Mudhumakkal Thazhi - The Ancient Funeral System Of Tamils

What did the early Tamil people do when someone was dead? Were the dead bodies cremated or buried? Were there elaborate funeral rituals, as they have today? Today, most of them are Hindus who are cremated with extensive funeral ceremonies that can last up to 16 days. During my recent visit to India, I learnt that the ancient Tamil people had a fascinating way of treating the dead. They used giant burial urns called Mudhumakkal Thazhi or EemaThazhi. However, there are a few different customs around this burial system. Let us go 3000 years back, and take a look at their life.

When people got older, they became senile and stopped moving around. They couldn't talk much and their eyesight and hearing deteriorated. At this stage, these people were moved outside the village, to a specific location. A small stone house called "Madhamadhakka Thazhi" (Tamil: மதமதக்கத் தாழி) would be erected by the family members. In Tamil language, "madhamadha" means immobile and "thazhi" means a chamber or vessel. Every evening, a woman from the family would visit this chamber to feed the elderly person. She would also do other household chores like cleaning and lighting an oil lamp. This procedure would go on for several years until the old man/woman dies.
A prehistoric old age chamber found in Peru, similar to Madhamadhakka Thazhi. Note the very small entrance in front
When this old man eventually dies, the family would create a huge earthen pot called Mudhumakkal Thazhi (Tamil: முதுமக்கள் தாழி). In Tamil, mudhumakkal roughly translates to "old people". The body would be placed in a sitting position inside the pot along with his belongings. Archaeologists have found primitive weapons and tools inside these urns, which hints that they might have believed in rebirth or afterlife.
A mudhumakkal thazhi exhibited at Puducherry museum, 2nd Century B.C
Note that concept of burying a man's belongings is very similar to Egyptian and Mayan burial systems. There seems to be a worldwide custom to bury a man's belongings with him.
Mayas of Mexico were buried with their belongings - Seen in Anthropology Museum, Merida
OK, back to Tamil burial system. The urn would be placed into a hole dug specifically for the burial. A huge stone slab would be placed on top of this urn and then covered with mud. This was done to make sure that scavenging animals would not be able to dig the corpse out. A small stone pillar (nadukal) would be placed on it to identify the burial location. This implies that the family of the deceased might have performed annual rituals on the burial site.
A smaller burial urn which is 2 feet tall and one and a half feet wide
Buried Alive? In 2011, a collection of four burial urns were found neatly stacked one on top of another in Soorakuppam village. These urns reportedly buried during 100 B.C, consisted of four skeletons of a male, 2 females and a child. Since they must have been buried together at the same time, there is considerable doubt if wives and loved ones were buried alive with the deceased. There are also unconfirmed reports of multiple skeletons found in the same urn. This has sparked a furor that women, children, servants and even pets were buried alive, when a rich person dies.

There is yet another theory that very old people who were unable to walk and take care of themselves were buried alive in these urns. According to this theory, these senile people would be given a ritualistic bath and placed in the Mudhumakkal Thazhi. His/Her belongings like plates, cups, jewels and weapons would be placed inside the urn. Then the urn would be carried to a specific location where it would be buried. The old person inside the vessel would basically suffocate to death.
Mudhumakkal Thazhi found in Thanjavur art gallery - 100 B.C
In early Tamil literature, it is also mentioned that sages and saints predicted their end of life and would willingly sit inside these urns. They would begin their meditation inside while the urn was buried by the disciples. In Sangam literature, Purananuru poems talk about these burial ceremonies as well.

What else was found inside these urns? Iron objects and weapons have been found in these vessels, reminding us that Tamils were pioneers in the use of iron at a very early age. Note that the Dravidians invented crucible steel as early as 300 B.C.  Earthen jewelry, carved wooden objects, earthen vessels like plates and cups were found inside. Invariably, all these urns had oil lamps placed inside them.
A collection of burial urns at Puducherry museum
These urns have been found in a wide variety of sizes ranging from 1 foot long (containing infants) to 7 feet. A typical urn would be 6 feet long and 3 feet wide to hold an adult with ample space for other objects. These urns were usually buried near the river or village outskirts. Archaeologists continue to unearth a few every year in Tamil Nadu. You can find a few exhibits in Thanjavur art gallery and Puducherry museum.

Why are these urns still intact? It is almost a miracle that most of these earthen pots are found without any cracks or deformation. These urns were carefully baked in kilns and must have been tested for their durability. Some of these urns were found painted in red, ocher and black. Primitive symbols resembling snakes (Naga?) and inscriptions similar to Tamil-Brahmi have been found.
A huge mudhumakkal thazhi - 6 feet long and 4 feet wide
Were there VIPs during this time? You bet! In Beemandapalli village, a fancy 8 feet long sarcophagus was unearthed. The sarcophagus, called Eemapezhai (Tamil:ஈமப்பேழை) was extremely well made and resembles a modern day coffin. The skeleton was found intact, lying in a supine position. This must have been a rich or a noble person. In the same location a smaller sarcophagus was found which contained an infant's skeleton.The sarcophagus used to bury infants are called "Thottil Pezhai" (Tamil: தொட்டில் பேழை).

The Mudhumakkal Thazhi funeral system was in custom from 3000 B.C till 3rd century A.D. No burial urns from 4th century on-wards have been unearthed. Researchers think that this custom became obsolete around 400 A.D. It is a shame that we know very little about this ancient Tamil tradition. If you know more, please drop a comment below - it will be helpful to all of us.

13 comments:

Hi Alexia Chang, yes just include the tag "From Youtube: Phenomenal Travel Videos" whenever you air my content. Thank you. You can contact me at phenomenalplace.com-at-gmail for faster response. Have a good day.

Thanks alot i find tis article very useful

When my dad was a young boy, they found four such urns buried in their field -- In Kerala, Trishur, when they were ploughing. They were excited thinking they found some treasure. But when they opened the urn, which was sealed at the mouth with a stone, all they found was a handful of mud. Disappointed, one of the boys, broke the urn into small pieces. My dad remembers the other urns lying around the filed for a long time, but they had no clue that it would be of some archaeological value. Sigh!

my grandfather who is in deathbed now.. could not eat.. could not drink.. he holds his legs close to his chest.. he could not lie flat.. doctors said its time.. thats y i surfed net to know elders last days.. may b ancient people live too long n reach this stage n so urns with sitting position skeletons.. may b to end their sufferings buried alive..?!

my grandfather who is in deathbed now.. could not eat.. could not drink.. he holds his legs close to his chest.. he could not lie flat.. doctors said its time.. thats y i surfed net to know elders last days.. may b ancient people live too long n reach this stage n so urns with sitting position skeletons.. may b to end their sufferings buried alive..?!

Certain records there indicate things like people left for iron works during the construction of pyramids.A New archaeological site has been dug several hundred kilometers from where the site which gives clear ideas about the elaborate village plannings and other artifacts intact due to population more of the area are unable to be excavated there.

This mudhumakkal thazi is a lie. The west want to show hindus buried. Tamil creamated they bever buried. How many ptos had skeleton ?

Thennavan's comment that Tamils cremated the dead shows he has no idea of Tamil customs even today... Cremation - holding Fire as a deity is recent phenomenon copying the Brahminic rites.. The saivaites even today bury their dead - if land is available, Thennavan should move out of his cocooned life and see places within Tamilnadu... In Salem district of Tamilnadu and whole of Kongu area, burial is the norm for Saivaite Tamils. Cremation is only for those who die of incurable diseases / accidents / murders / suicides etc - their body is not FIT for interning in Mother Earth. The Vaishnavites burn the bodies, as also Farmer castes like Goundars - if they bury their dead, then land available will shrink.

The position of burial in Thalis was foetal not sitting. The Thali is symbolic of the womb. When body is placed inside, the body has to be curled, hands near feet like a child in mother's womb. The ritual is like sending the dead back to nature - and ofcourse they would have believed in rebirth. Averments that people were buried alive is silly. Ancient Tamils valued life, Multiple burials could have been deaths at same time family due to epidemics etc. The coffin like burials could have been inflenced by their links with Europe and Egypt - especially Egypt.

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There are many Madhamadhakka Thazhi at the museum inside Thiru MalaiNayakar Mahal in Madurai. The museum is not maintained. However, has many interesting stories to tell.

Yes Sir,
The article is very inttesting yo find that such type of urns can be found here in my native place: BAGEPALLI of Erestwhile district of KOLAR of KARNATAKA. But the local authorities are not showing any inttest to conserve these GraveYards.

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