Wednesday, 17 July 2013

ON TAMIL MILITARISM - Part 5: The Suppression of Tamil Military Castes

Part 5: The suppression of Tamil military castes

by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, July 15, 1992, pp.15-16; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]

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, Shanars (Nadars), 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 the Marava 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 and Panivar 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.
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