Medieval Tamil Society and Agrarian Slavery
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Medieval Tamil Society and Agrarian Slavery

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Item Code: NAM964
Author: Dr. K. Mavali Rajan
Publisher: Maha Bodhi Book Agency
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9789380336824
Pages: 248 (6 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 440 gm
About The Book

This book deals with the agrarian slaves of medieval Tamil country and how they formed the major labour force and basis for the agricultural production and held no share in the enjoyment of the wealth created and accumulated through their hard labour while the master-owners benefitted. It examines the ways in which exploitation began at the grass root level and the impoverished conditions led to slavery in its manifold forms to continue down the later centuries. It highlights the social setting of the agrarian slaves in their economic behavior by reflecting upon the aspects of their daily life in history and society.

About The Author

Dr. K. Mavali Rajan is Assistant Professor at the Department of Ancient Indian History Culture and Archaeology, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal. He obtained his Ph.D. degree from the School of Historical Studies, Madurai Kamaraj University, Tamil Nadu. As a lover or history he is associated with many notable historical associations of Indian History Congress, South Indian History Congress, Tamil Nadu History Congress and the Institute of Historical Studies. He is also associated with the editorial board of the Journal of Social Science and Humanity Researches and the International Journal of Social science Review. He has specialized in the socio-economic history of ancient and medieval South India. His various research works have been published in several reputed journals of national and international.


The book has been divided into six chapters including the introduction and conclusion. While introducing the subject against a historical background, this section explains the geo-political setting, an overview of the socio-economic conditions of medieval Tamil country, and definitions of terms such as agrarian slavery, scope and objectives of the study, period of study, methodology and source materials.

The second chapter entitled “Caste System and Agrarian Slavery” deals with the caste system-its origin, development and impact. It outlines the major landowning communities like Brahmins, Vellalas, Chettis, Kaikolas, Kammalas, etc. These castes represented the rich land owning upper castes in the Tamil society. The Brahmins and other upper castes invariably treated the lower section of the society as slaves. Right Hand and Left Hand caste and their conflicts have also been discussed in the chapter. The chapter also explains the landless position of marginalized communities and these communities were subjected into the slavery in the caste ridden Tamil society. Mostly the low caste communities like the Pallas, Paraiyas, Cherumas, Pulaiyas, etc. worked as agrarian slaves for the landed master community.

The third Chapter “Slavery and Agrarian Conditions” discusses in detail the conditions of slavery during the medieval period. It explains the different types of slaves’ viz., domestic slaves, temple slaves (devadasis) and the slaves attached to the land (agrarian slaves). The domestic slaves were certain persons purchased in times of scarcity. They were attached to the house of their master and mostly employed as household servants. The male and female slaves lived in the house of their master and performed all household duties.

The devadasis were female slaves of the temple. They were dancing girls, sold to the temple and performed all the duties of the temples. The agrarian slaves were employed by their master in every department of husbandry. The chapter also highlights the agrarian economy and peasant community of the medieval Tamil country. The chapter also does make references to slavery existing in countries like Rome, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. This is just to show that slavery was a widely prevalent socio-economic system that existed not only in India but also in other parts of the world i.e. slavery was a universal phenomenon. Further slave system that prevailed in the Muslim world in the Middle East did influence the Delhi Sultanate e.g. the Slave dynasty. Therefore cross reference could not be avoided and they are not totally out of place.

The fourth chapter “Economic Condition of the Agrarian Slaves” deals with the agricultural labour and serfdom. These agricultural slaves were landless and employed exclusively in the cultivation of wet lands. Apart from the cultivation of land the slaves performed the duty of rearing cattle and assist in domestic work of their master. The agrarian slaves performed all sorts of work in and out of season but the wages paid to them were not equal to their work. They were paid poorly and treated harshly. The agrestic slaves were the absolute property of their master. They could also be sold or transferred in any manner. They were treated as part of the masters belongings. Methods of cultivation and irrigation are also highlighted in the chapter.

The fifth chapter entitled “Social Condition of the Agrarian Slaves” deals the habitat and lifestyle of the agrarian slaves. The agrarian slaves lived in mud huts called Cheris, which were outside the boundary of the villages. The Paraiya slaves lived in paraicheri and where Pallas lived in pallacheri or pallartheru. The chapter seeks to throw light on how the agrarian slaves were treated as untouchables and were not allowed entry into the streets and houses of the higher castes. They were also prohibited from touching the superior castes and approaching them within prescribed distance. They worshiped their own village gods and goddess like Ayyanar, Karuppasamy, Kaliamman, Ellaiamman and Sellachi. The chapter also deals about the food habits of the slave people, dress and ornaments, position of slave women, marriage practices and entertainment.

The final chapter “Conclusion” summarizes the conclusion arrived at the foregoing chapters regarding the socio-economic conditions of the agrarian slaves in the medieval Tamil country. As part of the conclusion, I have included a brief review of the various legislations enacted in the abolition of slavery in India in recent times.


The Land:

History and Geography are so closely inter-linked that all historical developments are moulded by the geographical settings. It may be truly said that the historical enquiry has to bear always in mind, the geographical factors. The character of human institution is largely influenced by three main factors, namely geographical environment, ethnic inheritance and socio-religious conditions. The history of any culture reveals that it has passed through a series of developmental stages starting from primitive. It then reaches the stage of civilization, gaining an increasing degree of mastery over the forces of nature. Though the influence exercised by the physical environment has been mitigated to some extent by the great technological progress in the recent past, the influence of nature on culture is still prominent. Even the scientific progress is dependent upon the utilization of natural phenomena. Thus every civilization depends to a very large extent on its geographical environment and natural resources.

Tamilnadu the southernmost part of India has been one of the thirstiest regions in the south. It has looked up to the heavens rather literally for survival. The monsoons normally punctual and beneficent can be, not infrequently, a teaser and altogether fail over years leading to continuous famine. The prosperity of Tamilnadu is thus directly related to the punctuality of the monsoons. The few rivers which give water to drink and to irrigate are naturally sacred to the Tamils. The Tamils gratefully christen their daughters after them, and each river is a deity in its own right. This has led to a sense of helplessness in the face of the unknown. The Tamils instinctively believe and take refuge in a fatalist view of life. The long term consequence of this attitude to life is complete loss of faith in mans capacity to order his own affairs. The lethargy caused by the continuous and scorching summer could be socially justified by providing in the social hierarchy for the idle wise and exalting into a philosophy, the principle of non-work.

The geographical location of Tamilnadu has played a prominent role in moulding its social structure and culture. The Tamilnadu called Tamilakam in ancient period and Tamil country in medieval• period, as portrayed in the Tamil literary sources, is supposed to have extended from Venkatam Hills (i.e. the modern Tirupati hills) in the north to Cape Comorin in the south and from Bay of Bengal in the east to the Arabian Sea in the west. The modern delineation of this region corresponds to present day states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, though the northern boundary namely Venkatam Hills are now included in the modern state of Andhra Pradesh. The Tamilakam, and Tamil country here does not correspond to the present day state of Tamil Nadu. In case of Tamilnadu beyond Ceylon there is but a stretch of interminable ocean.

The situation of Tamilnadu in the extreme south of the peninsula has saved it from the cultural and political influences brought in by the invaders from outside the subcontinent such as the Kushans, Afghans, Turks, Mughals, etc.; even as the Tamil country itself is broken up into a number of sub regions by the hillocks and the rivers, these have developed their own sub-regional dialects as well as cultural variations largely due to poor transport facilities. After a short and easily forgotten spell of Muslim invasions in the 14th century and a brief government in Madurai of a Sultanate, Tamilnadu successfully retained the essentials of its ancient culture more and better than any other region in India.

Today the once flourishing commercial cities of Korkai and Kayal on the Tirunelveli coast lie buried under sand dunes from the sea. Even ports like Kaveripumpattinam and Mamallapuram had been devoured by the sea. Similar changes are apparent in the Gulf of Cambay. However; Tamilnadu is territory lying between the Venkatam hills (Tirupathi hills) in the north and Kanniyakumari in the south enveloped by the Bay of Bengal on the east and Arabian Sea on the west. Thus the ancient Tamilakam and medieval Tamil country comprised the modern states of Kerala and Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu, what is described in the early Tamil sources.

The political history of the ancient Tamilakam starts from the Sangam period. The three ancient Tamil Kingdoms the Chera, the Chola and the Pandya ruled Tamilakam roughly from the third century B.C. to the third century A.D. Together they ruled over the Tamil land with unique culture and language, contributed to the growth of some of the oldest extant literature in the world. They had extensive maritime trade contacts with the Roman Empire. These three dynasties were in constant struggle with each other vying for hegemony over the land. The entry of the Kalabhras during the third century A.D. disturbed the traditional order of the day by displacing the three ruling kingdoms. From about 300 A.D. to 600 A.D., there is an almost total lack of information regarding occurrences in the Tamil land. The Kalabhras are described in the latter literature as ‘evil rulers’ who overthrew the established Tamil kings and got a stronghold of the country. The tradition about the evils of the Kalabhra inroads has been interpreted as a social crisis, which led to the disappearance of the characteristic institutions of the time.

The overthrow of the Kalabhra rule in the latter half of the sixth century was the first step in the revival of the Pandya and the Pallava power, and for the succeeding two centuries and a half these two dynasties divided the entire country between them and ruled from their respective capitals of Madurai and Kanchipuram.

The medieval period of the history of Tamil country saw the rise and fall of many kingdoms, some of whom went on to the extent of empires, exerting influences both in India and overseas. The political history of Tamil country during the seventh century was dominated by the Pallavas, the Pandyas and the Cholas. The Pallavas were associated with Tondaimandalam, the land between the north Pennar and north Vellar Rivers. The early king of this line Shivaskandavarman, ruled Tamil country in the early fourth century A.D. However Simhavishnu (560-580 A.D.), was considered as the real founder of the Pallava power in the last quarter of the sixth century A. D. Putting an end to the political disturbances caused by the Kalabhras, he conquered the land up to the river Kaveri, coming into conflict with the Pandyas and the ruler of Sri Lanka. Simhavishnu’s successor was Mahendravarman I (580-630 A.D.), renowned as a great patron of the arts, and apparently a poet and musician in his own right. His reign saw the beginning of a conflict between the Pallavas and the Western Chalukyas. The army of Pulikeshin II reached extremely close to the Pallava capital Kanchipuram and annexed the northern part of that kingdom. Subsequently during the reign of Narasimhavarman I (630-668 AD.), the Pallavas managed to settle scores by winning several victories over the Chalukyas with aid of their allay Manavarma, a Sri Lankan prince, who later became ruler of Ceylon. The climax of these victories was Narasimhavarman’s invasion of the Chalukya kingdom and his capturing Badami. This Pallava king claims to have defeated the Cholas, the Cheras, and the Kalabhras. Narasimhavarman I was an enthusiastic patron of architecture.

The conflict between the Pallavas and the Chalukyas continued during the succeeding decades. The Pallavas also came into conflict with the Pandyas to the south and the Rashtrakutas to the north. In the early ninth century, the Rashtrakuta king Govinda III invaded Kanchi during the reign of the Dantivarman (795-846 A.D.). Dantivarman’s son Nandivarman III (846-869 A.D.) managed to defeat the Pandyas. The last known imperial Pallava king was Aparajita. Aided by Western Ganga and the Chola allies, he defeated the Pandyas at Sripurambiyam battle (885 A.D.) near Kumbakonam. The Pallavas were ultimately overthrown in 893 A.D. by the Chola king Aditya I, and thereafter, control over Tondaimandalam passed into the hands of the Cholas.

Kings of the Pandya dynasty are widely known in the early historical period, but their connection with the Pandyas of the early medieval times is unclear. The first two rulers of the early medieval line were Kadungon (560-590 A.D.) and his son Maravarman Avanishulamani (590-620 A.D.). Kadungon is credited with the overthrow of the Kalabhras in the south. Both of them revived the Pandya power. The Pandyas were involved in internecine wars with the Pallavas and other contemporary powers. King Rajasimha I (735-765 A.D.) had the label Pallava-bhanjan (breaker of the Pallavas). The empire expanded during his reign and that of his successors Jatila Parantaka Nedunjadaiyan (756-815 A.D.) and Shrimara Shrivallabha (815-862 A.D.). The Pandyas were overpowered by the Cholas in the tenth century A.D. The Pandyas were well known since ancient times, with contacts, even diplomatic, reaching the Roman Empire.

  Preface vii
  Acknowledgement xi
  Abbreviations xiii
I Introduction 1
  The Land and the People; Terms defined; The Present Study, Sources: The Review of Literature  
II THE Caste System and Agrarian Slavery 29
  The Caste system in ancient Tamilakam; The Caste system in Medieval Tamil country; Major land owning communities; Marginalized Communities and Agrarian Slavery  
III Slavery and the Agrarian Conditions 73
  Slavery in Ancient period; Slavery in Medieval Tamil country; Domestic Slaves; Temple Slaves; Agrarian Slaves; Agrarian Society; Peasant community  
IV The Economics Conditions of the Agrarian Slaves 117
  Agricultural Labourers and Serfdom; Work done and wages paid; Cultivation and Irrigation; The treatment meted out to the Slaves; Sale of Slaves  
V The Social Conditions of the Agrarian Slaves 149
  Habitat and life style of the serfs; Food and Dress: Untouchability: order of the day; Position of women; Marriage; Amusements; Crime and punishment; The socio-religious activities of the slaves.  
VI Conclution 183
  Bibiliography 195
  Glossary 219
  Index 229