Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  > Tamilnation Library > History  >Caste, nationalism, and ethnicity : an interpretation of Tamil cultural history and social order - Jacob Pandian  > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography

TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: History & Geography

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Dravidian movement, Tamil Nadu, Tamil language
Sanskritic, Brahmanical, Indo-Aryan
Muruga, Telugu, Chera Nadu
Tamilakam, Tamil language, Kannagi
Dravidian movement, Brahmin, M.G. Ramachandran
mother goddess, amman goddesses, panchayat
Dravidian languages, Backward Classes, Nadars
Labbay, amman, Vanniar
Jati, culture of India, Tamil culture

Jacob Pandian's book is an important contribution to further our understanding of the Tamil collective identity. That which follows is taken from the conclusion:

".... in defining ethnicity it is necessary to make a distinction between the symbols of cultural boundaries that are transmitted from one generation to the next, and the use of these symbols - the explanations and interpretations of these symbols in the construction of group or ethnic identity.....

People use the symbols of cultural boundaries selectively in the development of group or ethnic identity... The individual "rewrites" his biography depending on the context in which he deploys the symbols, and depending on how and why he defines a particular manner he adds to or alters the meaning of the symbols to his advantage. The individual may also become an "exemplary symbol" or "role model" for others to emulate...   

Any trait, biological or cultural, can become an emblem of collective identity. Biological, linguistic, religious and political traits often are identified by the believers as denoting their distinctiveness. The existence and persistence of these denotations are, however, sustained by the connotations - the meanings embodied in the symbols of cultural boundary...

Among the Tamils, Tamil language is the emblem of Tamil ethnic identity. ...although "language constitutes the single most characteristic feature of a separate ethnic identity...ethnicity is frequently related more to the symbol of a separate language than to its actual use by all members of a group."  Tamil language functions as the emblem of Tamil identity because of the existence of the various symbols of boundaries in Tamil culture.

..... it is the use of the symbols of Chenthamil, karppu, and Tamilakam which enables the denotation of Tamil language as the emblem of Tamil collective identity. Chenthamil and karppu are religious symbols, and are evocative of female imageries. These can be used, and used interchangeably, and both represent purity/chastity as a sacred principle of the Tamils. Tamil women are believed, in relation to the symbol of karppu, to be endowed with sacred power, and are divinized through the imageries of "goddesses" such as Kannagi who had the power to render justice in the political arena. Kannagi not only transformed the religious symbol, but also resolved in her life and action the opposition between the religious/feminine and political/masculine symbols, and she became a role model.

Both men and women could do what Kannagi had done. Men could attain purity, and women could attain political justice. But purity requires constant protection, and men are believed to provide such a protection. Unless men safeguard the purity of women and the purity of Tamil language, both the language and Tamil women would cease to be chaste and lose their sacred power, resulting in men losing the political power to protect their families. Self-immolation by men in the 1960's when the Hindi language was "imposed" in Tamil Nadu was a cultural response, based on the above symbolic logic.

The efforts on the part of the leaders of the Dravidian movement to attain political autonomy for Tamil Nadu also was a cultural response, based on the same symbolic logic.The leaders and followers of the Dravidian movement transformed and synthesized the political and religious symbols of cultural boundaries: the symbols were simultaneously religious and political, and Kannagi gained importance as a religious as well as a political metaphor.

.....language is not the sole emblem of collective identity among the Tamils. The Tamils are divided into several jati groups, each group having distinctive ritual status and political power. The emblems which denote or identify ritual status and political power are jati name and jati title, respectively.

Three symbols of cultural boundaries (nadu veadu, amman and panchayat) are involved in the formulation of jati identity, and in the representation of such an identity as ritual or political emblems. Jati identity has both ritual and political dimensions: jati names are ritual emblems which represent a group's sacredness with reference to occupational purity, performance of certain purificatory rituals, etc.; jati titles are political emblems which represent a group's corporate power and/or politico-economic dominance.

Jati titles (political emblems of jati identity) are rooted in the beliefs and practices associated with nadu veadu rituals. It is the symbol of nadu veadu which enables a child to internalize the meaning of ritual boundaries. Notions of temporary and permanent pollution as well as connotations of hierarchy in relation to purity and pollution are represented in the symbol of nadu veadu. Nadu veadu is also a symbol of the ritual privileges and prerogatives of a household, and by extension, of a jati group.

The symbol of amman is the pre-eminent boundary of health: the symbol is used to conceptualize personal and group health, good or bad. Amman, as the goddess, provides the self and the group prolection, and also punishes; when worshipped with a particular name and a particular ritual, she is a personal or group deity and represents a combination of ritual and political boundedness of a jati group or village territory ... Amman is also linked with nadu veadu rituals: it is the woman of the household who is the sacred keeper of nadu veadu, sharing in the attributes of the amman (and vice versa).

Amman is transformed from a religious to a political symbol in its use, and it is not uncommon to fuse the domains and meanings of experience embodied in all the three symbols. Amman can be viewed as the "master symbol" of the Tamil village, and can be interpreted as the core of other symbols of boundary-maintenance in Tamil culture.

Amman links the literary and village traditions and plays a central role in the formulation of identity at both personal and group levels.

In sum, the Tamils use the symbols of Tamilakam, Panchayat, Chenthamil, Amman, Nadu Veadu and Karppu in the conceptualization of collective identity. Some of these symbols are directly related to jati group identity and others to Tamil ethnic identity. But jati and Tamil ethnic identities are not opposed; in fact, both jati and Tamil ethnic identities have common epistemological roots, although Tamil language serves as the emblem of Tamil identity and distinctive ritual/political emblems represent jati identity...

The symbol of Tamilakam in the literary tradition, and the symbol of Panchayat in the village tradition connote territorial protection, corporate authority, external-rational action. The symbols of Chenthamil and Karppu in the literary tradition, and the symbols of Amman and Nadu Veadu in the village tradition connote spiritual power, ritual purity/pollution, self, life, and internal-emotional content The emblems which denote Tamil and jati identities derive their legitimacy from these symbols.

..... it is necessary to make a distinction between ethnicity and ethnic identity systems. Fundamental to this distinction is the fact that ethnicity is a conglomeration of religious and political symbols that represent cultural boundaries; the symbols are used selectively in the formulation of ethnic identity systems, vary in their use in time and context, and differ in their significance to the believers.

Ethnic systems arise from the self-conscious, organized use of ethnicity to conceptualise self and/or collective identity. This selfconscious, organized use of ethnicity may be characterized as identity summation. Individuals seek consistency and coherence in their formulation of identity, but ethnicity qua ethnicity does not have systemic consistency or coherence.

Within the same cultural tradition, a number of political and religious symbols of greater or lesser importance exist, and some of these have more continuity and have greater relevance as representing cultural boundaries. It is not necessary for these symbols to be interrelated as a systemic whole. It is true that these symbols often fuse each other's meanings and are transformed to convey a collective or synthetic meaning; but the fusion, transformation and synthesis occur in their use to conceptualise identity. We can say that the symbols of cultural boundaries are like books in a library: an individual may organize his knowledge through a selective reading of books.

To the question, "What is your group identity?" a Tamil may answer by identifying his jati title or jati name, his language, occupation, religious or political affiliation. Depending on the context and who the questioner is, the answers would vary.

An individual has a coherent system of self and group identity but what this system does is to enable the individual to employ and deploy multiple identities in his lifetime and in different experiential contexts. In other words, there is no set pattern of identities that remain static. The individual knows what "appropriate" identity to dramatize, and knows how to respond to the dramatisation of the "appropriate" identity by others.

This knowing comes from the internalization of the symbols of cultural boundary, and their significance comes from their use; their use also verifies the validity of the symbols. This is what I have called identity summation. There is the selective use and the cumulative verification-validation of the symbols and it is conceivable that an individual may accumulate some significant symbols, and others will know how to interact with him, giving priority to or emphasizing the use of those particular symbols.

In Tamil culture, it is probably not very common to have all six symbols of cultural boundary combined equally by every Tamil in a way that enables us to state, "This is Tamil ethnic identity."

Some may give more importance to Western or Islamic values than to jati values, and some may decry  "Tamil nationalism" as harmful; but even these individuals "know" how and when to use the symbols of cultural boundary. Furthermore, the use of a single symbol may fuse the meanings of the other symbols, and although an individual may not acknowledge the use of the other symbols, the users can comprehend their collective identities.

In the conception of self or collective identity, the systemic aspect, namely, coherence and consistency, is frequently breached or eroded. Internal experiences of individuals and groups as well as their encounters with external factors make it necessary to generate new symbols or modify the old symbols of cultural boundary. Again, by using the analogy of the library, we can see how new books are constantly written to make the past relevant to the present...."



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