Rice, trees, and old coins, part two

amirthalingam at Murugan temple

By Sharon St Joan

To read part one first, click here


“Ethno-botany is the study of the medicinal uses of plants,” explained M. Amirthalingam, “It is the local traditional medicine.” Ethno-botany is one of his areas of expertise as a botanist and Field Officer for the CPREEC.


“You know, “ he continued, “people don’t reveal their secrets immediately. You have to make friends with them. Then, when they trust you, they will talk to you a little bit. Then more later on.” It is particularly older village people who know the secrets of the plants, not the younger generation. Older folks follow their traditions.


In the little hamlet where he grew up there were Portia trees, medium-sized shade trees, the leaves of which are used to feed cattle. A taller, bigger tree, the neem has medicinal uses; its wood is used for making furniture and the leaves for cattle feed. If someone has measles, the leaves are scattered on the floor, and the sick person sleeps on top of them. Most of the homes in the village had a neem tree.




Amirthalingam recalled from his childhood that there were also guava trees that produced fruit. They grew many vegetables too – including a vegetable called a “drumstick” due to its shape – also tomatoes; brinjal which is eggplant, “ladies finger,” another Indian vegetable; beans and peas; a kind of bitter gourd; radishes; and plantains – the kind used for cooking. The plantain leaves were spread out like plates and used for eating on. This is the traditional way of serving food in south India. If they hadn’t grown plantains, they would have had to walk four kilometers (two and a half miles) to obtain them.


As a young man, having been banished from his house by his father for refusing to marry a 13 year old girl who was his cousin, Amirthalingam found himself without a job and with no source of support other than hand-outs slipped to him by his younger sister when no one was looking. For a year, sleeping outside on a cot, near the house – and without anyone to give him direction in life, he wandered, both literally and figuratively, following the inclinations of his soul.


He spent around eight months studying archeology at the nearby Ariyalur Government Arts College. During this time, he showed the assistant professor and the other students where to find local archeological sites. Because he was native to the area, this meant they could bypass the need to have a government permit, which would normally have been required of outsiders.


They excavated two types of megalithic burial sites: huge pots, several feet in diameter, in which those who had died had been placed along with grave goods, and then buried in the ground; and secondly, long burials where the bodies were laid out as on a bed.


Whenever there were heavy rains, the soil eroded, enabling them to spot the tops of the giant pots. They kept nothing that they found; pots, grave goods, and old coins were placed in a museum. They uncovered four or five sites, and one site might have fifty huge pots, or maybe ten of the laid out graves.


The sites were 8 to 10,000 years old. There was no writing on the pots they found although in some regions further south, pots were found with written inscriptions on them, but not in his area. There they found only black and red ware.


After doing some research, he also uncovered the history of his own family. They had moved south to their little hamlet many centuries before from the town of Kanchipuram. During the Chola period, they had migrated, with the men following the local Chola chieftain into battle. At that time, drums announced the start of wars and the men would follow the sound of the drums to go to fight. His ancestors were warriors, kshatriyas, – when a war ended they would settle down in the region and marry the local women.




He found out that he belonged to the Thondaiman clan – a name carried by three Chola kings in the second century CE, who ruled the district of Kanchipuram. He telephoned his brother, Ramalingam, to ask if he knew anything about this and whether it was true. Ramalingam said yes, that was what their father had told him – that the family were Thondaiman. They were of a particular clan, or gotra, and they were certain of this information because they needed to be sure of the name of their clan since they were not permitted to marry a wife from the same clan. The local village people had referred to his family as “Thondaiman” – by which they meant that they were different and “from somewhere else.”


Further insight into the meaning of “Thondaiman” has been given by Dr. Nanditha Krishna who is a historian. “Thondai” means creeper or vine. An ancient Tamil text, Perumpanatrupadai, a book of ten songs, mentions that a king, Ilan Tiraiyan, was found as a child floating on the sea with a creeper wound around him. His name means “one given by the waves,” and his family name “Thondaiman” means “he of the creeper.” It is believed that this king, Thondaiman Ilan Tiraiyan, is the ancestor of two early Tamil dynasties, the Palavas and the Cholas. The northern Tamil Nadu region has long been known as Thondaimandalam after this king who was brought ashore by the waves.


When Amirthalingam was growing up, there were two other clans of warrior people in his village, the Kongurayar, from the Coimbatore region, and the Kadanthaiyar, from the Pennadam and Vridhachalam regions, also from the Chola period. Some of the families living in the village still had the swords of their ancestors which they had kept in their homes for nearly two thousand years. Traditional societies tend to have very long memories. Many of the village children were Agamudaiyars, who were the dominant people of the village. When Amirthalingam was growing up, there were around 100 families in his village. Now the village has grown to around 1,000 families.


Continued in part three.  


Top photo: Sharon St Joan / M. Amirthalingam at the archeological site of a very early Murugan temple near Mahabalipuram in south India.


Second photo: J.M. Garg / Wikimedia Commons /This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. / The Portia tree or Indian Tulip tree.


Third photo: / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License / Wikipedia Commons / Bronze statue of the early Chola King Karikala at Kallai in Tricy.



One thought on “Rice, trees, and old coins, part two

Leave a Reply