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Madurai Thamil Sangam
established by Pandithurai Thevar
The Madurai Thamil Sangam was established by Pandithurai Thevar in 1901 with the assistance of his cousin Bhaskara Sethupathy, who was the Raja of Ramnad at that time. The institution and its journal – the Senthamil – played an important role in what could be termed the Tamil renaissance in the first two decades of the twentieth century among the Tamils of south India and Sri Lanka. Its importance also lies in the fact that it created a class of Tamil pundits through a well organized and prestigious system of examinations at a time when strong objections were being raised against creating a Chair for Tamil, in the University of Madras.
The pundits qualified by the Madurai Thamil Sangam in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka have also been instrumental in shaping the vocabulary of Tamil identity when Tamil nationalism began to constitute itself as a political force on both sides of the Palk Straits. The Sangam was conceived as a nationalist project by Pandithurai Thevar who announced and took up the task of its formation at the Madras sessions of the Congress in 1901. Thevar upheld the view that "the love for one’s language is the basis of patriotism and the love for one’s religion." (Speech made at Tuticorin, quoted in P.S.Mani, p.39). Thevar’s desire to establish the Sangam was also linked to the traditional role of the Maravar and Kallar kings and chieftains of Tamil Nadu as the patrons of Tamil poets and pundits, despite the powerful inroads made by Sanskrit over the centuries.
Most of the Tamil texts that impelled twentieth century renaissance were unearthed from collections of manuscripts preserved by families of traditional Tamil poets and scholars who had been patronised by Tamil poligars and kings. Thevar appointed R. Raghava Aiyangar who was the court pundit of the Sethupathys, as editor of the Sangam’s journal ‘Senthamil’ in 1901. His cousin, M.Raghava Aiyangar succeeded him as editor in 1904 and served for eight years. M.Raghava Aiyangar and his cousin belonged to a family of Vaishnavite Brahmins who had attached themselves to the Maravar kings of Ramnad from the eighteenth century. The family produced many Tamil and Sanskrit scholars who were court pundits and ministers to the Sethupathys and the nobles of their clan. M.Raghava Aiyangar’s father was a renowned Tamil scholar in the court of Ponnuchami Thevar, the brother of the Ramnad king Muthuramalinga Sethupathy (1862-1873). Ponnuchamy Thevar was Arumuga Navalar’s patron in Tamil Nadu. Aiyangar’s father died when he was young and was looked after by Ponnuchami Thevar’s son Pandithurai Thevar.
Thus, Aiyangar’s life was bound with that of the Sethupathy clan of Marava rulers. Later in his life, he wrote a book in appreciation of Thevar and his father called, Senthamil Valartha Thevarhal (The Thevars who nurtured Sen Thamil). Aiyangar dedicated two of his most popular books to Bhaskara Sethupathy and Pandithurai Thevar. His involvement with the Indian nationalist movement was therefore closely related to the interests and perceptions of Thevar who was bestirred by the ideas of the revolutionaries and the Swadeshi movement. The Sethupathys had been resentful of the fact that they were coerced by the British to hand over the vast and profitable trade with Ceylon and Bengal. Thevar therefore was attracted by the Swadeshi movement’s campaign to rejuvenate local industry and commerce to undermine the hold of British capital on India. The revolutionaries were calling for the revival of the disfranchised kshatriya classes of India. The Senthamil incorporated these sentiments and ideas into its projects for Tamil renaissance.
Thevar formed the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company with V.O.Chidamparam Pillai in 1907, to break the British monopoly on the profitable Colombo-Tuticorin steamer service. Chidamparam Pillai was closely associated with members of the revolutionary movement in Tamil Nadu at that time. The company resolved in one of its articles of incorporation that it would contribute one percent of its monthly earnings to the Madurai Thamil Sangam, as long as it existed (Annual Report of the Sangam, 1907, pp.7-8). Aiyangar also contributed to the nationalist cause by buying a Rs.100 share in the company. The main financial assistance to the Sangam at this juncture came from Thondaman – the Kallar caste king of Pudukottai, who was its permanent patron, the Zamindar of Singam Patty (Maravar) and a Kallar caste leader called Gopalsamy Rajaliar, who had succeeded in a campaign with Thevar’s assistance to alter his caste name from the derogatory Kallan to a more respectable form Kallar (Annual Report of Sangam, 1907). The Dravidian school of Tamil studies on the other hand was keen to show its loyalty to the Raj and represented Vellala caste interests.

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