The Agrarian System in Ancient India, Part 10


BY: SUN STAFF - 12.8.2020

A Gwallin (Milk Woman)
Orme, after Solvyns

A serial historical account of the early Agrarian System in Vedic Culture.

We now turn to the records of the Chahamana houses of Marwar belonging mostly to the twelfth century, whose history brings to a close our survey of the Rajput dynasties of Northern India during the present period. The inscriptions of these dynasties mention a large number of estates held by the Queens and Princes, while they refer in one instance to the king's allotment. Thus one document refers to a group of twelve villages which one of the junior Princes had received from the reigning King and Crown Prince.

Another refers to a town included in a division (bhukti) which apparently belonged to the Crown Prince. A third inscription mentions the Queen's grant of a village which was being held by her as her appanage (grasa). Reference is made in another inscription to a temple situated in the allotment (bhukti) of the Queen.

Two other records mention a couple of junior princes as possessors (bhoktrs) of two named villages. Reference is made in another document to the allotment (seja) of a prince (rajaputra) called Ajayadeva, while other records mention the same Prince's grant of lands and wells no doubt out of his own allotment. On the other hand, a solitary record mentions a Queen's donation of corn out of the King's estate (rajakiya bhoga). One of the Chahamana records relates to a Chief's imposition of an annual cash assessment upon the villages comprised within his allotment. There the donor who is a junior Prince conveys his order to each of the twelve villages in his allotment to pay every year at the month of Bhadrapada commencing from the current year two dramma coins for the benefit of a Jaina temple.

To complete our historical account of the land revenue conditions prevailing in Northern India in ancient times, we shall now cast a glance at the history of the dynasties that ruled in other parts of the country during the present period. We begin with the record of a Chief called Kirilpala who ruled in the region between the Gogra and Gandak rivers and Nepal. From this document which belongs to the year 1111 A.C. we learn that the donor's father acquired sovereignty over a country called Uttarasamudra by the might of his own arms, and that the donor subsequently acquired it by inheritance. This illustrates the class of Chief ships acquired by conquest and inheritance.

For the region of Assam we have two royal land-grants of this period, one of which belongs to Vaidyadeva and has been assigned to the middle of the twelfth century, while the other relates to a Chief called Vallabhadeva and is dated in 1107 Saka, corresponding to 1184-85 A.C. The former document refers in general terms to taxes (kara) and their appurtenances (upaskara) in respect of the villages forming the subject of the gift. In the same document the villages given away are described somewhat vaguely as yielding four hundred coins (chatuhatikam). This doubtless marks the wholesale use of cash assessments in place of the older payment in kind. It may also refer to the process of Valuation involved in the assignment of villages, of which we have spoken elsewhere.

Lastly, the description of the villages as being in possession of a certain Gangadharabhatta (evidently a Brahmana) probably shows that we have here to deal not with religious endowments (which were usually perpetual), but with assignments held at the pleasure of the king. As to the other record, the grant of Vallabhadeva mentions the Chief's gift in favour of an alms-house of certain villages and hamlets as well as of four assistants with their wives and children. These last may be taken either to represent the king's slaves or the serfs attached to the royal domain. If we apply this last interpretation, we have here an instance of a quasi-manorial estate belonging to the king. An undoubted reference to an estate of this type occurs in a grant of King Vijayarajadeva ruling in the region of Orissa in the eleventh or twelfth century. It records in the form of a prasadapatta ('document of favour ') the king's donation of cultivated lands, wells, houses and householders together with a village with its bipeds, quadrupeds, fields and householders.

In the early part of the twelfth century the well-known Sena dynasty rose in power in Bengal and it continued to hold sway till the close of that century, when it was shattered by the Moslem invasion. The land grants of the Senas prove the continuance of the usual payments of land-revenue in kind and in cash practically under the same titles as were in use elsewhere. On the other hand, in contrast with the vague descriptions in the Pala records, the lands granted by the Sena kings are uniformly specified in terms of the current land-measure according to reed-standards which varied in different parts of the country.

As we have seen in another place, in the region of North Bengal under the Imperial Guptas the lands forming the object of the sale are similarly specified in terms of the current land-measure according to the reed-standard which was evidently not a uniform one. It therefore follows that the official standards of measurement which were in vogue in Bengal under the Gupta Emperors were allowed by the Palas to fall into neglect, but were restored by the kings of the Sena dynasty. Other references in the Sena records point to the annual cash assessment of land in terms of the current silver coins (puranas and kaparddakapuranas), and one of them mentions a standard rate of fifteen puranas for each drona measure of land. In these references we have a remarkable testimony to the wholesale substitution of cash assessments for the payments in kind prevailing in other parts of Northern India.

Looking back over the ground that we have traversed in the present and the preceding lectures, we cannot fail to be struck with the contrast between the great distance of time and place that it spans, and the meagre evidence that has come down to us. The sections on polity in the Smrtis and connected works, as we have seen, touch the question of land-revenue in the most general terms, while even the fuller account of the Arthasastra leaves many important points in the darkness of obscurity. The historical records of States and dynasties leaves wide gaps in our knowledge, which sometimes extend over several centuries at a time. It is, however, not merely in the insufficient quantity, but also in the poor quality of the available material that we have to seek for the sources of the great draw-backs in the way of our narrative. The references in the Smrtis and the Arthasastra, such as they are, [are difficult to correlate] (except in a very general fashion) to the conditions of time and place in which they had their origin, and the extent to which they reflect historical facts will always remain a matter of speculation.


Rowanny (Patna) Bearer


The evidence of the inscriptions has the inestimable advantage of connection with known dates and geographical regions, but as this is derived mostly from the charters of the ruling authorities relating to the endowment of lands (roughly corresponding to the farmans of Mughal Emperors in later times), it is by its very nature imperfect and fragmentary. Nor do the observations of the foreign travellers throw much light upon the subject of our enquiry, for apart from the ambiguity and obscurity of their language they are expressed in this particular case in too general terms to be of much use. On the negative side we find that with the exception of some slight reference in the Kashmir Chronicle, no class of records connects individual kings or chiefs or ministers with the history of the land-revenue administration. From this it follows that the history of the land-revenue system in Ancient India has to be written almost entirely without reference to the influence exercised by individuals upon its development.

In the oldest period to which the historical records in Northern India carry us back, viz., the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ, Grants and Assignments of lands of various kinds were known, but we have no means of ascertaining their extent and, with slight exceptions, the nature of their tenure. When the veil of obscurity is next lifted up before our eyes towards the close of the fourth century before Christ and, again, at the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era, we find Megasthenes and Fa Hian testifying to the existence of direct relations between the Government and the cultivators, while Assignments are not even noticed by them.

In the Smrtis and still more in the Arthasastra, Assignments in favour of State officials are mentioned, but these are confined only to the officers of the lower grades. The Arthasastra is also acquainted with Collective Assessment of villages probably through the Headmen, as well as Assignments held on condition of providing troops, but these are mere names. By the early part of the seventh century, if we may believe the high authority of Hiuen Tsang, the practice of granting Assignments to officers of all grades was well established. In the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries the advent of Rajput dynasties introduced the institution of Chiefs' estates on a large scale over a considerable part of Northern India. But this development was not maintained under the Rajput houses of the twelfth century, whose records point on the whole to a general tendency towards absorption of the older Chiefs' allotments in the king's domain

On the whole, then, it appears that throughout the longest period of its history in ancient times, Assignments played a relatively unimportant part in the agrarian system of Northern India, and the king's revenue officers as a rule dealt directly with the cultivators. Of farmers of the land-revenue our authorities practically make no mention, almost the only authentic example of their existence being found in the records of the Maitrakas of Gujarat. Truly, then, the dictum summing up the essence of the agrarian system in Moslem India, namely, that the farmer and the assignee were normally the masters of the peasant's fate, would not apply to ancient period.

As regards the method of assessment of the land-revenue, we have seen that already in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ the methods of Division and Appraisement of the crops together with the method of Measurement were simultaneously in use in the region of Eastern India. The brief notice of Megasthenes probably shows that the last method was employed in the empire of Chandragupta Maurya. The Arthasastra describes an elaborate system of village registers and records which no doubt was the result of a long and unrecorded course of development, but we can only guess that it rested upon a basis of standard rates of assessment for known unit-areas, or in other words, that it involved the process of Measurement. In the dynastic records of subsequent times references are found from time to time to the employment of distinct standards of land-measure according to reeds (sub-divided into cubits) and wooden poles, but there is nothing to show what use was made of them for the purposes of assessment.

To judge from the available records, the land revenue in ancient times was most often fixed on the basis of a certain share of the produce. This is not only indicated by the terms bhagu and bhagabhogakara signifying the payments in kind by the cultivators, but also by the explicit references in the Smrtis and in the Arthasastra and the testimony of foreign observers. As regards the specific amount of this share, the opinions of the Smrtis are at variance, for while some are in favour of a uniform rate of 1/6, others mention varying rates of 1/6, 1/8, 1/10 or 1/12, depending obviously upon the differences of soils and crops. In the popular tradition the rate of 1/6 was accepted as the recognised standard of land revenue assessment. A uniform rate is also indicated in the few recorded historical instances, the demand being fixed at 1/4 of the produce in the Maurya Empire and at 1/6 in the time of Hiuen Tsang and under Pala rule in Bengal.

As regards the form in which the land-revenue was paid by the cultivators, we have seen how both the payments in kind and in cash occur simultaneously in the Smrtis and the Arthasastra. Both may be traced with the help of the historical records over a large part of Northern India during the period from the fourth to the twelfth centuries of the Christian era. Of these two groups of payments the former occupied by far the more important position, while the latter seems to have been always of an exceptional character. Quite distinct from these is the cash assessment of entire villages, to which an early reference is made in the Jatakas and which is illustrated by historical examples in Northern India in the ninth century and later. Cash payments are also mentioned in the records of the Chahamanas of Marwar in the twelfth century. But the greatest advance in this respect was made in Bengal under the rule of the Senas. There we are introduced to cash assessments on lands at a specified standard rate for a definite unit-area.

The nomenclature of the two principal items of land-revenue just mentioned offers an interesting subject for study. Hiranya as a revenue term is found not only in the Smrtis and the Arthasastra, but with the help of the contemporary inscriptions it may be traced almost continuously over the greater part of Northern India from about the fourth to the twelfth century. As to the other item, the Pali canonical literature which furnishes the oldest extant account of social conditions in Eastern India applies to the payment in kind the identical designation (bali) that is used in the Smrtis.

The inscriptions of Asoka in the third century before Christ and of Rudradaman in the second century of the Christian era use the terminology of the Arthasastra, making bhaga and bali stand respectively for the payment in kind and the additional cesses. In the Gupta period and subsequent times other titles for the payment in kind came into use, such as meya, dhanya, and above all bhagabhogakara, of which the last had by far the widest application.