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Volume: IV, Issue: I, January-June 2013



The present article deals with some aspects relating to the agrarian servitude of medieval Tamil country. In the medieval agrarian society the agrestic slaves and agricultural labourers predominantly belonged to the marginalised section. They constituted the bulk of agricultural labour population. These marginalised groups were bonded labourers to the high caste and appear always to have been in enslaved conditions. The Pallis or Vanniyas worked as serfs under Brahmin landlords while the Pallas and Paraiyas served the other non-Brahmin caste masters like the Vellalas. They were mostly landless people and were not allowed to own any property. They owned nothing but poverty, dirt and disease, sorrows and suffering and lived under perennial distress. Falling victim to the cultural imperialism and political domination of the invaders, the pre-Aryan people were reduced to a service group. They inherited only poverty and dehumanization. Forced by acute starvation and grinding poverty, they allowed themselves to be sold in public auction or transferred from one master to another. In short, they were the unfortunate victim of the upper-class absolutism.

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The concept of agrarian system assumes a whole and a dynamic complex of relationship among groups of people for whom land is the basic resource for survival. The agrarian people demands recognition of the livelihood, and status upon control of land, and any adequate analysis of dominantly agrarian societies must indicate the way in which political, economic and social institutions are integrated with the control of land [Burton Stein 1984: 182]. The basic type of the settlement of the medieval period was the village which controlled the lands. That basic village settlement was known by the generic term ur [Noboru Karashima 2009: 2-7]. The urs, were mostly inhabited by the peasants, known as urars [SII, Vol.VII: 66]. There were also two special types of villages called brahmadeya and nagara in medieval Tamil country. The brahmadeya inhabited by the Brahmins and the nagara by merchants.  Y.Subbarayalu [1980: 22] holds the view that in the Brahmin villages private landholding appeared very early and since the Brahmins usually got their land cultivated by tenants, there existed stratification between landholders and cultivators in those villages. In the peasant villages landholding was communal and gulf between the landholders and cultivators was minimal. Hence there was less stratification in these villages. While peasant villages each had a communal assembly called ur or urar consisting of the non-Brahmin landholders, the Brahmin villages had a communal called sabha consisting of Brahmin landholders [Noboru Karashima 2009: 9-10].

In the beginning of the ninth century, there were already clusters of agrarian settlements which were called by the generic name nadu [Burton Stein 1980: 223-224]. These nadus were formed around irrigation sources that were exploited by a particular group of villages. The nattar, the inhabitant of nadu [SII, Vol. XIV: 378] were mainly the representatives of the non-Brahmin peasants of the villages, who were mainly composed of big landholders or kaniyalar [ARE, 259 of 1926]. The members of the nadu assemblies were the spokesmen of the peasants in the public matters beyond the limits of individual villages. Groups of nattar often acted together in deciding matters of some common interest: patronizing some temple, settling some dispute, sometimes even opposing the government of the day in matters of exacting taxation [Y.Subbarayalu 1980: 24].  

Inscriptions of the Chola period record several instances of land transfer through sale or gift, involving the transfer of kani rights (hereditary right to land). The kani signified the rights of possession over land. The Chola and Pandya land grant inscriptions refer to two types of land rights: the karanmai (right to cultivate) and the miyatchi (a superior possessive right). There is also mention of kudimai (the right of occupancy). The karanmai was of two types: kudi neekki (the removing of the kudi) and kudi neenga (without removing the kudi) [SII, Vol. XXIII: 257; ARE, 44 of 1920; SII, Vol. XXII: 98]. The kudi neekki suggests a situation in which people previously settled in the village were either removed or deprived of their rights. The kudi neenga [Noboru Karashima 2009: 27-56] meant that such people were not to be disturbed. Some land grants state that the land was granted along with the labourers attached to it.

In the brahmadeya villages of medieval Tamil country, the Brahmins were landowners, those who were brought in from elsewhere and settled in the newly created settlement with rights of karanmai and miyatchi [P.Chandrasekaran 2004:49]. They had their cultivating tenants called ulukudi. In the vellanvagai villages, the landlords and cultivators were the same people called Vellala. Besides the land based groups, there were in each village some artisans, coconut gardeners cum toddy-tappers, potters and washer men. Some of whom were supported by allotments of small plots of cultivate land. They were considered as the servicing people (panicheymakkal) of the landholders [SII, Vol. XXII: 158]. The controllers of the land (kaniyalar, and other), in the agrarian society were rarely concern with the actual tillers of the land. Though there was the small land holders cultivating their land themselves, the lands of the temple (devadana lands) and other big landholders, and the lands of the Brahmin villages (brahmadeya lands), and like needed separate cultivators. There are mentioned in the medieval inscriptions as ulukudi-vellala, meaning cultivating Vellalas [Y.Subbarayalu 2012: 147].

On the basis of the control of land in the medieval agrarian Tamil society the top most social layer is occupied by the Brahmin landholders, who are called the perunkudi or greater kudi. A little lower than the Brahmins were the Vellala landholders, otherwise known as periyanattar [ARE, 189 of 1939; 282 of 1944], perukkalar [Noboru Karashima 2009: 119], karalar [SII, Vol.XXVI: No.180]. In the next level were the cultivators (ulukudi) [SII, Vol.XXII: 156], who were all, in these Brahmin and Vellala settlements. They owned slaves and were permitted to enjoy that property by virtue of heredity. The next level was assigned to the so-called panicheymakkal or servicing people  comprising the accountants, potters, musicians, weavers, and perhaps, the other artisans like carpenter, blacksmith etc. They were neither allowed to keep livestock or own adimai – slaves. The lowest level was allotted to the slaves‒majority of them were agricultural labourers [Noboru Karashima 2009: 119].  

The agricultural labourers were mostly landless peasant communities like the Pallas, Paraiyas, Cherumas, Pulaiyas and other marginalised people.  They were deprived of their lands and reduced to the position of slaves and were solely engaged in the cultivation of the rice fields and plantations.  Almost the entire agricultural operations were done by the agrarian slaves.  In the rice-growing district of Tamilnadu, they were like the backbone and without them agricultural work would have been impossible [S.Manickam 1998: 61]. Even though they performed the basic socio-economic functions and without them the society could not move even a step forward, they were nevertheless extremely poor.  This poor section of society was the original inhabitants of the state, once masters of the land enjoying a glorious heritage. But with the establishment of caste hegemony the labour classes were reduced to agrarian and domestic slavery.

These agrarian or agrestic slaves played a significant role in the production processes. They were also known by different terms such as praedial slaves, allodial slave of the soil, agricultural serfs, nila adimai (land slave) in Tamil. Their identity was closely bound up with the land.  They were an integral part of the masters’ landed property and were described as being held precisely under the same tenures and terms as the land itself. Evidences belonging to the Vijayanagar and post-Vijayanagar periods throw sufficient light on the practice of agrarian slavery in Tamil country even from the days of the Imperial Cholas.  These evidences make it clear that slavery connected with land did exist in Tamilnadu, although the condition of the serfs was widely different from what is understood by the term slavery in other parts of the world [S.Manickam 1982: 52; K.Mavali Rajan 2003: 70-85].

In the Western society the slaves who formed a distinctive stratum were foreigners, whereas in India and Tamilnadu a sizeable section of the society was reduced to slavery by members of the same society and the same race.  The Paraiyas, Pallas, Pulaiyas and several other landless communities were made slaves by the higher castes and they appear always to have been in enslaved conditions, and it is more natural to suppose that they were reduced to a servile condition by conquest, than to suppose that they were enslaved by operation of ordinary social causes [K.Mavali Rajan 2001: 74-76; Edgar Thurston 1975: 441-442]. The Paraiyas of Tamilnadu, who were originally a leading clan among the low castes, had been  dethroned from that position and were reduced to a state of servitude and degeneration by Brahmin influence [Gustav Oppert 1972: 32]. They were mostly agricultural labour classes, scattered throughout the Tamil country. They were for long treated as untouchables and their social uncertainty was utilized by the so called upper caste to maintain their dominance in the agrarian sector. They had also been considered as agrarian slaves in Tamil society.

Evidences to the Existence of Slavery

The evidences about the lowermost layer of the agrarian society of the medieval times is very meager; there are, however, some useful relevant hints. The existence of a section of the medieval society in the level of slavery is generally accepted. But as the inscriptions mostly concern with temple affairs and as the more conspicuous persons that were considered as slaves were temple women devaradiyar (devadasis), ‘servants or slave of god’, therefore, the slavery of those days was mostly treated as an aspect of religion and temple, and the position of other slaves was not given much attention [Y.Subbharayalu 2010:  49-50]. On the other hand K.A.Nilakanta Sastri [1975: 555] in his work the ‘Colas’ has briefly underlined the important features of slavery beyond the sacred confines too: “that a considerable element in the population, especially among the agricultural labourers, lived in a condition not far from slavery is clear from the literature of the age. There are several inscriptions which show that most odious form of private property in human beings, signalized by their being bought and sold by other irrespective of their own wishes, was not unknown”. This is clear from the statement that slavery existed in the early as well as in the medieval period of Tamil country.    

The inhuman large scale social slavery, noticed in the medieval times, was undeniably the evil consequence of the caste system. The Slavery as a socio-economic phenomenon definitely became more pronounced and more institutionalized during the medieval period, particularly, in the Chola and Vijayanagar period. Some scholars have pointed out that there are records relating to the existence of slavery in Tami country from the early period. S.Manickam in his book titled ‘Slavery in the Tamil Country: A Historical overview’ has argued that slaves were treated as property or commodity and the transaction involving their sales, mortgage or transfer, had to be registered in legal documents at the time of their disposal which was referred to as ‘alvilai pramana isaivu chittu’ [ARE, 296 of 1911; S.Manickam 1982: 65]. The Periyapuranam [Taduttatkonda Puranam, V. 40-50] referred to the sale deeds as alolei (sale deed). The auction of slaves in public places was also thought to be a practice dating back to the time of the Imperial Cholas.

There are several inscriptions of the twelfth-thirteenth centuries referring to the sale transactions of human merchandise. The owners of the slaves were found to be landlords‒both Brahmanas and non-Brahmanas, military chiefs, religious leaders, besides of course, the temples. The necessity of owning slaves by the land owners and cultivators cannot be just for agrarian duties like cultivation activities, particularly in the rice-cultivation, which requires lots of human labour [Y.Subbarayalu 2012: 156-158]. They must have been also involved in domestic duties in cleaning the houses, helping their masters in household affairs etc. The slave labour might also have been used for meeting with the several other demands. Y.Subbarayalu [2012: 157] views that the cultivators themselves could not have so many hands within their own households. Naturally, they would have depended upon their slaves to carry on such compulsory works on their behalf.

K.A. Nilakanta Sastri [1975: 555] states that free men and women became slaves for various reasons, and it would appear that there were several grades among the slaves. Most of the sales recorded in the inscriptions are sales of persons to the temple.The existence of slavery in Vijayanagar is testified to by the traveler Abdur Razzak, Nicolo Conti and Barbosa [A.Appadurai 1970: 314]. An analysis of the available evidence points to the existence of the following classes of slaves in the medieval period.

(i) One born a as slave;[SII, Vol.I: 54]persons born to slave parents, particularly, to the slave women, were considered slaves of the master; it was hereditary.

(ii) One obtained by inheritance;[EC, Vol.V: Belur 219] children of female slave and the whole family with their descendants shall be the family of the landlord [SII, Vol.I: 54].

(iii) Slavery for debt; the debtor who was insolvent was everywhere adjudged to be the property of his creditor. Some persons sold themselves as domestic slave for a certain number of years in cancellation of a debt [D.R Banaji 1933: 81].

(iv) By selling oneself; Epigraphic evidence throws light on why an entire family entered into slavery. The main reason appears to have been government taxes charges in families; which led poor families to enter into slavery as a whole [S.Jeyaseela Stephen 1999: 181].  Another one record speaks of a Vellala man sold himself and his two daughters as slaves (adimai)to the temple.  It is stated that “the time was very bad, that paddy was sold at 3 nali for one kasu, that his children were dying for want of food and that consequently he and his two daughters borrowed 110 kasu from the temple treasury and sold themselves” [ARE, 86 of 1911].

(v) One gifted as slave; a Thiruvorriyar record of the Chola king Tribhuvanachakkravarthin Rajarajadeva III (1234 A.D.), speaks of a gift of five women and their descendants for husking paddy in the temple [ARE, 122 of 1912].

(vi) One soled as slave; in 1781 A.D. one Palla woman named Tayilammal of Puducheri sold her daughter to one Mariammal for two rupees [S.Jeyaseela Stephen 1997: 10]. Three palm leaf manuscripts of medieval Tamilnadu describes in detail the condition of slaves during Krishnadevaraya’s period. The palm leaf record that one Thiyagaraja Mudaliar sold a slave named Rayan, son of Santhosi, of Paraiyar caste, in the presence of an arbitrator for ten pons; Ramachandra Nayinar, a resident of Reddikadalankudi village, sold four of his slaves- Muthan, Vellichan, his wife Parvathy and a male slave to Subramanya Mudaliar of Manganallur for fourteen pons; Subha Padayachi sold his slaves Raman, his wife Mukkatai and their children to Appachi Mudaliar of Ganja village for eighty pons. These pieces of evidence show that the family as whole entered into slavery in the Thanjavur region, where rice cultivation was intensive [S.Jeyaseela Stephen 1999: 180, 181]. The papers on Mirasi Right also incorporated two documents relating to the sale of the Paraiya slaves. Both these documents belonged to the late decade of the sixteenth century A.D [Raj Sekher Basu 2011: 12].

There are many other inscriptions in medieval period which reveal the grant of land to the matha (monastery) by non-Brahmins, including kings and chiefs [ARE, 25 of 1933; SII, Vol.V: 295].  A Tiruvisalur inscription [SII, Vol. XXIII: 47; Noboru Karashima 2010: 224]  refers to kusavar (potters), uvachchan (drummer) and a tirumeykaval (a gourd of the deity) as people who are to be paid for their work in the mathas. A Mylapore inscription recording the construction of a matha refers to aduvar (a cook) and tannir varppar (water-carrier) as servants of the matha [CMK, 125 of 1967].  An inscription states that a stone-mason (kal-tachcher) named Mulaittan alais Chandesurap, his wife and their four sons were sold to the mathas as slaves [ARSIE, 409 of 1925]. The matha adimaigal (slaves of mathas) who cultivated lands, which belonged to the mathas. S.Manickam [1982: 46] says that both male and female slaves tended cattle, did carpentry, maintained the flower gardens and cultivated lands attached to the temples.  They were enjoying the patronage of the state as well as the temple.  Epigraphic evidences indicate that these mathas also practiced slavery (matha adimai). An inscription of Kulottunga III found at the Vetaranyeswara temple at Tiruvalangadu also records the sale of men and women as matha adimaigal for the cultivation of lands owned by the matha.  Thus it becomes evident that slavery was not confined only to the temple but it was extended to the mathas also [S.Manickam  1982: 46].

The agrarian slaves were very often sold in different ways.  For example, they were sold along with land, by execution of bond, mortgage or contract.  The value of slaves was fixed in terms of money, goods and labour, the purpose of their sale being normally subsistence, to meet expenses connected with marriage ceremonies, festivals, to clear debts and to pay capital, interest, etc. As slaves they were treated as property or commodity, the transaction involving their sale, purchase, mortgage or transfer had to be registered in legal documents. A certain inscription records a sale of five men and five women and their relations (Vargattar) for 1000 kasus by a certain Ariyan Pichchanan alais Edirilisola Ganagainadailuvan, who was the police officer of the district [ARE, 499 of 1924]. Another inscription states that a stone-mason and his wife and their four sons were the servants of the mathas which had bought them [ARSIE, 409 of 1925]. Another one records the sale of eight persons to the temple of Tiruvalamburi-udaiyar by a certain Kavakasikalayan Kumaran or Tambirantolan [ARSIE, 216 of 1925]. Yet another record refers to the sale of seven persons to the temple for 30 kasu [ARSIE, 218 of 1925]. Sale of maid servants also is mentioned in the inscriptions [ARE, 296 of 1911].Another epigraph records a similar sale of six persons by a certain Soman Tattan of Nagur alais Sripadadul chaturvedimangalam in Rajadhiraja-valanadu for 13 kasu [ARSIE, 217 of 1925]. Such sale of persons must not be taken to mean that these persons sold themselves or others merely for money, but that they dedicated their services to the temple and they worked as agrarian slaves in the temple lands.

Similarly there were different types of agricultural slaves such as hereditary slaves, voluntary slaves, abslute slaves, partial slaves and bonded slaves with varying rights and duties in different areas [C.Paramarthalingam 1995: 141]. The medieval folk literature especially Mukkudal Pallu1 describe that physical labour were fully exploited by their masters.  By nature the Pallas and other landless labourers were hardworking people, even though they were subject to much hardship.  In spite of their hard labour they were not allowed to have a sound sleep even during the night [Mukkudal Pallu: VV.61, 62, 63].

The agrarian slaves, generally bound-up with the lands were transferred when the lands were sold [T.H.Babaer 1832: 112]. Inscriptions of medieval period point out to the fact that there were slaves attached to the land, which they cultivated. They were sold along with the land [ARE, 113 of 1927] or were given away as gifts [TAS, Vol.I: 2]. An inscription of 1196 A.D. says that the expenses were to be met out from the land as well as from the labourers or the slaves attached to the land [ARE, 90,91 of 1926; Indian Antiquity, Vol. XXIV: 284]. Sometimes ulap paraiyar, meaning tilling Paraiyas are also mentioned in the Thanjavur inscription [SII, Vol.II: 45]. Vettiwere another group of agricultural labourers.  From the contextual usage Vetti meant some work rendered for the maintenance of irrigation sources like canals, tanks etc. The Vetti were the people usually engaged in these public works in the medieval Tamil country [P.Shanmugam 1987: 16]. The Canarese inscriptions also speak of bonded servants, possibly attached to the land [EC, Vol. II: 45]. During the Pallava period land grant of the third and fourth century A.D. informs us that four sharecroppers remained attached to a plot of land which was given away to the Brahmins [EI, Vol.I: 1-39], which implies that original cultivators were required to work on the land even when it was given over to the beneficiary. The labourers who were attached to the fields were compelled to serve them as their new masters [EI, Vol.I: 1-39].

Mild form of slavery existed in ancient India as well as in early Tamil society. We have number of positive evidences referring to the existence of the slave system. In the positive view S. Manickam states that institution of slavery existed in Tamilnadu at least from the early medieval period. The agrarian and domestic slavery existed in India from the ancient times [S.Manickam 1982: 102]. According to him slavery in Tamilnadu raised its head only when the caste system had taken strong roots between the eighth century and the sixteenth century A.D.  In any slave-owning society, slavery and violence remain entwined. The very objective of the caste system was to segment the feudal society with permanent human bondage.  Brahmanic law extensively provides for slavery and does not permit for the emancipation of slaves unlike the Roman law, which provided for manumission or emancipation of slaves.  The social and religious literatures of the Brahmins are replete with ideas of an unequal society and extensively deal with slavery highlighting the social prestige of the slave owners [S.N.Sadasivam 2000: 395]. In dealing with agrarian servitude in the Tamil country, it becomes clear that neither all the landless labourers engaged in agriculture were living under servile or inhospitable conditions, nor those who due to various reasons were reduced to slavery were fairly free [S.Manickam 1982: 11].

Some of the later documents of the early modern period record the prevalence of agrarian slavery in Tamilnadu. The agrarian slaves were generally found in Malabar, Canara, South Arcot, Thanjavur, Tiruchirapally and Thirunelveli regions.  In Chengalpet serfdom was widely prevalent at the close of the eighth century A.D.  There were few serfs in Madurai and North Arcot districts. In Coimbatore the Institution was practically extinct except for a few villages where there was a class of people attached to the soil who were always transferred with it i.e. padiyal [A.Sarada Raju 1941: 273].D.R. Banaji [1933: 81-82] assumed that this species of slavery was common in the Southern provinces of the Peninsula in its worst form on the Western coast of the Peninsula, or in the provinces of Malabar, Canara and Coorg. In those areas the agrarian slaves who were originally the sons of the soil and the owners of the land were not destined to remain in possession of what they could rightly call their own.

Agricultural Labourers and Serfdom

The Tamilnadu being predominantly an agricultural land, well-developed institution of agricultural labour and serfdom point to a definite socio-economic system and terms such as ‘adimai’ and ‘agrarian servitude’ may be applied to it, in so far as some agricultural labourers were bought and sold, and others were born into a state of perpetual servility and rendered service to masters on their lands.  However, terms drawn from western experience and European context do not fit in Indian conditions perfectly, for slavery in India in general and Tamilnadu in particular had been conditioned powerfully by caste [S.Manickam 1982: 1]. By the dictates of caste rules low caste people were forced to accept the status of ‘slave castes’ and to a very large extent their economic and social disadvantages and civil disabilities had been determined by caste [Dharmakumar 1965: 34].  The agrarian slaves of Tamil country were almost transferable with land and were obliged to perform services to others under condition of social inferiority and restrictions.  But they played a vital role in the cultivation of paddy and other crops. Thus their identity was closely associated with the land.

R.S. Sharman [1980: 47] observes that in the feudal society of medieval period it is possible to think of two kinds of serfs: of those who possibly served as ploughmen and those who served as tenants living in villages.  The latter paid a part of their produce as rent and fulfilled the obligations laid down in the charter. In the Indian context the plough men attached to the land should be regarded as full-fledged serfs, while the tenants specifically transferred along with the villages may be taken as semi-serfs.  The latter did not have to work on the private farms of the beneficiaries; although under difficult economic situation they could not leave the village to seek means of subsistence elsewhere. He further suggests that the political essence of feudalism lies in the organization of the whole administrative structure on the basis of land; its economic essence lies in the institution of serfdom in which peasants were attached to the soil held by landed intermediaries placed between the king and the actual tillers, who had to pay rent in kind and labour to them.  The system was based on a self-sufficient economy in which things were mainly produced for the local use of peasants and their lords and not for the market [R.S.Sharma 1980: 1].

Most important among the rights of the serfs was that of working on a particular piece of land. If he was born into a family owned by a particular land holder, the land-holder had the obligation to employ him on the land and pay him the customary wages. R.S. Sharma [2001: 3] says about the rights of serfs that “serfdom was designed to organize agricultural and craft production on the estate or manor of the lord.  The peasants were forcibly attached to the large land holdings and were given small pieces of land for their support”. However on the whole the agricultural labourers, especially the serfs were supposed to live a deplorable and miserable life. Both men and women of the slave family had to work for their livelihood.  From childhood to death the slave had to work for his/her survival.  Sometimes, the peasants or agricultural labourers, due to personal difficulties and other distresses were not able to carry out their agricultural activities.  During such days of disturbances they requested the kings to take their lands and to transfer them as properties of the temple [SII, Vol. V: 984].

In the Chola state, production was carried out by agrarian serfs or peasants who held the land commonly in their villages and that they were subjected as the slaves of the landed communities, who controlled irrigation and other means of production [Romila Thapar 2002: 206]. In the medieval period, particularly during the Pallavas and the Cholas, even during the Vijayanagar period, there emerged big temples and local aristocrates who were granted landed proprieties by the ruler, and accordingly serfdom came into existence generating a feudalistic mode of production [Noboru Karashima 1984: XXVIII].

We learn that all the landless labourers in medieval Tamil country were engaged in production process, though they were formerly free, but living under servile and inhospitable conditions, were reduced to slavery due to several reasons [S. Manickam 1982: 11]. The Tamil word adimai refers to slave and nila adimai refers to land slave or agrarian slave. There are also popularized terms such as pannaiyal and padiyal, for permanent farm servants receiving wages in kind. Here the word pannai denotes farm and al denotes persons/labourer that means the term pannaiyal covered all slave labourers in the Tamil districts. The padiyal is derived from the Tamil word ‘padi’, denoting a fixed daily allowance of food. The British officials also used the term adimai, meaning slave, and pannaiyal for bonded farm servants. The pannaiyal were believed to have been born into servitude and virtually had no escape from it until their death. And they were expected to perform all the hard work and functions that were generally regarded as degrading and defiling. The impurity of the work and the lack of freedom were the two outstanding characteristics of this agrarian slavery [Raj Sekher Basu 2011: 12].

These farm servants of the Kaveri basin, as elsewhere in Tamilnadu specialized in field work such as ploughing, transplanting, seedlings, harvesting and threshing the crops and other works related to agriculture. Besides the agricultural operations in the paddy field, the slaves and perhaps the ordinary peasants were forced by the state to build and repair irrigation work in the dry season [S.Manickam 1982: 35].

The farm servants on the other hand were permanent servants attached to the farm and received remuneration on a monthly or annual basis. The name pannaiyal or padiyaloriginally called serfs in Tamil country, refer to almost all farm servants, probably because of the similarity in some respect with serfs [C.N.B.Zacharias 1950: 107]. The Tirukkural2describes the cultivators of land as the linchpin (axle) of the world[Tirukkural, Kural: 1031] as they support all other workers who were unwilling to cultivate lands [Kural: 1032]; and says that they alone are living who are engaged in cultivation and all others are not [Kural: 1033]. Such factors had the scope of prompting agriculture as a major occupation3 [Kural: 1036], in almost all the areas of Tamilnadu. In medieval Tamil country the Brahmins had much land which was chiefly cultivated by the slaves of inferior castes [Francis Buchanan 1988: 19].

The agricultural labourers were taken for seasonal work on land during seasons of transplantation and harvest and were paid daily wages either in kind or in cash or in both.  A few inscriptions of the medieval period refer to the kaivinaikkudi [ARE, 581 of 1893; SII, Vol.V: 257] in contrast with ulavukudi who were hired daily as distinct from purakkudi [IPS, No.687] or pirakkudi [IPS, No.737]or simple kudi. The kudis were connected with the land as servants or serfs. They generally belonged to the place being attached to an inalienable right kudikkani to cultivate the land [MPS, Vol.I: 138]. The agrarian slaves were employed in the master’s land [S.Manickam 1982: 56] and that they had not a single day of rest during working seasons. All the wet grain lands were cultivaed almost exclusively by them.  By a careful and conscious application of their labour on land, wealth was created. By their hard labours  and through their sweat and toil, these agrarian slaves produced an excess of material wealth, particularly surplus food [S.Manickam 1982: 56].

In medieval Tamil country there are many references regarding the availability of the various kinds of labourers and wages they received. Under such circumstances though the land owners had to their credit divergent agricultural accomplishments, one had to consider the kinds of labourers employed in such acts and that would help in the understanding of the implementation of the principle of division of labour. Further, there were hereditary menial servants who served as subordinates receiving remuneration.  Such aspects would divulge the importance assigned to experts in the agricultural activities.  Hired labourers were employed to serve in the temple gardens by receiving a standard rate of paddy [ARE, 172 of 1915; 45 of 1925] and this increases one’s knowledge about the role of labourers in agriculture.

As rightly observed by K.A.Nilakanta Sastri [1975: 569-570] “such labourers were not peasant proprietors any means, and were nearer the class of hired labourers than of tenants; they were entitled to use the house site near enough to the place of their work and to get wages fixed in advance, the proceeds of their labour on land being altogether the property of the institution that owned the soil on which they work”. The women, who were not restricted in their involvement in social life and activities, were utilized to execute less skilled occupations especially in agriculture as female labourers.


The agrarian slaves formed the major labour force and basis of the production process. They were condemned to live like cattle, having practically no privileges or rights.  They worked very hard, but their hard work never made them rich.  They were forced in their perpetual want and impoverished conditions to work long hours without leisure or leave.  There was no fixation of working hours. In the harvest days they were forced to work even in the night hours.  However, they were not given proper wages according to their  work.  The agrestic slaves were poorly paid and subjected to exploitation at the hands of landlords.  Unlike the modern labourer, the agrestic slaves of the medieval Tamil country had no power over their own person or over their labour.  They were controlled by their masters. The agrestic slaves were expected to be loyal, obedient and attached to their masters.


1. Pallu works of the 17th century A.D. gives details of paddy cultivation. There are many Pallu literatures in late medieval Tamilnadu. The Mukkudal Pallu occupies the first and foremost place. The Mukkoodal Pallu, documented in 1670, and Sengottu Pallu in 1850 which collectively mention 90 rice varieties. So far, around, 270-300 traditional rice varieties and 110 Bullocks types have been documented by the authors in these books. Still now, some of the songs are sung by the Pallas of Tamil Nadu.

2. Tirukkural is one of the oldest of extant Tamil books and generally accepted as belonging to the second century A.D. Tirukkural’s approach to moral doctrine is marked by a very thorough knowledge of human psychology and a desire to help imperfect men with practical hints in the struggle against evil. It is a poetic composition of great antiquity in the Tamil literature.

3. The Kural says that ‘if the cultivators of the land were to stop working there is no life even for those who say that they have given up all attachment’.


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Annual Report on South Indian Epigraphy (ARSIE), 1925.

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