Geographical Setting: Kanyakumari

The term acan as a designation for medical and martial practitioners of the vital spots is most commonly used in the southernmost portions of Tamil Nadu. Another designation for such practitioners is varmani (Maniyan 2012, 9), the meaning of which, though not found in dictionaries, can be deduced as “one who takes care of vital spots.” Both the terms acan and varmani are rarely found in most of North and Central Tamil Nadu, however, where people are not normally aware of its meaning. It is rather the regions of mainland India’s extreme south—the Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts in Tamil Nadu state—but also some southern parts of Kerala, where vital spot practices are found (figure 0.1).

Almost every publication and every author appear to agree that the southernmost part of India is the most prominent place of practice and place of origin of vital spot practices (Iracamani 1996, 2), and that all distinguished acans belong to this region (Balasubramaniam and Dharmalingam 1991, 27). Accordingly, many Tamil practitioners living and practicing elsewhere claim ancestry and origin from Kanyakumari district (Citamparatanupillai 1991, 76). Whether this is done on the basis of an actual relation to Kanyakumari or not, it further substantiates this region’s strong connection with vital spot practices. Many manuscripts on vital spots reproduce myths explaining the origin or discovery of vital spots, which further connect these with the extreme South of India. Some of these myths ascribe the descent of varmam loci to the people of Kanyakumari as a gift from god Siva, in order to bestow upon the righteous of this area both martial prowess and medical skills.[1] [2] Other myths connect the vital spots closely to the Siddhars, the alleged founding fathers of siddha medicine, who are here accredited with having discovered these vulnerable spots and having developed related therapies. In Kanyakumari district today, these Siddhars are understood to have been active almost exclusively in this region; several hill caves and temples bear the inscription “abiding place of Siddhars.”11 The whole Kanyakumari district is generally portrayed as the abiding place of Siddhars and as the cradle of varmakkalai (Balasubramaniam and Dharmalingam 1991, 26; Immanuel 2007, 110). It is from here, most acans imagine and state, that teachings on the vital spots were diffused to other parts of South India, most notably to present-day Kerala, but also to China and Japan, where the techniques are today more popularly known as acupuncture and acupressure, respectively. Kanyakumari is hence home to numerous acans and the setting of much of this book.

o.i a The region

figure o.i a The region: Kanyakumari. Maps created by G. Muthusankar, Department of Geomatics, Institut Fran^ais de Pondichery

o.i в (see 0.1 A)

figure o.i в (see 0.1 A)

Kanyakumari is the smallest district of Tamil Nadu after Chennai. With an area of 1,684 km2 and a population amounting to 1,870,374, it is one of the most densely populated regions of India, according to the 2011 census. Kanyakumari has been termed “Lands End,” as it is the southernmost district of the landmass of India. Nagercoil town, its administrative capital, is situated only about 20 km from the tip of the subcontinent, where Kanyakumari town is located. The district is well developed in many regards, and features as one of the most advanced districts, which is attested to by a literacy rate of 91.75 percent and a high female sex ratio.[3] It borders on Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu in the north and east and to Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala state in the west, and with the latter Kanyakumari has a lot in common. In the first place, Kanyakumari shares Kerala’s climatic conditions and tropical vegetation, which allow for two to three rice harvests a year, abundant coconut groves and banana fields, and a lush green appearance, as water is not the rare commodity it is in other parts of Tamil Nadu (figure 0.2). Kanyakumari receives good rains from both the northeast and the southwest monsoons and temperatures are mild during the whole year, allowing for a rich and intensive agricultural utilization. Therefore, lush green paddy fields and coconut topes feature as major marks in the landscape, as do the hilly slopes of the Western Ghats, one of the botanically richest areas of the Indian peninsula, which provide for a diverse medicinal flora (Kingston et al. 2007, 32) (figure 0.3).

Kanyakumari district is one of the oldest geocultural regions of South India (Ram 2008, 137), and a geographically isolated one, moreover,

Lush, green banana fields and coconut groves in Kanyakumari. Photograph by author unless otherwise stated

figure 0.2 Lush, green banana fields and coconut groves in Kanyakumari. Photograph by author unless otherwise stated

Rice fields and steep mountain ranges of the Western Ghats

figure 0.3 Rice fields and steep mountain ranges of the Western Ghats

a fact which according to Stuart Blackburn (1988, xxiii) has contributed to maintaining a strong sense of regional identity. The district is circumscribed by natural borders: surrounded by ocean on three sides—the Arabian Sea on the southwest, the Bay of Bengal on the east, and the Indian Ocean on the south. Partly steep mountain ranges of the Western Ghats to its western and its northern sides further provide for a natural border. Fights for supremacy characterize the history of this fertile and bounded region, with different regional dynasties holding sway over it at different periods: Venad, Cola, Pantiyan, and lastly Tiruvitankur or Travancore claiming supremacy. These dynasties were both Tamil and Malayali, and the alternating rule within this area and its situation of Tamil and Malayali rulers contributed to a mixed cultural set-up (Blackburn 1988, 3; Velappan 2000). Although European powers vied for this area as well from the seventeenth century onwards, it remained a part of Travancore, which was awarded the status of a princely state under British hegemony during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Only in 1956, in the course of state reorganizations, which restructured state boundaries according to linguistic areas, was this region, where the majority of inhabitants speak Tamil, added to what is today Tamil Nadu state and named Kanyakumari.[4] Though the major population is and was Tamil, Blackburn (1988, 4) correctly writes that historically “for at least the past four hundred years, [Kanyakumari] has been a two-tiered society—a Tamil village culture under a Malayali court culture.” Intense social ties between the people of these regions still mark out a unified cultural zone, which cuts across political divisions and the administrative borders of Kerala and Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu (Ram 2001b, 188; 2008, 137). This may explain why the largely geographically bounded practices of the vital spots, transcend the borders of contemporary Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

  • [1] See, for instance, the myth of the celestial twins Ayyan and Kaiyan, who were sent toinstruct the Cera kings in vital spot combat in order to balance the supremacy ofthe NorthernTamil dynasties (Irajentiran 2006; Chidambarathanu Pillai 1991; 1994a; 2008, 3-4).
  • [2] Such as the famous “medicine hill,” Maruthuvalmalai, not far from the tip of thesubcontinent.
  • [3]
  • [4] Kanyakumari district is named after the southernmost temple on landmass India, whichis dedicated to the virgin goddess Kanniyakkumari.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >