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Medieval Tamil Nadu: Caste System Evolution



  Mar 23, 2024

Evolution of the Caste System in Medieval Tamil Nadu



The caste system in medieval Tamil Nadu, specifically from the late 10th to the 13th centuries, reveals a complex sociopolitical fabric far removed from the binary interpretations often provided by ideological narratives. Contrary to the simplistic views attributing the solidification of caste to religious doctrines or colonial interventions, the evolution of caste structures in Tamil Nadu during this period was a multifaceted process, significantly influenced by local politics, economic interests, and social aspirations.

The Role of Inscriptions

Tamil Nadu’s rich collection of inscriptions from this era, preserved on temple walls and documented in sources like the Epigraphia Indica (EI), Annual Reports of South Indian Epigraphy (ARE), and South Indian Inscriptions (SII), offers a nuanced view of the social dynamics at play. These inscriptions highlight the fluidity at the top and bottom ends of the caste hierarchy, with significant changes occurring in the middle tiers.

Brahmins and Land Endowments

Initially, Brahmins received considerable land and labor resources, with royal dynasties like the Cholas making substantial endowments. This period also saw Vellala agriculturists and aristocrats, considered a “pure” Shudra caste, actively participating in the endowment process, indicating the complex interactions between different social groups.

The Paraiyar Community

The inscriptions also shed light on the Paraiyar or Pulayar community, revealing their segregation and subjugation for agricultural labor. Over time, the community faced increasing oppression, reflecting the hardening of social hierarchies.

Middle Castes and Social Mobility

The middle castes exhibit the most dynamic social mobility, challenging preconceived notions of caste based on religious scripture. Temple donations from various communities, including those later considered lower castes, suggest an initial openness and fluidity within the temple space.

The rise of landowners and military personnel, especially from communities like the Pallis, underscores the role of economic and social capital in negotiating caste status. These developments were closely tied to the fortunes of the Chola empire, with the collapse of Chola power marking a significant turning point.

The Emergence of a Regional Caste System

The decline of the Chola empire catalyzed the formation of large social coalitions, leading to the establishment of a more structured caste system at a regional scale. This period saw the careful articulation of social hierarchies using terms like varna and jati, highlighting a shift towards a more rigidly defined social order.

Conclusion

The caste system in medieval Tamil Nadu was not a static or monolithic entity imposed from above or solely defined by religious doctrine. Instead, it was a dynamic, evolving system shaped by a multitude of local and regional factors, including political changes, economic interests, and social ambitions. This period underscores the importance of understanding the historical complexities and regional variations in the evolution of caste, moving beyond simplistic or ideologically driven narratives.



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