Making the Jagir into a Garden as a Way to Connect the British to the Future
Historians have argued that the only reason the British invested so much money and energy into artificially created reservoirs and other mechanisms for storing and using water, in an environment where water was particularly valuable, was simply to increase agricultural productivity. There is no question that this was indeed an important concern. Even Place had a clause inserted in agreements signed by land controllers to the effect that, “if our tank or tanks should undergo a compleat repair, then this muchilka [agreement] shall be void and we shall be ready to enter into a new settlement [tax assessment] for our said village according as the Circar may desire.” Though it is not possible to discount this fact, given the desire for a greater tax base, there is also evidence to show that the British pursued this strategy for other reasons as well. In a report on three subdivisions of the Jagir (Madurantakam, Tirupaccur, and Kanchipuram) written by Place in October 1795, he made a plea to build up the two towns of Madurantakam and Uttiramerur, about forty-five miles to the south and southwest, respectively, of Madras town. He was struck by the fact that the population of the Jagir was attracted by water. “For I can discover no other reason why they should formerly have contained such a number of Inhabitants as they plainly have done, being not more favorably situated than any other spots for any kind of trade.” Madurantakam in the mid-1790s, he believed, provided an example of the difficulties in inducing a population to return to an area without the attraction of water. “The tank [of Madurantakam],” he wrote, “broke many years antecedent to the War of 1780, [the Second Anglo-Mysore war].” Though Madurantakam was located on the “high southern road” from Madras, that alone did not appear to offer any great attraction to people. After all, he said, Madurantakam had in 1795 only 250 houses, whereas Place believed that the town had had “some thousands of houses before the War [of 1780].” Likewise, he believed that Uttiramerur toward the north and the west “seems to have been as extensive” as was Madurantakam since it bore vestiges of “much more opulence in the remains of numerous Pagodas [temples] and Chaultries [rest houses for pilgrims] but [now] contains very few more than 300 houses.”
Place plainly felt that there were several ways by which the population of these and other towns could be brought back, including the rebuilding of people’s houses for them, the reconstructing of their temples, and even more conclusively the repairing of the Jagir tanks or reservoirs. Place said that “if but some of the principal tanks are put into thorough repair, and a uniform system established, capable of yielding a much larger revenue than I have been attempting to settle, that in value it may be made to equal the richest spot in India of the same extent, and that the happiness of the people shall rise in a proportional degree.” The accounts of the Nawab of Arcot projected another part of this perception of the Jagir as the potential garden of the subcontinent when they characterized the Jagir as the choicest part of my country [emphasis in original] when he gave it to the Company. Place pursued the task of repairing the tanks in what could almost be described as a religious fervor. Irrigation became a cultural solution. Place devoted a total of pagodas 150,000 to repairing these artificial reservoirs, an amount that exceeded the entire yearly tax income from the Jagir in the early 1790s before he became collector. He felt that “when completed the Tanks will for many years be monument[s] of British Dominion in India and it would be a pity that the same spirit of liberality should not be extended to other objects [such as temples, roads, and the like], united to accomplish the same public benefit.” This activity aimed, therefore, partly to increase wealth but also to extend and communicate the sense of a commanding British presence in the environment.