FOR A WEEK now, a controversy has been playing out in Tamil Nadu over the legacy of the ancient saint Thiruvalluvar. It began with the BJP state unit tweeting a picture of Thiruvalluvar, whose white robes had been replaced with saffron, which drew protests from Dravidian and Left parties. On Monday, a statue of the saint was vandalised in Thanjavur; on Wednesday, after the state BJP IT cell asked party members to pay floral tributes to Thiruvalluvar statues across the state, Arjun Sampath, leader of a fringe group called Hindu Munnani, tried to drape a saffron shawl on one statue, and was arrested. A look at the importance of Thiruvalluvar in Tamil Nadu:
Who was Thiruvalluvar?
He is regarded as a cultural and moral icon for Tamils across caste and religious lines. The period when he lived is debated, as is his religious identity. Some place him in the third or fourth century; others put him in the eighth or ninth. Some call him a Hindu; some trace his past to Jainism; Dravidian groups count him as a saint with no religious identifiers except his Dravidian roots.
In his 1873 book Tamil Wisdom; Traditions Concerning Hindu Sages and Selections from their Writings, British scholar Edward Jewitt Robinson wrote about the saint, including the suggestion that “Valluvan, or priest of the Pariah tribe, found the deserted child [in a grove in Chennai], and reared him as his own.” The book quotes several testimonies on Valluvar (Thiruvalluvar), including: “Of the six sects, one will condemn the system of the other but none of them will condemn the system propounded by Valluvar in his Cural: It has the merit of harmonising the opinions of them all, so that each sect would admit it to be its own.” Another testimony says, “It is difficult to say whether the Sanskrit or the Tamil is the best: They are perhaps on a par, since the Sanskrit possesses the Veda, and the Tamil the Cural, composed by the divine Valluvar.”
What are the contemporary views?
BJP national secretary H Raja told The Indian Express that Dravidian parties who don’t believe in gods had removed Hindu symbols from depictions of Thiruvalluvar. Raja said Tirukkural, the saint’s collection of 1,330 couplets (or Kurals/Curals) is similar to Hindu Sastram. “The original Thiruvalluvar had vibhuti and all Hindu symbols. It was Dravida Kazhagam and DMK who changed his appearance to suit their political gains,” he said, arguing that the saint’s verses and life were similar to Sanatan Dharma.
S Swaminathan, a retired IIT professor who specialised in ancient Tamil history, said: “From whatever little evidence left on Thiruvalluvur’s life, several scholars had concluded that most likely he was a Jain, neither a Hindu nor a Dravidian. All that we can ascertain is Tirukkural, his extraordinary piece of literature, has no comparison in Indian history or ancient literature.”
Where does all this fit in alongside recent findings on Dravidian history?
While the ongoing controversy was triggered by the BJP’s efforts to attribute a Hindu religious link to Thiruvalluvar, Dravidian history has already been the subject of recent discourse. Findings from the Keeladi excavation site, published by the state archaeological department, had pushed back Tamil Dravidian history in South India by at least 300 years, from 300 BCE to 600 BCE. The exhaustive excavations did not find symbols associated with Hinduism, which strengthened the theory of ancient Dravidian history detached from Hinduism. The excavations are expected to throw light on a nearly 1,000-year gap between the Indus Valley civilisation (1500 BCE) and the Sangam Era (600 BCE).
Is this the first time that efforts are being made to claim the legacy of important Tamil perosnalities?
Swaminathan said that this has been happening all along, by Dravidian groups five decades ago, and by Hindutva groups now. “The so-called picture of Thiruvalluvar in white robes itself was a recent imagination. No figure or picture of Thiruvalluvar existed [earlier]. We do not even know whether the ancient saint who penned Tirukkural was one person or a blend of many over the years. Like Jesus, we created the figure of Thiruvalluvar several hundred years after his death,” Swaminathan said.
Two years ago, a similar controversy had been created when the BJP called the 19th-century social reformer Sree Narayana Guru a Hindu saint. Guru, who is credited with laying the foundations for Kerala’s social and secular fabric, is known for opposing casteism and promoting spiritual freedom.
In 2017, the RSS national council in Coimbatore called for popularising Tamil saints and icons in the organisation’s literature to help Hindutva ideology gain more visibility in the state. The RSS-BJP has sought to claim the legacy of freedom fighters and national leaders like Kappalottiya Tamizhan, with whom households in Tamil Nadu identify closely.