The fall of the Vijayanagar Kingdom threw the whole of South India in a state of political chaos and consequent economic distress. Throughout the peninsula there arose a large number of mutually antagonistic petty Poligars and small chieftains whose jealousies and wars threw not the life of ordinary people in a pool of agonising experience for two and half centuries when the British established their paramountcy in the area and regularised their miseries and misfortunes by methodising exploitation and plunder.
Wars and annexations were always accompanied by large scale plunder and massacre of innocent people; those who surrvived, fell victims to famines and epidemics. In some cases the latter enemies wrought greater havoc than the former and decimated the populations of certain areas.
The Portuguese Mission records indicate that in 1570 a great famine had raged on the Tinnevelly coast. The records of the Madura Jesuit Mission contain accounts of some famines which occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1648 there was a devastating famine in the Coimbatore district when a great part of the population died or deserts the country.
In 1659 when the Muslim forces of Golconda invaded the Southern countries and pillaged the land round Trichinopoly and Vallam, a local famine followed and the survivors fled the country. This put the invaders also to great extremities.
It is recorded: “Their horses died from want of forage, their camp-followers ran away and thousands of them died of actual starvation. So numerous were their deaths that it was impossible to bury their corpses, which were accordingly left in great heaps in the open fields. The effluvium arising from their decomposition, combined with the ill-health resulting from want of proper food, rapidly engendered a pestilence, which carried off large number.”
This Mysorean invasion of Madura in 1677 was followed by a cataclysmic inundation which wiped out innumerable villages with their population. Then came famine and pestilence; the survivors of these calamities, it is stated, took to brigandage and overran the kingdom unchecked.
From 1709, for nearly 12 years, the Marava countries, Ramnad and Sivaganga were the scene of draughts alternating with floods. The famine-stricken inhabitants emigrated to Tanjore and Madura. The suffering of the people in the areas of scarcity can be gauged from the price level of rice: in years of want the price rose to 64 times of what it was in normal times.
Neglect of irrigation works by the rulers also used to cause famines in South India; one such famine ravaged Chingleput district in 1733 under the Nawab of Arcot. Haider Ali’s conquest of Carnatic in 1780 left the whole land in desolation to be swept again by a horrible famine. From 1789 to 1792 a terrible famine engulfed the Northern Circars when people died in thousands in Ichapur and Chicacole areas. Malabar Coast was relatively free from famines and pestilences during this period.
As land was abundant and population sparse, no rent used to be charged on land owned by people in any of the South Indian states prior to the period of Haider and Tipu, but land tax was collected both by Hindu and Muhammadan sovereigns; the normal rate being one-half of the produce. The rate of one-sixth fixed by the Hindu law givers was always enhanced by Hindu kings of medieval and modern periods, the only exception being in South Canara where, of course, cultivation was carried on under difficult conditions.
People were overburdened with numerous kinds of taxes, all of a feudal nature. Poor peasants, artisans and workers of lower castes had to bear the largest share of these exactions. Apart from land tax the cultivators had to satisfy the rulers and feudal chieftains with numerous contributions on occasions of festivals, social and family rites, and in emergencies. A list of such cases, fees, fines, obligatory presents etc., it will be long enough to fill a page.
Kerala kingdoms had earned notoriety in the matter of inventing new items of exactions, like enikkanam (Ladder fee), talaivilai (head price), mulaivilai (tax on female breasts) etc., which were charges meant for outcastes. The defaulters of these payments were subjected to inhuman punishments. To show the bestiality of these exactions an instance has been cited of a low caste Ezhave lady in Travancore who, unable to stand the humiliation and rapacity of the high caste tax collectors, cut off one of her breasts and presented it to them.
Many of these poor peasants, in order to escape the oppression of these cruel cess and revenue collectors, used to make over their property to upper caste Hindus and temples and served as labourers. Economic disabilities imposed on these hapless millions who formed the backbone of the economy of the land were far more severe than their social disabilities.
It was the unlimited command over forced labour, besides the feudal exactions, that enabled the rulers, both Hindu and Muhammadan to execute the stupendous works, such as palaces, temples, mosques, anicuts and tanks. Cozhiyam and Viruthi, for instance, were gratuitous services and free labour demanded of the low caste ryots in Travancore which required them to supply, free of coast, provisions for the Ootupuras (feeding houses meant for vagrant Brahmins), and temples and also to work without wage for the requirements of the palace, repairs of roads etc.
These services and rates indicate a state of economy which afforded the least opportunity for the peasantry and working classes to live a decent life with a sense of security of life and property. If this was the state of affairs in Indian states, both before and during the British rule, it was not much different in areas directly administered by the English, Impressments of labour for public works was, till the end of the 19th century, resorted to under them also.
The misdirected revenue policies of the early British administrators put the whole of South India in a condition of economic backwardness never known before; their excessive greed for money coupled with total ignorance of the local conditions and land tenures made their early rule one of remorseless oppression.