Nirmal Selvamony

Today land is considered, for the most part, an object to be possessed, an economic entity, particularly, a factor of production. As material or raw material, it stands in a 'materialistic' or reductionist relationship with man (Leopold 238). In the history of mankind such a perception was unknown until the arrival of the so-called civilised man. To the indigenous people (Schmidt 45) who have been in this planet for several thousands of years, this modern perception could have been totally incomprehensible, and even ridiculous. Being so unique, this relationship deserves close scrutiny as to its legitimacy and ethical significance.

Land has also been regarded as a living being, often deemed sacred, standing in a communitarian relationship with man enjoying autonomy and dignity even as a human person. This relationship has been perceived as a sort of kinship which can be summed up in just three words, "cognatus, ergo sum" (I am related, therefore I am) (Pobee 49). Indigenous people believed that they existed only because they stood in relationship with nature, the other human beings, and the sacred. For example, the Pueblo Indians believe that unfortunate happenings result 'not as a punishment by a supreme being or beings, but because of a break in the interrelatedness of the universe. Man alone can disturb the orderliness and harmoniousness of the universe. He may break it by ill feeling toward another, or toward a number of individuals; indeed, even by disliking or perceiving ugliness in some aspect of the universe. He may do so by taking more food than is necessary for sustenance, or by not being generous in sharing and giving what he has, [sic] He may break the balance by killing more game than is essential to supply himself and his relatives with food or by taking more clay or more pigment than is necessary to make needed pottery vessels. Not only must man use sparingly of the food and material resources of the universe but he is required to reciprocate by appropriate propitiatory rites. These range all the way from offering corn meal, corn pollen, prayer feathers, and prayer sticks to elaborate ceremonial dances made "as beautiful as possible" and participated in by the whole village.' (Dozier 81-82).

While man and land are the only two parties involved in any reductionist relationship, the sacred (spirit beings, ancestral spirits and culture heroes) figures as a third party, besides the other two, in a holistic relationship. These three parties are so integrated that each cannot be spoken of apart from the other. Even as the land is permeated by the sacred, man is also part of the world of spirit beings. There may be several instances from aboriginal communities where the three parties are not merely tied up in a close, intimate relationship, but are considered identical. To the prehistoric peoples, the "sun, moon, earth, animals, plants, and ancestors were spirit beings... Hunters had a mystical solidarity with animals and the spirit beings... they experienced the sacred through gods and goddesses of sky and earth, domestic plants, and animals." (Schmidt 45-46).

Accordingly, land is seen as sacred being, goddess or divine mother (Note 2), and human beings as divine or as semi-divine. Like the Indians, American Indians have also looked upon land as a sacred being with due reverence and awe. It is this perception that underlies the words of the American Indian chief Smohalla: "You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest... You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it and be rich like white men. But how dare I cut off my mother's hair? (McLuhan 56; Shiva 19). To him land was mother goddess who sustained him. Many indigenous people such as the Akans of Africa believe that man belongs to a family of the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born (Pobee 49).

Reductionist or holistic, the relationship between man and land ought to be ethical. Any discussion of the ethical implications of land-man relationship will deal with man's claims in land. These claims could be deliberated under three categories -- rights, duties and goods (Everett 50-58; Note 3).

Land rights (Everett 51-54) may be either ownership rights or rights in land one does not own as such. Ownership rights may include rights to use a certain plot of land, enjoy the income therefrom; the right to transfer ownership to somebody else or to alter the land for either erecting a house or some other building or tilling a patch of waste land and irrigating or for some other purpose. People also have rights in land they do not own individually. For example, the common lands in Indian villages, namely, the grazing lots, forest land and water bodies such as ponds and tanks could not be owned but made use of by the villagers according to the tradition of a certain village (Agarwal, Narain 13; Gadgil, Guha 2). Rights in land may entail certain duties or obligations in land, which may have to do either with maintenance or transfer of land. There have been laws that required that cultivable lands should not be left fallow. Inscriptions from Tamilnatu (of South India) have made exhortations such as these: "Every piece of land shall be in constant use; land shall be levelled, jungles cleared, and always shall land be arable." (Krishnan 266). We also learn that persons from royal families were decreed not to buy certain kinds of land. Only the subjects could buy them for cultivation and not more than thirteen and a half acres (Krishnan 266). Duties in land may have to do with transfer of land from person to person as in the case of parent to children.

We want to have rights in land and know what obligations result therefrom because it affords us certain goods. The goods in land may be of several kinds - security, enjoyment, expression and so on (Everett 54-58). Residential, occupational and communitarian territories provide us with security needed for our daily life. Today a country deems it one of its primary duties to guard the borders of its territory so that it can provide security to its people. Individually or collectively, persons express themselves by altering land, by building monuments, tombs and memorials. Land could also be seen as nature's expression of beauty, and order. Theistic societies may see it as God's expression of power and wisdom. Land also provides enjoyment of various kinds - scenic beauty and diverse forms of recreation and so on.

Discussions of land ethics today often privilege the human individual, rather than the community of which (s)he is a part. Therefore, the claims in land are often those of the individual's rights, duties and goods. Such individual-centred ethics is often materialistic. But how do humans make claims in land when their relationship to it is holistic? In the foraging societies, people lived off the land without attempting to own it. To many foragers the idea of ownership could be totally strange. Individuals were not usually tied to specific territories but enjoyed rights to utilize the resources of several areas because of kin networks (Peoples, Bailey 298). Among the North American Indians land was 'regarded as belonging to the tribe. Neither the Indian individual nor the family possessed vested rights in land, although each family might appropriate or have assigned to it, for cultivation or gathering, that required for its own needs.' (Indians 55). None including the tribal chief could sell or give away tribal holdings. In Wogeo island in New Guinea, 'some elements of the native land-tenure system are individual, others communal. A person may perhaps claim the privilege of erecting a dwelling in the village of his birth but will have to abide by the decision of the other inhabitants as to where it shall be placed.' (Hogbin, Lawrence 4).

While the materialistic society utilizes the land primarily for agriculture and industry by altering the face

of the earth and degrading it often considerably, the holistic societies tread the earth much more gently. When the white man tried to evict the American Indians from their home in the Wallowa valley for a distant reservation, Toohulhulsote, a Nez Perce made a speech. He said, "The earth is our mother, and her body should not be disturbed by the hoe or the plough. Men should subsist by the spontaneous productions of Nature. The sovereignty of the earth cannot be sold or given away." (Indians 56).

Most societies which enjoy a holistic relationship with land know nothing like land sale or lease (Hogbin, Lawrence 33). The equivalent of income from land could be the produce from it. In such societies where agriculture is practised, the people are expected to cultivate their portion of land and not leave it fallow. For instance, a similar injunction governs the 'land policy' of the natives of the Wogeo island in New Guinea. Men are allotted plots of land they 'watch over' and cultivate. Even at the cost of inconvenience they have to cultivate them, for, it is their duty to the soil (Hogbin, Lawrence 44). If arable lands require human intervention, other special plots of land such as the sacred groves shall not be cleared on account of the ceremonies performed there. As in India there prevails such prohibition in Malaita, one of the Solomon Islands. Occupation of special plots bestows prestige also (Hogbin, Lawrence 5).

Now let us describe briefly a paradigm of holistic land-man relationship (Sale 77-83) known as tinai from the culture of the Tamils of South India. (Selvanayagam 155-166; Sivathamby 337-352; Selvamony 215-236; Dayanandan, 'The Origin', 27-43). From early Tamil sources we learn that tinai is a biome-based social order integrating naturally land, man and god. There are five basic tinai-s, the montane, scrub, arid, riverine and coastal regions, each having its indigenous natural and human communities. According to early Tamil grammarians (tolkappiyam III. 1.1), the entire face of the earth was divided into the five regions and humans had learnt to live in harmony with them from very ancient times. They held that humans learnt everything they should from their environment, which consisted of the naturo-cultural features such as the trees, birds, animals, religion, and music. By virtue of their power to generate thoughts and feelings in humans, these features were known as karu (tolkappiyam III. 1.18).

Each of the five regions had its own appropriate mode of resource use (gathering, pastoralism, cultivation, and industry, Gadgil and Guha 14-66) and the following table will show these clearly:








Slash & Burn


Irrigated cultivation












Arid land




Riverine plain






Sea coast



+ = dominant mode - = occasional mode

Diversity was the operative principle of the tinai societies. Each tinai was unique and supported a lifesytle apt to it. But all the five regions enjoyed equal significance and importance and the people of no region considered either themselves or their region superior or inferior.

With time things changed. Due to the influence of alien forces such as Aryan colonisation, the caste system was introduced into India, particularly into South India. This system soon reorganised the Tamil country drastically pushing the original tinai system to isolated, small pockets in mountainous and forest regions. Of all the social changes that occurred now, a significant one involved man-land relationship. When the three monarchs emerged from tin|ai societies and asserted their supremacy in collusion with the Aryan priestly class, they cleared large tracts of forest and created new settlements along the banks of the rivers such as Ka$aviri and Vaikai (Ludden 16-18; Stein 68). This large-scale clearing project won the Pallava kings such titles as katuvetti (clearer of forest) and katavarkon (the chief of the forest people) among others (Minakshi 361-362). Now the riverine plains assumed immense importance as they brought wealth and power to its proud possessors. The vast tracts of plains brought under the plough were known as wetland (nancey, literally, "good field') in contrast with dry land (pun\cey, literally, "inferior field") which was rain-dependent. If wetland connoted goodness, auspiciousness and wealth, its counterpart did inferiority and meagre subsistence (Ludden 20-21).

As for the history of the land paradigms, the pentadic tinai system was now reduced to the dyadic system of wetland and dryland. If the former was egalitarian and diverse, the latter hierarchic and reductionist. With increasing industrialisation, the pace of the reductionist trend was accelerated. The adoption of megatechnology in place of small or medium technologies, has altered the earth's surface markedly. This new monstrous technology along with increasing urbanisation make claims to meet the needs of the increasing population pressure. At what cost? Nothing less than degradation of the environment - depletion of the non-renewable resources, increase in toxicity in the environment, acid rain, greenhouse effect, increased disease rate and several other disastrous consequences - making even survival (let alone 'living') impossible. Of the ten million species of life forms on this planet, no species other than the homo sapien has destroyed the earth's environment to this grievous extent (Dayanandan, 'The True Dimensions'). Progressively, the earth's surface is turning into a vast stretch of wasteland (land that cannot sustain organisms) reducing the previous binary land paradigm further into a single land category. This shows that not only the history of the Tamils, but also that of humankind has been nothing but a gallery of landscapes. "The writers of history have seldom noted the importance of land use. They seem not to have recognised that the destinies of most of man's empires and civilisations were determined largely by the way land was used. While recognising the influence of environment on history, they fail to note that man usually changed or despoiled his environment." (Schumacher 103, 107).

What we have discussed so far shows that man's original partnership with land later changed into a reductionist relationship leaving both man and land desolate and disoriented. At the very brink of disaster, it is man who has fewer chances of survival, not land, for, as Hopkins affirms,

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things ('God's Grandeur', II.9-10).

If all this is true, what should be our agenda for redefining our relationship with land as a more just and peaceful one, in short, a holistic one? Some of the urgent measures will include the following:

a) resettle in all the five regions (mentioned above) adopting the modes of resource use appropriate to each. This may call for sincere, humane, and firm political decisions and careful redrawing of geographical boundaries;

b) in matters of geographical extent of settlement, population of settlements, technology, size of composition of political councils, size of educational institutions, and more importantly, human needs, let the scale be small;

c) revive good indigenous traditions of a region in all domains of life including science, technology, art and religion and continue them with only necessary modifications; and

d) let all the adopted measures be based on the ultimate values of justice, well-being and love.




Agarwal, Anil, and Sunita Narain. Towards Green Villages. New Delhi: Centre for Science and


Dayanandan, P. 'The Origin and Meaning of the tinai concept in can^kam Literature,' Indological Essays:

Commemorative Volume II for Gift Siromoney. Ed. Michael Lockwood. Tambaram: Dept. of Statistics, Madras

Christian College, 1992, 27-43.

Dayanandan, 'The True Dimensions of the Environmental Crisis', Madras Christian College Magazine. LXII

(1995-96): 31-33.

Dozier, Edward P. Hano: A Tewa Indian Community in Arizona. Holt, Rinehart And Winston, 1966.

Gadgil, Madhav, and Ramachandra Guha. This Fissured Land: An Ecological History Of India. Oxford University

Press, 1992.

Hogbin, Ian, Peter Lawrence. Studies In New Guinea Land Tenure. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1967.

Indians Of The Americas. National Geographic Society, Washington D.C. 1955.

James, E.O. Myth And Ritual in the Ancient Near East. London: Thames and Hudson, 1958.

James, E.O. The Cult Of The Mother Goddess. 1959.

Krishnan, A., kalvettil va$l\viyal (life as depicted in inscriptions). Chennai: man@iva$cakar Publishing House, 1991.

(in Tamil)

Leopold, Aldo. 'A Land Ethic,' The Green Reader: Essays Toward A Sustainable Society. Ed. Andrew Dobson.

San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991.

Ludden, David. Peasant History in South India. Oxford University Press, rpt. 1993.

McLuhan, T.C. Touch The Earth. New York: Pocket Books, 1972.

Minakshi, C. Administration and Social Life Under the Pallavas. Chennai: University of Madras, 1977.

Peoples, James, Garrick Bailey. Humanity: An Introduction To Cultural Anthropology. St. Paul, New York and

other places: West Publishing Company, rpt. 1995.

Pobee, John S. Toward An African Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. 'Bioregionalism,' The Green Reader. Ed. Andrew Dobson.

Sami, P.L. tamil@ ilakkiyattil ta$yt teyva val\ipatu (Mother Goddess Worship in Tamil Literature), Chennai: New

Century Book House, 3rd rpt., 1980. (in Tamil)

Schmidt, Roger. Exploring Religion. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, rpt. 1998.

Selvanayagam, S., "The Regional Concept In Tamil Literature", Journal of Tamil Studies, Vol. I, 1, Apr. 1969,


Schumacher, E.F. Small Is Beautiful. Harper Colophon Books, rpt., 1975.

Selvamony, Nirmal. 'An Alternative Social Order', Value Education Today. Ed. J.T.K. Daniel & Nirmal

Selvamony, New Delhi: All-India Association For Christian Higher Education & Chennai: Madras Christian

College, 1990. 215-236.

Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive. Zed Books, rpt. 1992.

Sivathamby, K. 'tinaik kotpattin camuka atippataikal' (the social bases of the tinai concept), araycci (July 1971):


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Selected Papers Of The Twentieth Annual Meeting. Ed. Max L. Stackhouse. Waterloo, Ontario: Council on the

Study of Religion, 1979, 45-73.

Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths And Symbols In Indian Art And Civilization. Princeton University, rpt. 1974.


1. Several terms such as 'primitive', 'prehistoric', 'oral', 'tribal' and 'aboriginal' are used interchangeably to refer to the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic Age and the cultivators and pastoralists of the Neolithic Age. The total population of these peoples in 1970 was about 200 million to 500 million, i.e., about five per cent of the earth's population then.

2. The cult of the Earth Goddess or Mother Earth was prevalent among several prehistoric peoples. Innumerable images of this goddess have been found 'throughout the ancient Near East, in the lands of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Danube Valley.' (Zimmer 92; James's 4th ch. and his The Cult Of The Mother Goddess; Sami 1980). She was represented as the creative force in all nature. Here is a list of her names in several cultures:

Name Place

1. Cybele Phrygia & Lydia

2. Istar Akkadia

3. Isis Egypt

4. Gaea, Hera, Rhea, Aphrodite,

Demeter Greece

5. Maia, Ops, Tellus, Ceres Rome

6. Hepat Anatolia

7. Kiririsha Elam

8. Anahita Iran

9. Inanna; Ninhursaga

(mother of the land) Sumeria

10. Ma Cappadociae

11. Nila makal|, pu$makal| (earth-


nila mat|antai, pumatu

(earth woman)

nilat teyvam, putevi

(earth goddess)

among several others Tamilnatu (India)

3. I am greatly indebted to Prof. Everett's paper for providing me with an ethical framework (discussed in

paragraphs 1-7 of this essay) to approach the questions of land.


* First presented in the Seminar on "The Changing Face of the Coastal Zone Between Madras and Mamallapuram",

Madras Christian College, Tambaram, on 12 October, 1996, and subsequently as a modified version in the

International Bioethics Workshop in Chennai, University of Madras, between the 16-19 January 1997, and yet

another with Lakshmanan Sabaratnam (Davidson College, NC, USA), 'Holistic Land Ethics', in a Seminar on Land

Alienation Among Rural And Tribal Societies, sponsored by the University Grants Commission, at the Department

of Anthropology, University of Madras, Chennai, 13-14 March 1999. For more details of Bioethics Workshop, visit http://www.biol.tsukuba.ac.jp/~macer/index.html


tinai 2