I do not recall the first time I heard about Mulgimaa. Perhaps it was through the food -- mulgikapsad (a kind of sauerkraut) or mulgipudru (mashed potatoes mixed with pork rinds). Or maybe it was just because outside of Tallinn and Tartu, my destination in Estonia is often Viljandimaa.
I am also not sure where I first heard the term "mulk", an inhabitant of part of Viljandimaa in southern Estonia, but I sensed immediately it had an ambiguous connotation.
A friend in Tallinn explained that back in the day (the 19th century), Viljandimaa was a wealthy county populated by thrifty farm owners who wore pointy black hats and sat on their front porch all the time displaying their wardrobe, stroking their pet cats, and sizing up the neighbor's property for acquisition.
Mulks, in a sense, were ruthless agrarian capitalists that imagined themselves as powerful. So being a "mulk" not only means a person is ambitious, but that they are perhaps too ambitious. How odd then that my publisher / author / journalist / mother-of-two wife happens to be from Mulgimaa. Together with other "mulks" like Mart Laar and Lembitu of Lehola, stubborn ambition seems to run in the blood of all who first saw the world from the hilltops of Viljandi.
But nowadays Mulgimaa is not where the big deals are made. The ruthless mulks have resettled in Tallinn and bought BMWs. The dinosaur bones of collective farms are strewn across the hills of Mulgimaa, and the county retains a "place that time forgot" ambiance . There are still wily farmers. But there are often wily alcoholics too. There are also regular Estonians who get up and go to work everyday.
I was shocked once driving through Abja-Paluoja to see so many houses. I couldn't believe that that many people lived in Abja. In Karksi too there is a veritable community. There are tree lined streets and school plays and holiday festivities. Of course Viljandi is the county center and between the local folk musicians and aspiring actors, it celebrates rural Estonian culture. So, yes, quite a few people live in Estonia outside of Tallinn and some of them live in Mulgimaa.
Recently President Toomas Hendrik Ilves -- who also has mulgi blood, if you can believe it -- erected border posts for the historic county of Mulgimaa. There has been something of a renaissance in mulgi cultural identity, reflected in traditional dress, folk culture, dialect.
I am not sure if any of these really means anything to tänapäeva mulgid. But personal experience has shown that the water down there in Mulgimaa is definitely a little different.