Life in an Indian Village: The Story of Kelambakam

Excerpts from an 1891 book describing the profound social life of the 11th century village of Kelambakam located between Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram.
Life in an Indian Village: The Story of Kelambakam

Preface

Mohandas Gandhi’s oft-quoted remark that the real India lives in her villages has been quoted so often that it has become sick cliché: sick because our attitude towards our own villages swings between two extremes: our internalized colonial contempt for them or a dreamy romanticization of village life that has no basis in reality.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Madras Presidency had a total population of 31 million, ninety percent of which lived in its 55,000 villages. Writing about this in 1891, a British joint collector Mr. B. Knight made this eminent observation:

It is in the villages of southern India that we must go to see Hindu life at its best, unaffected as it is by Mahommedan conquest or by the influence of Western civilisation.

Located in the Chingleput (Chengalpattu) district between Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram, Kelambakam was one such village. Fed up with the constant barrage of disparaging Western press coverage of India as a land of barbarians, a certain T. Ramakrishna decided to hit back. The result was a book innocuously titled Life in an Indian Village in which he gives a pen portrait of the selfsame Kelambakam village. As if to stamp his book with the finality of the British colonial authority, Ramakrishna got a forward written by Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, who was spending a cushy retired life in England.

Kelambakkam in 1891

The life in Kelambakam described in this book is both a reminder of the invaluable civilizational traits and cultural values that we have permanently lost, and an evocative kaleidoscope of what Hindu society really looks like when lived in this manner.

This is how Kelambakam looked like:

A cluster of trees, consisting of the tamarind, mango, cocoanut, plantain, and other useful Indian trees, a group of dwellings, some thatched and some tiled, a small temple in the centre. These were surrounded on all sides by about five hundred acres of green fields, and a large tank capable of watering those five hundred acres for six months. This is the village of Kelambakam. It comprises some fifty or sixty houses, and has a population of about 300.

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It is incredible when we note the fact that Kelambakam was sandwiched between two of the greatest spiritual and historical centres of Hindu civilisation: Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram. It is said that Kelambakam came into existence in the 11th Century.

Social Organisation of Kelambakam

The village headman or Munsiff, is a man of respectable ancestry, in whom the whole management of the village is vested. He has the power of deciding petty cases, both civil and criminal, of collecting revenues from the farmers, and generally assists the authorities in their official duties.

The Karnam or village accountant, comes next. He knows by-heart, the extent, name, rent, etc., of every field in the village. He also settles monetary disputes among the villagers.

The Taliyari is the Policeman, who has to watch the village at night, patrol the fields when crops are ripe, and see that no thefts occur.

The Purohita (Brahmin) is the friend, guide, and philosopher of the village. He knows some Sanskrit, and has read many books on astrology. He can recite by heart all the four thousand stanzas of the Divya Prabhandham. He is "a person steeped in religion." No activity in the daily, family and social life of the village takes place without seeking his advice and following it. Two other Brahmins also perform the Puja of the temple by turns.

The Vadyar or schoolmaster is a very important element in the village. He is honoured and respected by the people. They regard him as friend and counsellor. His duties multifarious and quite incredible.

He is expected to look after the children of the villagers, and to take an interest in their welfare not only in the school but in their homes. If it is reported that a boy is ill, and that he refuses to take medicine, the master will go to his house and see that the medicine is administered. If a boy does not eat his meals properly, or if he becomes troublesome after school hours, his parents instantly invoke the assistance of the schoolmaster who goes to the house of the erring youth and see that such things do not repeat.

The Vadyar makes it a special part of his duty to give instruction in Dharma. The work of the school begins and closes every day with a prayer to Saraswati and Vighneswara.

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The Vythian or physician is supremely important. His practice is founded on the Vagadam, a Tamil work on medicine written in verse. In describing a disease, in prescribing medicines, and even in the matter of diet, he always quotes- from Vagadam. However, he does not believe in the effectiveness of medicine alone. He always emphasises upon the family and relatives of his patients the necessity of performing some religious ceremony to appease the anger of the gods.

The work of the carpenter, the blacksmith, the shepherd, the washerman, the potter, the barber, and others all have their place of respect and honour in Kelambakam and are treated with fairness, courtesy, dignity and respect. Sometimes, the barber doubles up as a physician. He has his own unique set of potions and medicines.

Like every village in South India, Kelambakam too, has a Grama Devata or village Goddess. She guards it from diseases and pestilence. Her Puja is performed by a Pujari who is also the oracle or soothsayer of the village. In this capacity, he is empowered to levy all sorts of contributions on the simple villagers.

Some Anecdotes

From one perspective, Life in an Indian Village is nothing without its charming and sometimes, moving anecdotes. Here are some of them.

The Village School

Nalla Pillai is the schoolmaster of Kelambakam. He is supposed to be a great-grandson of the celebrated Nalla Pillai, author of the Tamil Mahabharata. His school is attended by twenty or thirty boys. Even boys from the neighbouring villages come here to be instructed. The boys are seated in two rows on a raised basement in the outer part of the house, and the master is seated at one end of the pial.

Three or four youngsters, between five and seven years of age, are seated in a row, learning the letters of the alphabet by uttering them aloud and writing them on sand strewn on the floor. One or two are writing the letters on cadjan leaves. One boy is reading in a loud voice words from a cadjan book, while another reads short sentences. A third is working sums in arithmetic. A fourth is reciting poetical stanzas in a drawling tone, and a fifth is reading verses from Nalia Pillai's Mahabharata.

A boy is said to have completed his education if he is able to read and write accurately anything on a cadjan leaf and know the simple and compound rules of arithmetic and simple interest. This proficiency may be attained after four or five years' study in the village school.

The boys go to school before six in the morning, return home for breakfast at nine, go back at ten, and remain there till two, when they are allowed to go for their midday meal. They then return to school at three, and remain there till it gets dark.

During holidays, the youths are also made to learn by-heart some poetical stanzas containing moral maxims on cadjan leaves, at the top of which there always appears some religious symbol or saying such as the following: Victory be to Rama! Siva is everywhere! The boys are always taught to fear God, to be honest and truthful, to venerate their parents and superiors.

The Ambattan or Barber

Kailasam is the Ambattan or village barber and the village hair-dresser. He is also the musician of his village. Without music, no festival can be celebrated in the temple, no marriage or any other ceremony can take place in an Indian household.

On those occasions, Kailasam and his people are required to play on the flute, beat drums, etc.

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Kailasam is also the surgeon of the village. They are considered to be the fittest persons to treat surgical cases, probably because, as barbers, they handle the knife. Thoyamma, the wife of Kailasam, is the midwife of the village. Her attendance is also required every day, morning and evening, to look after newly-born infants, to bathe them, to administer to them proper medicines, etc.

Women in Kelambakam

In India, women are said to hold a subordinate position. It is said that they are simply child-bearing machines. Such views are thrust upon us by certain writers who pretend to intimately know the manners and customs of the Hindus. But they know next to nothing about the Hindu life.

But the keen observer of the inner life of Hindu society will have no difficulty in discovering that the poorest Indian villager loves his wife as tenderly and as affectionately as the most refined mortal on earth. In his obscure cottage,

Unseen by man’s disturbing eye, love shines
Curtained from the sight
Of the gross world, illumining
One only mansion with her light.

The women of Kelambakam freely enter into conversation, in which intelligence and wit are combined, which will convince even the most superficial observer that they are not so stupid as they are sometimes represented to be.

Overall Picture

Kelambakam is a little world in itself, having a government of its own and preserving intact the traditions of the past in spite of the influences of a foreign government and a foreign civilization.

Every member of the little state of Kelambakam regularly performs the duties allotted to him, and everything works like a machine. Those that render service for the upkeep of the village constitution are either paid in grain or have some lands allotted to them to be cultivated and enjoyed free of rent.

The doings of those who govern them and things political are nothing to them. It is enough for them if Providence blesses them with periodical rains, if their lands bring forth plenty to sustain them and their children and to preserve unruffled the quiet, even tenor of their lives.

This policy of non-interference and indifference to what passes outside his own sphere has been the main characteristic and, in fact, the guiding principle of the Indian villager from time immemorial.

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Closing Notes

Life in an Indian Village is truly delightful book. But it is also a book of loss. An unfortunate attitude and approach that Hindus blindly copied from the colonial British was to theorise their own practical life. Over the last 150 years, the attitude has become an ingrained habit with Hindus. The amount and scale of damage that this has done is incalculable. The British had an imperial reason to do this: to study the Hindu society to the last atom in order to break it, in order to retain their hold on India. What excuse did Hindus have to continue the same vile habit even after “independence?”

Grant Duff makes an extremely pertinent observation in his foreword to the book:

The reader will see that no good can be effected for these people, but only much harm, by introducing European methods of Government, foreign to their characters and conditions. What we can do is to enable these myriad little worlds to live in peace, instead of being perpetually liable to be harried and destroyed by every robber or petty tyrant who could pay a handful of scoundrels to follow him.

To their credit, the British largely left our villages alone. The Nehruvian machinery with its handful of Congress and Communist scoundrels pulverised our villages by first corrupting the Sanatana value system that underscored the lifestyle sketched in this book.

If the mandarins manning our education policy perchance have some free time, they would do a great national service by scouring our vast and valuable archives for such books and prescribing excerpts and summaries as lessons for our schoolchildren.

Postscript

I searched the Internet for information on Kelambakam and found a Wikipedia entry on it. This is how it reads:

Kelambakkam is a suburban and residential neighbourhood of Chennai, India. It is located in the south-eastern portion of the city along the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR), and is about 5 km from Siruseri IT park and 12 km from Sholinganallur junction… Kelambakkam is considered as the southern gateway to Chennai city on OMR Road. Kelambakkam comes under Thiruporur Taluk of Chengalpattu district.

In other words, Kelambakkam is today a completely unrecognisable, foreign land created in less than 130 years.

|| Sri Rama Jayam ||

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