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The conference will host over 40 scholars of various disciplines from North America, Europe, South Asia, and Australasia:


Artist: Vasuki
Artist: Kiko
Artist: Vasan

Abraham, S.
Ambalavanar, D.
Arasu, V.
Champakalakshmi, R.
Cheran, R.
Fukao, J.
George, G.
George, U.
Ghose, R.
Guruge, S.
Jegathesan, M.
Kanaganayakam, C.
Kanthasamy, P.
Karunakaran, K.
Karunanithi, G.
Kingsolver, A.
Mason, R.
Maunaguru, S.
Maunaguru, Sitralega
McNaughton, S.
More, J.B.P.
Orr, L.
Pai, G.
Palaniappan, S.
Pandian, M.S.S.
Rajesh, V.
Renganathan, V.
Sangarasivam, Y.
Seylon, R.
Shanmugam, K.
Sivalingam, H.
Sriramachandran, R.
Sundar, A.
Tambiah, S.J.
Tyyskä, V.
Vaitheespara, R.
Vivekananthan, P.
Whitaker, M.
Xavier, S.
Young, K.
Younger, P.

Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan

South Asia Research and Information Institute

The Notion of Untouchability in Classical Tamil Society
Friday, June 1st |  12:30 - 2:30 PM

When it comes to the identity of Tamils, one has to grapple with caste identities of Tamils. Many Tamil nationalists have held that the early Tamil society was casteless. But, based on the occurrence of words such as pulaiyan, ilipirappinon, ilipirappalan, and ilicinan, it has been believed by other scholars that the concept of untouchability - and hence the notion of caste - has always been present in the Tamil society. George Hart has stated that the basis for the designation of ancient Tamil bards, priests, and washerwomen as despised castes was their involvement with the dangerous sacred power which was thought to be associated with death or bodily fluids. This theory of Hart has failed to apply proper philological and comparative Dravidian linguistic analyses to the Classical Tamil texts. When the Classical Tamil texts are analyzed using information from the fields philology, linguistics, religion, and epigraphy, we see that untouchability was not indigenous to the Tamil society. In fact, the word pulaiyan which later came to mean ‘a polluted man’ originally meant ‘a man who causes auspiciousness/prosperity’. Ironically, the non-violence principle of Jainism and Buddhism was an inadvertent catalyst in the development of violence-ridden untouchability among the speakers of Dravidian languages. The lack of evidence for untouchability also leads one to question the presence of the notion of caste in early Tamil society.

Dr. Palaniappan is an Indologist interested in inter-disciplinary research on Indian cultural history using philology, linguistics, and epigraphy. His current areas of research include the origin of untouchability in South India, Bhakti movement, and the history of Bharatanatyam.