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Right and left handed castes

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

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.

During the Chola period, the left and right-hand factions comprised ninety-eight castes each, but by the 19th century, the right-hand faction was made of 60 castes, and the left-hand, only six. Various other reasons constituted the bitter rivalry. It is said that the valankai group had more privileges and standing, they could use palanquins, slippers and umbrellas. They could cast the sari pallu over the right shoulder. They had lower taxation than the left. Then came the issue with the EIC favoring the right handed castes originally resulting in a strong cartel which fixed prices. Finally in an effort to break the ring, the left were involved, resulting in even more acrimony and fights between the two factions. The whole story of the quarrel and the settlement is rather confusing and quite silly at time, so I will not get into further details. However, there may have been an ulterior motive at times of diverting British attention from the huge monies owed by the RH groups to them. Though the two groups were against the hierarchical Vedic system, there was caste hierarchy within each group. Despite posing a challenge, they did not overturn the Brahminical ideology.

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.


References

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.

13 comments:

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Very interesting. I never knew that such distinctions ever existed. Thanks for the elaborate explanations.

  1. Nikhil Narayanan

    Maddy,
    Interesting narration as usual.
    In 1962, the first rioting started in Madras when the Sheshadri nayak & Koneri Chetti stated that they had been insulted by the Beri chetti.

    Guess you meant 1652 or so.Please check. http://bit.ly/1DAWWR
    -Nikhil

  1. Maddy

    Thanks PNS - Has been there for 8-9 centuries now!!

    Thanks Nikhil - typo - it was 1652 when it started.

  1. Indian Road Romeo

    I bet that things haven't changed much these days. Who has the upper hand now?

  1. Maddy

    Hey IRR - you have a fascinating blog..I liked the pics.. regarding the question, well it is mostly extinct, though I am very sure undertones exist just like it does in the rest of the world between colored & 'non' colored people.

  1. Manu

    I think I have read something about Cheraman Perumal on your blog. I posted a little known story about the Perumal on your blog. It may interest you. Thanks :) and sorry for this comment right out of the blue. My blog is at inorite.wordpress.com

  1. Anonymous

    presuming you are busy getting used to the shift n hence no post this week. hoping that we have one the cming week

    Sriram

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Manu - I will check it out and respond.

    Thanks Sriram, I have been terribly busy with the move, will be a bit tardy for a few more weeks..

  1. Narayanan Nair

    Maddy,
    Fantastic blogs. I read most of them. Looks like Nairs of Kerala are from a mixed origin. Scythian, Mongolian, Nagas, and the rest. The legend that Nairs were Chavers hold good, I guess. I would like to think myself as a descendent of a war liking tribe.
    I loved the pictures. I love to read more of Indian History.
    Narayanan Nair,
    Chicago.

  1. Naanchil Selvaraj

    Very Interesting sir...actually I was trying to get Arjun Appadurai's article on "Right hand and Left hand castes in Sounth India" meanwhile I could see your argument about right hand and left hand. You have written very well, everyone can understand easily...Thank you sir.

    One request you have mentioned in your article is that "if anyone interested to read those left hand and right hand gist stroies, I would give" I would like to have those details. Can you give me? Thank you...this is my email ID

  1. Maddy

    Thanks selvaraj..
    those are a number of stories from old times that have to be collected and rewritten, and will take a lot of time, i will get to it someday for sure..

  1. Tejaswininimburia

    The Indians are so obsessed with their inability to face and understand the social chaos found and abdicated their responsibility by quoting foreigners' views and wholly relying on Manu and made Brahmins and Manu as scape goats. First of all the so called Many started in Deccan with the dichotomic Deccan kings starting from Satavahanas and ending with Wadeyars. Before Aryabhata or Aihole inscription of Pulakesi there was no reference to Kaliyuga. In North majority follow either the concept of Bauddhavatara or ascension of Yudhishtra as per Jain Chronicles. Till the arrival of Satakarnis the entire North was Jain or Buddhist and we have reference to adherence to Hinduism only in Tamilagam. During Darius period the followers of Gomata(Jains) were expelled and they retained hold in North India. During embankment of Sri Vijaya only Jains were in Srilanka and in Pandya adjacent to Tabropanne Jainism spread. That is why we find numerous Jain caves south of Pudukkottai. The Srilankan kings and Pandiyas were always hostile to Cholas which never referred to any race but territory lying north of Cauvery in Mysore to Bellary and parts of Krishna Godavari basin. This is supplemented by the fact that Ilamchetchenni father of Karikala stopped Mauryans in Central Karnataka. The etymology of Vellalas is derived from Nachinarkiniyar. But Velir Vell and Vellalas are completely different. Vel in Kannada is Bela derived f) rom Vellai, Valai(Valiyan referred to Balarama, Valamba meaning spotless white in Sri Vidhya upasana). Thus Vell refers to white skinned people entered in Karnataka. Even in part of Chola kingdom in Krishna Godavari basin Buddhism flourished after Satakarnis ousted Cholas there. No historians never asks why all Deccan kings were all dichotomic. They call themselves as Brahmins but actively supported Buddhism/Jainism. Nemichandra the famous poet of eleventh century AD calls himself as descended from Illustrious Brahmins of Kanchipura whose forefathers went along with Gandaradhitya to Gokali. It will be funny to note from Karnataka inscriptions that it is Brahmin/Brahmin everywhere. The king is a Brahmakshatriya, the ninety six thousand mummuri dandanayakas were Brahmins the Veera Vanigyas of Aihole Ayirattu Ayinootruvar were Brahmins, the Herggades were Brahmins!After the collapse of Chalukyan empire where have they gone? Now the Brahmins are restricted to Malnad only. Can the claim be correct? No. For peculiar reasons Buddhists and Jains took pride in calling themselves as Brahmins and in the case of Jains there is no difference between Jains and Brahmins since both have Upaveetha and Mantras. Thank God! Brahmins were resurrected because of Lord Shiva and Vishnu in Tamilnadu! Nobody has still not analysed the maritime victory of Cholas. The reason is that certain section of merchant guilds were so exasperated by Deccan kings with dichotomy of Deccan kings that they completely shifted their loyalty to Cholas providing armed forces of Moonru Kai Masenai. Cholas were the only kings who did not create mercenary forces out of kith and kin and hence mysteriously disappeared without leaving any legacy to posterity. The merchant guilds established Nagarms with contonment comprising Valangai and Idangai.The greatness of Cholas is that they Tamilised the structure of the society which they considered necessary for empire building and maritime growth for which no substitute could be found till complete annexation by British. Unfortunately Kerala did not have history and there were only transnational ports like Singapore and the role of king was limited. The history of Tamilnadu cannot be delinked from Karnataka and the dichotomical kings metamorphised the existing Jainism/Buddhism into Brahminism to suit their own needs which was prevalent fully only in Chola territory. That is why Deccan kings were despised as KAL(FALSE, WHITE) BRAHMINS OR KALABRAS.

  1. Tejaswininimburia

    The Indians are so obsessed with their inability to face and understand the social chaos found and abdicated their responsibility by quoting foreigners' views and wholly relying on Many and made Brahmins and Many as scape goats. First of all the so called Many started in Deccan with the dichotomic Deccan kings starting from Satavahanas and ending with Wadeyars. Before Aryabhata or I hole inscription of Pulakesi there was no reference to Kaliyuga. In North majority follow either the concept of Bauddhavatara or ascension of Yudhishtra as per Jain Chronicles. Till the arrival of Satakarnis the entire North was Jain or Buddhist and we have reference to adherence to Hinduism only in Tamilagam. During Darius period the followers of Gomata(Mains) were expelled and they retained hold in North India. During embankment of Sri Vijaya only Mains were in Srilanka and in Pandya adjacent to Tabromanne Jainism spread. That is why we find numerous Jain caves south of Pudukkottai. The Srilankan kings and Pandiyas were always hostile to Cholas which never referred to any race but territory lying north of Cauvery in Mysore to Bellary and parts of Krishna Godavari basin. This is supplemented by the fact that Ilamchetchenni father of Karikala stopped Mauryans in Central Karnataka. The etymology of Vellalas is derived from Nachinarkiniyar. But Velir Vel and Vellalas are completely different. Gel in Kannada is Bela derived f:-) rom Vellai, Valai(Valiyan referred to Balarama, Valamba meaning spotless white in Sri Vidhya upasana). Thus Veil refers to white skinned people entered in Karnataka. Even in part of Chola kingdom in Krishna Godavari basin Buddhism flourished after Satakarnis ousted Cholas there. No historians never asks why all Deccan kings were all dichotomic. They call themselves as Brahmins but actively supported Buddhism/Jainism. Nemichandra the famous poet of eleventh century calls himself as descended from Illustrious Brahmins of Kanchipura whose forefathers went along with Gandardhitya to Gokali. It will be funny to noted from Karnataka inscriptions it is Brahmin/Brahmin everywhere. The king is a Brahmakshatriya, the ninety six thousand mummuri dandanayakas were Brahmins the View Vanigyas of Aihole Ayirattu Ayinootruvar were Brahmins, the Herggades were Brahmins!After the collapse of Chalukyan empire where have they gone? Now the Brahmins are restricted to Malnad only. Can the claim be correct? No. For peculiar reasons Buddhists and Mains took pride in calling themselves as Brahmins and in the case of Mains there is no difference between Jains and Brahmins since both have Upaveetha and Mantras. Thank God! Brahmins were resurrected because of Lord Shiva and Vishnu! Nobody has still not analyses the maritime victory of Cholas. The reason is that certain section of merchant guilds were so exasperated by Deccan kings with dichotomy of Deccan kings that they completely shifted their loyalty to Cholas proving armed forces of Moonru Kai Masenai. Cholas were the only kings who did not create mercenary forces out of kith and kin and hence mysteriously disappeared without leaving any legacy to posterity. The merchant guilds established Nag arms with contonment comprising Valangai and Idangai.The greatness of Cholas is that they Tamilised the structure of the society which they considered necessary for empire building and maritime growth for which no substitute could be found till complete annexation by British. Unfortunately Kerala did not have history and there were only transnational ports like Singapore and the role of king was limited. The history of Tamilnadu cannot be delinked from Karnataka and the dichotomical kings metamorphised the existing Jainism/Buddhism into Brahminism which was prevalent fully only in Chola territory. That is why Deccan kings were despised as KAL(FALSE, WHITE) BRAHMINS OR KALABRAS.