The Project

The aim of the project “Caste, Land and Custom: Rescuing Endangered Documents of Tamil Agrarian History (1650-1950)” is to create a digital archive of documents of socio-historical relevance to historians, anthropologists, sociologists and linguists. Most of the documents identified for digitization are destined to disappear in the near future given both the very humid climate of southern India and neglected condition in which they are stored. These documents, recorded on paper, palm-leaves and copper plates provide a rare and unique opportunity to glimpse a variety of aspects of social history of village life in the more remote parts of the Tamil region at a time when new power structures and social identities were being forged both with and against local traditional feudal systems and British colonial legislations.

Our research focuses on two regions which have been the object of interest of two eminent anthropologists, Louis Dumont for Kallar Nadu (1964) and Brenda Beck for Kongu Nadu (1972). However, the complexity of the social and territorial structures of these two regions is under-documented and the younger generations are less and less aware or interested in these issues. By constituting this archive we will be able to safeguard a window into their past both for themselves and researchers.

One of the specificities of this project is that the documents we are seeking to digitize are scattered in the homes of Tamil villagers, especially the descendants of traditional power holders, who are unaware of the importance such documents can have for understanding social history.  Though unaware of the scholarly value, the document holders are not prepared to part with their forefathers’ documents, such as depositing them in the local archives- as was recently demonstrated by the failure of the Madurai District Archives and Historical Records office to collect such documents despite repeated appeals to the public. Furthermore, the local archives do not have the means to carry out fieldwork and will not pursue digital preservation of documents that are not destined to be in their keep. The archive we are proposing to constitute will open a new avenue of analysis at the level of micro-history of rural India, a field for which there is a lack of research material since the colonial Revenue Records as well as the “Village Notes” of the Settlement Surveys do not contain the types of documents we are proposing to digitize.

This project brings together two intiatives funded primarily by the Endangered Archives Programme and hosted by the French Institute of Pondicherry.

Firstly, the EAP 314 pilot project (2009 award) “Rescuing Tamil Customary Law: Locating and Copying Endangered Records of Village Judicial Assemblies (1870-1940)”. This project was conducted between January 2010 and December 2010. During the 12 month pilot project, our research team carried out intensive fieldwork in small villages searching for documents relating to village judicial assemblies (panchayat). We identified eighty document holders having collections of varying volume (from a handful up to a thousand documents) dating from the mid seventeenth century to mid twentieth century. We digitized and listed around 960 documents (3780 photos) see the project poster here.

Secondly, in the course of our year-long search in two traditional territories (Kallar Nadu and Kongu Nadu), the villagers we met have shown us a number of different ‘old’ documents. Though we were searching primarily for documents relating to customary law, our respondents showed us all documents handed down by their forefathers. These documents covering a wider scope of interest inform not only the transformation and continuity of customary law but also land tenures and revenue collection, kinship patterns, caste relations and power structures. The documents include: genealogical charts, land transactions, religious tax collection, folk tales, loans agreements, honour struggles, temple records, marriage announcements, etc… Hence a follow-up project, EAP 458  “Constituting a Digital Archive of Tamil Agrarian History (1650-1950)” was recently initiated to further expand the scope and number of documents in our archive with the continuing support and collaboration of the EAP and of the IFP.

These endangered documents with their exceptional scholarly value are of great scope in understanding the social history of Tamil village life over a period of three centuries.

Zoe E. HEADLEY

CNRS-CEIAS

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