Constituting a digital archive of Tamil agrarian history during the colonial period (EAP458)

Aims and objectives

The aim of this project is to create an archive of documents of socio-historical relevance to historians, anthropologists, sociologists and linguists. Most of the documents identified for digitisation 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.

The documents 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. This proposed new archive of material 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 these types of documents. The Endangered Archives Programme has facilitated this link between the document holders and the archives through the opportunity of digitisation within their homes aiding both in their preservation and dissemination.

This major project is born out of the previous pilot project EAP 314. During the 12 month pilot project, the team carried out intensive fieldwork in small villages searching for documents relating to village judicial assemblies (panchayat). Eighty document holders were identified having collections of varying volume (from a handful up to a thousand documents) dating from the mid seventeenth century to mid twentieth century. The pilot project digitised and listed around 960 documents (3,780 photos).

In the course of the year-long search in two traditional territories (Kallar Nadu and Kongu Nadu), the villagers showed a number of different ‘old’ documents. Though documents relating to customary law were primarily being searched for, all documents handed down by the villagers’ forefathers were shown. These documents covered a wider scope of interest in 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 included: genealogical charts, land transactions, religious tax collection, folk tales, loans agreements, honour struggles, temple records, marriage announcements, etc.

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. Given the practical experience gained from the pilot project (the conditions of digitisation in the villages, the geographical constraints and the lengthy process of content identification) and the volume of documents available, the major project will enhance the capacity of its team both with respect to number of research staff and the duration of the project.

Approximately 10,000 documents (40,000 images) will be digitised and copies deposited with the Tamil Nadu State Archives, the Resource Centre of the French Institute of Pondicherry and the British Library. Each document holder will also receive a CD copy of their personal collection.

Visit the project website.

View a presentation (PDF format 1.7MB) on the project.


The project succeeded in digitising the collections of 28 document holders. The size of the collections varied from between one single document to over a 1,000 documents. This created a digital archive of 36 774 images, corresponding to 2,709 paper documents, 185 notebooks, 4 copperplates, 21 books, 26 diaries, and 710 palm-leaf manuscripts. The documents cover a wide range of issues, such as land act notices, land leases, land sales, village leases, land deeds, auctions, loans, legal documents and judgments related to conflicts (theft, murder, ritual status, irrigation, etc), petitions, tax receipts, appointment of village headmen, ritual tax collection, East India Company records and also documents relating to astrology, palmistry, folk medicine, folktales, genealogical charts, and marriage invitations.

In the course of the project, the scope of the project objectives was broadened in three interesting ways. Firstly regarding the time scale, originally it was hoped to go only as far back as the 1860s. However, copperplate documents were located going back to the 1650s as well as paper documents dating from the first decades of the 1800s, and palm-leaf manuscripts that have yet to be accurately dated. Secondly, the project originally set out to collect documents relating ‘only’ to customary law. While examining the collections that were shown to the project team, it appeared that a certain number of documents pertaining to issues such a land management and ritual jurisdictions could not be discarded from the project and in fact contributed significantly to understanding the structure of Tamil agrarian society necessary to unravel the issues and processes at stake in Tamil customary law. Thirdly, following information gathered during fieldwork, it is planned to extend the work to a third region, Pudukkottai, a princely state under the British regime, where relevant materials can be found on the functioning of a princely state at the time of British colonial rule.

The digital documents produced by this project have been deposited with the Tamil Nadu State Archives (Chennai), the Library of the French Institute of Pondicherry, and the British Library. In addition each individual document holder now holds a digital copy of his own collection.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: