What was India like in the beginning of British rule? Around 1800, the British East India Company (EICo) made an effort to study Indian society in detail. With help of local guides, their members traveled across the country to observe and record the society in its entirety. In the process, they documented climate, vegetation, agriculture and commerce including how taxes were calculated and levied. They also recorded social and religious aspects of the Indians and their history.
Two such members in the service of the EICo, Francis Buchanan and Benjamin Heyne, traveled across South India from Chennai to Mysore between 1800 and 1810. Their findings published in books, provides a fascinating picture of a complex and diverse South India. Of the two, Buchanan appears more objective and sympathetic to the local population. Heyne, on the other hand, appears more as a British commercial representative who feels the Indian customs are less cultured than the British. His goal seems to be towards observing and exploiting commercial resources and helping the company take over India (for which he was employed). While Buchanan recorded social behavior of each part of the population and their industry, Heyne observed behavior of the society as a whole. Heyne was also more interested in the local climate and vegetation. Both give detailed accounts of agricultural practices. Information such as the specific variety of crop/grain, the method of farming, yield and pricing are presented in great detail. Tools used for various purposes are also explained in very good detail with drawings in some cases.
The first striking feature of their writings is the diversity of the region. Every part was populated by several hundred tribes or castes (Buchanan, who made a point of noting down their social category, identified them as predominantly Sudra and Dalit), specializing in one or a few commercial activity or role. Every village was made of one or at most a few of these caste communities. The freedom – administrative, social and religious – enjoyed by these communities is very evident. Every community was administered from within by a (male) head, either hereditary or elected. In almost all communities, he was assisted by a group of elders. Only in rare cases did the (royal) government step in and even then, usually with the permission of the head and through a local administrator (usually a Brahmin or Muslim). The religious head of each caste was usually a Brahmin monk attached to matam (monastery). Local spiritual matters were taken care of by a village priest, usually also a Brahmin, but in many cases from another community. Each village had a headman, militia police (usually from a Sudra sub-caste according to Buchanan), an accountant, a land estimator and a priest. Groups of villages often worked together. Buchanan observed that community decisions were always taken in the open through discussions. Most land owners were Sudra, some Vaishya and a few Brahmins, who either farmed on their own land or rented it to a cultivator. Produce was divided among the cultivator, land owner, headman, accountant, priest and other Brahmins in the village, for community needs, charity and finally a part for the government as tax. Wealthy people usually financed or supported public works such as tanks, reservoirs, temples, mosques, schools, food shelters and inns. For these they were provided with some rights, usually land grants.
There were variations in diets between communities – most ate meat, some didn’t, some could drink liquor and some couldn’t. The strictest diets were found among the Brahmins. In most communities, women worked outside and within the house (often more industrious than men!). Polygamy was common in most communities, but polyandry was not permitted. Some allowed widow remarriage, most didn’t. While the institution of Sati was known, it was not at all followed. It was customary for the husband to give family of the wife a sum of money at marriage (sort of “purchasing” a bride!), since the wife’s industry added to the household income. Punishments for disobeying rules of the community were handled by the community head with the help of older members. Most punishments were light and resulted in a hearing, fine or a visit to the community’s main temple for more severe offenses. The most severe was casting the offender out of the community, but that was extremely rare. Occupations varied between the castes – there were some specialized in agriculture, others in construction, trade, weaving, dyeing, manufacture of goods such as salt or sugar, breeding cattle or metal work. There were even castes dedicated to medicine and surgery, maintaining kitchen gardens, washing clothes or transporting goods between regions. There seemed little conflict among the castes or within, for that matter, for political power. Each had its own rhythm and was able to live amicably with others.
The second feature that jumps out is the staggering amount of goods produced and consumed in the community. Agriculture was the central activity outside cities. Land was divided into wet and dry and the crops grown in each were different. Farmers produced several kinds of grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, cotton and jute. The books mention many kinds of millets, rice, wheat and lentils, for both humans and cattle. There were sub-varieties in each, growing in a specific climate and soil and possessing its own unique characteristic. There were, for example, four different kinds of sugarcane, but each able to be grown in only a specific condition. Many of the agriculture produce were processed. Sugar making (both from sugarcane and palm), dairy, textiles (cotton, woolen and silk), iron and steel works were all principal industries. Some finer produce were reserved for the royal family and wealthy individuals, but most were available to all. There were taxes on every good. Cattle – oxen, buffaloes and donkeys – was used to plough and water fields, run oil presses, transport goods and their dung was used as a manure and fuel. Goats and sheep were reared for meat, milk, hide and wool. The support industry to agriculture was huge. There were castes dedicated to making and maintaining different kinds of agriculture equipment such as ploughs, drill presses, oil presses and others, to breeding cattle or even sowing and harvesting grains or fruits.
Another interesting phenomenon was the jostling for religious and spiritual supremacy among all castes. Within each caste, there seemed to be a gradation, with some sub-castes being in the lower end than others. Most sub-caste claimed superiority or parity with their nearest neighbors. Interestingly, their political and social rights appear unconnected to this phenomenon. Brahmins were acknowledged to be the highest caste and behaved as such. They served as guides to almost all other castes. There were sectarian quarrels among Brahmins regarding philosophies, modes of worship and other facets of religion. Most castes allowed for its members to withdraw from daily life to a complete spiritual pursuit (or sanyasa) resulting in higher honor for that member. Such members subsisted minimally and usually by begging for their basic needs. Among Brahmins this was seen as a very high honor. Priests, on the other hand, were not held very high as the received a salary! Each community had its own gods, temples and customs, which they were able to practice without any interference. Many meat eaters practiced animal sacrifice as a form of worship – a practice shunned by people higher in the caste system.
Finally, as we get close to Mysore and Srirangapatnam, we see effects of Tipu Sultan’s rule. Buchanan visited the area in the first decade of 1800, a year or two after the Sultan’s defeat and the damage of his misrule was still very much in effect. The Sultan comes across as an insecure and tyrannical megalomaniac. It appears he was mainly interested in converting his entire kingdom to Islam, punishing those who resisted. He is said to have destroyed several temples and penalized Brahmins and other Hindu religious leaders who did not take his offer to convert to Islam. He was arbitrary in his administration, often creating new towns and forcing entire population to migrate from one to other. His trade and finance policies were also ill thought – Buchanan mentions he would force shopkeepers to sell their goods to his soldiers at a fraction of the cost resulting in heavy loses, and eventually either ruining them or forcing them to migrate to other areas. Corruption in his administration was common thanks to a lack of checks and balances. Punishments were arbitrary and severe. He also forbade any trade with neighboring kingdoms with all whom he had quarrels. His frequent warfare resulted in abandonment of a large part of the farming area and in loss of livelihood for a large part of his population. The deprivation of livelihood and rights among his people has a definite effect on their behavior and Buchanan observed a general distrust of the government among all sections. All these seemed to be in sharp contrast to his father Hyder Ali’s rule (which though ruinous to his neighboring kingdoms were beneficial to his own people) and his more liberal neighbor to the East – The Nawab of Arcot. Buchanan also mentions the effects of the invasion of the Marathas and Lord Cornwallis in the region resulted in more damage, but these pale in comparison with Tipu Sultan’s.
One gets the feeling that most of the people encountered during the journey were wary and defensive. Preceding centuries of conflicts resulting in erosion of rights and freedom seems to have caused the inhabitants to become more conservative and less open to new ideas. There appears very little original thought and most people are content with preserving what they have – be it wealth or customs.