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Myth & Folklore

The Lemuria myth

Print edition : Apr 22, 2011 T+T-
THE LEMURIAN AS conceived by W. Scott Elliot, a staunch Theosophist who published, in 1904, 'The Lost Lemuria'.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

THE LEMURIAN AS conceived by W. Scott Elliot, a staunch Theosophist who published, in 1904, 'The Lost Lemuria'.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

How it permeated the Tamil tradition through folklore and writings as the lost continent of Kumari.

THERE is an old, persistent Tamil tradition about a land that existed south of India called Kumari kandam (continent), a belief that is linked to the myth of the lost land of Lemuria, a figment of Western imagination. Accounts of the lost continent vary, but the common theme is that a large area went under the ocean as a result of geological cataclysms, a theory that geologists of today do not subscribe to.

The last Ice Age had a profound influence on the prehistory of humankind. So in prehistoric studies of coastal areas, it is crucial to understand the consequence of changes in the sea level. About 14,500 years ago, the sea level was lower by 100 metres. With subsequent global warming and melting of large masses of ice, the level started rising, in stages.

As the sea level rose, the low-lying lands in the coastal region and the exposed continental shelves were inundated. This phenomenon gave rise to the stories and legends of deluges that permeated the African, Amerindian and Australian aboriginal folklore and Greek, Roman and Hebrew legends, and the Indian puranas, which referred to pralayas. The coastal areas south of India that were submerged in ancient times evidently gave rise to the Tamil myth of the lost continent of Kumari, while myths of the lost continents of Atlantis and Lemuria were generated in the Western world.

Lemuria is the name of a mythical continent purported to have been in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The lost continent derives its name from the primate lemur belonging to the group prosimians. Lemurs now inhabit Madagascar island, the surrounding smaller islands and Comoros island.

The term lemur comes from the Latin word lemures, meaning spirits of the night, a reference to many species of lemur that are nocturnal and so have large reflective eyes. Their distribution once extended from Pakistan to Malaya. The English geologist Philip Sclater (1864) coined the term Lemuria in his article The Mammals of Madagascar'. Trying to explain the presence of fossil lemurs in Madagascar, he proposed that the Indian Ocean island and India had once been part of a larger continent, Lemuria. His theory was put forward before the concepts of continental drift and plate tectonics provided the explanations for the similarity and distribution of formations and fossils in different strata and continents.

During the 19th century, scientists frequently postulated the presence of submerged land masses in order to account for the present distribution of species. As Lemuria gained some acceptance within the scientific community, it began to appear in the works of scholars such as Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834-1919), a German biologist who promoted the work of Charles Darwin in Germany. Haeckel suggested that there was a land bridge that remained above water long enough to facilitate the migration of prosimians from Africa into India and the Malay peninsula.

To explain the distribution of species across Asia and the Americas, certain other scientists hypothesised that Lemuria had extended across parts of the Pacific Ocean. But advanced research and geological findings have made clear that continents did not submerge or disappear and that Lemuria never existed. The Lemuria theory disappeared from practical consideration after the scientific community accepted the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift.

Esoteric theories

However, certain occultists adopted it. In 1888, Helena Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society, incorporated the concept of the lost continents of Lemuria and Atlantis in her controversial book The Secret Doctrine. Her information, it was claimed, was based on esoteric ancient books from the east and messages received through mystical transference and clairvoyant trances.

While explaining the evolution of man, there is a subtle but conscious attempt in the book to establish the superiority of the Aryan race. Later, some members of the Theosophical Society published essays, presented in the garb of scientific writings, on Lemuria and Atlantis. Thus the myth of Lemuria was perpetuated.

According to the teachings of the Theosophical Society, human beings evolved through seven successive root races, each of which populated and occupied different continents. Lemuria was occupied by the third root race called Lemurians, who were primitive beings. Subsequently, the more advanced inhabitants of Atlantis, called Atlanteans, replaced them. Aryans, the descendants of Atlanteans, were the fifth root race and were considered the pinnacle of evolution.

W. Scott Elliot, a staunch Theosophist, published, in 1904, The Lost Lemuria with two maps showing the distribution of land areas at different periods. There is mention about Lemurians who domesticated reptiles resembling the Plesiosaurus, which places Lemurians in the era of dinosaurs, an obvious anachronism. This writing, which uses scientific terminology extensively, is basically esoteric.

In 1931, Harvey Spencer Lewis, the founder of the mystical society called the Rosicrucians, wrote on the evolution of Lemurians in his book Lemuria: the Lost Continent of the Pacific. Maps of the lost land were produced by taking the idea from the palaeo continent of Gondwana, which existed long before the advent of humanity.

The total confusion of chronology of geological epochs and a lack of understanding of the evolution of humankind is evident in the book he wrote under the pseudonym Wishar S. Cerve. He gave details of their lifestyle and advanced technology and also wrote about floating continents, such as California and the west coast of the United States, being parts of Lemuria and of their subsequent destruction. It was claimed that the survivors of Lemuria were living in Mount Shasta in northern California (F.S. Oliver, Dwellers of Two Planets, 1894) under a network of tunnels and could be seen occasionally. This belief is repeated by certain other groups and cultists.

Lost land of Tamils

The narratives about Lemuria found their way into colonial India about the time when folklore began to permeate historic knowledge as though they were fact. The writings of Wishar Cerve and the maps of Scott Elliot were brought into Tamil writings by K. Appadurai, in his book Kumari Kandam Allathu Kadal Konda Thennadu (Kumari Continent or the Submerged Southern Land, 1941). The term Lemuria found its way into certain Tamil textbooks and was given the Tamil name Kumari kandam, or continent of Kumari. Names from Tamil classics were given to the mountain ranges, rivers, places and areas. For example, the puranic geography of an axial mountain called Meru as the centre of Jambudvipa (Sanskrit) or Navalan Theevu (Tamil) was accepted, and, later on, these names were attributed to certain parts of Lemuria, giving it acceptability among Tamil readers. In the 1920s, with Tamil revivalism and the efforts to counter the Aryan and associated Sanskrit dominance, the concept of Lemuria was wedded to the notion of the lost land referred to in Tamil literature.

There are a few references in Tamil Sangam classics to a landmass that was swallowed up by the sea. Historians consider the first three centuries A.D. as the Sangam period. The reference to the tradition about three Tamil Sangams (assemblies or academies) is noted in Iraiyanar Kalviyalurai, attributed to Nakeerar. According to this commentary, the Pandya kings patronised Tamil poets in their capital, where the Sangam was located. According to tradition, the Mudal Sangam (first assembly), was located in Thenmadurai. When the sea swallowed Thenmadurai, the capital was shifted to Kapatapuram and the second or Idai Sangam was established. The Idai Sangam functioned until a deluge destroyed Kapatapuram. After the deluge, the Pandyas shifted their capital to the present-day Madurai where the last or Kadai Sangam was established.

Some of the important references from Tamil Sangam classics are as follows: 1) in Purananuru 9, verses 10-11 are interpreted as a reference to a Pandya king who ruled a part of the lost land where the river Pahruli flowed. 2) in Silapathigaram (Kadu Kaan Kaathai) (11:17-22) is a reference to a Pandya king who won over kingdoms in Imayam (the Himalayas) and Gangai (the Ganga) to compensate for his land lost to the deluge. Tamil scholars such as Devaneya Paavaanar consider the deluge under reference to be the one that destroyed Thenmadurai. 3) According to Adiyarku Nallar, poem 104:1-4 from Mullai Kalithogai indicates that the Pandya king resettled the survivors of the deluge in certain Chera and Chola territories. It is portrayed by certain Tamil writers that the series of deluges destroyed the Tamil civilisation and the survivors spread out and civilised other parts of the world.

The Tamil tradition about a lost land was committed to writing after the 10th century by commentators like Nakeerar in his commentary on Iraiyanar Akapporulurai. Nachinarkiniyar and Adiyarku Nallar followed him. Those who wrote the commentaries exaggerated the extent of land that was submerged by the deluges referred to in Silapathigaram and Kalithogai. According to the commentators, there were 49 countries ( nadu) in the lost land of Kumari and the distance between the river Kumari and the river Pahruli that flowed in the lost land was 700 katham, which according to one calculation is about 770 km.

The crucial question is whether the land referred to as Kumari was as large as a continent? The advocates of Kumari kandam interpreted the term nadu to mean country. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala many small towns and villages have in their names the term nadu, which basically referred to a settlement, as opposed to kadu, or forest. In the above Tamil references there is no mention of the term kandam, referring to land the size of a continent.

According to Pingala Nikandu, a lexicon of ancient words, k andam means country. In the words of the historian N. Subrahmanian (1996), It is possible that a small area of land (to the extent of a present-day district) was lost by sea erosion and Pahruli and Kumari were parts of that territory and that the king shifted this capital to some other place. But in all probability that event occurred only in the 5th or 4th century B.C. Such erosions on a limited scale were not unknown to the southern and eastern seaboards of Tamil Nadu. If the fiction is removed from the fact, the entire romantic superstructure called the theory of the Kumari kandam will stand exposed, as non-history ( The Tamils - Their History, Culture and Civilisation; pages 26, 27).

If the oral traditions and the subsequent writings exaggerated the size of the submerged land called Kumari, what was the background to the lost land referred to in Sangam literature?

Sea-level changes

Geology emerged as a scientific discipline in the late 19th century when both scientific and popular imagination was dominated by Biblical accounts of creation and deluges. Dramatic geological events were attributed to catastrophes like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Eventually, the understanding of phenomena such as plate tectonics, continental drift and sea floor spreading dismissed the catastrophe theories. The speculation about land bridges and lost continents faded into obscurity elsewhere in the world but not quite so in Tamil Nadu.

Since the early part of the last century major strides have been made in the geological and geophysical understanding of the earth. For instance, in 1912 Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, explained the concept of continental drift; in 1924, the British geologist Arthur Holmes explained that the convection current in the mantle could cause continents to drift; in 1962, the American Geologist Harry Hess pointed out that continental drift could be explained by sea-floor spreading; in 1966, the concept of sea-floor spreading was established by independent oceanographic data involving microfossils, sediments of the sea floor, measure of heat flow from the earth's interior and palaeo-magnetic and seismic studies.

Since the first oceanic sounding in 1840, the study of oceans, including their chemistry, biology, geology and physics, has advanced in the last century. Improved coring devices have enlarged our knowledge of the oceans, and deep ocean floors have been mapped by echo-soundings and ultra-sonic signals. In the 1940s, seismic methods were also used to study the ocean floor.

Evidence of former glaciations on a wide scale became overwhelmingly conclusive in the last century. During the past two million years, there have been five major glacial advances and five glacial retreats as the globe began to warm. The last of such periods is the present period known as Holocene. The last Ice Age caused the fragmented distribution of Homo sapiens, and the enormous environmental changes that took place with global warming had a profound influence on the prehistory of humankind.

Extensive studies were done to understand global warming during the interglacial periods; sediments were subjected to meticulous analyses to establish the age and palaeo-geographical conditions in many parts of the world.

For instance, about 18,000 years ago, during the time of the last Ice Age, ice sheets in the poles spread much wider and the sea level was more than 100 metres lower than it is today, exposing a large area of land along the continental shelf. Then Siberia was connected to Alaska and along this land bridge, the peopling of the Americas and migration of animals happened over a long period. At this time, the landmass of present-day Papua New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania were joined together as were the British Isles with Europe. After the last Ice Age the level of the Indian Ocean, like the rest of the oceans, fell. Sri Lanka was connected to the Indian peninsula by a landmass, which now lies under the Gulf of Mannar. In the following 8,000 years, global warming continued and large masses of ice and glaciers melted, raising sea levels in stages and inundating low-lying lands. The portion of the continental shelf of the south Indian peninsula and the land that connected it to Sri Lanka also went under water as the sea level rose.

Records of sea-level fluctuations and related climatic changes are preserved in the layered sediments of the seabed. These can be studied through data such as faunal contents and nature of sediments. Rajiv Nigam and N.H. Hashimi of the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa, have done extensive work on sea-level rise by analysing sediments for microfossils such as pollen and foraminifera to determine palaeo-climate and by dating corals from the continental shelf in the west coast of peninsular India. The team studied marine sediments to generate proxy climate records through which changes in palaeo sea levels could be deciphered.

Nigam and P.J. Henriques, also of the NIO, have developed a regional model for palaeo depth determination on the basis of percentage of foraminifera in surface sediments of the Arabian Sea. The significant results of the study on palaeo sea levels are that the sea level was lower by 100 m about 14,500 years ago and by 60 m about 10,000 years ago and that during the last 10,000 years there had been three major episodes of sea-level fluctuation. These sea-level changes had affected human settlements and peopling of the coastal areas and had left their signatures on archaeological events.

Once the status of the periodic sea-level rise was established, it was easy to decipher the configuration of the coastline, giving allowance wherever applicable to tectonic activities and deposition of silt at the confluence of rivers. The Naval Hydrographic Office, Dehra Dun, has produced hydrographic charts (INT 717071-1986 to the scale 1:10,000,000 and INT 7007706-1973 of scale 1:3,500,000) pertaining to Cape Comorin-Gulf of Mannar, where it surveyed the depth of the sea floor with echo-sounders, which measure the sea floor contours with great accuracy.

Changes in southern India

It is possible to demarcate the land lost to the sea in the south of India from postglacial inundation maps that indicate the significant changes in the coastline.

The author has prepared inundation maps on the basis of bathymetric contours and the sea-level curve for the central west coast to work out the configuration of the coastline south of India since the last Ice Age. This study shows that about 14,500 years ago the sea level was lower by approximately 100 m than the present sea level. The land between the present coast and the bathymetric contour of 100 m roughly was the land that was exposed during that time.

In other words, hypothetically, if a 100 m column of sea water were to be removed, the land that went under water would be exposed. At that time the present Gulf of Mannar was a landmass of 36,000 sq. km connecting Sri Lanka with peninsular India and the coast was wider by about 80 km to the east, south and west of present-day Cape Comorin exposing a triangular mass of 6,500 sq. km adjoining the Cape. The coastline was 25-35 km wider than the present near Cuddalore and about 25 km wider near Colombo.

Global warming

The increased rate of global warming between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago saw the sea level rise almost 50 m, inundating low-lying lands and covering a major part of the exposed continental shelf. About 10,000 years ago, the sea level was about 50 m lower than the present sea level. At that time, the land extended about 25 km south of the Cape and the coast was about 40 km broader than the present coastline along the east and the west, which exposed about 1,000 sq km of land near Cape Comorin. Rameswaram and Mannar were joined by land and the land that extended in the present-day Gulf of Mannar was a 2,500-sq km stretch marked by sedimentary formations and coral reefs.

As the research of Rajiv Nigam indicated, sea levels continued to rise and reached the present level around 6,000 years ago. This is about the time Sri Lanka evolved as an island. Between 4,000 and 3,500 years ago, heavy rains, in addition to melting of snow, also contributed to the sea level rise. It rose by a couple of metres and fell to the present level about 2,000 years ago.

It is scientifically uncontested that the earliest Homo sapiens developed in Africa 100,000 to 200,000 years ago and migrated to Europe and Asia. Genetic evidence and fossil records of early human beings indicate that they came out of Africa as early as 100,000 to 60,000 years ago. Their descendants migrated to the Far East, probably along the coastal areas adjacent to the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal around the Indian peninsula, Sri Lanka and then north into China and south into Sumatra.

As the sea levels rose, resulting in periodic flooding and deluges, prehistoric settlements that were located in the low-lying coastal lands and the exposed continental shelf were inundated. The people who lived in the coastal area of the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka and who escaped the deluges perpetuated the oral tradition of a lost land. It is my considered opinion that it is this development that gave rise to the legend of Kumari kandam.


1. Barnett T.P.; The estimation of global sea level change: A problem of uniquness'; Journal of Geophysical Research, 1984.

2. Blavatsky H.P.; The Secret Doctrine, Vol 12; Theosophical University Press, online edition, 2001.

3. David Shulman; The Tamil Flood Myths and the Cankam Legend'; The Flood Myth; Berkeley, 1988.

4. Geiger, Wilhelm (translated by); The Mahavamsa or The great chronicle of Ceylon'; Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, Madras, 1993.

5. Hashimi N.H., Nigam R., Nair R.R. & Rajagopalan G.; Holocene sea-level fluctuation on western Indian continental margin: An update'; Journal of the Geological Society of India; Bangalore, 1995; Vol.46; pages 157-162.

6. Jayakaran S.C.; Lost Land and the Myth of Kumari Kandam'; Indian Folklore Research Journal; Vol.1 No.4.; National Folklore Support Centre, 2004; pages 90-108.

7. Stephen Oppenheimer; Out of Eden: The peopling of the World'; Constable and Robinson Ltd., London, 2003.

8. Scott Elliot W.; The Lost Lemuria' (1904); Kessinger Publishing Company, Montana, U.S., 1997; paperback.

9. Subrahmanian, N.; The Tamils, their History, Culture and Civilisation'; Institute of Asian Studies, 1996.

10. Sumathi Ramaswamy; Catastrophic Cartographies: Mapping the Lost Continent of Lemuria'; Representations 67; The Regents of the University of California, U.S., 1999.

11. Wishar S Cerve; Lemuria The Lost Continent of the Pacific' (1931); Supreme Grand Lodge of the Ancient & Mystical Order Rosae Crucis; published by the Grand Lodge of the English Language Jurisdiction, AMORC, Inc., 1997.

12. Personal communications with K.H. Vora and Rajiv Nigam of the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa.


1. Hydrographic chart, Sheet no. INT 709 7706 of scale 1:3,500,000 (1973); hydrographic chart, sheet no. INT 717071of scale 1:10,000,000 (1986).

2. Cochin to Vishakhapatnam (hydrographic chart), Scale 1:1,500,000 (1974) all the above three charts produced by Naval Hydrographic Office, Dehra Dun.

3. Hydrographic chart, Sheet no. INT 709 7706 of scale 1:3,500,000 (1973); hydrographic chart, sheet no. INT 717071of scale 1:10,000,000 (1986).