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“Bioregion has no Scientific validity!” used to be a regular line of argument by the late Scientist Eric Ramanujam. Eric like most scientists refused to acknowledge or accept any ‘’non-scientific’’ definition of land or region.  More than Eric it was a question regarding the relationship between a Bioregion and Watersheds by a visiting Australian hydrologist that made me think of bioregion as a framework that can be shaped by the Thinai concept of the Tamil land mass definition.

Thinai is an old Tamil word, as old as the oldest literature available in the language itself, the Tholkappiyam. Tholkappiyam defines landmass based on their geographies, however, characterises them based on the life of people who live in the landmass. The five types of landmasses defined are broadly:

  • Kurinji – the hilly terrain and all living species on them
  • Mullai – forest based terrain and forest life
  • Marudham – farm land based life and farm based activities
  • Neidhal – the coastal people, their land, sea and livelihoods
  • Paalai – normally understood as desert, it represents the process of desertification, which in the ancient Tamil script Silappathikaram is not defined spatially, but, temporally. It is defined as what happens to Kurinji and Mullai when the relationship between the humans and the land is fractured.

The naming of the Thinai itself is interesting, each one of them are named after a flower that is unique to that particular region, thereby highlighting the biodiversity of the place. The Thinai-iyal-kotpadu or characteristics of a Thinai is defined not as geographical terms, but, in terms of the cultural characteristics of the place, which includes, the music, food, deity, musical instrument, and much more. This unique way of defining a landmass as a relationship based culture and interaction of people and the land in which they live is unique and contrasts with the modern scientific ways of defining land objectively.

I have observed that the common feature about hydrology, geography, geology and other such land and water studies that are defined by modern science is that they all do not talk about the human relationship in any of these. Human relationship is central to the engagement and the very reason we are studying the land, water, etc., To treat the land and water as though somehow the study will only include non-human intervention understanding belittles the very reason for the study in the first place. While at a different time, it provided modern scientists with the objective understanding of the land and its character, such objective understanding is primarily the problem today when the scientific facts are applied in modern markets that are bereft of the ethos that a more relationship based understanding provides. Modern science has granted itself the ethical licence justified in the name of research. However, the inability of the scientists today to negotiate and impose a stricter ethical code on the market forces that control and commercialize the research outcomes has meant that the scientific community needs to either reimpose a stricter ethical code of conduct for itself or bring in other frameworks that have a better ethical framework to be in use.

To me the Thinai framework that way is far more holistic. I think of diverse forms of Thinai as possible bioregions today, it is an old definition and it is rooted in the way of life of the people of this land, so, it is an indigenous definition of the bioregion, perhaps the oldest such.

The framework of Bioregion today is accepted as a specific geographic area that is distinct from others by the characteristics of its natural environment. Bioregionalism considers bioregions to be defined by the people that inhabit them, who share a unique cultural identity and consider themselves equally at home within the bioregion. Commonalities in cultural identification is a critical component to the bioregional perspective as residents are actively empowered to democratically participate in the protection of their shared resources and native land. The localized interconnectedness in bioregionalism is therefore meant to create a sense of awareness of natural resources, and ultimately to foster interest and care for nature amongst the bioregion’s residents, who are incentivised to place higher value on local natural capital.

Bioregions can both be referred to the geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness, as it binds the society together through the ideas that have emerged about how to live in that place. The self-sufficiency knowledge is also important as it shifts the priorities and decentralizes political power. In theory, a bioregional economy would grant citizens more authority in the direct form of democracy as citizens participate more collectively in local decisions on how and where to distribute resources within their bioregion.

While the bioregional framework today is seen as an ‘’alternate economy’’ framework, it has not reached the level of comprehensive elaboration that the Thinai framework has. While the Tamil literature is replete with references to the Thinai, these are primarily portrayed in romantic terms wherein the diverse landmasses are used for different stages of relationship between the hero and the heroine. The ecological definition and its implications can be peripherally understood through the references in the Puranaanooru and other literature. Unfortunately, there have not been many ecologists studying or interpreting the Thinai concept from the modern ecological imperatives point of view today. The botanist Narasimhan of Madras Christian College (MCC) had several years ago published a small booklet on this subject. Most other literature that I have examined (I was seriously studying this idea about a decade ago and have not kept in touch since, so, if there are any new literature, I may not be aware of the same) on the subject of Thinai only tried to examine the literary presentation rather than the ecological meaning. I had noticed though that the values embedded in the ethos of the thinai concept have percolated into practices and is available in the public domain in Tamil land. For me one of the most persistent value that is deeply percolated into the Tamil social and cultural understanding is the term ‘’self-sufficiency’’ or tharcharbu. This is held as a uniform aspiration among the Tamil communities that needs to be achieved by all societies.  The sanctity of the relationship to land is another value that is unique to the Tamil culture and is cherished even today and embedded in all literature and practices.

In my own research on community governance in Tamil Nadu, I have been stuck by the concept of the eight villages governance structure. The village governance in the Tamil land happened in the multiples of eight. Every eight villages had their own common meeting point and every sixty-four villages had their own maha-panchayat. These systems are similar among the farming communities that I studied, but, I have also noticed that the fishing communities too had similar governance structure.  I have also noticed how the communities had their own distinct name when they were indigenous and considered themselves native to the land, however, those that had settled later had been named based on the settlements (malayalee, mudha karai, rendaam karai, etc.,).

Paamayan, among the modern Tamil thinkers tried to conceptualize and present the thinai framework several years ago. However, that work of his has not been recognized by universities and it has not been followed by others as a framework for applications in life.  My colleague at the Nammalvar Multiversity, Dr. Prema has been researching on what she calls the Thinai Maruthuvam or bioregional healthcare, the hypothesis being that any illness that is caused in a particular region will necessarily have the pharmacopeia available in the biodiversity of the region itself.  She has been working with several traditional healthcare practitioners who believe in this hypothesis and have been experimenting with the same. Similarly, the Auroville based architect, Manu Gopal many years ago had given a talk where he said that any house construction needs to be with the materials that can be ‘’gathered by walking around the region’’. Joss Brooks of Pitchandikulam Forest in Auroville, is another proponent of the bioregional context and has experimented in terms of integrating the Tamil tradition and the modern watershed concepts. Along with Meenakshi of the Tamil Heritage Centre in Auroville, he had initiated the revival of interest in the concept of singing ballads who walked through along the rivers and recorded the way of life and diversity in the region. This literature called the, siru-paanar-aatru-padai  chronicles the walking alongside the river by the singing ballads and their recording of the life and diversity alongside the river. Among the several initiatives by Joss includes educating the students in schools about the regional uniqueness through integrating the thinai knowledge in the local schools. My colleague and the Director of the Nammalvar Multiversity, Baskar has been studying this subject more closely in recent times and has complied several aspects of the Thinai characteristics as applicable in education and understanding of the region as well.



Featured Photo Credits: Baskar, Director Nammalvar Multiversity - 2023 Kulasekarapattinam

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