A Guide to Tamil Nadu Archive

Having been living in Jakarta, a hot breezy night, grey smokey air, and impatient crowd in the traffic seems could not be more familiar to witness when I arrived in Chennai at 10.00 pm on 22nd September 2023. My long-awaited visit to the heart of Tamil Nadu is triggered by the intention to explore research materials on historical India and Indonesia foreign relations. The priority has been a deeper investigation into what Madras Archive could offer.

Known as well as Tamil Nadu Archive (TNA), Madras Archive dwelled hundreds of thousands of colonial records dated as early as 1600 CE. The Dutch and British governmental records reached its abundancy in 1830s during the period of Madras Presidency where initiatives to concentrate the records in a single department came to fore. The archival collection was established as an institutionalized governmental office in 1909.

The front view of TNA
The front view of TNA

TNA’s architecture was born within the hybrid of the Indo-Saracen characteristic that were predominantly stylish during the era of the British Raj. With red and white wall linings and column, the building delivers a Mughalistic vibe with British sense of spatial pattern and arrangement. TNA consists of several rooms divided by a long alley of large Mughal style windows. Each room preserves distinguished records which separated in numerous stacks throughout the rooms. In general, there are 4 keys of spatial linings.  First, administrative office; second, 5 or 6 archival rooms; third, research hall; and fourth, the library. TNA owns 3 compounds of building with similar architecture. Only 1 compound written ‘Madras 1909’ is where the archive kept.

TNA is so special that upon arrival, you may want to be ready for many alternatives to take.  Having visited a 114 years old archive building with inadequate resources, both in staff and digitalization, I could sense the vibe of 1980s where internet did not exist. It’s always a better choice to be ready to dive into several version of printed and soft copied indexes.

Soft copy indexes in a Pdf form can be accessed through two computer desktops laid in Research Hall. the two computers contain indexes, each is different in substance. The computer on the right is an index of manuscripts where handwritten sources from its original form are compiled. You may find manuscript indexes written in Dutch, Danish, Persian, Tamils, and English. The left computer is Romanised indexes that mostly transliterated into English.

For a better preparation before visiting the library you may search the indexes that are available online through www.tamildigitallibrary.in

Key to Start

TNA is open from 08.00 am to 08.00 pm, except on Sunday. At 08.00 am you may find the library open and accessible but due to the traffic and office hours, many staff in charge would arrive at 09.00 am. This is the reason why, for the first day, it’s better to arrive at 09.00 am. You will be received by receptionist sitting at the main door of Madras 1909. You will be asked the intention of the visit and your details, before the request to fill in a guest visit book.

Receptionist table at TNA
Receptionist table at TNA

If archive is your intention, then most probably you will be directed to a Research Hall on left side, just a minute after the administration offices. Otherwise, you will be directed to library where it has its own indexes and stack of books that can be directly reached out by the help of the staff in charge.

The next thing you will face is an obligation to have a membership so a full access could be granted for the whole year. Inquiry for being TNA member is a copy of letter from institution stating you as researcher, passport, visa, a form to be filled with attached passport size photograph that you will receive from the staff of the Research Hall, and membership fee to the amount of 200 rupees in cash. You will need to transfer through bank another ‘Access Fee’ as numbered 500 rupees. For the latter purpose you will be given an empty TNA transfer receipt with printed details of recipient account that must be brought to the bank and made sure for the process is manual. Although it can be done through ATM, TNA would need a receipt with bank stamps that signified its authentication. It is better to complete this administrative procedure in a day.

If the administrative procedure is complete, it is advisable to start with checking all the indexes available on print and computer. These indexes are attached to an 11 pages of mother indexes titled Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research: Research Hall Holding of Records 2020-2021, where you will find the category of collection located in the library and the archives divided into several parts such as:1. Pre mutiny records (1670-1856- Stack 7), 2. Mutiny Secretariat records (1857-1987 Stack 1-6), 3. Interim Repository (1988-2014-IR 1 to 4), and lastly, 4. Land records (1857-1987- stack 8-9). Each of this category is consisted of several child divisions that can be accessed only after checking further details of event and year through the above indexes laid out on computer and bulky printed ones.

One of the stacks
One of the stacks

I would suggest you to give a full day to only write down as many as possible your indexes searches, complete with number of stacks, that you will request to the staff by filling up ‘access form’. The access request must be logged in from 10.00-12.00 am. Due to the manual reach out and through all the high stacks and shelfs, at 15.00 pm materials will arrive on your desk.

Another stacks with stairs

A particular mention is that on Friday, there are many responsible staff that would not be present due to the internally tied working hours. However, you will find things are getting more interesting and touchier when you realize researchers in the room are more familiar with what you need. Researchers tend to sit in the archives for months just like the case of PhD researchers I have met, named Karti and Lakshmi or as the case of Aniel who has been helping his disabled friend to find the archival sources.

Generous staff and researchers: from left, saundariya, Nagaraja and son, Senthil Kumar, I, Laksmi, Nurul, and Thirunavukkarasu

Apart from that, the staff are extremely generous in extending help as much as they can. Smile, make clear the requests and be humble are the only feedback they need from you.

So, enjoy your working adventure in the archive and give it up to the time as you find the answer to your puzzles!






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