'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, July 10, 2006

On A Keralan Urn (And Fireflies)

One of the exhibits at the Hill Palace Museum near Cochin is a burial urn from Megalithic Age Kerala. The urn is massive and probably held the dead person(s) whole and not ashes - as presumably its Grecian 'cousins' did (*).

The Malayalam word for this object is 'nannangadi'. The derivation of this name is a mystery. Well, the first half of this word 'nanna' appears to be the same as the first half of my own name 'nanda' - the compound consonant 'nda' going to 'nna' is very common in Malayalam (a phonological phenomenon presumably called 'anunasikaatiprasaram'). But this 'connection' does not get one much closer to the actual derivation. The word 'nanda' means joy in Sanskrit and one can't quite figure out what could be joyous about burial urns.

Nannangadies also feature in what must easily be the weirdest piece of lyric ever written. It is part of a song written by Bichu Thirumala for a Malayalam movie with the formidable name 'Kakkothikkaavile Appooppanthadikal' - a group of wandering urchins (they are rather blithe spirits, by the way) introduce themselves: "Nannangadikal, njangal minnaminnikal" - in translation this is "We are 'nannangadi's, we are a swarm of fireflies!"

Note: Bichu Thirumala, a prolific Mallu film lyricist has written much else about fireflies - in one of his old hits, he likens moments of silence to cute little fireflies; elsewhere he has a young lover refer to his girl as 'a firefly in search of a feather'!

Update (Feb. 2012):

And I just discovered my post was not the first instance of someone getting inspired by a nannangadi to pay a tribute to Keats and his 'Grecian Urn'. Here is a fragment of a poem by scholar/poet N.V.Krishna Variyar which goes (in my translation):

"As a tiny seed encapsulates an entire peepal tree, this nannangadi reveals to my eyes, the entire universe in all its throbbing vitality. And blazing forth from that timeless flux, alternately caressed and knocked around by inscrutable Destiny, I see the entire trajectory of Human evolution."

(*) Rekesh makes the following observation (Feb 2012):
is a very recent (December 2011) article on nannangadis - apparently, the first time human bones were actually found in such a jar. If that is the case, how did the archeologists figure out decades ago that these objects were actually burial urns? Further, the urns I've seen have somewhat narrow mouths (12 inches or less wide), difficult to fit a person through.Perhaps they tried to cremate the bodies first and then place the bones into these urns?

My response: I went and reexamined the nannangadis - there are 3 of them at Hill Palace, 2 large and one small. The largest of the lot is a somewhat deformed sphere of about 4 feet diameter - a very roomy container; but yes, its mouth is narrow (about 18 inches across)! So, we have a problem; it would have been very hard indeed to get a dead adult into it in one piece!


  • At 3:36 PM, Blogger jk said…

    Looking up the word "nannangadi" in Dr. Hermann Gundert's Malayalam-English Dictionay, pp. 373, I came across this interesting statement:
    "nannangadi - a kind of cairn found in South Palghat, Wettattu Nadu etc. A 2-4 ft deep and narrow clay urn , buried perpendicular with a stone lid containing bones, tools of the deceased, etc............. The popular belief is that in Tretayuga men became very old and shrunk to the size of a cat when they were put into these pots in order not to trouble the living".

  • At 10:36 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks jk for that input.

    there is the community of 'nedungadi's in south malabar - the word apparently indicates that they originally hailed from the region of 'nedunga nadu' - the 'na' sound in the middle having got 'lost in collocation'. 'nannangadi' might have a similar derivation.

    btw, the urn in the hill palace museum is large enough to hold a man from this 'kalikaalam'!

  • At 11:03 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    let me just note here that in my earlier comment, the word 'collocation' was used incorrectly, owing to a confusion with 'colloquial'.

  • At 3:57 AM, Blogger Maddy said…

    Iam from palakkad, and it was recently that i heard of "nannangadi" from my grandmother. she is a witness of nannangadi, or those people.

    But the catch is that why is it found or not even heard of anywhere else???

  • At 11:52 PM, Blogger DIPS said…

    I have coordinates of an anonymous location...any explorers online to unveil d mystery?

  • At 5:26 AM, Blogger Adam Smith said…

    Informative blog about Kerala urn or “nannangadi” which is rarely known but quite interesting to gather some facts about it through this blog. -


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