examined here. They are,

(a)narratives of Tamil military might, thematized in Tamil culture. The most important of these can be reduced to the basic form – Tamil King defeats the Aryans of north India and causes his emblem to be carved on the Himalayas. The Pandyan king Neduncheliyan bore the title ‘He who overran the Aryan army’. All three Tamil dynasties – Chera, Chola and Pandya – are distinguished by this feat in a wide range of texts and inscriptions. These narratives, like the kamikaze – divine wind – legend of Japan’s war with Mongols, have played an important role in the growth of Tamil nationalism.

(b)Codified practices of Tamil martial life.

1. Moothinmullai: the duty of the warrior mother to inculcate the martial ethos and to urge her sons to attain martyrdom in heroic battle. The concept of the warrior mother’s duty was central to the genesis of Tamil militarism and later in militant Tamil nationalism. It is a salient theme in LTTE’s current literature as well.

2. Avippali, Thannai, Verttal, Vallan pakkam, Pun Kilithu Mudiyum Maram and Marakkanchi: the forms of martial suicide and suicidal battle of the warrior as the ultimate expression of his loyalty to his commander. These six forms of martial suicide are defined as described by the works referred to above.

Pulla Vazhkai Vallan Pakkam – the martial attitude of the warrior who goes forth into suicidal battle is mentioned by Tholkappiyam. The other works refer to it as Thannai Verttal. Duarte Barbosa describes the practice among the Nayar (of the Chera kingdom). It was later noticed by British officials as well. It was also prevalent among the Maravar (of the Pandya kingdom) from whom the suicidal Aapathuthavi bodyguard was selected. Thannai Verttalalso refers to the suicide of a warrior on hearing that his king or commander has died (Purapporul Venpa Malai).

Punkilithu Mudiym Maram is the martial act of a warrior who commits suicide by tearing apart his battle wound.
Another form of martial suicide mentioned by all the works except Veera soliyam, is Avippali. Tamil inscriptions speak of it as Navakandam. Inscriptions found in many parts of Tamilnadu provide greater information on the practice. Navakandam is the act of a warrior who slices his own neck to fulfil the vow made to korravai – the Tamil goddess of war – for his commanders’ victory in battle. The Kalingathu Parani(10) – a work which celebrates the victory of the Chola king Kulotunga and his general Thondaman in the battle for Kalinga, describes the practice in detail. “The temple of korravai is decorated with lotus flowers which bloomed when the warriors sliced their own necks”(106); “they slice the base of their necks; the severed heads are given to the goddess”(111); “when the neck is sliced and the head is severed, the headless body jumps with joy for having fulfilled the vow”(113).

The epics of Chilapadikaram (5: 79-86) and Manimekalai (6: 50-51) mention the practice. To ensure the complete severing of the head, the warrior tied his hair to a bamboo bent taut before he cut his neck. Hero stones depicting this practice are found all over Tamil Nadu, and are called Saavan Kallu by locals. The warriors who thus committed suicide were not only deified in hero stones (saavan kallu) and worshipped but their relatives were given lands which were exempted from tax(11).

An area handbook (Tharamangalam) of the Tamilnadu archeology department notes that “the Nava Kandam sculpture which is found widely all over Kongu Nadu (Coimbatore, Salem) is to be seen at the Tharamangalam Kailasanathar kovil also. The people call it Saavan Kallu. “The practice of Nava Kandam existed in Kongu Nadu till the early part of this [i.e., 20th] century.”(12)

A Saavan Kallu at Thenkarai Moolanatha sami Kovil in Madurai, depicting the act of a warrior holding his hair with his left hand and slicing his neck with his right – 14th century – is said to be annually worshipped by the Conjeevaram Mudaliyars.(13)

The Conjeevaram Mudaliyars are Kaikolar, a weaving caste which was militarized under the Chola empire and was made into a special military body; there are indications that Kaikolar warriors practiced Nava Kandam(14). The founder of the DMK, C.N.Annadurai was a Conjeevaram mudaliyar, of the kaikolar caste.

Apart from these codified forms of martial suicide, a method called Vadakkiruththal is mentioned in Tamil heroic poetry. It is the act of a warrior king fasting to death, if some dire dishonour were to come upon him(15). The Tamil teacher, and the Dravidian propagandist, turned the song of the legendary Chera king Irumborai who committed suicide when he was taken captive by his enemies into a compelling theme in Tamil renaissance.

The Avippali form of martial suicide as the ultimate expression of loyalty to one’s commander, is deeply embedded in the Tamil psyche. Senchorru-kadan (the debt of red rice) is a phrase that is widely used today by Tamils as an expression of loyalty. One frequently hears of it in a popular Tamil song. The phrase sands for the ritual of partaking of rice by which Maravar and other Tamil military caste warriors bound themselves to their king or commander to die in suicidal battle for him, or to commit suicide on the day he was slain. Of Avippali, the Puraporul Venba Malai ([verse] 92) says, “thinking of nothing but the red (blood) rice the Maravar give their life as offering in battle.”

The ritual of red or blood rice was described by two Muslim travellers who had visited the Tamil country in the 9thcentury. “A quantity of cooked rice was spread before the king, and some three or four hundred persons came of their own accord and received each a small quantity of rice from the king’s own hands, after he himself had eaten some. By eating of this rice, they all engage themselves to burn themselves on the day the king dies or is slain; and they punctually fulfill their promise.”(16) In modern times it has been observed that “when a Maravar takes food in the house of a stranger, he will take a pinch of earth and put it on the food before he commences his meal.”(17) This act freed him from the debt of blood rice.

Foot Notes
(1) The Book of Duarte Barbosa, 1518; first published 1812 English translation by Mansel Longworth Dames, 1921 Hakluyt Society, 1866; reproduced by Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1989, vol.II, pp.38-40.
(2) R.P.Sethupillai, 1946: Thamilaham- Oorum Perum, Palaniyappa Bros, Madras, p.76.
(3) Robert Caldwell, 1881: History of Tinnevely, reproduced by Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1989, p.104.
(4)   A. Mootootamby Pillai, 1912: Jaffna History, Navalar Press, Jaffna, p.104.
(5) Michel Foucault, 1991: Discipline and Punish, Penguin Books, translation Alan Sheridan, pp.135, 165.
(6) Quoted in R.Caldwell, op.cit. p.103.
(7) Thurston, op.cit. vol.III, p.71.
(8) Tholkappiyam Porulathikaram, Naccinarkiniyar’s commentary on verse No.68 & 90.
(9) Maj.A.E.Barstow, 1928: Sikhs, Handbook for the Indian Army, Calcutta Central Publications Branch, p.40.
(10) Parani – “A poem about a hero who destroyed 1000 elephants in war”, Tamil Lexicon, vol.IV.
(11) South Indian Inscriptions, 1943: Madras, vol.XII, no.106.
(12) R.Poonkunran, 1979: Tharamangalam, publication No.58. Tamilnadu Dept.of Archaeology, no pagination. “Kongunadu was well known for its palayams”, R.P.Sethupillai, op.cit, p.76.
(13) M.Chandramoorthy: ‘Kalvettu’ Quarterly of the Tamilnadu Dept.of Archaeology, no.8, January 1975, pp.21-22.
(14) South Indian Inscriptions 1967; vol.XIX, no.3.
(15) Purananooru; [verse] 212-223. Kopperun-Cholan who thus committed suicide was apotheosized. K.P.Aravanan examines this practice in relation to the ‘Sallehana’ form of fasting unto death among Jain saints: The Other side of Tamils, 1989; Paari Nilayam, Madras. Cheraman Peruncheralathan committed suicide thus when he accidentally received a wound on his back in battle which was considered a great dishonour to a warrior (Purananooru: [verse] 65).
(16) Thurston, op.cit., vol.V, p.287.
(17) Thurston, op.cit., vol.V, p.32.
Note: Swaminatham was first published in full in 1975, by S.V.Shanmugam, Annamalai University, based on a manuscript found in the British Museum library. It refers to Avippali as Poar Avikkoduthal, verse 141, p.233.


Part 4: Militarism and Caste in Jaffna

Tamil secessionism and Tamil militarism are two sides of the same coin. Both are legacies of the attempt by the British to demilitarize Tamil society in the 19th century. Tamil militarism arose from the grievances of the disfranchised Tamil military castes. Tamil secession was the result of the political ambitions of the classes which were promoted by the British to consolidate the gains of demartialization. Therefore it is necessary to understand the colonial strategies which were aimed at depriving the traditional power and status of the Tamil martial castes in Tamil society.

In those regions of India where military service was confined to specific castes, other castes had no desire to abandon their traditional occupations for soldiering or for violence. Since the ability for violence was caste bound, disfranchising or removing a region’s military caste could negate its potential for violence and rebellion. The earliest attempt to thus demilitarize Tamil society was made by the Portuguese in Jaffna. A brief examination of their effort and its impact on the subsequent evolution of society in Jaffna will help understand better the social and political consequences of demilitarization in Tamilnadu two centuries later under British rule.

The Maravar were the traditional soldier caste of Jaffna when the Portuguese arrived. Once they took control, they set about dismantling the feudal military system of the peninsula. Military titles such as Rayer, Athirayer were banned. The traditional soldier castes were seen as a threat to Portuguese control. In 1627 Lancarote de Seixas, Captain Major of Jaffna, put forward the idea that the peninsula’s security lay in having none there, but cultivators. Thus began the rise of the Vellalas in Jaffna. The Portuguese seem to have also favoured another caste called the Madapalli. The Vellalas were not only cultivators, but a section of them which had developed scribal skills, provided the local officials, interpreters and karnams (accountants). Successive colonial powers found Vellala scribal groups useful where Brahmins were not forthcoming. Histories of Jaffna were written and presented to the Portuguese, which showed the Vellala and the Madapalli as the original and dominant community of the peninsula.

The Kailaya Malai and the Vaiya Padal, the earliest works on the colonization of Jaffna, appear to be such histories. They name the chieftains of Tamilnadu who had brought Tamil colonists to the peninsula with them. All of them are described as Vellalas. But eleven of them have Kallar and Maravar caste titles. The Jaffna Maravar were able to resume their caste occupation under the Dutch, who met troop shortages through Jaffna’s feudal military system which the Portuguese had attempted to dismantle. The Dutch governor and director of Ceylon, Thomas van Rhee informed his successor Gerrit de Heere in 1697, that in the Jaffna peninsula “the Marruas are bound to serve the Company as Lascoryns (native soldiers) and pay t[w]o Fanams a year without anything more”. But 93 years later, a Dutch census (1790) of all males between the ages 16-70 in Jaffna recorded that there were only 49 Maravar males in the peninsula, as against 1,570 Vellala males. This was due to a widespread process in Tamil society where military castes, finding their traditional status gone, simply adopted the Vellala caste title and returned themselves as peaceful Vellala cultivator, to the colonial census; and in time became endogamous subdivisions of that caste. 

In 1834, Simon Casie Chitty recorded in his Ceylon Gazetteer, that Kallar, Maravar, Ahampadiyar and Palli (Vanniyar) were sub-divisions of the Vellala caste. It is clear that the Tamil martial castes of Jaffna had swelled the ranks of the Vellalas when faced with unfavourable conditions under colonial rule, as they later did under the British in Tamilnadu. This gave rise to the saying in the peninsula, “Kallar, Maravar and Ahampadiyar came slowly, slowly and became Vellalas.” But, unlike their counterparts in Tamilnad, the Jaffna Vellalas didn’t generally change their military caste titles. “In former days the Vellalas had the titles of Rayan, Thevan, Kizhan and Mazhavan.”

Today, one of these military caste subdivisions of the Jaffna Vellala community, bearing the Kallar caste title Mazhavarayar is a dominant land owning clan in the peninsula. The Mazhavarayar clan is also connected with the history of Thambiluvil in the Eastern province. The Mattakkalappu Manmiyam, a work which deals with the colonization of Batticaloa, mentions the mazhavar frequently among the groups which peopled the Eastern province. Although the ‘vellalization’ of Jaffna’s Tamil military castes predates the same process in south India, Vellala cultural hegemony was achieved in the peninsula only during the early decades of the twentieth century. The persistence of endogamous subdivision identities was one reason for this.

The Vellalization of culture and religion in the peninsula began with Arumuga Navalar’s attempt to convert the Jaffnese from their folk religion which was dominated by the heroes and godlings of the Tamil martial castes. The martial caste elements also figures in narratives related to the founding of Valvettithurai and Myliddy – Karaiyar caste villages on the Jaffna coast, which are key. Whereas the Sri Lankan karava (Karaiyar) caste in general has claimed kshatriya status – that they are descended from the Kuru dynasty – a strong narrative is found among the Karaiyar of Myliddy which states that three Marava chieftains who were brothers came with their caste-men from Tamilnadu, married among the karaiyar and founded the village. Its dominant clan, known as Thuraiyar – the others are known as Panivar – was connected by marriage to Ramnad, the home country of the Maravar, until recent times.

The martial arts of Maravar were popular among the Thuraiyar of Myliddy, before their youth were introduced to modern methods of military training in the last decade [i.e., 1980s]. A narrative related to the founding of Valvettithurai, based on folk etymology states that the village arose on land given to a Marava chieftain, called Valliathevan, by the eponymous founder of the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna. But a strong tradition was prevalent among the Karaiyar of Valvettithurai that they had fought the Portuguese as the soldiers of the last king of Jaffna, Sankili. This tradition, as we shall see later, was greatly exploited by TULF propagandists to mobilise people in that part of Jaffna. The tradition seems to be related to the trade wars between the early colonial powers and the Maravar kings of Ramnad. 

The Portuguese, Dutch and the British tried to wrest control of the profitable rice and chank trade between Burma, Bengal and Ceylon which was in the hands of the Thevars (title of the Ramnad kings) and their Muslim and Tamil tradesmen, on either side of the Palk Strait, among whom were many Karaiyar schooner proprietors of Valvettithurai, Point Pedro and Thondamanaru. The British found that one Vaithianathan of Jaffna was among the few confidantes of the Thevar, who were looking after his chank trade in Calcutta. Karaiyar families carried on with the rice and chank trade in collaboration with Muslims, Chetties and military caste families on the south Indian coast from Ramnad to Tanjore, even after the British finally wrested control of it from the Maravar kings of Ramnad.

A large number of Thandayals (traditional navigators – captains of ocean going craft) from Valvettithurai, Point Pedro were employed in the Thevar’s domain of sea trade. This became the basis of a vast ‘smuggling network’ between south India, Sri Lanka and southeast Asia, after independence in1948. The powerful Vandayar family (Maravar) of Tanjore maintained very close relations with a leading business house of Valvettithurai until 1983. Sometimes such connections between the coastal military castes of south Tamilnadu and the Karaiyar of Jaffna were cemented through marriage. Although Jaffna Tamil society was the earliest to have been de-martialized, and was the only part of the south Indian Tamil region where traditional Tamil military castes were completely subsumed by Vellala identity, it has become the ground in which the most fierce manifestation of Tamil militarism has taken root in modern times. How was this possible? Three reasons can be identified.

(A) The pro-colonial politics of the Jaffna Vellala was not formulated as an attitude against traditional militarisms because the Tamil military castes having assumed the Vellala identity early, were not present as a social threat in the peninsula to the consolidation of colonial authority, after the Portuguese period. Furthermore, the nature of the Vellala caste composition in Jaffna was in itself not amenable to the scribal-agrarian conservatism of the pure Vellala elites, which the British found useful in Tamilnadu. The pseudo-Vellala component of Jaffna was large. A fundamental distinction between the Vellala elite of Tamilnad and Jaffna would illustrate the point. 

Arumuga Navalar campaigned against the activities of Christian missionaries and his efforts received support from Ponnuchami Thevar, the chief Marava noble of Ramnad. In former days, the Maravar had opposed the spread of Christianity, by massacaring missionaries. On the other hand, in Tamilnad, an ideologue of Vellala elitism – J.M.Nallasami Pillai, who like Navalar worked for the propagation of saiva siddhanthism among the Tamils, was closely associated with and supported by Anglican missionaries in his efforts.

As we shall see later, while Nallasami Pillai carefully and deliberately played down the martial component of Tamil culture and history, attempting to establish that Tamil civilization was constituted by the peace-loving Vellalas, his counterpart in Jaffna, Mootootambi Pillai lamented the decline of the peninsula’s martial heritage. He wrote in 1912, “When Sankili – the last king of Jaffna – fought the Portuguese, most of his soldiers were warriors of Jaffna. Even the Portuguese have praised their valour. The victory of the Portuguese was not gained through their bravery, but through Kaakai Vanniyan’s treachery. Wasn’t it the warrior of Jaffna who conquered the whole of Ceylon? The people (of Jaffna) who are descended of those warriors have lost their martial traits and become a despicable race, having been subjugated long under the Portuguese and the Dutch and as a result having become weak and losing their self-identity.” Mootootambi Pillai was reflecting a sentiment that had been expressed in the Madurai Tamil Sangam – established by the Marava noble, Pandithurai Thevar (the son of the noble who had earlier helped Navalar) that the decline of the Tamil nation was caused by the deterioration of its ancient and unique martial heritage.

(B) The closure of the avenues by which Vellala upward mobility and conservatism under successive Sinhala governments in Sri Lanka. The colonial powers opened these avenues to promote the class and culture of Vellala conservatism as a bulwark and gurantee against the turbulence of Tamil feudal militarism. The restrictions placed on university admissions and on government jobs seriously undermined the class and culture of Vellala conservatism and its politics of non-violence and compromise. The other narrative that was contending at this juncture, for Tamilian identity – Tamil militarism – began to assert itself as the bulwark built by colonial powers against it crumbled.

(C) Non-Vellala pockets in the peninsula where the values of Vellala conservatism had made little impact.

Part 5: The suppression of Tamil military castes

One of the first concerns of the British as soon as they conquered the southern parts of India was with the ancient and ingrained “habits of predatory war” among the Tamils. The extirpation of these “habits” and culture was considered essential to establishing their authority in Tamil society. The Tamil region was ceded to the British in July 1801; a proclamation was issued by them in December the same year, whereby the use of arms was suppressed and the military service traditionally rendered by the Tamil military castes was abolished.

It was stated in the proclamation that “wherefore the Right Honourable Edward Lord Clive…with the view of preventing the occurrence of the fatal evils which have attended the possession of arms by the Poligars and Servaikaras of the southern provinces…formally announces to the Poligars, Servaikaras and inhabitants of the southern provinces, the positive determination of His Lordship to suppress the use and exercise of all weapons of offence” and that the Palayams would be turned into Zamindari estates for the purpose of preventing the Tamil military castes from engaging in their customary military services. The British proclamation abolished the Palayam system “In the confident expectation of redeeming the people of the southern provinces from the habits of predatory warfare”, and in the hope of inducing them to take up “the arts of peace and agriculture”.

The ban carrying weapons was crucial to the urgent task of depriving the Tamil military castes of their traditional status in the southern provinces. The woods and fortresses of the turbulent Poligars were destroyed and removed from all maps and official documents (They remained so, until the time of Karunanidhi). Lushington, one of the first British officials to be sent to the Tamil region, had noted that the military castes by remaining armed amidst an un-warlike population wholly devoted to agriculture stood between the East India Company’s coffers and the vast revenues of the land (Caldwell: 1888, chapter 9). The demilitarization of the Tamil region did not spare even the Kallar caste which had rendered valuable service to the British in the important wars of the Carnatic,by which they subjugated the whole of south India.

The hereditary chiefs of this military caste were the kings of Pudukottai – the Thondamans, who had sided with the British against Hyder Ali and later his son, Tippu Sultan. In many of the early wars, the British fought on behalf of the Nawab of Arcot in south India, the Kallar had made up a sizeable portion of their forces. But the Kallar and the other Tamil military castes had to be disfranchised to rid Tamil society of its ancient habits and culture of predatory warfare.

What did the British mean by the Tamil habit of predatory war? The Tamil works which contain treatises on martial life and the conduct of war define it as Thannuru tholil (a task undertaken on one’s own) and Mannuru tholil (a task undertaken on behalf of the king or commander) – Tholkappiyam, Purathinaiyiyal, [no.]60. Unlike many other martial castes of the subcontinent, the Kallar and the Maravar were not yeoman peasants who dropped the plough for the sword only in times of war. They had to seek battles even when their king or chieftain was not at war. Most of the hero-stones found in Tamilnadu commemorate such battles between groups of Kallar or Maravar.

Some of the warrior gods who are worshipped to this day in southern Tamil Nadu are Maravar, who distinguished themselves in such battles which took place even after the British began to abolish the culture of predatory war. The bow-song of Eena Muthu Pandian, a Tamil demigod, describes the martial life and heroic deeds of that Maravar warrior who lived in British times. The warrior’s virtue was to desire the bliss of the hero’s heaven; it was degrading for him to seek fertile lands. The Purananooru (an anthology of Tamil heroic poems) derides the newly arisen kings for their interest in rice yielding fields (verse 287). War was the sole occupation and aim of the Tamil warrior clans. A mother describes the Tamil martial ethos – ‘To bring forth and rear a son is my duty; To make him a warrior is the father’s duty’. To make spears for him, is the blacksmith’s; to bear bright sword and do battle, to butcher enemy’s elephants and return, that is the young man’s duty” (verse 312).

In many seventeenth and eighteenth century British reports the epithet “fierce and turbulent” is very often used to describe the Tamil military classes. Their ancient and deep-rooted cultural hegemony in Tamil society was seen as a positive threat to the perpetuation of colonial rule. To eradicate it, the British adopted a dual strategy. On the one hand they attempted to destroy the social structures which sustained this culture; on the other, they promoted castes which stood to gain from the suppression of the military castes. The most important structure which gave the Kallar and Maravar immense power in the Tamil country-side was the system of kaval. It was abolished in 1832. This has been the traditional means by which the Kallar, Maravar and Ahampadiyar derived their livelihood in times of peace when they were not employed as soldiers.

The manual of the Tinnevely district, described the origins of the Maravar kavalkarars thus: “As feudal chiefs and heads of a numerous class of the population, and one whose characteristics were eminently adapted for the followers of a turbulent chieftain, bold active, enterprising, cunning and capricious, this class constituted themselves or were constituted by the peaceful cultivators, their protectors in times of bloodshed and rapine, when no central authority existed. Hence arose the system of desha and stalum kaval, or the guard of separate villages. The feudal chieftain (and his Kallar and Maravar) received a contribution from the area around his fort in consideration of protection afforded against armed invastion.”

The village and district kaval system permeated many levels of rural Tamil society and hence was hinderance to the effective implementation of new form of administration and revenue collection. In some instances kaval was taken over from the military castes and was handed over to the Shanar (Caldwell; 1888, p.224) or anti-Kaval movements were encouraged among non-military castes to coerce them to give up kaval, sell their lands and leave (Madras Presidency Police Administration, 1896). Many efforts were taken to put a stop to the kaval services of the Tamil military castes in the countryside in the first half of th nineteenth century, culminating in the organization of a new police system in 1860, which recruited mostly from among castes which were considered favourable to the British.

The Adi-Dravidas or Parayar were recruited heavily into the Indian Army. The Nadu-Ambalakarar institution of the Kallar by which justice was traditionally dispensed in regions dominated by them was also abolished to make way for the penal and judiciary system introduced by the British. Deprived of their traditional occupations of kaval and soldiering and in some instances of their lands, a large section of the Tamil military castes became, in the eyes of the colonial government, a delinquent mass, a danger to the rural social order. A body of administrative and ethnographic literature arose on this perception and on the need to portray and classify the Tamil martial castes as criminal. It also relegated them to the margins of Tamil history and culture. The Kallar and Maravar who had been referred to as the military tribes of the southern provinces by early British writers were classified as criminal tribes towards the end of the nineteenth century.

The task of disfranchising the Tamil military castes and destroying the structures of their traditional power in Tamil society was strengthened by the promotion of the Vellalas, Shanaras (Nadaras), Adi-Dravidas and the Nattampadis, who constrasted favourably with the Maravar and suited the aims of revenue, security and conversion. Among these, the Vellalas acquired the most favoured status for the following reasons:

(A) They were, according to the 1871 Madras census report, “a peace loving, frugal, and industrious people”. They were essential to consolidating the new revenue and the Administrative Manual (Coimbatore) noted that the Vellalas were “truly the backbone of the district. It is they who by their industry and frugality create and develop wealth, support the administration, and find the money for imperial and district demands.”

(B) It was ascertained that “according to native ideas”, husbandry was their only proper means of livelihood and that they had no established traditions of kingship, like Kallar and Maravar. The Madurai Manual noted that Aryanayaga Mudali, the great general of the sixteenth century was dissuaded from making himself a king on the ground that no Vellalan ought to be a king.

(C) They were found suitable for the expanding manpower needs of British administration. They were unsurpassed as accountants and many of them were employed as Karnams or village accountants.

(D) They were extremely conservative in their outlook. The Tanjore Manual observed, “in religious observances, they are more strict than the generaliry of of Brahmins; they abstain from both intoxicating liquors and meat.”

It is in this milieu that the Dravidian movement took shape as the pro-British of the de-martialized Tamil social order.

Letter of Correspondent M.Raja Joganantham [Colombo 6]:

Militarism and Caste
[Lanka Guardian, July 15, 1992, p.16]

With the reference to the above article in Lanka Guardian (1 July) 1992. In the article [by] the writer Mr.D.P.Sivaram, some facts are incorrectly stated. The statement a strong narrative is found in Myliddy is correct. The names of the chieftains are Veera Maniccathevan, Periya Nadduthevan & Narasinhathevan. The statement that theMarava chieftains and their
castemen married among Karaiyar of the village is also correct. But the statement about Thuraiyar and Panivar is incorrect.

The clans known as Thuraiyar andPanivar in this village are the descendants of the ancient families of Myliddy. The martial arts of Marava are popular among these two clans, though the Thuraiyar is considered as superior. Thuraiyar as well as
Panivar were connected by marriage to Ramnad, the home country of the Maravar, for which evidence is available.

I am one of the descendants of the ancient family of the village, and the writer of an article titled as, ‘Ancient Villages in Jaffna’, which appeared in Eelanadu on 13.07[July] 1986.

Part 6: Bishop Caldwell and the Tamil Dravidians

Robert Caldwell (1819-1891) was the father of the Dravidian movement. He was the Bishop of Tinnevely – the heartland of the Maravar Poligars – during the times when the British were engaged in suppressing the Tamil military castes in the Tamil region. His monumental work, The Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages, which was published in 1856 laid the theoretical foundation of the political, academic and cultural movement that came to dominate Tamilian life in the twentieth century. The work argues that all south Indian languages (and a few others elsewhere in the subcontinent, like Brahui) belong to a distinct family of tongues called the Dravidian languages. This challenged the widely held view of the time that most of India’s cultivated languages were derived from Sanskrit.

It followed therefore that the culture and civilization of the Dravidian peoples of south India were intrinsically unique. The role of these ideas in the inception of the Dravidian movement has been examined in detail elsewhere (Irshick; 1969, Hardgrave; 1965, Sivathamby:1978). These studies have been in terms of the cultural and political contradictions between the newly arisen non-Brahmin elites and the Brahmins who had achieved a pre-eminent place under colonial rule in the Madras Presidency.

The intention of this study however is to show that the fundamental tenets of the nascent phase of the Dravidian ideology were essentially linked to the political and cultural legacies of the British attempt to demilitarize Tamil society.

The writings of Bishop Caldwell presuppose a teleological project which was not uncommon to what were conceived as great intellectual undertakings in that era of empire building. The assumptions of the project formed the basis of his Dravidian theory. They were,

Bishop Caldwell
1814 - 1891

(a) That the British empire was destined to finally bring order amongst Tamils, a large portion of whom had been more prone to the habit of war than to the arts of peace from the dawn of history in south India,

(b) That this order would be the one in which the imminent protestant ethos of the Dravidian civilization would reach its full expressional ethos which the English administrator saw as the virtue of those classes which “contrasted favourably with the Maravar”, and whom the Bishop considered the legitimate Tamilians,

(c) That the rediscovery of Dravidian linguistic and cultural uniqueness would help consolidate the position of the ‘lower classes’ among the Tamils who had played an important role in the military expansion of British rule in the subcontinent – the Tamil Christian soldiers who were the Empire’s alternative to the traditional Tamil military castes.

In the concluding remarks of his ‘A History of Tinnevely’(1888), Caldwell says,
“A mixed government…came thus to an end and was succeeded by a government purely English, at unity with itself, and as just as it was powerful. The results of this change have been most important and valuable. Professor Wilson…places in a striking light the course things would have taken if the English Government had not been enabled to interpose its authority."

"It may be concluded,” he says, “that had not a wise and powerful policy interfered to enforce the habits of social life, the fine districts to the south of Kaveri…would have reverted to the state in which tradition describes them long anterior to Christianity, and would have once more have become a suitable domicile for the goblins of Ravana.”

The first reflection that arises in one’s mind on reading the foregoing sketch of the history of this district is, that war seems to have been the normal condition of Tinnevely, as of the rest of the old Pandya country…from the beginning of man’s abode in these regions till A.D. 1801 (the year in which the Tamil country was ceded to the British).

Caldwell also notes that,
“Of the beneficial changes that have taken place since then, the most remarkable is that which we see in the Poligars themselves.” He claims with satisfaction that many among the regions martial classes were taking to agriculture; and of the Maravar, he says “the change wrought amongst the poorer class of the Maravas is not perhaps quite so complete…though once the terror of the country they are now amenable to law and reason…” Tamil society was thus ‘unity with itself’ and was realising its destiny under the British Empire. He asserts that “Race after race of rulers have risen up in this country, has been tried and found wanting, and has passed away.” But that the Tamils “accept our government readily and willingly as the best government they have ever had and the best they are likely to have in this age of the world.”

Under the “paternal government” of the English, Tamils were becoming a peaceful and industrious nation. The last “race of rulers” which had risen up and passed away in the Tamil country were the turbulent Maravar. English rule was the only one that was not found wanting because its principles and protestant ethos were in consonance with what Caldwell assumed were the ‘true’ religious and moral ideas of the Dravidian race.
Although as a historian, he was well aware of the hegemony of the Maravar’s martial culture in Tamil society, its exclusion from what he desired to portray as the true Dravidian civilization was central to the imperial and religious interests of Caldwell’s teleologial project. The English, in suppressing the martial castes, were restoring the soverignty of Tamil society’s “legitimate rulers” – the peasantry and lower classes.

In Caldwell’s view, the Tamil military castes had to seek “the safer and more reputable occupation of husbandmen” (Caldwell: 1888, p.229). However, he was deeply suspicious of their peace. Commenting on the Poligar wars, he wrote,
“The population of the sequestered Pollams (Palayams) seemed to be delighted with the opportunity afforded them of trying their strength with the English once more, being thoroughly discontented, no doubt, with the peaceful life now required of them” (p.197).
And he condemned a suggestion ventured by the author of the Tinnevely Manual, Mr.Stuart that the Palayam system of the Tamil military castes was histocially inevitable as the fiefdoms of medieval Europe – “It is so seldom that one hears a good word about Poligars that I quote these remarks of Mr.Stuart with pleasure…I fear, however, that the misdeeds of the Poligars were more systematic and audacious than those of the feudal nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages.” (p.59)

Apart from concerns shared with the British Government, the Bishop’s hostile attitude towards the Maravar arose from the bloody violence they unleashed on the Shanar, large numbers of whom were embracing the Protestant faith. For him, if the idolatory and the Sanskritic culture of the articulate Brahmins was a spiritual threat to the propagation of the Gospel, the violence and misdeeds of the Maravar against the faithful was a dire physical threat. In his scheme of Tamilian history, the culture and ethos of the classes through whom the British government and the Anglican Church sought to consolidate the gains of Tamil society’s demilitarization were seen by Caldwell as the true characteristics of the Tamils.
The martial habits of the Maravar and the Sanskritic culture of the Brahmins were alien to the social order and moral ideals of the ‘true’ Dravidians.

These views were shared by many English missionaries of the 19th century who worked among the Tamils. Missionaries and administrators found evidence for this in many religious and didactic Tamil texts. Henry Martyn Scudder published a book in 1865, in which he “used Tamil texts and poems to support the missionary position that even in ancient Tamil texts many Christian ideas were present.” (Irshick; 1976, p.15). This belief led to the introduction of what were thought to be Tamil works, with little or no extraneous influence in institutions of higher education run by missionaries.

The college curriculum created a market for the publication of such works. This in turn gave an impetus to the rediscovery of many ancient Tamil works (U.V.Saminatha Iyer; En Sarithiram, p.714)., which paradoxically led to the publication of Purananooru and the Purapporul Venba Malai, texts that portrayed the ancient Tamils as a fierce martial race and lay the foundation of modern Tamil militarism. Thus Caldwell’s teleology assumed that Tamil revivalism would help consolidate the protestant ethic and the allegiance to English rule among the non-military castes in Tamil society, by giving expression to the moral and religious ideas which he assumed were imminent in their ancient Dravidian culture and language.

The administrative manual of the Madurai district commended a section of this class of Tamils thus, “They…contrast favourably with the Maravars, being very orderly, frugal, and industrious”. Other section, the Shanar it was stated, “have risen enormously in the social scale by their eagerness for education, by their large adoption of Christianity, and by their thrifty habits. Many of them have forced themselves ahead of the Maravars by sheer force of character.” (Thurston: 1906, p.373).

It was to these ‘loyal’ classes of Tamils that Caldwell referred to when he wrote in the introduction to his Grammar that 
“All throughout Ceylon, the coolies in the coffee plantations are Tamilians; the majority of the money-making classes even in Colombo are Tamilians; and it seems not unlikely that [?]ere long the Tamilians will have excluded the Singhalese from almost every profitable employment in their own Island. The majority of the Klings or Hindus, who are found in Pegu, Penang, Singapore and other places in further East, are Tamilians; a large portion of the Coolies who have emigrated in such numbers to the Mauritius and to the West Indian colonies are Tamilians; in short wherever money is to be made, wherever a more apathetic or a more aristocratic people is waiting to be pushed aside, thither swarm the Tamilians, the Greeks or Scotch of the East, the least superstitious and the most enterprising and persevering race of Hindus.” (Caldwell: 1856, p.7).

Caldwell’s Dravidian theory thus gave rise to a vocabulary in which the word Tamil came to connote the non-Brahmin, non-martial aspects of Tamil culture. Bishop Robert Caldwell in laying the foundation of the Dravidian movement also endeavoured and partially succeeded in dispersing the impression that the Tamils who, only a few years before his time were thought of as being “prone to the habit of war”, were a peace loving and industrious nation. The intellectual endeavours of the learned missionary made the British Empire cherish an ulterior hope that the ‘Dravidian’ Tamils would remain the faithful among the faithless, the bedrock of the Raj for a long time to come – the events of the great mutiny and the rise of the Dravidian movement proved them correct.

I am thankful to Mr.Joganathan of Wellawatte for drawing my attention to the fact that the Panivar clan of Myliddy is also connected to Ramnad. My information however was based on

(a) Place Name Studies – Kankesanthurai Circuit, by Dr.E.Balasunderam of the Jaffna University, 1988, pp.5-6. The book was published for the Mani Vizha of S.Appadurai of Myliddy.

(b) An interview with Mr.Ratnalingam of Myliddy politburo member of a Tamil militant group who I believe is a relative of Mr.Joganathan. The foot-notes could not appear due to an unavoidable circumstance.

Letter of Correspondent Sachi Sri Kantha [Osaka 565, Japan]:

Prabhakaran’s Mentors
[Lanka Guardian, August 1, 1992, p.2]

D.P.Sivaram’s thought-provoking analysis on the history of Tamil militarism (May 1, May 15, June 1 and July 1) was a delight to read. However, he has omitted an essential contributing factor to the militarism of the LTTE. It is too simplistic to believe that the historical traditions of the different castes among Tamils in Tamil Nadu and Jaffna alone contributed to the emergence of Tamil Tigers. If that is so, which
caste does Clint Eastwood belong to? I pose this question because Prabhakaran had gone on record to acknowledge the influence of Clint Eastwood movies in developing his own martial acumen.

While Sivaram had commented on the links the current DMK leader M.Karunanidhi developed with the Maravar community, he has failed to note that more than Karunanidhi’s journalistic skills, it was the movies of Kandy-born M.G.Ramachandran, which brought a sense of martial pride to the Tamil masses, both in Tamilnadu and Sri Lanka. In the late 1940s and whole of 1950s, MGR acted in a series of Tamil historical costume-adventures to highlight the Tamil martial tradition. Especially successful as box-office ‘hits’ were the movies with names that began with the first syllable ‘Ma’. The names of these movies told the past glory of Tamil. These include, Manthri Kumari (Minister’s Daughter), Marutha Naatu Ilavarasi (Princess of Marutha Land), Marma Yogi (Mysterious Ascetic), Malai Kallan (Mountain Thief), Madurai Veeran (Hero of Madurai), Maha Devi (The Great Devi) and Mannaathi Mannan (King of Kings). In all these movies, MGR exhibited his martial skills to thrill his fans. There is no doubt that Prabhakaran and his original band were more influenced by these MGR movies than by anything else.

A Post-script in 2005 by Sachi Sri Kantha to this 1992 Correspondence:
In 1992, I was fully aware that Mervyn de Silva, the editor of Lanka Guardian, exercised his editorial pen sharply; thus I had to limit my critical comments to a maximum of 300 words for this type of unsolicited correspondence, if I wanted to see my letter in print. Thus I exercised word economy, as well as ‘hooks’ to tease Mervyn de Silva’s erudite eyes. The sarcastic sentence, “If that is so, which caste does Clint Eastwood belong to?” was one of such ‘hooks’, and I didn’t mean it to undermine author Sivaram’s scholarship. 

Also, I didn’t elaborate further on the probable significance of MGR’s fascination with the alphabet ‘Ma’; call it a cryptic acknowledgment to the warrior ‘Maravar’ caste. For a whole decade [
1950s], MGR named quite a number of his costume-adventure movies with the first syllable ‘Ma’. It is also not inconsequential, that his ancestors belonged to the Manradiyar caste of Kovai district, Kangeyam constituency, who settled in Maruthur in Kerala state [see, Puratchi Nadigar MGR (in Tamil), edited by Lena Thamilvanan, Manimegalai Publishers, Chennai, 1994, 2nd edition, p.6]. Then in the 1960s, when contemporary social themes became his movie vehicles, MGR chose ‘Thaa’ as the first syllable for a number of his movie titles or the word Thai as suffix in the movie titles. 

Can one attach any significance to these word games of a movie star? Cynics may say no. But, movie stars – like politicians and sportsmen – also have superstitions on success for ‘gains’, ‘hits’ or ‘runs’, and image-making via movie careers is not necessarily limited to Tamil Nadu. Hollywood had given birth to Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thus, MGR and his illustrious contemporary Sivaji Ganesan - as actor-politicians – who dominated the Tamil movies from
1950s to 1970s and made producers and directors to dance to their wishes and whims - may not have been exceptions. Sivaji Ganesan also had a series of successful movies, which began with the short syllable ‘Pa’ or long syllable ‘Paa’ in late 1950s and 1960s. 

Finally, the theme of kaval-
- described by author Sivaram in part 5 of his series – did receive attention in MGR’s movies, especially in his successful Madurai Veeran (1956) movie. Kavalkaran was also the title of another MGR movie released in 1967, under the banner of his own company, Sathya Movies.

The idea of the ‘modern Indian army’ is rarely associated with the Tamils. The nature or its ethnic composition generates the impression that it is a predominantly north Indian phenomenon. This impression has become so strongly established that the military history of the British Empire’s rise has been studied in recent times in connection with the role of the ‘martial peoples’ of north India in the British Indian army. The tenacity and power of this ‘impression’ in modern scholarship is best illustrated in the argument of David Washbrook:

“The role the British Indian army played in international affairs over the course of the 19th century however, lifts it out of the context of British Indian relations and places it in a broader global perspective. It was not an army intended primarily for domestic defence and police duties in India. Rather, it was the army of British Imperialism, formal and informal, which operated worldwide, opening up markets to the products of industrial revolution, subordinating labour forces to the dominating of capital and bringing to ‘benighted’ civilizations the enlightened values of Christianity and Rationality. The Indian army was the iron fist in the velvet glove of Victorian expansionism.Moreover, because the British Empire was the principal agency through which the world system functioned in this era, the Indian army was in a real sense the major coercive force behind the internationalization of industrial capitalism. Paradoxically (or not!), the martialization of north Indian society and, in many ways the feudalization of its agrarian relations, were direct corrolaries of the development of capitalism on a world scale during the 19th century.” (Washbrook: 1990)

Washbrook’s view is based on what the Indian army was towards the latter part of the nineteenth century. It is underpinned by an “impression” which arose many years after the British had established their strategic hold on India and had laid the Empire’s foundation with what was known as their ‘Coastal Army’ which was built up in the latter half of the 18th century, mainly with Tamil soldiers. The British succeeded in empire-building not by martialising dominant north Indian military caste communities, but by building up a cheap but loyal and effective army of predominantly Tamil soldiers. Until the latter half of the 19th century, it was the Tamil Christian soldier who was the main coercive force behind the expansion of the Empire in the subcontinent and elsewhere.

The British recruitment handbook for Madras classes, says
“It can truthfully be said that the Coast Army was mainly instrumental in conquering India for the British.” (p.8) The Tamil soldier was seen as the bearer of the Sword and the Bible – with few religious and caste prejudices which made him suitable for expeditions beyond the sea unlike his more expensive brethren in north India. Contrary to what Washbrook claims, the early phase of British overseas expansion in East, West and South Asia was not based on the martialisation of north Indian society, but on the south Indian alternative to its military labour market – the loyal classes of Tamils.

“During this whole period, as always throughout its existence, the Coast Army was specially noteworthy for the cheerful alacrity with which its regiments have volunteered of service overseas. The Bengal regiments on many occasions refused to embark for foreign service, on the plea that it was contrary to their religion. But the Coast Army willingly embarked, and took a leading part in many successful expeditions, including Manila (1762), Mahe (1779), Ceylon (1782 and 1795), Amboyna and the Spice Islands (1796), Egypt (1801-02), Bourbon and Mauritius (1810) and Java (1811-12)”.

The Coast Army took part in the final expedition against the King of Kandy which was followed by the first war in Burma (1824-26). The first war by the British in China was also fought by them in 1840-42 where the 37th Madras Infantry was made grenadier battalion for its distinguished conduct. Sir Hugh Gough reported on their service in the China war that “their perseverance and gallantry before the enemy have secured for them the confidence of the British European soldiers.” (Recruitment Handbook for Madras Classes, p.6)

Even a brief study of the history of the Coast Army and the Tamil soldiers who were recruited into it would reveal that the ‘military agency’ which “conveyed British capitalist power to areas of the world (including the South Asian hinterland) it could not otherwise have reached” had a very small proportion of north Indian military groups. Washbrook’s argument that the World Capitalist system which the British Empire helped so much to expand rested heavily on the intermediation of the Indian army and that without it and similar agencies constituted outside the European capitalism core, “the forces of world capitalism would have been ethnic, much weaker or else of a very different kind” is plausible but the argument that harnessing the dynamic potential of the readily available north Indian military groups made it cheaper for the British to rapidly expand their empire, is untenable in view of the two most critical phases which determined the hold of the English on the subcontinent.

The first phase begins towards the middle of the 18th century. It was the contest with the French that first compelled the British to abandon their policy in India till then, that was was bad for trade, and raise local troops. There was in the subcontinent at that time paramilitary caste groups whose services could be obtained for a fee. The British unlike the great Indian princedoms in that era could not afford the soldiery of the high caste martial groups although they very much desired them. From the proceedings of the government, dated 7th May 1770, it appears that the Sepoy battalions then consisted of Mohamedans, Tamils and Telugus, but no details ofcaste are given. It may be inferred that the number of Brahmans, Rajputs and Maharattas in the Madras army was very small. It is clear that the authorities were desirous of restricting enlistments to men of good caste, but it is equally clear that this
wasnot practicable during the last (18th) century.”

Again in 1795, it is stated that “owing to the small pay of the sepoy and the high price of rice, considerable difficulty was experienced in obtaining good recruits, and the battalions were kept up to their proper strength by accepting undersized men and those of low caste.” (
Phytian Adams: 1943). Yet Stringer Lawrence and Clive succeeded in making the cheap low caste Tamil sepoys into an army with which the English were able to establish themselves as the main European trading group in India, in the contest with the French. It later won all the crucial battles that subjugated most of India during the course of the seventy five
years since recruitment of the first Tamil sepoy levies began in the northern parts of Tamilnadu in 1746.

The East India company established its first military department at Madras in 1752. The main reason behind the rapid rise of the British in this era was their low cost but hardy army. The major Indian kingdoms of the time, although possessed of modern and larger forces were falling into financial difficulties in maintaining their expensive high caste soldiery whose pay arrears was frequent cause for mutiny. The English fought with the advantage of an extremely loyal army which did not rebel for pay. The Recruitment Handbook of the Madras classes records “never were these qualities more fully tried than in the war with Hyder. The pay of the army was sixteen months in arrears, famine raged all over the country, the enemy was at the gates offering large bounty and pay to our Sepoys to desert, but in vain. Under all these circumstances severe actionwere fought. Their conduct during the war excited the admiration of all who knew it, and Frederick the Great of Prussia was known to have said, “after reading Orme’s account of the war, that had
he the command of troops who acted like the sepoys on that occasion, he could conquer all Europe.”(9)

The second crucial phase in which the future of the British as an Empire building power was determined was the period in which the Indian Mutiny erupted in North India. Again, it was the loyal Coast Army that helped the English survive the Mutiny. It was the Mutiny that made the British reorganize the Indian army into that form which Washbrook considers in his thesis.

“In 1857-58, came the great Mutiny of the army in Bengal, when the Coast Army displayed its loyalty and devotion in no uncertain manner. In a despatch dated the 19th August 1859, the Secretary of State of India said, ‘The commander-in-chiefs Minute contains only a slight sketch of the important services rendered by the Madras army during the great contest in the North of India. The great fact has been the perfect fidelity of that army and the perfect loyalty of the 23 millions of persons who inhabit this Presidency, which enabled the resources of the South of India to be freely put forth in support of our hard-pressed country men in North.”

Lieut-General Sir Patrick Grant said,
“The services in the field of the Troops of this Presidency employed in the suppression or the Rebellion and the Mutiny are now a matter of history, and the glowing terms in which they have been recognized must endure for ever, an unperishable record of this noble soldiers. It can never be forgotten that, to their immortal honour, the native troop of the Madras army have been, in the words of the Earl of Ellenborough, faithful found among the faithless.”

The Dravidian ideology was underpinned by the idea of the loyal Tamil soldier of British Coast Army, bringing to “benighted” civilizations the enlightened values of Christianity and Rationality. Caldwell and his successors elaborated a theory of a Tamil Diaspora as the bedrock of Protestantism and the English Empire on this idea.

Bishop N.C.
Sargant, who like Caldwell, was the Church of England’s Bishop of Tinnevely spells it out clearly in his ‘Dispersion of the Tamil Church’:
“The Tamils are great soldiers; they went with the army along with their families and lived in its newly established camps and in the newly captured territories…they were excellent instruments for establishing the Church among the Telugu and Kannada speaking peoples.” “There is much evidence to show that Tamil soldiers – of the British Indian Army – and those (Tamils) who followed the army took the gospel with them to the other parts of India.” (Sargant: 1940, p.32 and p.68)

About the intention of his word, Sargant says,
 “The Dispersion of the Jews was a preparation for the spread of Christianity in the ancient world. Similarly can it be said that the Dispersion of the Tamil church helped the missionaries? The first Apostles found some God fearing Jews, as their first believers. Did the missionaries find the Tamils perceptive…was this race the first fruit of Christian work? I tried to find answers to such questions…This research made me understand that Christ realised many unexpected and inexplicable things through the Dispersion of the Tamils and the Tamil Church.”
Sargant, like Caldwell and Bishop Whitehead before him, believed that research into ancient Dravidian forms of expression found in Tamil would reveal that there were many surprising words and ideas which denoted Christian concepts such as that of sin. “Like the ancient Hebrews the ancient Dravidians also tried to lead a righteous spiritual life.”(p.3) The close connection between the British Indian army’s early conquests, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.), the Dispersion of the English Church, and the Tamils of Bishop Caldwell’s flock in Tinnevely is described by Sargant in detail (chapters 2, 3, 5). Thus the Tamil soldier, the Tamil Diaspora and the Dravidian movement came to constitute a basis of the British Imperial project.

The nationalist reaction to this project in the Tamil country, articulated by the terrorist movement, proclaimed modern Tamil militarism as the means of national emancipation from British rule.

(1) Recruitment handbooks of the Indian Army series. Madras Classes, by Lieut-Col.G.E.D.Mouat, revised by Capt.G.Kennedy Cassels, New Delhi: Govt.of India Press, 1938.

(2) I have used a Tamil translation of Sargant’s book. The Dispersion of the Tamil Church, N.C.Sargant, 1940; translated into Tamil by Rev.C.L.Vethakkan, 1964.

(3) Madras Infantry 1748-1943, Lt.Col.Edward Gwynee Phythiam Adams, Govt. Press, Madras, 1943.

(4) An interesting study of the military labour market in north India has been done recently by Ditk.H.Kloff-Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market in Hindustan 1450-1850, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990.

(5) History of the Madras Army, Lt.Col.W.J.Wilson, Madras Govt. Press, 5 vols., 1882-89.


Part 7: The Tamil Soldier and the Dravidian Diaspora