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India is a country known all over the world for its unique cultural
mosaic popularly known as ‘unity in diversity’. Almost every state in India has
its own ethnic identity, language and culture. Likewise, the people of Tamil
Nadu had developed a distinct culture of their own known as the Tamil culture.
Like men, the women of the Tamil society too were privileged – though on a
minimum scale and that too for a short time – in the past. Later they faced a lot
of sufferings due to exploitation and oppression, and these dimensions have
been gleaned from Tamil literatures and other sources belonging to a period of
more than thousand years and these form the subject matter of this chapter.
Ancient Tamil Society
Ancient Tamil society was essentially a tribal organization.1 It is quite
interesting to note that the Tamil society retained its tribal nature even when it
was exposed to a destructive caste structure evolved by the Aryans who had
migrated to India.2 They entered into Punjab (land of five rivers) and moved
towards south, in the distant past.3 The advent of Europeans in the later
medieval period as traders and later as political administrators of Tamil Nadu
brought forth several changes in the entire fabric of the polity. Among them the
A. Devanesan, History of Tamil Nadu (Up to 1995 A.D.), Renu Publications, Tamil Nadu, 2003,
p. 65.
K. Rajayyan, Tamil Nadu a Real History, Ratana Publications, Madurai, 2005, p. 53.
Vincent A. Smith, The Oxford History of India, From the Earliest Times to the End of 1911,
Oxford, At the Clarendon Press, London, 1922, p. 13.
social, cultural, economic and political changes and their permanent impact on
the Tamil people were tremendous and tangible. Yet all these influences could
not remove the original tribal nature of Tamil Nadu. Exclusive tribal
settlements are found even today in many hilly areas in Tamil Nadu and
besides that tribal cultural symbols and practices are found among the Tamil
people in their festivals and other cultural celebrations. Sangam literature talks
about the Todas in Nilgiris and the Nagas.4 They were called Dravidians after
the Aryan invasion. Scholars believe that the south Indian especially Tamil
culture was the Dravidian culture where people were highly civilized and well
versed in art and literature.5
The Prehistoric relics in the Dravidian belt included the relics relating to
the worship of Mother Goddess. The absence of Sakti as the partner of Siva in
the early Vedic texts speaks for the absence of Saktism and female gods in
Vedic pantheon.6 The worship of Mother Goddess was popular among the
Dravidians and it was not there in the Vedic religion. Probably, Aryans had
co-opted the Dravidian deities as Aryan Gods and Goddesses. The theory of
Manu that humankind is divided into four Varnas, or groups of castesBrahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra-was wholly foreign to the
Scholars have posited a few theories on the spread of Aryan culture
throughout the sub-continent. Before the arrival of the Aryans, the Dravidians
N. Subrahmanian, Sangam Polity, Ennes Publications, Madurai, 1980, p.259.
M.S. Vairanapillai, Are We Two-Nations? A Study in Citizenship and Recent History,
Kodaikanal, 1948, p.71.
V.T. Chellam, New Light on the Early History of Tamil Nadu, Vijai Publications, Trichy, 1961,
Vincent A. Smith, op. cit, p.14.
were settled throughout India and had developed a highly advanced civilization
of their own. The struggle for existence had conditioned the social
organization, structure and behavior of the society in ancient times.8 The
Dravidians disliked the Aryans and resisted their onward march towards the
South. Nevertheless, the Aryans defeated them and settled permanently in
certain centres of South India. In due course, the whole of South India was
brought under their domination. Thus racially India was divided into two major
divisions, namely, Aryans and Dravidians.9 Before the advent of Aryans, Tamil
culture was pure and rich in its content. Ancient Tamil Literature indicates that
from early times wealthy cities existed in the South and that many of the
refinements and luxuries of life were in common use.10 Plenty of gold was
available in the Tamil country itself and that was supplemented by what was
brought by the Yavanas (Romans) for trade. Pearls and precious stones were
available and all these were used for making a wide variety of ornaments since
the Tamil men and women were fond of ornaments.11
The Tamil society consisted of people who tilled the soil as well as those
who depended upon the soil indirectly. There were agricultural labourers of
four groups called Panan, Paraiyan, Tudiyan and Kadamban. Carpenters,
smiths and weavers were part of the society but they did not form a separate
class of people. Malavars were hunters and the Nagas were fisher folk.
Different classes of people inhabited different parts of Tamil Nadu as per the
V. T. Chellam, op.cit., p. 59.
A. Devanesan, op.cit, p. 32.
Ibid., p.15.
K.K. Pillay, History of Tamil Nadu - Her People and Culture, Tamil Nadu Text Book Society,
Government of India, Ministry of Education and Social Welfare, New Delhi,1975, pp. 311-314.
nature of their profession.12 The Dravidian religion and social customs differed
widely from those of the Aryans. The caste system was not known to them.
There was no caste in the Tamil society till the arrival of the Aryans.13
Later the Tamil society was divided into many castes, and each caste
had some ceremony peculiarly to its own. There was a time when there were no
castes, social orders, or mixtures of castes. We cannot determine exactly when,
and under what circumstances the people were divided into castes.14 The
ancient Tamil Society was classified into many divisions. The divisions were
did not intend to create any disparity or inequality among the people but to