Indian prelude to British cadastral and revenue maps

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The brief analysis adequately demonstrates that pre-British India had its own systems of cadastral and revenue mapping
Raja Todarmal was the minister for revenue in the court of Akbar. Building upon the foundations laid by Sher Shah, Todarmal introduced a system of land reforms, the essence of which was an assessment of the land revenue according to the extent of cultivation, the nature of the soil and the quality of the crops. He set up a scheme of laborious measurement, analysis of possibilities and calculation of prospects. The actual demand was adjusted to meet seasonal price and cultivated area variation. Though at times it broke down and was deployed unevenly within the Moghal Empire, it is the underlying basis of the later day revenue systems. The British became the pupils of the Moghal School, being impressed by the range and thoroughness of the system. In spite of false starts and harsh application in the early days, the British could build up a rural administration not only stable but generally equable and equitable.

The Moghal revenue administration demanded precise measurement of productive cultivated land. A number of units came into force. The llahi gaz, a measure of length and standard gauge was used throughout the Moghal Hindustan in long, middling and short forms, each divided into 24 equal parts and each was called a tussuj, equal to 8,7 or 6 barley-corns. The gaz is equal to two spans of 16 gerths each. There were however variations of the length of the gaz even with Moghal India. The bigha is a land measure of 60*60 gaz. A larger unit was the Kos or Karoh, each consistion of 50 llahi gaz or 400 poles, each of length 12.5 gaz. Thus the kos is a length of 5000 gaz. Abul Fazal states that there were significant variations in the length of the kos in different parts of Moghal India.

Raja Todarmal was not however the first to generate a revenue system available in all parts of the empire. Much before him, others have had their notable contributions in this regard in different parts of the country. Kautilya’sArthasastra in the Maurya period was one of the earliest to recognize the relevance of land revenue collection from productive farmlands, in villages with settled population of farmers. The Sukra neeti talks of recognition of revenue estimation from cultivated land according to the fact the land is watered by tanks and lakes, by rivers, by wells and sluices apart from dry farming rainfed areas and the nature and number of crops raised in each parcel.


An area of significant development of land information for revenue levies is the Tamilnadu agricultural plains. Though Tamil Nadu has beenoccupied at least since the Neolithic age, early settlements of a shifting character were confi ned to the Kurinji or the hills, gradually down-migrating over centuries to the pastoral foothills or mullai by early Christian era. The further occupation of the river plains and the agriculturally fertile deltas led to sedentary population living amidst riverine farm country. Peasant technology led to use of irrigation through different methods and raising of more than one seasonal crop, apart from tree crops. By mid-10th century, with the advet of the later Cholas, specially Raja Raja productive cultivated land constituted a major source of land revenue for the upkeep of the Chola mandalam. Farm villages came to be precisely defined. As per Chola stone inscriptions and numerous copper plates, a village came to be defined as comprising wet lands, dry lands, ur (cultivators), village site, houses, houses house gardens, manram (meeting place), wastelands for grazing cattle, tanks, cow pens, hedges, forest land, barren lands, brackish lands, streams, channels, rivers, Arabic land near rivers, pits of water, trees. (Subbarayalu) Villages were further grouped as brahmadeyas (Brahmin villages), Vellala villages (farmer villages), taniyur, devadana villages (gifted to Brahmins, temples and those who have rendered recognized state service. Hundreds of descriptions are noted in inscriptions and copper plates of temple donations (of land or land income), endorsed by the state that give precise locations and measures of lands donated, together with their boundary limits. Though verbal, these descriptions of individual plots of land give indication of an early system of cadastral plans.

The land measurement units used in Tamil Nadu however differ from those prevalent in the northern plains. The smallest unit used is a viral (fi nger). 12 virals (9”) make a chaan and 24 virals (18”) make a muzham (cubit). A muzhakol (cubit pole) is 9 or 12 ft long and is used as a measuring rod. The smallest land plot is a 12 ft. square called a Kuzhi. Hundred Kuzhis make a Kaani and fi ve Kaanis is a veil, somewhat similar to the northern bigha. Land as small in extent as 1/52.4288 millions of a veli was measured in the productive Cauvery valley in the Chola period (equal to 1/500000th of a square foot, (Burton Stein). While the basic cultivated field plot was a veli, and a village was defi ned as stated in the above para and comprised many farm plots, that were as far as possible rectangular of square in shape, except where natural features like water channels formed the bounding limits. The basic agrarian unit was nadu comprising many villages. With land reclamation in the newer delta fringes, new nadus came into existence, though of lower fertility than the core Chola heartland. The Chola system of land management went on a decline post-fourteenth century, (Heitzman) but the basic framework and structure remained intact to become the basis of the later British cadastral and revenue surveys.

In the well-watered Travancore and Malabar, a compact village was not the agricultural unit. The tarawad of the Namboodri and Nair constituted the land unit, with lzhavas and Tiyars as the main farm labour. The hills and slopes terrain with a network of backwaters and lagoons lent to a hierarchy of land rights of the janmis that were multilayered. The land was held on lesser forms of tenure, and sharecropping was quite common. Land was devoted not only to rice farming but also a variety of tree crops. The traditional system did not undergo any major change with the coming of the Islam, nor did it get disturbed by the arrival of the Portuguese and the Dutch. However, a gradual break-up of the larger tarawads did materialize. Temple lands and garden lands were given patta by the Travancore mahraja since mid eighteenth century. Actual survey by traverses or baseline and offset system did not materialize till independence. A somewhat similar land ownership system evolved in the Lakshadweep with the government pandaram. Lands not being held in private property, but it is the trees that were owned. The middle class Vellala identification of the Tamil country finds its reflection in the Okkaliga and Lingayat land ownership in larger plots in the semi-dry Mysore Maidan.

A major step taken by Shivaji in western Maharashtra for land administration was to have a survey of the lands and then to assess the rents and dues payable by the cultivators. While the land ownership in Deccan was in large land holdings, in Konkan they were in much smaller tillable plots on slopes and valley sides. Land surveys were carried out at different times and basically followed the system of Malik Ambar in Moghal Deccan. The main features of this system were the classifi cation of land according to fertility, ascertainment of their produce, fi xing the government share. Collection of rents in kind or money and abolition of intermediate collecting agents. Three fifths of the share of the crop produce was left to the farmer. Using the tagai and istawa principles new lands were brought under the plough and the farmer was subsidized with seeds and cattle. Land revenue varied from year to year dependant on assessment by village officers like Karnams and tatatis, the local Kuikarnis and Patels managing the village administration. However, there are large variations dependant on jagirdars. Salsette (Suburban Bombay) for example had nine different tenure systems within an area of 16 sq miles. When the British took over similar such principles and methods were developed locally in different parts of Central and Northern India, and these with remarkable internal variations are too traced here. In Portuguese Goa, there evolved a communido system unique to itself.

When the British set themselves the task of ground level detailed large and medium scale surveys, they took to precise direct measurement of

distance and directions between each night’s camp, that took the form of route surveys in traverses, often using Gunther’s chain and tape and taking measures along sides and diagonals. This technique of establishing a framework for observation formed the basis of different scales of mapping in a map graticule. Rennell, Dalirymple, Robert Kelly, Buchanan and others did pioneering work in this regard. These surveys were carried by trained local surveyors and collectors and the data gathered were sent to Calcutta. Bombay and Madras. Since the surveyors were appointed by the London office and the cartographers at central office had little control on data sent to them led to great disparities in survey standards, and a chaos. The company management though aware of the chaos did not know how to materialize and the three surveyor generals moved in different directions. Many manuscript maps went missing and field officers often did not get maps.

Using indigenous methods for land measurement and assessment of revenues, based upon a decision of the Company and the Surveyor General at Calcutta to accept the assessment in eastern India as permanent settlement for all time, and there was a need to assess new wastelands newly reclaimed in Sunderbans and 24 paragamas. The local zamindari system facilitated to an extent permanent settlement. In Madras Presidency, Since even the jagirs were not so large zamins, and the land holders were mainly of a ryotwari system, a different guideline was established for the Madras revenue surveys, and these were later introduced to Bombay Presidency in 1772 with little change. This settlement done by the extra-ordinary work of great surveyors like Thomas Munro, Read, Col. Mackenzie and Dickinson became basis for a temporary settlement, with opportunities for constant reviews at intervals. The data base was highly comprehensive, going into the plot size, soil and its taram, slope, water access, crops seasonally, ownership, etc. The Madras Adangal even today is the standard adopted gradually all over the country. The Satbara of Bombay Presidency is of a very similar order. The baffing problem of land survey was the subject of futile experiments in Bengal, but in Madras reached a viable practical solution, dependent on standard supervision. With insufficient resources, the British mapping of India proceeded in a crisis-driven, anarchic manner.

In the early decades of the 19th century, under the regulation of William Lambton and later George Everest, the primary and secondary triangulation networks began taking shape with minimal linear measures and precise angular measures to cover the whole country with a network of triangles, interconnected. The priority given by the Company Directors and the Indian Surveyor-Generals no doubt provided a pivotal role in unifi cation and helped in creating an image of

imperial space, unique and precise in the world. This system imposed from above did not contribute in any manner to the build up of a co-ordinates revenue and cadastral survey system in the country at the grass root level, and then building it up. The twain shall never meet, in the decades to follow proceeding on different planes and the Survey of India gradually lost sight of one of its primary tasks leaving it in the hands of talatis, revenue inspectors and Collectors. The cartographic anarchy was complete and Surveyor Generals combined into one group, who unfortunately never realized the importance of ground level surveys.

Now, there is a growing realization and desire to link the triangulation network not only with the topographical map grid, but also bring the cadastral plans into its fold. Having flown high in the regime of map projections, photogrammetry aerial surveys and photos, and the latest in satellite imagery maps of high power of spatial resolution. Survey of India is struggling to come to terms with grass root level linkages. Problems are many: the grid used, the projection for plane table level survey plan the search for control points to merge the two and others. On the front of the cadastral plans, shrinkage due to age of the old handmade paper it is drawn on, subsequent plot level changes and what is worse changes in the physical landscapes by way of erosion or accretion. The job is gigantic and full of challenges!

Having made a brief and spotty review of the cadastral and revenue surveys that had come to stay in different parts of the country, it is time to turn to cadastral plans of villages and towns and revenue maps of villages. It is not very easy to visualize when the first Indian cadastral and revenue survey maps came into being. It can at best be a broad conjecture. Since Pallava and Chola days inscriptions and copper plates of donations reveal a widespread network of agricultural villages, careful demarcations of village fields and land rights and their precise delineations with boundary fixtures by measurements correct to virals. This necessarily leads to believe that cadastral plans and maps of adjoining fields in relation to natural features like rivers, wells, canals and tanks had come into vogue. In all probability, none of them have come down the centuries to us, possibly because they were in palm leaf manuscripts. Yet this land of the farmers of many cent are not bereft of some, rare, pieces of evidences, and if some concerted work is initiated more such map plans may get revealed. The adjoining map is one such of a field area (not the full village) on the south bands of the Pennar river close to Tirukoilur in Nadu Nadu, that shows the gifted devadana lands to the Siva and Vishnu temples as placed in the natural environment as per inscriptions. The square and rectangular plots of farmlands were of the Chola period imprinted in the later day British cadastral surveys and plans. A map drawn Frank Perlin’s collection is again a part of the village field plan belonging to Fasli 1193 (AD1784) on paper in Chitnis Modi script presented to and accepted as a piece of evidence in a civil litigation for land rights between two farmers. The place is south of and close to Pune in Maharashtra, and is known as Vadhana. The plan also provides measurement. The map is reproduced and rendered in English. Belonging to a relatively to a relatively late period, somewhat similar to Moghal land reform methods, this Maratha map, of the Peshwa period reflects the land reform effected by Chhatrapati Shivaji. A cadastral map in a part of native western Nepal, that is dated AD 1830 with distinct boundaries and their revenue estimates is also shown. Just before the British introduced their cadastral survey and map in Maratha land by the beginning of the 18th century, revenue and village locations in the hills within a forest belt of the Sahyadri was a difficult task but the Maratha cartography had an answer in their graphic mapping of valley heads, as shown in Map. Cadastral plots even within urban areas found map expression in local language, as can be seen from Map of Jaiphalwadi, in the heart of the city, which today is a multistoreyed built up area, though strangely bearing the same name. The microland form facets that fi nd a place in elaborate details in extra-ordinary, well conceived cadastral survey details, as contained in Adangal is well expressed in the map of Vanamadevi in coastal Tamil Nadu that I had myself surveyed in 1951. A similar map of a village in Bihar dated 1832 is also shown.


Drawing his data base from Abul Fazl’s Ain-I-Akbaree, the eminent historian, Irfan Habib mapped on the present day map format, the revenue villages of Akbar’s subhas as defined by Raja Todarmal. The maps are economic as well as political, and the Moghal Atlas is an authentic land record of Akbar’s times. Jean Baptiste Joseph Gentil, the military advisor of the Nawab of Oudh, with the aid of three Indian artists

compiled a large Moghal Atlas in 43 tblios of the entire Moghal empire, suhbawise, together with a listing of sarkars and parganas, again the data base being provided by the Ain-I-Akbaree, rather than by direct surveys of the revenue villages. Two of the Indian artists who helped Gentil were Niwasi Lal and Mohan Singh, both Hindus. The Atlas was completed around AD1770. The map beside is an illustration of one such subha. The map are drawn employing indigenous cartographic methods, though they carry scribe-work in French. A unique feature of the Atlas is the wealth of marginal illustrations of life style, people, flora and fauna, war ammunitions and even traditions. The Atlas, held in Paris archives, is a treasure house of the Moghal Period.

Marathas in 18th century excelled in the preparation of area maps of revenue villages for the aid of native rulers. They became quite handy in

the first half of the nineteenth century, when the British revenue surveys carried out their work in Konkan and Western Desh. There are many such maps, a few of which are taken for illustration in this paper. The Bavda jagir (Map) in Kolhapur area is in colour, and distinguishes between khalsa and inam (grant) villages and the map is in devnagri script. A revenue map of Vijaydurg is in two scripts; the text is in devnagri but the unique marginal legend in Modi.The legend gives details of the colour code and groups of villages according to revenue control (Map) such as Amal Bavdekar. Two similar maps of South Konkan also exist, one of which depicts forest areas in decorative tree symbols. Interestingly, there are no revenue villages in the forested areas. An interesting map of Bardol state near Solapur in India pargana is an inam group of 30 villages (Map). The map is striking in that distances are estimated through a series of evenly spaced concentric circles around the main place, Bardol, at distances of one Kos each. A revenue village map of North Kanara (Map), used by Cohn Mackenzie during the Anglo-Mysore war of 1799 was prepared by the Marathas in the second half of eighteenth century in Modi script. An interesting feature of this is the extensive depiction of hills, ghats, forests differentiated as per density, variety of vegetable cover. This map delimits revenue villages and names them.

The brief analysis adequately demonstrates that pre-British India had its own systems of cadastral and revenue mapping. What has come to light is but a small fraction. Indian cartographers and revenue officials have much to delve in the past and unearth our own heritage of revenue of revenue measures and systems.

Prof B Arunachalam

retired as Professor and Head after forty years of post graduate teaching and research in the Department of Geography, University of

Mumbai. He has over 100 research publications in reputed academic journals. He completed research projects through CSIR (HRD) on Lakshadweep traditions of navigation, Mediaeval traditions of cartography and Indigenous traditions of Indian Navigation. He has written books on Indian Ocean Islands (Edited), Delhi, Essays in Maritime Studies, Vol. 1 & 2 (Edited), Maritime Mumbai. (1999-2002) Heritage of Indian Sea-Navigation, M.H.S, Mumbai (2002) Chola Navigation Package MHS Mumbai by the Sea, MHS

This paper was presented at 25th International Cartographic Congress of Indian National Cartographic Association as Todarmal Lecture during 28 Nov – 1 Dec, 2005 at Sagar, MP, India

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