If you’ve ever set foot on the SOAS campus, you’ll have no doubt spotted a turquoise statue of a man sitting cross legged in the middle of the grass. This is Thiruvalluvar, or Thiru, reknowned Tamil poet and SOAS icon.
The statue was gifted to the university in 1996 by the Government of Tamilnadu and sits at the entrance to SOAS. Now, it’s almost as iconic as the JCR, and if you haven’t had a picture by Thiru, are you really a SOAS student? Here are some other facts you should know about Thiru.
- What’s in a name?
‘Thiru’ is an honorific in Tamil, something like the Sanskrit ‘shri’ or maybe ‘saint’ in English. ‘Valluvar’ is a sub-caste of Paraiyar (from which we get the word ‘pariah’ in English). Formerly known as ‘Harijans’ or ‘Untouchables,’ Valluvars are traditional astrologers, exorcists and drummers at funerals.
- Famous text
Thiruvalluvar is considered the author of the Thirukkural (usually shortened to Kural), an ancient collection of 1330 short verses, or aphorisms. It appears to have been composed about 500 AD, several hundred years after the earliest Tamil poetry. Ever since, it has been hailed as the single most important text in Tamil, likened to the Vedas, to the Bible and to the Homeric epics.
- His sister
Legend has it that Thiruvalluvar had a sister, named Auvaiyar, who was also a poet. She praised the concision of her brother’s poem, likening it to a ‘tiny particle that contained the waters of the seven seas.’
Over the years, Thiruvalluvar’s low status became a rallying cry for Tamil political movements that challenged high-caste (primarily Brahmin) domination. The legend states that the Brahmin poets of an ancient kingdom refused to accept the Kural because its author was an Untouchable. However, those Brahmins were later humiliated when, by a miracle, the text threw them off their high seats.
- Continuing relevance
As recently as 2000, a statue of Thiruvalluvar was constructed at Kanyakumari, at the very southern tip of India. Standing 133 feet tall, it was hit by the powerful tsunami of 2004 but remained undamaged. It symbolises the resilience of a legend about an ancient poet and text that continue to inspire south Indians even today.
Next time you go past Thiru, perhaps now you’ll look at him in a different light. #WeAreSOAS
Dr. Stuart Blackburn is a Research Associate in the South Asia Section of the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics.