Tamil Villages – The Ancient Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu, Part 3


This is the third part of a four-part series on the Ancient Tamil culture. Part 1 (link here) shows the ancient Tamil roots in India, Part 2 (link here) shows ancient Tamil gods, guardians and sacred groves that still exist today.  Part 3 shows ancient family traditions that are still in place. Part 4 will discuss the need to preserve and protect these traditions.

The Ancient Tamil Family

The Tamil family is integral to Tamil villages. The basis of the village for more than 2000 years has been the small family farm, limited by the number of family members to work it. For Tamils the family is the extended family, with many generations, often living in the same household. The main crop is rice, and at times of planting it requires many workers, usually provided by the women of the family. The primary set of relationships are within the husband’s family. Tamils are patrilocal (married couples live with the husband’s family or village) and patrilineal (descendency is determined through the father’s line).

In the Tamil family, relatives of both the wife and the husband form an important social network that supports the nuclear family and encompasses the majority of its important social relations. Below is a long list of relationships that the Tamil recognize. Note that in English, the terms “Aunt” and “Uncle” cover a variety of relationships, whereas in Tamil there are many degrees of relationship that are named. These include for the father’s or mother’s family, and older/younger brothers and sisters. So one’s place within the family depends on whether they are related through the male line or female line, and the place within the birth order.

English Relation Tamil
Mother Female Parent Amma /Thaai
Father Male Parent Appa / Tandhai
Husband Male spouse Kanavan / Purushan
Wife Female spouse Manaivi / Pondaatti (Pensaadhi) / Samsaaram
Son Male offspring Magan / Paiyyan
Daughter Female offspring MagaL / PoNNu (PeN)
Grandmother Maternal Grandmother / Mother’s Mother Paati / Ammamma / Ammaachi
Grandmother Paternal Grandmother / Father’s Mother Paati / Appaayee / Appatha
Grandfather Maternal Grandfather / Mother’s Father Thaatha
Grandfather Paternal Grandfather / Father’s Father Paatan
Great Grandmother Grandmother’s Mother / Grand Father’s Mother Kollu Patti
Great Grandfather Grandmother’s Father/ Grand Father’s Father Kollu Paatan / Kollu Thatha
Elder Sister Elder Sister Akka
Younger Sister Younger Sister Thangai
Elder Brother Elder Brother Annan / Anna
Younger Brother Younger Brother Thambi
Uncle Mother’s elder brother Thaai Maaman
Aunt Mother’s elder brother’s Wife Athai
Uncle Mother’s younger brother Thaai Maaman
Aunt Mother’s younger brother’s Wife Athai
Aunt Mother’s elder sister Peri Amma
Uncle Mother’s elder sister’s husband Peri Appa
Aunt Mother’s younger sister Chitti
Uncle Mother’s younger sister’s husband Chittappa
Aunt Elder Brother’s Wife Anni
Uncle Father’s elders brother Periyappa
Aunt Father’s elder brother’s Wife Periyamma
Uncle Father’s younger brother Chithappa
Aunt Father’s younger brother’s Wife Chitthi
Aunt Father’s elder sister Athhai
Uncle Father’s elder sister’s husband Mamaa
Aunt Father’s younger sister Athhai
Uncle Father’s younger sister’s husband Maama

A person is born into a family and into a village. Sometimes the family is the village: everyone in the village is related. “Clan” is a word used to describe these kinds of families, that extend beyond an individual household.

The rites of the family reinforce the identity within the family. Rites of the village support identity with the village. There are roles in most of these rites for the father’s and mother’s relatives.

A child growing up in this system knows well his or her place in society. On one hand this brings a deep security. On the other it can bring resistance to new experiences and ideas.

Family = clan = caste. Clans, which are ancient social groupings, certainly came earlier than caste.

Family Temples and Functions

Each family has a temple and performs regular rites to it and at it.

One example is an annual pooja to it. Several years ago we were invited to participate in such a function. In this family, they have an annual family function at their family Mariamman temple. It is a Mariamman function, with a blood offering to the goddess. Animal sacrifice, such as a goat, as a part of Mariamman rites is common.

We gather, sitting under a pandal in front of the house of a family member.

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We walk through the village to the family shrine. This old large tree is at the center of the village.

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The first part of the function is a special pooja for the goat.

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The goat is worshiped before the sacrifice. Here is the goat with a beautiful flower mala.

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This is the family Mariamman shrine, erected and maintained by this family.

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On one side is an old idol for the Snake-God, the Nagas. These are among the oldest gods in South India.

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A pooja is offered to the gods in the shrine.

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Family members gather for the sacrifice. The goat is at the center of a circle of family members, (difficult to see in the photo below)

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After the sacrifice there will be a shared meal, like mutton biryani. These villagers would not throw away good food. These shared meals are a common element of all family functions.

The whole family lends a hand in meal preparation. Here are women cutting vegetables…

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…while the men butcher the goat.

Briyani is cooked in a big pot on a wood fire.

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Men stir the pot. The weight of the food is too heavy for the women.

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After the vegetables and meat are mostly cooked, then women add rice.

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When it is cooked, family and friends sit and eat together, enjoying the meal.

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For more on this see Family Feast in Gondapatai Village, Tamil Nadu.

These celebrations mark each year, and are an important element in the family’s set of annual celebrations.  Ancient Tamil celebrations include Deepam, Pongal, and Thaipusam.

Rites of passage – ceremonies of family

These Tamil rites of passage are a different set than the standard set of Hindu samskara rites of passage. This is another case where elements of the ancient culture are still in place. Some, such as “name-giving” and “first haircut” are shared by both cultures. Some, such as the bangle ceremony, are unique to Tamils (as far as I know).

In these rites there are roles for people of both the mother’s and father’s family. They serve to keep the extended family of the child intact and functional. As an example, in the first haircut and the ear-piercing ceremonies, the child is to be held by a brother of the mother, a maternal uncle.

Following are some Tamil rites of passage that we have been privileged to witness.

Bangle Ceremony

This is done for a woman late in pregnancy. The basic idea is that glass bangles are given to the pregnant women to wear. These are thought to stimulate the baby while still in the womb.

Here is the pregnant women being dressed for the ceremony. Jewelry is being arranged by a family member.

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A pooja altar is being set up by the mother of the husband of the pregnant women.

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Like for a wedding, the woman wears an elaborate headdress.

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Relatives are setting out fruit and gift items. These are mainly women, since this is mainly a women’s ceremony.

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The pregnant woman being seated onto a small stool. This late in pregnancy it is not easy for her to sit down like this. Notice all the jewelry she wears.

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Now women are offering her bangles. They put them on her arms. It is hard to do this, since her hands are swollen from the pregnancy.

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Every women here today, relatives and friends, puts bangles on her.

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Along with the bangle, each woman dots her forehead with kum kum, sprinkles her with holy water, and rubs her face and arms with turmeric.

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Here she is after the ceremony, great with child.

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For more on this see: Valaikappu: Bangle Ceremony for an Expectant Mother.

Baby naming ceremony

This ceremony is done a few days after the birth. People have gatherings to give the baby its name.

Everyone leans close to the baby and whispers the baby’s name to it three times.

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For more on this see: Tamil Baby Naming–The Thottil Ceremony.

First Haircut

The first haircut will be given to a boy at about 2 years of age.

This family does this rite at the shrine of the paternal grandfather, which is in a grove hear to the village where his farm was. A relative is carrying the boy through a field to the old family altar.

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First they must clear a path to the family altar. It is not used regularly, only for special occasions.

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Here is the family altar before clearing out the area in front of it.

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They have cleared out the space and now are offering pooja to the altar.


More people walk through the fields to come to the ceremony.

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For the haircut, the boy is held by mother’s oldest brother. A barber from Tiruvannamalai does the “haircutting,” which is actually shaving of the head.

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Shaving almost complete.

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After the haircut, the mother puts new clothes on the boy, and his head is rubbed with turmeric.

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Back to the altar. It is decorated with kum kum for the ceremony.

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The gods have been given food and flowers placed on them. Now they are ready.

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The intention of the ceremony is to declare that the boy is now at a new stage in life, no longer an infant or a toddler. He can now participate as a son in family rituals. Here the boy has first bell ringing during the pooja.

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Here is boy’s first pooja at the family altar.

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For more on this see: Mottai Addithal – A Tamil Boy’s First Haircut.

Coming of age for a woman

For a Tamil family, it is a big event when the girl child first menstruates. This marks her transition from a girl into a woman. For the girl, she is now like an adult and she can wear the clothes (sarees) of a woman. For the women of the family, it is one more woman joining them.

I think now it also means that she is marriageable, (or nearly so). This may not have been as much so in the past, due the arranged marriages, sometimes when the girl was very young. These have been outlawed in India now, and I think that average age for marriage has increased a lot in the last 50 years. For example the average age for women to marry, per the Indian census data, was about 16 years in 1961 and 19 in 1991. The age of marriage also goes up as the girl gets more education. In 2000, the age of marriage for illiterates was about 14 (even though marriage under 18 is illegal), and about 20 if the girl graduates from high school.

One thing that an unmarried woman can wear is the “half-saree” which cannot be worn by other women. I think this half-saree advertises a woman available for marriage. There are examples of the girl in this article wearing half-sarees, below. I will point them out. Before I came to India I had seen these in Indian movies I watched. They showed that the girlfriend of the hero was a maiden, an available woman. 

When the girl first has her menstrual period, she is considered unclean. It is part of the ritual to put her into seclusion space. If the family can afford it, they will make a small hut from bamboo and thatch for her. This family could not afford this, so they made a symbolic seclusion area, behind a palm frond. For the next few days she lives and eats and sleeps in this space. Since she is considered unclean, she cannot touch the family’s cooking area or materials, nor can she worship at the family altar. She is removed from school for this time, too. She can leave to go out to go to the toilet. That’s all.

When we first saw her, she was in her space, already dressed up in a fancy dress, with a kind of head-jewelry common in India, a Tikka, which looks like a pendant on a short chain and is worn down the hair parting.

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We went back the next day. She is wearing a half-saree, again with a Tikka on her forehead.

Her aunties are with her much of the days, and they play dress up with the girl all during this period of seclusion.

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Here is one of the aunties.

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Here she is on the next day. She again is wearing the yellow half-saree. Today she is dressed in jewelry to the max. I am pretty sure that these are jewelry items from marriages of her aunties. During this time her aunties bring their finest clothes to put on girl.

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On the last day of seclusion, her mother does her flowers. It has been aunties all the other days. Today mother cares for her daughter.

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The main event on the final day is a pooja and fire sacrifice with a Hindu priest. Here he is setting up. He has made a small pit on the floor for the fire sacrifice. This pooja will be the act which officially transforms her from a girl to a woman.

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She sits by the fire pit, wearing her half-saree. An auntie is putting kumkum on the girl.

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The priest is chanting. I don’t think she has ever been the main participant in any of these rituals before.

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She adds offerings to the sacred fire.

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After the pooja, the girl – now a woman – offers camphor flame to the family and, again able to worship at the family altar, to the altar itself.

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Now the new woman has changed into a woman’s saree and stands before her family.

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The family women offer pooja to the new woman.

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Her grandmother prepares her hair.

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She wears a bride’s headdress.

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Next, we see a small but important step. This ceremony is called the “Turmeric washing ceremony.” During the time of her seclusion she has had to wear turmeric rubbed onto her face. This is for purification. Now that the ceremony is over, she is pure again, and can wash it off.

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Now they dress her up with woman’s decorations and jewelry and makeup.

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Here is the presentation of the new woman.

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Afterward, gifts are offered to the girl, and food is offered to all who have come today. 

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For more on this see: Age Attained Ceremony: a Girl becomes a Woman, Tiruvannamalai, and Tamil Coming of Age – Manjal Neerattu Vizha.

Death, cremation, and afterward

At the end of life there are several ceremonies. See South Indian Funeral for a typical funeral, Sarasvati’s Mahasamadhi and Cremation for a cremation, and Taking Sarasvati’s Ashes to the River for the disposal of the ashes.

The last ceremony after the cremation is called a shraddha in Sanskrit, or keriyam in Tamil. This is done more than a week after the cremation (the exact time depends on caste and the deceased’s age at death). This gives time for everyone to be notified and for relatives who live further away to come to the ceremony.

The ceremony shown in this post is for a man, about 65 years old when he died. A big part of this rite for this man is the removal of the signs of marriage for the wife, now a widow.

The man was a farmer, so the place for the ceremony is in his fields. Here is a path to walk through the fields to the keriyam site.

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The man’s four sons offer pooja. They are all freshly shaved by a barber for this day. Other male relatives and friends are gathered here with them.

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One part of the ritual is a ceremonial cremation. A small wooden effigy is made and placed in dry straw and burned.

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The ashes from this are dispersed in tank by the four brothers.

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Pindals, rice balls, are prepared.

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There is a procession with the rice mixture from the broken-up pindals.

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The brothers offer rice to the crows, to take to the deceased. It is important, for an auspicious send off, that crows come and take the rice.

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Crows take the rice. All is well.

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Then the women come in procession to the site.

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At the head of the procession is the wife of the dead man, surrounded by relatives and friends and women from her village.

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They bathe the woman.

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Then they remove all jewelry that a wife would wear. She is never to wear such jewelry again.

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During this, women gather together grieving.

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Now the four brothers make final offerings.

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The offerings are taken into the tank.

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The offerings are made by disbursing everything into the water of the tank.

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All the children of the man, both sons and daughters, have to take a bath in these waters now.

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Now new sarees are offered to the widow.

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They are piled onto her.

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Finally, gifts are offered to the brothers.

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Afterwards everybody eats, a final meal to honor the departed.

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After this, the day of the death is celebrated each year by the family. The family also has a series of restrictions for the first year. For example, they cannot join in any of the normal village celebrations, nor buy or wear new clothes.

To see more, go to A Kariyam, a Tamil Death Ceremony.

The village rites show in this post tie the family together. I think that they are one reason that that Tamil village family has endured so long as a social institution. Because of the strong family, each person knows where they belong in society, and has a network of people who will remain close to them their entire lives. This family structure is under attack now from many of the issues of a modernizing India. In the fourth and last part of this series this will be discussed.


2 Responses to “Tamil Villages – The Ancient Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu, Part 3”

  1. Sandy Veepooshanan Says:

    Hi Richard
    I live in Las Vegas, NV. I am thinking of visiting Thiruvannamalai for few weeks. I have some health issues. I will really appreciate if you could give me some suggestions. I apologize for writing this here as I do not know other way of contacting you. My email address is sandy242@hotmail.com, phone 702-481-4406
    Thank you.
    Sandy Veepooshanan

  2. agnes Goyvaerts Says:

    This is invaluable information – thank you Richard, read with great interest.

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