Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Down the lanes of the past - Thinnais

By Sandhya Ramachandran

A long sweltering summer afternoon; blue skies brilliantly reflecting the sun’s blinding light and longer distances yet to be traversed for destination to come! What better way to rest the tired limbs of a tired body, than to sit and take a breather on the thinnai?!

Traditional South Indian houses made it mandatory to have a thinnai in front. A thinnai is a long narrow platform attached to the front of the house, overlooking the road and shaded by the roof that extends beyond the house. These platforms were leveled smooth and sometimes had stone slabs laid over them, for comfort.

As our culture declares ‘Athithee Deivo Bhava’-the guest is equivalent to the Lord above- this thinnai proved to be an older version of the modern-day’s porch, and was used to receive guests. Close relatives and friends paused at the thinnais to wash their feet and remove their sandals before entering within, while mere acquaintances would be seated there during the entire conversation; the thinnais thus masquerading as ante-chambers of sorts.

Business dealings and talks were often carried out in these spaces, where one could overhear market prices and intensive economics being worked out. Sometimes these thinnais were mini-office spaces in themselves, with a small table set there permanently- taking the role of an office desk.

Thinnais transformed into tuition rooms for kids with the addition of a blackboard propped against one end. Images of a tutor with a cane and a row of kids mechanically repeating verses and numbers are conjured at the very mention of it!

Travelers who needed a moment’s respite from the heat could make use of the thinnai’s cool shade. More often, the inmates left a paanai1 of water that would quench some passer-by’s parched throat. In the nights, one could frequently see these wayfarers who have long distances to go, sleeping in these free ‘guest spaces’. South Indian culture made sure that even strangers-who could not be let into the house due to fear, but still did not deserve to sleep on the roads-could find a comfortable shady spot to spend the night.

And in the mornings, with a cup of freshly brewed kaapi or chaaya in hand, the men folk used to sit in the cozy confines of their thinnais, sometimes with a newspaper, discussing politics, life and what not! In the evenings, the thinnai solely belonged to the womenfolk- their rhythmic chatter and spicy talk infusing life into the place. Kids reigned supreme in the lazy afternoons- playing around the pillars that held the roof over it- sitting and playing with their choppu2, chozhi3 or pallanguzhi4 while the older people snoozed away inside.

When there was a function in the family-be it happy or sad- these thinnais transformed into extra sitting spaces where excessive crowds could spill over.

During festivals, the thinnais are a beauty to behold! Strings of malligai5 and kanakambaram6 are hung from the eaves, oil lamps are lit in rows and intricate kolams7 are drawn at the entrance. They are decorated so beautifully that the whole house gets the splendour and air of a palace; with the otherwise modest thinnais being the majestic and luminous entrance to the fortress.

It is really sad to note that the modern day’s concrete jungle has depleted us of this very beautiful thing called ‘thinnais’. Our ancestors found this a way to respect people and treat them with care; but our own fear for strangers, rising crime rates and land value deems it impossible to build individual houses with thinnais anymore. Tot-lots, internet and telephone may have paved new avenues for our daily dose of social interaction, but this self-drawn security blanket has left us bereft of one simple joy- that personal touch of kindness to fellow humans in the journey of life!

1 pot
2 tiny vessels
3 shells
4 a traditional game of Tamil Nadu
5 jasmine flowers
6 bright orange flowers found in South India
7 designs using flour made on the floor near the entrances


Sudha said...

Hi Sandhya,

The thinnais are not just peculiar to Tamilnadu, but they are part and parcel of the homes of Kerala, Karnataka and even Goa. Infact it is amazing to see two special seats in front of old Goan homes.

You can still see them in the villages even today, don't think we will ever find them in the cities, it was never there and will never be there.

- Sudha

Sheks said...

Thinnais still exist in small towns of Tamilnadu such as Nagercoil and in villages too.

Aravind said...

thank u for taking us along in a brilliant countryside trip and making me feel nostalgic :D

call me said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
call me said...

Though i ve bin in madras for the past 4 years, m still a typical village guy at heart.. Desparetly want back d times when my grandpa told me thenali raman stories sitting in thinnai, in his wooden chair with a Visiri in his hand.. Those radio pottis playin ilyaraja songs and gramaphones, mosquito mats and ammi kallus.. You get the idea :-)


Aishwarya Bai said...

my emotions were stirred for a few minutes! was literally transported to a village when i was reading it... The sad part is that these thinnais can be seen by the city's young dudes only in Dakshin Chitra after a few yrs down the lane. As u said nothing can replace the 'thinnai' .

vimalan said...

the thinnais are the most explicit and simple form of the thamizh society's consideration for others and even their benevolence .. they are becoming elusive of late