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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Sumaithangi, the load bearing stone (TOI)

By Narayani Ganesh

At first glance, to a stranger, the two vertical granite stone columns holding up one horizontal stone slab would look like a crude version of the gateway to a Japanese Shinto shrine. While the Shinto Gateway called Torii symbolises the transition from the mundane to the sublime and sacred, the simple sumaithangi – Tamil for ‘load bearer’ – is designed to let the pilgrim and farmer unburden themselves of their baggage in the course of their long journey by foot, and rest their weary muscles.

Interestingly, there seems to be a possible etymological link between the Japanese Torii that means bird perch and the Indian torana, which translates as gateway, usually ornate and meant to be welcoming of visitors. Perhaps it denotes the point of taking flight from the known to the unknown, as birds are wont to do, as they perch a while before taking off. Most sacred gateways in countries of Southeast Asia could be traced to the Indian torana concept, perhaps transmitted along with Buddhist philosophy that went from India to the Far East.

Driving from Chennai to the Palani hills via Tiruchirapalli and dozens of small villages and hamlets during summer holidays, the sumaithangi was a common sight, usually placed in the shade of a tamarind tree, providing succour to yatris from the sweltering heat. We would stop at one of these spots to take a lunch break, when the tall, large, stainless steel tiffin carrier with its many containers would be taken out and food served on banana leaves – lemon rice, idli, tamarind rice, curd rice, pickles and pappadoms. The vessels were all lined up on the sumaithangi after wiping it down with a wet cloth. Once done, the empty containers would go back into the boot of the car and the sumaithangi was wiped clean, and we would be on our way.

Only later did I learn of the significance and utility of the sumaithangi, that it was meant for travellers to unburden themselves as they took a break. What a wonderful concept, I thought to myself, trying to correlate the empty tiffin carrier with emptying the mind of burdens. Why cannot we have a virtual sumaithangi to unburden ourselves of all our worries, fears and anxieties? We may or may not pick them up again, but even if we did, the load would be better organised with some reflection and perspective. Some burdens may disappear forever, and the journey forward is rendered less difficult. Your sumaithangi could be your guru, a dear friend or relative, who listens to you with empathy and understanding. In Christianity, the confession box and priest serve as sumaithangi to believers. Or you could just pour your heart out to a stone.

It is not uncommon to liken the stone to a load bearer, something that is resilient and patient, much like the Patience Stone known as Syngue Sabour in Afghan lore. The Patience Stone is believed to ‘absorb the plight of those who confide in it’. Tamil homegrown wisdom advises troubled souls to find a secluded place and pour out all fears and worries into an empty pot, then smash it to pieces, a kind of catharsis that is pacific and healing rather than yelling at those you think are responsible for your plight. It is eco-friendly, too! (

Coursty - TOI.


Help Sampadkiya Team in maintaining this website

इस वेबसाइट को जारी रखने में यथायोग्य मदद करें -

-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief,


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