Articles- THE HINDU —


Ullavur: Sharing the bounty of the Palar

Half way down the Kanchipuram Chengalpattu road, you come across Thirumukkoodal, the place where the Palar and the Cheyyar meet. At some time in the past, Vegavathi may also have reached this point, to give it the name of Thirumukkoodal. To emphasize the sanctity of the spot, where three of the life-giving rivers of the area met, an Easwaran temple was built here in the Pallava times. The temple now is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, and like all temples under the charge of the Survey, it has a certain ersatz look about it, with its chemically scrubbed walls, manicured patches of grass, and gravel lined paths. Outside the gates of the temple, again like most of the ASI temples in remote places, there is a tamarind grove, under which children of the area gather to play. That grove seems to be the only sanctified spot left untouched by the secularizing efforts of the Archaeological Survey.

Not too long ago, Thirumukkoodal stood on the head of an area of extraordinary agricultural prosperity. Moving down from Thirumukkoodal, Palar turns in a semicircle and then runs east to meet the sea near Pudupattinam. Under the curve of the semicircle fell the Salavakkam part of Uttiramerur taluk, known for its high productivity. Beyond Salavakkam, the river forms the dividing line between Maduranthakam and Chengalpattu taluks of today. All along the river, on both the Chengalpattu and the Maduranthakam banks, there lay at least 20 localities which produced more than 600 tonnes of paddy each, with productivity that always exceeded 4 tonnes a hectare, and occasionally reached up to 8 tonnes. It seems that from Thirumukkoodal, Palar brought a bounty of fertility, which she spread all along her banks downstream.

Ullavur was the first major locality downstream to receive this bounty of the Palar. The village is situated a couple of kilometers off the left bank of the river. There is a link road connecting Ullavur with the Kanchipuram-Chengalpattu highway. The link road meets the highway about 3 kilometers from Thirumukkoodal, towards Chengalpattu. Ullavur falls in the Kanchipuram taluk of today, the localities further downstream are all in either Chengalpattu or Maduranthakam.

According to the Tamil palm-leaf records, Ullavur in 1764 produced about 1,250 tonnes of food-grains from about 240 hectares of cultivated lands. Of this annual produce 1,200 tonnes consisted of paddy, grown on 225 hectares of irrigated nunja land. The 15 hectares of unirrigated punja lands produced about 50 tonnes of varagu, cholam and kambu. Average productivity of paddy in Ullavur was thus nearly 6 tonnes per hectare, which is 4 times the national average of today. This equals the yields obtained from the best lands cultivated with the most advanced modern technologies, which as we know are also environmentally ruinous and hardly sustainable.

To achieve this level of productivity the cultivators of Ullavur must have worked upon the land fairly intensely. This is confirmed by the number of bullocks that Ullavur had. There were 240 of them, amounting to a bullock for every hectare of cultivation, and 3 bullocks on the average for each household in the village. However, the cultivators and their bullocks were well-rewarded for their labours. Average annual production of grains per bullock was more than 5 tonnes, and average production per household in Ullavur was as high as 15 tonnes per year.

There were just 83 households residing in this locality, and amongst them there were 2 chettys, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a goldsmith, a potter, a cotton-refiner, an oilman, a barber and a washerman, all of whom may have had not much to do directly with cultivation. The 230 hectares of cultivation was thus carried out by just 70 odd households, and they managed to produce 1,250 tonnes of grains annually.


Ullavur today also gives the impression of a place deeply involved in agriculture, with little time for anything else. We visited the village around harvest time, and the whole village was humming with activity. Every available open space in the village had been utilised for stacking and threshing the harvest. Even the courtyards of the Easwaran, the Perumal and the Amman temples had become temporary threshing grounds. And while this stacking and threshing was going on in the village, other cultivators were busy in the fields preparing for the next sowing.

Producing something like 1,250 tonnes of grains in a single locality requires intense effort, which has to be highly organized and properly timed. We, in the cities, tend to think of agriculture as some sort of leisurely activity, which does not probably require much skill and little effort. Visiting a high production village like Ullavur around harvest time can be an instructive experience.

But, unlike today, in the 1770’s, this intense activity and industry of the peasants in a relatively fertile locality, led, it seems, to a level of prosperity and affluence that was reflected in their immediate living space and environment. Ullavur had as many as 20 kuttais, scattered over the main town, as well as the two smaller habitats of Attipattu and Anandapuram, which formed part of Ullavur. There were 2 larger tanks, each covering about a hectare of land, near the Easwaran and the Attipattu Pidari temple.

Besides these 22 kuttais and kulams, there were 6 groves around the village, covering an area of 13 acres. There was a tamarind grove on the west of the village, and another near Attipattu. On the south-west of the village there was a grove of Iluppai and Nelli, and to the west of it, was another grove of mixed trees. On the west of the village there was also a palm-grove on about 2.5 acres of land. Anandapuram, where the Palayakkarar Anandaraya had his house, had a mixed grove in its neighbourhood. And in addition to these, there were two flower-gardens, on about an acre of land.

Ullavur also had as many as 14 temples. Most of these however were rather small in dimensions, except the Easwaran temple on the north-east which commanded an area of more than two acres, and also had a kulam of the same size. Many of the smaller temples it seems belonged to specific families or groups in the village. There was thus on the south street a temple which is named in the records as the Penngal Koil, and was probably a special temple for the women. Then, there was the Theepanchal temple on the West, whose ruins can be seen among the wild thorny shrubbery. The Theepanchal is the family deity of the Kammawar Naidus of the village, one of whom is still living in the village, and manages to offer occasional worship to the idol of the deity, lying amongst the ruins. According to the legend, there was a woman in the family who performed sati, and thus became the protecting deity of the family.


Today Ullavur does not have the level of prosperity of the Ullavur of 1770’s. It perhaps still manages to produce the equivalent of 1,000 tonnes of paddy, from cultivated lands which have almost doubled to 422 hectares. According to the villagers the best lands of Ullavur today produce up to 25 bags of paddy an acre in a good year. This implies that the best yields of the village approach 4.5 tonnes of paddy per hectare. But ordinary lands in an average year produce no more than 8 to 10 bags an acre, amounting to a yield of around a tonne of paddy per hectare. If we generously assume that average productivity of the village is near 3 tonnes per hectare, taking into account the fact that some of the lands may be cultivated more than once a year, than total annual production of Ullavur today shall be in the range of 1,250 tonnes, as of old.

Of course, paddy is not the only crop that the cultivators of Ullavur grow today. Some of the cultivators with assured supply of water grow vegetables. In the rainfed lands some groundnut is being grown. The village also has taken to cotton cultivation in a big way. In an ordinary year around 75 hectares of the village lands are put under cotton. In a year of relatively better moisture availability cotton crop can be as large as 200 hectares. But yields of cotton and groundnut in this area are not very high, and productivity of lands under cotton and other crops are unlikely to have a higher value than the value equivalent of 3 tonnes of paddy per hectare, which we have assumed to be the average level of productivity of all lands in the village. The productivity of the lands of Ullavur thus seems to have steeply come down over the last two centuries. The standard of living of its people, as we shall see in the next article of this series, has deteriorated even more dramatically.

J. K. Bajaj and T. M. Mukundan
Centre for Policy Studies
January 1991

Ullavur: The bounty runs dry