Rescuing Tamil Customary Law

Investigator(s): Dr. Zoe E. Headley
Axis 4. of the Social Sciences Department /

Locating and copying endangered records of village judicial assemblies (1870-1940).

Though India’s rich legal history and traditions has attracted great interest from historians, anthropologists and legal scholars, very little is known on actual procedures and legal reasoning which constitutes the customary law(s) in this region. The lack of scholarship rests partly on the absence of written evidence and record. The Rescuing Tamil Customary Law project (hereafter, RTCL) primary objective is to locate written records (paper, palm-leaf, copperplate) of local dispute settlement processes which were produced from the second half of the nineteenth century until Independence. Mostly recorded on paper, though palm-leaf and copperplates are also used during this period, there is a very real urgency to locate and copy those documents which have managed to survive both the climatic conditions of the region and the neglected conditions in which their owners are storing them.

The panchayat, once a pervasive mode of managing disputes in rural India, has now disappeared from many regions. Fieldwork conducted over the last decade in the rural areas targeted by the RTCL project has shown that recourse to the panchayat has remained an ordinary forum for the settlement of a wide range of dispute among a number of dominant castes. However, this situation is rapidly changing following the suggestion by a judge of the High Court of Madras to criminalize these caste-based village judicial practices which are portrayed by the media as ‘kangaroo courts’. The RTCL project therefore widens the scope of the notion of an archive of customary law by including in its data collection ethnographic observation and recording of the contemporary practices of panchayats. In accordance with the rationale of Endangered Archives Programme (British Library), the main funding body of the RTCL project, the data collected during this project will be made available to the scientific community. Once the project completed, a copy of the records collected will be available in the British library (London), the Tamil Nadu Archives (Chennai) and the IFP library (Pondicherry).
Materials and methods:

Rescuing Tamil Customary Law This pilot project is implementing a systematic survey in villages of two districts of south-central Tamil Nadu (Madurai and Coimbatore) in collaboration with identified local researchers over a period of twelve months in order to locate the largest possible number of such documents. Given the advanced state of deterioration of some of the documents that have been seen, some of the documents are digitised. The primary aim of the pilot project is the location of documents in villages, it is crucial to acquire immediately a “usable” copy of each document as they rapidly and irrevocably deteriorating due the local environmental conditions but also given the neglected way in which they are stored and/or handled.

Three of the team members (S. Ponnarasu, K. Kirushnasami, D. Chakravarthy) all experienced in ethnographic research, are conducting extensive and systematic fieldwork in these two target research sites which are the location of the traditional territories of two dominant castes and have been the object of important ethnographic scrutiny: Kallar Nadu (Madurai district) and Kongu Nadu (Coimbatore district).

An additional description of the RTCL project is available here:

Funding Agency:

Endangered Archives Programme, The British Library, supported by Arcadia, London, UK. (

  • Dr. Zoé E. HEADLEY, Principal Investigator, Anthropologist, Associated member CEIAS-EHESS, Paris, France.
  • Dr. Thanuja.M, Co Investigator, Assistant Professor, Centre for study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive policy Pondicherry University. & Associate Researcher, French Institute of Pondicherry, India.
  • S. Ponnarasu, French Institute of Pondicherry, India.
  • David T Chakravarthy, French Institute of Pondicherry, India.
  • K. Kirushnasami, French Institute of Pondicherry, India.
– Funding Agency(ies): Endangered Archives Programme, The British Library
– Partners: