| by T.S. Subramaniam
Photos: S. Thanthoni
It may be hard to believe that nearly 1,100 years ago, a village had a perfect electoral system and a written Constitution prescribing the mode of elections. It was inscribed on the walls of the village assembly (grama sabha mandapa), which was a rectangular structure made of granite slabs. “This inscription, dated around 920 A.D. in the reign of Parantaka Chola, is an outstanding document in the history of India,” says Dr. R. Nagaswamy, former Director, Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology, referring to Uthiramerur in Chingleput district.
“It is a veritable written Constitution of the village assembly that functioned 1,000 years ago,” Dr. Nagaswamy says in his book, “Uthiramerur, the Historic Village in Tamil Nadu.” The book, in both Tamil and English, has been published by the Tamil Arts Academy, Chennai.
Dr. Nagaswamy says: “It [the inscription] gives astonishing details about the constitution of wards, the qualification of candidates standing for elections, the disqualification norms, the mode of election, the constitution of committees with elected members, the functions of [those] committees, the power to remove the wrong-doer, etc…”
And that is not all. “On the walls of the mandapa are inscribed a variety of secular transactions of the village, dealing with administrative, judicial, commercial, agricultural, transportation and irrigation regulations, as administered by the then village assembly, giving a vivid picture of the efficient administration of the village society in the bygone ages.” The villagers even had the right to recall the elected representatives if they failed in their duty!
It has a 1,250-year history
Uthiramerur has a 1,250-year history. It is situated in Kanchipuram district, about 90 km from Chennai. The Pallava king Nandivarman II established it around 750 A.D. It did exist earlier as a brahmin settlement. It was ruled by the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Sambuvarayars, the Vijayanagara Rayas and the Nayaks. It has three important temples, the Sundara Varadaraja Perumal temple, the Subramanya temple and the Kailasanatha temple. Plans are under way for the conservation and restoration of the Kailasanatha temple, which is in ruins.
All the three temples have numerous inscriptions — those of the great Raja Raja Chola (985-1015 A.D.), his able son, Rajendra Chola and the Vijayanagar emperor Krishnadeva Raya. Both Rajendra Chola and Krishnadeva Raya visited Uthiramerur.
Uthiramerur, built as per the canons of the agama texts, has the village assembly mandapa exactly at the centre and all the temples are oriented with reference to the mandapa.
R. Vasanthakalyani, Chief Epigraphist-cum-Instructor and R. Sivanandam, epigraphist, both belonging to the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology, said that while village assemblies might have existed prior to the period of Parantaka Chola, it was during his period that the village administration was honed into a perfect system through elections. “About 1,100 years ago, during the period of Paranataka Chola, Uthiramerur had an elected village panchayat system, which was a step ahead of the modern day democratic system,” she said.
According to Dr. Sivanandam, there were several places in Tamil Nadu where inscriptions are available on temple walls about the prevalence of village assemblies. These villages included Manur near Tirunelveli, Tiruninravur near Chennai, Manimangalam near Tambaram, Dadasamudram near Kanchipuram, Sithamalli and Thalaignayiru near Thanjavur, Jambai near Tirukovilur and Ponnamaravathy near Pudukottai. “But it is at Uthiramerur on the walls of the village assembly (mandapa) itself, that we have the earliest inscriptions with complete information about how the elected village assembly functioned,” said Dr. Sivanandam. It is learnt that the entire village, including the infants, had to be present at the village assembly mandapa at Uthiramerur when the elections were held, pointed out Vasanthakalyani. Only the sick and those who had gone on a pilgrimage were exempt.
There were committees for the maintenance of irrigation tanks, roads, to provide relief during drought, testing of gold and so on. Sivanandam himself has written a book in Tamil called, “The Archaeological Handbook of Kanchipuram district,” (published by the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology in 2008) in which he says the original sabha mandapa’s superstructure was made of timber and bricks. After the superstructure collapsed and only the base of the mandapa made of granite slabs remained, Kulotunga Chola I built a Vishnu temple on the base towards the end of the 11th century.
The village sabha mandapa, with its invaluable inscriptions, is now called Vaikuntaperumal temple. Dr. Nagaswamy says: “The village assembly of Uttaramerur drafted the Constitution for the elections. The salient features were as follows: the village was divided into 30 wards, one representative elected for each. Specific qualifications were prescribed for those who wanted to contest. The essential criteria were age limit, possession of immovable property and minimum educational qualification. Those who wanted to be elected should be above 35 years of age and below 70…”
Only those who owned land, that attracted tax, could contest. Another interesting stipulation, according to Dr. Nagaswamy, was that such owners should have possessed a house built on legally-owned site (not on public poromboke). A person serving in any of the committees could not contest again for the next three terms, each term lasting a year. Elected members, who suffered disqualification, were those who accepted bribes, misappropriated others’ property, committed incest or acted against public interest.
On email from Shri Ram Varmah (email@example.com)