How change in agriculture patterns of mountains and forests have negatively impacted the lives of Tamil Nadu farmers

தமிழ் (Thamizh) has a deep historical literature and is said to have been in existence for over two thousand years. Though I have never studied tamil in a school, I have developed an affinity towards the language in the past 2-3 months after listening to few Tamil poems of the Sangam era and their translations. I realized that there is so much of depth and meaning hidden in the sweet poetic lines of the Sangam era poems, which take us to the world of the ancient tamils. Of all the known civilizations, Tamil society is said to be the only one to have classified the ecosystem into five parts – the five thinais (ஐந்திணை) namely Kurinji (Mountain ecosystem), Mullai (Forest), Marudham (Crop lands), Neithal (Sea shore) and Palai (desert). Most of the other communities is known to have classified the land mostly as wetlands, pasture lands, cultivable lands, drylands and so on.

Ecosystem classification in Tamil – Kurinji (mountains), Mullai (forest), Marudham (croplands), Neithal (shore/islands), Palai (desert)

As Tamil Nadu reels under a farming crisis, many of us are left to wonder how the once prosperous Tamil kingdom has transformed into death beds for farmers. When the Tamil farmer suicides were at a peak high in 2016/2017, I got introduced to INSPIRE Revathi from Nagapattinam in March 2017. INSPIRE Revathi and her husband R Thiruvengada Swamy have been working on reviving agricultural practices as described in ancient tamil for the past thirteen to fourteen years. INSPIRE Revathi started with the reclamation of Tsunami hit farmlands in 2004 by removing layers of sea slush in Nagapattinam and from thereon worked on 22 disaster zones across the globe. Since 2004, she has helped over 11 lakh farmers switch over from pesticide farming to organic farming by teaching them sustainable agricultural techniques to revive earth alongside guaranteeing quality yield and good profit margins in agriculture. During my month long stay in Nagapattinam, INSPIRE Revathi gave me an insight of how the agricultural patterns of the top level ecosystems as described in Sangam tamil have changed drastically and impacted the lives of farmers. Below is an unedited audio recording of Mrs. Revathi detailing the ecosystem classification and explaining how the change in the agricultural patterns have impacted the lives of farmers in Marudham. Due to echo in the training hall, I couldn’t limit the noise in the recording even after trying to reduce the noise with audio editors.

Kurinji (குறிஞ்சி) – Mountains and adjoining parts
As many of us know the mountains and the adjoining lands come under Kurinji. Revathi mam tells me that the Kurinji/mountain ecosystem as explained in the tamil poems beautifully describes the presence of trees as tall as 300-400 feet kissing the clouds and providing the cool atmosphere required for the water vapour to condense into droplets and provide showers at frequent intervals (not a heavy downpour but consistent heavy drizzling type rains) in the mountains and the roots dipped in water throughout the year are said to form a soft or a spongy layer of soil.

Kurinji nelam is characterised by the presence of tall trees kissing the clouds in the sky and providing a cool atmosphere for condensation of water vapur in clouds – Idukki – Aug 2016

Following the periodic rains in these mountains, rain water run down as streams and gets into the forests as waterfalls and further down into croplands (Marudham) through rivers. And with every rain, a layer of top soil is also taken along from these mountains to the croplands and thus a delta area is formed which a new layer of soil being transported into the croplands while the rivers run down to the sea.

After desilting a pond in delta region, the layers of the top soil washed away from mountains are clearly visible. Nagapattinam – Sep 2017

To give me a jist of the agricultural patterns in Kurinji in Sangam era, Revathi mam mentions about a specific poem from Thirukutrala Kuravanji by Thirukuda Rasappa Kavirayar. She mentions about the layers of trees planted in the high hills. The top layer of the mountain is mentioned in the elakkiyam as a pool of coconut trees, and as a coconut falls (from this top layer), it hits a bee-hive in the next layer of trees (second tallest after coconut trees) and then the honey coated coconut traverses further down to break open a jackfruit in the third layer to add a touch of jackfruit to the honey and then comes the turn of the mango in a mango tree and finally falls over a stalk of bananas in the lower most layer and cuts out the most ripe fruits from the stalk. It is poetically described in Tamil elakkiyam as ‘முக்கணி‘ (jack fruit, mango and banana) soaked in தேன் (honey). Agriculturists refer to this practice as “Multi-tier plantation” in today’s age and to get a complete solar harvest, trees or plants have to be planted in layers. It’s a matter of pride for Tamils that all of this has been documented two thousand years ago in the Tamil literature.

kurinji 1
Multi layered cultivation in Uttarkhasi – May 2017.

Mullai (முல்லை) – Forest

Mullai is the name given to the ecosystem constituting forest areas. Current Tamil Nadu is hugely dependent on forest-fed/mountain-fed rivers.

Forest lands – Mullai nelam. Sathuragiri – Jul 2016.

The tall trees in Kurinji create the much needed cool atmosphere for periodic rains in high hills and the rain makes its way to the lower lands in the form of small streams through the mountain slopes and multiple streams get together to form a river in the Marudha nelam. The soil in Kurinji and Mullai are often referred to as வன்புலம் (Vanpulam – hard soil) and the soil in marudham is referred to as மென்புலம் (men pulam – soft / alluvial soil).

Consistent rains in the hills along Mahabaleshwar creating small streams which fall along the mountain slopes to join the Krishna river. Mahabaleshwar in Sep 2016.

Marudham (மருதம்) – Cropland

The croplands, the food bowls of a community take lakhs and lakhs of years to form. As explained above, the spongy layer washed off from the mountains following periodic rains forms the delta as the water makes it’s way towards the sea.

marutham 1
Marudha nelam – Cumbam – Aug 2016

When the mountains and the forests change it’s characteristic, the croplands could turn into deserts

Thus, each type of ecosystem has a characteristic of it’s own and hence anything planted into that ecosystem shouldn’t disturb or change it’s principal characteristic. Sadly, all of these nelam or land patterns have undergone a massive change in the past hundred years. The high hills in Kodagu (where the Cauvery originates) and various other mountains in parts of India, which were home to tall and graceful native trees were converted into tea/coffee estates after the conquest of large areas by the East India Company in early 1920s. And thus, the landscape of the mountains changed. Tea, tobacco, betel nuts, potato and many other crops which are suitable for crop lands ended up being cultivated in majority of the Indian mountains. As a result, the clouds which were held in mountains by the tall trees moved over to the seas due to absence of the trees or the much needed cold atmosphere for the condensation of vapour in the clouds. Revathi mam explains me that the movement of these clouds from mountain to sea and various other ecosystem pattern changes have triggered a massive climate change as heavy rains in the sea have increased the frequency of depressions, storms, earthquakes, tsunami and natural disasters. Thus, the rain water which usually crosses thousands of kms covering four levels of ecosystem (mountains, forests, croplands and shore lands) directly makes it’s way along the sea and hence, these four thinais go through a huge water deficit and loss of habitation.

Cultivation of tea in hilly areas like Kolukkumalai. Image credits: Sudharsan Kannan

Tamil scholar and retired Tamil Professor/HOD from Auxilium college in Vellore, Dr. Kamala Natarajan explains me how the humans led their lives in the four main ecosystems classified in Tamil, the main food crops harvested in each land type and how trade of food crops/ items happened between each other in case of dependencies. She finally concludes her speech by quoting the below verse from Silapadhikaram:

முல்லையும் குறிஞ்சியும் முறைமையில் திரிந்து
நல்லியல்பு இழந்து நடுங்கு துயர் உறுத்துப்
பாலை என்பதோர் படிவம் கொள்ளும்

As mentioned in Silappadikaram, whenever Kurinji and Mullai wither and loose their fertility, they become a land of suffering and the croplands transform into Palai (desert). This process is termed as desertification of landscape. Dr. Kamala explains in her speech that Palai is not a naturally formed eco-system and as mentioned in tamil poems, an uncultivated land transforms into a desert due to lack of rains or wrong human actions. Initial research study on the transformation of lush green Sahara to dryland suggests the possible hand of humans in alteration of the landscape through extensive goat grazing, land-scape burning, land clearing practices which resulted in water deficit in that area. Sadly, the delta areas of Tamil Nadu are slowly becoming uncultivable lands due to lack of rains and are in the process of transitioning into deserts due to lack of awareness. It’s a known fact that thorny bushes requiring less water and care are a part of a desert land. And to match this fact, a major part of Tamil Nadu has been invaded by the thorny bushes of a desert surving tree like Seemai Karuvelam” thus proving that Tamil nadu has slowly started inheriting characteristics of a desert landscape.

Tamil inching towards the desertification of landscape. Photo captured in cultivable land of Nagapattinam in Sep 2017.

The chemical based farming titled as Green Revolution, which started in 1970s as a ray of hope for farmers, finally ended up taking up more and more lives of a number of farmers leaving India as farmers were left to stare at an unfertile land after application of heavy chemicals into the soil aside the water deficits caused by ecosystem changes. We need to understand that the situation is not going to improve immediately and atleast our generation would be facing more and more water deficits until the ecosystem in the mountains, forests and croplands are restored to its original pattern. The process of growing trees as high as 300-400 feet in the mountains may take hundreds of years and is not an overnight affair. Having lost a considerable portion of our forests to man-made forest fires and greed, planting trees along the mountains is something that all of the humankind need to get together and initiate on a priority atleast for the situation to improve for the next generation. We are going through a crisis wherein our farmers, the food producers are committing suicides due to lack of huge loan or debts and unsuitable atmosphere for agriculture across Tamil Nadu. In India, we are importing huge amounts of pulses, wheat, oils and other food products and exporting cotton. Over the past few years, our farmers have been brainwashed to produce and export cotton in place of the much needed pulses and food crops. Revathi mam, who is one of the advisors for World bank on organic farming tells me about a advisory from UN predicting crores of deaths due to famine and extreme food scarcity. In case the countries, that have been exporting pulses and food crops to India decide to stop their exports to India, we are indeed going to face huge food scarcity. Over the last 13-14 years, Mrs. Revathi and her husband have been generating awareness among the farming communities about sustainable farming techniques (that have survived the test of time and extensively used by our ancestors) in their attempt to impart the required skills to shape a farmer to be self-reliant decision maker even during worst situations like natural disasters.

Cartoon courtesy – Indian Express – 3-Jan-2017  (

I generally don’t prefer ending my blog posts on a negative note. However, we need to understand that if the farmer suicides continue, most of us would be left to die due to hunger if we cannot produce our own crops. From the most poor to the super-rich, everyone owes their three square meals a day to the efforts of a farmer and the death of every single farmer is a huge loss to the growth of a nation. The efforts taken by Revathi mam to generate awareness about age-old agricultural techniques (which guarantee good yields and profits for farmers alongside improving soil fertility)  among farmers and provide the required training and market support to farmers to bring down their suicides, deserve a lot of praise. Thanks to Tamil experts Dr. Kamala Natarajan and Mrs. Bhuvanashree Natarajan for helping me with their valuable inputs for this blog post.

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