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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)
Lanka Guardian, [pp.15-16]
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,
In the concluding remarks of his ‘A History of Tinnevely’(1888), Caldwell says,
"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,
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
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.