HELLO, I am Punjabi!’ he said, sticking his hand out. ‘I am also a Punjabi!’ said the other person, who was about to shake hands with him but was a little confused at the sudden mention of the ethnic origin.
‘No, my name is Punjabi! I am actually from Tamil Nadu,’ the man clarified. ‘How can your name be Punjabi?’ asked the other fellow. Punjabi explained: ‘We have a Punjab in Tamil Nadu. I come from that place.’
This is not a fabricated conversation. It illustrates a little-known fact about India. The Cauvery river originates in the mountains of Coorg in Karnataka. Thereafter, it flows down through Mysuru into Tamil Nadu and empties itself into the Bay of Bengal. In the Cauvery basin of Tamil Nadu is the temple town of Tiruvaiyaaru. It gets its name from the five tributaries that join the Cauvery at this place. If we break the word Tiruvaiyaaru in Tamil, ai means five, aaru means river and Tiru is an honorific prefix like shri. Put together, Tiruvaiyaaru literally means ‘the sacred land of the five rivers’.
This is the same as the etymological meaning of Punjab in North India, where Pancha Aab, ‘the land of the five rivers’, became Punjab. The Indus river originates from Mansarovar and Mt Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. Five tributaries of the Indus flow through the plains of Punjab, join the Indus and give this terrain its name.
Tiruvayaaru’s connection with Punjab does not end there. Lord Shiva is the presiding deity at the main temple in Tiruvaiyaaru. Shiva is called Pancha-nadi-ishvara (Lord of the five rivers) or Pancha-aapa-kesha at this temple. It’s as if the five tributaries of the Cauvery (aapah) are like five strands of hair (kesha) in the matted locks of Lord Shiva.
It is common for children born in this place in Tamil Nadu to be named Pancha-aapa-keshan. Given the polysyllabic nature of this name, it is commonly truncated to Panchaapi or Panjabi. When these folks from the Cauvery basin move to North India, they rechristen themselves Punjab-kesh or Punjabi. That way, they can fit in with their brethren up North.
The only difference is that this Punjabi from Tamil Nadu has grown up on idli and dosa, while his kin up North prefer makki di roti and sarson da saag. Tiruvaiyaaru is also the birthplace of Saint Thyagaraja, who gave South Indian classical music its distinct identity. Thus, the Punjab down South has contributed to Indian music, just like the bhangra beats of the North.
Indeed, India is a unique country. Regardless of the geographical and ethnic diversity, there is an undeniable cultural unity. Even if we were to turn India’s map upside down, we will still have ‘Punjab’ at the top! What better example is there to illustrate our oneness?