Pallava, Chola and Pandya kings established Brahmin settlements called Chaturvedi mangalam in many places in Tamil Nadu. Sociologist Andre Beteille writes in his book: “Later the term agraharam came into use to refer to a community of Brahmins, to the street on which they lived and sometimes to the entire village.” Ganapathy agraharam is an example of an entire village bearing the name ‘Agraharam.’
During the Maratha reign in Thanjavur, many agraharams were attached to the chatrams, established by the rulers. In 1765 a chatram was built in the name of Rajakumaramba Bayi, the second wife of Tulaja II. In 1777, an agraharam was built attached to this chatram. In the Chakravarambapuram Agraharam, which was attached to the chatram of the same name, there were 24 houses, of which 12 were destroyed in a fire. In 1831, new houses were built to replace the ones lost in the fire. Tamil scholar K.M. Venkatramaiah records that Subramania Sastri, one of the residents here, was an Eka Santa Grahi, that is, one who, with just one reading, could retain in his memory what he had read. Sulakshanamba Bayi donated lands to the chatram established in her name and the yield of 3,000 kalams of paddy from these lands, was shared among the 30 families in the Sulakshanamba Bayi agraharam.
Gift to minister
In addition to these agraharams attached to chatrams, agraharams were established elsewhere too, sometimes as a gift to a minister. Dabir Agraharam in Kumbakonam is one such. It was named after Dabir Pandit, Dabir being a reference to his official position. His name was Naroo Pandit. He appears to have been a minister under Pratap Singh (1739 to 1763) and later under Tulaja II. He suggested a new system of revenue collection called Dabir Muri. At that time the ‘amani’ system was in vogue. The Dabir Muri would have ensured more revenue to the government, but for some reason, both the Nawab and Tulaja, who was restored to the throne in 1776, were unwilling to implement the Dabir Muri, but continued with the amani system. However, much later, in the 1800s, the Dabir Muri system was adopted by J. Cotton, the Collector of Thanjavur.
Agraharams seem to have been lively places, with their residents even staging plays! It was necessary to get government permission. A Modi record says that residents of all 40 houses in Dabir Agraharam applied for permission to stage the play ‘Harishchandra’ during the day and ‘Hiranyavadam’ during the night.
In an agraharam, houses shared a common wall. While this would make lateral expansion of a house impossible, it enhanced social interaction among the residents. Every house had a thinnai , which was an elevated open verandah on the outside of the house, and this writer remembers childhood visits to her grandfather’s village, where, as the elders sat on the thinnai , discussing politics, the children would play hide and seek. Hide and seek seemed an ideal game to play in an agraharam, where the doors to all houses were kept open throughout the day, and the children could find umpteen hiding places, behind huge wooden barrels, behind the wooden chests to store paddy ( kudir ), and even in the lofts. Beteille observes: “Nothing happens within an agraharam which is not sooner or later – sooner rather than later- brought to the knowledge of the entire community.” He says one of the ways in which news travels in the agraharam is from one thinnai to another!
But what is life like in agraharams these days? Most of the agraharams of old have become commercial nerve centres of the towns in which they are located. First Agraharam in Salem, for example, is now home to showrooms and shops. In Kumbakonam and Thanjavur too agraharams have disappeared and even those who live these have replaced the old houses with modern ones.
Enquries reveal that the villages of Udayalur and Tippirajapuram still have the old structures intact, and what’s more, most of the houses are occupied too. And so it is, that I make my way to these villages. Pattabhiraman of Udayalur, who takes me round the agraharam says that the films ‘Arasu’ and ‘Dhanam’ were shot here. He shows me the place where, in the film ‘Arasu’, Vadivelu walks along jauntily boasting of his job. While many of the residents of the agraharam have left in search of better prospects, Pattabhiraman has stayed back to cultivate the lands belonging to the family. Every house here has a kudir - those huge wooden chests to hold paddy. The mandatory thinnai here has been enclosed in many cases with bamboo sticks. Pattabhiraman says it is to keep stray dogs from dirtying the thinnai. No house in Udayalur has a first floor. That is because there is a belief that if a house is higher than a nearby Amman temple, then the family that has built such a structure will be ruined. Udayalur agraharam is quiet, when I visit, because most of the people are away in the fields.
But Thippirajapuram is lively even during the afternoon. No one seems to be having an afternoon siesta. One doesn’t see any youngsters around, many of the people being senior citizens, who have come back to their ancestral village. They are making the most of their retirement years. Mornings begin with a visit to the Varadaraja Perumal temple in the village and in the evenings they worship at the Siva temple. Most of the houses have retained their period look, with their wooden pillars surrounding the courtyard, hick wooden doors with brass knobs, carved lintels and cavernous lofts. The loft in some houses is so long that it spans two rooms, making the loft seem like the first floor of the house. The TV serial ‘Chellamma’ was shot in Tippirajapuram, says ‘Maadi’ mani, who has himself acted in serials and films.
The houses here have carved Burma teak cots, swings, wooden barrels to store grains in and wooden ladle holders. Tippirajapuram and Udayalur, fortunately, have not given up their antiques to determined collectors. I also notice that every house in Tippirajapuram has a little teak chest with a mirror, which, a century ago, used to be the equivalent of the present day vanity case. At the time of her wedding, every girl was presented with such a chest, in which she would keep her kumkum, hair oil and comb.
Imagine if, upon retirement, a person could go back to the village in which he grew up, and enjoy the company of his childhood playmates, who too have come back after their retirement. The good-natured ribbing among the men folk, unpolluted environment, quietness broken only by peels of laughter make Tippirajapuram the sort of idyllic place one would want to retire to.
Tippirajapuram and Udayalur are living agraharams. They have not lost their residents to the march of modernity. To one used to the cold anonymity of city life, the sense of belonging that the villagers have, and the houses they live in afford a peep into a past that one has heard his/her grandparents describe. It’s just the sort of back to the roots life any old person would like to have.