South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Over one crore Dalits in Tamil Nadu would vehemently disagree finding space for their dead in the “common burial/cremation ground”.

Though Article 17 of the Constitution abolishes all forms of untouchability, the reality is otherwise even when it comes to burying the dead. In hundreds of villages and hamlets across the State, Dalits are not only denied access to the common burial/cremation ground but not even provided separate areas.

In several places that do have separate graveyards for Dalits, the dominant castes do not allow them to carry the bodies through the main streets on the pretext of maintaining the purity of their habitations.Incredibly enough, this has been the situation for the last several decades in a State that is considered “progressive” and has been hailed as the “citadel of the Dravidian reformist movement”!

Successive governments have made the boastful claim that they offer “cradle to grave” or “womb to tomb” services to all citizens.

Issues relating to discrimination against Dalits at graveyards once again came into focus when A. Chinnayi, a 55-year-old Dalit woman of Koozhaiyanur village in Theni district, died of burns she suffered in a petrol bomb attack on her thatched-roof dwelling allegedly by a group of caste Hindus.

She died in a Madurai hospital and was buried in the city itself because of the tension prevailing in her village.

The major political parties have kept away from the sensitive issue fearing a dent in their vote banks at a time when Assembly elections are around the corner.


The government has held that the maintenance of burial and burning grounds is a basic duty of the local bodies. It also grants incentives at the rate of Rs.1 lakh for panchayats that have common burial grounds, official sources point out.

Under the AGAMT scheme, a total of 18,720 works relating to burial/burning grounds have been completed in the five years from 2006-07 to 2010-11 covering all the 12,618 village panchayats.

Under the scheme, graveyards have been improved with approach roads, compound walls, cremation sheds, water facilities and lighting, they say.

However, the policy note of the Home, Prohibition and Excise Department for 2010-11 presented by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi admits that in 2010, as many as 174 villages were identified as atrocity-prone and “simmering disputes prevail in connection with land use and use of certain pathways” among other things.

“At least in the departure from this world there can be unity so that apartheid may not be practised by the official acts of the Corporation.

The Corporation must make note of such a direction in future and desist from allotting such separate [cremation] sheds on caste basis,” he said.

“It is no doubt true that unfortunately, even though about 60 years has elapsed after the passing of the Constitution, the practice of untouchability has not been completely abolished.

The need of the hour is to educate the people so that the pernicious practice would be abolished sooner [rather] than later and all efforts should be made to eradicate any such forbidden practice wherever it raises its ugly head directly or even indirectly.”

“In this context, it is unfortunate to notice that even after death, there is some perception regarding segregation,” it added. – Frontline

SEGREGATION  of  burial  grounds

Segregation of burial grounds has existed in the Tamil country from time immemorial, say experts.

C. Santhalingam, veteran archaeologist and secretary of the Madurai-based Pandiya Naattu Varalaatru Peravai (Historical Society of Pandiya Nadu), said people belonging to different communities lived in segregated habitations called cheris and each of them had its own burial/cremation ground.

According to him, the burial practice started from the megalithic period. “As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, we have evidence for megalithic burials. In such burials there are so many types, such as dolmens, dolmanoid cists, slab cists, urn burials, menhirs, hero stones, umbrella stones and cap stones,” he said.

The southern Tamil Nadu region has several urn burial sites, he said. “Recently at Pulimankombai village in Andipatti taluk in Theni district, archaeologists discovered some inscribed hero stones that belong to the 4th century B.C.

In the early Tamil epic Manimekalai, of the 5th century A.D., different types of burials such as cremation and burial-suduvor (cremation), iduvor (burial), thaazhiyil kavippor (urn burial) and thaazhvayin adaippor (cist burial) are mentioned, Santhalingam said.

Throwing light on the hero stone culture, he said, “In some districts, including Tiruvannamalai and Dharmapuri, several inscribed hero stones have been reported by archaeologists.

They were erected for the heroes who dedicated their lives to the cause of safeguarding the villagers and their cattle. In the process of reclamation of forest lands, they would have encountered dangers from wild animals and lost their lives.

For such valorous persons also hero stones were planted. Their names and their country’s names and other details were inscribed [on the stones]. Such practices continued from the 4th century B.C. up to the 16th century A.D.”

Referring to the changes that unfolded in pastoral life, he said people switched to cultivation as the main occupation. “Concomitantly, rigid state formation also started in the Tamil land. From the 6th century A.D. onwards, the Pallavas in northern Tamil Nadu and the Pandyas in southern Tamil Nadu established their states.”

As migration of the Brahmin community started from the north to the south, its members were patronised by the rulers (the Pallavas), who provided them fertile land, called ‘Brahmadeyas’ or ‘Chaturvedimangalam’, with exclusive water rights, Santhalingam said. So far in Tamil Nadu, around 800 Brahmadeyas have been enumerated from the 6th century to the 13th century A.D.

These lands were owned by Brahmins, and the tillers, who were landless farm labourers, lived in separate areas called pidagais (hamlets). Each chaturvedimangalam might have had three or four pidagais.

“As there were separate dwelling areas for landowners and farm labourers, their burial grounds also must have been segregated,” he said. People also lived in segregated habitations known as kammala cheri, Parai cheri and Andhana cheri. So, each community had separate habitations and burial grounds, he added.

Santhalingam also referred to another stone inscription, dated to the 18th century A.D., found at the Kuduminathar temple in Kudumiyanmalai village in Pudukottai district. “It speaks about burial-related services rendered by some persons of the Valayar caste and engaging in such practices was banned by their own community, which also appealed to their kin not to take up such menial jobs.”

He said: “Though there is no evidence to show that each community adopted its own custom in performing the last rites, there is some historical evidence to show that when persons with royal background or some heroes were buried, their belongings such as swords, ornaments, diadems, haras made of metals and semi-precious stones such as carnelian, paste beads, glass beads, jasper and crystal beads, etc., were also buried along with the mortal remains.

In some other places, we have unearthed earthen pots with their names, scripts and graffiti. From these pieces of evidence, we can differentiate the burial of royals and commoners. Gold diadems were collected from Athichanallur, the earliest – 1000 B.C. – burial site excavated 100 years ago on the banks of the Tamiraparani river in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district.”  –  Frontline

Source: Daily Mirror – 28.03.2011