Research Programmes

This is the major ongoing research programme of the Centre.

Chengalpattu district in the modern Indian state of Tamil Nadu stretches in a wide arch, about 180 km long and at places up to 80 km deep, around the city of Chennai, capital of the state and the seat of the British colonial power in South India. The areas falling in this district were presented to the British in 1763 by Mahommed Ali, the then Nawab of Arcot. The British referred to the Chengalpattu area as their Inaum lands, or the Jaghire.

The areas of the Jaghire, surrounding Fort St. George from three sides, were of obvious strategic importance to the British. Therefore, soon after acquiring the Jaghire, they launched a detailed survey of the areas falling under it. The survey was conducted by a British engineer. Thomas Barnard. Barnard started work on this survey in 1767, and took almost seven years to complete it, in 1774. The greater part of his time was spent on the topographic mapping of the area.

During the survey, he came across records kept in every village relating to the transactions in revenue, cultivation and trade. From these records he got extracts made of the quantity of total land in each village and the various uses to which it was put, and the number of households in each village and the jatis or functional groups to which they belonged. These extracts also included details of the shares of the produce that a great variety of institutions, functionaries, and inhabitants of the area seemed to be entitled to, and details of the revenue free maniyam lands they enjoyed. Finally under the revenue accounts Barnard collected statements of the net revenue of each village for five succeeding years beginning 1761-62. The Barnard extracts also give a great deal of miscellaneous information, like the number of cattle in each village, the details of the villages that had been granted as shrotriyam to various individuals and institutions, the names of the great institutions and powerful inhabitants of the area who had rights in several villages, and the duties levied on industrial and trading activities.

The English extracts collected by Barnard are recorded in several long hand volumes, which are lodged in the Tamil Nadu State Archives at Chennai. The total number of localities included in these records is about 2100.

For several of these localities we also have access to the Tamil palm-leaf records that Barnard got prepared, with the help of Rajasri Chengalvaraya Mudaliyar, before making his English extracts. These Tamil records are more detailed than the English extracts. In particular, they give the detailed layout of the village, identifying almost every house by name along with its area, size of the backyard etc. Also, instead of the calculated revenue, the Tamil records give the actual extent of cultivation under different crops in every locality and the actual produce for five years succeeding 1761-62.

The Barnard survey gives a very detailed picture of the pre-British Indian life and polity as it existed and operated over a fairly large region of South India. At the time of the survey, the life and polity of the area was perhaps already under acute stress because of the incessant colonial wars of the previous several decades, and because of the extraordinary revenue demands being made by Nawab of Arcot, who himself was under pressure to pay the impossibly high instalments of rent fixed by the British. Therefore the picture that emerges from the Barnard survey must be to some extent a distorted and impoverished version of the normal Indian reality. But Barnard survey records are perhaps the best access we have so far to that forgotten and lost reality.

More about Chengalpattu Survey

Work Done So Far

We have copied and entered into a database the complete archival records of the Chengalpattu Survey. We have also copied, in collaboration with the Department of Palm-leaf Manuscripts of Tamil University at Thanjavur, the original Tamil palm-leaf accounts of the period for several hundred localities. This gives us an unmatched and extensive database for reconstructing and understanding the economy and polity of the region.

Fully compiling and analysing the information collected so far is likely to take several years. So far this work has led to the following outputs:

1. Series of Articles in the Hindu: On the basis of the archival and Tamil palm-leaf manuscript information, T. M. Mukundan and J. K. Bajaj wrote a series of articles, under the caption Leaves from Thondaimandalam, for the Sunday Magazine edition of The Hindu in 1991. These articles present a graphic description of diverse facets of the eighteenth century life and polity in some of the localities of the Chengalpattu region, and compare these with the situation today. (Read the Hindu Articles)

2. Ph.D in Chengalpattu Studies: T. Pushkala, research associate of the Centre working at the Tamil University, Thanjavur, working under the supervision of Prof. T. G. Paramasivam and Prof. M. D. Srinivas, has been awarded Ph.D. degree in 1998 for her thesis Chengalpattu Avanangal: Samudaya Poruladharam, based on the palm-leaf records of the eighteenth century locality accounts of Chengalpattu District. The thesis has been highly commended by the examiners.

3. Book on Thirupporur and Vadakkappattu: Prof. M. D. Srinivas, in collaboration with Prof. T. Paramasivam and Dr. T. Pushkala of Tamil University, Thanjavur, has compiled a book that reproduces the eighteenth century palm-leaf manuscript accounts for two localities, Thirupporur and Vadakkappattu, both in the original script of the records and in modern Tamil script. The book has been published in both Tamil and English. The volume in English also offers an English translation of the records. This work has been acclaimed as a major source work which brings out important aspects of Tamil society and polity in the eighteenth century. (Thirupporur and Vadakkappattu)

Proposed Future Work

1. Scanning and Digitalisation of Palm-leaf Manuscripts: Eighteenth century palm-leaf manuscript accounts of the Chengalpattu localities need to be urgently scanned to preserve a soft copy of the material. The original palm-leaf manuscripts are extremely brittle. If these manuscripts are lost, it shall be difficult to convince future generations that an indigenous polity of such affluence, equity and sophistication did indeed function just about a couple of centuries back.

We have submitted a proposal to several Agencies for the scanning of these manuscripts. Unfortunately, in spite of our repeated efforts, we have not been able to make any headway in this project.

2. Presenting a Comprehensive Picture of Chengalpattu Society and Polity: We propose to present a comprehensive picture of Chengalpattu society on the basis of the archival and palm-leaf manuscript material. This is proposed to be done in 4 volumes. The first volume shall deal with the Land and the People of the region. It shall describe the land use pattern of the region and shall give detailed information about the people of the region and their communities and professions. The second volume shall give estimates of agricultural and other production of the region. The third volume shall describe distribution of the produce among different functions and functionaries of the localities and the region, and thus explain the basic polity of the region. The fourth and the last volume shall describe trans-locality linkages in the region through its great cultural, administrative and military institutions and functionaries, and thus give an overview of the overall economy and polity.

3. Presenting Detailed Locality Accounts for Selected Localities: We propose to present the detailed information as given in the Tamil palm-leaf records for about a dozen selected localities, so as to present a graphic picture of the meticulous way in which these localities had organised their physical environment and natural resources and to document the vibrant economic and cultural life of the region. This part of our Chengalpattu work is likely to take a few years.