• Akhila Balasubramaniam

Sustainability in Tamil Culture

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

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The Tamil equivalent word for sustainability is not frequently used in conversations. Similar to the word, the concept also goes unnoticed. Quite often, it is concealed in what appears to be resourcefulness, simplicity, caution, frugality, deliberation, and so on.

My grandparents, particularly my grandfather, were pioneers in practising a sustainable lifestyle much before the western idea of sustainability was impressed upon India. My grandmother would stitch bags from their worn-out clothes, and my grandfather would use these bags for their grocery shopping. I can’t recall a single instance of him travelling by car or taxi. He never considered another option than public transport.

One of my dearest childhood memories is going around the suburb with my grandmother. Whenever I visited them, she used to take me around in share-autos (an auto-rickshaw version of shared-taxi).

As I fondly reminisce them, I realise that most of their habits are cultural. Many of these habits are elegantly woven into our lifestyle, that it is easy to perceive it as nothing more than tradition.

Eating from banana leaf

It is customary to use the banana leaf as the plate in Tamil culture. Even today it is used to serve food in, at weddings and other festivities. Conventionally, Tamil cuisine is gravy-intensive. Unlike other leaves, the wax coating in the banana leaves prevents it from getting soaked.

  • The natural antioxidants in it, add more nutritious value to the food. There are no traces of soap or other chemicals, making it a healthy replacement for metal utensils, back then.

  • The abundance of banana plants meant it was easily accessible and economical.

  • To use every part of the plant to its potential is a trademark of Tamil culture.

  • After using, they are buried in the soil or composted. In any case, it decomposes, without harming the environment.

It might not be viable to use them in place of metal utensils today, but in places where banana trees are grown in plenty, they are certainly better alternatives to plastic plates.

Santhai (Local farmers' market)

This is not exclusive to the Tamil culture, but noteworthy, nevertheless. Before the advent of refrigerators, local farmers' markets were the only option, unless you grew your food. While there are immense benefits of food storage and transportation, the value of local food is at a low ebb.

  • Eating from the local farmers' market ensures that your food is fresh and seasonal. The shorter the time is between harvest and your plate, the more nutrient-rich the food is.

  • Your body is in harmony with nature when you eat according to the seasons.

  • It supports local small businesses, which significantly boosts the local economy.

  • It reduces food waste. A significant proportion of food is wasted in transit, due to poor storage conditions. The food is bruised or spoilt in the journey, which otherwise could've made its way to someone's plate.

  • The planet will thank you for not polluting with emissions from transporting the food.

Having said this, there are a few countries where growing local food is not an option, particularly in the winter months. Some countries import all their food. But if you are in countries where you can opt for local foods, then make use of your power to choose.

A lot of sustainable practices are passed down from one generation to another, and some of them disappear in due course. Carrying forth these customs for its cultural richness invokes enthusiasm in some people, but not all. To ensure that these do not become obsolete, elucidating the significance of each of these practices is crucial. This deeper understanding encourages younger generations to commend how ingenious these practices are, and thereby enthusiastically continue it. I am proud of my cultural heritage, but I wouldn't forget to give my predecessors due credit for integrating economic, social, environmental and cultural sustainability into everyday habits so effortlessly. What I've said would come as no surprise because sustainability is native and embedded deep within our lives.

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