In 1848, when linguist ES Ariel published select couplets of the ancient Indian philosophical text Thirukkural translated into French, he famously referred to the original as, “Ce livre sans nom, par un autre sans nom (The book without a name by an author without a name).”
That’s because the creator of Thirukkural, the celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar, remains a figure of mystery, rather than history, centuries after his time. Almost no reliable information is available about him – including his name, date and place of birth, family and religious inclinations.
But Thiruvalluvar, who is supposed to have lived two millennia ago in Chennai’s Mylapore locality, still resonates with youngsters and is often quoted in pop culture, including masala-laced commercial films. Kollywood star Vijay belted out a couplet at the audio launch of his latest film Bigil in September to drive home the point that politics should be kept out of sports, and the audience lapped it up.
So, it’s not surprising that political parties and religious leaders have frequently attempted to appropriate the Tamil poet’s legacy. The latest controversy erupted last week when the official Twitter handle of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Tamil Nadu unit posted an image of Thiruvalluvar in saffron robes and holy ash smeared on his forehead, triggering widespread outrage. The incident took place on the same day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a Thai translation of Thirukkural at a community event in Bangkok.
Protests widened on Monday when miscreants smeared a statue of Thiruvalluvar in the state’s Pillayarpatti village with ink and cow dung.
“Thirukkural is a symbol of Tamil society’s richness. The messages conveyed by Thiruvalluvar are pro-nature and not pro-religion or pro-gods. In the original sense, it means that nature is significant. After the 4th or 5th century, religious discourses began and one of the reasons for this is chronic literature. In the 19th century, British missionaries started translating Thirukkural into English and it was in the colonial era that this literature was approved,” V Arasu, retired Tamil professor from the University of Madras, told News18.
While Thiruvalluvar’s contribution was recognised in the colonial era, the Dravidian leaders were responsible for its revival, said Arasu.
“During the Dravidian era, Periyar accepted Thirukkural and held many conferences on it. The DMK started the concept of writing Thirukkural in public buses,” he added.
The first portrait of Thiruvalluvar was designed by artist KR Venugopal Sarma in 1957 and this image was subsequently used to craft a statue of the poet in Mylapore. A portrait of Thiruvalluvar was unveiled by DMK founder CN Annadurai in 1960. The party also built a memorial to Thiruvalluvar at Valluvar Kottam in Chennai in the 1970s.
Thiruvalluvar Day is celebrated in January after Pongal in his honour.
But his origins and ideologies have been debated for centuries, paving the way for politics around him, say observers.
The BJP tweet quoted a section from Thirukkural that says “what is the use of education when all they do is defame God and earn the wrath of believers”.
The post went on to say, “Dravidar Kazhagam, the Communists, whose existence dependent on the DMK and their media organs must know and understand these words said by Thiruvalluvar.” It provoked sharp reactions from opposition parties as well as netizens with the hashtag #BJPInsultsThiruvalluvar trending high on Twitter on Sunday.
“For most Tamils, especially of the large Dravidian sociological lineage, as different from perceptions of ideological distinctions, Thiruvalluvar is a Tamil saint-preceptor, above all present-day religious and caste contradictions, dating back by a few decades to a century,” political analyst N Sathiya Moorthy said. “There is an even stronger belief that his ideas have a Jainism bent to them rather than Vedic Hinduism, as meat-eating, for instance, was not acceptable only to the former. Even today, there are close to a lakh ‘Tamil Jains’ of that vintage possibly in the state, with their historic/ancient places of worship. The sudden spurt in social media campaign, attiring Thiruvalluvar in saffron (as against Jain/irreligious white) does not seem to have gone down well with pan-Tamil revivalist groups that have taken after, and also go after, pro-Hindutva social media campaigns.”