Articles- THE HINDU


At the Tamil University of Thanjavur, there are some 200 bundles of palm-leaf records, which were transferred there about 10 years ago from the office of the Collector of Chengai-Anna district at Kanchipuram, where they had been lying for the last hundred years or more. Each of these bundles contains about 800 uncut and untreated palm-leaves, each a meter long and 4 centimeters wide, with writings on both sides. These writings are the 18th and 19th century village accounts of the Chengalpattu region of Tamil Nadu. And, they present the most detailed picture available anywhere of the functioning of Tamil society and polity at its basic level, before it was disrupted and transformed through the instruments of British administration.

Of the 200 bundles of palm-leafs, about 30 contain accounts collected around 1774 at the instance of a British engineer, Thomas Barnard, and Raja Chengalvaraya Mudaliar, who probably was a major Nattar of the region. These accounts, referring to about 800 villages, are part of the original data that formed the basis for an extensive survey of about 2000 villages of Chengalpattu, undertaken by Barnard on instructions from his superiors in the British administration. The survey was one of the very first efforts that the British made to understand the ways of the Indian people, before devising modes of effectively controlling and administering them.

Early British administrators like Lionel Place, the first British Collector of Chengalpattu, got their ideas about how to control and subordinate the Indian society from detailed village level data of this type. From the reports of Lionel Place ideas about the indigenous village economy and polity got incorporated into the Fifth Report presented to the House of Commons in 1813. That report then became the basis for the images of insular village republics of India that needed to be smashed before India could join the ranks of the progressive nations of the world. Such images were evoked and perpetuated by administrators and scholars like Charles Metcalfe, Henry Maine, and Karl Marx, etc., and have become the main source of our understanding of the indigenous Indian polity. It is indeed surprising that we have not so far looked at the original data from which these images have been drawn, in spite of the fact that these palm-leave records describing the Indian village life in such detail have been lying amongst us for so long.

A preliminary study of these 30 bundles of Tamil palm-leaf accounts, along with a complete analysis of the English records of the survey available in the Tamil Nadu State Archives, has been carried out by a team of scholars under the leadership of Dharampal, through the efforts of the PPST Foundation and the Centre for Policy Studies in Madras, and the willing cooperation of the Department of Palm-Leaf Manuscripts of the Tamil University at Thanjavur. Dharampal is an unusual historian of India, who through his meticulous and painstaking research work over the last 20 years, has initiated a new understanding of pre-British India.

Some of the features of Tamil society of the eighteenth century, which emerge from the English records of the Chengalpattu survey and the original palm-leaf accounts, seem rather startling. For example, a few leaves record the amount of cultivated land under different crops and the actual produce of a village for each of the five years between 1762 and 1766. These data show that there were villages in this region which produced up to 12 tonnes of paddy per hectare of cultivation. Today this level of productivity can be obtained only in the best of the Green Revolution areas of the country, with the most advanced, highly expensive, and often environmentally ruinous technologies. This information about the productivity of Chengalpattu villages in the 1760’s forces us to completely revise our ideas about the scientific, technological and managerial skills available in the country around the time it fell to British power.

The palm-leaf accounts also provide a graphic picture of the layout of the Chengalpattu villages of that time. They record the location and extent of every temple, pond, tank, well, ery, channel, garden, grove and forest in the village. They also give details of the streets, paddy-threshing grounds, cattle-grounds and burial grounds. And, they give the name of every householder with the sizes of their houses and backyards. The villages they describe were rather well laid-out, with wide streets, large houses, and larger backyards. Often the habitation in a village was surrounded by gardens, groves, forests, and erys. And all the houses, including those in the Harijan section of the village, were fairly big.

These records also tell us that each of these villages maintained an extensive establishment of administrative, cultural and economic functionaries and services, and also made provisions for larger centres of culture, religion, scholarship and administration, which provided the connecting link for the whole region. From the village produce allocations were made for each of these functions and services, and the total of these allocations amounted to 30 percent of the gross produce in most places. Thus the Chengalpattu village, it seems, functioned like the innermost circle of the oceanic polity of Mahatma Gandhi.

Village level accounts of this type are an invaluable source for learning about a polity that was not controlled from a single centre. Besides telling us about the prosperity and functional efficiency of the pre-British Tamil society, they also give us a glimpse of the reality of economic and social relationships between the various communities within the village polity, and about the actual status of various jatis in an Indian society functioning according to its own indigenous genius.

Whatever information we have so far on these aspects of Indian society has been derived from literary sources. Texts of high literature, however, tend to present an elite ideal which may not have prevailed in actual practice anywhere in India before the British period. But the British had a peculiar affinity for the literary ideal, either because it agreed with the hierarchical society they were used to, back home in Europe, or merely because it could be interpreted to suit their colonial interests to create a highly hierarchical polity in India. In any case, it is a sad fact, that with the rise of the British power in India, the literal often tended to become the real. Detailed village accounts, like those of the Chengalpattu villages, provide an instructive counter-point to the literary ideal, and to the current reality modelled on those ideals, by giving us some idea of the reality of life as it was actually lived in the villages of India.

In this series of articles we shall narrate our experiences of visits to some of the villages described in the eighteenth century palm-leaf accounts. This is a fascinating story of villages which seem to have retained a strong remembrance of their indigenous past, especially in the lay out of their streets, the sizes of their house-sites, and in the surroundings of their habitat. But the life that animated these villages was extinguished with the loss of autonomy of their communities. Their surroundings now are deteriorated, the houses and temples are in ruins, and the people have deserted. Seen from the perspective of the eighteenth century accounts these look like ghost villages. Yet today they seem to be stirring again with a new life. Political independence of last four decades was bound to lead to some reawakening of the indestructible spirit of India. Observing these signs of new life in a surrounding so rich with past vitality is an experience in itself, some sense of which we shall try to recapture in this series.

J. K. Bajaj and T. M. Mukundan
Centre for Policy Studies
February 1, 1991

Introduction-2: Reality of India’s Past