D.A.T.A.H Digital Archive of Tamil Agrarian history
Funding Agency(ies):
British Library, CEIAS
Principal Investigator(s):
Dr Zoe E. Headley ; S. Ponnarasu
Start Date : 
Duration : 
6 years
Axis 4. of the Social Sciences Department /

This project aims to constitute a digital archive of vulnerable and scattered documents of relevance for the study of issues of land, caste and legal culture in rural Tamil Nadu over a period of three centuries (1650-1950). These private documents have never been available to the scientific community as they were kept in private homes in villages, where many are rapidly deteriorating. Whether recorded on paper, palm-leaves or copper plates, these documents 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 over a time period when new power structures and social identities were being forged both with and against local traditional feudal systems and British colonial legislations.

Firstly, the EAP 314 pilot project (2009 award) “Rescuing Tamil Customary Law: Locating and Copying Endangered Records of Village Judicial Assemblies (1870-1940)”. This project was conducted between January 2010 and December 2010. During the 12 month pilot project, our research team carried out intensive fieldwork in villages searching for documents relating to caste and village judicial assemblies (panchayat). We identified document holders having collections of varying volume (from a handful up to a thousand documents) dating from the mid seventeenth century to mid twentieth century. During the pilot project, 960 documents (3780 images) were digitized and referenced.

Secondly, though we were searching primarily for documents relating to conflict management and dispute resolution at the local level, villagers are showed us a variety of types of documents handed down by their forefathers. These documents covering a wider scope of interest inform not only the transformation and continuity of local forms of legal culture but also land tenures and revenue collection, kinship patterns and caste relations as well as agrarian territories and power structures. A two year project, the EAP 458 (2011 award) Constituting a Digital Archive of Tamil Agrarian History- Phase I, was carried out between 2011 and 2014 during which 28 further collections were digitised comprising over 36 000 images of documents: 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, marriage invitations…

The third project, EAP 689 Major Project Constituting a Digital Archive of Tamil Agrarian History Phase II,  ran for two years between 2014 and 2016 and enhanced the number and scope of documents digitally collected during the two prior projects also funded by the Endangered Archives Programme and hosted by the French Institute of Pondicherry.

This archive opens a new avenue of analysis at the level of micro-history of rural  south 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 most of the types of documents recorded in this project.

The archive being constituted, the present aim of the D.A.T.A.H project is threefold:

- to promote it among student and scholars of South Indian history, anthropology and linguistic in order for individual research to be carried out on specific documents

- to host the data in a search and use-friendly environment

- to build a data-base in association with

Materials and methods:

One of the specificities of this project is that the documents digitized are scattered in the homes of Tamil villagers, especially the descendants of traditional power holders, who are often unaware of the importance such documents can have for understanding regional 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- as was recently demonstrated by the failure of the Madurai District Archives and Historical Records office to collect such documents despite repeated appeals to the public. Furthermore, the local archives do not have the means to carry out fieldwork and will not pursue digital preservation of documents that are not destined to be in their keep.

In order to constitute this archive, intensive fieldwork was conducted namely in three the micro-territories defined by the long-standing presence of specific dominant castes: Kallar Nadu (Madurai district), Kongu Nadu (Coimbatore district) and Pudukottai (Tanjore district). Within these territories, the first task was to locate relevant vulnerable documents scattered in private homes and small institutions, the second to help the document holders to take basic measures to preserve the physical documents (i.e. by using lemon grass oil for the palm-leaves, acid free scotch tape for paper, etc.) and also, in case of large collections to help them organize his original documents. The third task was to digitize the documents in order to provide a durable copy to its owner and to make them available for research. Given the physical vulnerability of many documents, due to the humidity of the climate as well as improper storage conditions, documents are digitized directly in the private homes.

In order to contextualise each individual collection of documents, the personal history of each family of document holders and, when possible, the reasons for which the documents are in their possession, was recorded.

Main outputs:

  • D.A.T.A.H. online:

EAP 314 Pilot Project Rescuing Tamil Customary Law:  10 digital collection  (3 780 images)

EAP 458  Constituting a Digital Archive of Tamil Agrarian History (1650-1950) - Phase I: 28 digital collections (36 000 images)

EAP 689 Constituting a Digital Archive of Tamil Agrarian History (1650-1950- Phase II: 36 collections (43 114 images)

  • D.A.T.A.H. project presentations:

January 28-30, 2014: “Agrarian Transition” International Conference”. University of Pondicherry.

March 4-7, 2013: “Borders in South Asia: Territories, Identities, Mobilizations. 15th Workshop Young Researchers, Association Jeunes Etudes Indiennes, Kolkata, India.

September 24 - 25, 2012: “Research in Tamil Studies: A Platform for Dialogue”. French Institute of Pondicherry, India

May 11-12, 2012: “Traces of the Past” Seventh Annual Tamil Studies Conference. University of Toronto, Canada.

  • D.A.T.A.H. workshop:

February 24 - 25, 2017: “Exploring D.A.T.A.H”. 3 day workshop. French Institute of Pondicherry, India

A report of the workshop from the CEIAS Newsletter N°15

  • Press:

- «Chilling evidence of slave trade», in The Hindu, 18/03/2017

- «Digitising documents of Tamil culture a unique experiment», in The Hindu, 23/02/2017

- "Taking history beyond the classroom", in The Hindu, 01/03/2017

- «Workshop on the use of Computer technologies» (article in Tamil), in Dinamalar, 22/02/2015


Staff ( IFP & External )

HEADLEY Z.E., Associated researcher
PONNARASU S., Affiliated Doctorate