Gandhi, Thaatha,ThaLapathy, Kudumbar…
Posted on November 16th, 2009

Prof. P.S.Panneer Selvam

This write-up is a response to an article written by renowned scholar-historian, and a specialist in the history of Madras, S. Muthiah (Gandhi and the Tamils) in The Hindu¹ Metroplus¹, dated August 31, 2009.Muthiah, an erudite scholar, while writing about Gandhi¹s short association with Thillaiyadi VaLLiammai, a Dalit girl, has given us a wonderful account of the visits of Gandhi to the then Madras.

  By way of adding to the account of Muthiah, we give below three authentic historical events in the life of Gandhi as connected with Dalit leaders.First historical narrative is related to Rettaimalai Srinivasan, who is being endearingly remembered today as ƒÆ’-¦”‘Thaatha¹ (Grand Father) by a large section of Dalit masses.

 Thaatha Srinivasan, was born in Kozhiyalam in Chengalpattu district, and graduated from Arts College, Coimbatore. In 1887, he married Ms. Aranganayaki, sister of PeraRignar Iyothi Dass. In the deliberations of the Round Table Conferences, which commenced on December 23, 1930 at London, Srinivasan participated most effectively, along with Ambedkar, and in this Conference, he dared to be different.

 PeraRignar (Great Genius) Iyothi Dass, an outstanding Dalit intellectual, was a native doctor, and one of his patients was Thiru. Vi. Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar (Thiru. Vi. Ka). Iyothi Dass was a great Tamil scholar and an accredited crusader against untouchability. He was well versed in Tamil, acquainted in Pali and Sanskrit, and had a working knowledge of English. He is the architect of Buddhist revivalism in South India. For a year, Periyar E.V.R. (1879­1973), during his formative years, was associated with Iyothi Dass.

 PeraRignar Iyothi Dass was initially a devout Hindu, committed to the propagation of Advaita Vedanta, and in the year 1870, he started Advaitananda Sabha at Nilgiris. Later, dismantling the Sabha, he launched the Dravida Mahajana Sabha (DMS) in 1890, for purposes of conscientizing and bringing awakening to the so-called Panchamas (Untouchables). Again, as a true social activist, he organised a Conference in 1891 at Nilgiris, under the auspices of DMS and passed 10 Resolutions, highlighting the deplorable and inhuman conditions of Dalits and requested the British Government to implement necessary ameliorative measures. These Resolutions were also sent to M. Veeraraghavaacharia r, the then General Secretary of Indian National Congress.

In 1904, he started the Tamil journal Oru Paisa Thamizhan, and changed its name into Thamizhan in 1907. Iyothi Dass had regularly contributed to his journal. Copies of these journals were in the possession of ARignar (Genius) Anbu Ponnoviam, an acclaimed Dalit scholar. Gnana Aloysius, of Creative Quest, Delhi, collected these journals, compiled the articles of Iyothi Dass and had them published into three Tamil volumes, entitled Ayothi Dasar Cinthanaigal¹ (The Thoughts of Iyothi Dass), totally running into some 1600 pages.      

The legacy of Iyothi Dass and his reconversion to Buddhism are inseparably associated with Col. Henry Steel Olcott and H. P. Blavatsky, two towering personalities, who launched the World Theosophical Society in New York in 1883. In 1880, Col. Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and H.P. Blavatsky embraced Buddhism in Sri Lanka. What made them embrace Buddhism?

 In 1873, a great public debate on religion was held in Panatura, Ceylon. Monk-orator Ven. Migethuwatte Gunananda and Wesleyan Minister Rev. David Silva locked horns in the public debate, each exhorting the superiority of his own religion. The debate centered round the theme: ³Which religion, whether Christianity or Buddhism, is superior in delivering Man from his sufferings, sorrow and bondage?²  In the end, Christian priest Rev. David Silva lost to Ven. Monk Gunananda. In digression, we would say here that while speaking about Buddhism and the Christianity of Jesus Christ, Ambedkar observed critically that Christianity is 10 % Judaism and 90 % Buddhism¹.

 For, Meditation has become Prayer, Sangha into Church, Trisarana into Baptism and Enlightenment into Salvation. And, in the opinion of some researchers on comparative religions and theology, St. John, the Baptist, considered to be the spiritual elder brother of Jesus Christ, was very much influenced by Buddhism. For, John the Baptist, replaced the Judaist ritual of Anointment with Baptism, basically a Buddhist ritual. For Baptism, the Buddhist counterpart is TrisaraNa.

 Both Col. Olcott and Blavatsky did not attend the public debate at Ceylon. Still, a study of literature on the debate caused profound changes in them. Subsequently, they went to Ceylon, studied Buddhism, and became Buddhists in 1880 in a public ceremony held at Galle. Again, in 1884, Olcott along with Helena Petrovski Blavatsky (1831 ­ 1891) and Ven. Anagarika Dharmapala came to Madras, to found a branch of the World Theosophical Society at Adayar.

Thatha Rettaimalai Srinivasan attended it¹s inaugural ceremony. As he was very doubtful of its emancipatory role in liberating Dalits, he disassociated himself from the Society subsequently.

 Col. Olcott was a social activist, and he fought along with Blacks in America, when the latter fought for earning their Civil Rights. After his arrival in Chennai, Olcott remained here and started his work for emancipating the Depressed Classes (Panchamas). For him, as for all social thinkers, ³education would be ƒÆ’-¦”‘the evident panacea for all the social disorders¹.² Therefore, he started four schools in Madras city exclusively for the Pariah Boys¹. After his demise in 1907, one School was christened as Olcott Memorial Panchama School.¹

 In 1894, Col. Olcott took Iyothi Dass, Burma Krishnasamy and Namasivayam, father of former Mayor of Madras Prof. N.Sivaraj, Prof. of Law, to Sri Lanka, and there, Iyothi Dass and others underwent the Buddhist ritual ƒÆ’-¦”‘trisaraNa¹ and became Buddhists. Consequently, in 1900, PeraRignar Iyothi Dass started the South Indian Sakhya Association at Royapettah, Madras.

  Why did he use the term Sakhya, which in Tamil becomes Sakkaiyar of PaRaiyur, famous for their Sakkaiya Koothu, which later became Therukkoothu (Street Dance). When Therukkoothu was taken over by Isai VeLLaLahs, it became Cathirattam, and when the latter reached Brahmins at the benevolence of Rukmini Devi Arundale, it became Bharatha Natyam. We would say that, parallely, PaRai, a percussion instrument in the hands of PaRaiyahs became Thavil or Melam in the hands of Isai VeLLaLahs. When it reached Brahmins, it morphed into Miruthangam. Interestingly, of the three percussion instruments, PaRai and Miruthangam require cowhide and Thavil requires both cowhide and buffalo skin, in their making. formation.

  Moreover, the small trumpet in the hands of PaRaiyahs became the Nathaswaram or Nagaswaram in the hands of Isai VeLLaLahs. All this happened when the Imperial Cholas (c. 9-13 AD) monitored and facilitated aryanaization of Tamil society, a period when the Great Tradition marginalized the Little Tradition, and Brahmins, in alliance with VeLLaLahs, became the priests, dethroning Paraiyahs, the traditional priests of Lord Muruga and the traditional surrogate husbands of Mother Goddesses during annual marriage festivities. 

 Bishop Caldwell, in his A Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages¹ (1856 and 1875) advocated that Paraiyahs were part of Dravidian stock and that Tamil language bore similarities to Turanian (Scythian) languages.

 PeraRignar Iyothi Dass, himself a Dalit, believed that Paraiyahs were once Buddhists and he cited evidences to that effect from the palm leaf manuscripts of Asvagosha [Soundarananda- Kavya], which he preserved.

 Moreover, Buddha belonged to the Scythian race; he was known as Sakhya Muni, or Sakhya Sage. For Iyothi Dass, Paraiyahs were original Buddhists and, therefore, they were made Untouchables by the dominant Brahminical mainstream narratives. Consequently, Iyothi Dass, who replanted Buddhism in South, and a virtual forerunner to Baba Saheb Ambedkar, identified Paraiyahs of Tamil Nadu as descendants of the Sakhyas of ancient lore. Therefore, Iyothi Dass, after his reconversion to Buddhism, started the South Indian Sakhya Association.

 Further, Iyothi Dass started branches of Sakhya Association in more than 10 places in Madras. Also, in 1907, he started its branches in Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), Bangalore, and Mari Kuppam. The KGF core group consisted of such stalwarts as M.Y.Murugesam, C. Gurusamy, A. P. Periyasami Pulavar, M.Ragavar and Seerthirutha Semmal (Sentinel of Social Reform) Gabriel Appaduraiyar, who became a Buddhist after his interaction with Iyothi Dass.

About Appaduaraiyar, Periyar E.V.R. had openly confessed that had Appaduraiyar toured all over Tamil Nadu propagating his revolutionary ideals, his (Periyar¹s) own propaganda would have become redundant.

 In those days, according to mainstream Tamil scholars and intellectuals belonging to the Non-Brahmin Uppered Castes, or Non-Brahmin Sanskritized Uppered Castes, Brahmins and Dalits (Paraiyahs, PaLLars and Arunthathiyars) were not part of Tamil ethnic stock at all. It is in this context that Bishop Robert Caldwell, in his masterpiece A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages¹ (1856 & 1875), included a Chapter entitled, ³Are the Pariars (Pareiyas) of South India Dravidians?² and argued that Paraiyahs were very much of the stock of Dravidians. Also, for Bishop Caldwell, denying Tamil ethnicity to Paraiyahs is like denying English ethnicity to Saxons and saying that Normans alone are English.

 Again, the most painful fact is that while publishing in 1913 the 3rd edition of the masterpiece of Bishop Robert Caldwell, the Non-Brahmin Sanskritized Uppered Caste scholars and writers, who edited it, had wilfully omitted a total of 160 pages of Caldwell¹s original work, quoting flimsy reasons.  More, the Chapter on Paraiyahs as Dravidians is the most conspicuous by its omission in the 3rd edition.

 For Iyothi Dass, Paraiyahs are of the stock of Scythians. Interestingly, Madhav Gadgil, N. V. Joshi, et al, in their genetic research on Peopling of India (Wikipedia) observe that Dravidians moved into India from Africa, en route Mediterranean, some 6000 years before. We also read from the Epistle of St. Paul, Colossians (3:11) that Scythians were very much there in Judea even in the first century A.D. Scythians were most ferocious as the ƒÆ’-¦”‘fierce Untouchables¹ of Manu.

 According to Madhav Gadgil and others, Scythian-Kurugans are genetically related to Havik Brahmins. The Mukris, a branch of Scheduled castes, are genetically in close proximity to Havik Brahmins. Both sections belong to Uttara Kannada.

 Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the Scythian King Azes II (c. 35-12 BC) was having the Buddhist triratna symbol in his coins. This does not immediately validate the hypothesis of Iyothi Dass. Rather, his hypothesis, based on religious premises, needs further genetic research. Another interesting genetics research, as recorded in Wikipedia, is that VeLLaLahs of Tamil Nadu might have migrated into Tamil country from Gujarat, in the ancient past.

 Again, for the terms Panchamas or Paraiyahs, Iyothi Dass substituted the terms Dravidas, Tamizhans, instead. He abhorred the use of the pejorative identity Paraiyah. He wrote to the Census Commissioner in the year 1901 to return Paraiyahs as Original Tamils, (Poorva ThamizhargaL) . However, Thaatha Srinivasan continued to use the term Paraiyah. Consequently, there arose irreconcilable enmity between the in-laws, Iyothi Dass and Srinvasan.

 In 1891, Thaatha Rettaimalai Srinivasan launched a social movement for the liberation of Dalits, the PaRaiyar Mahajana Sabha. To popularise his mission, he launched a journal, PaRaiyan, in 1893. The first meeting of PaRaiyar Mahajana Sabha was held on December 23, 1893 at Wesley Mission Hall, Royapettah, Madras, under his Presidentship. In the first public meeting itself, the problems that would arise out the Congress Party¹s petition to British Govt. to hold I.C.S. (Indian Civil Services) recruitment Examinations simultaneously at England and India, came under heavy attack.

 Besides other things, the meeting passed a Resolution condemning such a decision of the Congress Party. In continuation, Srinivasan prepared a Memorandum.

 The Memorandum contended that given the current state of power distribution, patronage of the British Govt. to Brahmins and the latter¹s proximity to British administration, holding ICS Examinations in India would help Brahmins mostly, and would harm the interests of other communities. The Memorandum, attested by signatures of 3412 Paraiyah gentlemen, was submitted to the House of Commons of British Parliament at Ireland, using the good offices of Genl. Sir George Ghesney, a Member of Parliament, England.

 However, because of his growing differences with Iyothi Dass on the usage of the term PaRaiyah, Srinivasan sailed off to South Africa in 1902, to avoid direct conflict with Iyothi Dass.

 Reaching Durban and then Netal, he got employment as a translator in Netal Court. Gandhi reached Netal, South Africa, in the year 1909, via London and started practicing there as a lawyer. At Netal, Thaatha Srinivasan had become very close to Gandhi, and he even served as a translator to Gandhi.

 Srinivasan¹s biographers and historians assert that it was Srinivasan who trained Gandhi to write his signature in Tamil. Srinivasan returned to Madras in 1921.

 The name of Netal town in South Africa, wherein Gandhi was practicing as a lawyer town and was fighting against the discrimination practiced against Indians there, brings us immediately to the great intellectual acumen of Iyothi Dass, proving again as a forerunner to Dr. Ambedkar. For, in his journal Thamizhan (dated November 11, 1909) he wrote sarcastically against Gandhi stating:   

 ³Those Congress Party sympathizers in India, who speak valiantly for removing the discriminatory practices against people there in Netal, do never speak about the dehumanized conditions of the Adi-Tamils (Panchamas) here, who constitute nearly 6 lakhs in Tamil country. They do this even after knowing directly or through the press. What is the reason for this?

 Under these conditions, would the adjective national in the name Indian National Congress, be a relevant one?² (English Tr. by the author Prof. P. S. Panneer Selvam)

 In fighting for the cause of anti-Brahminism in general and the emancipation of Untouchables in particular, both PeraRignar Iyothi Dass and Thaatha Rettaimalai Srininvasan were functioning on the same wavelength. In his Tamil weekly ƒÆ’-¦”‘PaRaiyan¹ dated July 6, 1895, he referred to a write up in the English journal The Mail regarding the organizational structure of Congress Party. The write up in The Mail stated that out of the 174 Committee Members in Madras, Brahmins were 84; in Bombay, they were 94 out of 128; in Pune, all the 24 were Brahmins. In Bengal, it was 8 out of 30. Thus, out of the total Members of 1163, Brahmins were 940, in all.

 On this situation, Thaatha wrote in his weekly Paraiyan, quoted above:

  ³Thus, in this Party [Congress Party] monopolized by Brahmins, any Resolution and agenda resolved there, would only be beneficial to Brahmins, and would not be beneficial to other castes. Nor would they be harmful to the interests of Brahmins. As the Congress party is against the interests of agriculture- oriented and cow-killing Paraiyahs and other castes, the Brahmin Congress Party would not be beneficial to us, the Paraiyahs.²

 Does not this quote made above remind us of Periyar E.V.R¹s advocacy against Congress Party during the pre-Colonial Days, and the days before the rise of (Perunthalaivar ­Great Leader) K. Kamaraj, who ruled Tamil Nadu as Chief Minister between 1954 and 1963?

 Later, the British Government conferred upon Thaatha such honourific titles as Rao Sahib in January 1926, Rao Bahadur in June 1930 and Diwan Bahadur in January 1936. To cap it all, on the 80th Birthday Celebrations of Thaatha held on July 7, 1939 at Victoria Public Hall, Madras, a galaxy of intellectuals and leaders, such as Thamizh ThendRal Thiru. Vi. Ka., Rajaji, the then Premier of Madras Presidency, M. C. Rajah, leading advocate P. NarayaNa Kurup, Justice Party leader Basu Dev, who introduced ARignar C. N. Annadurai  to Periyar E. V. R., Congress Parliamentary Secretary B.S. Moorthy, and others participated and praised the yeomen services of Thaatha Srinivasan. Further, it was in these celebrations that Thiru. Vi. Ka. conferred the title Dravida MaNi  upon Thaatha Srinivasan.

Taking up PaLLikonda Krishnasami (1916­1973) next, PaLLikonda, an urban town 25 Kms west of Vellore, was then an emerging Buddhist centre, most alive with activities aimed at converting Dalit Hindus into Buddhism, and also keeping aloft the banner of revolt as handed down by PeraRignar Iyothi Dass and Baba Saheb Ambedkar. One such radical intellectual, propagating Buddhism as a revolt against Brahminism, was PaLLikonda Krishnasami, then popularly known as ThaLapathy (Commander). ThaLapathy Krishnasami met Ambedkar in 1952 in person and expressed openly his disapproval of the latter¹s marriage with a Brahmin woman, while a host of Dalit women were available. For such forthrightness, he earned the praise of Ambedkar himself.

 ThaLapathi was a towering social rebel. When Gandhi visited South in 1935, he came to PaLLikonda also, to have a dharshan of the presiding deity, Lord Ranganathar, in the temple there. When Gandhi was walking toward the temple, PaLLikonda Krishnasami organized a popular protest march against Gandhi¹s attempts to enter the temple. The people in the protest march raised slogans against the atrocity of disallowing the Dalits to enter the temple. The protesters also cried out loudly saying that whether it was fair on the part of Gandhi to enter the temple, when so many hundreds of Dalits were debarred from entering the temple.  Concerned with the intensity of the problem, Gandhi, therefore, invited ThaLapathi Krishnasami to know the reason for the protest campaign.

 In the meeting, ThaLapathi Krishnasami explained to Gandhi the various social disabilities and injunctions that were being perpetrated upon Dalits, and how the Dalits were socially ostracised from entering the temple. Then he asked Gandhi whether it would be fair on the part of Gandhi to enter the temple, while Dalits, as a community, were debarred from entering any Hindu temple. On hearing this, Gandhi went away without going into the temple.

 Also, since pre-Independence decades, PaLLikonda Krishnasami, along with his friends, was running a Tamil journal called Udhaya Suriyan, (Rising Sun).

 Its logo, printed in yellow colour in the first page of the journal, was rising sun (Udhaya Suriayan): the morning sun rises in between two hillocks, in all its splendour and glory, shooting out its golden rays.

 While writing some five years before, on Dalit politics in post-Independence era, Tamil daily Dinamani wrote that the All India Scheduled Castes Federation candidates, Tamil Nadu, whose All India President then  was Prof. N. Sivaraj, contested the General Elections, 1952, in alliance with the Toilers Party of Manickavelu Naicker under the rising sun symbol, then available for independent candidates.

 To give another example, after the Poona Pact in 1932, Gandhi undertook a tour all over India, propagating the need for organizing public programmes so that Dalits could be taken into the temples with honour and dignity. He visited Tamil Nadu (then Presidency of Madras) in the year 1934, as part of his Temple-Entry Propagation Programme. His itinerary included his visit to Courtalam Water Falls, and taking bath in the Falls. It is an international tourist spot, drawing tourists from all over the world. Further, as the watercourse falling from the top of the mountain ranges winds its way through rare herbal bushes and groves, people believe that the water of Courtalam Water Falls has high ranking medicinal qualities and that a bath in it would cure many diseases. Gandhi also wanted to have bath in the Water Falls.

 Accordingly, he came to Courtalam in the year 1934, and stayed there in Ayyasamy Bungalow, just 5 kms. away from Courtalam. There, Kumaravelu Kudumbar, a Member of the District Board, Thirunelvely, took a large number of Dalits along with him, met Gandhi and presented him with a petition. The appeal and the message of the petition was:

 Tourists from all over the world come to Courtalam and take bath. Thus non-Indians, belonging to various cultures and traditions, are allowed to take bath in the Falls. However, we, the Dalits are Indians, and we live nearby. Still, we are not allowed to take bath in the Courtalam Falls. We do not have the rights even to go near the Water Falls.¹

They appealed to Gandhi to find a solution to this problem of Water Untouchabilty. Gandhi was greatly shocked. He immediately called the local leaders and inquired about this situation. He, in turn, appealed to them to allow the Dalits into the Courtalam Falls. Their reply was evasive and inconclusive. They said that the decision of the temple authorities was final in this matter, and that Gandhi should speak with the local temple authorities, as the Water Falls came under the maintenance of the temple.

 Then, Gandhi called the temple authorities for a meeting and discussed the problem with them. He pleaded with them to allow the Dalits into the Falls.

 The temple authorities replied unanimously that the entrance to the Water Falls was through the temple gate. The Dalits were remaining historically debarred from entering the premises of the temple. If the Dalits were allowed to go to the Water Falls, then they had to enter the temple premises, first. In that case, the temple and the whole temple premises would become polluted. After this explanation, the temple authorities¹ final words were, they were not willing to break the religious tradition. Gandhi was speechless. The Press then reported, his heart was stricken with agony and remorse, Gandhi returned from his Courtalam visit, without ever having a bath in the Falls.

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