Ambedkar with Periyar. Erode Venkata Ramasamy was born on 17 September to a Kannada  Balija merchant family    in Erode , then a part of the Coimbatore district of the Madras Presidency. He had one elder brother named Krishnaswamy and two sisters named Kannamma and Ponnuthoy. Ramasamy married when he was 19, and had a daughter who lived for only 5 months.
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In a public life spanning over 70 years, it is nearly impossible to encapsulate in a few hundred words why Periyar is still held in such high regard, especially among the Tamils. His pilgrimage to the holy Hindu town of Kashi in to visit the Shiva temple of Kashi Vishwanath is a good place to start.
His experiences during this pilgrimage profoundly shaped his politics. His disgust at the sight of prostitution, cheating, looting, floating dead bodies and rampant begging on the streets of Kashi conflicted with the romantic notions that many had held of this holy town. There was one particular incident, however, which scarred him for life.
At the choultries resting places adjoining the temple, free food was on offer to Brahmin pilgrims. When Ramasamy stood in line to partake of these meals, he was refused because of his caste.
One day, out of desperate hunger, he decided to go in disguised as a Brahmin, wearing the sacred thread. Unfortunately, his moustache gave away his identity since temple authorities believed that holy texts did not permit Brahmins to have moustaches.
He was denied food and pushed out into the streets. Afflicted by unbearable pangs of hunger, Ramasamy had no choice but to eat the leftovers thrown into the streets. He realised, in shock, that the choultry which had refused him entry was built by a wealthy non-Brahmin merchant from Tamil Nadu! EV Ramasamy Periyar. When a deadly plague broke out in Erode in , which claimed the lives of hundreds, he refused to leave unlike other local merchants and instead devoted his time to carry the dead for their last rites.
In the following decade, his business grew, besides acquiring many positions in public institutions. All that changed in , when he joined the Indian National Congress, where he extensively participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement. He was even arrested twice for his troubles. In April , he earned greater acclaim for leading a successful agitation for the right of the lower castes to walk on roads near a Shiva temple in the holy town of Vaikom in present-day Kerala, despite strong opposition from the local priestly class and the Travancore royalty.
The temple entry agitations were actually conducted by the followers of Thanthai Periyar from the s. The Vaikom agitation under his leadership was not launched originally for the temple entry of untouchables.
In fact, this is something even BR Ambedkar had alluded to many times during his long-standing struggle for the emancipation of the Dalit community. Nonetheless, the Vaikom episode enhanced his position in the public eye. In the following year, Ramasamy joined the historical Self Respect Movement started by another social reformer S Ramanathan. What Ramasamy did was propel the movement to new heights.
It espoused a vision of a society where so-called backward castes enjoyed equal rights while encouraging its members to attain self-respect despite the prevalence of a caste-hierarchy that did oppress them. However, there are those who vehemently oppose this narrative. Statue of Periyar at Vaikom town, Kerala. Source: Facebook What the movement sought was to end the scourge of pernicious superstitions, rituals, customs and traditions that perpetuated the dynamic of caste-based subjugation.
They insisted on equality between men and women in all walks of life. They encouraged inter-caste and widow marriages [besides advocating property rights for women].
Periyar propagated the need for birth-control even from the late s. He gathered support for lawful abolition of Devadasi temple prostitute system and the practice of child marriage. When the British conducted provincial elections in , the Congress won, and C Rajagopalachari took charge. As soon as it took office, the Congress-led provincial government in the Madras Presidency, introduced compulsory Hindi instruction in schools.
This was a step, which would resonate with greater force in the violent anti-Hindi agitations of the s. As the new president of the Justice Party in , Periyar and members of the Self Respect Movement led protests to restore Tamil in schools. What brought greater political force to this demand was that these protests attracted even those opposed to Self-Respect Movement because of its emphasis on atheism. The provincial government soon had to withdraw this law.
From The Better Home This split from the Janata Party also marked a definitive shift away from electoral politics for Periyar, while he further immersed himself in social reform. CN Annadurai Left with his erstwhile mentor Periyar. Despite breaking away from Periyar, Anna remained close to his ideals. Although the initial years saw the DMK following in the footsteps of Periyar, things began to change with the evolution of national politics and more pertinently, the Indo-China war of , by which time Anna dropped his demand for secession from North India—an idea Periyar continued to advocate post-Independence.
Post-Independence he continued on his path of social reform—speaking out against the caste system, emphasising on the importance of Tamil while stressing the need to establish English as the national language instead of Hindi, and of course spreading the word of rationalism and atheism. Source: Facebook Supporters see Periyar as the apostle of social equality and rationalism.
His critics, of which there are many, believe he did little to change attitudes against the caste system, and just partook in anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindu baiting. His writings on the subjects are both brilliant and relevant to this day. Support the voice of unsung heroes and extra-ordinary citizens We believe that It is essential for a country like ours to have a voice that celebrates unsung heroes, gives a platform for change makers, inspires millions of people.
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Periyar, The Firebrand Pioneer Who Shaped The Dravidian Revolution
Periyar E. V. Ramasamy
Life history of Thanthai Periyar