A Community That Lived In Lockdown For 1,000 Years – And The Lessons We Can Learn From Them
This is the story of the Kottai Pillamar of Sri Vaikuntam village in southern Tamil Nadu.
The Kottai Pillamar community is fast disappearing and only the elders still carry their history.
We can learn from how they lived in a lockdown for centuries with acceptance and fulfillment.
Eight months of lockdown and a fortnight of quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19 gave me an intense experience of isolation.
On one particularly difficult night, when I had a high fever, an image from my childhood flashed before my eyes, a blue wooden door shut tight and crumbling mud walls on either side.
The story was of a community within the mud-walled fort that had been in lockdown for a thousand years.
There were only four gates of entry and exit in each of the cardinal directions. The men came out to work, but no one ever saw the community women. Marriages happened only among the inmates of the fort.
Women of other castes were allowed into the fort, but men from outside were not even allowed to see a woman’s corpse that was sewn up in the shroud, taken out through the north gate, and cremated in a site specially outlined for them.
A story of women living their entire lives only inside the fort, and much of that just within their homes, was unfamiliar for an 11-year-old to grasp. However, the lockdown and quarantine made me curious and even empathetic.
This is one facet of their story. The walls have since mostly crumbled, the older people dead, and most customs and old ways are forgotten.
Today, as we recover from lockdown, we can listen and understand with greater sensitivity, and hopefully with less judgement, how a community lived in a lockdown for centuries with acceptance and fulfillment.
This is the story of the Kottai Pillamar of Sri Vaikuntam village on the banks of the Tambraparni River in southern Tamil Nadu. “Kottai” means fort and “Pillamar” are a sub-caste of the larger land-owning Vellala caste.
Old Stories, Old Memories
Their story has been transmitted orally. They were originally from Melacheluvanur Village in the Ramanathapuram district. They had the power to crown the king.
When they refused to accede to crown an illegitimate prince, they were subjected to punishment. Some committed suicide, others left and travelled down south, with some groups choosing to separate at different points.
The final group was given this area of about 15 acres by Parakrama Pandya in Kollam year 97 (ACE 927), though a recording of an oral song mentions a different year.
Since then, the Kottai Pillamar and the Kottamar, who were bonded to them in service, lived within the mud-walled fort. A select list of men from 16 sub-castes was allowed to enter the fort for business. This included barbers (who were also doctors), washermen, and Brahmin priests. However, even they were not allowed to see the women in the fort. Electricity came to the fort only in 1989.
Since the nineteenth century, the East India Company on many occasions tried to raze down the fort and persuade the community to allow government departments including the police and education and health staff in. The community consistently refused.
Before the British, while the region was under the Nawab of Arcot, there had been a practice for the ruler of the region to pay a grant of 30 pon or Rs 63 for the upkeep of the fort walls. This “official recognition” was the strongest argument of the community to prevent the fort from being open to other men from outside. Even when the British demolished all the forts in the region, this one was spared.
By the 1960s, due to marriages within the community alone and the dearth of women of marriageable age, the number of families had dwindled to about 66.
In early 1971, a dispute over trust land created a sharp division and a few families broke the centuries-old practice and vacated the fort.
Others joined them slowly and eventually when the government took over a part of the land for a bus depot, the walls came down, the doors and a small part of the wall around them only served a symbolic function.
Even then, a few old widows followed the practice of not meeting any man and staying within. Marriages began to be conducted with the other Saiva Vellala caste, so it is safe to say today that there is no one with pure Kottai Pillamar genes of the past.
We are fortunate to have Boundary Walls – Caste and Women in a Tamil Community, a 1993 book by Kamala Ganesh based on her in-depth stay and research when the community was transitioning in the 1970s. Her book gives us, objectively and accurately, the complex connections the community had among themselves and with others around them and all records connected to them.
Coming out of quarantine, I re-read this book first. The structure was in place, but my interest was in the identity of the people today and in how the complex and sometimes highly ritualised rules, which were meticulously documented in the 1970s research, give us a glimpse of what village life and community connections were for several centuries before.
Inscriptions from medieval times allude to such connections, so it is not too much of a leap in faith to say that the rules that the Kottai Pillamar followed would have, in principle, been similar to those many centuries before.
Other accounts of the community in The New Yorker or Femina from the 1970s or before, to me, seemed patronising, judgemental, and even sensationalistic.
The question of how the women lived their lives, what was their choice, what were their coping mechanisms, and how did this fit into our larger context of identity and exposure intrigued me.
I also wanted to go beyond the written history to the oral traditions, where I felt there was more of an emotional connection. Walking around the area today, most of the old buildings were gone, the original inhabitants hardly present.
Getting in touch with a community elder, I kept asking for oral sources of songs. He said the traditional singer was dead and his family had moved on to do other things. Another young boy had evinced interest and learnt the songs, but he had fled the village because of debt.
Just like that, the oral songs of a 1,700-year-old community had vanished. Presumably, none of the younger members of the generation had cared enough. A few years ago, they would have had access, but today not even having that choice was a cruel blow in my opinion.
“You come, sir, then let us see, but even we don’t know as much as there is in that book” was the response and that was not very hopeful.
My Search For Their Identity
It was a cool new year’s day morning and I met a few of the elders in the Sri Vaikuntam school, a stately building solidly built and filled with photos of great men who had put their community needs over their own. Some were Kottai Pillamar too. From there, we did a quick tour of the gates.
From there we went to the temple of the old Vinayaka and their guru. The trees rustled in the wind and, as I marvelled at the stone well with a secret passage into the temple, another member of the community worked hard in the old steel almirah and finally came out with a CD and an old cassette tape. “I shouldn’t even give it to you”, he said.
We took our leave. I saw a few more streets, all modern with the old houses gone, and children playing on the roads and women sitting and chatting on the steps. How different images can co-exist together, I thought to myself.
I saw the Perumal and Amman temples and noted the ancient conventions of the Amman temple on the north-south axis and the Vishnu temple on the east-west axis.
We came back to the school and the computer teacher, a passionate local history person, quickly transcribed the CD into a pen drive. The photos were scanned documents and images of the fort taken a few decades ago, but these were precious because even in that short interval, change had been drastic. The best was reserved for the last.
Tenuous Thread Of Oral History In Verse
The video file opened reluctantly, fussing over the format it wanted to play itself. I listened to five minutes of the Villu Paattu by Chellaiah Pandarathar. I was mesmerised by the voice, the accompanists, and the energy of the man. The first few minutes were about the community moving in and the rest about their deity Bhadrakali Amman.
These performances don’t happen with such fervour anymore and it is unlikely that the next generation has someone who has seen it and would put an effort to recreate them.
Among the thousands of oral ballads and minstrels, here is one more we have lost and, therefore, one more opportunity for the people of that area to build into their identity of several centuries and see the pride in what has existed for centuries in their soil.
Women On The Lockdown
I still hadn’t met the women and was eager to meet two that evening. One who hailed from there and the other who had married in.
I asked the cliched question, “Did it bother you? Did you feel imprisoned?” The answers were polite, firm, and assured. 'We accepted it, moved on, and found ways to deal with it and it never seemed to matter for us; we, in our own measure, led very full lives'.
Others chipped in and reminded me that since there was no taboo in other women visiting them, they had many visitors, some who even taught them Hindi, which in Sri Vaikuntam in the 1960s would have been revolutionary. All the women by that time were literate, subscribed to several Tamil magazines, were avid users of the radio, and had a very good sense of what was happening in the world beyond their fort.
Faith and complex puja rituals also gave them much solace, to the point that the daughter-in-law recalled that she never saw her mother-in-law get angry or upset; she would quickly move misfortunes to a conversation around how to solve the problem and cope with it since it was “divine will”.
The son recalled about his mother and grandmother: “For a lady who had never seen a rice field, even as a child I would be amazed how much she knew about her lands and remembered the boundaries, the work done across the seasons, and the harvest quantity”.
Wealth passed through the woman. At her wedding, each woman was given a house, agricultural land outside the fort, and a servant from the Kottamar community and her husband moved in to live with her.
If there were other women on his wife’s side, they would move out into individual houses. The Natal home eventually went to the youngest daughter. At a time when women had no right to property, the Kottai Pillamar women were far more “empowered”.
Again, I was conscious of small prods that I kept getting to force me to become more conscious of my own judgements, generalisations, and imposing my “modern” views on another person. Their lesson of acceptance and finding constructive ways to solve problems that they could not change was a powerful lesson for me in my own ability to cope with grief and unpalatable changes in my life.
I did not have the opportunity to savour the kootanchoru and paal payasam, which were Vellala community specialities. But I was promised a slap-up meal during my next visit.
Bonds Of Togetherness
As I sat back to read the book by Kamala Ganesh, I could read the many rituals through my heart rather than my mind. They were complex. At first glance, the relationship between the Kottai Pillamar and the Kottamar families that served them could be seen as bonded slavery. However, the benefits that accrued to each other had more nuance.
Every transaction was rewarded, even something like a condolence visit for a funeral (ninnan kottu) in cash or kind. If we had more such detailed documentation, we could with more certainty transport this to the relationships of communities in the region even in medieval times.
The core principle of the web of relationships and the rewards and recognition systems was the premise that ‘we are in this together, if we live together and learn to work through our differences, we will lead a safer life where our basic needs will be served’. This is the core operating principle for the agrarian economy that India had worked with for generations. Medieval inscriptions in the region also allude to this operating principle when dealing with disputes that frequently arose.
Today, we tend to see disputes as an aberration because perhaps deep down we have a more Abrahamic view of the world and how it should be. The life inside the fort and the older inscriptions were more Indian, where diversity was a given, conflicts were the norm, but resolving them was the focus with the understanding that there will never be a day when there is complete harmony.
What’s In It For Us?
Learning about the Kottai Pillamar, speaking to them, and listening to their oral tradition has once more taught me to be more conscious to not impose my ways of thinking and living on the other, the power of accepting and then coping with and solving problems, and the connection of our lives to conflict and dealing with others with differing viewpoints.
These will be in my mind and action as much as Chellaiah Pandarathar’s rendition will be in my heart.
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