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The Nadars of Tamilnad (The Political Cultural of a Community in Change)

The Nadars of Tamilnad (The Political Cultural of a Community in Change)
Item Code: NAN015
Author: Robert L. Hardgrave
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2006
ISBN: 9788173047015
Pages: 342 (10 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.0 inch x 6.0 inch
About the Book

Among the various communities of South India, the Nadars have perhaps most clearly evidenced the impact of change over the past 200 year. Considered by high-caste Hindus in the early nineteenth century to be of extremely low status, the Nadars- toddy-tappers, climbers of the palmyra palm- suffered severe social disabilities and were among the most depressed communities in the Tamil country. Because of their sensitive response to social and economic change over the past century and a half, the Nadars have today become one of the most successful groups in the South, in both economic and political terms, and considerable command respect. From among their numbers have come leaders in business, industry, and the professions; and in politics, Kamaraj, their illustrious son, brought fame to the caste as Chief Minister of Madras and as President of the Indian National Congress.

The Nadars have had a turbulent and colourful history. Their struggle to rise above their depressed condition assumed dramatic forms in a series of escalating controversy through the sack of Sivakasi to the Nadar Mahajana Sangam, the Nadar’ rise, exemplifying the processes of mobilization in Indian society, provides rich material for an analysis of the political life of a community in change.

When in book was first published in 1969, Lloyd Rudolph wrote, ‘Hardgrave illuminates in ways hitherto unexplored the processes of social and political change that have so profoundly affected India. I judge his book to be one of the most important and exciting studies in the Indian field in recent years’. With this reissue The Nadars of Tamilnadu is again available, and its compelling portrayal of a caste in Transition stands as, one reviewer wrote,’ one of the landmarks in South Indian social history’.

About the Author

Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr. is the Louann and Larry Temple Centennial Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, Departments of Government and Asian Studies at the University of Taxas at Austin. His most recent book is A Portrait of the Hindus: Balthazar Solvyns & the European Image of India 1760-1824


I was very pleased when Professor Hardgrave asked me to write a shore foreword for the reissue of his classic study of caste politics, The Nadars of Tamilnadu (1969), especially because his work has been a major influence on my own. Several years ago, David G. Mandelbaurn (of the University of California at Berkeley) suggested that it might be an interesting, valuable, and complementary exercise if I were to study as an anthropologist the same general group of people that Hardgrave had studied as a political scientist. Hardgrave and Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, in whose The Modernity of Tradition (1967) Hardgrave ‘s finding on the Nadars first appeared, were among a growing group of scholars, many of them at the University of Chicago, who were discovering that ‘Modernization’ was far more distinct from ‘Westernization’ than the scholarly community- let alone the wider public- had believed through at least the first half of the Twentieth century.

Hardgrave focuses on the Nadar caste, a number of related but internally ranked endogamous groups in the far south of the Indian peninsula. He describes this group as poised in a ‘social limbo’ between the Dalit caste and the Sudra ones. Hardgrave does not assume that the arrival of British rule in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to the beginning of he downfall of caste as a ‘traditional’ unit of Hindu social organization. Rather, he traces the history of the Nadars as entailing a growing sense of social unity. Thses processes included a strong trend toward the Nadars becoming a single community a caste; their establishment of effective local caste councils; and, after a century of change, the establishment- often in the face of strong and ever violent opposition- of the Nadar Mahajana Sangam (NMS), a collective institution intended to serve all Nadars in their efforts towards social uplift.

Early nineteenth century Christian missionaries described the Nadars as so isolated from mainstream Tamil society that they were not considered really to be Hindus. These missionaries found many willing converts among the Nadars. When other Nadars saw the benefits of education received by converts to Christianity, they responded by building English-style and English- language schools yet all the while moving towards mainstream Hinduism. By the late nineteenth century, the Nadars were seeking status uplift through sanskritizing their dress, worship, diet, and other practices. When the high castes still withheld their respect, the Nadars turned to the Non-Brahmin Movement. Further demonstrating their tactical flexibility, once the Temple Entry Act was passed in 1939, they rapidly accepted the rights of all Hindus. In his detailed account of these changes, Hardgrave shows that the Nadars reveal the same remarkable tactical flexibility in religion as they have in caste organization and their political and economic activities.

Hardgrave has a good deal to say about the local Nadar councils- the uravinmuraikal- in the various towns and villages in which they settled. At the same time, his most sustained discussion concerns the NMS, its historical development, several activities, internal workings, and diverse interactions with other communities as well as about Nadar participation in city, state, and national politics. With reference to relations with other communities, the leaders of the NMS have been aware that good feeling are essential for a caste with so many commercial interests. Towards this end, the local councils and the NMS have operated a number of educational institutions, from elementary schools through to colleges. These are open to people of all castes and faiths.

Hardgrave found that the Nadars become increasingly differentiated as they entered different occupations, resulting in class divisions among the wider collectivity. Along with these divisions have come different political philosophies, interests, and affiliations. This led a majority to Nadars to support the Non- Brahmin Movement and the Justice Party at one time, the Congress afterwards, and the DMK finally. But what is true of a majority is certainly not true of individual Nadar. Hardgrave includes information on and interviews with Nadars whose political affiliations range from ‘left’ Communist (as opposed to ‘right’ Communist) through to the Swatantra Party. Nevertheless, Hardgrave demonstrates that this differentiation has done nothing to counter the Nadar’s powerful sense of community solidarity.

Hardgrave found the political culture of Tamil Nadu as changing at different pace in different places. In the most isolated villagers, the Nadars of the 1960s were often still severly oppressed. Unsurprisingly, they stayed more aloof from other communities. The NMS had men in the find such cases and make the authorities aware of their oppression. At the other extreme, Hardgrave found that Nadars were business associates and friends of people of other castes, joining the same clubs and even eating at the same restaurants. However, the Nadars continued to have very strong feeling for their own community, so that breaking the norm of caste endogamy was very rare indeed.

We know that since Hardgrave’s pioneering work, other studies on caste associations have been published. For example, Frank F. Conlon’s Caste in a Changing World: The Saraswat Brahmans, 1700-1935 (1977), demonstrates that a caste association can be as effective in serving the interests of high caste as it can promoting the uplift of a once downtrodden group. My own work, The Northern Nadars of Tamil Nadu (1996) – based on research conducted during 1968-70’ and off and on from 1985 to 1990- adds discussion of such issues as the growth of Nadar wealth and power, factionalism and conflict resolution within the uravinmuraikal and the resultant political changes, and conflicts and attempts at consiliation with other communities, especially during the decades following Hardgrave’s research. At the same time, I have found nothing in these years to contradict the overriding impressions that I initially took from Hardgrave’s book: the Nadars, like other Indians (but more successfully than some), have reorganized their caste, their town councils, the NMS, and other aspects of their practices and beliefs to meet their goals of caste uplift and to adjust to ever- changing political, economic, and cultural conditions. With some movements back and forth, the great majority remain practicing Hindus. Indeed, the Nadar commitment to their caste- which is actually a British Raj and Post-independence phenomenon- is unlikely to simply wither away.


In this study of the relationship between political sentiment and behavior, on the one hand, and the structure of society, on the other, the unit of analysis will be a single caste, a community in motion over time, in the social space between the village and the state. Although a microcosm, the analytical unit provides a link between social and economic change and political life, between structural change in society and political sentiment and behavior. Through the analysis of a caste in time, it is possible to explore its internal changes as it interacts with society. It offers both the possibility of analysis in a dynamic sense over time and the comparative analysis at the synchronic level of variant situations. The study will be both diachronic and synchronic, focused upon the process through which the caste enters the political system and upon its role in political life.

Among the communities of South India, the Nadars have perhaps most clearly evidenced the effects of change in the past ISO years. Considered by the high caste Hindus in the early nineteenth century to be among the most defiling and degraded of all castes, the Nadars, as toddy-tappers, climbers of the palmyra palm, suffered severe social disabilities and were one of the most economically depressed communities in the Tamil country. In their re- sponse to the social and economic changes of the last century the Nadars have today become one of the most economically and politically successful communities in the South. From among their numbers have come leading merchants, physicians, and educators; in politics, Kamaraj, their most illustrious son, has brought fame to the caste as chief minister of Madras and as president of the All- India Congress party.

The analysis of the Nadar community over time required the construction of a social and political history of the community: an examination of the traditional condition of the community before substantial change had occurred; then a focus on the process of change itself, on the transformation of the community over time. For the caste's history, data were drawn both from documentary sources and from personal interviews.

The initial two months' work in Madras was devoted to library research-to the examination of caste histories, anthropological surveys, missionary memoirs, government documents, and court records relating to the Nadars and to the region of the southern districts in which the community was originally concentrated. In addition to materials available in public libraries and archives, such as the Madras Records Office, I was provided with a substantial number of books, pamphlets, diaries, and manuscripts from the personal libraries of Nadar families throughout Tamilnad.

The documents and files of the central association of the com- munity, the adar Mahajana Sangam in Madurai, were most important sources. The Sangam gave me complete access to its records, from the founding of the association in I9IO to the present day. More than any other factor, the generosity and cooperation of the Nadar Mahajana Sangam ensured my success in securing materials and in meeting those I wished to see. Soon after my arrival in Madurai, the association's newspaper, Mahajanam, carried an article about my research, which proved a most useful introduction in my subsequent travels in the Nadar country of the southern districts. The Sangam provided me with letters of introduction to individuals and, on occasion, as in the town of Kamudi, to the Nadar uravmnturai, the community's governing body of elders. This cooperation and interest, reflecting community pride, eliminated almost all of the suspicion normally attendant in social science research.

In addition to the documentary sources, I drew heavily upon personal interviews in reconstructing the history and activities of the community. I tried to keep complete field notes of casual conversations, and I conducted approximately one hundred formal interviews with Nadars about specialized knowledge they had of their community’s, history, customs, tradition, organization, and political activities. These included Nadars of prominence and power, those 'who had themselves played an important part in the history of their community. The greater number of those interviewed, however, were distinguished only by a rich and vivid memory of the Nadar past. In visiting a village or town, I usually sought out the oldest people of the community and, almost without exception, was rewarded. For example, the oldest man in Kamudi, aged eighty-eight, described with great gesticulation and excitement his participation in the temple entry of 1897. An eighty-five- year-old widow of Sivakasi told me of the riot of 1899 she had witnessed as a girl and sang a song from memory, long forgotten by others in the town, of this event.

In these interviews, I ordinarily took as complete notes as possible, and on occasion, my research assistant would transcribe the conversation. The elderly Nadars seemed anxious that I not miss a: word. During other interviews-those with politicians or in areas of sensitivity-no notes were made. I discovered quickly that, with paper and pen out of sight, a politician is likely to be more frank dum he might otherwise be. I made notes of the conversation immediately after the meeting and, with practice, lost little detail in the process.

In these interviews, as in the records relating to the history of the Nadar community, the vital role of the Anglican missionaries was clearly evident. The first available descriptions of the caste are from missionary reports, and the missionaries themselves were deeply involved in the initial stages of change among the Nadars. A degree of caution is probably well advised in working with missionary sources. In their fervor to save the heathen, many were undoubtedly influenced in their view of the native condition by their bias against the indigenous worship. It is remarkable that the missionaries so often remained largely free of this bias, for their perceptions-particularly those of scholars like Robert Caldwell- were often highly sophisticated and sensitive to cultural differences.

The missionaries, in their labor among the Nadars, wrote frequently to their London superiors of conditions in South India and of the changes they were witnessing. They regularly filed reports, and a number of missionaries kept detailed journals of their activities and impressions. These letters and manuscripts have been preserved in the archives of London missionary societies, and there, for the better part of six months, I sorted through what were some of the richest documentary materials of my research.

For the purposes of synchronic analysis, my initial examination of the Nadar community enabled me to select four sufficiently diverse situations for comparison. To explore the range and variety of political sentiment and behavior among the Nadars, I wanted to take several "readings" along the continuum from tradition to modernity at the contemporary level. No community today, even the most isolated, can be taken to represent "tradition" unaffected by innovation and change. Mass communications, for example, have opened the village in exposing it to a broader world. Though not impervious to change, the relatively isolated village may be taken as approximating to some degree the conditions of the past. Structural and behavioral differences between variant situations at the synchronic level cannot be taken as congruent with the spectrum of "stages" in a time sequence. The village-city polarity does not represent a strict parallel to the tradition-modernity continuum. For our purposes, however, it is useful to accept a rough congruence between the diachronic and synchronic models. Thus, as we move from the more isolated village to the industrial city, we would expect to find conditions approximating those in the process of change over time.

The four communities selected for intensive analysis represent structurally different situations and correspond in some ways to periods in the history of the Nadar community, as they refflect the economic change and geographical expansion of the caste. The first is a village in the palmyra forests of southeastern Tiruchendur, the heart of the Nadars' homeland. Its political culture today is essentially parochial. The second community for analysis is the town of Karnudi in Ramnad District, to which Nadar traders migrated in the early nineteenth century. The Nadars of this town, which figured so prominently in the community's struggle for social uplift, are a small, integrated mercantile minority, surrounded by the hostile Maravar community. The city of Madurai, the third community, is a major Nadar center and reveals the initial stages of a differentiated political culture. This differentiation is even more evident in the fourth, Madras City, the economic and political capital of Tamilnad.

In each of these structurally variant situations, I made a general analysis of the position of the Nadar community, its relationship with other castes, and its political involvement. In addition, twelve individuals were selected, three from each situation. They were not taken as a representative sample of the Nadar community; selected informally, they represent distinct types and, together, suggest the range and variation within the community. Each was interviewed intensively following an interview schedule patterned after that used by Robert Lane in his study of political ideology in New Haven (see the Bibliography). The schedule was supplemented, in an effort to explore political sentiment at a more subjective level, by a modified thematic apperception test. These interviews, I hoped, might give a personal reality to the changes which the Nadar community had experienced in the previous 150 years. This experience of dramatic change may be analyzed in terms of three structural types-the parochial, the integrated, and the differentiated-along the continuum from the more "traditional" to the more "modern."

The first, or parochial, stage may be seen in Tiruchendur in the early nineteenth century before substantial change affected the community. Here the caste was so dominant in numbers that elaboration of caste ranking was minimal in interactional terms. At the same time, the caste was differentiated by subcaste, and, more significantly, by the division between the climbers and the Nadar landowners. Politics took place within the Nadar community, between factional client groups.

The second, or integrated, stage is best seen in Ramnad, from the middle of the last century, where the Nadars were confronted by a high elaboration of caste ranking, as a minority community. The distinction between Nadan and climber was no longer present among the traders, and the division of subcastes disappeared as each was integrated into a single community. Tightly organized in defense of caste interest, politics was primarily on a basis of caste, since the Nadars acted as a cohesive unit.

The third stage, differentiation, emerges with urbanization. The very success of the Nadars in their rise led to the increasing differentiation of the community, and in the urban areas of Madurai and Madras City to which they immigrated, they were but one of many communities, each highly differentiated. The elaboration of caste ranking declined as differentiation increased. The caste be- came politically heterogeneous, reflecting a multiplicity of cross- cutting ties.

The Nadars have had a turbulent and colorful history. Their efforts to rise above their depressed condition assumed dramatic form in the series of escalating confrontations between the caste and its antagonists. From the breast-cloth controversy through the sack of Sivakasi to the Nadar Mahajana Sangam, the Nadars' rise, encapsulating the processes of social mobility in Indian society, has given rich texture to the analysis of a community in change.


The specter of caste has increasingly come to haunt both Indian politics and Indian political analysis. "Caste is so tacitly and so completely accepted by all, including those most vocal in con- demning it," writes M. N. Srinivas, "that it is everywhere the unit of social action." Srinivas argues that the development of modern communications, the spread of education and literacy, and rising prosperity have contributed, not to the disintegration of caste, but to its strengthening. As caste solidarity has increased, he contends, caste has been politicized and drawn into the political system as a major actor. The role of caste in modern Indian politics has been decried, on the one hand, as a fissiparous threat to national unity, and lauded, on the other, as a channel of communication, representation, and leadership which links the mass electorate to "the new democratic political processes and makes them comprehensible in traditional terms to a population still largely politically illiterate."

The complexity and problems in the relationship of caste to Indian political life have generated an extensive literature in recent years. Social scientists and historians have made impressive contributions both to our descriptive knowledge and to our theoretical understanding of the interaction between society and the political system. In the analysis of caste and politics, however, these studies have tended to focus either on a single village or else, more impressionistically, on the society as a whole. This study seeks to fill the gap in the social and political space between the village and the state through an intensive analysis of a single caste community in change over time.

There are in India more than three thousand castes, each a culturally distinct, endogamous community sharing traditionally a common occupation and a particular position in the localized hierarchy of caste ranking. Each caste shares a culture such that it may be distinguished from other castes in the village or locality by its manner of behavior and speech, the style of dress and ornamentation, the food eaten, and the general pattern of life. The members of a caste marry only among themselves, and their endogamy may be narrowly circumscribed geographically to include a limited range of villages.

Though we speak of the endogamy of a caste, traditionally each caste, or jati, has been a category embracing a number of endogamous subcastes. In a particular village a caste will normally be represented by one subcaste alone, although more than one may be present. Within the caste, the distinctions of subcaste are basic, for each may be ranked hierarchically just as the caste is ranked within the larger system. Each individual is traditionally a member of both a caste and a subcaste. From the outside, however, the caste is viewed as an undifferentiated group. Exceptions might occur only if there are radically different forms of behavior between subcastes. "On the whole," Adrian Mayer writes, "caste membership is significant for relations with other castes, and sub caste membership for activities within the caste." 6 "For the most part, behaviour is uniform towards all subcastes of a caste. And even when this is not so, differential rules are seldom applied because there is rarely more than one subcaste in a village."

Ordinarily each caste is relatively small and is confined to a localized region. It is only within the small territorial unit, as McKim Marriott points out, that the intricacy of the traditional caste sys- tem, with its usages of avoidance and pollution in the relation of castes, is possible." Traditionally the castes of a localized community, numbering from a handful to as many as twenty or more, are hierarchically ranked and functionally integrated. Each caste occupies a position in a hierarchy of ritual purity which governs its relations with the other castes of the village. The Brahmin is normally the highest; the untouchable, the lowest. The ranking is consensual, representing the body of collective opinion concerning the place of the caste as a corporate whole higher or lower than another in precedence or esteem. The ranking may be either more or less elaborate." The criteria for the ranking of castes are both attributional and interactional, but the legitimation of a caste's position in the hierarchy is determined through interactional recognition. Thus, although a caste may adopt the attributes of a higher caste in seeking to raise itself, it will secure recognition only through interactional acceptance.

Each caste is characterized by a number of attributes significant to its position in ritual ranking. The traditional occupation of each caste is marked by degrees of purity and pollution. Occupations such as leather-working, barbering, and toddy-tapping-the ex- traction of juice from palms for liquor-are considered to be de- filing and as such low in rank. The .consumption of certain foods carries defilement. While the consumption of meat is a mark of lower status than is vegetarianism, there are degrees of vegetarian- ism, such as between those who take eggs and those who do not. The style of dress, the forms of jewelry worn, the manner of address-all are attributional distinctions denoting a caste's position in the ritual hierarchy.

The attributes of caste status are meaningful only insofar as they are symbolic of interactional recognition. A caste does not gain high status merely by deciding to stop eating beef or by forbidding its members to consume liquor. It must gain the recognition of its status through daily interaction with the members of other caste groups in the village and locality. The pretensions of a caste to higher status through the adoption of "superior" attributes may bring a movement of reprisal on the part of the higher castes. The adoption of the attributes of a higher status will lead to interactional recognition only if the caste commands the economic and political power to demand the deference of the traditionally higher castes. The attributes of high status may, however, be significant in themselves beyond the locality of traditional interaction. In urban centers, or in regions where the caste is unknown, the attributes may determine interaction insofar-as no other criteria are available.

The interactional relationship between castes is governed by a prescribed pattern of behavior. Since castes are ranked hierarchically in terms of purity and pollution, the form of each interaction between the members of different castes serves to denote the superiority of one and the inferiority of the other. Pollution may be incurred through food or drink, for example, and an elaborate set of rules govern commensality, prescribing for each caste the groups with which it is permitted to interdine, the castes from whom food may be accepted, and the types of food involved in such exchange. To accept cooked food from a person of another caste is to acknowledge inferiority to that caste; to refuse food is to assert superiority. The interactional restrictions of Hindu caste society go far beyond commensality to embrace almost every aspect of an individual's life. Each caste is thus restricted in its behavior and life-style. Deviation may bring action from the caste itself through a panchayat, or committee, of caste elders. It may also incur the wrath of the higher castes and bring punitive measures against the aberrant individual or the caste group as a whole.

Although conflict between castes certainly occurred, castes must not be regarded as conflict groups. Indeed, the caste system pre- supposes ideally the interdependent relationship of occupational castes functioning according to prescribed parterns of behavior, providing at once economic security and a defined status and role. The caste system is what Alan Beals calls "being together separately." "To survive," he says, "one requires the cooperation of only a few jati, to enjoy life and do things in the proper manner requires the cooperation of many." Kathleen Gough has characterized the traditional system in which each economic function is fulfilled by a particular caste as "relationships of servitude." It was, in fact, a system of reciprocity and redistribution-but not one of equality.

The traditional economic system of caste has been likened to a "super-guild" system, with each caste performing its specific tasks in society by hereditary prescription and divine sanction. Each caste shares a common traditional occupation, and whether or not an individual is actually employed in that profession, he will be known by the caste's traditional calling. Thus a man of the potter caste who becomes an agricultural laborer continues to be known as a potter. A man is born into a caste, and regardless of his personal fortunes, he remains in that caste; he cannot escape it. Al- though the caste system was once viewed as static, with each caste frozen in its position of rank, the system has offered, in fact, a relatively high degree of flexibility. Within the middle ranges of the caste hierarchy, a degree of group mobility has always been possible.

In the range of castes between the Brahmin and the untouchable, there has been a high correlation between economic position and ritual rank. In the elasticity of the system, when modifications and changes occurred in the relative position of the castes economically, a commensurate readjustment of the ritual ranking usually followed. Thus, the equilibrium between economic status and ritual rank was maintained. As a caste rose in wealth and political power, it tended to rise in the ranking of the hierarchy of ritual purity. Thus, following F. G. Bailey, "the ranking system of caste- groups was validated by differential control over the productive resources of the village." The correlation, however, is not perfect, for "at each end of the scale there is a peculiar rigidity in the system of caste" which has held the untouchable in a position of ritual degradation and has guaranteed the Brahmin his ritual rank against the vagaries of economic change.

In mobility within the middle range of the caste system, it has been generally axiomatic that an individual alone can never rise, that he must bring his entire caste up with him. Bailey argues that a major factor preventing individual mobility is the solidarity of higher caste groups in closing their ranks against the rich men of lower caste. Social mobility arising from new economic opportunities belongs to the caste group and not to the individual. "The forces of change are thus canalized into the idiom of caste, and, given certain conditions, the structure of the caste-group is unimpaired, although the ranking of units within this structure may be modified in accordance with their changed economic rank."

Marriott's study of a village in Uttar Pradesh suggests that this may not be wholly the case. "There has long been an approximate correspondence between the ranking of blocs of castes in Kishan Garhi and the local distribution of power and wealth," he writes, but "whatever the temporary shifts of wealth and power as between the castes, the ritual forms that are significant for caste rank shift but slowly." Marriott contends that "much more responsive to economic and political changes are the position of single persons in the heirarchy of individual prestige. . . . In Kishan Garhi, a man's caste rank counts for little more than seven annas in the sum of his prestige; wealth and political affiliation together count for nine annas.”


Introduction : Caste in India1
I.The Nadar: Their Conditions and Traditional Status12
II.Christianity and Changes43
III.Mythology and Aspiration of a Changing Caste71
IV.The Six Town Nadar : Sanskritization and Confrontation95
V.Association for Uplift: The Nadar Mahajana Sangam130
VI.Politics and the Sangam 173
VII.Structural Change and Political Behavior202
VIII.Politics Sentiment: Five Nadars239
IX.The Nadars : An Overview262
I.Appendixes : Population of the Southern Districts269
II.The Myth of Nadar Origin273
III.Chronology of Nadar Caste Histories275
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