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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.

The villages relied on agriculture and their staple produce were 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