Beef in Tamizhagam: How was cow slaughtered and beef consumed in ancient Tamil Nadu?

The 'holiness' of the cow is often questioned, but from the point of view of Aryan texts. What do Sangam texts tell us?
Beef in Tamizhagam: How was cow slaughtered and beef consumed in ancient Tamil Nadu?
Beef in Tamizhagam: How was cow slaughtered and beef consumed in ancient Tamil Nadu?
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Following the ‘beef-lynching’ of a Muslim man in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, the subject of the ‘holiness’ of the cow and the validity of the claim that all Hindus are offended by cow-slaughter is being debated yet again.

Drawing from his popular and controversial book ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow’ DN Jha has written in Indian Express on the ‘elusive’ holiness of the cow. While cow-slaughter was a common trend in the Vedic times, by the medieval era, “the cow was emerging as an emotive cultural symbol in brahminical circles” and thereafter became an emotive issue, says Jha. But his narrative, through which he concludes that “the story of the cow is riddled with puzzles and paradoxes”, is largely based on ‘Aryan’ texts and the social, political and religious developments of north India.

What about the land of the Dravidians, how was beef consumed here during, say, the Sangam era? An interesting paper published by KV Ramakrishna Rao at the 57th session of the Indian History Congress held at Madras from December 27-29, 1996, throws some light on the beef eating practice in ancient Tamizhagam. You can read the whole paper on Rao’s blog here, which he agreed to re-publish online on our request since it was not found on the IHC website.

Sangam Literature contains thousands of poems written between c. 300 BC to 300 AD and usually deals with emotional and material topics. It is one of the main sources that help in the documentation of the country's early Tamil history.

Here are some important pointers from the paper, attributed to KV Ramakrishna Rao. The text below has either been duplicated from the research paper or paraphrased for an easier read. Some parts have been edited for length and language. Please read the entire paper here.

There are several references to consumption of beef in Sangam literature. While more emphasis was placed on vegetarian food, there wasn’t much differentiation between vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, perhaps proving that there were no religious restrictions on dietary habits.

Several words have been used in the literature to denote meat of different varieties. Some of the words used are - Un (meat), Thu, Thasai (flesh), Thadi, Ninam (fat), Pulal (dried meat with smell / dried salt-fish), Vidakkudai, Muri (removed flesh).

There are specific references found in Sangam literature about beef-eating, drawn from various sources.

Mazhavar, a community during the Sangam era, ate the flesh of a fatty cow in the palai (desert) region.

The place where Mazavar killed a calf and ate its flesh was filled with the bad smell (pulal visum) of meat, again in the palai region.

A fatty cow was sacrificed at the bottom of a neem tree where a God resided, its blood sprinkled and then its flesh cooked by the Mazhavar – Vetch virar – warriors who captured cows during their raids from the depradators – Karandai, again in the palai region.

A Panan (member of Panar community), with the instrument “Tannumai” killed a calf, stripped off and ate its flesh, in the marudha region. As the instrument is mentioned along with his act of killing a calf, it may be implied that the leather used for it might be that of a calf. Tannumai is a leather instrument, used to beat to drive away cattle lifter and Aralai kalavar or to warn about their presence and attack. Here, the irony is the “Tannumai” made of calf-leather is to be used to drive away the “cattle-lifters”, though, the “Tannumai”-player happened to be – not only a beef-eater, but also not a “cattle-protector”. Therefore, from the above references, Mazhavar, Aalai kalvar, Panar resorted to beef-eating.

 Was there any organized cow killing during Sangam period for beef-eating, with abattoirs? The answer is definitely not, as we do not come across breeding of cows, capturing cows of others, buying cows from others for the purpose, milking till they last and then killing for beef and leather.

Did the “priestly class” of the Sangam society eat beef? Did “Brahmans or Brahmins” stop meat-eating to project themselves as superior to ahimsa preaching Jains?

The presence of a priestly class in a society should be a normal indicator for an established religion or popular religion acceptable to the majority of people, so their influence could create an impact on the fellow members. However, such a priestly class of the Sangam society should only be “Brashmans / Brahmins” as has been popularly believed is not supported by the Sangam literature, as no “Brahman / Brahmin” word is found.

Though, P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar discussed “Brahmans” eating meat quoting Kapilar, he was silent about his reference about rice-eating. Kapilar addresses a Chera king, “Your hands have become hard due to warfare and giving alms to poets, whereas, the hands of poets have become soft, as they used to sing about you and eat smelling meat, seasonings of food, curry and boiled with rice with meat”. Again, at another place, when he leaves Parambunadu, he praises it, “You used to provide us opened jars filled with liquor, slayed rams, boiled rice and curry with friendship. Now, as Pari was dead, I am going away from you...” Taking these references, P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar interprets that Kapilar himself as desiring them as reward of his poems. However, none has pointed out significantly that they ate beef also. The famous and favourable argument put forward by some scholars is that the meat / beef-eating Brahmans suddenly stopped it to promote cow-protection to project themselves as superior to ahimsa-preaching Jains or they had to fight the atheistic Jains and Buddhists were preaching and practicing non-violence, they should and could not have been so cruel to meat / beef eating.

The glaring example of Kalabras and their attitude towards Tamils, in spite of their Jaina or Buddhist religious affiliation is a clear mark of contradiction. So also the contradicting position of the meat eating Buddhists, as they were preaching love, ahimsa etc., at one side and eating meat at another side. Definitely, this must have created a strong impression upon the minds of the men and women of Sangam society. If we take the example of Kapilar, it can be said that only certain Parppar ate meat, but not all Parppar. Moreover, nothing is mentioned to prove that Andanar, Aruthozhilalar, Aravor, Maraiyavar, Muppirinulor, Pusurar, Vedhiyar, Mudhalvar, Kuravar and other classes of Sangam society, who are also considered as “Brahmans / Brahmins” ate meat. As the Vela Parppar were cutting conch shells and manufacturing bangles, there might have been some Parppar eating meat as referred to by Kapilar.

Therefore, as far as Tamizhagam is concerned, the argument that “Brahmans / Brahmins” ate beef or stopped beef eating to browbeat Jains and Buddhists in their maneuvers has no basis at all, as nothing is mentioned in the Sangam literature. The failure of Jainism and Buddhism in Tamizhagam proves the impossibility of co-existence of contradictory precept, preaching and practices. Therefore, if beef-eating Brahmins were performing yagnas or cows were sacrificed during yagnas, definitely, they would have been opposed by the public for their contradiction or totally wiped out from the society or they would not have been recognized and respected.

Here are some conclusions arrived at by the author.

Sangam society as depicted in Sangam literature adapted and adopted mixed food habits.

Beef-eating was prevalent in the Sangam period without any religious compulsion or restriction.

Aralai kalver / Mazhavar / Panar etc., ate beef. Some of the Parppar might have eaten meat, but not beef, and such Parppar did not belong to the priestly class or engaged in the performance of yagnas.

Yagnas were performed, but no cow, horse or any animal was sacrificed.

Mostly goat and cock were sacrificed during veriyadal and other occasions and cow on few occasions to please nature, but such sacrificial rites cannot be considered yagnas.

Chronologically, nothing could be specifically mentioned about the starting and introduction of beef-eating in Tamizhagam based on the evidence of religion and theology.

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