This essay focuses on the notion of mamul or custom that was central to the representational culture of public claim-making in colonial Madras. The authority of claims to mamul by different sections of Tamil society lay in its ability to prove the legitimacy of particular versions of the past. A reading of the arguments around mamul in petitions from different sections of society in late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century Madras reveals the articulation of notions of selfhood by these groups as members of Tamil society, and as subjects of the East India Company, within a context framed by the language, logic and conventions of colonial law and by the colonial city, both in terms of the space itself, and ways in which it was imagined. At the same time, the crystallization of the norms of colonial law, the increasing bureaucratization of rule and the centralization of the authority to arbitrate and adjudicate meant the inevitable legitimation by the state of upper caste versions ofmamul in which mythology and religion came together to validate a regime of paper and property.