TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: History & Geography
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Jacob Pandian's book is an important contribution to further our understanding of
the Tamil collective identity. That which follows is taken from the conclusion:
".... in defining ethnicity it is necessary to make a distinction between the
symbols of cultural boundaries that are transmitted from one generation to the next, and
the use of these symbols - the explanations and interpretations of these symbols in the
construction of group or ethnic identity.....
People use the symbols of cultural boundaries selectively in the development of group or
ethnic identity... The individual "rewrites" his biography depending on the
context in which he deploys the symbols, and depending on how and why he defines a
particular manner he adds to or alters the meaning of the symbols to his advantage. The
individual may also become an "exemplary symbol" or "role model" for
others to emulate...
Any trait, biological or cultural, can become an emblem of collective identity.
Biological, linguistic, religious and political traits often are identified by the
believers as denoting their distinctiveness. The existence and persistence of these
denotations are, however, sustained by the connotations - the meanings embodied in the
symbols of cultural boundary...
Among the Tamils, Tamil language is the emblem of Tamil
ethnic identity. ...although "language constitutes the single most characteristic
feature of a separate ethnic identity...ethnicity is frequently related more to the symbol
of a separate language than to its actual use by all members of a
group." Tamil language functions as the emblem of Tamil identity because of
the existence of the various symbols of boundaries in Tamil culture.
..... it is the use of the symbols of
which enables the denotation of Tamil language as the emblem of Tamil collective identity.
Chenthamil and karppu are
religious symbols, and are
evocative of female imageries. These can be used, and used interchangeably, and both
represent purity/chastity as a sacred principle of the Tamils. Tamil women are believed,
in relation to the symbol of karppu, to be endowed with sacred power, and are divinized
through the imageries of "goddesses" such as
Kannagi who had the power to render justice
in the political arena. Kannagi not only transformed the religious symbol, but also
resolved in her life and action the opposition between the religious/feminine and
political/masculine symbols, and she became a role model.
Both men and women could do what Kannagi had done. Men could attain purity, and women
could attain political justice. But purity
requires constant protection, and men are believed to provide such a protection. Unless
men safeguard the purity of women and the purity of Tamil language, both the language and
Tamil women would cease to be chaste and lose their sacred power, resulting in men losing
the political power to protect their families.
by men in the 1960's when the Hindi language was "imposed" in Tamil Nadu was a
cultural response, based on the above symbolic logic.
The efforts on the part of the leaders of the Dravidian movement to attain
political autonomy for Tamil Nadu also was a cultural response, based on the same symbolic
logic.The leaders and followers of the Dravidian movement transformed and synthesized the
political and religious symbols of cultural boundaries: the symbols were simultaneously
religious and political, and
gained importance as a religious as well as a political metaphor.
.....language is not the sole emblem of collective identity among the Tamils.
The Tamils are divided into several jati groups, each group having distinctive ritual
status and political power. The emblems which denote or identify ritual status and
political power are jati name and jati title, respectively.
Three symbols of cultural boundaries (nadu veadu, amman and panchayat) are involved in the
formulation of jati identity, and in the representation of such an identity as ritual or
political emblems. Jati identity has both ritual and political dimensions: jati names are
ritual emblems which represent a group's sacredness with reference to occupational purity,
performance of certain purificatory rituals, etc.; jati titles are political emblems which
represent a group's corporate power and/or politico-economic dominance.
Jati titles (political emblems of jati identity) are rooted in the beliefs and practices
associated with nadu veadu rituals. It is the symbol of nadu veadu which enables a child
to internalize the meaning of ritual boundaries. Notions of temporary and permanent
pollution as well as connotations of hierarchy in relation to purity and pollution are
represented in the symbol of nadu veadu. Nadu veadu is also a symbol of the ritual
privileges and prerogatives of a household, and by extension, of a jati group.
The symbol of amman is the pre-eminent boundary of health: the symbol is used to
conceptualize personal and group health, good or bad. Amman, as the goddess, provides the
self and the group prolection, and also punishes; when worshipped with a particular name
and a particular ritual, she is a personal or group deity and represents a combination of
ritual and political boundedness of a jati group or village territory ... Amman is also
linked with nadu veadu rituals: it is the woman of the household who is the sacred keeper
of nadu veadu, sharing in the attributes of the amman (and vice versa).
Amman is transformed from a religious to a political symbol in its use, and it is not
uncommon to fuse the domains and meanings of experience embodied in all the three symbols.
Amman can be viewed as the "master symbol" of the Tamil village, and can be
interpreted as the core of other symbols of boundary-maintenance in Tamil culture.
Amman links the literary and village traditions and plays a central role in the
formulation of identity at both personal and group levels.
In sum, the Tamils use the symbols of Tamilakam,
Panchayat, Chenthamil, Amman,
Nadu Veadu and
Karppu in the conceptualization of
collective identity. Some of these symbols are directly related to jati group identity and
others to Tamil ethnic identity. But jati and Tamil ethnic identities are not opposed;
in fact, both jati and Tamil ethnic identities have common epistemological roots, although
Tamil language serves as the emblem of Tamil identity and distinctive ritual/political
emblems represent jati identity...
The symbol of Tamilakam in the literary tradition, and the symbol of Panchayat in the
village tradition connote territorial protection, corporate authority, external-rational
action. The symbols of Chenthamil and Karppu in the literary tradition, and the symbols of
Amman and Nadu Veadu in the village tradition connote spiritual power, ritual
purity/pollution, self, life, and internal-emotional content The emblems which denote
Tamil and jati identities derive their legitimacy from these symbols.
..... it is necessary to make a distinction between ethnicity and ethnic identity systems.
Fundamental to this distinction is the fact that ethnicity is a conglomeration of
religious and political symbols that represent cultural boundaries; the symbols are used
selectively in the formulation of ethnic identity systems, vary in their use in time and
context, and differ in their significance to the believers.
Ethnic systems arise from the self-conscious, organized use of ethnicity
to conceptualise self and/or collective identity. This selfconscious, organized use of
ethnicity may be characterized as identity summation. Individuals seek consistency and
coherence in their formulation of identity, but ethnicity qua ethnicity does not have
systemic consistency or coherence.
Within the same cultural tradition, a number of political and religious symbols of greater
or lesser importance exist, and some of these have more continuity and have greater
relevance as representing cultural boundaries. It is not necessary for these symbols to be
interrelated as a systemic whole. It is true that these symbols often fuse each other's
meanings and are transformed to convey a collective or synthetic meaning; but the fusion,
transformation and synthesis occur in their use to conceptualise identity. We can say that
the symbols of cultural boundaries are like books in a library: an individual may organize
his knowledge through a selective reading of books.
To the question, "What is your group identity?" a Tamil may answer by
identifying his jati title or jati name, his language, occupation, religious or political
affiliation Depending on the context and who the questioner is, the answers would vary.
An individual has a coherent system of self and group identity but what this system
does is to enable the individual to employ and deploy multiple identities in his lifetime
and in different experiential contexts. In other words, there is no set pattern of
identities that remain static. The individual knows what "appropriate" identity
to dramatize, and knows how to respond to the dramatisation of the "appropriate"
identity by others.
This knowing comes from the internalization of the symbols of cultural boundary,
and their significance comes from their use; their use also verifies the validity of the
symbols. This is what I have called identity summation. There is the selective use and the
cumulative verification-validation of the symbols and it is conceivable that an individual
may accumulate some significant symbols, and others will know how to interact with him,
giving priority to or emphasizing the use of those particular symbols.
In Tamil culture, it is probably not very common to
have all six symbols of cultural boundary combined equally by every Tamil in a way that
enables us to state, "This is Tamil ethnic identity."
Some may give more importance to Western or Islamic values than to jati values, and
some may decry "Tamil nationalism" as
harmful; but even these individuals "know" how and when to use the symbols of
cultural boundary. Furthermore, the use of a single symbol may fuse the meanings of the
other symbols, and although an individual may not acknowledge the use of the other
symbols, the users can comprehend their collective identities.
In the conception of self or collective identity, the systemic aspect, namely, coherence
and consistency, is frequently breached or eroded. Internal experiences of individuals and
groups as well as their encounters with external factors make it necessary to generate new
symbols or modify the old symbols of cultural boundary. Again, by using the analogy of the
library, we can see how new books are constantly written to make the past relevant to the