Walking in Buchanan’s Footsteps

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    The military defeat of Tipu Sultan in the Fourth Mysore War (1799) at Srirangapatna is a watershed moment in Indian history. It paved the way for the consolidation of British East India Company rule over most parts of India.

    As part of their efforts at transitioning from a joint-stock company to an administrative entity, the English sought to know and understand the lands that they had won. To this end, they commissioned three surveys – William Lambert’s ‘Great Trignometrical Survey’ (1802 - 1871), to scientifically measure and map the country; Colin Mackenzie’s ‘Mysore Survey’ (1799 - 1810), to collect materials, manuscripts, oral histories, and other antiquities; and Francis Buchanan’s (later Francis Buchanan-Hamilton) Survey (1800 - 1801) pertaining to nature, technology as well as social life in South India.

    The record left by Francis Buchanan (1762-1829) was probably not the first, but certainly the last first-hand account of pre-colonial South India. A Scottish physician and geographer, he made a significant contribution to the understanding of India’s geography, botany and zoology through the ‘surveys’ he conducted in South and Eastern India.

    The journey we are focusing on here is the one he undertook in Southern India, travelling the length and breadth of the region between 23 April 1800 and 5 July 1801. On these travels, he collected information, statistics and oral histories on a range of physical, political, cultural, social and economic subjects.

    Buchanan published his work in 1807, in three volumes titled A Journey From Madras Through The Countries of Mysore, Canara And Malabar. Despite the travelogue-like title, the work is deeply scientific in its approach, drawing from ethnography, cartography, geology (to describe mines and minerals) and Linnaean binomial nomenclature (for naming flora and fauna). The findings are presented not just through first-person narrative but also through maps, tables and line diagrams. Buchanan’s Journey also captures varied aspects of day-to-day life in Southern India, from descriptions of landscapes to iron smelting sites, from a record of buildings to the intricate social practices of castes and sub-castes.

    It is in this spirit that we decided to retrace Buchanan’s Journey. We have travelled extensively in the footsteps of Buchanan, talking to people about their lives and livelihoods, taking photographs of dilapidated monuments and landscapes, recording vanishing occupations, writing research articles and even making a few documentary films based on his work. We are always looking for an opportunity to share our experiences and present a few snapshots from our ongoing work.

    Pillai chatram, an inn now in ruin located between Sriperumbedur and Kanchipuram, is where Buchanan had halted on his Journey. It was built by Vira Perumal Pillai, a wealthy dubash (interpreter) for the East India Company. Walking cautiously within the ruins of the chatram, we could imagine Buchanan resting in one of these on the night of April 25, 1800, with a lamp placed in a cavity carved into the wall while he made notes for his survey.

    Another chatram we located was some 30 km before Pillai chatram, at Wochuru, now Ocheri. Sadly, there was only one small room of the chatram that remained standing amid concrete houses. It is now used to store half-burnt seed coats. Could this have been part of the chatram where Buchanan halted on the last leg of his long journey?

    While some structures like the donays in the rocky Ramagiri (Ramadevara Betta) are well protected, many others were almost untraceable like the small Shiva temple in the inconspicuous village of Tekal. However, to our surprise, the Vishnu temple which Buchanan also mentions as being in ruinous condition has been preserved and renovated. These are but a few of the structures that we have traced and recorded.

    ‘Discovering’ remnants of structures and buildings that Buchanan had noted in his Journey is no doubt exciting but something that proved even more illuminating was to look for old occupations or, in some cases, sites where these occupations were carried out. From limestone-making and coarse blanket weaving near Tumkur, to coconut charcoal making in Gubbi, we were able to find traditional occupations being carried out using methods that are frozen in time. What amazed us is how such traditional activities and products have survived the onslaught of the industrial revolution and more recently, globalization.

    One occupation that was extensively practiced in the maidan or the vast arid plains of the Deccan plateau was iron and steel smelting. While agriculture was primarily restricted to the cultivation of coarse grains, this region was the rock bed of industrial activity that supported the war economy of late medieval India.

    Buchanan locates smelting sites across the maidan (or bayalu seeme in Kannada). We were able to find these smelting sites at Channarayadurga and Gattipura. Unfortunately, although older villagers recall having seen these smelting furnaces, most of them disappeared not too long ago. The importance of iron and steel smelting in the manufacture of weapons, arms and ammunition and the need for charcoal that led to large-scale deforestation in these regions has been a neglected aspect in the study of Indian environmental and economic history.

    Retracing the Journey is not merely a collection of photographs; it gives us a glimpse into our past while at the same time providing us with insights into the process of change, thereby enhancing our understanding of the present. From the nuclei of Buchanan, Lambert and Mackenzie’s surveys emerged the later gazetteers, statistical reports and ultimately an institutional architecture for collating an evidence base for administrative purposes through agencies such as the Survey of India, Zoological Survey of India and Archaeological Survey of India that exist to this day.

    While Buchanan’s Journey is a voluminous tract of 1,500 pages of tiny, closely packed print, and is a chronicle of his travels covering 4,000 km in South India, for us it is a potent and rewarding resource for travelling in time.


    Sashi Sivramkrishna is the Director, Foundation to Aid Industrial Recovery, Bengaluru while Lingaraj G. Jayaprakash is a Researcher, Sustainable Futures Research Laboratory McGill University, Canada.

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