Articles- THE HINDU

Thirupporur: A great cultural centre

Pappankuzhi, Ullavur, Nattarsampattu, Siruvenjur. All these localities that we have studied so far in this series, and perhaps a couple of thousand others in Chengalpattu - with their high agricultural production and productivity, their large complements of industrial and artisanal skills, and their elaborate networks of administrative, military, economic, cultural and other essential services, maintained through substantial allocations from the local produce - seem to have been more or less sufficient within themselves. The impression of isolated self-sufficiency of these localities is enhanced by a peculiar geographical feature of Chengalpattu. Most of the localities here, as we have seen, have evolved around an irrigation source, generally an ery or two, and beyond the command of these erys of the locality there are stretches of waste and shrub land or woods, which often seem like no-man’s lands. Comparison of land data from the eighteenth and twentieth centuries indicate that there may indeed have been strips of no man’s lands between locality and locality covering about a quarter of the total land area of the region then.

It is not surprising therefore that early British administrators and scholars formed the picture of India as a country of isolated village republics. Such a description of India was included in the so-called Fifth Report of the British House of Commons issued in 1812. The description of village republics provided in this British parliamentary report seems to have been mainly derived from the 1795 report of Lionel Place, the British Collector of Chengalpattu at that period. Place’s views were significantly influenced by the information collected in the 1767-1774 Chengalpattu survey, of which the palm-leaf records we are examining formed the basic material.

Somewhat later, Charles Metcalfe, Governor of Bombay, and sometime Acting Governor General of India, produced a similar description of village republics based on his experiences in western India. Metcalfe’s description and that in the Fifth Report became the starting points for all discussion on India in administrative and academic circles. James Mill included these descriptions in his History of India. And Marx reproduced a picture of the India of village republics in his Das Kapital.

Most of these descriptions of village India, especially the later more theoretically oriented descriptions of Marx, Maine, and Baden-Powell, etc., sought to convey that these isolated republics of India were mired in ignorance and poverty, and were so insular and so closed in within themselves that they remained unaffected while the world around them kept crumbling under the impact of legions of invaders, and a long series of famines and plagues. It seems, however, odd to associate poverty and ignorance with a locality like Ullavur that produced as much as 15 tons of foodgrains for each of its households on the average, or with Siruvenjur that provided such an aesthetically pleasing and elaborately landscaped habitat to its people. The metaphors of insularity and self-centeredness of these village republics seem equally odd and misplaced, when we look at a locality like Thirupporur, which in the eighteenth century seems to have functioned as a cultural capital of the region.

According to the records as many as 249 localities of Chengalpattu contributed a share of their produce to the Kandaswami temple of Thirupporur. And Thirupporur was just one of the many centres maintained by the joint funds of a large number of localities in the region. There were at least 17 major institutions which received shares in the produce of more than one hundred localities. The greatest of these institutions was the Varadaraja Perumal Kovil of Kanchipuram. More than half the localities of the region, 1265 to be exact, allocated a part of their produce towards this temple.

Temples, however, were not the only cultural centres maintained thus. There were also great scholars, like the Kumbakkonam Chikkodeyar, Mathadhipati of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam temporarily residing in Kumbakkonam, who received shares from 310 localities, and Pillailokacharia of Kanchipuram, who recieved substantial shares from 126 localities. There were muslim places, like that of the Santhome Peerjada, which had a share in the produce of 118 localities. There were also great devadasis, brahmans, jainis and fakirs similarly provided for from the produce of the region. And, there were a variety of chhatrams, water pandals and flower gardens in which a number of localities had an interest and a share. Localities that joined together to maintain such a multiplicity of institutions could hardly be termed insular or inward looking.

Thirupporur thus was one of the many cultural capitals of Chengalpattu region, one of the centres where the village republics interacted together and worked out ideas and institutions that transcended the locality and bound them together. The 249 localities that contributed to the incomes of this temple fell in the coastal belt stretching roughly between the Cooum river in the north to Thirukkalikunram in the south. These localities constituted the Kovalam and Poonamallee seemais, taluks in modern terminology, of that time. Of these the localities nearer Thirupporur, those falling in the Kovalam seemai, generally allocated a little more than one percent of their gross produce to Kandaswami of Thirupporur. Allocation from the localities in the Poonamallee seemai was nearer 0.75 percent.

Besides the share in the produce of such a large number of localities, there were a variety of revenue assignments made in the name of Kandaswami of Thirupporur. Thirupporur town itself was Shrotriyam to the temple, which meant that all the revenues of this locality, arising from agricultural as well as non-agricultural activities, were assigned to the temple. The neighbouring village of Illalur, with almost 125 hectares of revenue paying cultivation, was also Shrotriyam to Kandaswami of Thirupporur. And the temple held Shrotriyam rights on another small and then uninhabited locality, Karungulipallam, on the Thirupporur-Thirukkalikunaram road. In addition to these there were small manyams, pieces of cultivated lands revenue from which was assigned to the temple, in at least 14 villages of the neighbourhood.

Kandaswami temple in the eighteenth century thus was a highly resourceful institution. According to the records the nominal amount of Shrotriyam accruing to the temple from Thirupporur was 47 varagans. A varagan was a gold coin roughly equal to four silver rupees. The nominal value of the Shrotriyam from Illalur was 150 varagans, and from tiny Karungulipallam 3 varagans. The value of the Thirupporur Shrotriyam as calculated in the palm-leaf records on the basis of the produce for the years 1762 to 1764 was higher than the nominal amount of 47 varagans. Thus for the year 1762 the Shrotriyam amount assessed on the basis of actual produce was about 63 varagans, for 1763 it was 76 varagans and for 1764 it went up to 109 varagans. Most of this Shrotriyam amount came from agricultural revenues, the non-agricultural revenues in any given year contributing only a little more than 5 varagans.

The income arising from the shares in the produce of the 249 localities that contributed to the Kandaswami of Thirupporur was many times more than the Shrotriyam incomes. According to a 1799 assessment these contributions for that year added up to 646 varagans. Incidentally, this 1799 assessment formed the basis of permanent settlement of land revenue in Chengalpattu District undertaken around that time. This permanent settlement in Chengalpattu, as elsewhere in Madras Presidency, failed. And what finally prevailed was the ryotwari system, in which the government directly dealt with each peasant cultivator, and fixed the revenue for each ryot separately from year to year.

However, as a matter of deliberate policy the British government did not want the great institutions of Chengalpattu polity, like the Kandaswami of Thirupporur, to continue any direct dealings with the various localities of the region. Therefore the rights of share in the produce of the various localities were taken over by the government and instead the assessed value of these shares, assessed at 646 varagans for the Kandaswami temple in 1799, was converted into a claim on the government revenues, to be paid to the temple from the treasury. The settlement of 1799 thus became effectively a permanent settlement as far as the shares of various institutions in the produce were concerned. The Chengalpattu district manual of 1879 records this same amount, converted now into 2361 rupees, as the amount payable to Kandaswami of Thirupporur on account of the rights of shares in the produce resumed by the government. And some similar amount of around 3000 rupees is still paid to the temple from the Chengalpattu collectorate out of the land revenues of the neighbouring Thaiyur village, as recompense for the temple’s share in the produce of 249 localities of the region. The temple also receives an amount of around 2500 rupees from the Chengalpattu collectorate, paid out of the land revenues of another neighbouring village, Thandalam, presumably in lieu of some of the manyam rights resumed by the government.

The 1799 settlement it seems did not recognise the claim of Kandaswami of Thirupporur on the Shrotriyam of Illalur. Thirupporur and Karungulipallam however continued to be Shrotriyam to the Kandaswami temple, and rights of the temple on around 15 hectares of manyam in various villages also remained. Later these Shrotriyam and manyam rights were converted into ownership rights, and the Kandaswami temple, which was a cultural centre of the region where the interests and funds of a large number of localities congregated, became a landlord, whose interests often conflicted with those of the people around it.

Through these devices the temple was cut-off from the life of the localities around it. Most other cultural and political centres also suffered a similar fate. From being representatives of the larger cultural and political aspirations of the various self-sufficient localities of the region they started appearing as an unwanted and undesirable charge on the public revenues. The great institutions that had provide strength and cohesion to the decentralised polity of village republics thus started decaying and in time many of them began to be seen as the sources of the weakness of that polity. And, with these institutions thus separated from the life of the localities around them, the metaphor of the insular village communities, with no interest in anything larger than their locality, became the reality of India.

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

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