Posts Tagged ‘ancient village life’

Tamil Villages – Spiritual Heart of Tamil Nadu, Part 1–Update

July 1, 2014


Comments to this post provided genetic information that I did not find in my research. Specifically, it was a 2011 article that reported a well-designed genetic study of the Indian population. Contrary to what I had previously written, this study finds no evidence for any influx of non-Indians around 3,500 years ago, what was thought by some to be the time of the Aryan migration into India. Here is the study, so you can read it yourself. Warning: it is pretty dense and academic.

As I read it, I get the following main points from it:

  • There is no evidence of any significant migration into India from about 12,500 years ago to the present. This means that the “invasion” of the Aryans into India 3500 years ago, which has been the main Western idea of this part of Indian history for the last 100 years, simply did not happen.
  • It is highly probable that what is called the “Indo-European” genetic and linguistic type originated in India, and some population movement out of India brought this genetic type into Europe.
  • The paper concludes that prior to 12,500 years ago, data “suggests multiple gene flows to the South Asian gene pool, both from the west and east, over a much longer time span.“  This indicates additional migrations into India after the initial one, about 60,000 years ago, but not so much in the last 12,500 years.
  • This study did not deeply address population movement within India over the last 6000 years, so does not really provide much good information about the movements of Indo-European and Dravidian language and genetic groups.  It does show that there are genetic differences between these populations, as well as the Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman populations. These genetic differences indicate some degree of reproductive isolation between the populations for a long enough period to differentiate them genetically.

Accordingly, I have rewritten some of the post regarding the ancient migrations into India.

None of this changes the overall point of this article, which is that the Tamils are descended from an ancient Indian population, and elements from their ancient culture can still be seen in Tamil villages today.

I must note that the only reason I wrote about the migrations into India and the possible history of various cultural groups was to provide background for this series. If this information were readily available, then I wouldn’t have needed to try to piece it all together. I apologize for the errors I have made in research, and in understanding what I have found. It is a complicated subject, and I have not found clear and conclusive information anywhere. Rather, I found piecemeal and conflicting data from many sources. If those people providing comments will take the time to write out (or direct me to) a clear and accurate synopsis of migration into India, and an overview of Indian history since the start of agriculture, about 9000 years ago, this would be a great contribution. I only write it about this here because it is not readily available. It would be better if this came from Indian scholars, rather than some retired Westerner who has just lived in India a few years.


This four-part series is based on a paper I wrote for presentation at the recent International Conference on Sacred Geographies, Religious Cultures And Popular Practices held at the Government Arts College, Tiruvannamalai.

The basis for the paper was this blog, which I started after my wife Carol and I moved to Tiruvannamalai, writing about our experiences of life in India. We made friends with villagers nearby Tiruvannamalai, and because they knew we were interested, they started inviting us to village ceremonies and functions. I have a life-long interest in Anthropology, and I knew right away that I was seeing things about village culture that were special. Carol and I took many photos to document what we were seeing, and I starting writing about it.

As I wrote, I researched — searching the Internet– and discovered that some of what I was seeing was very ancient, predating Hinduism itself.

These posts are about what I have found. They show many photographs, most of which Carol and I have taken.  It is in four parts:

  • Part 1: Tamil Village Life is Ancient
  • Part 2: The Ancient Traditions are Still Alive in Tamil Villages
  • Part 3: The Ancient Tamil Family
  • Part 4: Can Tamil Villages be Protected?

This first part is based on the research I have done, and is my own conclusions based on this. Parts 2 and 3 are mainly from things that Carol and I have seen, photographed, and written about. Part 4 are my ideas about what needs to be done now to protect the heritage of the Tamil villages.

Tamil Village life is ancient

Overview of migration to India

The Indian subcontinent has been populated in successive waves of migration from the earliest pre-history to 12,500 years ago (the time frame of the genetic study cited above).

The contemporary method of Genetic Anthropology, through analysis of human DNA, can determine the genetic makeup and migration of various cultural groups among the world’s population. This powerful new tool helps understand human prehistory and history.

One such current attempt to understand the genetic and migration history of humans is the National Geographic’s Geographic Project. This is a multi-year effort to gather and analyze worldwide genetic data in collaboration with indigenous and traditional peoples around the world. As of 2013, some 600,000 people have contributed their DNA for analysis. The graphic below, generated from the National Geographic project data, shows and overview of the probable migration routes of early humans, starting about 60,000 years ago.

For India the key routes were from the south, maybe 60 – 50,000 years ago, and from the north, about 10,000 years later.

110 national geographic

Current Findings of Indian Genetic Anthropology and History

50,000 years ago

The first population in India of modern humans was from a group that left Africa about 60,000 years ago, traveling on the coast from Africa on their way to Australia. They arrived in Tamil Nadu about 50,000 years ago. This was in the Paleolithic Era, long before the introduction of agriculture. Some researchers now call the descendants of this group “Austro-Asiatic.” This is the oldest genetic population in India. 

40,000 years ago

North India was populated originally from a later radiation out of Africa, about 40,000 years ago, entering through the Khyber Pass on the northwestern frontiers of the subcontinent.

9,000 years ago

Farming was started in North India (in what is now Pakistan). The origins of these farmers are not certain. I suspect they probably are the descendants of the people who originally occupied North India 40,000 years ago. These people may be, I think, precursors to the Dravidians who spread through all of India, and developed a high ancient Bronze Age culture, the Indus Valley Civilization, with its two famous cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. The peak of the Indus Valley Civilization was 5000 – 4000 years ago.

The earliest known trace of the Indus Valley Civilization was at the village of Mehrgarh in the Kacchi Plains of Baluchistan in what is now Pakistan. This farming village is 9,000 years old, and is the oldest known Indian farming site. The inhabitants herded cattle and grew emmer wheat, the same kind of wheat grown in the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture and cultivation of emmer wheat first started 2,000 years earlier. Given the growing of emmer wheat in Mehrgarh, it was thought that they may have migrated from the Middle East and brought farming with them. I think this idea is now discredited. This means that they would have developed agriculture locally, as happened in other places in the world.

5,500 years ago

The Indus Valley Civilization was growing and prospering. About this time Mohenjo-daro was first occupied. Shortly after this (5,300 years ago) was the founding of Harappa.  This Indus Valley Civilization was clearly an advanced civilization, and had at its peak included more than 1,400 cities, towns, and villages. The size was bigger then the present size of Pakistan. The cities held populations of up to 80,000.

Indus Valley Civilization sites are located along the Indus and Sarasvati rivers and their tributaries. They lived in planned communities of houses built of mud brick, burnt brick, and chiseled stone. The bricks were made in standard sizes throughout the culture. To me this is an amazing advance in civil order. The Indus Valley people grew wheat, barley, rice, ragi (millet), jowar (sorghum), and cotton. Cotton was first domesticated by the Indus Valley Civilization. Later it was brought from India to Egypt. They raised cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats and chickens. Camels, elephants, horses, and asses were used as transport.

The copper/bronze industry flourished at sites such as Harappa, and copper casting and hammering were used. The shell- and bead-making industry was very important, particularly at sites such as Chanhu-daro where mass production of beads and seals is in evidence.

There is strong evidence that the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization started about 4,100 years ago, due to climate change—an abrupt weakening of the summer monsoon. Archeology also shows that Mohenjo-daro was attacked toward the middle of the 2nd millennium bce by raiders who swept over the city and then passed on, leaving the dead lying where they fell. Were the attackers the Aryans? No one knows. There is dispute over what happened to this people. One idea is that they merged with the Aryan people, and joined the Vedic Hindu Culture. Another idea is that they were ancient Dravidians, remained separate from the Aryans, moved the center of their culture south and became the Tamils. Other theories are a mix of these two. For the purposes of these posts, and because of anthropological evidence, I think their culture moved to the south, and whether or not they merged with the Aryans does not really matter.

3,500 years ago

More than 100 years ago Max Mueller theorized that there was a wave of migrations from Central Asia about 3,500 years ago that saw the entry of Indo-Europeans, who called themselves Aryans, and brought with them horses and the basis of Vedic Hinduism into northwest India and Pakistan. This theory is now discredited by recent genetic studies of South Asia. One such study is by Metspalu, Gyaneshwer Chaubey et al and published in 2011 in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Dec. 2011. They say, “Genetic study finds no evidence for Aryan Migration Theory–On the contrary, South Indians migrated to north and South Asians migrated into Eurasia.”

Whatever their origin, the Indo-Europeans, or Indo-Aryans, called, by most, Aryans, became the dominant culture in North India. The high civilization of the Indus Valley Civilization faded away, and maybe their probable descendants, the Dravidians, were displaced to South India. Dravidians are the basis for the present Tamil village population, based on linguistic and archeological evidence.

The ancient history of the Dravidians is not clear. The ideas I express here are supported strongly by some scholars, while others are unsure. I base some of my claims of Indo-European genetic material in the Indian genome on articles from the journal, “Genetic Research” (and this second article from the same source) in which they specifically identify Indo-European haplotypes (combinations of gene sequences inherited together) in the Indian population. I think finally the work in Genetic Anthropology will resolve the questions about Indian migrations and origins once and for all. Let us all wait for conclusive research results on this.

Note: There is not really an “Indian race.” Rather, the human genetic elements in India contain material that are mainly a mix of four genetic types: Austro-Asiatic (AA), Dravidian (DR), Tibeto-Burman (TB), and Indo-European (IE).

Tribals, the Austro-Asiatics

The various Tribal peoples, about 8% of the present Indian population, are the descendants of the original Austro-Asiatic population. There are ∼450 tribal communities in India (Singh 1992), who speak ∼750 dialects. This population was marginalized by first the Dravidians and then by the Aryans, both of whom had more advanced cultures.

Tamils, Dravidians

The Tamil village population is most closely related to the Dravidians, who retreated to southern India to avoid dominance by the Indo-European-speaking peoples.

Probably the Dravidians brought millet with them to South India. Millet was grown in the Indus Valley Civilization, and was the most important crop in ancient Tamil Nadu, until rice arrived in South India, again probably brought by the Dravidians from the Indus Valley Civilization.

Aryans, Indo-Europeans

What is called the Indo-Europeans (or India-Aryans) were South Asians. They were the Aryans. Their word for themselves was the Sanskrit word ārya. In classical Sanskrit this means "honorable, respectable, noble." This was the Sanskritic Vedic culture, and perhaps was the originator of the caste system. Their origins are not known, but are most probably from within India, maybe the now-dry Sarasvati River basin in North India, which dried out about 3,500 years ago, the same time the Aryans were said to have “appeared.” They occupied Northwest India and Pakistan about 3,500 years ago and became the dominant culture in North India. In India today their genetic traces are found mainly in the higher castes and in Northern regions of India. Their genetic traces have also been found in the Iran and Europe. 


The Tibeto-Burman population is thought to have come from the Northeast, from East Asia, and to have brought rice agriculture into the north of India. The dates are not clear, perhaps 4000-3500 years ago.

Mixing of North and South

Genetic evidence shows a mixing of North and South Indian genetic types in the period 4,000 years to 2,000 years ago, and less in the last 2,000 years. This supports the idea that the Indo-Europeans displaced the Dravidians from North India to the south, starting about 3,500 years ago.

Genetic Variation

There is significant genetic difference between North and South Indians, and between South Indian Tribals, and the various Caste populations. Tribals have much higher proportions of Austro-Asiatic genetic material. High castes have much more Indo-European makeup. The proportion of Indo-European genetic material decreases in each lower caste. Indo-European genetic material is more common in North India than in the south.

Where did the Tamil come from?

India grew from its villages, which began as India developed agriculture, starting about 9,000 years ago. Village life is part of everyone’s history and of most families’ histories. Tamil villages were probably Dravidian farming villages, starting about 3,500 years ago, though this date is not certain. When the Iron Age came to South India, about 3,000 years ago, it increased the dominance of these Tamils over the Tribal peoples. The ancient roots of South Indian Dravidian culture can be seen even now in the villages. Tamil Village life has remained much the same, even as different rulers came and went.

That the Tamils are Dravidians is not in doubt. Their language is the Dravidian language that is the oldest and the most free of Sanskritic influence. The writings of the Sangam, a famous group of poets and scholars, in Madurai more than 2000 years ago show that Tamil was well established in South India by that time.

Dravidians were early farmers in South India

Tamil culture has largely developed on its own from its ancient roots, with its own language, culture and religion. Its origin is unknown, but probably within India/Pakistan.

Farming in South India probably started about 5,000 years ago, when climate changes brought a retreat of the forests in the south. First cultivated were indigenous crops, probably by the indigenous people, not Dravidians. Later, animal husbandry, a Dravidian practice, was introduced. This must have been brought from outside of South India, because the ancestors to these domesticated animals don’t exist in South India. The Dravidians were also early farmers in South India, supplanting the original farmers, first growing millet, and then rice, which they had cultivated in the Indus Valley, and apparently brought to the South. Varieties of North Indian crops first appeared in South India about 3800 years ago. Maybe this marks the beginning of the Dravidian influence in South India.

Tamil Villages develop their present form

Village life took most of its present form with the advent of rice farming, which was done as an extended family activity.  This was about 3,000 years ago in South India, about the time of the early Iron Age in the south. Also at this time, many hilltop settlement sites were abandoned, indicating a dramatic alteration in the settlement pattern. It seems likely that agricultural production also intensified, drawing populations to the plains, where crops and groves could be more effectively managed.

It may be that this period really marks the ascendency of the Dravidians in South India. Iron really set the village into the form that has now lasted more than 2,000 years. The introduction of the iron Aruval (sickle-axe) and plow were the key. The effect of the Iron Age was that some clans and castes (i.e. the Dravidian farmers) were more productive as farmers, prospered and became dominant; their villages grew in size and became more numerous. The cities supported by these farms and villages also grew and became more prosperous. Certainly the big improvement in farm productivity would have brought about much growth and change in the cities. It sure seems like this could bring about a flourishing of a culture, like that experienced at this time in South India. 

The original Austro-Asiatic hunter-gathers became further marginalized and moved into the hills, where they still are today.

Vedic Hinduism comes to South India

One historical research tool is the literature of the Tamil Sangam period, starting around 2,300 years ago, 300 BCE. The Sangam period is regarded as an early high point of Tamil culture, and the time when the Dravidian culture met with Vedic Hinduism. The Sangam literature detailed, among other things, current practices and ideas.

The impact of Vedic religion was mainly felt in the cities, not in villages. Vedic gods and scripture started coming into South India from the North, and affected primarily the upper castes. The lower castes (and villagers) continued living their lives as they had before. The first reference to a Vedic God in Sangam writing is at about 100 BC. By 400 CE, these Hindu references were extensive.

Genetic studies have shown that the Indo-European genetic content depends on caste, where high caste Brahmins are much more closely related to the Indo-European than are lower castes. Villagers are primarily lower caste so are less related. This shows the genetic and cultural separation and relative genetic isolation of Tamil villages from the Vedic cultural and genetic impact.

Iron made a big difference

The Aruval

The use of the Aruval (sword or sickle) to clear farm land was critical to the expansion of the farm. Otherwise it was very difficult to clear trees and brush to make good farm land. It was also an important weapon.

The longer one, pictured below, was used as an axe to clear trees, vital for farming, and as a weapon. The extra weight at the tip of the Aruval moves its center of gravity away from the handle and makes of a powerful stroke, important both for axes and swords.

220 blade imgarcade_com

Here a village guardian god holds an Aruval.

221 kali with blade

The Iron Plow

Here is a typical long plow. It would have been pulled by a bullock, maybe a team of two.

225 old plough (1)

It is mostly made of wood, but with a strip of iron running down the front side of the plow blade. This was all that is needed. Only a small bit of iron was used for this plow.

227 old plough blade

Tamil village spirituality predates Hinduism in South India

Tamil village spirituality predates the introduction of Vedic Hinduism to South India. Hinduism includes the Hindu Agamas, Sanskrit scriptures that define forms of worship, particularly poojas to idols of the gods. The rituals of the fire sacrifice is defined in the Vedas themselves. Their roots are not clear. Tamil village spiritual practices were non-agamic. They did not use Brahmin priests, Vedic scriptures or rituals, and instead only used local gods, priests and rituals. They are not found in the Agamas.

The traditions shown in this paper are the current versions of the ancient South Indian ones.

Each village had its own set of gods, protectors, celebrations and practices. I think that, in fact, each clan had its own gods, and built shrines to worship those gods in the villages in which they lived. The dominant clan probably built the main village shrine.

Some Tamil Village spirituality has been adopted within Hinduism. A common practice was to place the ancient village god within the existing set of Hindu gods. For example Murugan came to be identified with Subramanian and as a son of Siva. This is called “Sanskritization.”


Tamils are descendants of the ancient Dravidians. They took ascendency in Tamil Nadu about 3000 years ago. They had their own gods and traditions, which still live today in Tamil Villages


End of part 1

Parts 2, 3, and 4 will follow soon.

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