I had not given much thought to this aspect, though I had heard brief mentions of it here & there. In Malabar & Kerala, we did not have it and medieval Tamil trade history had only recently started to catch my interest. Some time back, our friend Nick Balmer had mentioned about the confusion around these matters to me, but I had not the knowledge to provide him an explanation then. It was finally after the arrival and perusal of a fine book by Kanakalatha Mukund titled ‘The trading world of the Tamil merchant’ that I got a less cluttered picture of the segregation of the trading castes. For those who were a bit confused by all this, I hope the explanation would help in understanding some of the aspects covering the complexities in the Indian caste system with respect to this strange classification and the intense rivalry that resulted over many centuries. Many years ago, as I lived and worked in the Parry’s corner madras, I would see the roads Lingi Chetty Street, Thambu Chetty Street and wonder who these people were. Today I know about these fascinating characters and their connections to the trade in Madras, the immense wealth and power they controlled and their connections to the caste splits.
Unfortunately, much of Indian history has been tainted by the rigors of the caste system and the writings of Manu. It was even to affect very rational people like a well educated American who decided to convert, as I will explain another day. The caste system was put to test on many occasions before finally weakening to the clash of modernity and I had briefly mentioned some aspects in my article about Swami Vivekanada in Kerala.
While people are born into a caste (except in the rare case of a conversion into Hinduism) there existed a practice of certain lower castes changing their profession and in some cases deliberately raising themselves in the caste scale (WW Hunter – Indian gazetteer). For example, Hunter mentions the vaisya caste which were originally the tillers of the land, let go of this profession to the Sudras and raised themselves to the merchant and banking caste. Naturally, this occurred over many decades or eons to culminate in an orderly (or unruly as another would term it) system towards the late medieval times.
Anyway as Malabar continued the strong traditions of the caste system, but with local variations with the Namboothiri’s ruling the roost, a vertical split occurred in the Tamil regions. They created the ‘valangai’ and the ‘edangai’ split, i.e. the right and the left handed classes. The untouchables or Paraya’s and the agriculturist Sudra’s aligned themselves to RHC. The other group naturally became left handed, sponsoring the artisans and traders opposing the Brahmin supremacy. The landowners or the vellalars together with the ‘parayas’ were pitted against the landless artisans or the kanmalars. The vellalars which comprised the Mudaliar or Pillais and the Komati’s and Baljis formed the right handed group. The left handed groups were the Beri chetti’s together with the class of artisans such as blacksmiths, goldsmiths, masons, carpenters and so on. Such drifts occurred in Bengal, Andhra, Canara, Gujarat and other places as well, but not taking a form as above and are not covered here. Slowly the original caste discipline was weakening. As the group divide occurred, the places they lived in underwent the physical divide as well. The towns of Tamil nadu, especially the regions occupied by the above castes, then got segregated (eastern side to the left handed and the western to the right handed castes). Naturally, festivities & other activities like funerals got divided and confined to territories occupied by the respective castes. If one group or a procession of theirs strayed into another’s territory, the situation flared up into a major quarrel.
But let us try to go back a little bit to figure out how this originated. There are many stories. However, the biggest cause was the relative lack of clarity between the Kshatriya and Vaishya castes in South India. Brahmana’s and Sudra’s were well defined, however. While the Vedic system divided the body into four horizontal cuts forming the four castes of Brahmana, Khastriya, Vaishya and Sudra, the vertical split was a South Indian response to it. However, as the right hand in Hinduism takes superiority to the left, terming another left handed itself was sometimes the core of the problem and considered derogatory (note that the left hand is associated with faeces and the right with food).
Anyway it is accepted that this split and attempt at definition started during the Chola times, somewhere in the 10-11th century. It was primarily owing to the classification of centralized military forces at that time. One was a group of people constituting the right hand army and the other, the left. Eventually the artisan group’s claim of Brahminical status complicated the issue very much. As the temple building spree took root in the post war periods, the demand for artisans and their services increased and the claim’s for Brahmin status were pressed harder. It appears that they (Panchalar/Kammalar/Kamsalis) succeeded and the others led by the Vellalars rebelled since then. This also explains why this split never took place in neighboring Kerala, for a temple building spree never happened in the Chera country. In addition to all that the Brahmin Jain struggle eventually reached a compromise where all the Jain artisans were finally classified right by the Vira Bukka raya in the 14th century.
In the end, the struggle between the 9th and 14th century was broadly between landed castes on one side with the artisans on the other. Added to all these was the struggle for supremacy between Saivaite and Vaishnavite Brahmins who even associated differently (though they were not supposed to) between the two castes at certain times. The final aspect was the languages used as many of the traders spoke Telugu and others spoke Tamil, with the Brahmins indulging in Tamil and Sanskrit. So as you can see, the fragmented castes finally created a single divide for convenience in argument and representation and this remained the system that the English saw when the EIC came to power in madras. As the EIC cleverly manipulated the two, the result was not always satisfactory, for much of their time since then was spent trying to find compromises and settlements especially when one of the groups finally decided to abandon the city.
While this is the more practical and pragmatic explanation, the mythological explanations based on the Veda Vyasa story, the Kammala – Vellala story, the Saiva, Vasihnava story, the Kali Kancheepuram story, the Kancheppuram kings killing and division of body parts story, the Chola raja ‘muchilika’ story, Karikala chola’s division story, beef eating story etc are used by one or the other to press their claims and superiority. Some day, if readers are interested, I can provide a gist of each of these stories.
It is generally believed that the Brahmins themselves constituted the left-hand faction. Hence, initially, the left-hand faction was made mainly of Brahmins and castes claiming Brahmin-ness such as the Kammalan’s who are believed to have migrated to Tamil Nadu with the Brahmins. Though, Brahmins have been classified as a left-hand caste in ancient times, Tamil Brahmins as "Mahajanam" are regarded, along with foreign migrants, as outside the dual left and right-hand caste divisions of Tamil Nadu. Brahmins, during the later centuries, were regarded as outside the left and right-hand caste system, and due to their being neutral, Brahmins were regarded as the most suitable candidates to function as mediators.
In 1652, the first rioting started in Madras when the Sheshadri nayak & Koneri Chetti stated that they had been insulted by the Beri chetti. The RH group attached the LH group with weapons. The result was a formal segregation of the groups to Muttialpetta and Pedanaikapetta. Can you believe it, the RH Chetti can use the right side street only to go to a temple, if they used an LH street, it created uproar as it did when Tellaisinga Chetti used the right side street to go to a temple. These quarrels and sometimes violent fights continued on until 1712 or so…
And thus, as you study this subject, you will come across the great traders of Madras, people whose names grace roads like Lingi chetty, Thambu chetty and so on. The fight for their superiority is interwoven into the various conflicts between the two classes. Much of them relate to control of temples and physical properties situated on an ‘apparent’ wrong side. The various stories are very interesting, and it is also amusing to note how the British of madras were caught squarely between them, with one or the other threatening non cooperation if the British did not side with them. It must have been nerve racking for somebody from the quiet plains of Midlands in the UK, living in the hot humid and noisy madras, trying to figure out what on earth all this meant, in the first place. Compared to all this, the vacillations in Malabar were probably too sedate for an average Englishman.
Note: Vellalars are one who control the "Vellam" i.e floods in the river and grow crops and Karalars are one who control "Kar" i.e. Clouds in the form of Tanks and Lakes and grow crops. The Kammalan or Viswakarma caste members are artisans such as goldsmiths and stonemasons. Occupation was an important factor and guilds of craftsmen formed castes as the Kammalan caste did, while some occupations formed separate castes. Shaivas believe that Shiva is All and in all, the creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer and concealer of all that is. Vaishnavism on the other hand, is distinguished from other schools by its worship of Vishnu or his associated avatars, principally as Rama and Krishna, as the original and supreme God. Chetti’s are the trading mercantile castes figuring in both the sides
Note 2 - I must also add here that the definition of 'karalar' seems a little out of place though that seems acceptable in the published domain. I think it is kara meaning bank or dry ground, hence karalar are tillers.
Black town – Formerly George Town in Madras, is a historical neighborhood of Fort St. George. Also known as Black Town in the British period, the settlement was formed after the British set up the fort. It is the first settlement of the city of Chennai soon after the completion of the fort. This is where the modern city of Chennai started expanding from since its formation in 1640. The Parry’s corner, Moore market, Pookada – flower market, the various chetti streets I mentioned are all located in Blacktown. Please visit this blog for more details.
The imperial gazetteer – WW Hunter
The life of Thomas Pitt - By Sir Cornelius Neale Dalton
The trading world of the Tamil merchant: By Kanakalatha Mukund
Right and Left Hand Castes in South India – Arjun Appadurai
The view from below - Kanakalatha Mukund
I am yet to read the major work by Thurston on these classes & castes, but it is a valuable reference for those interested.