The pressures of population and scarcity of food drove the Kuravar from the Kurinji hills to the lower lands—the secondary forests that skirted the foothills. When we think of pastures, grassy meadows and cows chewing lazily comes to mind. But the felling of trees and open spaces for grazing is a comparatively recent development. During times of antiquity, secondary forests were the first pastoral lands.

In the forests people encountered and domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats. The herdsmen who tended to a species of sheep called kurumbaadu were referred to as Kurumbar. They weaved kambali from the wool of these sheep.

Breeding livestock led to distinct notions of private property, as opposed to the practice in the Kurinji hills where women (as matriarchs of households) exercised a more communal ownership of fruits and grains they gathered.

Tending to livestock led to altercations over grazing rights. This led to cattle lifting (rustling) which were often the precursor to war between the tribes.

[At the risk of digressing and jumping far ahead: In latter centuries, kings lifted cattle as a show of their might in arms. Cattle lifting was a comparatively safer venture than open hostilities and can be blamed on “adventurers”. Having one’s herds stolen was a harbinger of what was to come and enough shame (and a reality check) for the loser. The losing king will promise to punish the “wayward”  among his people, offer compensation for losses, and peace restored with no loss of face or throne.]

Livestock became the first recognised private property. The value of gathered food paled in comparison to this new and more enduring source of riches which were minded by men. This led to a patriarchal family structure.

Wealthy men could support several women and their children. This led to larger families and strength in numbers, making the head of large households pre-eminent in a clan. A woman desired by a wealthy man became his for his private enjoyment – a departure from the practice of the hill tribes. And it is safe to assume that the poorer men in the clan did not always enjoy such exclusivity with women.

With a patriarchal family structure and “exclusivity” with regards to women, the pastoral tribes adopted the practice of karpu, post-nuptial love (as opposed to the Kuravar’s pre-nuptial love or kalavu).

Marriage ceremonies were a form of marking one’s privilege with a woman, and a warning to other men to keep away. Of course, the wealthy man conveyed his hard warning with soft bribes – feasting and gifting.

As a consequence, the hill tribes’ practice of taking multiple partners was viewed as immoral. Bards, who relied on wealthy men for their livelihood, sang praises of women’s chastity while remaining silent regarding the morals of their benefactors in this regards.

As the weather was equable and the abundant rain rejuvenated the land, pastoral life in South India did not require a nomadic lifestyle.

This permanency plus the growing wealth and power garnered by individuals led to people flocking to such powerful men for security. This arrangement evolved into the first states. And the first kings in the Deccan rose among the pastoral clans of the Mullai regions.

The old Tamil word kol means rod – that is, the staff carried by a herdsman. In time the word kol evolved to mean sceptre. The word kov which is another derivative of kol became kovalan – he who carries a rod (sceptre). And kovalan became the Tamil word for king. Another derivative is kavalan – literally meaning, he who guards (the clan).

Note: In my forthcoming novel, Song of the Ankle Rings, the protagonist Kannagi is married to a merchant prince named Kovalan. The practice of giving children grandiose names such as Kovalan, Shah, and Rajah and Rani (queen), and Khan has been/is quite prevalent in South Asia.

*** Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2018 ***

(Note: Treat these posts on Ancient Indian history as highly simplified introductions to a complex, often conflicting, and vague period mired in the mists of antiquity.)

Next Friday we peek into the lives of the ancient warriors of the Paalai (desert) regions.



  1. Fascinating accounts. History of the Southern parts in Indian classrooms, at least in our times, usually began around 3rd or 4th century AD, when the Pandyas and Cholas and their precursors started to consolidate empires. Nothing before that. And Northern parts began around the time of Ashok, alongwith Buddha, around 4th century BC.

    1. Hello Ankur,

      I was born and grew up in Singapore but am sure we read the same history books 🙂 We also received great doses regarding empire – the benevolence of the British Raj – LOL!


  2. More interesting facts, Eric, and this is a very comfortable classroom. 🙂 I can’t imagine living in a culture of multiple partners, though. Also, it is apparent that even during this time wealth made all the difference in having options between the rich and poor. There’s not much of a difference in current times. My thoughts. 🙂

    1. Hello Lauren,

      We share the same thoughts 🙂

      History has always fascinated me. And it’s enlightening to realise that nothing much had changed over the aeons.

      All good wishes,

  3. I always thought that the custom of bigamy evolved because there was a shortage of men due to attrition in conflicts with rival tribes. Perhpas this is also woven into your history which is taking us at light speed t through the early history of Southern India. I am learning a lot – thank you!

    1. Oops! How did I miss your comment, Jane dear. My apologies.

      Actually, that’s exactly what I used to believe too – that the high attrition rate of men given to conflicts led to the survivors caring for multiple women/families.

      I believe this remains true but it is not the only reason – as I’ve since started to suspect. After all, women suffered a high mortality rate too – especially at child birth.

      Thank you for adding to the discussions, Jane.

      All good wishes,

  4. Another interesting series introducing us to pre-history in South India. Your description of the lowlands as densely forested areas is right on. Hard to imagine now. I’ve made so many trips up and down India by car, taxi bus and train and apart from the hills there is very little evidence of those vast forests now. Cropped around the monsoon season, dry as a desert the rest of the year with dry river beds and an occasional tree or two around village huts where shrines to various deity nestle in the shade of those lonely trees.

    1. Hello Ian,

      Yes, I know what you mean. I’ve traversed the South Indian landscape too and can relate to what you say.

      Even in Singapore, back in the 1960s during the December – February period the vegetation in the villages was lush and kept the place cool – cold – during nighttime. One had to wrap up to sleep. Now one cannot sleep without the aircon switched on. Modern buildings retain and radiate heat. That’s “development” I suppose.

      Have a great start to the week,

  5. Very interesting, Eric to learn the history and culture of regions and places that I saw only as a blip or spot on my social studies maps in school growing up. Sounds like a fascinating story you are writing. Will try to tune in for more as you post. Have a great weekend.

    1. Hello Joyce,

      Good to have you visit and comment 🙂

      I hesitated about writing a long post as it tends to turn off readers who rather spend no more than one minute. But am glad that you spent your time and found it interesting.

      Yes, I enjoyed writing Song of the Ankle Rings and my early readers said it was my best novel yet. The manuscript is with an editor now and scheduled to publish in the first quarter 2019. In due course, I’ll post updates.

      Have a great weekend too,

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