Personal Essay

A Tamil Animist: Gleaning Identity, Nativity, and Animate Wisdom from Tamil Culture

“Paguthundu palluyir ombudhal noolor,

thogutthavattril ellam thalai”

This couplet was written sometime between 1500 – 2000 years ago in Tamil Nadu. It means: “to share/coexist and protect biodiversity is the essence of all our hoarded wisdom.” This is the 322nd Thirukkural written by Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. It reminds me of Aldo Leopold’s ‘Land Ethic’ where he calls upon our moral responsibility as a steward species to the natural world. It brings to mind the Maori principle of ‘Kaitiakitanga’ which teaches humans that the land is not under our ownership but in our trust. The Kural asks us to think about the wellbeing of all life when using natural resources.

It is significant for me, as a Tamilian and a naturalist in this land, that such poignant verses, which were penned so long ago, can be invoked as cultural and historical values today. I became interested in Thirukkural’s philosophy very early, as its second chapter is Vaan Sirappu or ‘Significance of the Sky’, which has 10 couplets evoking the sacred nature of water, and how human society is entirely shaped by hydrologies, and destroyed when water isn’t respected.

Kural 18 says:

Sirappodu poosanai selladhu vaanam

varakkumel vaanorkkum eendu”

(“If the sky did not give rain, we wouldn’t celebrate our festivals or worship our gods.”)

Another from the same chapter, Kural 11 says:

“Vaaninru ulagam vanangi varuvadhaal

thaan amizhdham enrunar pattru”

(“Life on Earth is preserved by rain. Hence, it is the true ambrosia.”)

The Thirukkural is a text of 1330 short couplets consisting of Valluvar’s teachings, and observations of human ethics and living. There are books and papers debating who he was, where he was from, and when he lived. Estimations range from 30 BCE to 500 CE. But there is convincing evidence that he lived during the Sangam period (600 BCE – 300 CE) based on his writings, and the references he makes. Different scholars have claimed that he was a saint or a monk of varied religions—Buddhism, Jainism and Christianity, to name a few. One finds allegories to different religious philosophies in his couplets, possibly because of the confluence of people who lived in Tamilakam at the time.

Thiruvalluvar goes beyond just Vaan Sirappu to speak about the environment. He highlighted ecological integrity and the importance of commons in Kural 742:

“Manineerum mannum malaiyum aninilar

kaadum udaiya tharan”

(“Clean water, healthy soil, mountains, open habitats, forests—these are humanity’s true protection. Not military fortifications.”)

There are only 20 couplets in the text that promote environmentalism, but they are all eloquent. Sundaram’s (1990) study on the Thirukkural’s history shows that Thiruvalluvar was most likely a Paraiayar, a Tamil tribe composed of weavers and drummers. That a person from a low social stratum could compose literature that provokes such profound thought makes the text an effective argument for a more egalitarian society. He was a man of many identities. The range of topics that he covered show him to be an ideological polyglot.

My Own (Many) Identities

I understand such intensely alloyed identities because of my own ancestry. My maternal family mostly consists of protestant Tamil Christians. My maternal grandfather was a Muslim, and my biological father hailed from a Tamil farming caste. I practice Vipassana, a meditation form first taught by the Buddha, though it is only one of the things in my eclectic self-care kit. I play music in church orchestras. And in the last few years, I have begun identifying my spirituality as animism ever since Richard Powers—author of Overstory—openly called himself animist in a podcast; Robert Macfarlane wrote a piece in The Guardian on the New Animism movement, rising as a response to climate and ecological breakdown; and Tim Ingold said, “Animism is what it means to be alive in the world.”

To me, animism is to see life and the living world as sacred and emplacing one’s work and values within this. 

Though I am Tamil, I write in English. But all my work in making nature-education material and curriculum is always bilingual, so that it may reach all children. Right now, I am working with a team of young naturalists to create a curriculum around oceans, coasts and wetlands that can be used by parents, educators and learners of any age group. The whole resource kit is set in Tamil Nadu’s biomes.

For a few brief months, I taught Tamil in a residential school to some Class 9 children. I used M. Krishnan’s Paravaigalum Vedanthangalum (Birds and Vedanthangal) and Mazhaikaalamum Kuyilosaiyum (Monsoon and the Koel’s Call) as my grounding text. Krishnan’s nature-writing in English and Tamil came to me during my late teens, like a lodestar, when I experienced a lot of uncertainty and opposition towards the career paths that I wanted to take. They affirmed my direction as a naturalist, which through Krishnan’s writings emerged for me not so much as a career or profession, but a value system of being deeply in touch with the entire abounding community of life around me.

Animacy in Tamilakam

I am interested in looking for and gleaning animate wisdom from my native landscape, to feel at home in this land and in my identity. Here, Thirukkural becomes an anchor point for a lot of ecological wisdom, which is scant in other literature. In his beautiful book Neer Ezhuthu, Nakkeeran describes the history of water in Tamil Nadu and narrates how water was the sacred element of Dravidian culture, while the Indo-Germanic Aryans centred their rituals around fire, given their frigid homelands.

The ancient Tamil word for rain is Maari, which was the origin of the Tamil folk-god Mariamman. After war victories, North Indian kings would build a Jayasthambam, a rock post, to mark their triumph. Tamil kings created lakes or water monuments called Jalasthambam for the same reasons. One of the best-known examples of this is Rajendra Chola’s Chola Gangai, today known as Ponneri lake. He took water from the Ganges, after taking over the Gangetic plains, and added it to this lake after its construction.

Wetland maps of any Tamil district are dotted with thousands of cascading Eris or manmade lakes, small and large. Each one has embankments on three sides and a catchment on one. They are linked together through a system of canals. Once upon a time, people understood that the only way to live successfully in this landscape was to create space for water to be stored, and allow it to flow.

Maps will testify to this historical water wisdom, which is now sadly absent in present-day planning. Lakes are prime real estate today. But hydrological inventions like Eris also created ecological havens like that of Vedanthangal and Karikili bird sanctuaries where farmers and birds share kinships that are centuries old.

I am wary of over-romanticising Tamil culture and the written word. I believe that the best record of the culture and history of any place is the land and living people. Reciprocal codes of living with nature evolved largely in indigenous communities, away from urban-scapes and literate society. I run a course for three colleges in Chennai called Urban Wilderness Walks through the Madras Naturalists’ Society, which trains young naturalists and nature-educators to create experiences for the public in urban nature.

One of the first assignments that interns receive is to collect place-histories of their locality through conversations with different people from different social backgrounds living there. The learning for all of us through this exercise is rich, as the history of the city has innumerable branches, whether it is through the lived reality of a grandmother, an auto rickshaw driver, a fisherman, politician or a provision store owner. Places are always polyvocal and speak many histories simultaneously.

Polyvocality was not, however, espoused by the Tholkappiyam, an ancient grammar text, which put forth rules for writing poetry in Tamil. Poetry was split into Agam and Puram—the inner emotional landscape and outer public life—as though one could treat them as binaries. But it is notable that highly descriptive and allegorical nature writing rose more than half a millennium before Bhakti or religious literature in Tamilakam.

In Agam poetry, events and verses were required by the Tholkappiyam to be set in one of the five landscapes—Kurinji (mountain), Mullai (forest), Marutham (farms and fields), Neidhal (coast) and Paalai (arid land)—at a certain time of day and season, depending on the nature of human behaviour being described. This is somewhat similar to Kigo words in old Japanese poetry, though that is by far more structural and rigid. For instance, the meeting of lovers could only be set in the Kurinji landscape with allusions made to flora and fauna found there. But a yearning woman missing her lover or husband always had to be set in the Neidhal landscape.

Tamil scholars Sivathamby and Thanninayagam invite us to experience Sangam poetry without the lens of the Tholkappiyam, whose rules sometimes seem arbitrary and unnatural in the poetic description of the human and more-than-human world. Then, one begins to notice ecological knowledge interspersed within the verses. In the nearly 2400 songs that remain from the Sangam age of literature, written by over 470 poets, there are vivid descriptions of over 100 species of trees, over 120 words for types of land and soil, over 50 words for different kinds of water bodies, 72 technical botanical terms, and descriptions of the ecology and behaviour of insects, birds, and mammals. Most of these words have gone into disuse with the advance of neoliberal culture. Thankfully, there are papers and treatises written in the past decades documenting these aspects, notable among them being Sanga Ilakkiyath Thaavarangal (Plants in Sangam Literature) by Prof. Seenivasan, which runs about 800 pages.

Stanza 262 in the verses of Kurunthogai, written by Perunkadunko, begins with —“Oovur alar ezha, seri kallena…” where a girl tells her lover that she doesn’t care if there is uproar in the village, let them run away to the mountains, chew gooseberries together, and drink water from elephant footprint puddles.

There’s a beautiful reference to the ecosystem function of mangroves in a love poem of Natrinai 94, which I like to tell people about on the shore walks we do in Chennai. It begins with “Noi alaik kalangiya madhan azhi pozhudhil…” where a girl says her desire is like a Tsunami whose force can only be received by her lover who is like the Kadarkarai Solai or mangroves.

It intrigues me to notice the extent and depth of zoomorphism used in Tamil poetry, rising clearly from a keen focus and listening to the animate. While anthropomorphism tries to translate life purely in human terms, so much human action in Tamil poetry is zoomorphic. It is emplaced in and draws meaning in reference to the natural world.

Animism, Education, and the Fight Against Patriarchy

“All things have the capacity for speech and all beings have the ability to communicate something of themselves to other beings,” wrote David Abram in Becoming Animal. I have centred my work over the last ten years as a nature educator around this principle. Ants and trees speak for themselves as do mountains, rivers, snakes, bracket fungi, bees, butterflies, and human beings. This wondrous narration of everything of itself in relation to everything else is wilderness.

Children too are this wilderness, as I learn every day, and they come into the world with intrinsic energy. Conventional education is built on control, instruction and indoctrination. It diagnoses, treats, prunes and punishes this quality, which it little understands. It is not an institution built with the purpose of the well-being of either child, Earth, or community. My core learning through my teaching practise has been that children and young people need the immediate, experiential natural world as a setting for growth and learning. ‘Natural’ also means ‘real’, not some utopian, untouched habitat.

This is not just needed to develop environmental values. There is nothing like outdoor real-world nature, which allows the coexistence of many different capacities and growth ways, for a child to discover and blossom in the most meaningful sense of the word. More than anything, outdoor nature is a spiritual necessity for young people. It lets their single identities and self hoods expand and encompass other beings, entities and whole landscapes when their minds and bodies are in their most formative period. The self becomes a spacious thing. My own spiritual observation in this field has been that a small ‘self’ suffers and causes suffering.

Vast selfhood holds, hosts, heals, communes, and grows healthily in moderation. It is able to see oneself in the other, and otherness in oneself.

I can’t think of anything else that facilitates this better than immersion in the complex non-binary natural world or real-world on one’s own terms.

The role of an educator here is learning constantly to be a facilitator for this. I see such a spirituality reflected latently in modern evolutionary findings. Lynn Margulis, among the most visionary evolutionary biologists and systems-thinkers of our time, called this ‘symbiogenesis’. She wrote, “Life did not take over the world by combat, but by networking.” This is perhaps at the core of animism. Nammalvar, an organic farmer and agricultural scientist from Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu said:

“Manidhanai mattum uyiraaga paarkaamal ellavattraiyum nammodu aravanaitthu kolvadhe aanmeega paarvai”

(“To not see life only as human, but in our vision embrace/include all forms of life, is to be spiritual.”)

The truth remains, however, that Sangam Tamil civilisation was highly patriarchal, and this is reflected in several Thirukkural chapters. Documented Tamil literature was created under the patronage of kings who chose what texts would stand the test of time and what would not. The poems in Akanaanuru were compiled by Rudrasarman under the Pandya king Ukkiraperuvazhuthi. Those in Patthupattu and other texts were mostly sung in praise of kings and their activities.

Contemporary Tamil nature poet Sakthi Arulanandam evokes how the same patriarchal gaze also exploits animate nature just as it commodifies women and renders invisible other genders. The first lines of her poem Maramaagi (‘To become a tree’) translated reads:

“To see a woman’s body only as body

is to see a tree only as tree.

Ask a traveller,

he will tell you that a tree is shade.

Ask the boy swinging on its roots, he will tell you

it is happiness.

Don’t you hear the songs of birds who consider it their home?….”

I came across Sakthi’s work in the extraordinary, perhaps only book of its kind, Lifescapes, a collection of interviews with contemporary women Tamil writers, several of whom were nature writers and hardly heard voices. In the introduction to the book, the editors bring out how the tradition of patriarchy in Tamil civilisation, as in all others, has given rise to three things—the destruction of nature, domination of women and other genders, and invisibilization of indigenous communities. Have things culturally progressed in Tamil Nadu? We must ask this critically.

Can today’s Tamil culture glean from its centuries-spanning ecological wisdom, and incorporate them into modern values? What does it take for a politics of a place to draw its values from ecology, equality, and polyvocality?

 The progressiveness of a culture is found in its capacity to be self-critical, shedding what has lost relevance and conserving what is timeless. 

Cultures with timeless wisdom hold human and ecological values above merely preserving tradition.

Climate breakdowns and rapidly changing landscapes, waterscapes and airscapes are the current bottom-up reality in South India. Millions of people are and will be affected by coastal flooding, erosion, droughts, water scarcity, and their numerous consequences. A counter-culture of animism—an identity of self, extending, encompassing other life and land and water and people—is needed to heal these crises primarily stemming from and existing within ourselves, and in complete inter-reflection, on living Earth.

As Kaniyan Pungundranar said, circa 6 BCE, Sivagangai:

“Maranja marundhum kollaar maandhar”

(Oh people, don’t extract from the medicine tree more than it can give of itself!”)

About the author

Yuvan Aves is a writer, naturalist, educator and activist based in Chennai. His interests include reimagining Earth-centric and child-centric education in schools, the reciprocity between languages and ecologies, and ground-up processes of change and politics. He writes on topics at the intersection of ecology, education, human and more-than-human consciousness. He is the author of two books, recipient of the M. Krishnan Memorial Nature Writing Award and the Sanctuary Asia Green Teacher Award. He is currently travelling and documenting stories of biodiversity, people and change along the Indian coastline.

Find Yuvan on Twitter and Instagram.