Ancient Tamilakam was a country of villages, and each village was a self-contained unit with farms, orchards, water sources, cottage industries and administration.

Rudimentary roads and footpaths connected villages and overland transport was dangerous because of wild animals (including the ever present snakes) and brigandry. Bullock carts and donkeys were the primary land transport. Circular wicker boats and wooden canoes were the primary water transports.

The difficult and dangerous journeys discouraged social mingling between villages. They confined travel to trade and commerce. But on festival days people from several villages met to celebrate and compete in sports.

Bull-fighting was a favourite sport and showcased the participants’ skills and valour. Winners proved useful in times of conflict. The elders picked men who showed courage and calm under pressure, men who already had a ready following, to lead their cohorts in times of war. This led to the beginnings of a warrior class.

The villages relied on agriculture and their staple produce were millet, rice, corn, tapioca and coconut. Fruit trees were abundant: mango, jackfruit and banana were the favourites. The people brewed liquor from rice and Palmyra.

The wealthy lived in two-storey timber houses and in later centuries, stone buildings. A roof terrace was common—as in present times. The poorer people lived in huts made of sun-baked mud walls and thatched roofs. They used coconut leaves as thatch. As people lived close to nature and respected the earth, they did not use burnt (kiln fired) bricks. Most houses had a central courtyard for ventilation.

Soft sand, which provided easy upkeep, served as flooring. People removed sand ruined by spillage and replaced it with a fresh layer. They slept on weaved mats and sat on floor boards. Each house also had a patio of sorts. This was not part of the structure but a standalone tent made from sticks driven into the ground and walls of woven palm leaves. The roof was also of woven palm leaves. Gardens of flowering plants and fruit trees grew in each backyard. And thorn brushes formed a fence.

Music and dance was an important part of village life and every village had a dance hall as an annex to the temple. People came together to celebrate harvests, offer sacrifices to the gods, to honour the fallen, and for entertainment. Women joined their menfolk and were active in these activities. Over time, the wealthier villages hired travelling dance and drama troupes to perform on special festivities.

Every village had a deep trench and earthworks for defence. They also paid and maintained a village guard (kaval) drawn from their own ranks. Hill tribes offered their services, and the kaval became an acknowledged profession, similar to soldiering.

Each house had a well but communal wells and river banks (for bathing and laundry) were favourite spots for women to gather, socialise and exchange gossip.

Farmers—men and women—went out to work at daybreak. The wife or another female member of the family would return home in mid-morning to prepare lunch which the family shared under a make-shift shed or tree. The sheds were low structures, only shoulder height but enough for people to sit crossed-leg.

Herdsmen, male members of the family, set out at daybreak. They packed their lunch with them and returned at sunset. The women, besides minding the children, weaved cloth or engaged in some other cottage industry.

Life was harsh but people looked out for one another. Regardless of their internal squabbles, they closed ranks against outside threats. People owed allegiance to their village elders, who represented their interests to the shitru-arasars (local kings).

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019


  1. The description has a nostalgic ring to it. Of simpler, harmonious times. Natural resources, like water, were plentiful and there was no hesitation in sharing. Electricity, not a natural resource, was not plentiful, but without TVs, Aircons, Microwaves, etc., there was not much need for it. Looks like the world has changed far more rapidly in the last fifty years than at any other time in the past.

    1. Hello Ankur,

      I’ll take a slightly different tack in replying to your comment – regarding natural resources like water.

      There is an interesting docudrama on Netflix. The producer makes bold claims and draws from a UN report.

      According to the docudrama:

      We have enough fresh water, enough land for humans and wild life and can easily revert climate change. But big business—a small group (compared to the world population) of wealthy, ignorant and evil people—will not allow it.

      Animal husbandry—cattle, sheep, etc—is the biggest contributor to global warming and its consequent effects. Burning fossil fuels comes a distant second—but the world focuses on the oil and gas industry. Rightly so but why ignore the largest contributor to global warming?

      Animal husbandry sucks up a disproportionate amount of arable land and potable water which humans and wild life need. One example, the rapid depletion of the Amazon forests—resources sorely needed for human habitation. Animal fart is a major destroyer of our atmosphere. After one finishes rolling on the floor laughing—they should read that UN report, or watch that docudrama. See the laughter wiped clean.

      That one hamburger we eat uses more water to produce than one person uses in a month! Amazing! This sounds alarmist but the producer backs up his assertion with data—facts and figures drawn from the UN report.

      Big business has done everything possible to bury that UN report. Even well-known global warming activists such as Greenpeace and Al Gore do not wish to address the issue – in the docudrama we see these people evading questions.

      The docudrama title: Cowspiracy. Click on the link, the official trailer on YouTube.

      All good wishes,

  2. Reminds me of the good old days of community living. Fruit trees and vegetables farms were abundant. The neighbours’ children will come and ask to pluck some fruits. It was free for all and we are happy to share. We collect water from a common tap. Some menfolk declared brotherhood to protect the village and look out for each other families. On special festive occasions, all will gather at the community center to watch “getai” a ghost festival stage performance. We get to buy our provision on credit term and borrow their phone to use for free. Sometimes our neighbour sent their children to our house for a night over. Life was just simple then.

    1. Hello Windy,

      You described my early life 🙂

      I grew up in a village in Singapore and enjoyed visits to my grandfather in Johore. He ran cattle/goats in a village set within a rubber estate. No privacy, everyone thought they had a right to “pop over” anytime. But great fun, running wild with the kids.

      Luv and hugz,

  3. Life was harsh but people looked out for one another. Regardless of their internal squabbles, they closed ranks against outside threats.

    this is the joy of small communes. There is little anonymity so differences can be easily resolved before they become volatile and it is also possible to make peace easily and work together

    1. Hello Onyango,

      Community/village living is a joy when we give up some measure of individuality and privacy. Otherwise it can be intrusive.


  4. Eric this series has resonated with me and your highly visual descriptions help bring back memories. While my twenty years there was not always comfortable as I travelled around the wealth of culture, tradition and interest made those years grand. No longer do you have wild animals leaping out at you as you travel village to village but the snakes remain and are revered. There are still festivals where distant villagers converge in one place and you can see them in the middle of the night travelling as a whole group back to their distant homes when the festival is over.

    1. Hello and thank you, Ian.

      As recently as the 1960s, we witnessed very ancient traditions and societal norms alive in the outlying villages. Then with the information age coupled with India opening up its economy and moving away from import substitution, rapid changes took hold. Like in all other countries, the changes have been a mixed bag.

      All good wishes for the week ahead,

  5. It is amazing, for you have almost completely described the houses in a Honduran village. Their roof material is banana leaves. They have outside fires for cooking. There are festivals but no fortifications and as far as I know no cottage craft industries – what a pity! No wonder 16% of the population has decamped to the USA with more on the way!

    1. Hello Jane,

      For a given problem/environment – there are only so many solutions. Therefore, it is not surprising that societies then and now come up with very similar solutions.

      Fortifications were a thing of the past, as ancient societies had to confront brigands, wild animals and sudden local wars.

      Cottage industries were a given in the past. Barter was crucial to life. The post-industrial world spelled the death knell of cottage industries and many living skills. During the transitional period of the last two hundred odd years, these skills came to be called “hobbies” and “handicraft”. Now we see the products in flea markets.


I like to hear your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

error: Content is protected !!
%d bloggers like this: