The New Sunday Indian Express, November 13, 2005copper plate

Ever heard of an adult adopting a father? How about an entire community adopting a man from a different religion as its father? This is no feel-good film storyline; it did indeed take place 130 years ago, in Kombai, a small town by the foothills of the Western Ghats in the present Theni district in Tamil Nadu. The community in question is the Idangai (‘‘left-hand’’) caste living within the boundaries of the river Suruli, which flows by the Cumbum Valley. The man they came to adopt as their father was Pakkiriva Servai Rowther, a Tamil Muslim, also belonging to the same region.

Tamil Nadu’s history abounds with references to the conflict between the Idangai and Valangai (‘‘right-hand’’) castes. Sociologists and historians say the raids were a sort of power play; an assertion of one caste’s assumed superiority over the other. On one such occasion, when the Valangai caste was storming through the village and abducting the Idangai womenfolk, Rowther sheltered them all, thereby ensuring their safety. The Idangai community, who unanimously saw this akin to the act of a father protecting his children, adopted the elderly Muslim, Pakkiriva Servai Rowther, as ‘Our father, who saved the modesty of our women’.

The community didn’t stop with that. Its headman Navaneetha Krishna Maistry Achari, along with the community elders, decreed that their gratitude be recorded on a copper plate. In it, the community declared that till the sun, the earth and the moon existed, its people would give pride of place to ‘Our Father’ and his family by according them the privilege of being the first to be invited for any auspicious events taking place in their families. Along with the mandatory betel leaves (used in inviting people for any auspicious events in this part of the country), the inviting family was to pay three rupees (in late 19th century, this was a reasonable sum) in cash and about 8 kilos of rice to Pakkiriva Servai Rowther’s family. Apart from weddings, the decree went, a similar honour and payment was also to bestowed on his family in the case of housewarming ceremonies.

To ensure that this decree was not taken lightly, the copper plate, which begins and ends with an invocation to all the family deities, curses anyone who disobeys it with the calamity of loss of progeny. Going further, it warns those daring to disobey that they will have committed a sin equivalent to that of killing a pregnant cow by the banks of the river Ganges.

Though the decree does seem to have been strictly followed by the community, a personal tragedy in the Muslim’s family led to their migration to Periyakulam, a village a little further away. With this move, the practice seems to have come to an end.

Abdur Rahim, descendant of Pakkiriva Servai Rowther, now runs a pharmacy in Meenkshipuram, near Bodinayakaknur, and a chance encounter with Karunandham, an epigraphist with state ASI, led to the inscription on the copper plate being read and recorded in the department’s publication, Thamizhaka Seppedukal, Vol 1. Karunandham estimates the incident to have taken place in 1873, by the mention of the Tamil year ‘Sri Muka’ on the copper plate and also by the language and script used.

Though this particular connection might have been forgotten amongst the descendants, the spirit of the communal harmony still persists in Kombai. In this small town, where the mosque stands almost next to the Ranganathan temple, the Hindu women take their sick to be healed to the mosque and the Muslims throw open their mosque’s gates so their women and children can witness the temple car, the Ther. And even today, a Muslim is given pride of place in pulling the temple car.

Going through the epigraphical evidence unearthed earlier in Tamil Nadu brings one to the heart-warming realisation that Kombai is not an isolated case. A careful scrutiny of our past will reveal many more stories of peace, goodwill, and communal harmony.