17 April, 2024


Arumuka Navalar: Fake Images And Histories

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

In our article The Truth About the Jaffna Bible in Hri by the Southasia Trust we show that Arumuka Navalar has been built up by Tamil Saivite extremists – Tamils’ Bodu Bala Sena. The Rev. Peter Percival, a great Tamil scholar, founded the Wesleyan Mission School (later Jaffna Central College) in 1834 and held the first Chair in Vernacular Literature at Madras University. But he was a Christian. To advance their notion noted by Prof. K. Sivathamby that anything good in Tamil must have Saiva inspiration, Percival’s accomplishments are claimed as Navalar’s. His 1850 revision of the 1840 Revised Tamil translation of the Bible by C.T.E. Rhenius, is claimed as Navalar’s. That revised Percival revision was further claimed as the first Tamil translation ever to inflate Navalar. Percival, a priest to the end, they add, lost his Christian faith because of Navalar. To make 4 year old Navalar Percival’s Tamil teacher, Percival is mislocated from Trinco and Bengal to Jaffna.

Little about Navalar can be believed. Harvard trained Dennis Hudson (Smith College) – besides Bernard Bate (Yale), and John Carman (Harvard) – is a rare western scholar who has examined Jaffna Hindu responses to Christian missions. He correctly interprets the work of Navalar as a response to Christianity. His interpretation, however, rests on sources of doubtful reliability. All three have paternalistically built up Navalar, repeating myths by ill-educated Saiva nationalists. They are then assiduously cited by nationalists to prove their own concoctions.

This article shows further fake aspects of Navalar – his portrait, caste and name, and perhaps religion too.

Navalar’s Appearance

The popular image of Navalar in a Colombo National Gallery portrait, is of a dark, bare-bodied man wearing prayer beads and liberally-daubed holy ash. Chaivap-periyaar Sivapathasundaram whose Navalar biography imaginatively embellishes myths like Professor Percival learning Tamil from high school dropout Navalar, however, admits the portrait to be a fake, saying that it is “of recent origin” and “no more gives his true form than the images of the Samaya guravas in temples give their true forms.” It is a friend’s. The government declared Navalar a National Hero, issuing a stamp with this fake image.

No actual image of Navalar is available. Why? Because of his real appearance? Navalar’s adulating nephew T. Kailasapillai and Peradeniya academic, the Oxford-trained P. Poolohasingam, describe Navalar as looking like a tadpole with small limbs and a huge head. Kailasapillai adds that Navalar had tiny ears and a big forehead on a huge head, thin hands and legs, strong facial hair, and huge body without any strength. Chaivap-periyaar tells us that Navalar “had a delicate constitution and he never took any kind of bodily exercise. His head alone was massive.” These descriptions do not match the portrait.

We may safely assume that under Percival Navalar wore trousers and coat and no holy ash. The Jaffna Freeman (March 1, 1871) shows that wearing symbols of the Saiva faith was prohibited at mission schools on pain of expulsion.

Navalar’s Religion

Prof. Sivathamby says that Navalar’s father Canthan was an Aratchy at the Kachcheri, a lowly government servant fluent in Portuguese, Dutch and English. Indeed, the Rev. William Howland says the Dutch made “assent to the Helvetic confession of faith necessary to the holding of any office of profit or trust under the government.” Canthan therefore must have been baptized.

Did Canthan baptize his children under the more tolerant British? Navalar’s brothers included two Notaries, an Udaiyar and an Aratchy, all serving loyally in the colonial service.  Why did Canthan send all his sons to Percival at the Wesleyan Mission where the best would become Christian ministers?

Dr. Poolohasingam quotes one Veerasamy Mudaliyar as stating that Navalar lived as a Christian and was sent by Christian missionaries to Chennai to observe and learn how the Christian missions converted Hindus. It is untrue that Navalar translated the Bible but those who claim so must cede he was a Christian Pastor! For St. John’s College’s Rev. David Good of the Bible translation committee describes mission policy as having as many as four European missionaries and six “ordained, educated, able” natives, two each from the American, Anglican and Methodist missions, on the committee.

Navalar’s Name and Caste

Navalar has gone by many names. His confusion about his own name reflects his inability to complete high school after 6 years in Tamil school and 13 years under Percival.

Navalar’s Vellala caste is broad, ranging from the DMK’s Karunanithi’s Isai Vellalas (called Nattuvar in Jaffna) to the Karkaththa Vellalas claiming superiority. But not in Jaffna where there are simply Vellalas. Dominating Jaffna’s cultural life, Vellalas, as people who labour, are Sudras, the lowest of the caste groups of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. (Dennis Hudson says Navalar’s caste is elite, something that Vellalas must have told him). Prof. Bryan Pfaffenberger calls Vellala control of Jaffna “Sudra Domination.” (Vellalas are a living contradiction, at once claiming to be high caste and also that the four-fold classification is North Indian and therefore not ours – a classic case of not wanting to be low Sudras and not wanting to give up their high status within Sudras. Caste is from North India and Vellalas need to take it or leave it.) The power of Saiva Vellalas is seen in Tamilnadu classifying them as forward while classifying the equivalent Telugu Reddys as backward, whereas Kerala regards Saiva Vellalas as backward.

Another Vellala problem is our traditional Sudra names being short whereas generally short names, particularly those ending with the letter n, denote a low-caste status. Thus the Tamilized Chuppan is low caste while pluralized Chuppar conveys a little respect, its longer form Chuppiramaniam is higher, Subramaniam is even higher, and the fully Sanskritized Subrahmaniam is Brahmin. Thus we had a Hensman (a descendant of the first Jaffna Anglican priest who adopted that English name) going as Hensmar for respectability. Similarly C.W. Thamotharampillai’s parents with their good Tamil names Vayiravi and Periyai in his baptismal records are recast in Saiva histories as Wyravanather and Perunthevi.

Like everything about Navalar, his name for caste reasons is also manipulated. Dr. Poolohasingam gives Navalar’s pre-Saivite Christian name as Pairaat. The Rev. John Walton asserts that Navalar’s real name as a youth was Ca. Arumukan (ending in n not m). In an early written reference to himself, Navalar signed a letter (Morning Star, 18.11.1841) as Canthar-kumaran Arumugaven – literally “Son of Canthar, Arumugaven.” This reflects the absence of surnames. We already see the common Canthan rendered as the plural Canthar. The Morning Star (1847) on Navalar leaving Percival protesting the admission of a Nalava boy refers to him simply as Aroomoogayar – we may note the status enhancing ending in r, changing from the previous n. Navalar signed off as C. Arumuka Navalar on a letter dated Aug. 31, 1872, one of his last documents.

Navalar has spelt his father’s name Canthar with K sometimes:  His notice in the Ceylon Patriot (06.01 1872) is signed off as M.R. Ry. K. Arumukha Navalar. Many now write Kanthar and Kandhar. His petition to the governor (15.12.1852) is signed C. Arumugam with a status enhancing Sanskritized g in the middle of Arumugam.

After receiving the title Navalar – “Him of the powerful tongue” – Navalar who had never been sure of his name, wanted to reject a letter from Rev. Walton addressed to Arumukam.

Claiming Caste through Names

Adding to confusion are western scholars who are fed false information by their Saiva Vellala informers. Thus Prof. Dennis Hudson, although said to have been fluent in Tamil, incorrectly explains to us that Navalar means “The Learned” and that his real name at birth was Nallur Arumuga Pillai. The unreliable Kailasapillai gives a letter from Madras where Navalar signs as “Yalpaanam Nallur-Arumukanavalar.” But the tradition of village name as part of one’s name is not of Jaffna. The additional Pillai by Hudson is also fiction. It was common for Tamils like Navalar travelling to India to add pillai to their name, more usually as a suffix as done by Thamotharampillai and Viswanathapillai (two of Jaffna’s most eminent persons as the first two graduates of Madras University) to show themselves off as from the Pillai caste because Indians often assumed Jaffna Tamils to be Dalits (outcasts below Sudras). Pillais are landowning Vellalas, feebly aspiring to be trader-caste Vaisyas using their property.

Adjectival Names

To impute respectability to Navalar’s biographer Kanakarattinam, writers use Kanakarattina Pillai or Kanakarattina Upattiyayar (Teacher).  Kanakarattina is an adjective. But westerners who do not know Tamil refer to him as Kanakarattina and, worse, scholars who are Tamil follow and do the same. We note that Prof. Dennis Hudson mistakes the adjectival Kanakarattina for a name, and uses the title Pillai as a standalone last name without the adjectival Arumuka. Similarly in Arumuka Navalar, Arumukam as adjective becomes Arumuka. Then foreign scholars like Eugene Heideman pronounce Navalar’s name to be Arumuga.


Little about Navalar is true. The problem with history is that once a mistake is committed to writing, the document remains in circulation even after it is corrected. Further theories are tested by reference to past writings. Thus I am afraid that these Navalar myths are here to stay.

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