Rescuing Tamil customary law: locating and copying endangered records of village judicial assemblies (1870-1940) (EAP314)

Aims and objectives

This project aims 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 proposes 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. Given the advanced state of deterioration of some of the documents that have been seen, some of the documents will be digitised.

The outcome of this pilot project will be a written report of a survey of the location and condition of these documents, accompanied by digital photography and recordings. This will lead the way to a future major preservation project.


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.

During the course of the project, its scope was broadened in two ways. Firstly it was anticipated that documents would date back to the 1860s. However, the project located copperplate documents going back to the 1650s as well as paper documents dating from the first decades of the 1800s and palm-leaves that have yet to be accurately dated. Secondly, the project originally set out to collect documents relating ‘only’ to customary law. Whilst examining collections, it appeared that a certain number of documents pertaining to issues such as land management and ritual jurisdictions could not be discarded from the project. Indeed, these documents contribute significantly to understanding the structure of Tamil agrarian society, necessary in order to unravel the issues and processes at stake in Tamil customary law.

Local staff working on the project were trained at the French Institute of Pondicherry by a professional photographer in digitisation techniques, for which they had no prior knowledge. Though all experienced in fieldwork, they also gathered further exposure and competence in this area.

The digital copies of the documents have been deposited with the Tamil Nadu State Archives (Chennai), the Library of the French Institute of Pondicherry (Puducherry) and the British Library.

The records digitised have been catalogued as: