Over the past century, the janeu—in addition to its age-old connotations—gathered an extra charge in Tamil Nadu, where to cut off the ‘poonool of a parppaan’ (the sacred thread of a brahmin) was considered an act of radicalism in the high noon of the state’s self-respect movement.
That tradition of throwing a spanner in the works of rigid Brahminism has new adherents, armed with new, imaginative methods. A fringe group put up posters last August that declared its intention to hold a thread ceremony for pigs—to coincide with Aavani Aavittam, the day Brahmins and a few other communities change their sacred threads and renew their vows. While Brahmin groups were aghast at the proposed insult, others were merely amused. “By tradition, only a father would put the poonool on his son. So, I have no objection if these Periyarists want to put a poonool on a pig. For them, anti-Brahminism equals to anti-Hinduism. But they do not equate any other community’s practice with Hinduism. Thus, they are only giving a special place to Brahmins,” says former Mylapore MLA and BJP leader S. Ve Shekher.
As D-Day approached, the protests petered out. The police clamped down on would-be protestors; a few doughty ones could just manage to march a few pigs, sans the threads. “The poonool is nothing but an upper caste symbol aimed solely at degrading other castes. Brahmins wear them only to assert their caste superiority. Our ‘Poonool for Pigs’ sought to discourage it, which has no place in a secular democracy,” argues a spirited L. Manoj, an office-bearer of Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, the organiser group.
A poster for the ‘Poonool for Pigs’ programme
In April 2015, the group had used the old method and tried to cut off janeus of Brahmins in Chennai, resulting in the hospitalisation of a victim—an old priest—and the arrest of five members. In hindsight, Manoj admits that it was a mistake, as it had violated privacy of individuals. “Hence, we wanted to target the community for perpetrating the practice of poonool.”
In Tamil Nadu, only Brahmins have been targeted for wearing sacred threads, not other communities who wear them. The Vishvakarma caste, consisting of goldsmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, ironsmiths and metalworkers, has been left alone, even though its male members proudly where their janeu. “This further proves that brandishing cultural illiteracy as social reform has been one of the hallmarks of the Dravidian movement,” points out right-wing author Aravindan Neelakandan.
Though Vishvakarmas and Brahmins are almost equal in numbers—forming about three per cent of the state’s population—targeting Brahmins solely gives, naturally, greater mileage for such groups. “By targeting Brahmins and not other communities the so-called social reformists have themselves placed the Brahmins on a higher pedestal unwittingly,” points out Thuglak Editor S. Gurumurthy.
Bhaskar, a goldsmith on the narrow C.P. Koil street near Mylapore’s Kapali Temple, feels that Brahmins have not protested strongly in the face of such attacks. “These DK people know that we too wear the thread, renew them on Aavani Aavittam day and yet haven’t grabbed ours. If such a thing happened our community would have agitated as one man and jewellery stores would have shut down in protest,” he says with a note of pride, pulling out his poonool from beneath his shirt.
Along with Vishvakarmas, a section of Chettys are the other non-Brahmins in Tamil Nadu who wear the thread. “We have our own purohits who preside over our rituals, including changing the holy thread on Aavani Aavittam. Our rituals may not be as exacting as those of the Brahmins, but we wear the poonool as it is a symbol of knowledge and skill passed on by our forefathers. It is a matter of pride for us,” explains Dinesh, a Vishvakarma who conducts the community’s rituals as a priest and teaches computer science in a local school.
Writer Kalachakaram Narasimmaa says that the sacred thread was merely a symbol of enlightenment, not one inherited by way of birth. “The poonool merely represents the four stages of one’s life, from brahmacharya to sanyasa and used to apply to all communities. Whereas others have discarded the practice, Brahmins have clung on to it. So wearing the thread does not give them any hierarchical advantage.
Some observers feel that Brahmins are still being targeted through such protests as the Dravidian movement had failed to displace them from a position of pre-eminence in society. “Politically they might have been weakened, but when it comes to industry, law, media, cinema and arts and culture, the Brahmins still have a lot of clout. Many IAS officers are Brahmins, as they are recruited directly. When every community started its own self-financing engineering college, the Brahmins started their own. This is nothing but a failure of Periyar and DMK’s anti-Brahmin propagaNDA,” points out political commentator Raveendran Duraiswamy.
Even as mere protocol, the poonool has failed to cut through the caste divide. The temple archakas (priests) from non-Brahmin communities, trained and appointed by the Karunanidhi government in 2007, continue to languish in a limbo. “After being selected from among thousands of applicants, 206 of us who were appointed archakas are left jobless as the Supreme Court, while upholding the appointment of non-Brahmin archakas, laid down a rider that their appointment should conform to the local customs (agamas) of the respective temple. This effectively filtered out the 206, who had spent a year-and-a-half in training to be archakas,” points out Ranganathan.
A Yadava by birth, he had applied when the DMK government decided to appoint archakas from amongst non-Brahmins and was selected for the course conducted at Thriuvannamalai Shiva Temple. “Not only were the enrolment orders hand delivered, we were even given new sets of apparel. And we also took Deekshaa from a holy person to wear the poonool, which was an important ritual in the process of training as an archaka. But the SC order indirectly benefits Brahmins, making them defacto archakas, which has made our trai-ning meaningless,” rues Ranganathan.
“Even the DMK government, which enacted the law to appoint non-Brahmin archakas, left the candidates marooned, refusing to even get the interim stay against their appointment in 2010 vacated. And after the final verdict it was a case of ‘operation successful, patient dead’,” pointed out S. Raju, advocate who fought the aggrieved archakas’ case in the Supreme Court.
Ranganathan and a fellow archaka garlanded Periyar’s statue to protest the DMK’s reluctance to push for temples free from casteism.
To publicise their woe, Ranganathan and a fellow archaka, wearing their sacred threads, even climbed on to the Periyar statue in Thiruvannamalai and garlanded it to protest the DMK’s reluctance to bring Periyar’s dream of casteism-free temples to fruition. “I think the DMK government lost its resolve to bring the issue to a logical conclusion. It again proved that Karunanidhi believed more in tokenism rather than real social emancipation. The subsequent government of Jayalalithaa fought the case with even more reluctance and was greatly relieved when the SC virtually maintained status quo,” observes a former advocate-general.
Ironically, Karunanidhi’s last creative work—before his retirement from active public life—was the script for the TV serial Ramanujar, which was telecast on his family-run Kalaignar TV. Karunanidhi claimed that he wrote about the saint since he had broken caste barriers by letting non-Brahmins worship in temples. The DMK veteran’s critics, however, could not help but point out that for someone who had excelled in anti-Hindu posturing throughout his political career, his swansong had a Hindu saint as subject. “And thereby hangs a thread,” someone chuckles.