Were Brahmins bad? – a sequel to Karunanidhi’s hate-Brahmin speech. (Part-6)

The kings have had some interest in Chathur Vedi Mangalams and in Saalai (சாலை) such as the one found in Parthivasekara puram. The Mangalams were settlements of people of different background whereas the Saalai were  Pata-shaala – schools for Vedic learning. Both these places supported Vedic studies. Both were given some level of autonomy in administering their affairs and in self generation of funds through land donations. Though the aim was to enable Brahmins to study and excel in Vedic knowledge, the management and administration was not entrusted with the Brahmins. These two places have generated interest among the Dravidian thinkers who see them as proof of Brahmin domination. According to them the Brahmins were the Aryans and they promoted Sanskrit and Manu’s rules which ultimately resulted in subjugation of other castes. If that is true,  the Tamil Kings would not have promoted these centers. The Tamil kings were certainly more concerned about the welfare of their subjects than these Dravidian thinkers. They promoted Tamil much better than any of these people.


The important matter in these two (Chathur Vedi Mangalam and Saalai) is that the temple was in primary place around which they were developed. The popular Tamil adage “Koyil illaa ooril kudiyirukka vendaam” (Don’t reside in the place where there is no temple) was respected verbatim, that whenever they created a new village or a settlement, the first thing they did was to build a temple there. This automatically means that Brahmins were brought there for conducting the rituals. The primary focus was to make provisions for uninterrupted worship at the temple. This was made available through land grants. Land was seen as a principal and the income from the land namely, the cultivated produce was considered as the interest. Without a plan for grants, no temple, no saalai and Chathur Vedi Mangalam was created.


For example, the Parthivasekarapuram temple of Vishnu built by Aay king Kookaru nanthadakkan , was built after gradually acquiring lands from the Sabha of Meenjhirai in exchange of some other lands.(1) Once the location of a temple was decided based on the availability of cultivable lands and adequate water supply, the king had acquired the lands without any coercion and with adequate compensation. A temple was built on that location along with provisions for school (Pata saalai) and a medical centre (Adhular saalai). In some cases Chathur Vedi Mangalams were developed and in some others, the Vedic Patashala was developed within the precincts of the temple. The temple itself formed an active economic and social centre and not a political centre. By building a temple, the king, at one stroke had fulfilled the development of a school, a hospital and an eatery for the people of the village.


In this set up, the land grants to the Brahmins came with a responsibility. They had to use the cultivated produce for the offerings to the deity. The amount of food to be offered during the worshiping times was fixed in the land deed. The amount was huge so that the food could be shared among the temple servants. The temple offered food for many people such that there was a need for servants to clean the vessels and the places where people ate. Females were employed for this purpose. The grants have a mention of this and  the kind of payment to be given  to these women. Among other kinds of payment, it included a sari also! (புடவை) (2)


In an instance recorded in the Kaalaakaalesar temple in Kovilpalayam in Coimbatore district, the donated land lost “kaal”. As a result the land was returned to the Government. But the offering to the deity could not be stopped. The Brahmins pooled gold to purchase a land so that the produce of the land could be used for the temple. (3) Here the term “kaal” refers to “vaayk kaal” (வாய்க்கால்)– the canal which was used for irrigating the land. (4) In all land grants, it was made sure that adequate water supply was ensured for cultivation. This was mentioned in the land deed itself. When water sources had dried up, the people had to obtain permission from the king to renovate them or dig up new ones (5). Until then an alternative arrangement had to be made to continue the offerings to the deity. Thus it is seen that it was the personal responsibility of the temple Brahmins to see to it that the offerings did not get interrupted. Offerings to the deity were the main objective of land grants to the temple priest than conferring any personal gains to him.


A similar incident was reported in Karapureeswara temple, where the Brahmins of the Amani Narayana Chathur VEdi Mangalam brought to the notice of the Village Committee the drying up of the water way that was irrigating the donated land. The members made alternate arrangements to get rice for offering to the deity. (6)


In another incident recorded in the Veerattaneswara temple at Korukkai in Nagappattinam, in the year 1179 AD, the produce from the donation given by a woman did not come through. The Brahmins made arrangements for alternate sources to ensure that offerings continued. (7)


The grants to the Brahmins of the Chathur vedi Mangalam also carried this responsibility. In the records chiselled on stone in the Kailasamudaiyaar temple in Cholamaadevi in the year 1000 AD, the Maha sabha charted out the grants in gold and also the responsibilities of the Brahmins. This grant was called as “Archana Bhogam” given for Puja. Certain amount of rice was calculated in proportion to the gold and the Brahmins had to  procure that amount of rice to offer to the deity, failing which they would be punished by the  Committee of the Village people (ஊர் வாரியப் பெரு மக்கள்)(8) 


In yet another incident recorded in the temple of Karunambika in Avinasi, Coimbatore, the temple Brahmin who did not fulfil the stipulations of the grant was replaced by another Brahmin. (9)


Not all Brahmins were chosen for grants. Only qualified Brahmins were given grants. Similarly all the activities of the temple were given to only those persons whose integrity and ability to carry out the function was unimpeachable. Suppose some of them died or went on pilgrimage, their relatives could take up that function only if they were qualified for it. If no relatives were there, the persons identified by them (in the case of going on pilgrimages) were allowed to do the function. In the absence of this, qualified persons were recruited by the temple committee (10)


By and large, we do not come across any misuse of land grants given to Brahmins. From an incident recorded in a slab found in front of the Garbha griha of Parthasarathy Swamy at the temple in Triplicane, it comes to be known that the offering to the deity came down as the land was mortgaged in the 8th century AD. The reason for this is not known. Since there is no mention of a reprimand or a replacement, it is assumed that the land was mortgaged for raising money for buying food offerings. The deputy of the King Danthi varman, restored the land and ensured the continuity of the offerings. The Brahmins named Sanga sarman, Saththi sarman and Ilaya saththi sarman were ordered to do the offerings. In case of shortfall, arrangements were made to get rice from some other lands. It was also stipulated that those failing to do these, would be punished.  (11)


There were instances of another type of land which were bought by the people as KaaNi aatchi (காணியாட்சி). It was not a donation, but a right over lands meant for temple use. The right could be purchased from the Government by paying a price for it. However this also came with a commitment to supply stipulated amounts of paddy to the temple. This right was purchased by many which included Brahmins also. In the event of not fulfilling the commitment, the right could be sold to another who would however continue the commitment to supply paddy. This right was available to others also. Brahmins were not solely enjoying this right.


Thus wherever we see in the past, there was no special privilege to the Brahmins. They were responsible for the worship of offerings made to the deity. All the activities of the village or Mangalam were temple- centric. The temple was the prime owner of lands that brought to it good amount of cultivated products. This was used during times of famine. An inscription at Thakkolam shows that there was a committee called “Panja vaara vaariyam” (பஞ்சவார வாரியம்) which was given the responsibility of distributing the grains to the people during times of famine. (12) Yet another inscription shows that the “Panjavaara vOoriduvari” (பஞ்சவாரவூரிடுவரி) committee was rested with the responsibility to undertake measures of redress during times of famine. (13) This is a remarkable feature of the administrative system in India which was well in place in Tamilnadu also. The temple based economy and administration made sure that no one was without food.


Another feature of this system was that every person living in the village had something to contribute as a means of employment. This made the entire village / town completely self dependant and self satisfied. In this way different jobs came into place which was judged by the British as inferior and superior. They categorized the people as castes based on the jobs they did at that time of enumeration by them. This categorization went to a ridiculous extent that the 1881 census recorded more than 3000 castes within Tamil speaking people of the Madras Presidency. But the fact of the matter was that all the people irrespective of whatever caste they belonged to were inter dependent on each other. The social system was such that there was give and take within each other. This included the Brahmin too whose services were needed by each household, for all the happenings right from birth to death and on all festival days. This inter-dependence was well preserved in such a way that when a migration took place, the entire community comprising of these people including the Brahmins migrated together. This kind of social structure and contended life of all the people existed even as late as the beginning of the 20th century when the Dravidianism cropped up.


The report of the 1901 census shows how this system of the village -centered economy hurt the British interests. The report confirms the existence of the village centric economy right from time immemorial – a facet of which was described above. The British found it difficult to break it until the beginning of the 20th century. The self contentment of the villages was so strong that the British resorted to discrediting the Brahmins through which they achieved the break-up of the unity of the village community.


At first they targeted the Vedas and pushed in the Aryan invasion theory.


Then they attacked the Brahmins by projecting them as perpetrators of the Manuwadi system which was unknown to many including the Brahmins until then.


Whatever the Tamils could relate with Manu was the Manu neethi Chola who killed his own son as a punishment to him for having killed a calf.


By harping on Manuwadi and classifying people as castes – nearly 3300 castes among Tamil speaking people alone in the 1881 census, they succeeded in driving a wedge between Brahmins and others.


This made easy their job of demolishing the temple centric life of the people and with that, their involvement in Hinduism.


What they were doing with considerable difficulty was made easy by the Dravidian ‘thinkers’ who took up the triple responsibility of attacking Vedas, Brahmins and temples. What followed was a century of Dark age in Tamilnadu history.


Before going into how the Brahmin was attacked, let us take a look at what the Britishers wrote in the Census Report of 1901 on the until-then working system of traditional economy of India. (14)


From the Report on the Census of India, 1901.page 197

“Organisation of village industries.
     323. A peculiar feature of Indian rural life is the way in which each village is provided with a complete equipment of artizans and menials so that, until the recent introduction of western commodities, such as machine-made cloth, kerosine oil, umbrellas and the like, it was almost wholly self-supporting and independent. The subject is somewhat trite, but the following extract from Mr. Rose’s Report presents some of the main facts in a new and interesting light:-

“Under the old social system of these Provinces every tract, and, to a certain extent, every village, was a self-contained economic unit, in which were produced the simple manufactures required by the community. This system facilitated the development of a caste system based on hereditary occupation. Below the land-holding tribe, and subject to its authority, were the various sacerdotal, artizan and menial classes, which have more or less crystallized into castes and these classes were, economically and socially, closely dependent on the dominant tribes -who owned the land and controlled its allotment. These castes were all more or less servile, and were paid by a, share of the produce of the soil, or, more rarely, by fixed allowances in kind, cash payments being probably a very recent innovation. But the better classes among them were also assigned land for maintenance, and this system was especially fostered by the priestly groups, so much so that, according to Pathan custom, all Saiyads, all descendants of saints, and all descendants of mullahs of reputation for learning or sanctity are entitled to grants of free land called seri, the amount of the grant varying accord- ing to the degree of inherited sanctity. In precisely the same way to Bráhmans were given grants of land (sasan), varying in extent from a group of villages conferred by the State, to a mere plot granted by the village community or a section of it. The possession of such a grant conferred a high social status on the grantee, so that the Sasani, or beneficed, Brahman of the hills stands higher than those who hold no such grants. Similar grants were also made to any religious personage, or to a shrine or temple, and, by an extension of the same principle, to men of the artizan classes. These grants were alike in character and conferred no absolute right of ownership, the grantee having an inherent power to resume a grant if the purposes for which it was made were not fulfilled, but the grants varied in degree, those to shrines or sacred personages to all intents and purposes conferring a permanent right of possession hardly distinguishable from ownership, and those made to menials being wholly precarious.

The tenures thus conferred, whatever their precise legal nature, enabled the servile classes to eke out a living by cultivation, but it left them menials, or artizans, or priests as before, and custom forbade them to change their abode without the consent of the landholders. And if the dominant tribe migrated its dependent castes went with it, the Bráhmans of the tribe, its Bháts, Doms, and other menials migrating also, a custom which even now may be found in operation in many cases in the Chenáb Colony.

“Thus each tribe, at least, if not each village, was, economically, a water-tight compart- ment, self-contained and independent of the outside world for the necessaries of life, but for commodities not obtainable within its own borders it depended on foreign sources of supply and on the outside castes such as the Labanas, or salt-traders, who formed no part of the tribal or village community. Thus there have never arisen, in this part of India, any great industries. Foreign trade, necessarily confined to the few large towns, was limited to superfluities or luxuries, and such industries as existed were necessarily on a small scale. Further, inasmuch as each community was absolutely independent, as far as necessaries were concerned, the few industries which supplied luxuries never became firmly rooted and have succumbed at the first breath of competition. Everywhere in our official literature one reads of struggling industries in the small towns, though fostered by intermittent official encouragement, dying of inanition. The causes seem obvious enough. Everything essential can be, and for the most is, made in the village or locality, so that there never is a demand for imported articles of ordinary make, those made by the village artizans, however inferior in quality, satisfying all requirements. In good seasons there is some demand for articles of a better class, but when times are bad that demand ceases, and the industry languishes. Thus the village industries alone are firmly established. If the crop is short, everyone from the landlord to the Chuhra, receives a diminished share, but small as the share may be, it is always forthcoming, whereas in the towns the artizan is the first to suffer in times of scarcity, and if the scarcity is prolonged, the urban industries are extinguished. But if, on the one hand, these industries are precarious, the village industries are firmly established and will probably die hard in the face of the increasing competition which menaces them.”

(to be continued)


  1. Travancore Archeological series Vol 1
  2. Govinda puththur inscription. “எச்சில் எடுத்து எச்சில் மண்டலம்ன் செய்து கலம் சாம்பல் இடுவாள் ஒருத்திக்கு நிசதம் … புடவை முதல்…”
  3. “காணியுடை சிவப்பிராமணன் காலற்று இது நம்முதா நமையில்…” (Kaalakaalesar temple, Kovil palayam, year 1293 AD)
  4. Kooram plates – line 78 (“இவ்வூர் பரமேச்சுர தடாகத்துக்குப் பாலாற்று நின்றும் தோண்டின பெரும் பிடுகு ‘கால்'”)
  5.  ‘KalvettukaL kaattum kalaich soRkaL” page 90 and 91.
  6. “30 kalvettukaL” page 20, Karapureeswara temple in Walajabad during the reign of Parthivendra padman.
  7. “Thamil naattuk kalvettukal, 2004” page 216 and 217.
  8. Thirukkailayam udaiyaar thirukkOyil-“Thamil naattuk kalvettukaL 2004” page 8
  9. “Coimbatore maavattak kalvettukal – part 1″ page 9 and 10. (இவர்கள் குடுக்க மாட்டாமை தண்டேசுரப் பெருவிலையாக இவர்கள் காணியுள்ளது அறவிலையாக எழுதிக் கொடுத்தமையில் இவர்கள் இப்படி செய்கையால் காணியுற விட்டமையில் இக்கொயிலுக்குக் காணியாளரை வேறேயிட்டுக் கொண்டு காணியாளரை வேறேயிட்டுக் கொண்டமைக்கு இப்படி செம்பிலும் சிலையுலும் வெட்டிக் கொள்வாராக..” )
  10. Rajarajeswaram Udayar temple, Tanjore.
  11. “30 kalvettukaL” page 1
  12. S.I.I., Vol. III, No 190.
  13. S.I.T.I., op.cit., p. 1458
  14. http://www.chaf.lib.latrobe.edu.au/dcd/page.php?title=&record=1336

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