There is no standard definition of what constitutes a village or a town or a city, although some basic differences among the settlements of the world can easily be observed that distinguishes the various types. In general, villages or rural settlements perform characteristically agricultural or farming functions, whereas the towns or cities contain non-agricultural service functions.
Most nations usually define the settlements on the basis of their size as a cut-off limit for the rural and urban settlements. The cities or urban settlements have invariably a greater concentration of people and a much larger complexity of functions around non-agricultural activities. Thus, size alone is not the only criterion for the determination of distinction between a city and a village.
For example, some of the rural settlements in India have populations of over 8,000 people and contain high population densities, and many of the urban settlements (towns) contain much smaller number of people. An important ingredient of urban settlement is the intensity of economic and social life around non-agricultural activities that clearly distinguishes it from the rural settlements. Thus, a farming village containing 5,000 or over people should not be called urban, where as a tourist center of 2,500 people may appropriately be designated as an urban place.
Nucleated and Dispersed Settlements:
Given the definitions provided by the Asian governments, most Asians live in villages that accommodate nearly two- thirds of the continent’s population. There are probably close to 1.5 million villages in Asia. As these villages assume a variety of shapes and forms, and their size varies from two-three house clusters to villages of several thousand houses, we can conveniently make distinction between two basic types of rural settlements: dispersed or isolated, and nucleated or compact. The dispersed settlement, in which each farm or a small group of farms is located at some distance from its neighbors, is increasingly becoming uncommon, but is widespread in hunting-gathering and fishing societies.
The people live in single family homes in small, dispersed clusters, or are seasonally dispersed in the cropped lands. In some areas shifting cultivation tends to foster dispersion, as a contrast to the compact, permanent clustering of society in villages or towns. Although the dispersed settlements are mostly widespread in the remote and inaccessible hilly areas of mainland Southeast Asia, but these are also found in such areas as the Ganga delta of Bangladesh, and the Kerala coast where there is no scarcity of water for cropping and the- farmsteads tend to disperse.
A variation of the dispersed type common in Kerala coast of India is the linear or elongated arrangement of residences where residences are generally strung along a street backed by fields of paddy and other crops. The Sichuan Basin in China and the nearby hilly area is another region of dispersed settlements. The compact villages are less practical in the hilly environment. With the growth of population over the surrounding hills the dispersed pattern has taken root. In northern Honshu and in Hokkaido island of Japan, large farms are possible as compared to the crowded parts of central and southern Japan.
Farmers in these areas reside m homes which are close to their neighbors, and dispersed settlements are common. Such is the case in the mountainous Philippines, where the Spanish policy of concentrating the population in nucleated villages was reversed during the period of American control. The highways were improved and travel became easy, and rural settlements were strung along the road in large numbers.
As a general rule, dispersed settlements are a common occurrence in the hilly areas in most of Asia as the nucleation of settlements is inhibited by the disposition of physical features, such as slope, soil condition and exposure to sun and wind. In addition, the growing pressure of population and farmlands on lower ground and the easy access of travel has made the neglected higher area targets of movement by farmers who are constantly moving and settling on higher terraces.
Much more widespread than the dispersed settlements is the pattern of compact or nucleated settlements, with populations ranging from a hundred or less to several thousand across most of Asia. Large groups of residences are usually nucleated to form villages containing virtually their entire populations. The nucleated or compact farm villages are a very characteristic feature of the rural scene in nearly all Asian countries.
But the sheer compactness of the villages in the Indus Ganga plains of northern India and Pakistan, and the North China Plain is particularly striking. The residences are placed so close to one another that there is a virtual absence of space between them. The Westerners are often impressed by the cheek-by-jowl huddling of residences, lack of gardens, streets, and other types of “living space” in such villages.
A combination of several factors has undoubtedly contributed to the nucleation of rural settlements. In areas located in dry environments and uniform relief imposed conservation of water for efficient distribution. Although uniformity of relief, soil-fertility, and depth of water-table were all conducive to the origins of nucleated settlements, grouping together of settlements also provided psychological sense of security during long centuries when lawless and dangerous conditions prevailed, especially for the weak and isolated although farm villages had little defense against large, well-equipped invaders, but could put a good front against marauding bands of casual banditry, common down to recent times.
In a different setting, where conditions of soil-fertility, or water-table, or flat topography were the prime considerations, defense sites were available on high ground such as a hilltop, or an island, or any physical location that would face invaders to fight at a disadvantage. Structures, such as a castle, fortified settlements surrounded by a moat, naturally supplemented the physical advantages of the site, where a degree of defense could be assured. Thus, numerous Asian villages (and cities) as in other parts of the world are located around fortified hills or islands, in addition to the innumerable villages that dot the countryside.
Although the role that common protection and defense played in explaining the location of compact villages is obvious, the nucleated villages have been historically common among the Indians, Chinese and Japanese peoples, as an evolving cultural practice among them. These people had developed closely-knit social systems since the dawn of history that persist till the present day.
Many of their villages are family villages, often bearing the same surname, and tracing their descent from a single ancestor. Each family has its own lands, possess certain rights and responsibilities connected with the upkeep of the ancestral land and temple. The village is thus a physical and cultural feature. Houses are close together, similar to those occupied by ancestors.
The village is a compact entity, where there are a few shops, and trading is done at a nearby market town. In Japan, for example, the village is a social unit. It generally has a few tiny shops, each specializing in a single class of goods such as fish, tobacco, cakes, cloth that occupy the front rooms of a few residences. In the Indian subcontinent, on the other hand, there may be a few retail stores in the village that sell selected day- to-day items but may not specialize in a single item.
In Southeast Asia the habit of some groups of commercial living in a structure that house dozens of families, is an integral part of their social system. The village is thus a group of closely-knit dwelling units. In many regions of Asia, walled villages are also common that reflect the protective need of earlier times, but during the good policing provided during the European colonial and subsequent, native administrations, the protective walls have tended to disappear, without substantially altering the basic compactness of the settlement.
Asian Villages: Functions and Forms:
The primary function of a typical Asian village is to provide housing to the local population, its household animals, crops, and agricultural tools. The structures are simple and utilitarian, built of mud, or bamboos, that serve the basic needs of shelter, storage, and privacy. Most villages generally lack the amenities, related to drinking water, waste disposal, street cleaning, fly and insect control, lighting, and entertainment, although many of these modern conveniences are slowly creeping into the village life.(“Sugao” literally means “good village.” Sugao is one of the several villages in transition across Asia.)
An overwhelming, but not the sole characteristic of an Asian village, is a virtual lack of secondary functions. Only a few of these have acquired service activities in recent times, especially if a railroad or a paved road has been built that links these villages with a larger market. The residential village, in general, does not contain stores, shops, fabricating plants, or government buildings. A large number of villages in India until a few years ago had no electricity or clean, drinking water.
Most villages in the continent are small. Probably there are more villages of under 50 houses than any other size category, but it is equally likely that villages of 300-500 houses contain most of Asia’s rural population. Only a few of the villages in India and Pakistan have more than 5,000 inhabitants. Generally, small or large residences are densely packed in nucleated villages. High population densities per unit or land are quite characteristic of a nucleated village.
Asian villages are arranged in a variety of forms and shapes. The compact villages have generally no particular shape or pattern and may be labeled as “the cluster village.” Most villages of northern China, northern and northwestern India, and southwestern Asia belong to this category. They are closely-built with a maze of alleys and access points, although the villages in China contain somewhat less tightly- packed residences.
Villages in southern China, though cluster-shaped, are concentrated at river-fork, a bridge-head, or any other available space, revealing their hodgepodge arrangement. Most villages in India and in southwest Asia are merely clusters of houses arranged in a disorderly fashion. Tibetan villages are frequently elongated in cramped sites.
Elongated or string-like clusters are other common shapes of Asian villages. Such is the case with villages along seashore, a riverbank, a natural levee or terrace, a paved road, or some other linear site that induces the arrangement of houses in a single file or a double-file. Twenty or thirty houses may be grouped in a double row in less than 100 yards, or sometimes as many as a thousand houses may extend out over a larger space but linearly arranged. The modern highway may also attract a large number of linearly-shaped patterns.
The grid-pattern within the nucleated villages is common in most parts of Asia, although it is characteristic of northwestern India, which probably is the origin of this form. It is also widespread in China and parts of Southern Japan.
There are also many other shapes of Asian villages that do not fit into the patterns outlined above. A traditional Malay village has a loose-straggly shape, built along the lower section of a stream. Lack of continuity and scattered dispersion of the houses in garden patches make these neither a string nor a cluster village.
A circular string of houses around a cultivable upper portion of a volcano is a characteristic shape of several Javanese villages, but mountain-ridge or mountain-top villages of most Southeastern Asian peoples are generally disorderly, adhering to no particular pattern. Some societies in Southeast Asia use a communal long-house, where all the people of the village live in one large, subdivided structure.
Generalizations regarding the precise siting of villages are difficult to make. They are located everywhere, on a variety of sites. In the floodplains, they are obviously located on natural levees, dike lines, raised platforms, or mounds created gradually by discarded rubbish during a millennium of human occupance. In Java protected mountain sites were generally preferred before the Dutch occupation. The Dutch, however, required the villages to be located near the main roads in more open sites.
A Compact Village in Transition:
Sugao, a village of nearly 2,500 residents, is located in the State of Maharashtra, nearly 250 km (155 miles) southeast of Mumbai, in India. It is a village in transition, a microcosm of many such villages where economy is being increasingly interlinked with the region around them. Population has outgrown the carrying capacity of land that provides cheap labor to the cities’ industries. In return, villages receive remittances in cash and kind from the cities.
Sugao is a nucleated village. A railroad passes within a distance of 5 km of a larger, neighboring village of Wai that provides its most shopping needs by holding a weekly market on Mondays for the surrounding area. Electricity arrived in Wai in 1964 and in Sugao in 1968. Most residents of the two villages now make use of radio and television sets.
The village can be divided roughly into two unequal parts by a crooked, east-west axial lane of unequal width with Yadav households occupying most of the northern section, and Jadhav groups predominating in the southern section.
These two groups belong to the upper caste Maratha families, and own most of the village lands and farmland surrounding the village settlement. Other groups—rope makers, carpenters, masons, basket weavers, cobblers, blacksmiths—occupying the Tillage periphery, while the untouchables, mostly the Mahars, live outside the village. There are a few Muslim families that reside to the south of Main Square of the village. The village contains several temples, a few schools, a flour mill, and an office for the village elders (the Panchayat).
Nearly three-fourths of the households live in 1 to 2-room houses, the remaining in 2 or more-room houses. Households with 1 to 2-room houses contain 1 to 14 persons. The size of households accommodating, 2 or more rooms range from 1 to 18 persons.
The village lands completely surround the settlement for several kilometers on all sides. The two upper castes own most of the land. Nearly one-third of the land is owned by big farmers. The availability of modern medicine and the introduction of electricity during the 1950s and 60s could only be afforded by the well-to-do upper castes.
The lot of the lower castes has actually deteriorated as the new industries displaced the traditional artisans such as weavers, cobblers, carpenters, etc., who cannot afford the new cash-crop economy. Moreover, the village electrification has displaced village handicrafts to give way to machine-made goods.
Thus, a large surplus labor of artisans had become unemployed since the late 1950s, who began to migrate to the cities, particularly to Mumbai, which could absorb cheap labor from the village. Usually men began to migrate about the age of 17, while most of women stayed at home. These migrants generally would return to the village after working for 15-20 years in Mumbai.
The consequences of the circular movement of migrant returnees have, however, not been entirely beneficial. But those who moved to Mumbai or other cities had a hard time surviving even in Mumbai and other cities as their earnings of the migrant laborers are consumed by both the earners in the city as well as by their families left behind in the village, who have to depend upon the remittances of the migrants to the cities.
Meanwhile, city jobs have become increasingly scarce with large influx of villagers into the cities. Simultaneously the situation in the villages has increasingly worsened as the unattended village lands became over-grazed and soil erosion became a serious problem. Moreover, the returnees to the village from the cities have been usually disinclined to work on lands when they return home. A vicious circle of village neglect has thus set in. The village of Sugao exemplifies the conditions of such villages that are in transition in most of South Asia (Dandekar, 1986).