The first phase of the DATAH project was conducted between January 2010 and December 2010. It aimed to locate handwritten documents of village judicial assemblies, or traditional courts of customary law, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Though these villages judicial assemblies never acquired legal sanctity, whether under the British or the Indian government, the practice of recording the nature of the dispute and the judgment handed down by village elders became a standard procedure in this region of India in the late 1860s. The location of such documents which are rapidly deteriorating will enable researchers to acquire novel insight into Tamil rural social life.
Though India’s rich legal history and traditions has attracted great interest from historians, anthropologists and legal scholars, very little is known on actual processes and legal reasoning of customary law in this region. The lack of scholarship on this important legal institution rests largely on the absence of written evidence and records. This panchayat, though once a pervasive mode of managing disputes, has disappeared in many regions of India. Where it still sometimes survives, such as in Tamil Nadu, it has been declared illegal by the government. Therefore recourse to ethnographic observation and/or the memory of informants as primary sources to investigate and understand customary law is increasingly problematic. However, from the late 19th century up to the 1940s, handwritten documents pertaining to these panchayats were produced, providing, if made accessible, an invaluable window onto Tamil customary law.
Unfortunately, it appears that no steps have been taken to preserve these documents. If located, preserved and made accessible, such documents would constitute a very rare body of study and knowledge of the practice of customary law for which there is insufficient scholarship, due precisely to the lack of primary sources of study. This pilot project proposed to implement a systematic survey in the villages of two districts of south-central Tamil Nadu (Madurai and Coimbatore) in collaboration with identified local researchers over a period of twelve months in order to locate the largest possible number of such documents.
The project identified 45 individuals holding documents related to Tamil customary law and rural social history who gave their agreement for their collections to be digitised. The size of these collections varied significantly, anywhere between a single document to over 1,000 documents. In addition to these identified collections, further contact details have been gathered of individuals said to be holding documents of interest for the archive.
Within the time frame of the pilot project and other significant constraints, the collections of 10 individuals were digitised, comprising 619 paper documents, 24 notebooks and 9 copperplates – 3,461 images. The process of digitisation in the villages was particularly time consuming.