Articles- THE HINDU


About 5 kilometers north of Chengalpattu town, on the national highway linking Madras with towns down south, there is a small hillock, on the top of which stands the temple of Singaperumal, the fierce incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The temple has a number of mandapams in the open, but the idol of Singaperumal is carved inside a small cave, and this happens to be one of the reasons for its fame.

Near the Singaperumal temple a narrow link road branches off the highway towards Sriperumbudur town. This road, moving away from the fertile stretches along the banks of Palar, passes through dry desolate lands, overgrown with low thorny bushes. Occasionally, one comes across a village, with its ery and green paddy fields around it, looking like an oasis in the desert. There are also, here and there, groves of Casuarina and Eucalyptus, which seem to have been planted in the recent past, probably under one of the projects of the forest department.

In this dreary landscape, about 10 kilometers down the road, one suddenly comes across the vast complex of buildings belonging to a newly instituted residential school, that seems to be attracting students from far and wide. The barrack-like structures of the school, with shoddily plastered walls, however, do little to remove the gloom of the landscape. On the other hand, these buildings, and the scattered signboards of various financiers, who seem to have staked out vast chunks of lands all along the road, in anticipation of future building activity, only emphasise the impression of a wilderness, in the process of being newly colonised. The inhabitants of the area have correctly sensed the portents. In the flat terrain of the region, the buildings of the school complex are visible from a long distance, and residents of villages as far as Ullavur, refer to this complex as the “company”. Perhaps the exploits of another “company”, that tragically disrupted their lives about two centuries ago, and was instrumental in turning this area into the wilderness that it looks today, are so deeply etched on the minds of the people, that they tend to think of all forces, which they cannot comprehend and which do not belong to their own surroundings, as the “company”.


About a couple of kilometers away from the school, off the Singaperumal-Sriperumbudur road, lies the village of Nattarsampattu. The habitation of Nattarsampattu is on the banks of a big ery, stretching over 32 hectares, half of which the village shares with the neighbouring Siruvanjur. There is also a relatively smaller ery on the south-west of the village, and another on the north-east. In the eighteenth century there were also five toppus surrounding the village site on the north, west and the south. There was also a stretch of wood extending over 40 hectares of land, which the records mention by the name of Anadi Kadu, the timeless forest. Thus surrounded by woods and erys, and with a vast body of water collected in the centre, the inhabitants of Nattarsampattu, it seems, had generated a fertile patch of green, amidst the barren wilderness.

It is an indicator of the difficulty of the terrain, that with 3 erys to store water, Nattarsampattu was able to manage only 50 hectares of irrigable and 17.5 hectares of unirrigable cultivation. And the village had as many as 80 bullocks to cultivate these less than 70 hectares of cultivated lands. According to the Tamil palm-leaf records, in the year 1763, Nattarsampattu produced 260 tonnes of foodgrains, on 64 hectares of cultivation. Nearly 200 tonnes of this harvest consisted of paddy, and the rest was veragu, cholum, payaru, and edible oil-seeds.

However, in spite of the rather high level of productivity of its lands, Nattarsampattu was not an exclusively agricultural locality. In this respect Nattarsampattu was quite unlike Ullavur, and also Pappankuzhi, the two predominantly vanniar, and essentially agricultural, villages that we have come across so far. Nattarsampattu, it seems, was as much an industrial village, as it was agricultural.

Of the 47 households residing in Nattarsampattu at least 24 had probably no direct connection with cultivation. The village had 13 households of the kaikkolar weavers, 6 of the Chetty traders, 1 of a carpenter and another of a goldsmith. There was also a household of a Chunnambukkaran, who made and dealt in slaked lime. At some time in the past the village must have had a few families of blacksmiths also. In the middle of the village, on one of the main streets, there can still be seen a heap of slag, a tell-tale sign of iron-smelting activity, that must have gone on here in the past. In the records this slag-heap is mentioned as occupying a quarter of a hectare of the common lands.

Besides the industrial and trading people, there was a Vannan, a Navitan, a Panisevar, a Kanakkupillai, and a Tookery household, all of whom provided various kinds of services to the village. Among the remaining 21 households, there were 10 of the Pariar, 3 of the Idaiyar, and 8 of the Kaniatchi Reddys. A majority of these 21 households may have been associated mainly with agricultural cultivation. But since the village had as many as 150 cows and 20 buffaloes, besides the 80 bullocks, a considerable part of the cultivators’ time must have been spent in looking after the cattle. It is also possible that some of the 21 cultivator households were involved exclusively with animal husbandry.

Agriculture thus formed only a relatively small part of the activities of the inhabitants of Nattarsampattu. Less than half the households in the locality were engaged in agriculture, and the rest pursued a variety of skilled professions. As we have seen, agricultural production alone of Nattarsampattu amounted to more than 5 tonnes of grains per household per year, and all of this grain was produced by just half of the households in the village. Since the produce of the other half of the households, who followed non-agricultural professions, must have been of a similar level, the average annual household incomes in Nattarsampattu may have been equivalent to the value of 10 tonnes of grains per year. Nattarsampattu was thus an affluent village even by the standards of that time.

It is a measure of the diversity of professions and services available in Nattarsampattu, and of its affluence arising from varied sources, that this locality in the 1770’s had a separate building for a school, the pallikudam. From Dharampal’s description of the state of education in India in the early nineteenth century, recorded in his book "The Beautiful Tree", it is known that before the arrival of the British almost every locality, in what came to be known as Madras Presidency, had at least one functioning school. These schools, however, did not necessarily have separate buildings of their own. Nattarsampattu is one of the rare localities that has a house recorded as the pallikudam, in the eighteenth century palm-leaf accounts. The school building, incidentally, had a covered area of 192 square yards, and a backyard extending over 442 square yards.


Today, nothing survives of the diverse affluence of Nattarsampattu. The locality seems to be slowly reverting to the wilderness from which it was painstakingly hewed. The main ery in the middle of the village has gone completely dry. According to the kanakkupillai all the inlets into the ery have been cut, and these days it never gets any water. The dry bed of this vast ery is now used as the path to Siruvanjur. The other two smaller erys do get some water in years of good rainfall, and that is what keeps the cultivators going to some extent.

With the decline in the fertility of Nattarsampattu most of the resourceful and skilled people seem to have deserted the village. The streets of the Reddys and those of the artisans, which at some time past must have hummed with diverse activities, today wear a desolate look. The Perumal temple of Nattarsampattu, standing at the head of the Reddy street, had 4,800 square yards of lands assigned to it, in the eighteenth century. Today a small building on this vast site houses the Perumal idol. Much of the temple lands however have been encroached upon for various purposes of the state. The link road to the village cuts through the temple lands, and the overhead water tank, which is supposed to supply piped water for the usually dry taps in the village, also stands on this site. It seems as if with the desertion of the resourceful people of the village the Perumal has also deserted, and what now passes for the temple is merely the ruined housing of the deity.

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

 Nattarsampattu: The Wilderness Returns