Sumathi Ramaswamy, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor has written a captivating account of what in the West has come to be known as Lemuria, or Mu, a lost continent in the Southern hemisphere variously placed in either the Pacific or Indian oceans. First postulated in the mid-nineteenth century by geographers, biologists and evolutionary theorists as an explanatory mechanism for the similarity of flora and fauna found in Southeastern Africa, Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent, Lemuria captured the attention and imagination of occultists like Helena Petrovna Blavatsky - who saw the sunken land mass as the primordial home of a divinely engendered humankind - as well as nascent Tamil nationalists eager to promote the notion of a vast Tamil empire, now lost, whose sole contemporary remnant is the Tamil-speaking regions of Southernmost India and Northern Sri Lanka. It is on the role of this "lost world" in the elaboration of Tamil origins, identity, communal solidarity, and aspirations to nationhood that the author focuses.
Kumari Kandam is a land mass that is supposed to have sunk beneath the India Ocean sometime in middle to late prehistory, extending from the southern tip of peninsular India to Madagascar in the west, and Australia in the east. It is sometimes considered as part or all of Lemuria, a hypothetical continent variously located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. References to Kumari Kandam can be found throughout the Tamil classical literature, detailing how that extensive land mass, the home of Tamil science, language and philosophy, occupied by the Tamil people in their peaceful and prosperous kingdoms since sentient life first emerged on the planet had been lost to the sea due to a succession of massive tidal waves and other catastrophes. Beginning amongst Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, the more-or-less analogous Lemuria was imagined as a continent that once bridged India and Africa and disappeared into the ocean (either the Pacific or the Indian, depending on the account) millennia ago, much like Atlantis.
Ramaswamy's work is a sustained meditation on a lost place from a lost time, an elegantly written book that is (to my awareness) the first to explore Lemuria's incarnations across cultures, from Victorian-era science to Euro-American theosophical occultism to colonial and postcolonial India to the contemporary yearnings of Tamil nationalism and identity-building. The Lost Land of Lemuria widens into a provocative exploration of the poetics and politics of loss to consider how this sentiment manifests itself in a fascination with vanished homelands, hidden civilizations, near-forgotten peoples and lost greatness. More than a consideration of nostalgia, it shows how ideas once entertained but later discarded in the metropole can travel to the periphery--and can be appropriated by those seeking to construct a meaningful world within the disenchantment of modernity. Sumathi Ramaswamy ultimately reveals how loss itself has become a condition of modernity, compelling us to rethink the politics of imagination and creativity in our day.
Ramaswamy's book is not only beautifully written and a most engaging read, it is also an important book, one which will force scholars to look anew at fabulous legends of lost lands and forgotten civilizations generally and more particularly at the greatness and global significance of Tamil civilization.