(This column attempts at unraveling many fascinating facts on the art and architecture of India and this week’s article throws light on how did a village look like in the past)

With the teaching of history being grudgingly tolerated, it is a pipe dream for us to expect local history to be taught in schools. Yet, thanks to inscriptions, the medieval life of several towns and villages can be reconstructed to a large degree. With the use of literature references, it becomes even more colourful and absorbing.

Some understanding of the political division of the country will be useful. Political divisions were prone to frequent change as kings and dynasties changed. Local variations, chieftains who challenged the higher authorities and the destruction of many inscriptions don’t give us a complete picture but there is a picture nevertheless. All of these were present in some form or the other in the Pallava and Pandya kingdoms but it is in the Chola kingdom that they were implemented with devastating efficiency. So it would be pertinent to take a Chola kingdom example – though actual boundaries always varied as kings changed.

If the entire kingdom was one country, then mandalam would be a state – all of Sri Lanka was a mandalam – so it was a huge area. Kutram/Kottam/Valanadu were all equivalents of the district we have today. Perhaps they varied in size but we are not sure. Under these were nadus. The head of a Nadu was a local chief called a Nadalvan, a person who had revenue collection responsibilities. Kottur, Ezhumur, Ambattur and Amur were all Nadus that are part of Chennai today. At the smallest level was the village. The village went by several names. Sometimes geographical position – those with Kurichi meant they are near a hill. A patnam, is a village near the sea. An ‘Ur’ was a village essentially devoted to agricultural production. A nagaram was a settlement that had a high proportion of traders. A mangalam or a nallur was a place where Brahmins were the predominant community and the town itself will be owned or belong to a temple. Several large villages had all these three parts, where within, people lived segregated by community. In continuously inhabited ancient settlements such as Tirunelveli and Thanjavur, a map of the old street names and the older temples often reveal these slowly disappearing social maps of settlements.

In addition to such settlements were Tani-Urs or Union Territories of sort. Large settlements are the ones that had independent revenue collection targets and possibly those that supported a permanent battalion. Towns with ‘Padi’ were not always Tani-urs but places that have had some connection to battalion encampments.

Texts like the Vimanarchana, available now at the Saraswati Mahal Library, dictate the positioning of temples in a village. Uttiramerur near Kanchi is a good example. Although this system was not always followed, it can also be a useful input into understanding the geography of a settlement. The temple for Durga was usually in the north, she herself called the Vada Vayir Chelvi or the Goddess of the Northern gate. Vishnu was positioned in the west facing east, an evidence of the growing incorporation of the sun worship cult into the Vaishnavaite tradition. Shasta or Muruga were in the East and Siva and the cremation grounds towards the south towards the nether world. Resources, especially water that was common to the village were guarded by the Saptamatrikas. Only three individual temples for these seven goddesses have survived, one being at Velacheri, Chennai. In many villages, at the centre of the village was the ambalam, a pillared meeting place with an image of Vishnu were important deliberations of the community took place and oaths taken and justice dispensed with.

Like today, it was common to name and rename villages after the reigning monarch or his queens. Streets and highways (theru, or Perunderu) also suffered the same fate. None of them continue with the same name – a lesson that is lost on politicians today!

(The author, who is also a historian, may be contacted at pradeepandanusha@gmail.com)