The Tamil Sangam period in history is characterized by eloquent poetry and elegant wordplay, much like the myriad landscapes of Tamil Nadu. While at the ACCC, I heard a word thrown around a lot – ‘ainthinai.’ When broken down, it simply means five (“ain”) landscapes (“thinai”). The five landscapes refer to both the varied topography and ecosystems of Tamil Nadu and the five moods of Tamil Sangam poetry, likening the emotions of poetry to the characteristics of each unique landscape. 

I decided to delve further into this fascinating literary masterpiece one hot afternoon in the ACCC. A combination of intelligent researchers and the Internet gave me some clarity on this word and its ecological extensions. 

Neelakurinji flowers blooming (Photo by Karnataka Forest Department)

Let us begin with the first landscape – “kurinji,” or mountains. The name ‘kurinji’ refers to the Strobilanthes flower which blooms en-masse once every 7-12 years and dots the hills with white, pink, and purplish-blue hues. The mountain forests of Tamil Nadu are full of hidden secrets – raging waterfalls, gurgling streams, peaceful lakes, forests of teak, bamboo, and sandalwood, and the buzzing of bees echoes through the wind-swept hills. The people of the mountains were hunters (‘vedars’ and ‘kanuvars’), honey harvesters, and cultivators of wild millets (‘kuravars’). In poetry, kurinji is the lovers’ reunion in the dark of the night. Just as the sudden flowering of the kurinji flower is a joyous, unexpected event, so do the lovers suddenly embrace passionately, in tandem with the unleashed forces of nature – the unbridled dance of the peacock in the monsoon showers, the roar of the tiger, and the thunder of a waterfall cascading through the rocky hillocks. Although the mountain holds many dangers, the lovers cling to one another and forget their worries in the moment of passion. 

Forests of KMTR

Next, we travel to the forests, or “mullai.” The moment I set foot in Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, I fell in love with the wild forests of this region, the southernmost in the chain of the Western Ghats. Dark, damp, and filled with movement and sound, the forest holds secrets that none of us can hope to uncover in a lifetime. Mullai refers to the jasmine, the sensual, sweet flower that emits its heavenly fragrance in the dark of the forest, waiting patiently to be discovered. Similarly, literature paints a portrait of the waiting of lovers for their partners to return home, or in some cases, the devotee waiting patiently for her lord to grace her with his presence. The inhabitants of the forest were known as ‘kovalar’ (cowherds), ‘ayar’ (pastoralists), and ‘idaiyar’ (those involved in animal husbandry). They were tied to the landscape and its forests, and we tasted a bit of that bond when we set foot in the wet evergreen forest for the first time. 

Croplands of Tirunelveli District

From the dark forests, we travel down to the “marutham,” or croplands. The god of the croplands is Senon, the god of thunderstorms. In these plains, poetry paints a pretty picture of the hero descending to dance with and seduce his heroine, usually a temptress or courtesan well-versed in dance and sulking. The people of the croplands were the cultivators and farmhands, known as ‘ulavar,’ ‘velanmadar,’ ‘toluvar,’ and ‘kadaiyar.’ The flat expanses of marutham are only broken by the pink flowers of the Lagerstroemia speciosa, known in Tamil literature as ‘marutham’ or ‘malar.’ This radiant tree is known as the pride of India and is used for making tea and traditional medicines. I spent hours in the marutham watching birds and hearing the mewing of peacocks roosting in coconut trees, and a little piece of my soul remained in the green-gold fields. 

Traveling across Tirunelveli, it is easy to spot the next landscape – “paalai,” or drylands. Contrary to the dismal portrayal of drylands as wastelands in Tamil literature, these landscapes are incredibly biodivese and full of life. Wrightia tinctoria is the flower of this landscape and is used in ayurvedic medicine. The people of this landscape were bow hunters (‘eyiner’), soldiers (‘maravar’) and robbers (‘kalvars’). According to Tamil poetry, the drylands or wastelands emerge when the heat of the summer sun causes the other landscapes to shrivel and dry up. To me, this highlights the tenacity and ruggedness of the paalai and its inhabitants. 

Finally, we find ourselves at the seashore or “neithal.” Tamil poetry paints an idealistic image of this landscape where land meets water – fishermen casting out their nets, boats drawn up on the beach during the night, beautiful girls with dark eyes drying fish, the clinking of seashells being strung into jewellry, the whispering of the wind through straw-covered fisher huts, the smell of salt and sweat and fish.  The seashore reminds me of Marina Beach in Chennai, my favourite haunt since childhood. The water god Kadalon is worshipped here, and the flower of this landscape is the water lily which bobs invitingly upon the gently waves. People of neithal are traditionally fisherfolk, pearl divers, traders, and salt manufacturers, and their lives are intrinsically tied to the sea. 

The ainthinai are tied to the literary history of Tamil Nadu and to its people, wildlife, and wild spaces. From the wild forests and mountains to the human-dominated croplands, to the scorching drylands, and finally to the whispering seashore, a journey through Tamil Nadu brings the many flavours of its landscapes to the palate of the wide-eyed wanderer. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s