Articles- THE HINDU


There is a heavy iron anchor lying on the beach near Kovalam. This rusted iron piece is perhaps the only reminder that sea-faring ships used to visit this port town at sometime in the past. The people of Kovalam proudly show-off this rusted anchor of some old ship to interested visitors. Some of them also talk about a spot on the coast that was known by the name of saptasamudram and served as the harbour for Kovalam port. The spot however cannot now be located with any certainty.

The eighteenth century records give detailed schedules of custom duties and other fees that were levied on various goods that entered into and left Kovalam port. The number of goods mentioned in these tariff lists is rather large. The schedules include coconuts, butter, ghee, tamarind, palm-jaggery, onions, betel-leaves, textiles, toddy, salted fish, and so on. This large variety of goods on the tariff schedules gives some idea of the intensity of activity at the Kovalam port, and the level of inland trading that import and export of these goods would have called for.

Unfortunately, the accounts available with us are not detailed enough to form any estimate of the volume of goods traded and moved. However, these accounts give the total estimated revenue of Kovalam for 1762 to 1766 and, as mentioned earlier, the customs and trade tariff part of this revenue averaged to around 1500 gold pagodas per year. Prices of paddy in Chengalpattu of that time were around 2 kalams to a pagoda. In terms of paddy therefore trade and customs revenue of Kovalam amounted to around 400 tonnes per year, which in today’s prices turns out to be more than 12 lakh rupees per year.

The economy of Kovalam was in fact almost entirely dependent upon trading and port activities. Kovalam in the eighteenth century had no cultivated lands, it has little of agriculture even now. There were some salt pans. But these added to only about 45 acres. Another around 45 acres of salt-pans in Semmanjerry are also mentioned in the Kovalam records, and these too were probably operated by the people of Kovalam. Average estimated revenue from salt-pans for the years between 1762 to 1766 amounted to around 450 pagodas per year as against around 1500 pagodas collected from trading tariffs.

The town establishment of Kovalam was maintained largely through deductions from the customs duties and other fees. Just as there were deductions from the agricultural produce of the predominantly agricultural localities of this region for the upkeep of their administrative and cultural establishment, so there were deductions from the customs duties in Kovalam for the upkeep of its town establishment. The list of functionaries and institutions enjoying such deductions included the palayakkarar, the kanakkupillai, the deshamukh, the shroff, the despatching chetty and the Kailasanathar temple, the mosque, the dargah, the flower garden and the fakeer, etc. There were also special port fees collected specifically for some of these establishments. There were also salt-pan manyams, and revenue from about half of the Kovalam salt pans was assigned to the various town functionaries.

The population of the town of course reflected its special character as a trading centre and major port of the area. Of the 194 households in the town as many as 59 were of the chetty, komati and kavari traders. There were 14 goldsmiths and shroffs, who probably engaged in money-changing and providing other financial services to the traders. This seems to be the only plausible explanation for the unusually large number of goldsmiths in this town. There was also a bazaar of the town, where chettys had 26 shops and komatis had 14 shops. One of the goldsmiths also ran a shop in the bazaar.

There were 36 households of fishermen amongs the 194 household in Kovalam of eighteenth century. The fishermen also probably ran boats between the shore and the ships that anchored in the harbour. In any case, according to the district records, such service was being provided by the boatmen of Kovalam till well into the nineteenth century. In fact, with the reduction in the port activities competition amongst the boatmen became rather acute, leading to a fall in the hire charges and consequent deterioration in the upkeep of the boats. By 1835 the problem became serious enough for the Collector of Chengalpattu to take note of it and report it to the Secretary of the Marine Board. Acting on the Collector’s report and the recommendations of the Board of Revenue the Government finally sanctioned an increase in the rate of hire from ‘18 fanams to Rs. 2 per garce’. Incidentally, a rupee was 12 fanams, and the Collector had complained that boat hire charges had fallen from 30 to 18 fanams per garce. A garce was equal to around 4.5 tons.

There were also three blacksmiths, two carpenters, a brazier and a stonecutter in Kovalam. Since there was no agricultural activity in Kovalam, these artisans were probably all engaged in providing services to the shipping in the port. In keeping with the bazaar town character of Kovalam, there were 4 washermen, 2 barbers and an oilman there, all of whom, and especially the barbers, had rather large sites in the town. There were also 5 toddy-tappers and an arrack-seller. Amongst the other service households there were 5 kanakkupillais, 4 militia men, and a devadasi. The town thus had a fairly big complement of artisans and service households.

The traders, the fishermen, the artisans and the service households accounted for more than two thirds of the households in Kovalam. Mohammadens, with 11 households, formed another major group of people in the town. Amongst the rest there were 2 Kaniatchi Vallalas, 10 Brahmans, 17 Vanniars, 4 Idaiyars, 2 Reddys and 4 Harijans besides a few other miscellaneous households.

Along with the traders of Kovalam the diverse professionals and artisans have also vanished. Nobody in Kovalam today knows of any goldsmiths, or blacksmiths, or brass-makers. The fishermen are still there living in two rather run-down localities outside the main town. But there are no goods to be carried on the boats, since there are never any ships anchoring off the shore in Kovalam.

The British, it seems, found the business of running a monopoly on the manufacture of salt to be much more lucrative than the revenues expected from the varied trading activities of Kovalam traders. Making and selling of salt thus became one of the major pre-occupations of British administrators in this region. And, Kovalam was found to be a particularly suitable spot for this activity, partly because Kovalam salt was said to be the best in the region, having a rather large grain, and partly because the proximity of the salt-pans to a functioning port made it possible to export salt from here to far-off places on the eastern coast, without incurring too heavy transportation costs.

The British interest in the manufacture and sale of salt, however, kept the port of Kovalam alive for many decades after 1770. Ships full of salt were sent from here to Bengal. These ships brought back food-grains from Bengal to Madras to feed the British garrisons in this region. The British, it seems, were finding it difficult to procure grains for their armies engaged in the task of ‘reducing this region to obedience’. Agriculture in the region had perhaps been badly disrupted through the actions of these armies of pacification. Kovalam salt was therefore exchanged with food-grains from Bengal, which had already been ‘pacified’. Many a time instructions were issued to the salt manager at Kovalam to load only those ships with salt that showed proof of having brought grains to Madras.

Often all the salt manufactured in Kovalam was exported to Bengal. In time, salt became the only commodity handled at the port of Kovalam, and also at Sadras, the other important port of this region. Thus the Collector of Chengalpattu was able to report in 1835 that apart from the export of salt from Kovalam and Sadras to Bengal there were no other imports and exports by sea relating to his district. Salt alone, however, was not enough to keep the trading centre of Kovalam alive for too long, nor was it enough to keep the port going. With the decline in inland and sea trade the traders left, and with them the various artisans and service professionals also deserted the town. And, once the business of exchanging Bengal grain with Kovalam salt was over, the port also fell into disuse. Thus was the great trading centre and port town of Kovalam transformed into the non-descript desolate place that it seems today.

J. K. Bajaj and T. M. Mukundan
Centre for Policy Studies
February 1992