Palghat Iyers: Transformation of a natively timid community [BOOK REVIEW: Saga of Kalpathy: The Story of Palghat Iyers by M. K. Das. Bangalore: Darpan & Ahalia Publications LLP, 2017. 228 pages, HB. Price. Rs. 599/-. ISBN: 9789386506108.] by V. Sriram, Vipradwani: A Multi Cultural Monthly of Kerala Brahmana Sabha, Thiruvananthapuram, Vol – 6, Issue – 5, Pages: 62-64, January 2018
The Saga of Kalpathy is an enticing and enchanting historical narrative vividly woven by the renowned columnist Mr. M. K. Das. It tells the extraordinary tale of Tamil Brahmins of Palghat beginning from their migration from Tamil Nadu to the present generation. This book is presented in a simple language, but amply supported by authoritative references. It is useful for common book lovers and scholars alike. There are about 100 black and white sketches by cartoonist Mr. E. P. Unny interspaced throughout the book. These sketches capture and vividly portray the different socio-cultural aspects of Tamil Brahmin lifestyle in its absolute exactness along with giving the book a unique charm of its own. An excellent forward by the renowned historian Dr. M.G.S. Narayanan sets the backdrop to what the author has kept in store for the reader in 10 chapters. It took more than two years of ardent research and travel on the part of the author to write this book.
This book is not exclusively on Tamil Brahmins of Palghat. It also looks at the broader picture of migration to Palghat in the larger context of the socio-economic and political history of Kerala from the ancient times to the very recent development of the establishment of IIT Palakkad and launch of Sammunathi. However, a major thrust is about the process of transformation of Tamil Brahmins of Palghat, as the author says, “from being an obsessively obstructionist, hopelessly conservative and tradition-bound community into a modern, liberal, and pace-setting community with global reach while retaining their values and culture”.
According to the author, the Tamil Brahmins of Palghat are extraordinary people. When the circumstances warranted, they were ready to leave their native land by strengthening their resolve and found green pastures and are thriving without causing any damage to their adopted land or its native people. Later, due to the caste-based reservation and so on, when again life turned difficult, they could still move out quietly to other places and survive. Through generations, the Tamil Brahmins of Palghat have learnt to ignore the niggles and move ahead. They have become experts in drawing strength from internal roots and fight external deterrents.
The first chapter is a beautiful depiction of the setting – Palghat, the Ghats, the history of Kerala and how the geographical location of Palghat played an important role in the socio-economic scene of ancient and medieval Kerala. The author is able to establish the importance of the Palghat gap in the Western Ghats in the movement of people between Kerala and other parts of India.
The second chapter opens with a detailed description of international and internal migration. Followed by that, the author briefly discusses the socio-political and economic circumstances of the Tamil Nadu region which forced the Tamil Brahmins to migrate. Das is also able to firmly establish the reasons for the Tamil Brahmins to choose Palghat as the place for their settlement. History is ample proof that their choice for migration was correct. The author describes this as a rare win-win situation in the history of Kerala for Tamil Brahmins as well as their adopted land and its people.
The third chapter narrates the various reasons for the Tamil Brahmin migration, the migration process and the methodology. The author details the migration of other locations and compares it with the Tamil Brahmin migration to Kerala. Moreover, there are also details of migration of some non-Brahmin communities of Tamil Nadu to Palghat alongside the Tamil Brahmins. The push-pull situation of migration from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, it seems, was a well thought-out one. This chapter also delves in depth into the concept of Agraharam and compares it with nalukettu and other dwelling systems prevalent in Kerala. Towards the chapter end, the Tamil Brahmin migration to Thiruvananthapuram is also discussed very vividly.
The fourth chapter is a slight digression from the main narrative on Tamil Brahmins. It is about the migration to Kerala from other parts of India as well as abroad, and the peaceful co-existence of all these people. From Jews onwards, through Konkani and later Gujaratis, the intricate tale of migration is precisely explained. The author is able to explain the reasons for migration and the livelihood comparison of these communities and Tamil Brahmins. This chapter, even though not directly connected with the Tamil Brahmins of Palghat, is able to provide the larger context of migration to Kerala and the impact it created on the economy and polity of Kerala.
The origins of the Royal family of Palghat and the emergence and dominance of the Tamil Brahmins in Palghat is discussed in the fifth chapter. The Rajas, it seems, found the Tamil Brahmins to be unfailingly friendly and accommodative. The Tamil Brahmins proved themselves to be far less supercilious in their general conduct which endeared them to the royalty and the local people. The life and work of the Tamil Brahmins in Palghat and how they assimilated themselves into the mainstream is also discussed in detail. Fairly lengthy account of the evolution of Devi worship and Ayyappa worship especially in the Brahmana Samooha Madoms are also included in this chapter.
The sixth chapter vividly describes the life and times of Tamil Brahmins in Palghat. The author observes that their status in the society is of a very high order. It is quite interesting to read about their livelihood as scholars and their contribution to education of avarnas, as teachers, as musicians how they introduced original style in vocal and instrumental music, and also as culinary experts and how they captured the minds of the locals with a variety of new and tasty dishes.
In the seventh chapter, the author explains the historical impact of the various rulers of Kerala, Mysore, British East India Company, and the British Crown on the life style and socio-economic progress of the region. He also delves deeply into the impact of the Land Reforms Act of Kerala Government. It is a fascinating account of how all these affected the Tamil Brahmins and how they managed to survive all these adversities with the help of their traditional ability.
In the eighth chapter, we can see how the Tamil Brahmins handled the brewing crises brought in by the land reforms and the reservation policy in their own innate style. It narrates the Tamil Brahmin migration from Palghat to Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and other places for livelihood. The author explains in a balanced way the attitude of orthodox Tamil Brahmins to liberal ideas and how they eventually succumbed to pressure and transformed themselves. As rightly pointed out, it was the priority given by Tamil Brahmins to education that finally saved them once again.
The ninth chapter delves into detail about how the Tamil Brahmins survived against all the odds. They achieved it by investing and trusting hugely in modern education. The modernization that happened among the Tamil Brahmin women is also discussed at length in this chapter. It is firmly established that Tamil Brahmins survived by carefully staying in the background and maintaining an unambiguous role. It is finally revealed that they have survived wherever education and merit have been welcomed and given due consideration.
In the last chapter, the author discusses the various options for the Palghat region to regain its lost glory. The case of revival of Fort Kochi Heritage Township is also portrayed as a possible solution. The revival of sectors such as tourism, education, agriculture, and housing are discussed in detail. Whether the people will be able to bring about the desired change, whether Palghat will once again emerge as a vibrant centre, is for the future to assess. However, the author is optimistic that the new generation of Tamil Brahmins will be seeking not mere safety but will be able to challenge the fierce competition of new world order.
The focus of this book is on the social history of Tamil Brahmins of Palghat. The author has delved deep into their settlement patterns, integration with local people, challenges and crises they faced, and how they transformed into a progressive community. Tamil Brahmins have an uncanny capacity to adapt to any situation. This has been largely the reason for their success. To a great extent this is attributed to their spiritual rigour and focus on good education. It is fairly well accepted that the overall contributions of the Tamil Brahmins to the life and society of their adopted land has been quite enriching. The author mentions two reasons for the success of Tamil Brahmins, sheer resilience and adaptability. Tamil Brahmins always preferred to play along and were content with a passive role. This habit of being natively timid and not interested in standing out has only helped them everywhere in both good and bad times.
In the post-independence era of caste-based reservation, Tamil Brahmins have been completely sidelined and booted out of every possible avenue in the name of the so-called erstwhile forward caste domination. This is the new system where people with merit are sidelined, and caste has taken the front stage. The pessimism among the modern Tamil Brahmin youth about how the society and the authorities are treating them is on the increase. In this context, it is heartening to read the history of the survival of Tamil Brahmins for more than 1000 years against odds. This book will hopefully serve as an inspiration to the new generation of Tamil Brahmins.
Courtesy – Vipradwani Magazine, Kerala Brahmana Sabha, Thiruvananthapuram