Honour killing, as it is now called, is an ancient practice in Tamil society. The best example is the story of Madurai Veeran, a local deity who has a special shrine within the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. He was murdered by Thirumalai Nayakar for falling in love with a member of the royal family.
An Arundithiayar by birth, he rose through his exploits of valour. Thirumalai Nayakar acknowledged his skills and appointed him general in his fight against the Kallars. But he killed Madurai Veeran when he went against the caste hierarchy.
The woman he loved committed suicide when she heard how his body had been mutilated, as did his first wife Bommi, a Kallar.
Dr T Dharmaraj, professor of the folklore department at St Xavier University, Tirunelveli, says this is a typical example of honour killing. The view is endorsed by Professor A Sivasubramanian, veteran folklorist of Tamil Nadu.
“If you analyse the oral history of Madurai Veeran, it’s clear his death came about because he loved a woman from a higher caste and questioned the hierarchy,’’ he said.
What is interesting here is that Thirumalai Nayakar, from the dominant caste, who killed Madurai Veeran, is believed to have erected a temple and created a myth around the dead man. “This they do for fear of repercussions for killing such people,” says Dharmaraj. He adds that there are more than 2,000 little known female deities, or mounds of earth or small structures, in villages across Tamil Nadu worshipped by the villagers, including the dominant castes. “These were victims of honour killings in the last 500 years.”
People believe that the ghost of the victim will take revenge against the killer. “The best example is the installation of stones in the villages for the victims and prayers not to cause any ill fortune to them,” says Dharmaraj.
(It is worth mentioning here that Megala of Kattikulam wants to be reunited with her lover Shiva who, according to her, already exists in spirit form. “We will as ghosts take revenge against the family.”)
The result of this deification, Dharmaraj says, is that the murders of these subaltern heroes, victims of the caste hierarchy, are hidden in plain sight.
“People from all walks of life worship Madurai Veeran at Meenakshi Amman temple. Similarly, Pothyamman is worshipped in Ettaypuram in Tuticorin district even today.’’ Deification thus hides some of the worst crimes committed against the subaltern castes.
In the early 1970s there were serious attempts to narrate these stories through a folk art form, Villupattu. At the time it had a huge impact, but now it has just become a matter of academic interest. Scholars do a lot of research on these subaltern heroes and on Periyar and his ideas on intercaste marriage, but people have been slow to absorb these ideas.
Perhaps if the effort is made once again with greater determination, the practice of honour killing could still be eliminated from Tamil Nadu and folk heroes like
Madurai Veeran would be honoured while alive, not worshipped dead.