South Indian Sketches, written in 1842, is a compilation of letters from a Christian Missionary, S.Tucker, (who is touring India), to a young friend, Lucy based in England.
Here, Tucker gives a lovely description of a typical village in India and explains how it is vastly different from the villages of England.
If you, my dear Lucy, know as little of the internal state of India as I have done till lately, you will have the same confused and incorrect idea of an Indian village as I used to have, and will take it for granted that it is much like our own; with a population more or less fluctuating, and subject to no other authority than the general laws of the land, or the peculiar regulations of the district in which it is situated.
But the villages in India are very different in these respects from ours. They are all little separate "republics, having everything they can want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relation. They seem to last where nothing else lasts.
Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds to revolution; Hindoo, Patan, Mogul, Mahratta, Sik, English, are all masters in turn; but the village community remains the same. In times of trouble they arm and fortify themselves; a hostile army passes through the country; the village communities collect their cattle within their walls, and let the enemy pass unprovoked. If plunder and devastation be directed against themselves, and the force employed be irresistible, they flee to friendly villages at a distance; but when the storm has passed over, they return and resume their occupations. If a country remains for a series of years the scene of continued pillage and massacre, so that the villages cannot be inhabited, the scattered villagers, nevertheless, return when the power of peaceable possession revives.
A generation may pass away, but the succeeding generation will return. The sons will take the places of their fathers; the same site for the village, the same position for the houses, the same lands will be re-occupied by the descendants of those who were driven out when, the village was depopulated; and it is not a trifling matter that will drive them out, for they will often maintain their post through times of disturbance and convulsion, and acquire strength sufficient to resist pillage and oppression with success.
This union of the village communities, each one forming a separate little state in itself, has, I conceive, contributed more than any other cause to the preservation of the people of India, through all the revolutions and changes which they have suffered, and is in a high degree conducive to their happiness and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence.
The boundaries of their lands are accurately defined and jealously guarded under the superintendence of the headman, who is the chief person in each village, and whose business it is to make arrangements with the government for the revenue—to apportion the payment of it among the villagers—to let such lands as have no fixed tenants—to settle disputes or refer them to higher authorities,—and, in short, to perform all the duties of a municipal governor.
The office is hereditary, and he is the representative of the head of the first family who settled in the village. Sometimes there are several headmen, arising probably from more than one family having originally settled in it. The headman is assisted by different officers—the accountant, the watchman, the money-changer, the priest, the astrologer (who is sometimes the schoolmaster), the smith, carpenter, barber,potter, minstrel, all of whom are part of the regular village establishment, and are supported by the community. They have existed (and apparently unaltered) since the time of Menu.
There is in all the public works and institutions of India, a character of largeness, whether in number, size, or durability, to which we have no parallel in our smaller and comparatively modern countries; and one might almost fancy that the height of the mountains, the vastness of the forests, and the grandeur of the general scenery had, in times past, communicated their influence to the native mind.
Every village has its tanks, smaller or larger according to circumstances, but always sufficient to contain an ample supply of water for general use; and you may judge of the scale on which these works are sometimes carried on, when I tell you that in the collectorate of South Arcot, a considerable extent of country is watered by the tank, or rather artificial lake of Veeranum, twenty-five miles in circumference, into which the waters of the Coleroon are conducted.