Just as the family was the basic building block of society, the village was the basic administrative unit in ancient Tamilakam polity. A typical nadu comprised more than a hundred villages. A shitru-arasar (minor king) ruled a nadu.

The next level was the central administration of state which included the capital territory, often the largest and most powerful of the nadus. The geographical limits of the capital territory and nadus defined the territorial limits of the sovereign king.

The district was an intermediate division between the nadus and the central administration. The administrators of these districts, the king’s representatives, focussed on tax collection—who evolved into the “collector” in the administration set up by the British Raj. But local political power rested with the shitru-arasars.

Agriculture and animal husbandry were the mainstay of produce. Cottage industries grew and artisanship evolved into hereditary classes of skilled workmen. Each village became a self-sufficient economic unit, a tiny state within the state.

The total tax payable, as covered in an earlier blog post, was one-sixth the harvest. The central administration levied a similar rate on the pastoralists, artisans and merchants. During times of distress, such as a poor harvest, disease outbreaks among the herds or natural calamities, the king reduced the tax rate.

Besides taxes, each village had to contribute armed manpower to the central administration during times of war.

As long as the village paid its dues—to the shitru-arasar who took his share and relayed the balance to the sovereign king—each village and nadu enjoyed autonomy in managing their affairs. Foreign relations were the prerogative and responsibility of the king.

Village elders formed committees—mandram—to supervise drainage and sanitation, upkeep of roads/footpaths and water tanks in the village and its precincts. The people respected and accepted these elders on account of their resourcefulness, integrity and impartiality.

They also built walls around the village. In ancient times, walls complete with either moats or deep trenches surrounded every village and town. In times of trouble, people abandoned their farmlands and withdrew behind these walls. These were not the towering stone walls of medieval times but low mud walls that kept out roving bandits.

One of the most important aspects of self-government was regarding justice. That was the purview of a mandram called the “panchayat”. Elders resolved disputes regarding land, water, adultery, family inheritance or even a neighbour’s barking dog.

The panchayat sat on a broad sun baked mud plinth built around a large canopied tree in the village centre. The centre was the focus for communal activities such as dance and drama, and the market. Besides the temple, this was another place for young men and women to catch sight of one another—under the watchful eyes of the elders.

Security—kaval—was another important duty vested on the village administration. Roving bands of miscreants and wild animals were common and village guards kept them at bay. The kaval met visitors, recorded their business and ensured the visitors vacated the village before nightfall, unless they had secured permission to spend the night. A respected person in the village must sponsor requests to spend the night.

Kavalans (which came to mean “king” in the earlier days) patrolled the village streets and precincts. Sometimes, the kaval provided an escort to travelling minstrels and drama troupes up to the outskirts of the village.

In centuries to come, self-sufficient villages combined with the kaval system evolved and became a source of revenue and military power for the shitru-arasars—to the great consternation of the colonialists. More of this in later posts.

Next week: Stirrings of War in Ancient Tamilakam

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019


    1. Very true, Indira,

      So barbaric, and so sad. And most times, it is the women who suffer. How could anyone do such things to people whom they are supposed to love and protect?


  1. So the elders were the “security cameras” those days, to watch over young men and women in their courtship game. I am guessing that the minute one accidentally crosses the line, he or she must be betrothed to the other party to save the family name.

    In this post, you gave us more interesting peek into the livelihood, governing and judicial system. I look forward to the next slot.

    1. Hello Windy,

      Thank you for the light hearted comment. Yes, some people take family honour to questionable ends.

      Thank your for following this series of blog posts. I should be done in a few weeks time.

      Have a great weekend ahead 🙂

  2. As usual you added to my knowledge of the sub-continent. Basically the same today. New Delhi makes the rules and laws, but they have moderate influence on the panchayat even today where ancient mores are still in evidence and that’s where the people are administered in far flung remote villages. The cities of India are not the real India.

    1. Hello Ian,

      You’re right. Even today the village panchayat holds sway on the rural folks. True, cities are a microcosm of the “now” versus the “back then” which are the villages. The ‘real India’, like any country connected into the modern world, is fast changing.

      We – you and I – are blessed to be in this age where changes are taking place at a breath-taking pace. Caveat: not all these changes are for the better.


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