Coimbatoreans, who are known for their unique culture of honouring people cutting across castes, observed all the ceremonies in their social life only with the participation of members from the washer-men community.
It was a custom in the yesteryear Coimbatore to invite washer-men to carry the blazing torch on both auspicious and inauspicious occasions like temple festivals and funeral processions. However, it is sad that they were later denigrated by being addressed with their caste name as 'Vannaar' due to their main occupation of washing others' clothes.
With the Tamil word 'Mannuthal' meaning 'Washing', the group of people who involved in washing others' clothes came to be called as 'Mannaar' in earlier days. And in due course, the term got corrupted to 'Vannaar'. However, pieces in ancient Tamil literature and several stone inscriptions list the other names for the washer-men community as Vannaththaar, Eagaali and Eerangolli.
In contrast to the present age, when the idea of caste is deep-rooted in the minds of people, ancient pieces of literature and mythologies about Gods propagated human relationship cutting across caste and clans. Legend has it that Lord Siva, who once cursed his wife Parvathi to be born as a girl in the fishermen community, later longed for a reunion his wife and married her again as a girl from the fishermen community. Lord Siva's younger son Murugan too fell in love on Valli, a tribal girl and married her.
What's more, of the 63 Nayanmars ( Apostles of Lord Siva), whose life histories are compiled as Periyapuranam by Sekkizhar, the apostles Athipathar, Thiruneelakandar, Perumizhalai Kurumbar and Thirunaalaipovaar were all from the so called low castes Parathar, Kuyavar, Kurumpar and Parayar respectively.
Thirukurippu Thondar, another apostle of Lord Siva, whose tale is vividly portrayed in Periyapuranam, was a Vannaar, who washed the clothes of all Sivanadiyaars ( Devotees of Lord Siva) everyday. It is said that Lord Siva himself appeared in front of him in the disguise of an emaciated Sivanadiyar and requested him to wash his dirty, torn clothes on condition that he should return them the same evening. But, in order to test his dedication, the Almighty created a heavy downpour, which hindered the drying of clothes.
Sources: Kongu Kulangal Varalaru – Kavingnar Sivadasan, Arupaththu Moovar Kathaikal –
Link to my article in The New Indian Express: http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/2857079