Wednesday, January 9, 2013

An Introduction to the Tsandáli Clan

The following is actually the introduction to my monograph, and it serves to introduce three of the principal themes. There are footnotes, which I have appended to the end of this post. I make no apologies for the pedantic tone. This is deliberate. From the start I set out to create a study with the look and feel of a rather old-fashioned ethnography.


The Tsandáli are a prosperous agricultural clan of middling status restricted to Tenkaré Prefecture on the middle reaches of the Eqúnoyel Valley in Káija Province, southern Tsolyánu.1 At first glance, they might appear unremarkable, a typical minor, localized rural clan group of the sort common throughout the Empire and hardly a subject of historical or ethnographic interest.

On closer inspection, however, the Tsandáli do not seem so typical at all. First, although Tsolyáni clans are normally endogamous and "clannish," the Tsandáli are fiercely so. The Tsandáli interact with their outclan neighbours in the normal manner of Tsolyáni clans of course, but unusually strong social boundaries isolate them from their neighbours, who in turn regard the Tsandáli as socially and culturally distinct from "other clans." One of the features which sets them apart is their religious affiliation. In a district where the sects of Hnálla, Avánthe and Belkhánu predominate, the Tsandáli worship instead Dlamélish and Sárku and their cohorts. Moreover, the Tsandáli are hardly “orthodox” followers of Dlamélish or Sárku; instead, there has evolved among the Tsandáli a distinctive local belief system which merges these two very different sects into one. Tsandáli theology is unorthodox enough that it is fair to refer to a "Tsandáli Cult," based on the worship of Dlamélish and Sárku,2 but notably different from conventional Dlamélish or Sárku worship as it is known elsewhere in the Empire.

A second distinctive feature of the clan is an unusual system of land tenure whereby much of the clan’s land and standing crop are dedicated to, if not owned outright by, the dead (more specifically, by a particular elite subgroup of Tsandáli ancestors: the Chállunikéltishèjaràiyal, or “Honoured Dead”). As we will see, when the dead retain a perpetual ownership of, and an active interest in, their estates, there can be a significant effect on the economic opportunities available to the  living.

A third distinctive characteristic of the Tsandáli Clan is its binary structure, not typical of Tsolyáni clans. The lineages of the Tsandáli Clan are divided between a pair of matrimonial moieties (or inter-marrying subclans). Each of these moieties, the Hráyetl-Tsandáli of the Eqúnoyel valley bottomland, and the Dúretl-Tsandáli of the Kikértla Hills to the south, has its own geographic territories, unique agricultural practices, mythic ancestry, and distinctive religious and symbolic place within the shared Tsandáli Cult.

The Tsandáli are thus clearly unusual enough to be of scholarly interest.  But are they so unique that a study of their ways sheds no light on the Tsolyáni clan system in general? I believe not. We are wont to use the term "clan" as a shorthand for the various occupational/religious/fictive-kin-based groupings that are the building blocks of Tsolyáni society, and the term "clan system" as a shorthand for the various ways these groups interact, as if by design. But we must never forget that there is no design, and these terms are merely shorthand; the "clan system" is characterized as much by its enormous variability as by its uniformity. Despite the many generalizations that can be made about Tsolyáni clans and the Tsolyáni clan system, the fact is, that on closer inspection, each Tsolyáni clan is unique. Each clan is far more than a clan symbol, a trade, and a dormitory.  Each is a more-or-less self-contained little society within the greater Imperium, and each has its peculiar characteristics that set it apart from all others. And so it must be, for if Tsolyáni clans were nothing but bland trade and status organizations, devoid of the cultural quirks which bind people together and set them apart from outsiders, it is doubtful that the clan system would have survived as long as it has. It is hoped that this monograph will not only highlight the fascinating characteristics that make the Tsandáli unique, but will also convey some of the variability in social, economic and religious structures which is possible within the otherwise rather homogeneous-sounding "clan system" of Tsolyánu.3

But first a word on nomenclature. It is a common convention in writings about Tékumel to render clan names in English (e.g. Red Flower, Emerald Circlet, Flat Peak, etc.), except in those relatively rare instances in which clan is virtually synonymous with lineage (e.g. Tlakotáni, Vríddi, Íto). However, in the case of the Tsandáli, such translation would be difficult. The tsán is, of course, a Tsolyáni imperial unit of linear measurement equivalent to 1.33 earthly kilometers, while –dali is a Tsolyáni suffix indicating largeness or greatness. Many Tsolyáni, (were they ever to encounter this minor clan) would thus likely interpret Dlánmükoi hiTsandáli to mean something like the “Big Mile Clan.” The imperial Tsán is known and used in the Eqúnoyel valley of course,4  but in that region it has additional and perhaps older folk meanings. Most commonly, the term tsán is used locally to refer to a cultivated field, normally either a yáfa paddy or a swidden plot. We could therefore render Tsandáli in English as as the “Big Field” Clan. This would certainly be closer to the indigenous meaning. Yet more broadly, tsán may also be employed, usually rhetorically or metaphorically, to refer to any physically- or conceptually-bounded space for human activity: not only a field, but also a a battlefield,5 a clanhouse, a village, a market, a ceremonial precinct,6  or even a tomb. Should we then call the Tsandáli the “Great Enclosure Clan?”  Perhaps. But such a translation would be vague, uninformative and frankly unattractive. And since no other translation will convey the multi-layered meanings, I have opted to retain their own indigenous name: Tsandáli.


1    Tenkaré Prefecture, home to the Tsandáli Clan, broadly corresponds to Hex #2817 on both the colour map boxed with Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) and the colour map boxed with the Swords and Glory Sourcebook (1982).

2   The Tsandáli priesthoods could be considered “orders” or “factions” within their respective temples. But because Tsandáli cultus extends beyond the temples to encompass the laity, I prefer the term “Tsandáli Cult” rather than “Tsandáli Order” or “Tsandáli Faction.”

3    I cannot claim that my position is unique or even original. Others writing about individual Tsolyáni clans have highlighted one or more distinctive clan cultural practices and/or unusual internal clan subdivisions. As examples I may cite Mark Wigoder-Daniels’ 1992 “The Clan of the Iron Plume” (The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder 1), Belinda Kelly’s 2004 “The Jewelled Pommel Clan” (The Book of the Visitations of Glory 7), and other examples in Kim Kuroda’s 2004 (2nd Ed.) Butrús Gazetteer (

4    Confusingly, when the Tsandáli use the term tsán as a unit of measurement, they use it casually and interchangeably both in its imperial sense (1.33 kilometers) and in its local sense (a field). Thus, a Tsandáli informant might say that such and such a place is “five tsányal down the road” without specifying whether he means five (imperial) tsányal away or only five fields away (an imprecise distance but one certain to be much less than five imperial tsányal). Locals will know from context which sense is meant but outsiders may be greatly inconvenienced if they are unaware of the possible ambiguity. For example, it is said that during the Salarvyáni incursions into Káija Protectorate in the 2340s A.S, a young Kási leading his Tsurúm in a forced march up the Eqúnoyel Valley enquired of local Tsandáli peasants the whereabouts of the Salarvyáni forces in the area. On hearing that the enemy was many tsányal away, he allowed his exhausted troops to make camp and rest on the spot, without the usual scouts, pickets, and defensive earthworks. Alas, the Salarvyáni were much closer than he believed and their army stumbled into his camp in the night, making such great slaughter that only the young Kási escaped alive. The Imperium saw fit to reward his negligence by finding him a new posting: immured in one of the Chalices of Silence at the Tólek Kána pits in Béy Sü. We may imagine this unenviable circumstance now affords him a unique perspective (and ample opportunity) to contemplate the proper measurement of time and space.

5    Thus a Tsandáli clansman might well refer to the site of a great battle as a Qadártsan, or “battlefield,” in a manner not unlike the English usage.

6    This is almost certainly the origin of the name for the great Tsandáli ceremonial center at Tsán Tsán, described in more detail below. The doubling, like the –dali suffix, indicates “greatness” and the name Tsán Tsán therefore has the meaning “Great [Ceremonial] Precinct.”

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