TamBrahm Identification by Rishi

Blog post by Rishi Athreya

A question often posed is about the unique identity of Tamil Brahmins. It is asked if these people could not identify as Tamil and whether the caste is an essential part of their character.

Tamil Brahmins are ethnically bilingual with both Tamil and Sanskrit. Like those of all other states they are expected to be well versed in Sanskrit and scriptures. The Grantha Lipi was used in that state. It had all phonetic sounds like Devanagari. This script is now forgotten. The option is to use standard Tamil without all characters or Devanagari. So effectively due to Dravidian politics this caste has discarded it’s script.

The issue with Tamil Brahmins is similar to that of Kashmiri Pandits. In Kashmir the only Hindus are Brahmins. The rest of the province is Muslim. During centuries of Muslim rule all others converted to Islam. However as with the rest of South Asia many erstwhile Hindu caste groups maintain their exclusivity within Islam. Both these caste groups are very small percentages of the state’s total population.

The script issue is a bit like Koshur language. There is a Sharda script that is similar to Gurmukhi used for Punjabi. However the Sharda script is practically forgotten except in limited circles. The Koshur language is written in the Nastaliq script of Urdu. Even Pandits often only know this script. There is an odd spectacle of reading Hindu scriptures in Nastaliq. Script is a politically charged issue. Many Pandits are trying to use Devanagari for Koshur. Officially Koshur written in Nastaliq is compulsory in all schools in the region since 2008.

Even Punjabi in Pakistan is written in Nastaliq or Shamukhi which is a derivative of the said script. After independence Sikh Gurudwaras revived Gurmukhi for Punjabi. Some Hindus attempted to use Devanagari and identify as Hindi speaking. This was part of the cause of the Punjab crisis. Now Punjabi written in Gurmukhi is compulsory in all schools in Punjab.

Tamil Brahmins in many ways have a preference for Sanskrit over Tamil. All leading Brahmin run schools in Chennai and Tamil Nadu are affiliated to the Central Board since their students would prefer Sanskrit. Some others opt for Kendriya Vidyalaya since there is the facility to study Sanskrit. In other schools with mixed caste populations even those of the state board Brahmins often opt for Sanskrit over Tamil. In metros like Delhi and Mumbai there are often Tamil Schools. Here too the caste divisions in terms of second language is seen. Most Brahmins opt for Sanskrit with some taking Hindi. Hindi may be taken by those who are keen on civil services.

There are Iyer communities in neighbouring states of Kerala, Karnataka or Andhra who identify as speakers of those languages while continuing to be Iyer in religious terms. Another trend with Brahmins is their high dependence on the English language. For the past century many families have used English even in their personal handwritten correspondence even in the pre internet era.

The question begs asking as to why Iyers are not too keen on holding to the Tamil language while keeping their caste identity and customs intact. They are keener to learn Sanskrit. Even Carnatic classical music is mainly in Sanskrit and Telugu. This preference for Sanskrit is in some ways similar to Kashmir. There are many English medium schools in Srinagar with the option of Urdu and Hindi. Many Pandits as also the small Sikh community opt for Hindi. Note that Kashmiri Sikhs do not speak Punjabi but Koshur.

Many Kashmiri Pandits settled in the plains of North, Upper and Central India during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of the old migrants do not use the Koshur language. However they still practice endogamy in marriage. Further they maintain their religious practices and rituals. Also these emigre Pandits are non-vegetarian like their brethren in the state. In many cases migrants by the third or fourth generation have lost the language and are part of the larger emigre. It is uncommon for those in the valley to marry old emigre. Post twentieth century emigre particularly those who left after 1947 or 1990 are considered distinct from older stock. As a example the family of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru were old emigre from Kashmir.

Palghat Iyers, Hebbar Iyengars etc are like old Kashmiri Pandit emigre and do not use the Tamil language. Even more recent emigre in Mumbai or Delhi often are more comfortable in Hindi.

The said intrinsic ethnic bilingual nature of the caste should explain as why they would rather identify as Tambram than Tamil.


12 thoughts on “TamBrahm Identification by Rishi

  1. why call ‘tamil’ brahmin? just say brahmins. tamils dont like this duality as they have primary loyalty to tamil, which is as ancient as sanskrit. it is self defeating. no other brahmin community in india is so isolated and hated like the tambrams in their own state. rightly deserved from their attitudes. i think so.


  2. Well put up article but leaves the reader with lot of question on the subject of discussion. For instance, it was well established in the article that TB are looking at alternative to Tamil due to bilingual nature! Interestingly, when there is no adequate teaching/exposure to Sanskrit why are we looking at alternative rather than adapting Tamil as the channel to express?
    I’m surprised and could not find an answer for such a mindset prevailing in our community (When people are ready to learn German, Russian and french but not tamil?)

    (I’m including myself to the party since I have the same mindset and have put effort to learn Kannada after moving to Bangalore, understand bit of french due to traveling around but not Tamil for the last 20 years residing in Chennai – I can converse but quite bad at writing in Tamil).

    Note: I studied in punjabi minority school but graduated from institution with lot of Tamil influence


  3. The assertion all the Hindus in Kashmir are Pandits is wrong. There are other Hindu communities like the Dogras who exist today. Dr. KARAN SINGH is an eminent representative of the community. Also regarding Sanskrit – the successive central governments led by secular Congressmen and other eminences have ensured that this language is not freely available for study. Even today Samskrita BHARATHI struggles to take this language to the masses. Reasons for not learning Tamil are not far to seek -it is neither spoken at home, nor widely used in Schools/ Colleges/ Offices as Tamilians are shy to use it due to ignorance and in some cases shame.. So they use a corrupted Tamil – English- accented Hindi.


    1. Dogras are from Jammu. They are not Kashmiri. The state has five distinct regions, viz, Jammu, Mirpur (Azad Kashmir), Ladakh, Gilgit and Kashmir. Each region is ethnically different. Kashmir is the valley of the Jhelum. As for Dr Karan Singh, his great-great grandfather Maharaja Gulab Singh bought Kashmir from the British for Rupees Seventy Five Lakh in Eighteen Seventy Five. Kashmir was then under the SIkh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Earlier it has been under the Afghans, Mughals etc.


    2. To, Sri Chandra–Your remarks regarding reasons for not learning Tamil….etc., etc…is way off the mark. Almost all Tamil Brahmin households speak Tamil in their homes ( in Tamil Nadu) . And another remark “…nor widely used in schools,colleges, offices etc., as Tamilians are shy to use it. No Tamilian will be shy of learning in his mother tongue, provided colleges are willing to teach in that medium since he (the tamilian) is always proud of his language. Regarding usage of Tamil in offices, the State government encourages it, the Central Govt. imposes Hindi in their official communications and so, English is used as via media to get the work done. What ignorance and shame is bandied about here is written out of total ignorance of reality .Perhaps you are living in northern parts of India for too long so that the truth as exists in TN has totally eluded you.


  4. The whole issue boils down to question of survival and convenience in this age of fast life where , apart from the inevitability of the mother tongue,Tambrahms tend to acquire proficiency in other languages to enlarge their employability in regions where Tamil is not a spoken language.Though Sanskrit is associated with Brahmins for the purposes of offering prayers in all its myriad aspects, the applicability of the ‘Divine’ language has dwindled due to its losing favour with the political class (Dravidian)and also it is difficult to learn the language , unlike other languages , due to its complicated structure of grammar, though of course it becomes easy once if you are able to grapple the nuances of its diction and grammar.As to why the English happens to be the most ‘talked about’ language in Tambrahm households is due to the legacy they derived from the British Rule when they preferred Brahmins for their meticulous way of doing things and encouraged them to perform the mundane official duties in various capacities for their quick grasp of the situation and execution of work in a better manner.The present day crop of highly talented youth from that community , getting discouraged in all avenues of employment under the Dravidian governance, have migrated to greener pastures and no language was difficult for them, be it German, Russian or French and so having made to settle elsewhere, the Tamil language has become the ‘second’ language for them and for their children too.What is the remedy now? The glory of the Tamil Language should be de-politicizsed in right earnest.


  5. The note defining a Tambhram is an opinion wit no backup. Many assumptions can be
    questioned and may not stand critical scrutiny. How many TBs can speak or write in
    Sanskrit? I also studied Sanskrit, up to Inter or FA, but still knew basics, much less
    remember. I have to expres (as does the writer) in English, not even in Tamil.
    It would be better TBs learn Tamil very well.
    But the biggest problem or disease that pervades India is the script, by and large complicated.
    A Tamil cannot read Malayalam or Telugu or Kannada. They are the languages of the neighboring
    states. My da (never went to school, orphaned, a pucca TB),learnt them as an adult, with a tutor.
    Will kids of NRIS (TBs) communicate in Tamil?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Sanskrit taught is meager and inadequate. It imparts no knowledge of the original language. Or for that matter, any language taught in any Indian school.

      Liked by 1 person


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