stonespeak History & Culture

Powerful mode of communication

Chola period inscription found at Big Temple at Thanjavur on August 01, 2005. Photo: S.S. Kumar  

Medieval Tamil Nadu was an agricultural economy. There were many powerful trade guilds and wealthy merchants but even their products were mostly cultivated from the land.

Land was therefore the most important source of occupation and symbol of wealth, irrigation – the life blood. The northern part of Tamil Nadu – Kanchi, Madras, and their environs were predominantly irrigated by stagnant water bodies. The Thanjavur area had a network of rivers and canals from the Cauvery river. In the south – Madurai and beyond, rivers were fewer and there were more lakes and ponds that irrigated the lands.

Inscriptions in temples are mostly administrative records and one would therefore get a complete picture of the complex systems by which land was classified and used. It varied from kingdom to kingdom and from region to region and across times. Despite these complexities, it is clear that people respected water and land and did not abuse them as it is done today. It is also evident that when it came to their management, it was predominantly locally decided and only rarely were disputes referred to the king. Most important, people innovated and improved cultivation and irrigation patterns around the geography of the area rather than the other way round and that seemed to lead to a more harmonious balance between people and nature.

Classifications of land

There were several classifications of land. Based on soil, it was called Kalar (alkaline), uvar/uppuman (saline) and cakkan (limey) soils. Unproductive soils had many more classifications than land with productive soil. The uncultivable lands were called ahovanam, karambai, pattapal and tharisu. Some other titles give us a clue on why they were uncultivable - Sandy land (manarppal), saline land (uvar/uppukkudu) and alkaline land (kalar).

Margosa (neem) and perandai (Cissus quadrangularis) were used to reduce alkaline or salt content of the soil. Water logged lands, called nir nilai, nir kovai, kidangu, madu and odai were used to cultivate water lilies, a highly prized commercial crop.

Irrigation by canal was well known. Banks were referred to as Karai (ordinary) and Kulai (canal bank) which was an artificially raised flood embankment. Nanal was a favourite plant to be planted in elevated ground that offered some protection against frequent flooding. Excavation and dredging are referred to as Kalludal and Kuttudal. Turtall was the antonym and referred to desilting, usually of stagnant water bodies.

Areas near rivers were frequently flooded with the stagnant water thus becoming a swamp. Such land, called nir nilai, were reclaimed at great expense and the land is called taramili or tax free land. Taxes were initially waived to encourage re-cultivation and then taxes were slowly increased over a period of years so that the cultivator and the state benefitted – this is indeed the precursor to the SEZ system today!

The Srirangam temple has several inscriptions, some even specify the ideal crops to be sowed at different stages of the land.

Inscriptions across Tamil Nadu refer to Kulams or ponds. Either as tirtha kulam that supplied water for domestic purposes and irrigation tanks. Water that came from ponds were termed as iraithal and not paychchal, that came from rivers. Shutter gates or Madhagu Kanvay palagai regulated water flows. Wet lands were classified into Kar – monsoon paddy and pasanam – winter paddy. Crops in Tamil Nadu, unlike in the North, were classified according to their moisture needs and not the seasons. Crop patterns therefore give us clues on the land as well. Land that was easily and reliably irrigated was called Nancey or Neer nilam. Thottam land relied upon wells – which were expensive. Thottam was also called patti. If it had a flower garden it was a nandavanam and if it had an orchard a thoppu. Punjai was a land that depended on the vagaries of the monsoon for moisture. It was also called Kollai in some inscriptions. Land reclaimed from river beds was Padugai. Such well irrigated lands could be communally regulated to grow high value crops like plantain and sugarcane.

Land incapable of growing any crop was for pastures – Kanru Mey Pal, Kanru Nilai Pal and Gopachara Bhumi. Kaadu refers to forests. Inscriptions on clearing forest/shrubs for cultivation are rare. A rare one from Sayavanam near Sirgazhi refers to woodland used for feeding pigs.

High elevation grounds were preferred for residences. Nattam, Urirukkai, ceri and tidal continue to be prefixes to settlements in the state today and testify to the area being on high ground in comparison to the surrounding areas. Backyards of houses – mania pulakkadai were used for vegetables and trees, produce that could on occasion be taxed.

Read with inscriptions connected to irrigation methods, inscriptions reveal a powerful and supportive connect that people had with their soil and land. No inscription talks of environmental awareness and going green but every line on land use and cultivation, speaks louder than words of action in this area.

Pradeep Chakravarthy is an author and historian. Email –

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 2:11:35 AM |

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