Tamil and Valluvar Kottam

(Thanks, Lonely Planet, for additional information that fleshes out things I learned in India.)

Tamil is the language spoken in the state of Tamil Nadu in south India. It is an ancient and distinctive language of which residents are quite proud, along with their culture and history. Tamils consider themselves the keepers of Dravidian culture (pre-Aryan). Dravidians were pushed into south India by the Aryans some 2-3000 years BCE. At the same time, they influenced the Aryans, who incorporated some Dravidian beliefs into the Vedas. One example is vegetarianism: before these groups mingled, the nomadic Aryans ate meat for sustenance. Early Hinduism contained both Aryan rituals and Dravidian concepts like renunciation, karma, and reincarnation. Aryans also segregated from the darker skinned Dravidians and may have laid the foundation for the caste system.

[The star of David is a Dravidian symbol; the swastika, an Aryan symbol. The swastika was later co-opted by the Nazis and drawn as a mirror-opposite.]

Tamil leaders were among those who fought for independence from the British, which was gained in 1947. Since then they have fought against the caste system (no longer in the Constitution) and against the Hindi language. For a time they even fought for their own independence as a nation, Dravida Nadu, but that effort has ceased. They continue to wield major political power in the region.

Tamil speakers still tend to shun Hindi and English, the official languages of India. Tamil has given us words like “catamaran” and “juggernaut.”

Juggernaut is a representation of Krishna, who is worshipped in Puri, Orissa. During an annual festival his image is dragged through the streets in a heavy chariot. It is said that pilgrims of old would throw themselves under its wheels as an ultimate sacrifice. Hard to steer, and with no brakes, one of these chariots fell and crushed hundreds of devotees—thus the meaning of “juggernaut, a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force.”

Valluvar Kottam is a modern-day memorial to the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. It replicates ancient Tamil architecture and features an enormous stone chariot—a Juggernaut—35 meters high. A life-size statue of Thiruvaluvar sits inside the chariot. There is also an enormous auditorium inscribed with the poet’s work. Thiruvalluvar lived around the 1st century BCE and worked as a weaver. He became famous for his classic poem Thirukural, composed of 1,330 couplets that set out a moral code for millions of followers. They are wisdom couplets similar to those of Confucius.

The monument is indeed an impressive site, difficult to photograph for its size and the time of our visit. We climbed to the roof of the auditorium; it’s beautiful up there, with wind socks blowing in the breeze. Abhi remembered coming here as a kid, not long after it had been built in 1976, and the memory washed over him as we stood there.

Inside the auditorium and on the grounds was a nation-wide handicrafts fair, with goods from at least 15 of India’s 28 states. Some of the most charming (and handsome or beautiful) sales people enticed us to look at their wares. Diane and I bought sandals that caught our eyes. There were musical instruments, wood carvings, silks, and leather; metals, toys, and palm-leaf scrolls. Here are some of the pictures I took:

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