When Indian Air Force fighter pilot Abhinandan Vardhaman was held hostage by Pakistan a month back, support for his release and pride over his nativity swelled in equal measure in his home State of Tamil Nadu. Abhinandan didn't quite sound like a Tamil name. Was he from Kerala? they wondered.
Abhinandan Vardhaman comes from the community of Tamil Jains, native Tamil speakers whose heritage goes back to the earliest recorded history of Tamils. “Abhinandan comes from a traditional Tamil samanar family. His mother Shoba, a doctor, and father Vardhaman, a retired air marshal, hail from Tiruppanamoor and Karanthai in Tiruvannamalai district respectively,” says AP Aravazhi, a Tamil Jain scholar and a retired district education officer who is related to the family.
Abhinandhan is named after the fourth of the 24 Jain ‘tirthankars’ and Vardhaman is also how Bhagavan Mahavir, the last of the ‘tirthankars’, is otherwise called.
Jains of Tamil origin are called ‘samanars’ whose population, according to their recent community census, is pegged at 40,000. They belong to the ‘digambar’ sect and are strict vegetarians. Their code prohibits eating onions, too, just like Jains in northern India.
Concentrated in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, they were originally farmers. But the more recent generations have taken up other professions and migrated to metros and abroad for livelihood.
While Jains in general are a minority among religious minorities, Tamil ‘samanars’ are a micro community. According to a community census conducted in 2015, they constitute 0.12 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population. It was only in January 2014 that the Jains were accorded minority status by the Congress-led UPA government which, some in the community say, does not provide reservation in education and employment.
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