In the village Dharmakarta, Parthivan Arangovale, is a man whose height makes him seem taller than the entire village, his stature however is far taller. Walking down the dusty streets of the village he proudly showed the areas where farming was still carried out despite failure of agriculture in due to sand mining. Being head of the village temple, for which a huge water tank was being built, he boasts about the grandeur of the temple, “When this tank is complete there will be no better village in entire area,” he said.
He passed a settlement which looked distinctly different from the rest of the village. While the houses in the village were painted in many colours, had beautifully carved doors and windows, this area had 15 shacks, made out of dry palm fronds. Not a single house in the settlement had a door, a window or a boundary wall, as if they had nothing to wall in or wall out.
He led us to a shack where a frail old lady sat under a dry tree. As Ponniyamma saw the priest, she rose to greet him. She prostrated at his feet. With tears in her eyes she addressed him as ‘Swami’, meaning My Lord. When asked about the settlement, he said dismissively, “They are Vedhars; they kill snakes and eat mice.” In that statement he made all the concept of caste clear. Growing up i was told that caste was a system of labour division and does not exist today but that was not true for this village priest.
Ponniyamma, a Vedhar widow considered herself a curse since her two sons died due to snake bites and none of her three girls could bear children. Her only son who was alive had abandoned her and now works in Kancheepuram, 40 kms away. Ponniyamma’s husband, a snake catcher had died too of a snake bite. She was left to the mercy of the villagers; she had no land, no property, no family and no hope. The Priest explained why Ponniyamma’s community was kept away from the village, “They eat mice and kill snakes so it is better that they stay far from us. They do come to the village but only when there is a snake. What will they do in the village otherwise?”
The Vedhar community, living on the margins of the village had no source of income except collecting charcoal for the villagers, earning a mere Rs.25 a day. The only other profession was snake catching which did not fetch cash. They were paid only in kind. Snake bites and snake catching are doubly hazardous here with the nearest hospital 25 kms away from the village in Chengalpettu. Vedhars have no bullock cart to reach the medical centre in time. Almost each family has witnessed a death due to snake bite; still the community is onto catching snakes because they have no choice to do anything otherwise.
The village of Parmeshvaramandalam(Distt Kancheepuram) is known for its activism against illegal sand mining but its wide caste divide is unknown to the world. While the Brahmins and the upper castes enjoy absolute authority and freedom, the Vedhars, a sub tribe of the Irulas live life in deplorable conditions.
When asked about the deplorable conditions of the tribe, the village councillor, Jayanthi Sumatra said, “They get the two free sarees according to the government scheme. Also every villager who has a ration card gets rice. These people just create a scene unnecessarily.” As the Vedhar women, in tattered sarees, walked towards the river to occupy the downstream bathing Ghat Arangovale explained, “There is no constraint on how much water they use. They bathe downstream because the bore well is above it.” The bore well supplied water to the entire village, except the settlement of Vedhars who walked to the village for water.
As the priest walked back from the village, nobody overtook him, either they couldn’t or may be they chose not to. The village accepted the community as a part of the village but marginalised them depriving them of a life of dignity.