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.