Uttiramerur – Democratic Village Polity in Medieval Tamil Nadu

Empowerment is a buzzword nowadays. Archaeological finds in Uttiramerur, Tamil Nadu demonstrate that the people of the area fully participated in local governance in a lively fashion more than a thousand years ago, says T. S. Sankaran.

Empowerment is a buzzword nowadays. Archaeological finds in Uttiramerur, Tamil Nadu demonstrate that the people of the area fully participated in local governance in a lively fashion more than a thousand years ago, says T. S. Sankaran.

Uttiramerur is about 75 km south west of Chennai and about 30 km south of Kanchipuram. Though now a small town of about 25000 people, way back in 750 AD it must have been very small when the then Pallava ruler Nandivarma Pallavan gifted the village to about 1200 vedic Brahmins.

It was named Uttiramerur after Uttirameru which was the title that Nandivarman was given. The old name of the place was Chaturveda Mangalam. It was also known as Pancha varada Kshetra.

The village was laid out in a well planned way based on Vaishnavite Agamic texts. According to Dr. Nagaswamy, the well known former Director of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu, "placed on perfectly systematised vastu grid, the secular buildings, commercial centres, temples, cultivable lands and irrigational canals were distributed in an amazing accuracy that would stand out as a model for modern town planners."

A great renovation was done in 1013 AD  by Rajendra Chola and again in1520 AD during the reign of Krishnadeva Raya, the great Vijayanagar Emperor.

The fame of Uttiramerur today rests not on its architectural excellence but on the stone inscriptions on the walls of its temples, inscriptions that were carved a millennium back. These reveal the democratic nature of the village polity, refreshingly modern and edifying.

According to Dr. Nagaswamy who has made detailed studies of these inscriptions and written about them, these can be classified under different headings as indicated below.

  1. Levy of fines on wrongdoers: The village assembly could levy fines on wrongdoers and it was the responsibility of the elected members of the concerned sub-committee, their servants, village scribes and village guards to collect the fines. Failure to collect the fines in the same financial year would be punished.
  2. Testing quality of gold: This function was the responsibility of the elected committee which included four members from the merchant community, two members from the military garrison and two members from oil-mongers. The elected members had to be tax payers. Once every three months, the members were required to go before the village assembly and swear that they had not committed any fraud in testing.
  3. Appointment of professors: For the vedic college, the qualification prescribed was mastery of the Vedas. The candidate had to be from outside the village as a local candidate, and if selected, was likely to take things easy. The appointment was to be for only three years and if the incumbent wanted to continue he had to undergo another test. 
  4. Protection of village tank: The committee elected for this purpose would be from non-members of the village assembly. Their term was for three years. Their functions included maintenance of the tank, irrigation, levy and collection of tank tax, and utilising the funds for tank maintenance which included silt clearance once a quarter. 
  5. Efficient election system: All the activities were performed by assigned committees which were elected. The candidates who stood for election had to be above 35 years of age and below 70 years of age, and be residents of the village, in addition to being taxpayers and persons of integrity. Anyone who failed to render proper accounts of his earlier responsibility was not only disqualified from contesting any future election but his relatives and collaborators also were banned for seven generations!

Elected persons could be recalled at any time if they did not discharge their duties properly. Once elected, a person could not stand for the next three consecutive elections. One could contest only for three terms altogether. Each serving member was debarred from standing for election to any other committee.

The actual voting in these elections was through the voter writing the name of his candidate on the “ballot paper” and dropping it in a large vessel. After all the voters had voted, the ballot papers were taken out one by one and the name of the candidate read out loudly to the villagers. The persons who got the largest number of votes were declared elected to the concerned committee.

Are we not amazed at the sophisticated way in which the people of Uttiramerur organised their functions, over a thousand years back? All that we now talk of, such as empowerment of the people, enabling people to take part in civic functions by standing for and getting elected to various committees, right of recall and so on, had been thought of and provided for! Knowing this, all of us must feel proud and at the same time humble.          

Shri T S Sankaran, retired Additional Secretary, Ministry of Labour, is an authority on labour issues, a well-known rights activist and President of Jaishankar Memorial Centre

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