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The Sembadavan or Sembadavar are the fishermen of the Tamil country, who carry on their calling in freshwater tanks (ponds), lakes and rivers, and never in the sea. Some of them are ferrymen.


The name "Sembadavan" has been derived from the Tamil language words sem (good), padavan (boatmen). According to a legend, the name is derived from sembu padavor or copper boatmen.


A legend runs to the effect that the goddess Ankalamman, whom they worship with offerings of sheep, pigs, fowls, rice, etc., was a Sembadava girl, of whom Siva became enamoured, and Sembadavan is accordingly derived from Sambu (Siva) or a corruption of Sivan padavan (Siva’s boatmen).

Some members of the caste in the Telugu country returned themselves, at the census, 1901, as Sambuni Reddi or Kāpu.

Yet another legend states that the founder of the caste, while worshipping God, was tried thus. God caused a large fish to appear in the water near the spot at which he was worshipping. Forgetting all about his prayers, he stopped to catch the fish, and was cursed with the occupation of catching fish for ever. According to yet another account of the origin of the Sembadavans, Siva was much pleased with their ancestors’ devotion to him when they lived upon the sea-shore by catching a few fish with difficulty, and in recognition of their piety furnished them with a net, and directed various other castes to become fish-eaters, so that the Sembadavar might live comfortably.

Social status

Of the Sembadavans of the North Arcot district, Mr. H. A. Stuart writes that they “act as boatmen and fishers. They have little opportunity of exercising the former profession, but during heavy freshes in big rivers they ferry people from bank to bank in round leather-covered basket coracles, which they push along, swimming or wading by the side, or assist the timid to ford by holding their hands. At such times they make considerable hauls. During the rest of the year they subsist by fishing in the tanks.”

“The Sembadavans of the South Arcot district,” Mr. Francis writes, “are fresh-water fishermen and boatmen. Both their occupations being of a restricted character, they have now in some cases taken to agriculture, weaving, and the hawking of salted sea-fish, but almost all of them are poor. They make their own nets, and, when they have to walk any distance for any purpose, they often spin the thread as they go along. Their domestic priests are Panchāngi Brāhmans, and these tie the tāli at weddings, and perform the purificatory ceremonies on the sixteenth day after deaths.”

The Sembadavans consider themselves to be superior to Pattanavar and Parvatharajakulam, who are sea-fishermen. They usually take the title Nāttan, Kavandan, Maniyakkāran, Paguththar, or Pillai. Some have assumed the title Guha Vellāla, to connect themselves with Guha, who rowed the boat of Rāma to Ceylon. At the census, 1901, Savalakkāran (q.v.) was returned as a sub-caste. Savalalai or saval thadi is the flattened paddle for rowing boats. A large number call themselves Pūjāri, (priest), and wear the lingam enclosed in a silver casket or pink cloth, and the sacred thread. It is the pūjāri who officiates at the temple services to village deities. At Malayanūr, in the South Arcot district, all the Sembadavans call themselves pūjāri, and seem to belong to a single sept called Mukkāli (three-legged).

Most of the Sembadavans call themselves Saivites, but a few, e.g., at Kuppam in North Arcot, and other places, say that they are Vaishnavites, and belong to Vishnu gōtram. Even among those who claimed to be Vaishnavites, a few were seen with a sandal paste (Saivite) mark on the forehead. Their explanation was that they were returning from the fields, where they had eaten their food. This they must not do without wearing a religious emblem, and they had not with them the mirror, red powder, water, etc., necessary for making the Vaishnavite nāmam mark. They asserted that they never take a girl in marriage from Saivite families without burning her tongue with a piece of gold, and purifying her by punyāvāchanam.

The Sembadavans at Chidambaram are all Saivites, and point out with pride their connection with the temple. It appears that, on a particular day, they are deputed to carry the idol in procession through the streets, and their services are paid for with a modest fee and a ball of cooked rice for each person. Some respect is shown to them by the temple authorities, as the goddess, when being carried in procession, is detained for some time in their quarters, and they make presents of female cloths to the idol. The Sembadavans have exogamous septs, named after various heroes, etc. The office of Nāttan or Nāttamaikkāran (headman) is confined to a particular sept, and is hereditary. In some places he is assisted by officers called Sangathikkar or Sangathipillai, through whom, at a council, the headman should be addressed. At their council meetings, representatives of the seven nādus (villages), into which the Sembadavans of various localities are divided, are present. At Malayanūr these nādus are replaced by seven exogamous septs, viz., Dēvar, Seppiliyan, Ethīnāyakan, Sangili, Māyakundali, Pattam, and Panikkan. If a man under trial pleads not guilty to the charge brought against him, he has to bear the expenses of the members of council. Sometimes, as a punishment, a man is made to carry a basket of rubbish, with tamarind twigs as the emblem of flogging, and a knife to denote cutting of the tongue. Women are said to be punished by having to carry a basket of rubbish and a broom round the village.

Sembadavans who are ferrymen by profession do special worship to Ganga, the goddess of water, to whom pongal (rice) and goats are offered. It is believed that their immunity from death by drowning, caused by the upsetting of their leather coracles, is due to the protection of the goddess. The ceremonial when a girl reaches puberty corresponds to that of various other Tamil castes. Meat is forbidden, but eggs are allowed to be eaten. To ward off devils twigs of Vitex Negundo, margosa (Melia Azadirachta), and Eugenia Jambolana are stuck in the roof. Sometimes a piece of iron is given to the girl to keep. During the marriage ceremonies, a branch of Erythrina indica is cut, and tied, with sprays of the pīpal (Ficus religiosa) and a piece of a green bamboo culm, to one of the twelve posts, which support the marriage pandal (booth). A number of sumangalis (married women) bring sand, and spread it on the floor near the marriage dais, with pots, two of which are filled with water, over it. The bride and bridegroom go through a ceremony called sige kazhippu, with the object of warding off the evil eye, which consists in pouring a few drops of milk on their foreheads from a fig or betel leaf. To their foreheads are tied small gold or silver plates, called pattam, of which the most conspicuous are those tied by the maternal uncles. The plate for the bridegroom is V-shaped like a nāmam, and that for the bride like a pīpal leaf. The bride and bridegroom go through a mock ceremony representative of domestic life, and pot-searching. Seven rings are dropped into a pot. If the girl picks up three of these, her first-born will be a girl. If the bridegroom picks up five, it will be a boy. Married women go in procession to an ant-hill, and bring to the marriage booth a basket-load of the earth, which they heap up round the posts. Offerings of balls of rice, cooked vegetables, etc., are then made. After the wrist-threads (kankanam) have been removed, the bride and bridegroom go to a tank, and go through a mock ploughing ceremony. In some places, the purōhits give the bridegroom a sacred thread, which is finally thrown into a tank or well.

By some Sembadavans a ceremony, called muthugunir kuththal (pouring water on the back) is performed in the seventh month of pregnancy. The woman stands on the marriage dais, and red-coloured water, and lights are waved. Bending down, she places her hands on two big pots, and milk is poured over her back from a betel leaf by all her relations.

The Vaishnava Sembadavans burn, and the Saivites bury their dead in a sitting posture. Fire is carried to the burial-ground by the barber. In cases of burial the face is covered over by a cloth, in which a slit is made, so that the top of the head and a portion of the forehead are exposed. A figure representing Ganēsa is made on the head with ashes. All present throw sacred ashes, and a pie (copper coin) into the grave, which is then filled in. While this is being done, bamboo stick is placed upright on the head of the corpse. On the surface of the filled-in grave an oblong space is cleared, with the bamboo in the centre. The bamboo is then removed, and water poured through the hole left by it, and a lingam made, and placed over the opening.

At Malayanūr a ceremony called mayāna or smasāna kollai (looting the burning-ground) is performed. The village of Malayanūr is famous for its Ankalamman temple, and, during the festival which takes place immediately after the Sivarātri, some thousands of people congregate at the temple, which is near the burning-ground. In front of the stone idol is a large ant-hill, on which two copper idols are placed, and a brass vessel, called korakkūdai, is placed at the base of the hill, to receive the various votive offerings. Early in the day, the pūjāri (a Sembadavan) goes to a tank, and brings a decorated pot, called pūngkaragam, to the temple. Offerings are made to a new pot, and, after a sheep has been sacrificed, the pot is filled with water, and carried on the head of the pūjāri, who shows signs of possession by the deity, through the streets of the village to the temple, dancing wildly, and never touching the pot with his hands.

It is believed that the pot remains on the head, without falling, through the influence of the goddess. When the temple is reached, another pūjāri takes up a framework, to which are tied a head made of rice flour, with three faces coloured white, black and red, representing the head of Brahma which was cut off by Siva, and a pot with three faces on it. The eyes of the flour figure are represented by hen’s eggs. The pot is placed beneath the head. Carrying the framework, and accompanied by music, the pūjāri goes in procession to the burning-ground, and, after offerings of a sheep, arrack, betel and fruits have been made to the head of Brahma, it is thrown away. Close to the spot where corpses are burnt, the pūjāris place on the ground five conical heaps (representing Ganēsa), made of the ashes of a corpse. To these are offered the various articles brought by those who have made vows, which include cooked pulses, bangles, betel, parts of the human body modelled in rice flour, etc. The offerings are piled up in a heap, which is said to reach ten or twelve feet in height. Soon afterwards, the people assembled fall on the heap, and carry off whatever they can secure. Hundreds of persons are said to become possessed, eat the ashes of the corpses, and bite any human bones, which they may come across.

The ashes and earth are much prized, as they are supposed to drive away evil spirits, and secure offspring to barren women. Some persons make a vow that they will disguise themselves as Siva, for which purpose they smear their faces with ashes, put on a cap decorated with feathers of the crow, egret, and peacock, and carry in one hand a brass vessel called Brahma kapālam. Round their waist they tie a number of strings, to which are attached rags and feathers. Instead of the cap, Paraiyans and Valluvans wear a crown. The brass vessel, cap, and strings are said to be kept by the pūjāri, and hired out for a rupee or two per head. The festival is said to be based on the following legend. Siva and Brahma had the same number of faces. During the swayamvaram, Parvati, the wife of Siva, found it difficult to recognise her husband, so Siva cut off Brahma’s head. The head stuck on to Siva’s hand, and he could not get rid of it. To get rid of the skull, and throw off the crime of murder, Siva wandered far and wide, and came to the burning-ground at Malayanūr, where various bhūthas (devils) were busy eating the remains of corpses. Parvati also arrived there, and failed to recognise Siva. Thereon the skull laughed, and fell to the ground. The bhūthas were so delighted that they put various kinds of herbs into a big vessel, and made of them a sweet liquor, by drinking which Siva was absolved from his crime. For this reason arrack is offered to him at the festival.

A very similar rite is carried out at Walajapet. A huge figure, representing the goddess, is made at the burning-ground out of the ashes of burnt bodies mixed with water, the eyes being made of hen’s eggs painted black in the centre to represent the pupils. It is covered over with a yellow cloth, and a sweet-smelling powder (kadampam) is sprinkled over it. The following articles, which are required by a married woman, are placed on it:—a comb, pot containing colour-powder, glass bangles, rolls of palm leaf for dilating the ear-lobes, and a string of black beads. Devotees present as offerings limes, plantains, arrack, toddy, sugar-cane, and various kinds of cooked grains, and other eatables. The goddess is taken in procession from her shrine to the burning-ground, and placed in front of the figure. The pūjāri (fisherman), who wears a special dress for the occasion, walks in front of the idol, carrying in one hand a brass cup representing the skull which Siva carried in his hand, and in the other a piece of human skull bone, which he bites and chews as the procession moves onward. When the burning-ground is reached, he performs pūja by breaking a cocoanut, and going round the figure with lighted camphor in his hand. Goats and fowls are sacrificed.

A woman, possessed by a devil, seats herself at the feet of the figure, and becomes wild and agitated. The pūja completed, the assembled multitude fall on the figure, and carry off whatever they can grab of the articles placed on it, which [360]are believed to possess healing and other virtues. They also smear their bodies with the ashes. The pūjāri, and some of the devotees, then become possessed, and run about the burning-ground, seizing and gnawing partly burnt bones. Tradition runs to the effect that, in olden times, they used to eat the dead bodies, if they came across any. And the people are so afraid of their doing this that, if a death should occur, the corpse is not taken to the burning-ground till the festival is over. “In some cases,” Herbert Spencer writes, “parts of the dead are swallowed by the living, who seek thus to inspire themselves with the good qualities of the dead; and we saw that the dead are supposed to be honoured by this act.”

See also

External links