Influence of Caste System in Clothing – Ancient India
Most studies point out that modern Homo Sapiens developed in Africa some 200,000 years ago. Dating the earliest human migration to the Indian mainland remains a matter of debates and uncertainty. The popular theory that Indo-African migrations brought in Stone Age culture to India around 1,40,000-70,000 years ago is challenged by recent excavations of 3,85,000 years old stone age tools (oldest known in India) from Attirampakkam, in the Kortallayar river basin, Thamizh Nadu . The 7,200 stone artefacts collected from the archaeological site at Attirampakkam suggest that Indian subcontinent may have developed a stone-age culture around 3,85,000 years ago – the Middle Palaeolithic era – mostly associated with early hominids, who probably wore little (or no) clothing. If any clothes were worn (made of animal skin and vegetation) – are likely for survival needs like protection from the environment, harsh climates, etc.
NEOLITHIC AGE (10,800 – 3300 BCE)
Rock paintings of Bhimbetka caves, Madhya Pradesh (at least 9000 years ago) and Idakkal caves, Kerala (at least 6000 years ago) indicate pre-historic cave settlements in Neolithic India. The Neolithic people inhabited caves, lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and possibly covered their lower-body with animal skin and vegetation. Ancient Indian aborigines much like other Negrito, Australoid & Mongoloid natives wore elaborate jewellery in the form of stones, animal claws, feathers etc. Palaeolithic Indians worshipped idols, deities, and the sacred status of animals included cows, peacocks, cobras, elephants, and plants like pipal, thulasi, and neem.
While archaeological evidence indicates inhabitation in the Andaman Islands for more than 2200 years, genetic and cultural studies suggest the Andaman natives – Australoid-Melanesian settlers may have been isolated from other populations during the Middle Paleolithic era up to even 26,000 years ago!
“An early (staged) photograph to show Great Andamanese women (and the odd male) with a wide variety of hairstyles and body painting patterns. Clearly visible are only the wide variety of hair cuts. Notable also on the extreme left and right two women with bands for carrying infants. The people to the left of the centre pole are said to be showing body paint signifying mourning, those on the right celebratory paint. The girl, second from the right, in the middle row is said to be painted in red ochre as a sign for rejoicing.” – Citation from Clothes, Clay and Beautycare (of Great Andamanese people), by George Weber
INDUS VALLEY CIVILIZATION (3300–1500 BCE)
Possibly new migrations during the early Bronze age marks the first urbanisation – Indus Valley Civilisation. Archaeological remains suggest a mix of Australoid, Mongoloid, Mediterranean, and Alpine groups. Indus seals remain largely indecipherable and most hypotheses suggest it as a proto-Dravidian script. Many linguists, in particular, propose that ancient Dravidian languages were already spread out in the Indian subcontinent before the influx of Indo-Aryan languages. Some historians alternatively hypothesise that Indus people along with migrants from Steppe grasslands form ANI (Ancestral North Indians) whereas Indus Valley people who moved South and mixed with hunter-gatherers make up ASI (Ancestral South Indians).
Indus Valley Civilisation contained some of the earliest sites of farming and herding in South Asia – suggesting access to fibres like cotton, flax, and linen. Archaeological remains of silk fibres have been excavated from Harappan sites. Indus valley figurines wear elaborate jewellery including necklaces, anklets, earrings, and bangles in stone, terracotta, gold, copper/bronze. Bead jewellery was popularly traded in this era. An Indus Valley female skeleton on display at the National Museum, New Delhi, wears a bangle on the left hand. People covered their lower body with a short rectangular wrap tied with waistbands/belts. Figurines of this era also feature intricately detailed hairstyles and headgear, including flower decorations and a female in a turban. Men left their hair long, at times tied into buns. Nudity was a natural and acceptable notion in Indus Valley. While Brahminical Chaturvarna system itself didn’t exist in Harappa-Mohenjo Daro cultures, it’s noteworthy that the priest-king figurine is more decorative than other figurines which are chiefly unclothed. Clothing was clearly established as a medium to express SOCIAL CLASS.
VEDIC PERIOD (1500-600 BCE)
The decline of Indus Valley Civilisation in North-Western India also corresponds with the rise of new agrarian Indo-Aryan nomadic settlements in parts of modern-day Afghan & Pakistan. Indo-Aryan tribes who spoke Vedic Sanskrit did not use writing script and did not live in cities as observed in preceding Indus Valley civilisation. The religion & language of Vedic people had strong traces of Indo-Iranian cultures, especially in cases of Vedic Sanskrit’s relations with Avesta, and Soma cult and fire worship, both of which are preserved in Zoroastrianism. The pastoral nomads had to constantly find new settlements once the existing lands were deemed unfit for agriculture. The Indo-Aryan tribes were headed by a Raja (Chief Warhead) aided by a priest, general and councillors. With superior iron-weaponry, Indo-Aryan tribes conquer the territories of the indigenous settlers who still used copper. The Vedic nomads regarded themselves as Arya and the non-Aryan indigenous settlers were labelled Dasa/Dasyu – translates to barbarians, demons or slave in Vedas depending on contexts of usage.
The Vedic religion comprises of Vedic Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and early Upanishads. Rig Veda structures a two-fold Varna system on the basis of tribe and lineage – Arya and Dasa. The term “Varna” in early Vedic period may refer to any of colour, outward appearance, hereditary, tribe, or race, and does not represent the casteist hierarchies characterised by endogamy like in Dharmashastras composed in a later period. Rigvedic hymns glorify fair-skinned Aryans defeating dark-skinned Dasyus. Krishnam Vacham [Black skin: Vedic Sanskrit] was written off as impious.
“The mighty Thunderer with his fair-complexioned friends won the land, the sunlight, and the waters.”
– Rigveda, Book 1, Indra 100.18
“Indra in battles help his Āryan worshipper, he who hath hundred helps at hand in every fray, in frays that win the light of heaven.
Plaguing the lawless he gave up to Manu’s seed the black skin;”
-Rigveda, Book 1, Indra 130.8
The first literary trace of the word “Shudra” is found in Rig Veda. It is widely agreed that the Vedic hymns were composed over a vast historic time-interval and that the Purusha Sukta is among the last addition.
11. When they divided Purusa how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
12. The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.
– Rig Veda 10.90.11–12
The Taittiriya Brahmana composed around early 1st millennium BCE state an alternative account on the genesis of Varnas –
“This entire (universe) has been created by Brahma. Men say that the Vaishya class was produced from the Rig Veda. They say that the Yajur Veda is the womb from which the Kshatriya was bom. The Sama Veda is the source from which the Brahmanas sprang”, III.12.9.
“The Brahmana Caste is sprung from the Gods; the Shudra from the Asuras”.1,2,6,7.
It appears that at least by the period of Brahmanas, (possibly due to inclusion and/or recognition of new tribes,) the two-fold Varna system of Arya and Dasa evolves into four-fold Varna system on the basis of labour – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra and Avarna/Outcaste (in order of hierarchy). The Brahmin priesthood and Kshatriya aristocracy dominated the Arya commoners who were now called Vaishyas. Dasas and possibly other indigenous settlers were referred to as Shudras. Avarnas/Outcastes were a classification of hunter-gatherers and other indigenous tribes who did not belong to the Chaturvarna system.
Upanishads composed around 8th to 6th century BCE mentions Gotra – essentially indicating a root patriarch of the family line. Gotra was used to denote patrilineal kin of Brahmins, directly from Rishis of the Vedas and it later trickles down to Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. While it was a norm to avoid marriage within the same Gotra (equated with incest), marriage within people or groups practising the same profession was increasingly preferred and the notion of “ancestral trade/profession” is established. Kula, literally translating to the clan/cult, is another social classification that initially appears among practitioners of Tantric traditions of Kulamarga associated with Shaktism and Tantric Saivism who worshipped mother goddess (Shakti) and adiguru (Shiva) respectively.
Evidence of clothing in this era comes only in the form of Vedic knowledge which was verbally transferred to pupils by Brahmin teachers. Vedic people did not sew their clothes. Clothing was chiefly minimal and draped, however description of rich ornaments and jewellery are mentioned.
Some translations of references of clothing items in Rig Veda include:
- Adhivastra – Veil
- Kurlra – head-dress or head-ornaments
- Andpratidhi – (any) covering of the body
Atarva Veda also mentions:
- Nivi – Innerwear
- Vavri – covering of the body
- Upavasana – Veil
- Kumba, Usnlsa, Trilta – Head-dress
- Updnaha – Footwear
- Kambla – Blanket
SANSKRITISATION OF INDIA (c. 600 BCE)
Over centuries, Vedic nomads gradually expand their territory over Gangetic plains and the river Ganga thereafter emerges as an important deity in Brahminical rituals. By the late Vedic period, Brahminism is practised in a significant portion of Northern India and spreads further into the Indian subcontinent with the expansion of Indo-Aryan provinces. The later Vedic literature refers to the three broad divisions – Brahmavarta or Aryavarta, Madhyadesha (central & Deccan), and Dakshinapatha (Southern). Post-Vedic text Aitereya Brahmana and Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana make references to Vidharba, leading to the belief that it’s the first known Indo-Aryan province in South of Vindhya mountains. Ramayana identifies Dandakaranya, indicating the Southern region of Vindhyas, as a home to many deadly creatures and demons. The migrations and settlements towards eastern and southern parts of India also lead to a mixture of various groups – Indo-Aryans, Indo-Dravidians, Pre-Dravidas of Negrito and proto-Austroloids origins, Austro-Asiatic, and Sino-Tibetians. Mahajanapadas consisting of sixteen ancient Indian Republics including Nandas, Magadha, Pauravas, and Taxila emerge as the important Iron Age kingdoms of Northern India by 600-500 BCE.
BUDDHISM & JAINISM
By mid-1st millennium BCE, the ancient Indian society was stitched together by endogamous communities that practised a specific profession/trade/craft/labour. Family lines exercised hegemony over Varna roles. The primary identity of people/groups was based on their family’s occupational role. At times when Brahmins claimed entitlement to divinely ordained labour from Shudras, Buddha responded with rational biology of birth and stressed on karmic merits than divine (or low) birth. Buddha (c. 563-483 BCE) and Mahavira (c. 549–477 BCE), challenge the orthodox ritual centric Brahminism, thereby founding two new religions that spread like a wildfire among masses – Buddhism and Jainism.
MAURYAN EMPIRE – (300 BCE – 187 BCE)
Chandragupta Maurya (322-298 BCE) establishes the Mauryan Empire by overthrowing Nanda Empire with the assistance of Chanakya (a.k.a Kautilya). Chanakya’s Arthashastra is probably among the first of shastras to recognise select rights for Dasas.
Employing a slave (dasa) to carry the dead or to sweep ordure, urine or the leavings of food; keeping a slave naked; hurting or abusing him; or violating the chastity of a female slave shall cause the forfeiture of the value paid for him or her. Violation of the chastity shall at once earn their liberty for them.— Arthashastra, Translated by Shamasastry
A slave (dasa) shall be entitled to enjoy not only whatever he has earned without prejudice to his master’s work, but also the inheritance he has received from his father.— Arthashastra, Translated by Shamasastry
Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador who visited the court of Chandragupta Maurya doesn’t classify the society on the basis of Vedic four-fold Varnas but as seven endogamous classes that specialised in a particular profession/trade/labour:
- Shepherds and hunters
- Councillors, Rulers, and assessors of the king
Magasthenes also notes that:
Philosophers are less numerous than the rest, but grandest in reputation and honour, for they are under no necessity to do any bodily labour, nor to contribute from the results of their work to the common store; in fact, no sort of constraint whatever rests on the sophists, save to offer the sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the common weal of the Indians.
The farmers were highest in population.
Shepherds & hunters do not dwell in cities or in villages: they are nomads and get their living on the hillsides. They too pay taxes from their animals.
(P.A. Brunt, Arrian, with an English Translation, Vol. II, (Indica, 11,1-12,7), Cambridge, Mass. 1983, pp. 337-41)
Clothing in the Mauryan era was primarily unstitched and comprised of two pieces. There’s no evidence of single long garment draped on both upper and lower body like the modern sari. The loincloth worn in the Vedic period was continued to be worn in this period. The Greek influence during the Mauryan era also contributes a new breast-covering garment – Pratidhi.
VARNA, JATI & CASTE
“Caste,” (a European term,) is used in the modern context to denote the Indian origin social stratification – an overlap of Jatis and Chaturvarna hierarchies, characterised by factors like hereditary, endogamy, profession, ostracism based on notions of purity etc. Unlike Varna (literally translating to “colour/class”), Jati (literally translating to “birth”,) is an endogamous group practising a specific profession/craft/labour. Jati is often used to denote the surnames in India, ex: Naidu, Srivastava etc. There are only four-Varnas (and Avarna) whereas Jatis are thousands in numbers and are further classified into sub-castes. Another important distinction between Varna and Jati is that Vedic Varnas were not characterised by endogamy whereas not marrying within the endogenous jati norms was subjected to social ostracism, especially after the fall of the Mauryan empire.
The genesis of jati is subjected to debates and two popular hypotheses state that –
- Varnas evolved into Jatis – It is possible that the idealisation of Varna norms contributed to occupational hegemony of bloodlines especially when put to practice for many centuries. It is also noteworthy that the seven endogamous groups described by Megasthenes roughly correspond to the Chaturvarnas – Philosophers: Brahmins, Warriors: Kshatriyas, Farmers: Vaishyas, Labours: Shudras, Shepherds & Hunters: Outcastes, and Inspectors & Councillors denoting new classifications of royal bureaucracy.
- Varnas & Jatis were distinct entities that merged to form modern caste system – Several Hindu social reformers have suggested that notions of purity associated with Varnas are metaphorical and that Chaturvarnas are free from the socio-economic-political disabilities of the caste system. Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik notes: “There are over 3,000 jatis in India today, most are regional, not known across India. Brahmins who wrote the Dharmashastras, 2,000 years ago, were the first who tried to force fit these into the four varnas of the Vedas.”
Chandragupta Maurya is known to have embraced Jainism with the blessings of his Brahmin guru Chanakya. Mauryan empire reached its prime at a time when Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka conquered (almost) entire India and converted to Buddhism after the Kalinga war in 236 CE. Brahminical animal sacrifice rituals were prohibited as the ethos of ahimsa gains prominence. Vedic gods steadily lose relevance whereas Jainism and Buddhism became omnipresent in Mauryan society. It appears that the religious authority of the Brahminical Varna system itself seems to have had lesser practical importance in Mauryan society. Brahminical Varna system isn’t a prominent subject in Pali Buddhist texts dating to the 2nd century BCE, and any mention is to mostly report Buddha’s dialogues with Brahmins and kings – often in the context of rejecting the Chaturvarna hierarchies. The texts also use the terms Varnas and Jatis interchangeably. Pali Vinaya literature informs about distinctions of high and low in terms of Kula (clan), Kamma (Work), and Sippa (Craft). This high-low stratification characterised by economic prospects/progress is a portrayal of the existing conception of socio-economic inequalities and isn’t sanctioned by religion or birth (divine/low) like in case of Brahminism dismissed by Buddha. Despite the observation of marital-patterns within Kulas (and Jatis), there was considerable mobility within the social classes of Mauryan society.
EARLY PURANIC BRAHMINISM – (250 CE – 500 CE)
Pushyamitra, a Brahmin Mauryan general assassinates the last Mauryan Emperor Brihadratha Maurya to establish Shunga empire whose inscriptions would reach as far as Ayodhya. Buddhist text Vibhasa (150CE) states that Pushyamitra also burned Buddhist scriptures, killed Buddhist monks, and destroyed 500 monasteries in and around Kashmir. Pushyamitra orchestrated a remarkable Brahminical religious counter-revolution by reviving the social authority of Chaturvarna system and animal sacrifice Yajnas previously prohibited by Ashoka. Casteist norms pertaining to endogamy, purity, hierarchical supremacy, and ostracism becomes rigid after the rise of Puranic Brahminical hegemony.
Dharmashastras (treaties of Dharma) composed in this period of Brahminical resurgence recognise the top three Chaturvarna hierarchies as Dvija (Sanskrit: twice-born) – a belief that a person is first born physically and is born for a second time spiritually after studying Vedas. Shudras and Avarnas were prohibited from studying or even hearing Vedas. Until the enforcement of the modern Indian Constitution, it was one of the justifications to restrict lower-caste individuals from agraharams of South India – they might overhear Brahmins chanting the Vedas!
BRAHMINS IN MANUSMRITI
“Man is stated to be purer above the navel (than below); hence the Self-existent (Svayambhu) has declared the purest (part) of him (to be) his mouth.” – Manusmriti 1.92
“As the Brahmana sprang from (Brahman’s) mouth, as he was the first-born, and as he possesses the Veda, he is by right the lord of this whole creation.” – Manusmriti 1.93
“Whatever is contained in this world is all the property of the Brahamana; the Brahamana verily deserves all by virtue of his superiority and noble birth.” – Manusmriti 1.100
“The three twice-born castes, devoted to their duties, shall study; but of these the Brahmana alone shall expound it, not the other two; such is the established law.” – Manusmriti 10.1
PUNISHMENT OF BRAHMINS:
“Verily he shall not kill the Brahamana, even though he be steeped in all crimes; he should banish him from the kingdom, with all his property and unhurt.” – Manusmriti 8.380
SHUDRAS IN MANUSMRITI
“For the Shudra the Lord ordained only one function: the ungrudging service of the said castes.” – Manusmriti 1.91
“(The King) …shall make the Vaishya to carry on trade, money-lending, agriculture,—and cattle-trading; and the Shudra to perform service for the twice-born castes.” – Manusmriti 8.410
“Having killed a cat, an ichneumon, a blue jay, a frog, a dog, an iguana, an owl and a crow,—he shall perform the penance of the ‘Shudra–killer.’” – Manusmriti 11.131
“A Brahmana may confidently seize the goods of (his) Shudra (slave); for, as that (slave) can have no property, his master may take his possessions.” – Manusmriti 8.417
“Brahman men can marry Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and even Shudra women but Shudra men can marry only Shudra women.” – Manusmriti 3.12
“He shall recite, not indistinctly, nor in the proximity of Shudras; nor shall he go to sleep again, at the end of night, when he is tired after having recited the Veda.” – Manusmriti 6.99
“In case a Brahman man marries Shudra woman, their son will be called ‘Parshav’ or ‘Shudra’ because his social existence is like a dead body.” – Manusmriti 9.178
“Shudras who live according to the law, shall each month shave (their heads).” – Manusmriti 5.140
PUNISHMENT OF SHUDRAS:
“If a once-born person insults a twice-born one with gross abuse, he should suffer the cutting off of his tongue; as he is of low origin.” – Manusmriti 8.270
“If he mentions the name and caste of these men with scorn, a burning iron nail ten inches long shall be thrust into his mouth.” – Manusmriti 8.271
“If through arrogance, he teaches brahmanas their duty, the king shall pour heated oil into his mouth and ears.” – Manusmriti 8.272
“With whatever limb the low-born man hurts a superior person, every such limb of his shall be cut off; this is the teaching of Manu.” – Manusmriti 8.279
“If a low-born person tries to occupy the same seat with his superior, he should be branded on the hip and banished; or the king shall have his buttocks cut off.” – Manusmriti 8.281
CHANDALA IN MANUSMRITI
“From the Shudra on the Vaishya, the Kshatriya and the Brahmana maiden are born the mixed castes, ‘Ayogava,’ Ksattr’ and the ‘Chandala,’ the lowest of men.” – Manusmriti 10.12
“The ‘Nisada’ woman bears to the ‘Chandala’ the son called ‘Antyavasayin,’ working in the cremation-ground, despised even by those excluded (from the Brahminical society).” – Manusmriti 10.39
“The dwelling of Chandalas and Svapacas shall be outside the village; they shall be made ‘Apapatra,’ and their wealth shall consist of dogs and donkeys.” – Manusmriti 10.51
“The clothes of dead bodies shall be their dress; they shall eat in broken dishes; their ornaments shall be of iron, and they shall be constantly wandering.” – Manusmriti 10.52
Compilation of Ramayana and Mahabharata as Itihasa (history) begins in this period. Narratives on Ekalavya and Karna illustrate the strained socio-economical status of mixed/low castes. Brahmins of this period also respond with early Puranas which were written in retaliation to the popularity of Buddhism, with intent to reach out to the masses including tribals through simple storytelling. Puranas narrate the interactions of Vedic gods with people and demons. While Puranas echo the Rig-Vedic mouth-arms-thighs-feet (of a universal entity) model of Varna creation, Bhagavata Purana and Vayu Purana state that there was only one caste in Krita age.
According to epics, sage Bhrigu codified Varnas in form of colours –
- Brahmins: White
- Kshatriyas: Red
- Vaishyas: Yellow
- Shudras: Black
KUSHANA EMPIRE (30 CE – 375CE)
The Kushanas bring in multicultural influences of Scythian, Hellenistic and Greek to the Indian subcontinent. A headless statue of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka found in Bactria near Afghanistan shows him dressed in trousers, boots, tunics and overcoat. One of the most important costume development in this period was a rectangular cloth garment draped over both lower body and upper body – the sari drape, likely Roman influenced. Trade with China was directly established through the silk route, providing access to exotic silks in colours of blues, gold, bronze, green, crimson, pink, red, yellow, yellow-green, and browns.
Kushan men wore stitched calf-length tunic. Owing to the Roman influence of Kushans Antariya in the era is worn sari-like, tied in front, while one end is passed between the legs, pleated and tucked in at the back, the other end is partly pleated and tucked in at the front, then wound around and worn over the left shoulder.
SATAVAHANA DYNASTY (221 BCE -218 CE)
The earliest Satavahana king overthrows Kanvayana (a Brahmin dynasty that replaced Shungas,) and ruled the area of modern-day Maharashtra. The complex racial mix in pre-Satavahana Maharashtra makes it difficult to trace the exact origins of Satavahana rulers. Satavahana kings expand their territories further East and go on to exercise their rule over Andhra tribes. Ancient Andhra tribes occupied the lower course of Godavari and Krishna river prior to the period of Brahminism. It is likely that the Vedic Indo-Aryan influences entered the Andhra tribal society during the Brahminical expansions around 500 BCE – 200 BCE – Archeological evidence suggests heavy northern plough had reached the region by this time. Jainism, Buddhism along with other indigenous tribal customs were popular religions in Mauryan ruled Andhra. Satavahanas establish their political authority in Andhra region roughly half a century after the fall of the Mauryan empire. State-sponsored Brahminisation of modern-day Andhra and Karnataka society begins in the reign of Satavahanas. Satavahana king Gautamiputra Satakarni adopted orthodox Brahmin religion and performed Rajasuya and Ashwamedha sacrifices, and governed Central-South India under Brahminical Chaturvarna model. Several copper-plate inscriptions of post-Satavahana period record gifts of tax-free lands for temples. Evidence from Satavahana period refers to Halikas (cultivators), Kularikas (potters), Kokilas (weavers), Kamaras (smiths), Sethis (merchants) etc, among the earliest Jatis. Satavahana dynasty disintegrates by 2nd century CE into several smaller kingdoms, such as Ikshvakus, Brihatpalayanas, Anandas, Salankayanas, Pitrubhaktas, Matharas, Vasishtas etc, who were mostly Orthodox Brahmin, Vaishnavite or Shivite rulers.
ANCIENT THAMIZHAKAM (PALAEOLITHIC-NEOLITHIC AGE)
Oldest known Paleolithic stone tools of India were found at Attirampakkam, 60km away from Chennai. Remains of irrigation tools, water canals, pottery, terracotta and burial urns dating to Megalithic Age are unearthed from hundreds of sites in South India. Some urns dating to 800 BCE at Adhichanallur, (Thoothukudi district), feature early Thamizh-Brahmi script. The hundreds of burial urns unearthed at Adhichanallur, 15kms away from ancient Pandyan capital Korkai, also contain thousands of iron and bronze artefacts, including weapons and gold jewellery. Terracotta idols of Ayyanars (guardian deity) and Mother Goddess are also regularly found at various sites in Thamizh Nadu. The Mother Goddess figurines that worship fertility, prevalent even 5,500 ago at Indus Valley, are unearthed from several places in Tamil Nadu such as Adichanallur near Tirunelveli, Melaperumballam near Poompuhar and Poluvaampatti near Coimbatore.
SANGAM ERA (500BCE-300CE)
Keezhadi excavations (near Sivagangai-Madurai) have unearthed remains of ancient urban civilization dating mid-early 1st millennium BCE that thrived on the banks of the river Vaigai. The archaeological artefacts and remains (oldest dating to 1800-1500BCE) from Adhichanallur, & Keezhadi (200BCE) represented a distinct Non-Vedic urban society thriving in parallel in ancient Thamizhakam.
According to Thamizh legends, there existed three Sangams (Academy of Thamizh poets) in ancient Thamizhakam. The first Sangam was held at then Madurai, and the second Sangam was held at Kapadapuram, however, most literary works from the early Sangams have perished over time. The only surviving Sangam texts from third Sangam were compiled roughly between 400 BCE until 300 CE under the patronage of ancient Pandya kingdom. The Sangam works (which also included several women poets like Avvaiyar, Mudatamakkanniar, Kaakkaippaadiniyaar, Naachchellayaar, Naagaiyaar, Nanmullaiyaar, Ponmudiyaar, Ilaveyiniyaar and Nappasaliyaar,) had the knowledge of Aryas and their religious pursuits.
ARYA-DRAVIDA CULTURAL FUSION
Mauryan inscriptions identify ancient Thamizh kingdoms as Pandyas, Cholas, Keralaputras & Sathiyaputras. Sangam texts use the word “Thamizhakam” to denote the land below Thirumala hills. While ancient Thamizh texts itself don’t recognise the term “Dravida”, the Southern kingdoms (of Cheran, Pandyan & Chozhan) are mentioned as Dravidas in Brahminical narratives like Manumsriti and Mahabharatha. According to Mahabharata, Dravidas including the Kuntalas, Andhras, Pandyas, Kanchis, Cholas, and Keralas participated in Kurukshetra warfighting on besides of both the Pandavas and Kauravas.
In Anusasana Parva, Mahabharata, it is also noted: “The Dravidas, the Kalingas, the Pulandas, the Usinaras, the Kolisarpas, the Mahishakas and other Kshatriyas, have, in consequence of the absence of Brahmanas from among their midst, become degraded into Sudras.” – (13.33)
Sangam work Pathitrupathu by Kumattoor Kannanar describes that Chera king Imayavaramban Neduncheralathan defeats his foes on his way to the Himalayas, and after a successful conquest had engraved his victorious symbol of “Bow and Arrow” (Chera flag/Coat of arms) in the Himalayas. Pandyan king Nedunjchezhiyan I (c. 270 BCE) is also known by the title Aariya Padai Kadantha Nedunjezhiya Pandiyan – translating to “The Pandyan King who defeated the Arya army,” indicating territorial intrusions and warfare. Karikala Chozhan and Cheran Senguttuvan are other popular Thamizh kings attributed with Himalayan conquests.
In this period, Thamizh even lends loan words to Sanskrit: like mayura from mayil, phala from palam, mukta from muttu, and candana from cantu. Likewise, the influence of Sanskrit in Thamizh is evident in Tholkappiyam believed to be authored by Tholkappiyar, a disciple of sage Agastya. According to Brahmin literature, sage Agastya is said to have migrated from North & introduced Vedic culture to ancient Dravidian society. Brahmin legends regard Agathiyar as a form of Shiva who championed Thamizh learning – whose superiority was acknowledged even by his rival sage Vyasa (who championed Sanskrit). Other local legends regard Agathiyam and Tholkappiyam as ancient Dravidian texts which were later modified with Brahminical persona. Dating of Tholkappiyam has been of much debates and dispute. Dating of Tholkappiyam is crucial since it carries the earliest evidence of Sanskrit influence in Thamizh literature. Historians widely accept the view that Tholkppaiyam was not compiled as a single entity but in parts and layers which are estimated as written between the 3rd century BCE to 5th century CE – leading to the assumption that Tholkappiyam wasn’t composed by one author but reworked, edited, and possibly distorted by several others.
Tholkappiyam describes Murugun as the favoured god of Thamizh people and Sivan had the status of the supreme god. Thirumal, Kubera, Amman, Valli, Wanji-Ko & Kotravai were the other popular ancient Dravidian gods. Worship of mother-goddess was among the most important and oldest aspect of ancient Dravidian religion. It’s widely proposed that Dravidian deity Sivan is assimilated with Vedic deity Rudra, Kotravai with Durga/Parameshwari, Thirumal with Vishnu & Wanji-Ko with Indra. The architecture and style of Sangam period brick temple excavated at Salavanakuppam near Mahabalipuram is different from the norms of Bhramnical Shilpa Shastra. Unlike Vedic people who cremated the deceased, ancient Dravidians buried the deceased in graves encircled by big pieces of stone – the ancient non-Vedic burial customs rooted in burials urns of Megalithic age continues to be preserved and practised till to-day by many Hindus and non-Hindus of South Indian origin.
Tholkappiyam classifies the ancient Dravidian society into four classes (corresponding to the Chaturvarna system in North) – Anthanar, Arasar, Vaisyar and Vellalar. Another Sangam text Purananuru states that one’s social status in ancient Thamizh society was based on merit not inherited. Various texts indicate that transition within trade and craft was fairly fluid in the Sangam period. Purananuru also mentions the names of ancient Thamizh tribes such as Thudiyan, Pannan, and Kadamban. The earliest reference of Paraiyar, drummers classified as Adi Dravida (Dalits) in modern India, occurs in a poem by the Sangam poet Mangudi Kilar in 2nd century CE, subjection to untouchability itself does not occur until the reign of Rajaraja Chozha in 1100 CE.
COSTUMES OF SANGAM PERIOD
Owing to the hot and humid climate, people of ancient South Indian kingdoms wore short and minimal clothing and left the body bare above their waists. Rules of modesty, nudity and clothing were mostly gender-neutral. A short lower garment made of handspun cotton and silk was worn by people of wealthy communities. People from lower-economic communities dressed in lower garments and accessories made of leaves, coconut fibres, and animal hair.
While ancient Thamizh clothing was primarily minimalist, Sangam works refer to a variety of ornaments made of gold, silver, pearls, and precious stones. In fact, the 5 great epics of Sangam literature are titled after jewellery – ornamenting Thamizh Mother (Thamizh Language)
- Civaka Cintamani – jewellery on forehead
- Kundalakesi – stud on ear
- Manimegalai – girdle on waist
- Valayapathi – bangle on hand
- Silappatikaram – anklet on foot
Jewellery described in Sangam texts includes Pullakkam, Maharapakuvai, Valampuri, Punkulai, Thodaivamani Malai, Pulipal Thali, Thodi Valai, Kudaichchul, Silambu, Paivagan Padhagam, Sadangai, Arivegam and Kazhal. People paid much attention to their hairstyle. Ancient Dravidians wore flowers like Jasmine to decorate their plaits and tufts and used perfumes made of sandal and flowers. People also commonly wore ornaments made of shells and beads similar to that of Indus Valley civilisation.
DRAVIDIAN DARK AGES (300 CE – 700 CE)
Indo-Aryan Kalabhra rulers invade and displace the power hold of three ancient Thamizh kingdoms (Pandyan, Chera & Chozha) by 300 CE – this period is described as Dark Age of Thamizh history. Kalabhra coins dating to 600 CE employ both Prakrit and Thamizh in their inscriptions. Though Kalabhras conquer Dravidian lands as Jains, they later preach Puranic religion, possibly influenced by the Brahminical resurgence in other parts of the Indian subcontinent.
References from Silapathikaram, Kalithokai and other Sangam works confirm that even women (like Kannagi and Madhavi) wore only lower garments from the loins downwards to the ankles without any rigid norms demanding to cover the torso. Indo-Aryan influences on post-Sangam Dravidian clothing is visible in the two-piece clothing worn by royals: Sirradai (worn on the waist like antariya) and Meladai (draped on the torso like uttariya).
Although described as “Dark Ages”, the iconic Thamizh epics Silappathikaram and Manimegalai, as well as one of its kind ancient non-religious work on ethics & morality – “Thirukkural” was composed in this era. The rule of Kalabhras is ended by counter-invasions by Pallava, Pandya and Chozha kings. Pallava kings who succeeded the Satavahanas in Andhra, fund various Brahminical academies in medieval Thamizh country. Buddhism and Jainism begin to decline in Pallava controlled medieval Thamizhakam whereas Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism emerge as the popular religion of masses. Valluvars are believed to be the hereditary philosophers/priests who served religious affairs of early Pallava kings before the rise of hegemony of Brahminical priesthood in medieval Thamizhakam. Some groups of Valluvars wore Tulsi beads, different from the Rudraksha worn by Shaivites.
Manusmriti or the laws of Manu appears to have reached South India by this period as noted by Sangam texts’ references to Manuneedhi /Manunitikanda Chozhan translating to “The Chozha who follows the laws of Manu.” Also known as Ellalan/Elara (205BCE – 161BCE), Manuneedhi Chozhan ruled from Thiruvarur and later expanded territories southwards to Sri Lanka. A 5th-century Buddhist text Mahavamsa describes Ellalan as “a Thamizha of noble descent, who came hither from the Chozha-country to seize on the kingdom, ruled when he had overpowered king ASELA, forty-four years, with even justice toward friend and foe, on occasions of disputes at law.”
Mahavamsa also accounts that Ellalan responded with capital punishment when the prince’s chariot accidentally ran over a calf –
“After capturing the throne of Lanka, Elara ruled the country justly. He ruled the country for 44 years. King Elara had a bell hanging near his bed. If someone feels that injustice was done to him, that person could ring this bell.”
“While King Elara’s son was going to Tissa reservoir in a chariot, he accidentally went over a calf. The cow, (mother of the calf) went and rang the bell. King Elara found out that his son had killed a calf, ordered him to death same exact way the calf died.”
DRAVIDAS IN MANUSMRITI
“But by the omission of the sacred rites, and also by their neglect of Brahmanas, the following Kshatriya castes have gradually sunk to the position of the low-born.” – Manusmriti 10.43
“i.e the Pundrakas, the Codas, the Dravidas, the Kambojas, the Yavanas, the Sakas, the Paradas, the Pahlavas, the Cinas, the Kiratas, the Daradas and the Khasas.” – Manusmriti 10.44
KADAMBA DYNASTY (345 CE – 525 CE)
The Kadambas, initially a subordinate of early Pallavas (an off-shoot of Satavahanas,) fight the armies of the Pallavas of Kanchi to establish Kadamba dynasty in 345 CE and ruled northern parts of Karnataka. Kadambas are identified as Brahmins in Talagunda inscriptions. Though Kadamba dynasty was founded by Brahmin born Mayurasharma, his successors later changed their surname to Varma to indicate their new Kshatriya status. Kadamba kings preached orthodox Brahminism. Kadamba king Krishna Varma also performed the Ashwamedha (horse sacrifice). Kadamba period temples also exist in modern-day Goa region at Arvalem, Norva and Lampagaon. Halmidi inscriptions dating to Kadamba period is the earliest known epigraph that showed the usage of ancient Kannada script. Kadamba rule in Karnataka was succeeded by Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas who continued to preach Brahminism and catalysed the authority of caste system in medieval Karnataka.
GUPTA EMPIRE (240 CE – 590 CE)
The Dark Age of Dravidian history also coincides with the Golden Age of Northern-Central India. Classical Sanskrit flourished under Guptas kings who supported extensive literary works in topics ranging from medicine, veterinary science, mathematics, astrology, astronomy and astrophysics. The iconic Aryabhata made extraordinary academic contributions in the Buddhist heartland of Pataliputtra. Gupta kings who were orthodox Vaishnavas, funded both Buddhism and Brahminism in seek of legitimacy for their new dynasty. The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata assumes its core literary structure by this era.
BHAGAVAD GITA (from Chapter IV):
“The Deity said, The fourfold division of Castes was created by me according to the apportionment of qualities and duties”.
The Bhagavad Gita successfully manages to merge both Brahmanic as well as Sarmanic traditions of Buddhists and Jains into one scripture. The rise of idol worship and ritualism in Buddhism increasingly blurred the differences between the prevailing ideas of (Mahayana) Buddhism and (Puranic) Brahminism. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Fa-hsien, on his visit to Buddha’s homeland in the 4th century CE reported that most people were vegetarians and that meat-eating was reserved to low castes and untouchables.” Kamadenu, the sacred gaumata also emerges as a significant Puranic deity and from thereon Savarnas abstained from the consumption of cow-meat whereas the practice continued among Avarnas/outcastes.
BR Ambedkar points to this “Golden period” for catalysing the menace of untouchability.
“Cow-killing was made a mortal sin or a capital offence by the Gupta kings who were champions of Hinduism,” notes Dr Ambedkar. He quotes historian D.R. Bhandarkar, who in his Some Aspects of Ancient Indian Culture cites a copper plate inscription, dated 465 AD and belonging to Skandagupta’s reign, which equates gau-hatya, or cow-slaughter, with brahma-hatya, or the slaying of a Brahmin. This equivalence is more or less echoed in an earlier inscription of 412 AD. It was from then on cow-slaughter began to be considered a mortal sin. – Firstpost
In his book, The Untouchables, Dr BR Ambekar also writes:
There is really no necessity to enter upon any speculation as to whether beef-eating was or was not the principal reason for the rise of Untouchability. This new theory receives support from the Hindu Shastras. The Veda Vyas Smriti contains the following verse which specifies the communities which are included in the category of Antyajas and the reasons why they were so included
L.12-13 “The Charmakars (Cobbler), the Bhatta (Soldier), the Bhilla, the Rajaka (washerman), the Puskara, the Nata (actor), the Vrata, the Meda, the Chandala, the Dasa, the Svapaka, and the Kolika- these are known as Antyajas as well as others who eat cow’s flesh.”
Likewise, Fa-hsien also noted that “Chandalas, had to prepare the dead for cremation. They were considered inauspicious for others and lived in other people’s refuse.”
By the end of the Gupta period, the caste system assumes the following characteristics in Northern India:
- Caste is hierarchical – advocating Brahminical supremacy
- Caste is hereditary – denoted by birth
- Purity of bloodline – through endogamy
- Occupational hegemony – castes are defined by ancestral profession/trade/craft/labour
- Social ostracism & untouchability – on the basis of hierarchy & notions of purity
The clothing in the Gupta period comprised mostly of stitched styles which gained the status of royalty during Kushan periods. Since Kushans were much influenced with the Western Roman Empire, therefore, the coats, trousers and boots were predominant dresses of the royal family. Gupta people continued to wear the new fashion with indigenous styles – antariya, uttariya and kayabandh.
POVERTY RIDDEN LOWER CASTE COMMUNITIES CONTINUED TO BE CHIEFLY UNCLOTHED, COVERED IN LOINCLOTH, VEGETATION, AND ANIMAL SKIN (& BYPRODUCTS).
Images (Sculptures and Paintings): WIKICOMMONS
Costume Illustrations: 4to40.com