CLAC Workshop on Tamil Customary Law

An Experimental Workshop on Contemporary Knowledge and Practice of Tamil Customary Law

organized with the support of :

IFP / CEIAS  / JustIndia

and the help of:

the Department of History (Pondicherry University)


Date:  14th and 15th of November 2011

Venue:  Pondicherry University

Language:  Tamil


This experimental workshop intends to bring together for the first time men who are actual practionners of Tamil customary law, known as panchayattars, to discuss over two days a number of issues on the contemporary practices of caste panchayats and village panchayats in Tamil Nadu. The Panchayattars, coming from 5 different castes (Pramalai Kallar, Ambalakarrar, Maravar, Goundar, Nadar) have been met either through personal fieldwork or during the EAP 314 pilot project. Though there will be ample space for open discussion, the workshop will be articulated around several sets of specific questions. The workshop will take place exclusively in Tamil as most of the panchayattars do not speak any English.

Please note that the workshop will not be open to the public. Should you want to attend, please write to the CLAC coordinators before the 15th of October ( However, feedback on the outcome of the workshop will be circulated through this notebook. The workshop will be recorded and a transcription in Tamil and summarized translation in English will be circulated.

This workshop has been made possible through the financial support of the IFP, the CEIAS, Just-India and help of the Department of History of Pondichery University.

New EAP pilot project in Sri Lanka

For 2011, the Endangered Archives Programme is funding a pilot project designed by Dr Ronit Ricci (Australian National University) on the manuscripts of Sri Lankan Malays.


Project Overview:

The Malays of Sri Lanka are a remarkable community, having preserved a spoken dialect of Malay and a rich writing tradition in that language despite living in South Asia for over three centuries. Today most fragile manuscripts that still survive are kept in private collections in poor conditions and many are discarded as their owners age and die, and the younger generation no longer reads the Arabic script in which the manuscripts are written nor understand their content or significance. There is an urgent need to document and preserve these rare collections which open a window to the social and cultural aspects of the community’s life, allow for an expansion of our definitions of the ‘Malay World’, and attest to the inter-connectedness over time of Asian Muslim societies.

The history of the ‘Malay’ community in Sri Lanka goes back to the middle of the seventeenth century, following the foundation of Dutch rule in the island in 1640. The designation ‘Malay’ has been commonly used to refer to people from the Indonesian Archipelago who were exiled to Sri Lanka by the Dutch as political exiles and convicts, sent there in various capacities to serve the Dutch, or recruited as soldiers to colonial armies, both Dutch and, at a later stage, British. Many of those designated as Malay were of Javanese or east Indonesian ancestry, and the early exiles included members of diverse local elites. Despite the distance from the Indonesian-Malay world, the Sri Lankan community maintained a flourishing literacy culture until the early twentieth century. Many of the written documents are striking in their similarities to literature produced in the Malay ‘heartlands’. However, there are also examples of works that are not known from elsewhere and represent local creativity and agendas.

The pioneering study of Malay manuscripts in Sri Lanka was conducted by Professor BA Hussainmiya in the 1970s, when he collected several dozen old manuscripts, many of them about to be discarded by families who no longer saw any value in their keeping or those abandoned when the older generation passed away without heirs. The manuscripts collected by Professor Hussainmiya are currently held by several libraries, among them the National University of Malaysia, the Sri Lankan National Archives and the library of the Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Despite their great importance these manuscripts constituted only a small portion of the total number of manuscripts possessed by members of the community and since the 1970s no further efforts have been made to document and preserve the rest.

The Malays of Sri Lanka produced a diverse range of manuscripts in the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. These included Islamic theological treatises, poetry, biographies of the prophets, mystical writings and more. Local print media also gradually developed, including the publication of the world’s very first Malay newspaper, Alamat Langkapuri (1869-1870).

The aim of this pilot project is to survey and document surviving manuscript and print materials in the Malay language and to digitally photograph a sample of them. The findings from this pilot project help develop a major project in the future. Such a future project would strive to archive all surviving materials and to place copies in repositeries that would be available to all scholars interested in Islam, the literary, political and social dynamics of the Malay world, and patterns of circulation and transmission across the Indian Ocean.

It is important to note that although the focus of the project is on materials composed in Malay, it is highly likely that sections of manuscripts or even entire manuscripts will be written in Arabic and/or Arabu-Tamil (the Tamil language written in Arabic script). Because all three languages (Malay, Arabic and Tamil) were written using the Arabic script close attention is required in surveying and deciphering such content. There is also the possibility of discovering passages in Persian and/or local Indonesian languages like Javanese or Bugis, spoken by the ancestors of today’s Malays. These writings will offer concrete and important evidence to the Malays’ global contacts with Muslims in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and India.  Read more

Recent Publication: Hinduism and Law

Hinduism and Law: An Introduction

2010. Edited by Timothy Lubin, Donald R. Davis, Jr and Jayanth Krishnan. Cambridge University Press


Covering the earliest Sanskrit rulebooks through to the codification of ‘Hindu law’ in modern times, this interdisciplinary volume examines the interactions between Hinduism and the law. The authors present the major transformations to India’s legal system in both the colonial and post colonial periods and their relation to recent changes in Hinduism. Thematic studies show how law and Hinduism relate and interact in areas such as ritual, logic, politics, and literature, offering a broad coverage of South Asia’s contributions to religion and law at the intersection of society, politics and culture. In doing so, the authors build on previous treatments of Hindu law as a purely text-based tradition, and in the process, provide a fascinating account of an often neglected social and political history.


Table of contents:

Introduction -Timothy Lubin, Donald R. Davis, Jr and Jayanth Krishnan

Part I. Hindu Law:

1. An historical overview of Hindu law Donald R. Davis, Jr
2. Dharmaśāstra: a textual history-Patrick Olivelle
3. Hindu legal practice in premodern India -Axel Michaels
4. The creation of Anglo-Hindu law -Rosane Rocher
5. Marriage and family in colonial Hindu law -Rachel Sturman
6. Hindu law as personal law -Rina Verma Williams

Part II. Law in Ancient and Medieval Hindu Traditions:

7. Hindu jurisprudence and scriptural hermeneutics -Lawrence McCrea
8. Indic conceptions of authority -Timothy Lubin
9. Śūdra Dharma and legal treatments of caste -Ananya Vajpeyi
10. Law, literature, and the problem of politics in medieval India -Whitney Cox
11. Hindu law as performance: ritual and poetic elements in Dharmaśāstra -Robert Yelle

Part III. Law and Modern Hinduism: 12. Temples, deities, and the law Richard Davis

13. In the divine court of appeals: vows before the God of justice -Aditya Malik
14. Contemporary caste discrimination and affirmative action -Laura Dudley Jenkins
15. Law and Hindu nationalist movements -Smita Narula
16. Legally and politically layered identities: a thumbnail survey of selected Hindu migration patterns from South Asia -Jayanth Krishnan

CLAC Seminars and Workshops (2011-2012)

New Perspectives on Village Judicial Assemblies and Customary Law in Tamil Nadu


IFP – CEIAS, and with the support of Just-India

The scope of scholarly knowledge of the procedures and practices of village judicial assemblies and more largely of Tamil customary law is extremely limited. For one, during the colonial period, tamil customary law was never codified unlike some other regions of the British Empire. When questioning how they should deal with issues of caste customs, the British judicial administration by and large took the view of caste as a self governing body entitled to adjudicate according to custom and finally, in 1827, caste questions where expressly excluded from the cognizance of civil courts.

Besides the meagre information provided by the colonial literature on this issue, the academic input over the last fifty years has been relatively fragmented both from an anthropological and historical point of view. Since the wave of village studies has withered away in the 60s, little ethnographical attention has been given, especially in this region, to the actual procedures and processes which shape contemporary practices of caste-based judicial assemblies. Instead, researchers’ attention has been largely framed by the paradigms of legal pluralism examining the decision making processes of villagers when choosing the forum(s) in which to settle their disputes, emphasising the pragmatic evaluations they make of the advantages of state law versus local caste custom. These stimulating studies examine motivations, strategies and outcome but unfortunately rarely shed light on the actual procedures and transformations of caste-based judicial assemblies.

Following Independence and the drafting of the Constitution, the Indian State did not take any steps to legislate, for or against, these caste-based judicial assemblies, leaving them in the shade of a constitutional void. There have been several feeble attempts to set up government-sponsored local judicial assemblies (nyaya panchayat) as a door-step access to state justice but these have largely failed to be functional, trusted or properly funded in most Indian states. Instead, the traditional or non-state caste-based judicial assemblies have continued to adjudicate conflicts in a wide number of rural areas. The judgments passed by these non-state panchayats have not only co-existed alongside state-law but in many instances the decisions and judgments taken ‘under the banyan tree’ were recognized and accepted by the judges sitting in the courtrooms.

However this status quo is coming to an end in several parts of the country. In Tamil Nadu, since 2003, several court cases involving ‘panchayattars’, that is the men who adjudicate in village judicial assemblies, have put these non-state panchayats in the firing line of both the government and the media. The latter first expressed their surprise at the very existence of these assemblies and the pervasive hold of customary law on local rural society which was thought by many to be obsolete. Subsequently, a number of judges and government officials began to contemplate a ban of these “criminal courts” thereby drawing attention to the ongoing disjunction both between State law and non-state law most acutely felt within the growing urban-rural divide. The present day situation is a very real turning point for these non-state panchayats which the Tamil government is promising to do away with. In a foreseeable future, these panchayats will either cease to be held openly or simply disappear under the threat of lawsuits.

An important step has been taken to improve our knowledge and understanding of these assemblies in both with the EAP 314 project and the EAP 458 project. However, though gathering archival information is both crucial and urgent (much of the material is rapidly deteriorating), the documents digitized do not shed light on the contemporary shape and function of caste courts and Tamil customary law. Hence, within the framework of the Caste, Land and Custom project, we will be organizing several workshops and seminars  to broaden our understanding and knowledge on village judicial assemblies and Tamil customary law.

Forthcoming events

November 2011

Experimental Workshop on the knowledge and practice of Tamil customary law

In collaboration with the History Department, Pondichery University

January 2012

Multidisciplinary Seminar on Caste Customs and Representations of Non-State Law in Tamil Nadu


Further details regarding the Clac worshops and seminar series will be posted in  News and Events.