Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India.

Author:Monius, Anne
Position:Book review

Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India. Edited by MARTHA ANN SELBY and INDIRA VISWANATHAN PETERSON. SUNY Series in Hindu Studies. Albany, NY: STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK PRESS, 2008. Pp. x + 326. $80.

Although five of the ten essays included in this volume have appeared in substantially the same form elsewhere (pp. ix-x), Tamil Geographies presents a fascinating series of meditations on the complex ways in which the Tamil-speaking peoples of southern India have imagined, constructed, and dwelt in space and place across two millennia. With contributions from scholars of literature, history, religion, architecture, and anthropology, the volume as a whole displays both unsurprising variation across time and genre as well as remarkable consistency in the ways in which Tamil poets, architects, patrons, villagers, and even p[e.bar]y (ghosts) mark and fill with manifold meanings the landscape, the village, the home, the temple, and even the bus stand.

Given both the aesthetic focus of classical Tamil poetics (the so-called Cankam literature) on five distinct tinai or landscape motifs and the well-documented insistence on local sites in early Tamil Saiva and Vaisnava devotional poetry, the literary imagining of space and place clearly plays an important role in Tamil Geographies. Martha Ann Selby's "Dialogues of Space, Desire, and Gender in Tamil Cankam Poetry" (pp. 17-42) outlines the general conventions of classical Tamil poetry, organized around landscapes both "inner" (akam) and "outer" (puram) and their attendant situations of love and martial conflict; she argues that the boundaries between "inner" and "outer" are far more porous than scholars have previously assumed, and that the ultimate goal of classical poetry and poetics is the erasure of any split between self and landscape. The late Norman J. Cutler, in "Four Spatial Realms in Tirukk[o.bar]vaiy[a.bar]r" (pp. 43-57), offers a compelling analysis of an important ninth-century Saiva poetic work that intentionally weaves together the tinai of the classical literary tradition, the places of the great lord Siva located in the Tamil-speaking South, the cosmologies of pan-Indic pur[a.bar]nic mythology, and the interior space within each devotee's mind and heart. (The spatial theme of the volume aside, Cutler's essay provides the most extended scholarly treatment of this particular Tamil Saiva work in English to date.) Moving forward a millennium, Indira...

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