Project Description

In the common discourse of History, the ordinary people are usually absent. The texts and poems composed/compiled during the classical period, combine history and hagiography to provide a spectacular narration of the life of the then rulers and dynasties, exaggerating their might, wealth, and generosity. In this regard, the classical tragedy Silappathikaram composed by Chera Prince-turned-Jain-Poet Ilango Adigal is different, as it tells the story of the common people and through their life and woes recounts the philosophy and moral ethics of the ruling dynasties. Contemporary Indian photographer Abul Kalam Azad has been working on a large body of work titled ‘Story of Love, Desire and Agony’ that draws its roots from the classical tragedy Silappathikaram. The first two parts ‘Black Mother’ and ‘Contemporary heroines’ were done in present-day Kerala and the third part titled Men of Pukar is currently underway in Poompukar, Tamil Nadu, with the grant support of India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). This series has two more parts. Creating visual artworks based on literature is not new – Silappathikaram and its story or the variations of its core theme have been dramatically recreated in many art forms including cinema, all of them following an illustrative approach. Following an uncommon style, Abul Kalam Azad is providing a re-reading of the epic in the contemporary context. His works converge, diverge, and at times runs parallel to the classical tragedy, both providing vital information about the culture and lifestyle of their own times. Culture – that continuously changing complex whole, is usually acquired by a group of people at a particular time, either through natural progression or through external force. It is often used politically as a tool of the elites to manipulate the lower classes and create a false consciousness, and certain societies remain chained by these symbolisms. Silappathikaram, believed to have been composed/compiled two thousand years ago was one such tool that had deeply penetrated the southern Indian mindset. In this series, Abul juxtaposes the still lingering bits and pieces of the sangam society’s culture and tradition with the shifting social reality. His parallax vision of the epic and contemporary society is not exotic; the aesthetics is not that of the forlorn foreign perspective – he is more than a mere spectator. Abul’s view of this influential text necessitates further reading. Metabolism of culture, a series of writings by Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi is one such attempt to deconstruct the images and decipher the hidden meanings and layers of thought behind these seemingly simple and straightforward monochrome images.

“Multi-storied business houses could be seen
Bursting with merchandise worth a fortune;
And nearby, all along the street, serving maids
Lighted figured lamps and offered their prayers
With lawn grass, grain and flowers;
Their anklets jingled as they moved like tides;
And the goddess of wealth smiled on the scene.
Near the waterfront foreigners had settled,
And further on was the public grain market,
Displaying various goods with quality and price marked
Under the bright light of lamps, colorued liquid,
Sweetmeats, pastes and flowers were sold;” – Ilango Adigal, Silappathikaram

A photograph of a name board.


Some read/spell it as “Manigramam”. The modern Tamil alphabet has a very restricted array of characters, which makes it impossible for a majority of phonetic names to be represented accurately, as is the case with ‘gra’, which lacks a corresponding representation within the alphabet, and has to be, instead, written as an aggregate of ‘ka’, ‘i’, and ‘ra’. It is acceptable to Tamils who understand both of the spellings, interchangeably. Tamil has always been very flexible and adoptive – a quality that keeps this ancient Dravidian language young and invigourated.

Tamil’s script has gone through enormous changes and is quite unlike the primitive one known as the Brahmi script, the oldest writing system used in south and central Asia from the 1st millennium BCE. The origin of Brahmi script is a point of dispute among the scholars – with modern nationalists claiming indigenous origin and imperialists attesting it to have been borrowed or derived from scripts that originated outside. There can never be any concurrence on these differing opinions, each putting forth several evidences to their claim. However, its close resemblance of Semitic script model, especially Aramaic, cannot be ignored. In India itself, there are two versions – Northern Brahmi family and Southern Brahmi1. Some historians opine that it was the Jains who first introduced the Brahmi script in Tamilakam. Nonetheless, Tamils had modified the script to suit the Dravidian phonetics. All the Sangam literature has been written in Tamil Brahmi script. Many words in Tamil have been derived from Pali, Sanskrit, Greek, and various other languages, and even now, new words continue to be added to its vocabulary, thereby localizing the evolving modern languages and innovations.

In the native pagan/pre-vedic tradition, this attribute of Tamil is visualized in the form of Murugan – an elegant youth, who never ages. Murugan has been mentioned in several classical texts as well as has been depicted in caves such as the Ellora and Elephanta2. Being a popular proto-Dravidian deity, he was and still continues to be worshipped in many South Asian and Southern African countries. Iconographically depicting and worshipping a language in anthropomorphic form is indeed a rare phenomenon, hardly found in any other cultures. Like any other gods / ritualistic practices, there are many mythological stories surrounding this worship, and along the course of history, he has been appropriated as one of the Vedic gods.

However, if Murugan was indeed a real human who once walked this land, then it is conceivable that he was a powerful Pandyan chieftain and a patron of the Tamil language. The Pandyan rulers have been noted for the formation of Sangam (meaning “collective”) – a traveling group of academicians, ministers and poets comprising of 473 poets (of which 102 are anonymous) from the entire Classical period Tamilakam, who were entrusted with the responsibility to compile the poetries and prose that had long existed in the oral form as well as to create new texts. Legend has it that there were two earlier Sangams – the works produced during which have never been recovered in any form (it is possible they were lost in the destruction that accompanied repeated Tsunamis or other natural calamities) – before the third Sangam that had composed/compiled 2381 poetries. Cilappathikaram, though controversies are abound about its time of compilation in written form, is generally accepted to have been composed during the Sangam period, based on existing folklore.

A photograph of a name board in a photo-series that is titled ‘Men of Pukar’ feels out of place, until one fathoms its contextual relevance – this image is like a small piece of pot or a gem one has unearthed in an archeological excavation. This, to the archeologist, is a proud finding – which is more than enough to put together the bits and pieces. He or she, then goes on to use his/her imagination by corroborating with other historical texts and will eventually draw the most plausible visual of the whole pot or jewelry. Abul’s photographs are essentially a slice of history, urging the viewers to decipher through a reading of the sociological context and their own imagination.

Like Ayyavole-500, Nanadesikan, Thisai Aayirathinootravar, Narpathiynnayirathavar, Anju Vannam3 etc., Manikkiramam was also a prominent merchant guild during the Sangam era. In earlier times, names of places and villages had significant meanings and their etymologies often denote certain special characteristics, location, or would honor a war hero or a local chieftain4. Manikkiramam could have gotten its name from the commodity that was traded – pearls or other precious stones/beads – and there were many ‘Manikkiramam’ settlements across Tamilakam. Today, there are only two Manikkiramams still going by the same name – one in Thrissur District in Kerala and the other near present-day Poompukar5. Even though they no longer function as a trade guild, these settlements are an integral part of the social and economic life.

 While historians have differences of opinion as to their inhabitants, it is generally accepted that Manikkiramam comprised of migrant traders – the Semitic-speaking tribes from Arabia and the Horn of Africa. The rulers of this land welcomed them with open arms and provided them special privileges to conduct trade, and construct houses and places of worship for themselves. These merchant guilds, apart from playing a key role in the local and maritime economy, were also active players in social activities, and contributed to the development of local infrastructure. In spite of their general acceptance, when the rulers changed, the invading imperial powers opposed these settlements and there have been instances of significant conflict between them, resulting in the dissolution of such guilds.

Tamil, as some historians claim, was the lingua franca for early maritime traders from India. The early travelers, the Arabs, specifically, were keen to pick up the local language and customs, as a means through which they could transfer their own native practices in the Southern peninsula. They were called ‘mappilai’, meaning son-in-law. Even now, the largest Muslim group in Kerala is called Mappila6. Through these marriage relations, the bond between the migrating traders and the natives grew stronger.

For the traveling tribesmen, finding a partner in places where they travel for trade is all the more important. Their women usually don’t travel with them. In those times, men usually embark on long travels for hunting and trading and the settlements usually comprised of women, children and elderly men. The women were entrusted with the role of safeguarding property and these queens were powerful and influential in all matters pertaining to its governance. The women (and the traveling men) enjoyed sexual freedom and marriage, as we know it now, was uncommon. They also played the role of priestesses and were revered as possessing magical/shamanistic powers. All these made ancient society predominantly matriarchal. The traveling tendency in men indeed is in their very nature, so to speak – it is the semen that travels to the egg; and it is because of that, metaphorically, women were connected with the earth – the one that stays put, receives, multiplies and nurtures. This paved the philosophical grounding for fertility cults. The primordial mother goddesses’ worship was a common practice in Tamilakam (Kotravai) and Afro-Arabia (Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá, Manat etc.). In fact, the ritualistic offerings to mother goddesses that still continue in South India have its origins in the Afro-Arabian tribes. The practice of wearing burqa was pre-Islamic – the Afro-Arabian topography demanded covering of the whole body. There were varying colors worn by different tribes and the slaves were made to wear a different color. In recent years, wearing a burqa has become a matter of religious identity, which has led to several discussions surrounding it.

The pre-Islamic Arabia had all the pros and cons of a primitive society. As in any other primitive society, the different tribal groups were fighting with one another and the war victims were treated as slaves – bought, sold, ill-treated and made to do menial jobs and hard labor. The first time the word “Arab” was discovered in manuscripts was in 853 BCE as a coalition of Arab tribes, associated with Syria and a few Israelite tribes in northern Palestine to counter an Assyrian incursion into the Levant. Arabic tribes extended to the desert region between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, to the vast stretch of land bordering the Red Sea, to Southern Palestine and Jordan, to the Sinai Peninsula, and to the lands bordering the Persian Gulf. Pre-Islamic religion in Arabia consisted of indigenous polytheistic beliefs, ancient Arabian Christianity, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. Its languages and cultures were influenced by the urban civilization in Yemen, the various Persian Empires and India, and the various Western states of Greek, Roman, and Byzantium Empires before the advent of Islam. Most of the idols that Arabic tribes venerated were imported from Syria, Persia, and India.

There are no clear historical evidences as such to when the matriarchal society shifted to a patriarchal one. It probably was a gradual process, coinciding with the shift that was occurring in the rest of the world. However, the postulated matriarchal societies were conceived of as harmonious and peaceful communities in contrast to the aggressive, warlike patriarchal societies that replaced them7. Most probably, it was the influences of the Jewish tribes and the tribes that settled in Syria and Iraq that supplanted the matriarchal structure.

It is interesting to note that, presently these tribal groups are the only three surviving ‘scripture based’ factions. Some of the Jews remained orthodox, while a few converted to Christianity in the Common Era. With Roman Emperor Constantinople and his influences, a majority of the Christian factions left behind all their tribal practices and joined the canon of modernity. The Arabs took to Quran and Islam when messengers of their prophet arrived. Prophet Mohammed was against the mother goddess worship, its offering rituals and many other paganistic practices. His thoughts were indeed modern and progressive in those times, and attempted to unite the warring tribal groups. He consolidated the prevailing structures from different groups and developed a more advanced system of governing the private and social life.

Some historians do however opine that it was Prophet Muhammad’s philosophies that consolidated the existing patriarchal structure. Notwithstanding however progressive it was in its time of inception, the Islamic injunctions against the enslavement of Muslims directly led to massive importation of slaves from outside8. The disagreement over the choice of Muhammad’s successor led to the schism between the two factions of Sunni and Shia Muslims, which in later years further splintered into different schools of thought9. As any scripture, the canonical Islamic texts could also be interpreted differently by different people, which invariably led to difference of opinion and conflict – certain factions opting for extremism.

Back here, an ancient land which had not seen the origin of any such singular religious scripture, had seen many a texts being translated and philosophies propagated. In this process, both the language Tamil and the society had seen tremendous changes. While it is the Victorian morality that brought about a complete change, the seeds for the shift were sown by the ruling dynasties in Sangam era. Cilappathikaram, by Jain monk Ilango, was indeed one such text that targeted the matriarchal free lifestyle and brought in new moral guidelines with which women (and men) were expected to conduct their sexual and social life.

The Semitic maritime traders and travelers, who settled here, retained certain traits from their original ancestry which they shared with the indigenous people of Tamilakam, but at the same time adopted new practices of their changing religious philosophy. This gave them a distinct identity, yet at the same time they continued to mingle very well with the locals and strived to maintain a peaceful relationship. The influences of this continued exchange also contributed to the already shifting matriarchal structure in southern Indian peninsula. Presently, there are not many Jewish settlements in South India, but Islamic factions, locally known as Tamil Muslims or Malayalam-speaking Muslims (spread across South India) play an integral role in the society.10

To Abul, the photographer, who hails from a Ravuthar family – who were traditionally the caretakers of horses – the cultural journey of the migrant groups was an area of great interest. Directly or indirectly, his lineage was linked to the Arabian traders who had made the hard and long voyage across the Indian Ocean and made Southern peninsula their home. Abul’s father Haneef Rahman, a small scale trader was progressive and was of great influence in shaping him to be free from the chains of religious boundaries and to embrace multiple identities. Early on, Abul identified religion and culture as a tool of the elite and the rulers. Photography, a powerful medium that deconstructs and decomposes memory became his prima facto interest.

In 2000, upon returning from his long stay outside South India, in a time when issues of identity were becoming a cause for bloodshed and carnage, Abul started working on Sangam period literature, the greatest source of information regarding maritime history. The persisting mother goddess cult worship in Kodungallur became his starting point for ‘Story of Love, Desire and Agony’ of which ‘Men of Pukar’ is the third part. As a photographer, working with a medium that makes a partial view of a fleeting moment immortal, it was easy for him to recognize the hagiographical element in poetry. Like the mythical swan that separates milk from water, he has unwaveringly focused on the lifestyle elements – then and now.

The existence of Manikkiramam in Pukar, in this context, is an important surviving evidence of our shared lineage. As literary sources attest, Pukar was one of the gateways through which the Afro-Arabian traders entered Southern India. This simple board points to three thousand and odd years of cultural exchange that happened across borders. As of now, written evidences only trace back that far, yet like that small piece of unearthed pot or jewelry,  it opens up to the unchartered domains of thousands of more years of exchanges that tribes had with one another. It challenges the Tamil’s unilateral claim over their language. It probes whether there is any meaning in ‘identities’ and ‘isms’. It questions whether it was the scriptures from the bygone era that solidified lifestyle elements as rigid culture and demanded one to comply. It makes one wonder whether there is any meaning behind certain animals being considered as gods while outrightly rejecting certain others as taboo.


[1] There are multiple variants of Brahmi – Gupta script and Meitei are the prominent derivatives of the Northern variant, while Tamil-Brahmi and Bhattiprolu are the main Southern variants. Ashoka’s edicts were written in both Bhattiprolu and Northern Brahmi depending on the locality – the language being Pali. Kadamba, Kannada, and Telugu alphabet evolved from Bhattiprolu, and the Tamil, Vatteluthu, Kolezhuthu, and Grantha (which includes Malayalam, Burmese, Cham, Sinhala, Saurashtra, Khmer, Kawi alphabet families) scripts evolved out of Tamil-Brahmi. Tamil still used Granthalipi until the early 20th century, when Tanittamil Iyakkam called for a pure script for Tamil led to its abandonment. | [2] In classical text Thirmurugatrupadai, he has been compared with the Sun for his quality of ever youthful beauty | [3] Several trade guilds operated in medieval South India. Temples were the pivot around which socio-economic activities of the land revolved. Some of these trade guilds comprised of only the natives, while the other comprised of the visiting foreign traders, a few eventually settled here. | [4] An area that was part of the ancient Pukar that comprised 30 villages | [5] For example, Mukkoodal meaning Moo(nu)+Koodal (three joining) and usually is kept for nomenclature of villages in areas where three rivers join together. Presently there are about three villages with the name Mukkoodal in Tamil Nadu. In the same way, Pattanam – means port town and usually a descriptive name will be added before that. E.g.: Kayal pattanam, Veerapandian Pattanam, MuchRi pattanam, Periyanakkan pattanam etc. | [6] Syriani Christians are called Nasrani Mappila and Jewish are called as Juda Mappila | [7] Chapman, 1991; Tringham, 1991 | [8] Bernard Lewis. Islam: The Religion and the People | [9] Hanafi (Sunni); Maliki (Sunni); Shafi’i (Sunni); Hanbali (Sunni); Ja`fari (inc. Mustaali-Taiyabi Ismaili) (Shia); Zaidiyyah (Shia); Ibadiyyah; Zahiriyah | [10] The Arab settlers in Kayalpatinam were called Maraikkayar and were responsible for translating many Arabic / Islamic texts in Tamil. Texts such as Nabi Charithram, Bhatar Mala etc are recited in the form of carnatic vocal. Kunhali Marakkar or Kunjali Marakkar was the title given to the Muslim naval chief of the Zamorin (Samoothiri), Hindu King of Calicut, in present-day state of Kerala, India during the 16th century. There were four major Kunhalis (who were originally settled in Kayalpatinam) who played a part in the Zamorin’s naval wars with the Portuguese from 1502 to 1600. Of the four Marakkars, Kunjali Marakkar II (Kutti Pokker Ali) is the most famous. Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the 11th President of India and a noted scientist and aerospace engineer, is of Marakkar lineage.

Men of Pukar © Abul Kalam Azad 2017. For More Images Log InText © Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi

Abul Kalam Azad, contemporary Indian photographer and Founder Chairman of Ekalokam Trust for Photography. Abul’s photographic works are predominantly autobiographical and explore the areas of politics, culture, contemporary micro-history, gender and eroticism. His works attempts a re-reading of contemporary Indian history – the history in which ordinary people are absent and mainly provided by beautiful images and icons. Abul’s works makes an active intervention in the common illustrative discourse of cultural history. Using the same tool, photography, that chisels history out of a block of ‘real’ human experiences, Abul makes a parody of it.

Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi, photo enthusiast and development activist, was born in a conservative Nadar family in Umarikadu, Tamil Nadu. She has completed her MBA from SSN SoMCA, Chennai. She has more than a decade of experience working with leading National and International Non Government Organisations in India, Africa and South America. She is the Founder Managing Trustee of Ekalokam Trust for Photography.