Little Kingdoms of South India: Political Authority and Social Relations in the Southern Tamil Countryside

Dirks, Nicholas B.

     This is a study of the little kingdoms of southern India, and it encompasses both the early modern and colonial periods. The little kingdom, defined here as a redistributive process, constitutes a useful unit of analysis for the examination of the relations of local agrarian systems to higher level forms of political control. The little kingdom is also important for compelling historical and historiographic reasons. First, the palaiyakarars (little kings) have been the subject of no serious social historical study. Palaiyakarar rule represented the major form of local political control in all but the major deltaic and riverine centers of the south at least from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These chieftains and their local social systems continued to be important even under British rule, when many of the little kings were made into Zamindars, and an important handful into Princes. Although I am concerned about the entire southern area of Tamil Nadu, this study is centered around a more detailed investigation of one particular little kingdom, the Princely State of Putukkottai.
     The first part of this work consists of an analysis of three Tamil texts, a family history, an historical chronicle, and folk ballad. I reconstruct how the past is represented in these texts, and then use these representations to configure my own study of the little kingdoms. These texts provide us with a sense of the ideal moral order of a little kingdom and the way in which this moral order was perceived to have come unhinged in confrontation with the British. The texts also tell us a great deal about the importance of service, loyalty, inheritance, and gifts, in particular gifts of titles, emblems, and land; these various things turn out to be the central constituent features of sovereignty, and of political relations in general.
     The second, and major part of this work is a detailed case study of the little kingdom of Putukkottai. Local inscriptions provide early evidence of the establishment of structural relations based on beneficence and the distribution of local rights by local chieftains. With this as background I am able to construct for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, using principally the nineteenth century records which detail the structure of inam holdings (tax-free lands, which constituted in Putukkottai more than two-thirds of the cultivable land), a fine picture of a system of privileged landholding which included Brahmans, temples, and cattirams (feeding houses for pilgrims); village officers, artisans, and servants; and Jakirtars, chieftains, and military and palace retainers. After an analysis of these records I conclude that landholding rights had principally to do with the articulation of political relations, relations which (and this was similarly revealed by the texts analyzed earlier) had to do with loyalty, service, protection, the sharing of sovereignty, the structure of caste and clan, affinal ties, and a system of titles, emblems, and honors rather than with more conventionally understood ties based on simple control and revenue extraction.
     The importance of this structure of privilege, and of the gift for constituting this structure, explains many of the problems confronted by the British when they attempted to make little kings into a rural gentry in the early nineteenth century, and when they attempted to make the subjects of these little kings into mere proprietors of land in a system ruled by law, property, and the market. I discuss these problems, as they were manifested in the inability of the British to control the alienation of land by Zamindars, in a rural tax revolt in Putukkottai, and in the curious relations between the British and the Rajas of Putukkottai, in the last part of the work.