In search of the Arunthathiyar past

Available historical documents take the genealogy of the Arunthathiyar community in the Tamil region much beyond the period of Nayaka rule.

ByS Gunasekaran

Published Mar 15, 2023 | 12:23 PM Updated Mar 16, 2023 | 10:25 AM

In Senji, Villupuram district, there are a series of forts, collectively known as Senji Fort. ne of the hill forts in this group is known as Chakkiliyar Durg or Chakkiliyan Durg, a reference to the caste that now comes under Arunthathiyar

Last month, the past of the Arunthathiyar caste was in the limelight in Tamil Nadu politics. A demeaning statement by Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) leader Seeman about the community and its past provoked large-scale reactions across the state.

The statement by Seeman, maliciously referring to the Arunthathiyars as Telugu-speaking migrants who were brought by the Nayaka rulers (16–18th centuries CE) to employ them in the Tamil regions for sanitary work, not only represented the popular misperception about the caste, but also had the devious intention of creating a rift among the suppressed communities in the state.

Available historical documents take the genealogy of the Arunthathiyar caste in the Tamil region much beyond the period of Nayaka rule. Moreover, their supposed involvement in sanitary work is a recent phenomenon, in all probability, due to colonial industrialisation and the breakdown of traditional livelihood options.

In a recent statement, Seeman maliciously referred to members of the Arunthathiyar caste as Telugu-speaking migrants who were brought by the Nayaka rulers (16–18th centuries CE) to employ them in the Tamil regions for sanitary work (Twitter/Seeman)

In a recent remark, Seeman maliciously referred to the Arunthathiyars as Telugu-speaking migrants brought by the Nayaka rulers to the Tamil regions for sanitary work (Twitter/Seeman)

Also read: Police book Seeman for threatening migrant workers

Not all Arunthathiyars speak Telugu

Just as not all Arunthathiyars engage in sanitary work today, not all of them speak Telugu.

There have been considerable regional variations. Till recent times, they were agricultural labourers, leather craftsmen, folk musicians, tenant cultivators and small-time farmers.

Chakkiliyar or Chakkiliyan is one of many sections within the Arunthathiyar caste, while the other dominant groups are the Madhariyars, Pagadaiyars, and Thottiyars.

Y Subbarayalu, a prominent historian of the Chola period, writes, “The Paraiya, along with some other allied communities (Pulaya, Chakkiliyan, Ottai-Vanni), provided agricultural labourers during the time.”

Three inscriptional references to Chakkiliyar

There are at least three stone inscriptions, dated between the 13th and 14th centuries, which give references to the Chakkiliyar.

An inscription from Tiruvannamalai (1202 CE) says: “Chakkilikku dharisanam kaatti tholale seitha thiruvadinilai” — meaning the divine leather door-frame (for the temple) — was made after showing it (darshan) to the Chakkiliyar (South Indian Inscriptions, Vol.VIII, No.151).

Another Tamil inscription (1375 CE) refers to a tax, namely Chakkiliyatirai (Epigraphia Carnatica, Vol.X. ct.94).

A Cenkam inscription (1258 CE) includes the Chakkiliyar caste as one of the signatories of a village document (South Indian Inscriptions, Vol.VII, No.118). In analysing this inscription, Noboru Karashima, the Japanese historian, concludes that the Chakkiliyar held a position between the Paraiyar (above) and the Irular (below) in the prevalent social hierarchy of the time.

Also read: DMK too should stop jibes, hate speech against migrant workers

‘Chakkiliyan vaikal, Chakkili thottam’: Land ownership

During the Chola and post-Chola period, various social groups acquired land ownership as compensation for their participation in military conquests.

According to Y Subbarayalu, the Palli, Surutiman, Nattaman, and Malaiyaman are some such tribes (basically hill tribes) who became landholders during this period.

It is possible that some sections of Arunthathiyars also acquired land ownership in this way.

A cursory look at the names of places in Tamil Nadu, like Chakkili thottam (wetland of the Chakkiliyars), Chakkiliyar kadu (dryland of Chakkiliyars), Chakkili palayam (village of Chakkiliyars), Chakkiliyan vaikal (Chakkiliyar canal), Chakkilichi madai (channel), etc., indicate their close association with land and other agrarian activities.

There had been land transactions between the Chakkiliyars and other communities till recent times.

Also read: Did Nandini, Vanthiyathevan exist? A not so-beginner’s guide to the Cholas

Hyder Ali and changes in social structure

In 1800, Francis Buchanan, a European scholar and traveller, observed a group of labouring class in the Vellore region, whom he called Panchum Bundum.

He writes, “The Panchum Bundums are by far the most hardy and laborious people of the country, but the greater part of them are slaves. So aware of their value was Hyder Ali that in his incursions it was chiefly these workers, whom he endeavoured to carry away. He settled them in many districts as farmers and would not allow them to be called by their proper names, which was considered opprobrious; but ordered that they should be called cultivators. The Panchum Bundums consist of four tribes: the Pariar (Paraiyar), the Baluvan, the Shecliar (Chakkiliyar), and the Totti. The Shecliars dress hides, and from among the Totti is chosen a particular class of village officers.”

This shows that every new conquest brought in changes in the existing social structure, hierarchy, and caste equations. Possibly, it had been a practice since early times, from the period of the Sangam chiefs.

Also read: Village near Madurai with a Sangam age inscription

Leather craft of Arunthathiyars in high demand

Leather craft and its production were one of the important ancillary activities to agriculture during the pre-modern period. Especially in the frontier regions like Kongu and Ramanathapuram, where cultivation depended mostly upon well-irrigation, the skill and service of Arunthathiyars were in acute demand.

Gunnel Cederlof in her book, Bonds Lost, has shown the enormous contribution of Arunthathiyars to the growth of the agrarian economy in the Coimbatore region during the early twentieth century.

Though some of them were trapped into the notorious Pannaial system (a sort of agrestic slavery), there was considerable demand and respect for their skill in making leather baskets, which were used for irrigation.

While compiling the census report (1933) of Puthukottai state, S Dandapani Ayyer wrote, “The highest numbers of Chakkiliyars are in the Viralimalai division apparently for the reason that there is a good deal of well irrigation in that division.”

In a Coimbatore district manual, Nicholson (1887) observed that “leather well-buckets are a source of much profit to the Chuklers (Chakkiliyars); each well-lift requires a new one every year, as there are 83,622 lifts in actual use; about 80,000 buckets, each requiring one ox hide, are used per year”.

Interestingly, as leather crafting was once considered as a profitable business, many low-income groups got into this work and thus acquired a new social identity as Chakkiliyars.

For instance, in 1921, in his Census report of Travancore, S Krishnamurthi Ayyer wrote, “The demand for their labour caused by the increase in the number of persons using leather goods might have induced other castes to take up their profession and convert themselves as a Sakkiliyan (Chakkiliyan).”

Pulaya in Sangam literature

If we consider that leather work was one of the primary occupations of Chakkiliyars, the craft must have had a long presence in South Indian history.

In the Sangam literature, the Pulayas are shown engaging in leather work, conducting rituals and playing musical instruments. (For instance, Purananuru songs: 82, 287, 289)

In a recent statement, Seeman maliciously referred to members of the Arunthathiyar caste as Telugu-speaking migrants who were brought by the Nayaka rulers (16–18th centuries CE) to employ them in the Tamil regions for sanitary work (Twitter/Seeman)

A reference to Pulayas in Purananuru, a Sangam Tamil text (Purananuru, Text, Transliteration And Translation In English Verse And Prose, Central Institute of Classical Tamil, Compiled and Edited by P Marudanayagam/Photo, Prasanna RS)

They were closely associated with the local chiefs. The intruding Vedic ideology had to compete with the existing heroic ideology in which the Pulayas had a major stake. The term Pulayas referred to various occupational groups, who were viewed from the perspective of Vedic-Puranic ideology as lower castes.

The Bhakti saint, Tirunaalaipovar (Nandanar), was said to be a Pulaya and had the traditional obligation of providing leather to the temple.

However, K Kailasapathy has demonstrated the changing perception about the history of the saint. It was only in the later texts, such as Periyapuranam¸ that he was represented as a Pulaya and that he lived in a Pulaya hamlet at Andanur.

Like Nandanar, there was another Bhakti saint, namely Chakkiliya Swamigal, whose history also connects him with leather work.

Sundar Kaali in his work has analysed how these saints challenged the caste order and thus the imposed ideology.

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Where the Thevar deity goes to meet Arunthathiyar deity

The practice of offering shoes to local deities in a way shows the importance of leather craft. In 1820, Walter Hamilton observed, “At Madura there is a famous temple in a place called Pahlary [Pazhani?], consecrated to God Vellayuda, to whom his devotees bring offerings of a singular kind. These consist of large leather shoes in the shape of shoes which the Hindus wear on their feet, but much larger and ornamented. The deity of the place being much addicted to hunting, the shoes are intended to preserve his feet when he traverses the jungles.”

Such a practice still continues.

For example, as writer Arunan has observed, shoes are offered to Sorimuthu Ayyanar, whose temple is located in the Tirunelveli district.

A festival at the Sorimuthu Ayyanar temple in Tirunelveli district (Naresh Kanna)

A festival at the Sorimuthu Ayyanar temple in Tirunelveli district (Naresh Kanna)

Similarly, folklorist S Karmegam has studied an interesting masikalari festival in Ramanathapuram district, in which the deity of the dominant caste (Thevars) goes to meet the deity of the Arunthathiyar caste.

As a marker of respect to the community, the deity of the dominant caste accepts and drinks the water in which a piece of leather was soaked. Such community rituals have deeper social meanings.

Maduraiveeran, Chakkili Durg in Senji: Oral traditions, folklore

The Arunthathiyar community has rich social memories in the form of oral traditions and folklore.

Traditions such as Muthuppattan Kathai, Maduraiveeran Kathai, and Ondiveeran Kathai speak more about the community’s past and about their role in local governance and politics.

Historians and anthropologists like MSS Pandian and Stuart Blackburn have studied them in the context of their construction.

The deified Maduraiveeran today stands as guardian deity in front of the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai.

In Senji, Villupuram district, there are a series of forts, collectively known as Senji Fort. One of the hill forts in this group is known as Chakkili Durg (Chakkili Durgam/Kottai/Malai).

According to Sinivasachari, it is believed that “a sardar of the shoe-maker caste fortified (the hill) at his own expense”.

In this region, as Umamaheswari in her book ‘Reading History with the Tamil Jainas’ points out, there prevails a popular memory about one ‘Chakkili Maharaja’ (the great Chakkili King).

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Arunthathiyar past is complicated

There is also a perception among the people of the Arunthathiyar caste that their origin goes back to the Athiyar tribe of the Sangam period. Its tribesmen such as Adiyaman Anji ruled the Thakadur region (modern Dharmapuri district) in the Tamil land, where a sizable number of Arunththiyars reside today.

Therefore, the past of the Arunthathiyars is quite complicated; it does not fit into a neat singular narration of calling them Telugu migrants of the Nayaka period.

It is quite possible some sections of Arunthathiyars might have migrated and settled in the Tamil region during this time, yet that was not their whole story.

Linguistic states did not exist at that time. People lived in borderlands and spoke multiple languages.

When colonial officials began a caste-based census, they put Chakkiliyars under the general category of ‘Pariahs’ and they were classified as ‘leather workers of Tamil Districts’.

The colonial census and manuals, often carried out and written with the help and assistance of the upper castes, often tend to include the demeaning views of upper castes about the Arunthathiyar community. Nonetheless, they put Chakkiliyars in the list of Tamil castes.

It was famine, drought, the emergence of industry-based leather production, introduction of motor pumps and plastic buckets, etc., which seriously affected the traditional livelihood pattern of the Arunthathiyar, causing some of them to migrate to urban areas and engage in sanitary work.

Therefore, any politically motivated simplistic narrative of the Arunthathiyar past is not justified.

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(S Gunasekaran is assistant professor of history, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Email: