Nammalvar was born in 1938 in the village of Elangadu in Thanjavur District, Tamilnadu. He graduated from Annamalai University with a BSc degree in Agriculture. In 1963, he began working for the Agricultural Regional Research Station, a government organisation in Kovilpatti, as a scientist, conducting trials on spacing and manure levels of various chemical fertilizers in cotton and millet crops. During his tenure there, the government had conducted various experiments in rain fed land, using expensive inputs like hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides which Nammalvar considered futile as the rain fed farmers were resource poor. Based on his experience, he felt very strongly that it was imperative to totally reorient the research work being undertaken. But his peers at the institute paid little attention to his advice. Frustrated, he left the institute.
For the next 10 years, he was an agronomist for Islands of Peace, an organisation founded by the Nobel Laureate Dominique Pire. His focus was on improving the standard of living through agricultural development in the Kalakad block of Tirunelveli District, Tamil Nadu. It was at this time that he realized that in order to get optimal results in farming, farmers should rely only minimally on external inputs. All inputs should come from within the farm. So-called wastes should be recycled and used as input. This revelation was a turning point in his life. He completely lost trust in conventional farming practices and began experimenting with sustainable agricultural methods.
In the late 1970s, Nammalvar became greatly influenced by Paulo Freire and Vinoba Bhave and their theories on education. The purpose of education should be freedom. Freedom is essentially self-reliance. Self-sufficiency means that one should not depend on others for one’s daily bread. Secondly, one should have developed the power to acquire knowledge for oneself. And last but not the least, a man should be able to rule himself, to control his thoughts and feelings.
Eager to propagate these new theories on education, specifically to aid farmers in becoming self-sufficient, he started a Society, Kudumbam in 1979.
“Participatory Development” was the way forward. There can be no education without action. Nor can there be any action without education. Both go hand in hand. Nammalvar interacted with local farmers, understood their needs, and based on their input, evolved farming practices suited to the local farmers.
In 1987 G.Nammalvar attended a 4-week training course conducted by the ETC Foundation, Netherlands, on ecological agriculture. In 1990, he founded a network called LEISA (Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture) to promote the concepts of ecological farming, specifically the importance of self-reliability and low external inputs. During the same year, he started an ecological research center for rain-fed cultivation in Pudukottai district.
G.Nammalvar was also greatly influenced by Mr Bernard de-Clerk of Auroville fame, whom he had worked with since 1984. In 1995 he was nominated as the Tamil Nadu state coordinator for ARISE (Agricultural Renewal in India for Sustainable Environment). Concurrently, Bernard was the coordinator at the national level. During his tenure he traveled widely across India promoting the principles of sustainable agriculture.
When the tsunami hit India on 26 December 2004, Nammalvar was actively involved in the rehabilitation process. In 2005, he helped farmers across various villages in Nagapattinam district to rehabilitate. Few villages he worked were Mangaimadam, Periya Kuthagai, Therku Pothigai Nallur. In 2006, he left for Indonesia and assisted in reclaiming several farms in tsunami-affected areas.
Recognizing his extensive work in the field of agriculture, the Gandhi Gram Rural University, Dindigal honored Nammalvar with a Doctorate of Science degree in 2007.
G.Nammalvar traveled widely across the world, observed the agricultural practices in various different ecological systems and based on his findings, trained several farmers and NGO workers. He has written several books and articles in the Tamil language. He had a wide readership across different sections of society.
G.Nammalvar spent a substantial part of his time actively touring the south and conducting training classes on ecological farming. He was in the process of setting up several research cum training centers across South India. The first was at Surumanpatti, Kadavur in Karur district. He was also actively involved in linking different farms and institutes around the world so as to accelerate the process of ecological development.