Aditya Ramesh (University of Manchester)

Research note on the Tamilnadu State Archive collections

Located in a leafy sprawling complex in Egmore, opposite one of Chennai’s oldest railway stations, the Tamilnadu State Archives (TNA) serves as the most important repository of archival material for scholars working on south India. Most of the material held at the archive pertains to official government department records, known as ‘Government Orders’, of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. They begin from the early colonial era and continue on to the postcolonial era, with some departments releasing records as recent as the 1980s. The departmental headings however shift frequently, and although there are catalogues available for consultation, keeping a track of the changes in departmental heads is a challenge.

For both economic historians and historians of the ‘economy’, the archive holds a wealth of material scattered across numerous departments. Perhaps most useful for economic historians are the holdings from the Revenue Department and Finance Department, which contain debates on hard-nosed data, and hold the data itself. The records on early colonial era are particularly impressive, with each district’s archives preserved as part of its own ‘collectorate records’. Historians interested in studying the urban economy can find substantial records on urban planning in the Department of Local Self-Government, which was created in 1919. Scholars exploring the history of natural resources can consult the Forest Department or the Public Works Department. Those studying labour policy and labour economics would also find these departmental records helpful. Records from the Agriculture Department, beginning from the 1880s, would be useful for historians examining the rural economy of south India. A separate department, called ‘Board of Revenue and Settlement’ is not accessible to scholars as it contains detailed information on individual and collective landholdings. At the current moment of writing this note, archival holdings for the years 1857-1900 are undergoing digitization and are not accessible.

Over the generations, several scholars have mined these archives in detail to write exemplary economic histories of south India, and the Tamil speaking regions in particular. For instance David Ludden (1985) and M.S.S. Pandian (1990) have written monographs on the regional histories of Tinnevely and Nanjinad. Christopher Baker’s (Baker, 1985) tome on the agrarian economy of Tamilnadu, published in 1984, remains a model use of the TNA’s varied holdings to explain long-term economic change. More recently, Bhavani Raman’s (2012) Document Raj points to how scholars can innovatively use the early colonial revenue records at the TNA to show to the ‘economy’ was often a bureaucratic figment. As such, it is possible, using the records of the TNA, to write economic histories of micro-regions such as districts and small towns, or of the south Indian economy more generally.

In the same complex as the archive is the TNA library. The library holds an array of published material, including reports from different government departments to supplement the official record. Furthermore, the library holds irregular collections of journals famous and obscure. The back issues of the famous Indian Review, for instance, are held almost in entirety. On the shelf opposite lies an obscure journal on agriculture published by the Madras Agricultural Students Union during late colonial times. The second floor of the library is almost entirely dedicated to rare books and journals in Tamil. A major effort to digitize these publications is on-going at the moment.


Baker, C. J. (1985). An Indian Rural Economy, 1880-1955: The Tamilnad Countryside. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Ludden, D. (1985). Peasant History in South India. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Pandian, M. S. S. (1990). The Political Economy of Agrarian Change: Nanchilnadu, 1880-1939. New Delhi; Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications.

Raman, B. (2012). Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

January 2018