Tamil Villages – The Ancient Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu, Part 4


Can Tamil Villages be Protected?

In the first three parts of this series we have shown that the Tamils are an ancient people, called by the BBC, “The oldest living classical civilization.” We have shown village traditions that include gods, goddesses, and guardians that were here before the Brahmanist Vedic Hindu ideas and culture arrived in South India, more than 2000 years ago. We have also looked at some ancient family traditions, including a series of rites of passage over the life of each person in the village that give each person a clear idea of their family and their own place within this family.

This village and family structure are linked to another ancient tradition, that of the Tamil joint family farm, where many generations of the family live under one roof, share food, and together work the farm. All the male members of this joint family are blood relatives, and all the women are either mothers, wives, unmarried daughters, or widowed relatives.  They are all together in this joint family.  There farms are usually pretty small, and are near to the village.

You can see people today using the same farming methods. Below is a photo of women planting rice, taken from our home near Tiruvannamalai.

703 HPIM2452

A man plowing behind a bullock, also taken from our home.

705 HPIM1861

This farm life has not changed much since the introduction of iron, more than 2,000 years ago, though now you will see some farm machines in use: tractors, often small, and rice harvesters. Change has started to come to these villages as India moves into her place in the modern world. I feel that the culture in these villages today is a precious human and cultural resource for the world, and needs to be preserved, recorded, protected and nourished. Lessons learned from this culture need to be shared with other developing countries around the world who have the capability to preserve their own native family farms and farming families.

Change is happening now in Tamil Villages

In the almost 70 years since Indian self-government began with the expulsion of the British, changes have been happening at a significant pace in these villages.

They include:

  • Public school, where children are removed from the family for education, and taught about India and the world.
  • Family Planning, leading to a reduction in the number of children. This change has been rapid, and has decreased the number of children per woman in Tamil Nadu by more than half. So this generation of children is relatively much smaller than the families at the time of Independence. 
  • “Green Revolution” agriculture, with purchased seeds and chemicals. Farming methods, which were unchanged for two millennia, underwent a big change in the 1960s with the “Green Revolution.” The Green Revolution improved farm productivity, but at a dire cost. The cost was for farm chemicals – chemical fertilizers and weed suppressants, and special seeds that did well under this chemical regime. Where before a farmer could start the new season and use seeds he had saved, now each year’s crop has to be financed, borrowing money for the chemicals and seeds that must be purchased. This changes farming, and introduces a financial risk that is ruinous to farmers during bad years, when the debt cannot be repaid. It also has introduced chemicals into the environment that are not healthy for humans and other animals.
  • Electricity and TV have been brought into most villages now. While having an electric light by which the children can study helps their education, when the children see life beyond the village and are subjected to advertising that makes them want these things, this can pull them away from the village and family.

    A common site is this village house with satellite TV antenna.

  • Mobile Phones are in pretty much every village now. These bring modernity closer to every village.
  • Movement into cities for economic reasons has been draining the life out of the village as sons (and daughters) move to the city to find work and “make a better life” for themselves. The villages are already facing a smaller generation of children, and many of the next generation leave for the city. Family ties remain when they move to the city, but they are weaker, and the traditional life of the family is limited.
  • Abandonment of elders, due to children moving to cities and other family problems, such as alcoholism, has become a big issue in villages. The oldest son of the family is supposed to take care of his parents when they get old. But what happens when he moves away, or if he is an alcoholic, or they do not have a son (in their smaller family)? We see old people living on the street because of this. This is widespread.
  • Two new challenges will add further risks
    • Smart Phones are bringing the Internet to the young people of the world. It is particularly hard for them to resist that allure of video and of relationship systems, like Facebook. The costs for these phones is dropping fast, and as they arrive in the villages, they bring the attention of the young people out of the village, into cities, “where everything is happening.”
    • Global Warming brings further risk, with pressure from changing weather and rising oceans. It is not clear to me how this will affect farming in South India. There is already great pressure on water systems, where wells must be dug much deeper due to falling water tables. Agriculture as currently practiced uses about 70% of the available water, with human and manufacturing use comprising the other 30%. What affect Global Warming will have in South India, I have no idea.

Can the Tamil heritage be protected?

In the USA, the farm houses and villages from my own childhood have vanished. My grandfather was a farmer in Oklahoma. He survived the Oklahoma “Dustbowl” of the 1930s, and when I visited him in the late 1940s he lived in a big farm house, in a situation not unlike the Tamil farmer’s family. He lived there also with some of his children and grandchildren. He had farmworkers who lived on his farm, too. I moved from Oklahoma to California as a child in 1953. When I returned to Oklahoma in the 1980s I tried to visit the old farm. When I got to the place there was no house. All the trees had been cleared. There was only farmland from horizon to horizon, cleared of all obstacles that might slow down the farm machines. The farm machines did most of the work, so they did not need all the people to farm the land. Where are all the families now? The families were the life of the country when I was a boy. Now they have vanished in many places in America, This can happen in Tamil Nadu, too. All it takes is for businesses or large land owners to take over farming, and and “invest” in “Green Revolution” farming and to invest money in farm machines to replace the farmworkers.  Then the quality of the food gets worse, and life in the villages becomes even harder, and more children who will become the next generation move away to the city. The family pretty much dies as the functioning unit, and as the families die, so does the village. 

Here is a photo of farmland that this typical of that seen in much of the USA now: (from nicholsonrealtyfarms.com)

USA farmland

Where are the people? Where are the families?

I have made the case in these articles that Tamil culture and an ancient way of life is preserved in Tamil villages. This way of life brought with it a culture that has withstood the test of two thousand years, and produced many generations of people who feel good about themselves, and live with a deep kind of personal emotional security, always knowing their place in the world. This kind of personal emotional security is something that has been largely lost in many places in the world. It certainly is no longer there in my homeland in America.

In America, the families are much more fragmented; the result of generations of moving to the new places of opportunity (usually leaving much of their family behind). In the American situation, traditions have died, families are weaker, and there is a kind of personal insecurity faced by many people. This personal insecurity is different from what is felt by the children of Tamil villages. Tamil children face physical insecurity due to deep poverty, but their personal security is enough that you usually see their smiling, happy faces. This is not nearly so much the case with children in the USA.

Again, this could be what is in store of Tamil Nadu. This is a picture of harvesting the wheat crop now in much of the USA (from heplerphoto.com):

710 heplerphoto_xom JD-harvest-Wheat

A harvesting team of men and equipment starts working in the spring in the Southern areas of the wheat-growing areas of the USA central plains, like in Oklahoma. The team works its way north, harvesting wheat as it ripens as they go farther and farther north, finally into Canada.

This “agribusiness farming” is a high user of investment capital, petrochemicals (gas and oil), and agricultural chemicals (fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides). In most places it is also the main user of water supplies. In India about half of all water goes to support just rice farming, alone. This kind of farming also is not good for the soil, and over the long time depletes it to where it may no longer be viable for farming – unless even more chemicals are used.

Is this the future we want for Tamil Nadu? Tamil Nadu now has a population of about 75 million, and even though Tamil Nadu is one of the Indian states that is the most industrialized, more than half (56%) of the population lives in villages.  So unless we want the Tamil Nadu cities to double in their size, we have to find ways to keep the villages alive, and as a good place for the next generation to live.

Need to study and protect Tamil villages

The need now is to study, document, publish , protect and preserve the ancient culture of the Tamil Villages. Otherwise they might become like farms in the USA.

It is important to record and catalogue Tamil village traditions. This is best done by Tamil researchers, since they have a closer ability to understand the language and traditions of the villagers. A central site updated with this research, maybe something like www.en..tamilwiki.org, could publish this material and provide access to collogues and the English speaking world.

What can be done to nourish and preserve today’s villages?

Agricultural revolution

Organic agriculture has been shown to improve the soil and to improve the crops. These approaches, such as natural composting, seed saving, and crop rotation, work to build the soil and create the natural environment to control pests. Organic agriculture produces better quality food and lowers the cost to the farmer for seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. This reduces the strain on the farmer by reducing his heed to borrow money each year to finance this year’s crops.

One example of a specific new technique of rice farming in Tamil Nadu is SRI, System of Rice (or Root), Intensification. SRI is an agro-ecological methodology for increasing the productivity of irrigated rice by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients. It is proven to improve yields and profitability in Tamil farms. Here is a slide from the presentation that summarizes the key points of the now-proven SRI growing techniques:

720 SRI_thumb[1]_thumb_thumb

SRI was developed in 1983 by the French Jesuit Father Henri de Laulanié in Madagascar. SRI uses less water, about half. It also uses less seed, again about half. Harvests are improved  with increased yield by 10 – 100%. SRI uses less chemical fertilizer and weed-control chemicals. All of this greatly lowers cash investment for the farmer. Lower cash investment and improved yields mean improved profitability for the farmer.

Help marketing of crops

Village farmers’ co-ops are used around the world to improve the ability for small producers to join together to market crops. These co-ops share the tasks for storing, transporting and selling the crops. Combining all the village’s crop into one marketing organization gives the village much better power and ability to make agreements to sell their agricultural products.

Better roads to get fresh crops to market are key in this effort. Slow traffic is the case on roads that are too small and with unrepaired potholes and other road damage. This slow movement of fresh farm produce makes it hard to market and increases the problem with perishable items spoiling. With more than 12,000 villages in Tamil Nadu, having a good road to each village is a big task. Pressure must be applied to the Tamil Nadu state government to get this done. Current Tamil Nadu budget calls for 1364 road improvements per year. At that rate it will be a decade before the road improvement work is finished for the 12, 620 villages.

Strong laws to protect the villages

Maintain existing strong laws and ensure enforcement of these laws to protect farmland from developers and to encourage family farms in the villages.

There are three legal types of property in Tamil Nadu: Agricultural, Government, and Patta. Agricultural land is limited in use to farming. Patta can be privately owned, and the rest (including most temples, schools and hospitals) is Government land. These land rules are administered by the Tamil Nadu Revenue Department. Tamil Nadu has a strict Agricultural land holding law already, The Tamil Nadu Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling on Land) Act, 1961, that fixes that maximum size of a farm own by a family to 60 acres to begin with and later reduced to 30 acres. Industrial uses are restricted to 15 acres. This sounds good, but there are problems, as reported in the Times of India:

However, Section 37-A of the same act empowers the government to issue permission to industrial and commercial undertakings to hold excess land. As per Section 37-B, public trusts can apply to the government for permission to hold or acquire lands for educational or hospital purposes. It is because of these provisions that educational/medical institutions and industries hold thousands of acres of lands. (My bolding)

These problems are now in the hands of the High Court. I do not know how confident we can be in their solution. I know of a local land use issue, that of a building for an ashram built upon Government land on Arunachala where the HC ordered that it be removed and the local government was unable to execute the court order.

There is also a problem with misuse of Agricultural land. I have personally seen rental housing built on Agricultural land and rented out. This is illegal, but nothing seems to be done about it. Also there is a big issue with Agricultural land being converted to Patta, and thus to private development. I do not know for myself, but I have heard that real estate developers, with lots of money, are powerful, and can influence members of local governments to convert Agricultural land to Patta.


We need to realize that Tamil villages are precious. We need to understand them, document their cultural elements, and publicize our findings. We need to preserve them and protect them, and find ways to nourish them for the future. The heart of this, to me, seems like the farms. Improved farms means more children will stay in the village as adults. It is easy to choose to stay with something that is successful.

What else can be done? I have made a few recommendations, primarily to improve the agricultural success of Tamil Nadu villages. I know there are other ideas. Some groups have started sourcing crafts items from villages. Others, like the Irula (see this post), have formed their own organizations to produce and market natural healing herbs and herbal mixtures.

Who is working on these issues? Are there colleges and universities that are providing leadership on these issues? The government is deeply involved. What leadership can be provided by the government? Are there private organizations and NGOs that are involved or that should be involved? I am just a private individual, and a retired foreigner as well. Indian leadership is needed. Who will step up? What can you do? IF you are interested in this, comment to this article. Maybe we can, together, work to effect changes that will insure the survival of Tamil Nadu’s ancient traditions.

Links to the rest of the series:

Tamil Villages – The Ancient Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu – Part 1 
Tamil Villages – The Ancient Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu – Part 2 
Tamil Villages – The Ancient Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu – Part 3


I used the following sources to help me with information I have included in this series:

http://archaeology.about.com/od/iterms/qt/indus.htm http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/science/Climate-change-caused-Indus-Valley-civilization-collapse/articleshow/31133369.cms 
M. Amirthalingam, Sacred Groves of Tamil Nadu – A Survey, CPR Environmental Education Centre, Chennai, India, p. 191, 1998


15 Responses to “Tamil Villages – The Ancient Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu, Part 4”

  1. Ak venugopalan Says:

    Dear Richard
    The book “Thirumanthiram”, considered a world spiritual classic, was written by Sri Thrumoola Nayanar at least a hundred years before Christ. It is a voluminous book but its message can be summerised in two Tamil Words “Anpe shivam” – God is Love ! The culture in Tamil villages was based on this percept for thousands of years. But now the western education creating over ambition in people, who mistakes luxury for good life had spoiled things. Any attempt to preserve the Tamil culture is a noble undertaking. (Thirumanthiram english translation is available on the net).

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      It is great that the Tamil culture has books like “Thirumanthiram.” This one one more thing that is special about it, and more reason to concern oneself wit its possible loss. Thank you for sharing your concern with us.

  2. Neil Harvey Says:

    I think the comments of maryjoma are a little unfair.

    Much of what Richard said about the USA is also true of Australia where I live, However, just because the greed of big business and governments is ruining these countries doesn’t mean that he should not speak his mind about what is happening in India.

    It would be a shame to lose the best aspects of Tamil culture for purely economic gain. I know there are problems with the treatment of women etc. but there is also a bond between people and families that has been lost in the west.

    I believe that the biggest problem for India is the wealth inequality between the rich and the poor. If this could be improved then people may not have to ruin the land and ruin society in order to keep themselves fed and housed.

  3. S. Arunachalananda (@Arunachalananda) Says:

    Vannakam Maryjoma:
    “Focus on what you came for” is a good advice by Bhagavan and the best to to if you visit that holy place for a couple of weeks. If you (partly) live there or have settled there it is different. I stay in Tiru vom November till March every year and see it as my home too and I also dont want that the culture gets destroyed.
    What shall Richard preserve in USA? You can not preserve what is already destroyed! Tamil culture has a chance and I hope to have the chance to understand it better in the years coming.
    Richard never sayd that he wants to change or preserve the world and he is doing a great job with his inquiries.

  4. Asha Vuyyuru Says:

    Hi Richard,
    How are you doing? I have one small humble request to make. I want to donate some money for food donation to be performed in ramana ashram on a particular day. Is there any way you could please help me in this regards.

    May Arunachala shiva take care of you and your wife.

    Thanks and Regards,

  5. richardramanarocksforever Says:

    @Cspac: every time I have tried to meditate on the lines prescribed by Ramana,thought density increases and I find easily enmeshed in them and just keep surfing in thought wave after wave. I try to refocus again by enquiry but cannot sustain as advanced or intermediate practitioners do.

    Therefore just feel I am only at the start point.Have explored other forms of meditations too.But this one seems to quite powerful as it unleashed ideas and thoughts very unfamiliar to my conscious awareness

    Plus also fear what if the meditation really takes off and dissolve my personality

    This method seems to suit the strong types

    Therefore I just pray occasionally and try to be in constant remembrance of Ramana

    The practise so far has scratched the surface with intensity but kinda vague fear creeps alongside

    • cspacenz Says:

      @richardramanarocksforever, you have a vivid imagination, sounds terribly complicated. If meditation is a struggle, forget it, just find out who thinks meditation is necessary in the first place. It’s way more simple than you could ever imagine and is right here, right now.

  6. richardramanarocksforever Says:

    agreed Richard but speaking for myself,to reach the state that Nome mentions is herculean in nature.Such pessism is a handicap in the spiritual field but I have learnt to accept and one fine day hope that the breeze of Grace will enter my window

    • cspacenz Says:

      @richardramanarocksforever, who is it that thinks there is some future state to be reached or some future time when this may or may not happen ?

  7. cspacenz Says:

    Hey Richard, thanks as always for your insightful views into the the places and people who make up the environment you and Carol mostly call home these days. And thanks to maryjoma because we just need people like him, it doesn’t really do any harm to have completely different views, no matter how muddled and deluded they are.

    The concern I have of indian village life from my own limited personal experience, having stayed with an extended Indian family on their farm 10kms outside or Tiruvannamalai last year, is how women are treated. Where I stayed was a relatively priviledged situation compared to many as they were reasonably well off economically compared to many local people, due in large part to the involvement of several Westerners in mutually beneficial property arrangements. All of that aside I was witness to what I consider to be the most appalling treatment of women on farms and in the villages in the area where I was staying. By all accounts this treatment, and much worse, is widespread throughout India, to one degree or other.

    I could give countless examples but I don’t feel a need, that is not quite my point, my point really being that I have difficulty with any system that perpetuates the treatment of women as virtual slaves. Watching these women work as they are essentially forced to do, day in, day out, 7 days a week, all year round, from 5.00am till whenever they get finished late at night is something I found quite heartbreaking. I’m afraid my opinion of this aspect of Indian culture is very low. Supposedly the basis of all Indian life the sooner it’s broken down and destoyed, the better. Anything would be better than that. Culture and history, yes of course, does that make it good or right, I don’t think so.

    This is just my personal viewpoint based on what I have been witness to and what I have read, if anyone has any different ideas or if I am missing something I would sure like to hear it.


  8. richardramanarocksforever Says:

    Good job Richard

    I think Ramana Maharishi also did not differentiate between Indians or Americans or any one else. In fact he treated animals and Humans on par

    Real spiritual aspirants realize this or at least civilised people and they do not ridicule or advice what one should be doing irrespective of one’s nationality or other aspects .

    Maturity seems to reflect in kind but also constructive criticism either through any spiritual or self introspective investment

    Don’t worry about folks who spew venom of hatred by cunningly phrasing statements and reminding you what you should be doing in Tiruvanamallai or any other place.

    It is classic example of pure xenophobia and hypocrisy to constantly harass you in this manner through silly yet hurtful comments.
    Real followers of ramana or even a civilized atheist will never engage himself or herself any manner as to deliberately hurt the feelings of the other and veil such activity in public forums as such just for the sake of one’s one ego gratification derieved from half baked knowledge

    You are an Indian as well as everything and I must admit with some impunity that you are quite tolerant. Hope that let peace of understanding dawn on those who try to hurt your feelings for no reason

    Much love to you and carol

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      I have learned from my teacher Nome that, since I am not a mind, that what I think does not really matter – rather it is the knowledge that is deeper than the mind. And if what I think about me does not matter, how much then does it matter what someone else thinks about me.

  9. M.r. Arulraja Says:

    Thanks Richard!

    What appeared like some romantic narration of whatever is unique to India (I mean your blogs) have developed into a very passionate appeal to protect the ancient village culture of TN.
    Very enlightening, indeed.
    We do need to act, as a group.
    One strategy is, as you rightly point out, to help form cooperatives of rural people to protect/foster their economic activities in the face of ‘large scale’ invaders who can, by their size of operations, put the traditional producers out of business on the price/quality front.

    Kindly email me your postal address. I’ll share a book I authored about my ideas on building the rural communities. My mail id is: arulraja1@gmail.com

    Thanks for your well documented blogs, and for the focus on people you bring, all the way from America!

    Warm regards,


  10. maryjoma Says:

    Hi Richard:

    It is great you want to change the world or in this case, ‘preserve’ the world. I think you should start with the USA where you come from.

    If you are in Tiruvannamalai, Bhagavan would have said “Focus on what you came for”

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