The Etymological Investigation

on the Birth Place of Plough

The plough in the Indus valley remained an enigma for a long time. D.D Kosambi assumed that the Indus people practiced neither canal irrigation nor ploughing and that was a culture without a plough.[1] The plough that the Aryans brought with them effected a change in the agricultural technology, he realized. 

Contrary to this, on the basis of new evidences, Romila Thapar observed that in the Indus valley, plough agriculture was practiced and that the non-Aryan knew the plough. The discovery of a ploughed field at Kalibanghan in northern Rajasthan, which dates back to the pre-Harappan, has confirmed that the food sufficiency of the Harappan period was owing to the plough agriculture. 

Romila Thapar has confirmed that, the more commonly used word for the plough in Vedic literature is of non-Aryan etymology. She nullified the suggestion that the Aryan speakers introduced the plough on the ground that the word for plough appeared in the non-Indo-Aryan languages at an early date, even as early as the pre-Harappan period.[2] The most frequently used word in Sanskrit for plough is langala. She says this word is of Munda origin and the word for rice Vrihi is also believed to be of Dravidian origin.

Asko Parpola, who deciphered the script of the Indus valley civilization, has cited as example few Dravidian loan words in the Rg Veda such as phalam, mukham, and khala. "The Harappans used a plough, and the Rg Vedic word for 'plough', langala, is probably derived from proto-Dravidian nangol. There are examples of the replacement of Proto-Dravidian n- with 1- in Indo- Aryan, even if the etymon may ultimately go back to Austro-Asiatic."[3] 

Romila Thapar has pointed out the futile attempt made by J. Pokorny, to associate the Dravidian word nangol with the Indo- European leg/ leng. 

The word plough is not the original word in English. The author of i>The Dictionary of Word origins has traced its roots to Latin, Old Norse and prehistoric Germanic words. Finally he pointed his fingers to one of the ancient Indo-European languages of northern Italy. "The earliest record we have of the word being used for the characteristically shaped group of seven stars in Ursa Major is from early 16th  century Scotland.',[4] John Ayto has pointed out that the word plough was originated from an Indo-European word that embraced the concept of Saptarshi. 

Saptarshi era begins after the expiry of 25 kali years, in 3076 BC, during pre- Aryan period.[5] Also called Lankita era, it is recorded in cycles of 100 years, each cycle commencing 76 years after each Christian century. It was in use in Kashmir and its neighbourhood during the visit of Alberuni in 11th  century AD. 

The word that captured the meanings of both the plough and seven stars at the same time is nangol and it holds the key to this millennium old question that has evaded an answer so far. 

The word nangol is a word spoken in Nanchinadu[6] and the very place name came out of this crucial word from time immemorial. The regional variation of the word Nangol, nengo, nanchil is as given below. 

Nannol, nennol, nenelu the word for plough is known as follows: nennal, nennol, nennil, nennil,  nennel, nenci, nennal,  nennel, nennelu, nenel, nenelu inside Nanchinadu; and nancil, nancil, nancil (Tamil); negal, negil,  negila (Kannada); nelg,  nelg (Kota); nengil, nengi (Kudagu); nayenl, nayeru (Tulu); nagalil,  nagelui, nagelu (Telugu); nangel (Gondi); nangel, (Kuwi); nangelli (Kuwi); nangar (Naiki); nangli, naneli (Kolami); nagil (Parsi); nangal, nangal (Gadaba); nangala (Pali); langala (Sanskrit); outside Nanchinadu[7]. These, words representing  the regional variations of the word show the linguistic area covered by the word nangal on its onward march from/ outside Nanchinadu. 

There are several words in Malayalam which have changed its original form owing to the passage of time. But in the case of the word nangol it changed its original form owing to the change of tongue of differing regions. 

Nam means oxen. Kol means staff/ stick, i.e., the yoke, kept on the shoulders of the oxen. The combination of these words nam and  kol transformed in to nangol. 

No wonder, the place in which the plough originated came to be known as Nanchinadu. The etymologists interpret the word as the country where there are several fields, the land that  is tilled/ cultivated with the help of the plough and the land of the plough. These are the meaning attributed to the word Nanchinadu. 

We have seen that the word langala has been derived from the word nangol. The word nangol came from namkol. Nam+kol originated from the erstwhile Nanchinadu.

For sustenance, the need to collect and store food materials was felt. That was the beginning of a cordial relationship between man and plants. Efforts in collecting grains might have lead to its propagation. Nature might have provided an opportunity to survive, without tilling the soil, by providing the early man from its own rice bowl. When they learned that they can domesticate rice, the nature gave them the opportunity on some lands, where there was no need to plough.

The marshy soil (kazhi) provided them an opportunity to grow rice to meet their early requirements. When, availability of grain surpassed their requirements they might have pondered, as to how to meet the situation. On wetlands they might have tilled the soil with sticks and later with hoes. There after, they might have designed a hoe, which can be pulled by man like the plough drawn by the oxen. The cattle attracted by the straw of the paddy might have attracted the man too, thereby establishing an intimate relationship between them. This relationship enabled him to tame the animal to pull the yoke. With the emergence of yoke and the plough, rice output increased, followed by the growth of population. To meet the increasing demand, people might have started migrating to new sites to cultivate. This helped the plough to reach new areas and new people.

On the onward march of the plough, it has left an indelible mark on their dialect. In the course of time the words indicating the agricultural implements changed from place to place accommodating the accent of the people who adapted to the new technology. If we examine the spirit of such words associated with agriculture on the opening scene of its origin, we can capture the time and reach the period as well as the site, as if on a time machine. The word nangol has offered such an opportunity to unravel the mystery of the origin of cultivated rice in India. Now we will see what the word has to tell further.

Kanyakumari, of which Nanchinadu is a part, was known as Kazhi kudi once upon a time. Now this archaic word remains only in the corner of the Travancore Archeological Series.[8] Etymologically this word is as important as an archeological discovery, to give direction to our investigation.

Here kazhi means mire, the handle of the hoe, and the yoke. Kudi means a province. The varying meaning attributed to the word really contains a snippet of history. The meaning contained in the word Kazhi kudi is reflected in the word Nanchinadu.

The land on which agriculture was carried out was mire. There is no need for any implement to plough a marshy land. A long stick (kol) can be used for this to scratch the surface and sow the seed. But, with the passage of time, the people of Kazhikudi felt the shortage of marshy land owing to the increase in population. This might have induced the people either, to migrate to other marshy lands nearby or the fertile lands in the immediate vicinity, which cannot be tilled with the help of an ordinary stick. Here he invented the hoe, which served the purpose of a primitive plough, dragged by man himself. When the need to bring fresh land under cultivation was again felt, his yoke replaced the primitive plough (the hoe). This yoke need not be the one drawn by an animal. Necessarily man might have drawn this yoke, before the emergence of the plough.

It seems that, with the passage of time, the word kazhi acquired meaning from mud, to handle of a hoe. Later on when the yoke was introduced the word kazhi embraced that meaning also. The meaning of this word captures time in progression.

The peoples of Nanchinadu in ancient times might have cultivated the grain in the mire with a kol in the beginning later on with the help of a hoe, which can be dragged on the marshy soil with ease. Plough replaced this hoe, only at a later period. In a nutshell, this is the biography of the word Kazhikudi.

History speaks that the people of Nanchinadu led a life rearing cattle. A group of people of that background alone can design a plough. Nanchinadu was famous for a variety of seeds. On the matter of the fertility of the soil too, Nanchinadu is unique even today. As such there cannot be any difference of opinion if one says that the origin of plough took place in this region.

June 15, 2003

Image under license with Gettyimages.com

[1] DD.Kosambi, The culture and civilisation of Ancient India, p.62.
[2] Romila Thapar, Cultural Past, p.329
[3] Asko Parpola, Deciphering the Indus Script, 1994, P 186. 4 4 John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins, London, 1990, p400.
[4] John Ayto, Dictionary of word Origin, London, 1990,p.400.
[5] Dravidian Encyclopaedia, p.628.
[6] Nanchinadu is the southern most part of India constituting the Tovala and Agastheeswaram taluks of the Kanyakumari district. When it was a part of the erstwhile Travancore state it was known as the granary of Travancore. After the state reorganization in 1956 it was merged with the TamilNadu state.
[7] See also T.Burrow and M.B.Emeneau, A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary, II edn, Clarendon Press, Oxford,1984, 2907.
[8] Travancore Archeological Series. I, pp.163-168.


More by :  Dr. V. Sankaran Nair

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Views: 3828      Comments: 1

Comment Dear Etymologists,

I recently read a book in Italian language `Albanian and Sanskrit language` from prof. Petro Zhei.
In short he explains the birth of language thru symbols i.e. first words were very short pronounced as one letter or max two....
He explains the etymology of Sanskrit words thru Albanian language....
The explanations are very fluent and the words change one letter (root of the word) when compared to different languages...
Word: Plough in albanian is: pllug (pë+lug); `pë`- meaning `for`, and `lug` - is the word for the trail that plough leaves in the field....
I am convinced that Albanian/pellasgian is `magna mater` of all languages


Arben Aliu
12-Jul-2013 10:35 AM

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