Fourth Annual Tamil Conference
Researching Many Paths
April 26-27, 2008

Saturday. April 26

8.30 am

Opening Remarks: Alexander von Rospatt, Chair, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies

9 – 10.30am

The River Kaviri and Sectarian Commitment in Tamil Literature

Anne Monius
Harvard University

Few literary images could be more bucolic than the twelfth-century Periyapuranamís opening homage to the river Kaviri as the core of the ìholy countryî of the Colas (verses 51-85): she is ancient, beautiful, cool, the source of all the region’s abundant wealth, ìlike a good wet-nurse for the goddess Earth.î Here, as in so much of Tamil literary culture, the Kaviri originates with the great northern sage, Agastya, defines a Tamil-speaking region, waters the Cola heartland, and courses past an array of temple and pilgrimage sites sacred to Siva.

Yet such pastoral praise marks a more complex literary history for the river Kaviri, one in which numerous sectarian communities lay claim to her abundant waters and all that they represent. Focusing on the treatment of the Kaviri in Buddhist and Jain literature in Tamil, this paper examines the ways in which earlier literary treatments of the Kaviri–and particularly her origins in the water-pot of the great northern sage, Agastya–argue for the river’s direct association with non-Saiva religious communities. Literary images of the river, in other words, provide a locus for articulating distinctly sectarian boundaries in the Tamil religious landscape.

Paradigms of Compassion: The Story of King Manu in Ramalinga Adigal

Srilata Raman
University of Michigan

Through a close reading of Ramalinga’s early work the paper explores the construction of a reformist Saiva theology in the early colonial period and also seeks to address the broader issue of how to theorize about religious change in the transition from the pre-colonial to the colonial period. Ramalinga Adigal wrote and published an essay, “The Tale of the Righteous Conduct of King Manu” in 1854. The tale in an ancient frame-story from the medieval Tamil Saiva hagiography, the Periyapuranam. While scrupulously adhering to the main plotóconcerning a virtuous patricideóRamalinga’s “translation” of this tale ventures beyond the boundaries of the original to culminate in an empathetic vision of suffering visualized and accepted. The article shows that the tale of King Manu is one which has a pan-Indian resonance, being part of the genre of tales, particularly common in early Buddhist literature, of the ìdonationî or ìsacrificeî of the body as part of an act of moral empathy and compassion . Yet, even while exploring the parallels to the tale in Sanskrit and Pali literature, it will be shown that Ramalingaís is a singular Tamil visionóone emphasizing the sacred corporeality of the human being. In fact, it is at the moment when the self dies to the body that this corporeality is seen to be most vividly felt, the suffering and dying body also rendered the most sacred. It has been suggested (re. Halbfass 1995) that reformist religious movements particularly neo-Hinduism reverses the classical Indian construction and understanding of the relationship between ethics and metaphysics. Utilizing this insight I would suggest that just such a theological turn is in effect in Ramalinga Adigal’s reformist Saivism, as it mediates the passage between pre-colonial Tamil Saivism and colonial reflections on religion.

10.30 – 10.45am

Coffee Break

10.45 am – Noon

Rivers of Sympathy: Iiram as Gift in Tamil Moral, Political, and Agrarian Tradition

Anand Pandian
Johns Hopkins University

Despite the frugal economism of colonial irrigation expenditure, the engineers who brought water into the Madurai countryside a century ago are recalled today as paragons of liberal and compassionate giving.† This puzzle in postcolonial memory, I argue, is best understood in relation to a Tamil moral and political tradition in which the gift of water has long served as a practice of care.† The talk will track these ideas through literary representations of good government and virtuous conduct; in the everyday practices of those who irrigate the fields of the region today; and in the aqueous allegories of loss often at work within the genre of the funereal elegy. In each of these sites of cultural practice and tradition, rivers emerge as paradigmatic spaces of sympathetic feeling.

Tamil Takes on Epic Theater in the Late Twentieth Century: Dramatic Experiments and Apartheid in South Africa

Paula Richman
Oberlin College

Sadasivan Annamalai’s two plays ìMayil Ravanaî and ìSix Foot Four Handsî grew out of his childhood experiences of attending terukuttu in Indian settlements in Durban, South Africa.† Mayil Ravana, the first production to stage terukuttu on a proscenium stage in South Africa, depicts Hanuman’s destruction of Ravana’s cousin, ìPeacock Ravana.î† ìSix Foot Four Handsî portrays the concerns of indentured laborers’ offspring, their experience of apartheid, and the role of Tamil cultural forms in their lives. Muthal Naidoo’s ìFlight from the Mahabharata,î mounted during the apartheid era, portrays the female characters deciding to leave the Vyasa’s epic to form a male-free utopia.† A veiled criticism of sexism but also of segregated societies, the play came out soon after the televised Mahabharata serial was broadcast in India and then came out on video-cassette, an influence to which Naidoo credits her desire to write the play. Each play draws upon the experience of growing up in Tamil-speaking families in the region of Natal and includes an anti-apartheid subtext.† Yet the plays are far more than simple political responses to racism in South Africa.† Each rethinks Indian dramatic traditions in fascinating ways, reflects on the human tendency to break into segregated and hierarchical groups, and suggests that epic characters have much to say to us today. The paper draws upon a series of interviews with the playwrights in 2006-2007, the scripts, as well as videos and photographs.

Desire and Cinema

Kiran Kesavamurthy
University of California, Berkeley

I am interested in looking at how cinema organizes sexual desire in Jeyakantanís novella, The Mason who went to the Cinema, written and published in 1972. I shall explore the effects of visual representations of desire on the imagination and the manifestation of desire as fantasy.

Noon -1.15 PM

Lunch Break

1.30 – 3 PM


Remaking the past: Tamil sacred landscape and temple renovations

Crispin Branfoot
SOAS, University of London

Temples have been built in stone in the Tamil country for over 1400 years, maintaining a distinctive stream of traditional architectural language and design into the present century. In spite of the scholarly tendency to examine temples at the moment of their creation, many have been expanded or renovated over a very long period to create some of the monumental temple cities that dominate the landscape to this day. Some of these ‘renovations’ involve the wholesale replacement of the main shrine, in theory the most sacred part of the whole temple. Rather than explaining temple rebuilding in the early modern period as a consequence of 14th century iconoclasm, this paper will consider temple renovations as an ongoing process of ‘remaking the past’. Three periods of architectural reconstruction ñ in the 10th, 16-17th and late 19th-early 20th centuries ñ will be considered in order to examine the relationship between building, design and sacred geography over a millennia of Tamil temple history

Tamil temple traditions: transmission, reclamation, and transformation

Leslie Orr
Concordia University

What ensures the continuity of the ritual life of the Tamil temple?† How does the temple maintain a connection with its past?† To what extent are renewals and restorations actually innovations?† I propose to explore these questions with reference to the evidence of the Tamil temple inscriptions of the 10th through 14th centuries.† My focus will be on what these inscriptions say — or decline to say — about the revival of lapsed rituals, the replacement of images, the rebuilding of temples, and the re-engraving of the inscriptions themselves.† I will be concerned with the character of these practices, in terms of whether they represent consistency with, or a break from, the past.† And since the inscriptions situate themselves very explicitly in the river of time — with regard to a future in which the deeds recorded will continue to be acknowledged (for as long as the moon and sun shall endure) — I will also consider the ways in which temple authorities and temple patrons, through the medium of the inscriptions, portray their roles in relation to the past and hint at what that past means to them.

Fertility and Auspiciousness on the Banks of the Kaveri

Amy Alloco
Harvard University

Based on ethnographic research carried out in Trichy in 2006, this paper examines the repertoire of rituals performed on the occasion of Adi Perukku, the eighteenth day of the Tamil month of Adi (July – August). Most distinctive among these rituals is the worship conducted by women on the banks of the Kaveri River, where groups of female relatives gather to honor and propitiate the river goddess for a range of blessings and prosperity. While this festival retains many of its traditional associations with agriculture, particularly with paddy and the monsoon cycle, I will demonstrate that there is an equally strong association with female auspiciousness, and in particular with the auspicious married state. I will also suggest that a new emphasis on personal fertility is evident among many of the female worshipers, a shift that seems to fit in with broader contemporary concerns about how negative planetary arrangements in an individual’s horoscope (such as naga dosham) affect fertility and marriage.

3 – 3.15 PM

Coffee Break

3. 15 – 5 PM

Tracing the Trajectory of changes in Tamil: Mining the corpus of Tamil Texts

Vasu Renganathan
University of Pennsylvania

Tamil words underwent a major change during the medieval period when heavy borrowings from Aryan languages took place.† Simple word forms were changed into more complex forms with a capability to take multiple number of suffixes.† Derivation and grammaticalization are the two predominant processes that brought many changes to the Tamil language throughout the history.† Derivation of words took many paths -† ex. aaRu, aaRRu, aaRRaamai, †aattaame; muu, muuppu, mutu, mutiyoon, muutta and so on ñ and yielded many new nuances and usages.† The process of grammaticalization made use of many lexical words ñ ex. pacalai koLvatu (Aingkurunuru) vazhipaaTu koNtiruppaaL (Silappatikaram), uvakaiyan kavaan koNtiruntu (Manimekalai), aaTunai yaayinum viTunaiy aayinum (Puram) ñ and turned them into grammatical forms ñ ex. aanTukoLviiree (Tirumantiram),† eNNikkoL (Divyapprabandam), iLaittuviTTaaree (Tirumantiram), vaLaippaham vakuttukkoNTirunteen (Divyap pirabandam) and so on. With the availability of Tamil texts from Sangam to modern period in digital form, and with new technologies, it is now possible for us to study and analyze texts from many perspectives and in a wide variety of ways.† This paper attempts to outline a methodology for the study of Tamil texts in digital form by using new technologies

Constructions of Gender and Sexuality in the Sangam Poems

Elizabeth Segran
University of California, Berkeley. Student Presentation.

In my paper, I will delineate the ways that women are portrayed in the akam poems. I am particularly interested in how the Tamil poets conceived of female sexuality and how they imagined women’s position in society. These portrayals of women seem quite different from what we see in other texts produced from this historical period. Here, I consider how these poems contributed to the discourse on gender that exists in South Indian literature.

Sunday. April 27


Many paths to lexical enrichment in modern Tamil.

E. Annamalai
Yale University

Adding new vocabulary is a continuous process in any living language. The nature of the new vocabulary may change at different periods depending on language ideology, social needs and the source of supply. This paper examines the nature of the new vocabulary in contemporary written Tamil. It shows that multiple forces are at work in terms of agents from technical term committees to creative writers, ideologies from exceptionalism to globalism, needs from technology to politics and sources from English to rural speech. The paper discusses the question of variation in vocabulary and speculates on the question of effect of the new vocabulary on the conceptual framework of the Tamil mind. The paper hopes to show where the paths of lexical enrichment converge and where they diverge and to point to the consequences of this to Tamil as a modern language.

10 AM -1 PM

Round Table Discussion

Discussants and Moderators

  • Indira Peterson, Mount Holyoke College
  • Anand Pandian, Johns Hopkins University