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Young Piramalai Kallars Pandi and Selvam of Chekkanurani in Madurai feel shy of talking about it in the presence of women. What turned them bashful was the question: Have you underwent “Markakkalyanam”?

Today, Markakkalyanam is more a symbolic ritual but not too long ago it was an important event in every Piramalai Kallar boy in Madurai, Theni and Dindigul districts. It was mandatory that the boy should go under the knife between the age of seven and ten before the signs of puberty showed up. Markakkalyanam was the equivalent of the Islamic custom, Sunnat Kalyanam or circumcision. “As boys we were so scared of it but our fathers decided against it. Only the function was held,” say Pandi and Selvam.

Eighty-seven-year old Tamil scholar Chinnan Ayya from Usilampatti shares the details of the ceremony he underwent as a boy. It used to be a grand event in the villages. A group of boys of the same age group would be circumcised.

The previous night, the boys were taken in a procession on a horse. The next morning in the early hours, the boys were taken to the village lake or pond. The village barber would be ready with a knife and the male relatives of the boys would be around to keep company. In a fraction of second, the barber would complete the circumcision and the boys would be pushed into the pond for relief from the cut.

Once the circumcision was done, the boys would be brought back to the village clad in dark coloured, usually saffron, dhoties to hide any blood stains. They were given an iron rod that they could hold on to while walking.

Once the circumcision was done, the boys would be brought back to the village clad in dark coloured, usually saffron, dhoties to hide any blood stains. They were given an iron rod that they could hold on to while walking.

Back home, a feast would be waiting for the boys. “The following week was fun. We would stand at street corners, block bullock carts and demand money.  The womenfolk would tease us to their heartful,” says Chinnan.

A home remedy was available for the boys who did Markakkalyanam. A small pit was dug and filled with herbs, supposedly medicinal. The herbs were then set on fire. The boys were asked to stand over the pit with their legs apart so that the herbal smoke healed them.

For ages, Piramalai Kallars remained out of the law of local rulers. The Nayak kings and the colonial rulers had a tough time handling them. They were not easily controlled. The British termed the community a criminal tribe and brought them under the Criminal Tribes Act mandating every grown up man from the community to spend the night in police stations.

Markakkalyanam is not so prevalent among the community now. But it remains a surprise how a custom followed by Muslims and Jews across the world came to the Piramalai Kallars. .

Folklore has given many stories, says Sundara Vandhiyadevan, author of the book Piramalai Kallar Vazhvum Varalarum (The Life and History of Piramalai Kallars). He has documented the lives of the sub-caste of the dominant Mukkulathor community. Vandhiyadevan feels that the Madurai Sultanate – that lasted for a brief period of 40 years after Malik Kafur’s invasion – provided the Piramalai Kallars the right to do kaval (ancient method of policing). The Sultanate was unable to subdue them and thought it was best to coopt the Piramalai Kallars who then likely picked up some Muslim customs during that period.

Apart from circumcision, the bridegrooms of Piramalai Kallars used to be decked just like Muslim bridegrooms with a turban and flower veil. “Most of these practices have waned with time,” says Vandhiyadevan.

Chinnan Ayya says that the community picked up the circumcision custom during Hyder Ali and Tipu’s invasion of the south. It helped them hide in Tamil Muslim households undetected even as they continued fighting them. These are folklore not backed by evidence, he says.

For Piramalai Kallars, Muslims are Thaivazhi Sontham – related through their mother. “Till recently, Muslim names were chanted as part of Mamanmar Vagai (Uncles) in weddings,” says Vandhiyadevan.

Such customs bind Piramalai Kallars to others, says Madurai O Murugan, a novelist from the community. “The elders have created a pattern of weaving various communities into the lives of Piramalai Kallars and Muslims are one among them,” he said.

Murugan says that Kallar youth maintain discipline while walking Muslim streets in the towns. Muslim girls are treated with dignity. Chinnan Ayya says that Muslims are called ‘Cheeyans’ (the term used to call Mother’s father) in the community. “It means ‘the pure’ in literal Tamil and we term our elders and Muslims as Cheeyan,” he said.

Chinnan Ayya says that Muslims are called ‘Cheeyans’ (the term used to call Mother’s father) in the community. “It means ‘the pure’ in literal Tamil and we term our elders and Muslims as Cheeyan,” he said.

Madurai Dhargah is believed to be the first structure with a dome in Tamil Nadu

Of late, BJP ideology has been gaining a foothold among the Mukkulathor community. The factions of Forward Bloc in Usilampatti region that represent the Mukkulathors allied with the BJP during the recent local body polls. “Even if they gain a foothold, it is not easy to turn Piramalai Kallars against Muslims,” adds Murugan.

But how does the Muslim community living among Piramalai Kallars feel? “Nothing has changed. Fraternal bonds remain,” says Khadar Nivas, whose family has lived in Andipatti in Theni district for the last three generations.

Nivas says that many of his old Hindu friends, who are now supporting the BJP, changed the tone of their relationship with him. “But Piramalai Kallars haven’t. The very fact that their iconic leader Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar was nursed by a Muslim woman during his infancy cements the bond between us,” he adds.

Though the Markkakalyanam ritual has waned, the function associated with it has evolved into ‘kavareduppu’ or ‘vasantha vizha’ or ‘Illa Vizha’ in Kallar households. The families organize these functions to collect ‘seimurai’, a method of community micro-financing. Invitation cards for these functions carry a line at the bottom asking the invited to refer to contributions made to them by others so they didn’t miss giving to others.

From the meager amount of Rs 5 in 1980s, the amount has now grown into thousands and lakhs, says Ayyer from Karumathur. He recently held one such function at his house. “It is like borrowing from our own community when there is a need. Honour is at stake when we don’t return this seimurai,” says Ayyer.


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