Articles- THE HINDU —



The story of the villages of Chengalpattu, that we are going to relate in this series, is largely that of desertion, decay and neglect. Most of these villages have been deserted, perhaps since the beginning of the nineteenth century, by all those who had any resources, any education or any skills. Those resourceful inhabitants of these villages have left behind the palatial houses, the numerous temples, and the picturesque toppus and thangals. Ruins of those structures today make these villages look like ghost towns. Moving through the region one gets the impression as if some ravaging armies have passed through them, forcing the well-off residents to run for their life, leaving everything behind.

We however begin this tragic story with a village that seems to offer a bright gleam in this otherwise gloomy landscape. The village of Pappankuzhi, about 2 km off the Madras-Bangalore highway, near the town of Sunkuvar Chatram, seems to have overcome the general neglect and decay of the region, and has risen again from the ruins.

Two hundred years ago, Kaniatchi rights in Pappankuzhi were held by Aiyangar Brahmans. The Kaniatchi was divided into 12 shares, though only 8 Brahmans actually lived in Pappankuzhi, and the other 4 held house-sites there. The Brahmans had their Agraharam opposite the Perumal temple, at a location, that was surrounded by an ery on one side and thangals and kuttais on the other. This site of the Agraharam looks fascinating even today.

The Agraharam street, with just these 8 houses and 4 unoccupied house-sites, covered an area of almost 10 acres. The houses themselves were not very big, with an area between 200 and 300 square yards each. Each of them, however, had a backyard extending between 1000 and 2000 square yards, and also what was called ‘the other backyard’, which was sometimes more than an acre in extent. The street, running east to west, was wide, in proportion to the size of the houses on it. From the accounts it seems that this street may have been as wide as 20 yards.

(click on map to enlarge)

Besides the Brahmans there were 5 Vanniar households in the village, living in a separate street. The Vanniar houses were not as big as those of the Brahmans, but they too covered an area between 100 and 200 square yards each, and all of them, except for the house of one Kollan, had a backyard of more than 1000 square yards. On the Vanniar Street, there were also the houses of a goldsmith, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a barber, and a washerman.

The Vanniar Street also had 4 houses of the Idaiyars, 2 of the company postmen, and 2 of the nawab postmen, all of a fairly big size. There were also two houses of the tookery, who constituted the village militia, with rather big backyards. The 20 houses on this street, with their backyards, occupied a total area of more than 7 acres. The street itself was as wide as the Agraharam street.

The Harijan street had 5 houses on 6400 square yards of land. All the houses in the street had some backyard. The backyards of the Vettiyan, who looked after the irrigation channels and also perhaps tended the cremation grounds, extended to almost 2/3rds of an acre, and the 2 Padiyal households, engaged in agricultural labour, had a common backyard of about half an acre.

Besides the Perumal temple at the head of the Brahmavastu Street, there were 3 other temples in the village, together occupying an area of more than an acre. There were 5 unlined ponds, called kuttais, on about 6 acres of land. There were two groves, of mahua and mango trees, covering almost 3 acres. There was a mandaiveli, the cattle ground, on more than an acre. And, there were 2 kalattumedus, the threshing grounds, on about 3 acres.


This was the village we expected to see when we turned south off the Madras-Bangalore highway late in the evening. The image of the wide Agraharam Street with Aiyangar houses of impossibly big dimensions was on our minds. The road linking the village to the highway had lush paddy fields on both sides, and occasional pump-set spewing water, giving a distinct impression of agricultural prosperity. As we neared the village the scenery became even more enchanting with the small village road having a tiny thangal on one side and a plantain plantation on the other.

The road took us straight to the centre of the village. And there stood a small temple, which, the villagers gathered around told us, was the abode of the Perumal of the village, and in front of the temple there was a neat wide street, with fairly big, well-kept houses on both sides. In the twilight of the approaching night the whole area seemed extremely well cared for and clean. But music emanating from the loud-speaker mounted on top of the Perumal temple was a bit loud and filmy.

We had spent the whole day going around villages where the temples and the agraharams were in various stages of decay. In Pappankuzhi, we felt, that we had suddenly come into a village that had kept itself intact for more than two hundred years. From their location and placing, the temple and the street looked just like the Perumal temple and the Brahmavastu street described in the palm-leaf records, even though the temple looked of rather recent construction and the houses in the street were not really as big as those of the Aiyangars in the records.

But the villagers there assured us that this indeed was the Perumal of Pappankuzhi, and they identified for us the locations of the various thangals, toppus and other landmarks described in the palm-leaf records. They seemed to be enjoying our bafflement at this sight of an old temple and the village around it appearing anew in a contemporary setting. Only after much asking did one of them disclose that the Pappankuzhi of our records was lying in total ruins a little down the road, and he volunteered to show us around those ruins.


We passed through the village and its fields towards the south, and there near the ery, on the banks of two kulams and under a huge banyan tree, stood the deserted temple of Adikesava Perumal of Pappankuzhi of two centuries ago. Rich paddies are growing on the land where the temple tank must have been. Besides the deserted Perumal temple, only other remnants of the old settlement are a couple of stones that mark the site of the Easwaran temple, and of the mandaiveli. All the streets, temples, and the various other structures have disappeared. The stones are however preserved by the villagers perhaps as a mark of respect for the deities of the old Pappankuzhi.

The villagers of Pappankuzhi have built the village afresh, in the image of the old. The main street of the village, which probably is on the same spot as the Vanniar street of the older settlement, is just like the Agraharam street of old, except that the people living in this street are not Brahmans, but Vanniars. There are in fact no Brahmans in Pappankuzhi today. Vanniars are the dominant people of the village, forming 70 percent of its population.

A little down the Vanniar street there is a Pillaiyar temple. A little off the street, there is an asbestos-roofed building, the entrance to which is lined with flowers. This is the village primary school, where in a single hall two teachers, one sitting at each end of the room, manage five classes with a total strength of around 75. The high school is a few kilometers away, but most students from the village prefer to go to Sriperumbudur town, some 12 kilometers away, for their studies beyond the primary level. There is another building opposite the school, and that serves as the balawari and the dining hall for the mid-day meal scheme.

Like Pappankuzhi of old the new Pappankuzhi has a second street, perpendicular to the main street. Relative newcomers seem to be living on this street. Then there is the Harijan Street, at the entrance to the village from the side of the highway, standing probably at its ancient site. The 5 Harijan households of old have expanded to many more. But even today the residents of this street constitute the same 16 percent of the population of the village as they did in 1770’s. Elsewhere in the villages of Chengalpattu the proportion of the Harijans in the population has often increased rather dramatically.


Though the Vanniars have reconstructed this village and brought it to a certain level of prosperity, the village does not seem to have the self-sufficiency of the old. Till recently the informal administration of the village was in the hands of the head of the Vanniar community. Now, according to the Vanniars, even that semblance of local self-government does not remain. Pappankuzhi of 1770’s, like other villages of the region at that time, had a large establishment of her own, and this local establishment performed all the functions that a modern welfare state attempts to perform today. But that is another story which needs to be separately told.


J. K. Bajaj and T. M. Mukundan
Centre for Policy Studies, MADRAS
March 25, 19

Pappankuzhi: A state in itself