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Voices on Untouchability

This was certainly the situation in the Voices on Untouchability Sangam age when the great woman bard Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon edited by Eleanor Zelliot and Rohini Mokashi-Punekar; Manohar, New Delhi, 2005;

not really represent the untouchable castes. This was certainly the situation in the

Voices on Untouchability

Sangam age when the great woman bard

Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon

edited by Eleanor Zelliot and Rohini Mokashi-Punekar; Manohar, New Delhi, 2005; pp 281, Rs 750.


ince my work has by and large been in a similar field I would like to begin this review by sharing a personal experience. I was in Tiruvannamalai within the precincts of the Ramanashram, trying to lay the foundation of my research which was on the spiritual history of women. I was directed to Kanakamma, a saintly lady in her 70s who had come to the ashram at a young age and stayed on. When I told her about my topic she laughingly asked, “Why women and spirituality? I did not know that spirituality can be male or female”. For me, her simple query was the starting point of self-reflexive explorations into gendered spirituality, a term Kanakamma would have perceived as an oxymoron.

A similar question came to my mind when I saw the book under review. Are there “touchable” and “untouchable” saints? Does not saintliness transcend such categories? As I read the essays in this collection, an extremely complex picture was presented before me.

Ontological FrameworkOntological FrameworkOntological FrameworkOntological FrameworkOntological Framework

An excellent introduction by Eleanor Zelliot and Rohini Mokashi-Punekar sets the tone for the essays by situating each of them within an ontological framework. The question of “touchability” versus “untouchability” is related largely to the dalit movements across the country but more particularly to Maharashtra. The songs of these saints cover the entire trope of joyous transcendence to a deep awareness of their lowly station in life at the two ends of the spectrum with great faith and deep dejection following each other in a rapid succession, rendering boundaries of caste consciousness fuzzy. Sometimes the “untouchability” figures as much in the problematic of the age and the hagiographies surrounding them as it does in the personal predicament of the saints themselves. A good example of this would be the various versions of the Nandanar legend depending on whether a brahmin, an upper caste non-brahmin or a dalit is doing the telling. Equally important is the audience which absorbs/uses these hagiographies. Thus, Nandanar and Chokkamela did not appear to be appropriate signifiers of the dalit movement because of the seeming absence of protest in their voices. On the contrary, Ambedkarites and other recent votaries of dalit causes have seen saint Raidas as being “one of them”. What precisely accounts for the rejection of Nandanar and Chokkamela on the one hand, and the appropriation of the “dalithood” of Raidas on the other hand by the modern dalit movements?

Tamil SaintsTamil SaintsTamil SaintsTamil SaintsTamil Saints

The first section of the book deals with the “Tamil Saints” Tiruppana Azhvar from the Vaishnavite tradition and Nandanar from the Saivite Nayanar tradition. Vasudha Narayan’s scholarly essay explores the many facets of the hagiography of Tiruppana Azhvar beginning from the Divya Suri Charitam written around the 12th century and Alavargal Vaibhavam written by Vadivalakkiya Nambi Tachchar around the 15th century. To this hagiographical tradition she suffixes the Amar Chitra Katha’s retelling of the Azhvar’s story. The following essay by Steven P Hopkins titled ‘In Love with the Body of God’ also explores the hagiographies of Tiruppana Azhvar. Both grapple with the question whether the untouchability of the Azhvar was a factor in his attaining god or in his physical distancing from god. The ingenious narrative of hagiographers manages to keep the brahmin orthodoxy intact while giving the Azhvar his due as a great devotee. The Azhvar is believed to be the incarnation of “Srivatsam”, the auspicious mark on Vishnu’s chest. His birth is believed to be a miraculous one since he was “found”. Once born on earth he never cried unlike most mortal infants. This narrative technique instantly lifts the Azhvar out of the panar caste which is believed to be lowly and divinises him.

In terms of historical reasoning, the reviewer must point out that the panar or virali both being bards and minstrels do Auvaiyar who belonged to the viraliyar jati, claims that she dined with the king on socially equal terms. It is, however, likely that untouchablity began to be associated with them during the medieval period. Or it is possible that the spiritual heights reached by Tiruppana Azhvar could only be proved by emphasising his lowly birth. Therefore, some latter-day hagiographies chose to emphasise his lowly birth. The Divya Suri Charitam clearly states that his caste fell below that of the four ‘varnas’ (Narayan:58).

The other oral tradition which is associated with Tiruppana Azhwar undercuts the issue of untouchability in a different way. In essence, the narration is that Loka Saranga Muni, the brahmin priest of Srirangam threw a stone at the meditating Tiruppana Azhwar since the latter was too deep in spiritual thoughts (this is one of the meaning of “Alwar”, i e, sunk or lost) to move out of his way. However, he saw the wound received by the Azhvar on the deity’s forehead. The lore ends with Loka Saranga Muni himself carrying the Azhvar on his shoulders into the sanctum sanctorum. Perhaps the brahmins believed that caste norms had been sufficiently observed in that the feet of the low caste Azhwar did not touch the sacred precincts of the temple! (Narayan:60). But this observance of the norm is turned on its head by the conclusion of the tradition. The Divya Suri Charitam of Nathamuni clearly states that Tiruppana Azhwar disappeared into the Lord. This physical merging of the untouchable saint into the supreme form of god Ranganatha is the theme of Steven P Hopkins’ paper ‘In Love with the Body of God’. It seems that the devotee’s love for god’s form is reciprocated by god’s love for Tiruppana Azhwar. The essays on Tiruppana Azhvar, therefore, reveal the inherent tensions in the hagiographical traditions which need to both emphasise his lowly birth in order to show the spiritual heights he reached and at the same time divinise his life sufficiently so that no social norms are transgressed.

Legend of NandanarLegend of NandanarLegend of NandanarLegend of NandanarLegend of Nandanar

The next two essays deal with the legend of Nandanar. Karen Pechilis Prentiss’ essay is sub-titled ‘Contesting the Order of Things’. Lynn Vincentnathan’s is called “Nandanar: Untouchable Saint and Caste

Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2006

Hindu Anomaly”. The 12th century hagiographical work Periyapuranam narrates the life of the paraya saint who served as an agricultural labourer under a brahmin landlord. The saint had an ardent desire to have the darshan of Lord Siva at Chidambaram and struggle to please his lord and get his permission. In multiple versions the brahmin is cruel or kind depending on whose version consititutes the narration. Once at Chidambaram, Nandanar stays at the borders of the holy town because of his own “impure” status. The lord appeared in his dream and pacified him saying that when he entered the sacred flames raised by the brahmins, he would emerge from it as a brahmin with tuft and sacred thread. The oracular voice of Siva commanded the brahmins of Chidambaram to build a fire into which Nandanar would jump and emerge a brahmin. Nandanar emerged from the flames as a luminous brahmin and disappeared into the sanctum sanctorum, a threshold that even the brahmins would not dare cross! The story seems to completely upset the apple cart of brahmanical orthodoxy. The untouchable Nandanar becomes the sacred offering for the ‘vedi’ raised by the brahmins and succeeds in penetrating the sanctum sanctorum and merging bodily into the lord (the only other instance of bodily merger being that of the Vaishnavite woman saint Andal). His metamorphosis into brahminhood therefore undercuts all procedures such as initiation, physical service to the deity and penance, etc, undertaken by pious brahmins.

In the multiple readings of the myriad versions of the Nandanar story a totally contradictory interpretation has also been voiced. Vincentnathan quotes the narration of a ‘melakkarar’ (low caste probably untouchable) in which the first part of the story is retained but in the second part Nandanar enters in a sacred fire raised on the outskirts of Chidambaram and had a vision of Lord Nataraja, the god of Chidambaram at that spot. The place where Nandanar lived and died is today called Omalur, literally “the place of the sacred fire”. In this version there is neither transgression nor transcendence. In a third version Nandanar tried to enter the temple in the guise of Nandi but was stopped not only by the brahmins but by the Lord himself from doing so (Vincentnathan:113). Kamachi, a female agricultural labourer says that as Nandanar ran to his god to escape the wrath of the brahmin priests, the deity swallowed him to save him (Vincentnatan:116). If Nataraja could swallow (the word used is “muzhungu”) where then is the pollution? The Nandanar legends and their telling criss-cross through time as well as caste and gender lines.

Marathi SaintsMarathi SaintsMarathi SaintsMarathi SaintsMarathi Saints

The second major section of this book gives mulitiple accounts of the lives of the untouchable Marathi saints – Chokamela, Soyrabai, Karmamela, Nirmala and Banka. The most moving and sensitive essays in this collection belong to this section. Just as Nandanar belonged to the borders/ margins of the sacred town of Chidambaram, Rohini locates Chokkamela “On the Threshold”. Taken literally this could mean the gates of the Pandarpur temple which he never crossed and where a shrine to him still exists. Economically, he lived on the threshold of poverty and died with other construction labourers when the wall they were building collapsed, crushing them. Socially, as a mahar involved with animal skins and death rituals, he obviously belonged to the margins of society. Chokka (as he calls himself) was poor, illiterate and an outcaste. Yet, he lived on terms of intimacy with his god, an intimacy that no brahmin could dare to presume. Says Chokkamela:

Filled with joy is the whole self, I saw he himself within me. Seeing ceased, Looking was erased, He filled my whole being… (Abhang: 80 vide Punekar: 138)

According to the hagiographical traditions, Vittal in an excessive display of love put his necklace around the neck of Chokkamela. The saint was whipped and tortured as a thief and he describes this in an abhang:

They thrash me, Vithu,..

The pandits whip,

How did Vithoba’s necklace come round

your throat:

They curse and strike

and say I polluted you.

Chakrapani, yours is the deed,

With folded hands Chokka begs,

I revealed our secret,

Don’t turn away.” (Abhang: 82 vide

Punekar: 130)

Chokkamela’s logic would leave the custodians of orthodoxy gasping for breath. The agony of low birth and social oppression is overtaken by the ecstasy of unity with the divine, an intimacy that neither knows nor cares to know about the brahminhood and its taboos.

Moving into contemporary times, Punekar shows how the mahar community to which B R Ambedkar belonged, had no desire to make Chokkamela its inspiration or symbol in the dalit movements. Chokkamela’s acceptance of his social status ruled him out as the signifier of powerful anti-caste movements. The mahars traditionally were given the leftovers of the upper caste kitchens and not paid in terms of wages. Chokka reflects this when he says:

Johar, mai-baap, johar, I am the Mahar of your Mahars … The servant of your servants Waits with hope. I have brought, says Chokka, My bowl for your leavings (Abhang: 343 vide Punekar: 139).

Ironically his radical overturning of social hierarchies through his spiritual empowerment, was and continues to be overlooked by the progressive dalits.

The entire family of Chokkamela – his son Karmamela, wife Soyrabai, sister Nirmala and brother-in-law Banka Mahar were ‘Warkaris’ and devotees of Vittal. Of the entire family, Karmamela alone seems to resent bitterly his social situation of untouchability. He laments:

You have made us low caste: Why don’t you understand the fact, O god of gods? Our whole life spent in scrounging for leavings. Have you no shame? You ate rice and curd in our house: Do you want to deny? Says Chokka’s Karmamela, why have you given me this life? (Abhang: 15 vide Punekar: 147)

The incident about the lord having partaken of rice and curds in Chokka’s house is explicated in Eleanor Zelliot’s essay “The Story of Karmamela’s Birth”. The childless household of Chokkamela and Soyrabai was blessed by Lord Vittala himself. He also came in the guise of Nirmala the sister of Chokka and helped deliver Karmamela. Zelliot’s next essay deals with the spiritual and domestic sharing between Nirmala and Soyrabai. Soyra describes herself as a mahari but her poems reflect the celebration of a divine life rather than the miseries of untouchability. The section has a very good piece by Anil Sapkal on the “Representations of

Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2006 Chokkamela in Marathi Film and Poetry”. V L Manjul’s dramatic piece “God in a Copper Pot” deals with Sane Guruji’s fast unto death undertaken in 1947 in order to get the portals of Pandarpur opened for untouchable devotees.


The concluding section of the book is on Raidas or Ravidas who was a chamar by caste and a cobbler by profession. Anne Murphy has translated his poems while James G Lochtefeld and Joseph Schaller deal with the hagiographical details of the saint’s life. Schaller looks in particular at the account of Anantdas in the Raidas Parchai, the poems of Arjun Lal and the rhetoric of social reform. Lochtefeld covers a broader spectrum of hagiographies by beginning with Nabhadas’sBhaktamal and going on to the accounts of Anantdas and Priyadas which are replete with suffering, devotion, ecstasy and miracles as in the life of any other saint. The saint himself, as Schaller points out, had no agenda, either of proclaiming his religiosity or seeking social justice as a dalit. What is interesting is the appropriation of the life and poetry of Raidas by the progressive dalit movements of the north. Chandrabhan Prasad and Mahesh Dahiwala in their joint essay “Ravidas in the Contemporary World” deal specifically with this aspect. Why is it that Chokkamela is sidelined by the dalit movements while Raidas is found suitable as a signifier of the struggle against social injustice?

The book concludes with some poetic examples of the Bhakti voices on untouchability.

I would have liked that the multiple hagiographies of Chokkamela and Raidas and others had been reduced or conflated by which I mean that two essays in a briefer form could have been brought together. This space could have been given to Janabai and Kanhopatra from the Warkari tradition. The untouchable saints from the Virasaivite/ Lingayat tradition like Basavayya and his wife Kalevve, Lingamma, Haralayya (whose intermarriage with the brahmin Madhavayya set off the great Kalyana massacre) and Guddavve (not to mention the many other Shaivasahranes) who is called a chandala, surely deserved a place in a book on untouchable saints. The omission of the Virasaivite untouchable saints is the only major lacuna in this otherwise excellent book.

The book is of seminal importance because most of the essays do not have any neat closures. The tension between the voice of the saint and the dalit which is sought to be recovered is apparent. What however comes through, in the opinion of this reviewer, is that the saint himself/ herself whether it was Tiruppana Azhvar, Chokkamela, Soyrabai, Nandanar or Raidas went beyond concerns of caste and social justice. In particular, the essays of Punekar on the Warkari saints, bring out this point. To talk of transcendence as social transgression would be an oxymoron. Therefore, to recover the logic of untouchability and its social fallout from the voice of these saints is no easy task. One must complement the authors on their efforts to do so in a convincing manner.



Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2006

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