The Chakkiliyans – leather workers

The leather-workers

” The Chakkiliyans,” Mr. H. A. Stuart writes,”are the leather-workers of the Tamil districts, corresponding to the Madigas of the Telugu country. The Chakkiliyans appear to be immigrants from the Telugu or Canarese districts, for no mention is made of this caste either in the early Tamil inscriptions, or in early Tamil literature. Moreover, a very large proportion of the Chakkiliyans speak Telugu and Canarese. In social position the Chakkiliyans occupy the lowest rank, though there is much dispute on this point between them and the Paraiyans. Nominally they are Saivites, but in reality devil-worshippers. The avaram plant {Cassia auriculata) is held in much veneration by them, and the tali is tied to a branch of it as a preliminary to marriage.

Marriage of the Chakkiliyans

Girls are not usually married before puberty. The bridegroom may be younger than the bride. Their widows may remarry. Divorce can be obtained at the pleasure of either party on payment of Rs. 1 2-12-0 to the other in the presence of the local head of the caste. Their women are considered to be very beautiful, and it is a woman of this caste who is generally selected for the coarser form of Sakti worship. They indulge very freely in intoxicating liquors, and will eat any flesh, including beef, pork, etc. Hence they are called, par excellence, the flesh-eaters (Sanskrit shatkuli).” It was noted by Sonnerat, in the eighteenth century, that the Chakkiliyans are in more contempt than the Pariahs, because they use cow leather in making shoes. ” The Chucklers or cobblers,” the Abbe” Dubois writes, “are considered inferiors to the Pariahs all over the peninsula. They are more addicted to drunkenness “and debauchery. Their orgies take place principally in the evening, and their villages resound, far into the night, with the yells and quarrels which result from their intoxication.

Occupation and Social Status of the Chakkiliyans

The very Pariahs refuse to have anything to do with the Chucklers, and do not admit them to any of their feasts.” In the Madura Manual, 1868, the Chakkiliyans are summed up as “dressers of leather, and makers of slippers, harness, and other leather articles.

They are men of drunken and filthy habits, and their morals are very bad. Curiously enough, their women are held to be of the Padmani kind, i.e., of peculiar beauty of face and form, and are also said to be very virtuous. It is well known, however, that zamindars and other rich men are very fond of intriguing with them, particularly in the neighbourhood of Paramagudi, where they live in great numbers.” There is a Tamil proverb that even a Chakkili girl and the ears of the millet are beautiful when mature. In the Tanjore district, the Chakkiliyars are said to be “considered to be of the very lowest status. In some parts of the district they speak Telugu and wear the namam (Vaishnavite sect mark) and are apparently immigrants from the Telugu country.”

Though they are Tamil-speaking people, the Chakkiliyans, like the Telugu Madigas, have exogamous sects called gotra in the north, and kilai in the south. Unlike the Madigas, they do not carry out the practice of making Basavis (dedicated prostitutes). The Chakkiliyan men in Madras are tattooed not only on the forehead, but also with their name, conventional devices, dancing-girls, etc., on the chest and upper extremities. It has been noticed as a curious fact that, in the Madura district, ”while the men belong to the right hand faction, the women belong to and are most energetic supporters of the left. It is even said that, during the entire period of a faction riot, the Chakkili women keep aloof from their husbands and deny them their marital rights.” In a very interesting note on the leather industry of the Madras Presidency, Mr. A. Chatterton writes as follows.” The position of the Chakkiliyan in the south differs greatly from that of the Madiga of the north, and many of his privileges are enjoyed by a ‘ sub-sect’ of the Pariahs called Vettiyans. These people possess the right of removing dead cattle from villages, and in return have to supply leather for agricultural purposes. The majority of Chakkiliyans are not tanners, but leatherworkers, and, instead of getting the hides or skins direct from the Vettiyan, they prefer to purchase them ready tanned from traders, who bring them from the large tanning centres. When the Chuckler starts making shoes or sandals, he purchases the leather and skin which he requires in the bazar, and, taking it home, first proceeds with a preliminary currying operation. The leather is damped and well stretched, and dyed with aniline, the usual colour being scarlet R.R. of the Badische Anilin Soda Fabrik. This is purchased in the bazar in packets, and is dissolved in water, to which a little oxalic acid has been added. The dye is applied with a piece of rag on the grain side, and allowed to dry. After drying, tamarind paste is applied to the flesh side of the skin, and the latter is then rolled between the hands, so as to produce a coarse graining on the outer side. In making the shoes, the leather is usually wetted, and moulded into shape on wooden moulds or lasts. As a rule, nothing but cotton is used for sewing, and the waxed ends of the English cobler are entirely unknown. The largest consumption of leather in this Presidency is for water-bags or kavalais, which are used for raising water from wells, and for oil and ghee (clarified butter) pots, in which the liquids are transported from one place to another. Of irrigation wells there are in the Presidency more than 600,000, and, though some of them are fitted with iron buckets, nearly all of them have leather bags with leather discharging trunks. The buckets hold from ten to fifty gallons of water, and are generally made from fairly well tanned cow hides, though for very large buckets buffalo hides are sometimes used. The number of oil and ghee pots in use in the country is very large. The use of leather vessels for this purpose is on the decline, as it is found much cheaper and more convenient to store oil in the ubiquitous kerosine-oil tin, and it is not improbable that eventually the industry will die out, as it has done in other countries. The range of work of the country Chuckler is not very extensive. Besides leather straps for wooden sandals, he makes crude harness for the ryot’s cattle, including leather collars from which numerous bells are frequently suspended, leather whips for the cattle drivers, ornamental fringes for the bull’s forehead, bellows for the smith, and small boxes for the barber, in which to carry his razors. In some places, leather ropes are used for various purposes, and it is customary to attach big coir (cocoanut fibre) ropes to the bodies of the larger temple cars by leather harness, when they are drawn in procession through the streets. Drum-heads and tom-toms are made from raw hides by Vettiyans and Chucklers. The drums are often very large, and are transported upon the back of elephants, horses, bulls and camels. For them raw hides are required, but for the smaller instruments sheep-skins are sufficient. The raw hides are shaved on the flesh side, and are then dried. The hair is removed by rubbing with wood-ashes. The use of lime in unhairing is not permissible, as it materially decreases the elasticity of the parchment.” The Chakkiliyans beat the tom-tom for Kammalans, Pallis and Kaikolans, and for other castes if desired to do so.

Worship and ceremonies of the Chakkiliyans

The Chakkiliyans do not worship Matangi, who is the special deity of the Madigas. Their gods include Madurai Viran, Mariamma, Muneswara, Draupadi and Gangamma. Of these, the last is the most important, and her festival is celebrated annually, if possible. To cover the expenses thereof, a few Chakkiliyans dress up so as to represent men and women of the Marathi bird catching caste, and go about begging in the streets for nine days. On the tenth day the festival terminates. Throughout it, Gangamma, represented by three decorated pots under a small pandal (booth) set up on the bank of a river or tank beneath a margosa (Melia azadirachta), or pipal (Ficus religiosa) tree, is worshipped. On the last day, goats and fowls are sacrificed, and limes cut.

During the first menstrual period, the Chakkiliyan girl is kept under pollution in a hut made of fresh green boughs, which is erected by her husband or maternal uncle. Meat, curds, and milk are forbidden. On the last day, the hut is burnt down. At marriages a Chakkiliyan usually officiates as priest, or the services of a Valluvan priest may be enlisted. The consent of the girl’s maternal uncle to the marriage is essential. The marriage ceremony closely resembles that of the Paraiyans. And, at the final death ceremonies of a Chakkiliyan, as of a Paraiyan, two bricks are worshipped, and thrown into a tank or stream.

Lean children, especially of the Mala, Madiga, and Chakkiliyan classes, are made to wear a leather strap, specially made for them by a Chakkiliyan, which is believed to help their growth. At times of census, some Chakkiliyans have returned themselves as Pagadaiyar, Madari (conceit or arrogance), and Ranaviran (brave warrior).

Keywords: Chakkiliyans, Mala, Madiga, Valluvan, Matangi, Vettiyan, Paramagudi, Chuckler, cobbler, leather-workers, Telugu, Canarese

Reference: Thurston, Edgar; K. Rangachari (1909). Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Volume I – A and B. Madras: Government Press