Political discourse about Isai Vellalar marks them as an oppressed caste with a Sudra identity. Their social history is far more complex.

Mired in Dravidian politics Were Tamil Nadus Isai Vellalars always socially backwardFile image of nagaswaram artistes. Image: Thamizhpparithi Maari via Wikimedia Commons
news Politics & Art Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 16:07

The standard narrative surrounding the history of oppression of the Devadasis, and the Isai Vellalar caste more generally, is built on the understanding that they belong to the fourth varna, the Sudras.  The discourse remains relevant due to the appropriation and oppression theories. The 20th century nationalist discourse and Dravidian anti-Brahmin movement, including the five-time TN Chief Minister and DMK patriarch Karunanidhi often referring to his identity as an oppressed class, Isai Vellalar, has solidified into a binary between Brahmins and the non-Brahmin Isai Vellalars, casting a rather simplistic view. 

However, research into the social history of the caste suggest that their histories are far more complex than mere hyperbolic political agendas. Were all Isai Vellalars always as socially backward as they are touted to be? Were they, in fact, once a part of the Brahmana varna? Has the binary hyperbolic, blinded us from critically viewing other hegemonies, mind sets and patronizing overtones?

The history of the Isai Vellalars is tied up to the shifts in power between the four varnas. While the conventional understanding places the four varnas in a strict hierarchy, evidence suggests that this was not the case.

Early Buddhist and Jain works placed the Kshatriya on top of the list, with the brahmana varna (not all, but the Smarta Brahmana alone) occupying a subordinate but highly respected position as advisors to the ruling class.

S. Ramachandran's (historian, senior epigraphy expert and Convener of the South Indian Social History Research Institute (SISHRI)) research explains that during the Kalabaras period, there seems to have been a shift of power away from the Kshatriyas (Chera, Chola, Pandya) not just as a result of their imprisonment, but also because of adverse shifts in the political and social atmosphere of the time. This paved the way for the rise of the Brahmana varna, well versed in the Smriti texts, to gain further importance as advisors and aides to the Kings and society. Therefore, by the 8th century C.E. the Brahmins were perceived as being on top of the hierarchy. The history of the Isai Vellalar community shifts in relation to these shifts in the history of the different varnas.

The Isai Vellalar community is a sub-sect within the Vellalar (Agrarian) caste. They are categorized under the Sudra varna.

The word Isai means music, and this community comprises of Melakkarars, (Tavil artistes), Nayanakarars (Nagaswaram artistes), Nattuvan (one who teaches and conducts a dance recital), Devadasis (women dancers) and other instrument players associated with the art of music and dance. Some scholars suggest that the assimilation of this community to the Vellala caste was a fairly recent, 20th century political move. If so, then where did they stand in the hierarchy earlier?

In Silappadikaram, the Tamil epic, Ilango describes Devandi as the woman priestess (archaki) in the temple of Kannagi. Also while describing Kosigamani, who served as a messenger from Madhavi to Kovalan, he depicts him as a man wearing the sacred thread on his chest (denoting his Brahminical varna), but adds that he does not belong to the clan that chants the Vedas but sings in worship, instead.

At that time, temple worship was not an important subscription for the Smarta Brahmins. Instead, the upkeep of the temple and ritual worship duties were carried out by a clan called the Suuda Pouranika (matrilineal kinship). Born to a Kshatriya father and Brahmin mother, like Devandi, the members of this clan were referred to as Siva Brahmanas, or Deva Kulam. The men and women of this caste were priests and priestesses, who also sang and danced in praise of the King from time to time. The Bhats (Bhattacharyas) were the Vishnu temple counterparts of Siva Brahmanas. 

One of the early references we get about Siva Brahmana women is from the story of Sundaramurthi Nayanar, one of the 63 Saiva saints of Tamil Nadu. His mother’s name was Isaigyaniyar. Although Periya Puranam or other texts do not enlist her as a Siva Brahmana woman, her very name Isai (music) gyaniyar (expert) is to be noted. It is an established fact that Sundaramurti Nayanar belonged to the Saiva priest caste. Thus, putting these two facts together, we find that there was a group in the priest community, identified within the Brahmana varna, that sang and danced.

Another archaeological reference comes from an epigraph that talks of a Gupta king who married a Parasaiva (Parasiva) girl named Kubira Naga. The Parasaiva were Kali worshippers, singing and dancing as her priestesses. This community seems to have had marital alliances with the Siva Brahmana community. Sivagacintamani, a Tamil text tells the story of how Brahma possessed 5 lakh years of Tapobhala (power of penance), which posed a threat to Indra and his position. Indra sent Tilottama, the dancer, to distract Brahma. She danced on all four sides of him, causing Brahma to give up one lakh years of his tapobhala to create a face for himself on every side and constantly witness her bewitching dance. That is how he became the four-faced God who united with Tilottama.

This story is further corroborated by a copper plate inscription of a later period, published by the Tamil Nadu State Archaeology Department, retrieved from the family holding of an Isai Vellalar who lived in Alwarpet in Chennai. Called the “Kariakurichi seppedu”, this epigraph addresses the Isai Vellalar community as “nangumuga nagapasattar”, the four-faced (referring to Brahma, the four-faced God), nagapasattar or Parasaiva-s. Clearly, then, the Parasaiva bear a link to the Sivagacintamani legend and the Isai Vellalar to the Parasaiva.

The Siva Brahmana or Parasaiva were not identified as part of the Vellalar caste even during the 6th-7th century CE. For instance, Nachinarkiniyar (a commentator of Tolkappiyam, the famous work on Tamil grammar) while making a reference says “Parasaiva-s, Vellalar-s and people of other castes” clearly showing that the dancing, singing priests were distinct from the Vellalar caste during his time.

However, by the 12th-14th centuries the situation changed. We find a 13th century CE epigraph from the Kongu region, about Parasaivas which calls them “Vellala mada uvaichargal”. Uvaichar refers to ritual worshippers in the temples of Kali.  The term “mada (m)” stands for the well defined community identity, the social and ideological similarity between various communities, and results in assimilation into a single caste or even a varna. Sekkizar. who served as a minister to Kulothtunga II and wrote the hagiography of the 63 saiva saints, and Maikandar, another important Saiva saint, both belonged to the Vellala caste. With the famous Chitramezhi Periyanattar (Vellala guild) becoming very powerful in society, even though by definition they belonged to the fourth varna, they wielded considerable power and social status during these times.  It is therefore, during this period that we find the first references of the sub sect called Isai Vellalars. 

The later Nayak rule in the Tamil country augmented a gradual shift in the ruling class from the Kshatriyas to the Sudras. The Nayaks called themselves “Chatusbhavasya Kulothbhava” or “Chaturta gotraputra” meaning sons of the fourth varna. Thus the Sudras rose to social prominence, with the Vellalars in great positions of power, and the benefits passing on to the Isai Vellalars too. Of course, as in any feudal patriarchy this period produced literatures like the Virali vidutudu genres, which vilified the Devadasi. The entry of colonial traders and globalisation also contributed towards the oriental view. However, even such literatures documented, the Devadasi as an upper class woman, albeit subjugated. 

Thus, as the Vellalar caste rose to preeminence, the singing and dancing communities assimilated into them. They were placed at the bottom of the hierarchy within the Vellalars, but came to be counted as part of the caste. By then, the Kali worshipping communities like Parasaiva's and Siva Brahmana' s as well as Kaikkolar-s (weaving caste), Maruttuvar-s (medical practitioners) and a few other's splinter groups assimilated with the Vellalar.  U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, in one of his works, records a Devadasi lineage in the Siva Brahmana (priest) community at Thirukazhukundram, reaffirming this theory.

As we stepped into the 20th century, colonial and indigenous political discourse surrounding the varna system flattened these complexities, making it problematic to view the varna system as a process of assimilation, subsumption and realignment of various castes. Each varna therefore includes ranges of castes within it, as a result of accommodation for political convenience. A shifting political atmosphere, with realignments of social power produced a situation where different communities were re-assimilated into different castes and varnas from time to time.

That the Isai Vellalars of today, identified as backward castes, were once part of the Brahmana Varna, puts a very interesting spin on the existing academic discourse on Devadasi women and their socio political status. But more importantly, it sticks a rod between the spokes in the overwrought hegemony theory, which simply divides discourse on the binary lines of Brahmins versus Isai Vellalars.

Also read:How the art of Devadasis was appropriated to create the world of Bharatanatyam

Also read: Margazhi’s dance drama: Show slots in sabhas are being sold-off defying merit

Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh is a dancer and a dance historian who works on reconstruction of dances, narratives and histories. She is the Director of RangaMandira School of Arts and Research Academy, Chennai.

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