Short notes on the Morphology of Rural Settlements in India



Settlement morphology is primarily concerned with the lay-out, plan and internal structure of the settlements. It not only views settled area in terms of physical space but identifies its various components in respect of socio-economic space which has its direct bearing in controlling the arrangement of buildings, patterns of streets and fields and func­tional characteristics of settlements in general.

In an old settled country like India it assumes consider­able importance, for it helps in understanding the socio-cultural structure of the villages, their eco­nomic and sanitary conditions as well as their re­sponse to new innovations (Tiwari, R.C. 1984, p. 90).

The morphology of settlement has two main components-(a) ground plan, and (b) built-up area. The ground plan mainly includes street patterns, arrangement of buildings and cultural artifacts like temple, fort, residence of village head-man and market place etc. Here the process of change is comparatively slow. On the contrary, built-up area undergoes frequent changes. Doxiadis has identi­fied four main parts within the morphological struc­ture of a settlement. These include : (a) homogene­ous part consisting of fields, grazing land etc., (b) circulatory part consisting of village roads, streets and lanes etc, (c) central part provided by the built- up area of the village, and (d) special part marked with temple, school, Panchayat ghar, Morung, etc.

Indian village, though defined as the smallest re venue-cum-administrative unit, generally consists of aggregates of residences, the inhabitants of which have certain relations, and some kind of union or bond of common government (Baden Powell, 1892, p. 97). The built-up area consisting of clusters of houses is surrounded by cultivated fields and linked with kachcha and pucka roads or village footpaths.

At times there are more than one inhabited sites within the territorial limits of one revenue village interspersed with cultivated fields, pastures and vil­lage groves, etc. The main site, generally occupying the central location and inhabited by early village settlers (mostly belonging to the upper castes and zamindars), forms the nucleus of the village and is known as 'Khas Gaon'. Others around it are small hamlets named after the dominant castes residing therein (mostly low castes, land-less labourers, vil­lage artisans or emigrants from the main village) and are called ('purwa', 'pura', 'tola', 'toli', nagala', 'patti', etc. The main village and its outlying hamlets, though physically detached from each other, function as an integrated unit under the old jajmani system.

The general pattern of land use includes multi- cropped best soil zone (Gauhan or Goind) around the inhabited site followed by less fertile and low irrigated single cropped zone (Manjha or Har) in the periphery. In ancient days the inter-village transition area was occupied by the forests, pasture lands and barren areas but owing to the growth of population it has now been largely brought under cultivation. Similarly, early inhabited sites consisted of compact houses with less development of lanes and streets, etc, but some are now being replaced by open resi­dential sites with lanes and narrow winding streets.

The built-up area, forming the nucleus of the settlement, attracts maximum concentration of socio­economic activities and transport movements. It is, therefore, pertinent to analyse how this core area interacts with the surrounding territory and what constitutes the functional parts of this terrestrial space? This could be analysed through the study of village-farm distance, field pattern, land ownership and socio-spatial structure.

(1) Socio-Spatial Structure

Besides physical characteristics social condi­tions specially the caste system play dominant role in affecting the internal morphological structure of the Indian villages. Generally the economic prosper­ity, social status and functional attributes are very much linked with the centuries old caste hierarchy which gives a distinct size, shape and layout to the rural dwellings. High ranking castes like Brahmans, Rajputs, Kayasths, etc, possess pretentious houses with large courtyard and separate apartment for each young female, while low ranking castes specially untouchables have single room hut/house shared by all members of the family and at times by cattle as well without much open space, courtyard and lanes, etc. Ahir, Lodh, Kachhi, Kurmi, etc, together with many service castes like Lohar, Kahar, Kohar, Barhai, etc., occupy median position between two extremes and are gaining gradually in their economic pros­pects during recent years due to their hard work, reservation policy of the government and extrava­gant habits of higher castes, especially erstwhile zamindars and landlords who still depend upon labourers to get their farm-work done.

The nucleus of the village is usually occupied by high castes, while subordinate castes have pe­ripheral locations. Untouchables like Chamar, Pasi, Jatav, Musahars, Mehtars, Dhanuk, etc., build their houses far away from the high castes on the periph­ery interspersed by village-grove, cultivated fields, water bodies, usar lands etc. At times caste based hamlets emerge within the village territory using various epithets like Chamarauti, Chamartola, Lodhian, Ahiran, Kurmiyan, Thakuran, Babhanauti, Babhantola, Kaithan, etc.

These hamlets together with their inhabitants are closely linked with the main site under the jajmani system and act like a single functional unit. These two concepts of social space and functional integration have much rel­evance in understanding the socio-spatial structure of the Indian villages and have been neatly displayed by K.N. Singh (1972) through his religion-ritual and secular dominance models.

(2) Religion-Ritual Model

Hindu social organisation based on caste sys­tem leads to the maximization of social distance due to socio-ritual notions like purity-pollution, untouchability, etc. It envisages a Brahman-untouch­able ritual continuum in which all other caste groups occupy different niches according to their social status. The practice leads to the development of twin settlements of caste Hindus and out-castes which are separated from each other more by social space than by any appreciable barriers. Brah­mans, being the priestly castes and performers of rituals and ceremonies, find place in almost all villages and so is the case with untouchables whose labour and services make the foundation of village economy.

The segregation was much pronounced during the past favouring the outgrowth of helmeted structure of villages , In case of compact settlements out-castes generally lived on the outer parts of the built-up area in a direction (south, south-east and north etc.) less conducive for wind movement, for even air gets polluted after coming in contact with a Shudra 's body. How and why these traditions came into being is a matter of debate amongst scholars, but the author believes these untouchables to be the remnant of the pre-Aryan tribes who were always despised by the Aryans and later Rajput settlers.

(3) Secular-Dominance Model

Contrary to the religion-ritual model of dis­tance maximisation secular dominance model brings different caste-groups closer to each other, so as to function as complementary unit under old jajmani system. Land holders (mostly higher castes) for their agricultural work and services while landless low castes for earning their livelihood have to depend upon each other for their survival.

This reduces the distance between these two social groups making the settlement compact and unified. There are instances when land-owning dominant castes invited various service castes to settle within the village territory for carrying out the functions of jajmani system. Rajputs, being the principal land holders in the Ganga Plain, have exercised this secular power in the colonization of many villages while in some other cases castes like Brahmans, Kayasths, Banias, etc, also held this privileged posi­tion. This functional interdependence is seen even in case of certain Muslim villages as remnants of old decayed tradition prevailing amongst the converts.

Either of the two models is not capable of explaining the present socio-spatial structure of the villages independently. It is their joint pull which gives distinct pattern to the village morphology and under the stresses of new socio-economic orders the old system is gradually losing its importance. Jajmani system is now a decayed institution and the rigidity of the caste system is fading out. The rise in the socio-economic conditions of the Dalits due to im­provement in their education level has made them conscious about their rights as a result of which the traditional barrier is breaking down.

(4) Sample Study: Sangawall Village

Sangawali (area 218 hectares and population 1118 in 1979) village in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh has been taken as a case study to analyse socio-spatial structure. The village has been named after 'Singh' or lion abounding in the forested tracts during early days (Singawali or Sangawali = the row or flock of lions) and its hamlet, about a kilometre in the north, is called Khera or Mohkamnagar (after Mohkam Singh, the Raja of Partabner). The village falls under the joint owner­ship of Brahman (population 266 in 1979) and Rajput (population 269 in 1979) castes that together retain 76.17 per cent of the total village area.

The hamlet Khera seems to be an earlier site under the posses­sion of the Mortise. Some 500-600 years ago Hinnari Brahmans under the pressure of famine conditions in Central India migrated to Khera and neighbouring villages (Bhogipura, Bhataura, Jagsaura, etc). They were often troubled by the Meos for whose extirpation they invited Bhadauria Rajput Thakur Jairam Singh from Bijaipura village (hardly 2 km in the south) and granted him gift of the eastern half of the village territory. A new settlement was founded to which Brahmans also joined leaving out Khera to be settled by Lodh, Ahir, Khatik, Nai and Mehtar, etc. who mainly came to perform various services under the jajmani system.

A Brahman fam­ily still occupies the old site testifying the validity of the above statement. Other Brahmans (Joshi, Chaturvedi, Mishra, Pathak, etc.) and Rajputs (Tomar, Baghel and Kachhawaha) came as relatives to the early settlers and their descendants.

Village Sangawali has a compact and com­plex socio-spatial structure. Here Brahman and Rajput dwellings, without any apparent segregation occupy the central and eastern parts of the village-area. Service castes like Dhobi, Barhai, Kumhar, Kachhi, etc have built their houses in the north while untouchables like Dhanuk, Jatav and Muslim reside in the western periphery of the inhabited area.

It appears that initially there were wide gaps between the houses of upper and lower castes but with the growth of population and changing socio-economic norms this intervening space is gradually shrinking. But remnants of old notions are still persisting and one hardly Finds such instances in which front doors of a caste Hindu and the out-caste are facing each other and children of untouchables are allowed to mix-up freely with those of high castes.

It is mainly due to the fact that these socially degraded castes still lack economic power which is a prerequisite for gaining social status and prestige. On perusal of land records it has been found that Dhanuk, Jatav and Muslim, who together constitute about 20 percent of the village population, own only 2.71 per cent of the village cropped land and others like Kori, Khatik, Barhai and Mehtar, etc., do not possess any land at all.

Their conditions have been worsened in the recent years due to a number of faulty decisions taken by the government which not only aggravated caste consciousness (which was otherwise disap­pearing) but deprived their main source of liveli­hood (by working as agricultural labourers and share croppers) without giving them alternative means of sustenance.