Social Setting

Varmakkalai is generally being connected to a specific caste group (Zysk 2008, 11), namely that of the Nadars (natar). In the contemporary cities of Chennai, Madurai, or Tirunelveli numerous signboards reveal owners of shops as belonging to this caste and bear witness to the recent relative economic well-being of some portions of this group, especially in trade and businesses. Within Kanyakumari district, the importance of Nadars cannot be overestimated, especially with regard to their numerical dominance (Blackburn 1988, 9). This caste’s social and political background has been depicted as a rags-to-riches story or as an example of “horizontal mobility” (Rudolph and Rudolph 1984, 36), since it managed to transform its politicoeconomic and ritual status alongside its name: from Shanar (canar) to Nadar. Called “toddy-tappers,” Shanars were known for climbing Palmyra trees to tap the sweet palm juice, which ferments to a mildly alcoholic beverage and which can be distilled into strong liquor, but it is a strenuous and disdained occupation. Nevertheless, as Hardgrave’s seminal study (1968, 171) shows, this group was welded into a community with high degrees of self-consciousness and solidarity, which triggered economic and political ventures and successes.

Shanars argued they were descended from Tamil kings, adopted habits and rituals associated with higher castes,[1] and demanded to be collectively called Nadars. Many of the prolific Nadar authors to write on their community’s royal and glorious past have focused on the role of varmakka- lai. For those who emphasized the Nadar caste’s royal and warrior heritage, the vital spots were not merely a precious sample of their martial tradition, but were argued to have been created and practiced exclusively by Nadars (Immanuel 2002; 2007). Varmam thus has not only played an important role in the Nadars’ attempts for a higher social position, but has also become popularly identified with this caste group more than with others.

The few scholars who have commented on it generally emphasize the connection between the Nadars and vital spots. This connection is said to have

evolved naturally from the fact that the men of this caste, while carrying out their task of climbing coconut and borassus trees to collect the fruits and sap ... occasionally fell from great heights. In order to repair the injury or save the life of a fall-victim, skills of bonesetting and reviving an unconscious patient by massage developed among certain families within the caste, who have passed down their secret art from generation to generation by word of mouth.

In the past, rulers employed members of this caste to cure injuries incurred in battle and to overpower their enemies by their knowledge of the Indian martial arts.

(Zysk 2008,11)

Indeed, climbing and tapping of Palmyra trees is not only a physically enduring and arduous labor, but also a dangerous one, which frequently causes injuries, and hence may induce the development of modes of curing them. Any fall from a Palmyra, often as high as 20 to 30 meters, might leave a climber dead or seriously injured. It must be stated that many Nadars today, for economic reasons and because the production of toddy in particular is prohibited by the government of Tamil Nadu, do not pursue the occupation of climbing and tapping trees. But for similar traditions of manual medicine it has been described that particular work groups and persons, men in particular, who experience traumatic injuries regularly, contribute the largest number of practitioners (Hinojosa 2002, 25). Thus, the occupational risk of falling off trees may be speculated to explain the development of varmakkalai among Nadars. This may be combined with the historical fact that some Nadar families were royal retainers and hence assigned to military service, which might account for vital spot martial concepts. Nadar practitioners relate this notion as well and connect to it a sense of community pride. To quote one of my Nadar practitioner informants, Manickam Nadar acan, practicing just outside Nagercoil town, in this regard: “Nadars have invented this art and you will find only Nadars practicing it. If you find people from other castes, they won’t know the details, but only act as if they knew [the vital spots].”

Since Nadars comprise the largest social group in Kanyakumari district, with more than one-third of the overall population (Hardgrave 1969, 270), and with some villages being of exclusive Nadar composition (Nair, Sivanandan, and Retnam 1984), it may not be a surprise that my data also show that Nadars provide the largest single community to be employed in vital spot practices. However, acans are found in all ranks of society, especially amongst the Sambavar (campavar) caste (Zarrilli 1998, 28). This group is considered the equivalent caste of the Paraiyar in Kanyakumari, the “untouchable” South Indian caste par excellence, considered impure and of the lowest social position, and recognized as a Scheduled Caste (Nair, Sivanandan, and Retnam 1984). Several popular practitioners in Kanyakumari, including my main informant, Velayudhan acan, belong to this caste. Claims regarding the exclusive practice of vital spots on the part of Nadars, and the joining of varmakkalai with the Nadars’ history hence have to be seen in the light of regional struggles over social positions, but also as characteristic of vital spots being a competitive healthcare practice in Kanyakumari district.

Although both Nadars (originally) and Sambavar (still) assume low- or middle-caste positions in the social stratification of Kanyakumari district, it cannot be readily concluded that vital spots are a low-caste occupation. Several higher castes are found to inherit the practice of varmam just as much, including Vellalars and Brahmins. However, some Brahmin exponents whom I interviewed were keen on linking their practice to ayurvedic sources rather than to siddha medicine, and in one case a practitioner preferred the term marma cikitsa, the name for related vital spot therapies in use in Kerala, where the practice has strong links with ayurveda (see also chapter 2). In any case, vital spot practices appear to intersect the caste structure of Kanyakumari, and most practitioners do not normally appear to reject or prefer patients on a caste basis.

  • [1] Such pursuit of a higher social status has been termed “Sanskritization” by M. N. Srinivas(1966, 6).
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