PhD Research:

Kottai Pillaimar of Srivaikuntam

From 1979 to 1981, I did fieldwork in Tirunelveli district, Tamilnadu. On the banks of  the Tamirabarani, in the temple town of Srivaikuntam, there lived a community of  Vellalas, known as Kottai Pillaimar, on account of their living in a mud walled fort; a fort  into which no male from outside could enter. Nor could the women come out except after death for cremation. Quite the stuff of  folk tales. As I read old newspaper reports about the fort, including a sensational one in New York Times, I was galvanized into a search for the exotic.

9b Only doors no walls.jpg

In due course, I got disabused of my fanciful notions  and discovered a social system  that embodied an ideal type  pre-modern caste society. Castes in a locality are structured hierarchically, they are interdependent yet separate.  Notions of  purity and honour of women are at the heart of the system. They define the hierarchical position of the caste, creating marital boundary walls around each caste. I discovered in the Kottai Pillaimar, the compulsions of an upper caste to define their high status through the tight seclusion of women. In practice, it left the women with neither their caste privileges nor civic rights. The social structure supporting the fort consisted of specific families from a variety of service castes with whom the Kottai Pillaimar  had jajmani style patron-client ties. Boundary Walls. (Book: Boundary Walls: Caste and Women in a Tamil Community | Article: 'Breaching the wall of difference: fieldwork and a personal journey to Srivaikuntam, Tamil Nadu'.) The men were traditional landed elites well networked with local institutions, both traditional and modern.  The fort had survived as a vestige of past royal service. It was now a crumbling anomaly of history. The community was contemplating ending the system.   Endogamy within the fort was no longer sustainable. The pressures and pulls of the outside world were high.

Images from 1980

Srivaikuntam town from across the Tamirabarani

press to zoom

East doorway - main entrance

press to zoom

Fieldworker in the field

press to zoom

Srivaikuntam town from across the Tamirabarani

press to zoom
1/14

Images © M.G.Venkatesh Mannar

Images from 2017

Srivaikuntam town today

press to zoom

East doorway - Main entrance

press to zoom

Those who remained inside

press to zoom

Srivaikuntam town today

press to zoom
1/12

Images © Jayanth Sethu Mathavan

I returned a few times briefly . In 2017, I again went back, this time after many years,  accompanying documentary film maker Shrutismriti Changkakoti . The Tamirabarani river, the state’s only perennial river,  watering the region’s rice fields, has dwindled to a ribbon. The path from behind the fort to  their Bhadrakali amman temple, once lush and green,  is barren The entire region is now water deprived. Colourful and cheerful monstrosities of buildings dot the town, cheek by jowl with the magnificient gopuram of  the medieval Srivaikunthanatha Perumal temple.

The fort walls are mostly gone, in some places rebuilt with cement and plaster. Some doorways remain but  dilapidated. The surrounding roads are full of new constructions. Shruti  was shooting for her film on the young women who left the fort as children or had been born after their parents left the fort.  For them  the Fort was a tale told and retold by their elders. They are a part of the larger Tirunelveli Saiva Vellala community,  busy with school, college or jobs. Such education was unthinkable for their mothers who are nostalgic about the past but are comfortably integrated with contemporary urban Tamil life. There are two old women, sisters, widowed, who continue to live in their old house in the fort. We do not want to leave our homes. Our whole world is here, they say.

Watch the preview to a documentary about Kottai Pillaimar which features my research. The director, Shrutismriti Changkakoti, and I visited the Fort together, in 2017, and met some of the women who left to settle in Tirunelveli. 

Click on the YouTube image on the left, or on this URL, to view the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APfXMLqW6ww&t=1s.