Tamil Nadu Archives, Chennai


A review of the Tamil Nadu Archives (TNA), Chennai, India.

The Tamil Nadu Archives (TNA), Chennai, is the largest government document repository in South India, and as such, its collections are invaluable to researchers working on post-independence Tamil Nadu or British-era Madras Presidency. In addition to British India records, TNA also houses a substantial collection of Dutch East India Company records from the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and volumes relating to various southern Princely States. The collections are arranged in three main groups, or stacks: British colonial records up to 1857; Raj-era records from 1858 to 1947; and post-independence collections. I visited the archive between September and December 2012 to conduct research examining extra-judicial state violence in the Madras Presidency during the early half of the nineteenth century. I was able to access records from British courts and districts within the current borders of Tamil Nadu as well as commissioner proceedings and officials’ private papers that are not available in other repositories. Unfortunately, pre-1857 district records are only cataloged up to 1835, making any later documents in this series impossible to find. Nevertheless, for historians of South India the TNA offers a vital resource and plenty of unique materials.

Ed. Note: Derek Elliott (University of Cambridge) has also reviewed the National Archives of India and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

Over the years the archive has suffered from a poor reputation among the academic community due to bureaucratic malaise and inefficiency, particularly in regard to scholars being unable to gain permission to access the collections. Many of the problems associated with the TNA have been remedied by the thoughtful and friendly staff that now works there, but access can remain an issue. Later in the review I will detail how to get around this to ensure that any visitor’s research trip will not be in vain.

The TNA is conveniently located at No. 51, Gandhi Irwin Road, in the Egmore neighborhood, only 150 meters to the left (west) of Egmore Station, a major rail hub in Chennai. One of the best things about the TNA is its long opening hours: 08:00-20:00 Monday through Friday, 10:00-17:00 on Saturday, closed Sunday and state holidays. Once you reach the archive compound head straight to the main balconied colonial building behind the garden circle. It has the original “Madras Records Office 1909” in the brickwork over the door. There you will be greeted by a series of desks and small offices. Bypass these and head down the main hallway, pass under the “Restricted Entry” sign suspended from the ceiling, and continue about 50 meters till you reach the reading room on your left, behind a glass door. Here you will have to introduce yourself to the staff and research officer who will process your entry application.

This is where things can get tricky. Several junior and senior scholars have reported being turned away at the door for not having proper documentation. While I was working there I witnessed several foreign and Indian colleagues alike who were either denied entry outright, or made to wait several days, during which time they were not even allowed to view catalogs, nor even permitted to wait in the reading room. As such, it is imperative that researchers arrive at the TNA with plenty of patience and the correct documentation in order to avoid problems.

The difficulty lies in the discretionary power of the Director in deciding who is a “bona fide” research scholar or not and in the unclear rules governing what documents must be submitted to gain entry. According to the TNA rules, available here, foreign scholars must provide a letter of introduction from their embassy or high commission and from their academic institution, or provide a letter from the National Archives of India in New Delhi that states the scholar has been permitted access within the preceding six months, or have a “research project [that] is cleared by the Government of India.” This means you should be in possession of a research visa. Despite the several other forms of documentation that the rules state you may also submit, the only sure method of gaining easy entry to the TNA is through the proper visa. However, depending on the nature of one’s topic, obtaining a research visa can be a very time-consuming process.

Armed in advance with this information, I had all four types of documentation (letters of introduction from the high commission, my home and Indian academic institutions, letter from the National Archives of India, and a research visa) and was able to gain entry and order records for delivery my first day in Chennai. Other foreign scholars who had only research visas and letters from their embassies and home and Indian institutions also did not experience any problems. However, those on tourist visas, but with letters of introduction, were denied access. One colleague from a leading UK university was made to wait outside the archive from 9 am to 5 pm every day for over a week while the merits of his credentials were considered. Eventually he was let in, but only because his case was taken up by a local scholar who remonstrated daily with the research officer. At least two other foreign colleagues I spoke with were told they would not be allowed in with tourist visas and letters of introduction, and simply had to leave. Researchers wishing to access the TNA, but unable to procure a research visa, may want to try visiting New Delhi first, in order to get a letter from the National Archives stating that they have been allowed entry to that repository. Armed with this additional letter from an Indian federal institution, it may be possible to be let into the TNA without a research visa.

For Indian scholars the process is much simpler: a letter from the Indian institution is all that is needed. Indian nationals studying abroad reported some minor difficulties with access due to confusion over the types of letters their institutions offered. Indian colleagues reported that showing their student card and foreign visa, along with their letters of introduction and patient explanation, was all that was needed to gain entry.

Assuming you have all your official letters of introduction and a research visa the application process is straightforward. You will be handed a form to be filled out in duplicate and asked for a photograph. All scholars, regardless of nationality must pay an enrollment fee of Rs 200 and a refundable Rs 500 deposit. The latter is returned once you provide the archive’s library with a copy of your thesis or publication that resulted from your time there. In the past, scholars would have to obtain a deposit slip from the TNA, travel across town to the designated bank to make the payment, and then return with the receipt. Now the research officer collects it and will provide you with a photocopied receipt if requested. Upon approval your enrollment is valid for one year, renewable within that period without any additional documentation or cost. Once it expires though, you must again start the application process from the beginning.

Archival records are ordered on an A4-sized form and collected normally in the morning, and sometimes also in the afternoon. You will be directed to fold them in half and place the requisition form in the container on the desk next to the daily sign-in book. However each time I did this my request slips inexplicably vanished. It is better to hand them directly to the fetching staff or place them on the fetcher’s desk. Even then, sometimes these forms will still go missing, particularly within the first three weeks of your visit. Making duplicates of each request slip is a good idea. In general you may order ten items each day, with five items on each requisition slip. The archive’s rules state that documents are fetched thrice daily, at 10:30, 12:30 and 15:30, but these times are to be regarded as a utopian ideal. In reality, documents are delivered once or twice each day, in the mid morning and sometimes also in the mid-afternoon. If it is raining, documents may not be delivered at all. The staff is helpful and friendly and will not mind giving you extra assistance to get your items provided you are not too demanding. Documents are usually delivered right to your desk in the reading room. There is no standard system of reserving documents. Most researchers simply leave them on their desks, sometimes with a note stating who they are being used by and how long to keep them. There are also no real limits as to how many documents or volumes you may have at any one time, but the fetchers will let you know when they think you need to do more reading than ordering new material.  When you’re finished with your documents you pile them on the floor next to your desk (yes, you read that correctly) and they will be collected and returned to the stacks.

The reading room itself is a reasonably comfortable air-conditioned space in which to work, if a little jumbled and disorganized. Finding your catalogs and indices takes some hunting, as they are in unordered stacks throughout the room, often piled on desks, the floor, and a shelf in the back corner. Desks all have electricity outlets and fans to help keep things cool, but mosquitoes can be a problem, so be sure to bring some repellent with you. The archive suffers regular power outages, but a back up battery means you usually are not completely left in the dark. Desks in the center of the reading room are closest to back-up lighting, and if seated here you can usually work through the power cuts. Dust can be a major problem: especially when consulting older documents, bringing a cloth with you to wipe off your table is particularly useful. The stacks have not been upgraded since the building’s construction in 1909, and as a result many documents are worm-eaten and fragile. Many volumes I received came with small critters between the pages and in the bindings. Even restored documents often show signs of insect and water damage. The archive tries to keep up with the restoration of documents, but limited resources make this an ever-losing battle. Lockers are available for scholars at the back of the reading room. To get a key, you just need to ask the research officer for a sign-up sheet and a locker will be issued to you free of charge.

Photography is not permitted in the archive but photocopying is. A reprographic application must be filled out, detailing the items to be copied, and once it is approved you will be asked for payment. Current prices for photocopying are: A4-sized at Rs 2 for Indian Nationals and Rs 3 for foreigners, per page; and A3-sized copies are Rs 4 for Indians and Rs 6 for foreigners. Photocopying can take quite some time, and is dependent upon how busy the archive is. In general though, most orders are completed within two weeks of your order, but it could be 15 to 20 days or longer. It seems unlikely that the TNA will ship photocopied documents if you cannot wait this long; you will probably have more peace of mind if a friend can pick them up and ship them to you.

At the back of the archive compound is a library, which has many rare books and publications dating back to the seventeenth century. Visiting the archive/library is included in your TNA enrollment, but on your first visit you need to get a permission slip from the research officer. The library staff is helpful but often not familiar with their holdings. Card catalogs are on the first floor, near the work-desks. If the staff cannot find the book you are looking for, they will often take you in the stacks so you may look for yourself.

The Egmore area has many eateries providing lots of different options for lunch, including the international vegetarian South Indian chain Saravana Bhavan and Chennai’s top-rated Bengali restaurant Annapurna. Hotels of all classes can also be found within walking distance to TNA. One that is quite good and very close to the archive is the Marina Inn, which also has Wi-Fi access, clean toilets, a Café Coffee Day in the lobby, and discounts for long-stay researchers.

The Tamil Nadu Archive is aware of its reputation among researchers and has taken steps to improve their service. A recent negative review of the TNA in a local paper left the staff disappointed for days. The Research Officer and his personnel are a helpful and nice group of people, who are genuinely interested in assisting researchers. Bureaucracies, though, are always notoriously difficult and slow to change, and it is unlikely that the TNA will relax its entry requirements any time soon. In the meantime though, access to its rich holdings is still a possibility, provided you come armed with the necessary documents, visa, and a patient smile.

Derek L. Elliott
Faculty of History
University of Cambridge


Image: The Tamil Nadu Archives. Photograph by V. Ganesan, The Hindu.

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  1. I would like to endorse this excellent review by Derek Elliot. Having used TNSA on a number of occasions in 2011-12, I had no problem gaining access to the archives with a research visa and the appropriate documentation. Once in the research hall, the staff are more helpful and supportive after a couple of weeks research, or on a second visit. Until then, it is good to use the catalogues, socialise with the staff and wait patiently. Once you have located the library, the staff are helpful, understanding and seemed knowledgeable for the twentieth century material. A close friend who works in the archives field and received a tour of the building was particularly impressed with the scale of the conservation operation and quality of the craft work produced, given the practical and financial constraints. Photocopying usually takes 10 days to arrive, but I would reiterate DO NOT rely on the remote service: having left a prepaid order for a significant amount of photocopying six months ago, three days before I left the country, I am still waiting for it to arrive, despite regular contact with TNSA and confirmation before I left from three members of staff, of variety levels of seniority.

  2. Thanks for this. Can you share any email addresses you have for the Research Officer and other staff in charge of permissions?

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