Ban on Veshti (dhoti) by some high profile clubs used to hit the headlines at times, but this time it has been torn down by all and sundry across the party lines, even as it became news-worthy in New York Times! Veshti is the national, sorry, Stational – I mean the traditional dress of the State of Tamilnadu. Who can challenge this status of Veshti when our much loved Modiji endorsed it in his visit to Tamilnadu, particularly when he went on to meet Rajnikanth, the Kannada-born Superstar of Tamils?
From Venkaiah Naidu to Vaiko and from MM Joshi to Jayalalithaa, the issue has gone one full circle among the people who are either not Tamils or have no need to wear veshti! Added to this is the head-scratching thought about whether Veshti is really a Tamil word.
You may call it as Vetti, but that does not make it an original Tamil word yet. I could not think of a Tamil word in use now for Veshti and wondered how a dress having no Tamil word for itself could be considered as a traditional dress of Tamils. In comparison, the ‘Pudavai” (sari) worn by women can be considered as a traditional dress of Tamil women as that name does not seem to bear any imported impression and is even found mentioned in 10th century inscriptions in temples. When I searched the Tamil thesaurus called Choodamani Nigandu, I was taken aback to find 31 synonyms for Pudavai!! With all the 31 synonyms, the word Pudavai had stayed put successfully as the most common word among Tamils. Kudos to Pudavai.
But where can I find Veshti in Tamil? This question made me to look at the Tamil Thesaurus, Tamil dictionary and of course my favourite Tamil sangam texts. I could remember certain description of men’s wear in Patthu-p-Pattu (பத்துப் பாட்டு) and therefore went through all the 10 songs of that compilation.
What I stumbled upon was even more curious because the word nearest to mean Veshti finds place in this text as “Kacchu” or “Kaccham” – a Sanskrit word. In Sanskrit Kaccha means edge of the cloth. The cloth is tied up at its edges around the waist. This is how Veshti is worn! Read this entry in Idlyvadai to check out the demonstration of the way Veshti is worn in “Tamils’ tradition”.
Let me first tell briefly the kind of men’s dresses found mentioned in this Sangam text to ascertain whether Veshti or its original avatar, Kaccha was indeed the ‘traditional’ dress of Tamils.
The first composition of Patthu-p-paattu is Thiru MurugaaRRup padai, in praise of Tamil’s God Muruga. His dress is mentioned in two places. At one place it is described as just “kalingam” and at another as “red coloured dress”. Remember Veshti is always milk white in colour. But the Tamil God Muruga wears red coloured dress.
“Kalingam” is a common word for cloth. So that cannot be the name of the dress. Muruga keeps one of his 6 hands on his thigh covered with ‘Kalingam’.
“நலம் பெறு கலிங்கத்துக் குறங்கின்மிசை அசைஇயது ஒரு கை” (line 109, Thiru MurugaaRRup padai)
Except in Palani, everywhere else, Lord Muruga’s images are seen with waist cloth worn upto knees or upto the ankles.
Muruga in Tiruchendur temple Gopuram.
The unmarried youth used to wear the waist garment upto knees. That is how the word ‘Jaanuvaasam’ came into use in marriages, I read in an article. Jaanu means knee in Sanskrit. The Brahmachari youth wears Jaanu-vaasa. Muruga as a Brahmachari is seen wearing this kind of dress. This is exactly how veshti is worn by rural folks, particularly those working in the fields. This looks like half- pancha kaccham.
Muruga as a married man is seen to wear full Pancha kaccham.
Let me show another image of Muruga, this time from the coinage of Yaudheyas.
This is a sure case of Pancha Kaccha, the supposedly Brahmin attire.
This is how the male Gods are shown in most temples of Tamilnadu. So is it right to say that Pancha kaccha is the traditional dress of Tamils? Or even the shorter version of kaccham up to knees- can it be called as the traditional dress of Tamils?
Let me continue with Sangam inputs. ThirumurugaaRRup padai also says that Muruga is known as ‘red clothed one’. (”சிவந்த ஆடையன்.” Line 206, Thiru murugaaRRup padai)
But Veshti is white in colour.
There of course exists a reference to white cloth worn by men in PerumpaaNaaRRu p padai. (“ஆவி அன்ன அவிர் நூல் கலிங்கம்” line 469). But then the name is not Veshti, but once again Kalingam.
These texts also show that men had worn clothes decorated or painted with flowers! The composers of Porunar aaRRu-p-padai were offered new clothes decorated with flowers. (“நோக்கு நுழைகல்லா நுண்மைய, பூக்கனிந்து” line 82). It is not so in “Traditional” Veshti of today.
These texts also show that different men wore different types of dresses. In other words there was no specific dress that was worn as a traditional dress by all men of Tamil speaking lands. For example, the cowherds wore a single garment with upper and lower garments joined (stitched?) together, says Porunar Arrup padai (“ஓன்று அமர் உடுக்கை” line 175)
Those in king’s service were wearing stitched upper garment. (கஞ்சுக மாக்கள்). This is like formal dress or official dress which is somewhat similar to what the high profile clubs have stipulated.
What then people were wearing in relaxed moments? There is an answer for this in Kurinji-p-paattu wherein comes the description of the lover from head to toe. It describes him as wearing a ‘kacchu’ tied up tightly around his waist. (“நுண் வினைக் கச்சைத் தயக்கு அறக் கட்டி” line 125)
This word “Kacchu” having its origin on Sanskrit is found in other places in this text.
The traders had worn “Kacchu”. These traders were moving from one place to another carrying their goods on donkey-back. They were guarding their goods by carrying a sword in their hands. The cover of the sword is tied in the side of the body. The cloth they were wearing in the waist was the “Kacchu” that is decorated with lines! (“விரிவு வரி கச்சின்” line 71, Perum PaanaaRRup padai)
This reminds me of Rajaraja Chola’s image found in Brahadeeswara temple in Tanjore.
That image (shown below) shows the king drawing out his sword as if in preparedness of a danger. Look at the cloths he is wearing. It is similar to the tightly worn Kacchu by the traders as told above.
Necessity determines the attire. By this it can deduced that warriors or those who had to be alert at all times of some danger were wearing short Kacchu around their waist.
We are surprised to see that this king is seen with similar short Kacchu even when he was along with saints. The following image found in the same temple shows him and the saint (his guru ?) scantily dressed. Or were they wearing tight pant like lower garment?
Even the following image dated at 1st century BCE and found in Amaravathy shows the king in knee high kacchu.
Whatever be its size, the fact is that the Sanskritised Tamil word “Kacchu” appears often in Sangam texts. Let me show 2 more references from the same text.
One is about warriors in relaxed mood. While they were fighting, they had worn short kacchu as seen in the image of King Raja raja chola. When they were holidaying particularly on the day of Onam festival, the warriors used to wear clothes with long borders. These clothes were long such that the edges would be rubbing the small stones on the ground, says the text. (”நெடுங்கரைக் காழகம் நிலம் பரல் உறுப்ப” line 598, Maduraik kaanchi)
This is somewhat similar to Veshtis worn today. These Veshtis have coloured borders running along the edges.
The text says that these cloths were gifted to them by the onlookers of the war games that these warriors used to do with their elephants on the day of Onam festival. This shows that these clothes were special and valued. The verse mentions this dress as ‘Kaazhagam’ (காழகம்). Perhaps this was the name of Veshti in sangam age.
There is one more reference to a similar type of dress in Maduraik kaanchi. This was worn by the rich people. They wore three pieces of cloths. One was a long cloth put across the chest and was dangling down. Another was a fine cloth decorated with flowers that was tied around the waist to hold the sword. The third was Veshti like lower garment which was long enough to get entangled often with the anklets they were wearing. The upper garment is mentioned as ‘Thaanai” which is similar to Utthareeya. It is also mentioned as “oliyal” by the commentator. This word “oliyal” appears in another Sangam text called Paripaadal (19-97) to refer to the upper garment.
The lower garment is mentioned as “Kaacham”
” கண் பொருபு உகூஉம் ஒண் பூங்கலிங்கம்,
பொன் புனை வாளொடு பொலியக் கட்டி,
திண் தேர்ப் பிரம்பின் புரளும் தானை,
கச்சம் தின்ற கழல் தயங்கு திருந்து அடி.”
(Maduraik kanchi lines 433 to 436).
So Veshti was a rich man’s garment in Sangam age. Only because it was a rich man’s attire, it was considered as worthy of gift to warriors who demonstrated their mettle.
It was called as “Kaccham” (கச்சம்), a Sanskrit word absorbed and assimilated in Tamil.
The Utthareeyam was used to cover the chest or just left down on the shoulder.
It was known in Tamil as ‘thaanai’ (தானை ) or ‘oliyal’ (ஒலியல்)
Today this kaccham has become a common man’s attire in Tamilnadu.
But it has taken another Sanskrit word Veshti as its name.
“Vesht” is the root word in Sanskrit to mean “wrap”.
Veshti is that which is wrapped around the waist.
But a Kaccha refers to the edge that is tucked or hemmed. In Pancha kaccha, or 5 edges are hemmed. Perhaps that is how the Sangam age Tamil men wore the Kaccha.
But Veshti is not worn like that. It is just wrapped around the waist. So Veshti has replaced Kaccham among Tamils.
But note both these are Sanskrit words!
Unwilling to leave it at this I searched Choodamani Nigandu.
The right word IS found there.
Verse 76 in the 5th chapter says,
“சுற்றலே உடுத்தல் என்ப”
Uduththal or wearing is referred to as ‘SuRRal” (சுற்றல்)
This means ‘Wrapping’ in English.
It is same as Vesht in Sanskrit which also means ‘wrap’.
Therefore the Tamil word for Veshti is ‘SuRRal’.