Vellaikaara! Vellaikaara!

Vellaikaraa! Vellaikaraa!

When will we ever hear the end of vellaikaran?

Hardly a day goes by without somebody calling me ‘white man’. Even the clinic where I work is referred to as ‘Vellaikaran Hospital’ because two of us are vellaikara doctors. I’ve gone through different stages of reactions to this name-calling. As a kid I used to retort and call my detractors ‘black man black man’. That never worked. In our own village when children call me vellaikara as I drive my bicycle to work, I often stop and explain that they should call me Doctor or Maamaa (uncle) or Aiyaah (sir). That often helps and I’ve made a few little friends that way. Usually the offenders are little children for whom seeing white people is still a novelty. I don’t really mind. They’re just describing what they see. One kid even referred to me as segapuukaran or ‘pink man’. I suppose that color descriptor is more accurate. ‘Pink man! Pink man!’

In our clinic, I enjoy reading the father’s names on our patient registration cards. Many of the older generation still use the caste terms: Ramasamy Pillai, Otcha Thevar, Suruli Goundar, Appi Nayakkar, and Rangaiah Chetti. I have an old reprint of a scholarly set of encyclopedias written in the late 19th century called The Tribes of South India. What I especially love are the black and white photos of the different groups as they looked before modern society gave everybody a uniform look. There they are all, the S.C. or Scheduled Caste, ie Dalits or Harijans with their subgroups: the Pallar’s traditional occupation was working the rice fields or ‘pallams’ and carrying people in dooli chairs, the Chakaliyar made leather shoes, and the Paraiyar drummed at weddings and funerals and often had to clean up after higher caste groups. From the Paraiyar comes the English loan word ‘pariah’, an unfortunate appellation considering that these handsome people were originally the ‘Adhi Drividar’ or among the original inhabitants of India, perhaps even the proud people who built the Indus Valley Civilization.

In our area, we also have the Thevars and their three subgroups of Maruvar, Kallar, and Mugamudiyor. There’s an old photo of a Maravar with a traditional hunting boomerang. Imagine that, a boomerang, just like those of the Australian aborigines. Thevar boys  go through a circumcision ceremony. Traditionally a warrior caste with a reputation of being the hired thugs and thieves of the British Raj, Thevars now have a large presence in the police force and do everything from drive taxis to sit as judges and perform specialist surgery.

The Goundars in our village all speak Kanada, the language of Karnatika. They traditionally were pastoralists who migrated with their herds to our sequestered valley hundreds of years ago in order to escape various invaders and marauders. Although they have since become the dominant land-owners, many still wander the country side with their herds of goats which stream across the road like so many baaing, butting fish. Most of the other groups in our valley have also learned Kannada because of having grown up with Goundar playmates.

We also have a number of Nayakar villages where people speak a variant of Telegu that is somewhat different from the mother tongue of the state of Andhra. They have lived here for hundreds of years and are thought to have come into the region when the Nayak dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Madurai. Very traditional, the older men wear heavy silver bracelets around their upper arms and earrings, the women tie their hair to the side in the old-fashioned way and adorn themselves with strings of beads. Many women still don’t wear blouse tops in the way of South India before Queen Victoria, covering themselves simply with their saree palu. Nayakars still go around the country-side with their highly trained dogs and hunt rabbits, birds, and other small game. Their large herds of thin white cows are kept in thorny kraals that remind one of Africa. The cows are used mostly for their manure; the people don’t eat beef. Many Nayakars refuse to use tractors when they plough, sticking to oxen. They often don’t buy seed or chemical fertilizer and live simply, eating red millet and minding their own business.

One of our health workers was a Nayakar who fell in love with and married an S.C. girl. His family and community held a katta panchayat where he was forced to sign away all his land rights. They then took an empty coffin which bore his name and buried it. He was dead to them, so important was the maintainance of their caste identity. This same ostracizing happened to our head nurse. She was from the Ayyar Brahmin caste and decided to marry a man who was from the somewhat lower Pillaiyar caste. Her family and clan cut her off and set her adrift. This painful exclusion reached its worst when her husband died from a stroke. After spending many years with no family, she recently arranged for her son to marry a lovely Pillaiyar girl and she is now part of a new extended family.

Modern caste groups appear to have developed from tribal groups which each had their own history and traditions. It is similar to what one sees in Africa. Or in the rural American Midwest where clusters of vellaikara Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Dane, German Catholic, German Lutheran, Mennonites of German Russian descent, and Amish have settled. These groups each had their own ethnicity and traditions. In the not so distant past, these vellaikara caste groups would never have dared to intermarry.

Tamar’s Norwegian Lutheran grandmother warned her daughters about ‘them’. “If you don’t want to marry one of those Catholics, never date a Catholic.” Tamar’s Norwegian Catholic uncle was excommunicated from his church communion when he had a ‘love marriage’ with a woman from the Norwegian Lutheran community. And in that inimitable way time twists and turns, he later found out that his wife of many years had been adopted and that her birth mother was German and her birth father was a Native American of the Sioux tribe!

I realize that living in India for the better part of my fifty years will never change the color of my skin. I know that nothing will change the fact that I was born into the vellaikara caste, sub-caste Dutch American, sub-sub-caste Indian of American origin, just as nothing will change the fact that my fellow villagers are Kurumba Goundars, Kapila Goundars, Pallar, Thevar, Nayakar, Vellalar, Vannar, Chettiar, and Aasari. I must admit it often stings to be singled out every day by the color of my skin. In Europe or America, nobody would get away with shouting, ‘Hey Look! Black man, red man, here comes a yellow man!’ And yet in our village as we all get to know each other by name and personal quirk, caste and color have diminished the way white coconut, yellow turmeric, red chillis, and black mustard seeds blend into the mouth watering cuisine of Tamilagam, my home, for better or for worse.

About the Author

Bruce DeJong

I am an Indian of American parentage who practices medicine in rural Tamil Nadu. After years of getting to know the local people, they have begun to open up their lives, allowing me to paint a portrait of their village one story at a time.

  • Meena

    No one yet asked you for a pen yet? Or is that going to be another delightful telling from your patti?

    • Bruce DeJong

      No pens, since we’re off the tourist trail fortunately. Thanks for reading.


  • Mathew Joseph

    Love it Bruce…you write so well…am inspired..will get back to writing my blog which has been languishing since the first couple of enthusiastic posts :)
    Keep ’em coming “pink karai”

    • Bruce DeJong

      Thanks Mathew, pachaikarai!

  • sharon ulrich

    Lovely writing Bruce. I love how it all meets back round in a circle.

    • Bruce DeJong

      Thanks Sharon.

  • Katie Quirk

    Wonderful to read, Bruce. You distill the complexities of caste in your area so well. I love the many languages that persist in your area. Though I understand the Midwestern parallel, I sometimes wonder if India does an exceptional job of keeping castes/ethnic groups distinct. I noticed this in the Indian community in Tanzania–many Indian Tanzanians in the town where I lived would ethnically and caste segregate to the point of having no potential partners and thus no children. Anyway, a long conversation, but you have provoked a lot of interesting questions for me. I suppose this is the mark of good writing. Thanks!

    • Bruce DeJong

      Nice thoughts, Katie. Certainly where marriage is involved, one sees the power of the community trying to preserve itself. Interesting about your Tanzanian experience. Would be interesting to see how much caste breakdown there is in a country like Guyana which has an old and very different Indian community. I would imagine pressures of living in a new society would change lots of the rules, like when our Indian origin professor Dixit in medical school allowed their first daughter to marry an Indian of a different caste, the second to marry a Muslim, and the third to marry a vellakaran. All with lots of fireworks at first, but then he finally would give up and say, “well if you love him, then…fine. What to do?”

  • Lathika George

    Lovely post Bruce..tell us more about the vellakarai caste groups…their clothes their hunting habits…
    Mathews a pachakarai?

    • Bruce DeJong

      All the Vellaikara caste groups are hunting in supermarket and wearing the jean and eat the jello in America and the pudding in England. This is an anthropologically fact and true also. Mathew is pachakara because not believe the real medicine and only the green grass and ginger.

  • Sankar Chatterjee

    Great Writing and Right insight of India and it’s various history which reflects its caste system.
    Enjoyed reading it..
    I found you knowing more probably more than the locals..
    Appreciate ( As I find myself in similar position) God Bless U

    • Bruce DeJong

      Thanks Sankar. India is so big and old and complex. No Bengali’s down here in Betweenpatti, that I know of, anyway.

  • Mona O.

    Hi Bruce! Your old Kodai neighbor from Van Allen here (now grown up!) Just came across your blog and I enjoyed this piece in particular. I live in the US now and have been reading about the Jim Crow era here, and it struck me that it was *exactly* like our caste system. Once I came across a book that made the comparison, it all made perfect sense to me. Just the way lower caste people were (are?) made to cross the street and look away when they encounter a higher caste person, African Americans in the south were made to do the same thing. The segregation was one thing, but the little cruel laws, as numerous as they were, were almost exactly the same as in India. Just goes to show that human beings are the same everywhere but that they’re also capable of change (though not without a great deal of social upheaval first).

    • Bruce DeJong

      Thanks Mona, for your interesting insights. I think it’s a human weakness to objectify and put another group down. Sad.

  • k.murti

    I have been enjoying all your posts…this one is the best so far(have loads more to read) Touching …
    This is another perspective all together. I never “realized” it hurts the “white skin” was always assumed it hurts to be called “Black”
    Keep writing ..

    • Bruce DeJong

      Thanks for reading, Kamla. Enjoying your input and ideas.


  • Blu Skygazer

    Your forbearance amazes me. Were I living in a place (19th century America perhaps) where I would be singled out in everyday interactions by my ethnicity I might not have been able to stand it, especially if it were “home”.
    Still like you said it is not malice but innocence, so it is forgivable.

    Also, living in the city I tend to forget how strong the grip of caste can be in rural areas especially isolated and insular places like Theni district.