The Agrarian System in Ancient India, Part 2


Jellea Bearer
F.B. Solvyns, c. 1799

Oct 21, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial historical account of the early Agrarian System in Vedic Culture.

Let us next consider the classes of Grants or Assignments of land mentioned by our authorities. As might be expected, religious endowments made by the kings in favour of Brahmanas occupy in these works an important place. Yajnavalkya Smrti indeed lays down in this connection what may be called the official procedure relating to the issue of royal charters for the donation of lands to Brahmanas. [1] Such endowments, evidently, were not only revenue-free but also perpetual, and accompanied with the right of alienation.

The class of Assignments properly so called is introduced to us in a passage which is common to the Manu Samhita and the Mahabharata, and no doubt derived by both from the same source. [2] It mentions the scale of remuneration of officers in charge of the local administration. This may be shown in tabular form as follows:

    1. Lord of ten villages -- One kula of land (i.e., as much land as can be cultivated by twelve oxen)
    2. Lord of twenty villages -- Five kulas of land
    3. Lord of one hundred villages -- One village
    4. Lord of one thousand villages -- One town

No such provision is made for the remuneration of officers of the central government, who were presumably paid in cash. Cash payment of troops, indeed, is expressly mentioned in a passage which the Ramayana has in common with the Mahabharata. [3] Of other classes of Assignments such as those made to members of the royal family for maintenarice, no trace is found in our authorities. Evidently assignments did not play as yet an important part, and the State officers in general maintained direct relations with the cultivators. In connection with the service-tenures just mentioned, it remains to add that the very primitive method of measurement used therein, which is based upon the number of oxen required for cultivation of the land, shows the extreme antiquity of the institution.

From this brief account of land-revenue conditions in the Smrtis and connected works, it is a relief to turn to the abundant material that is preserved in the Arthasastra attributed to Kautilya or Kautalya. As the only surviving specimen of a class of literature that dealt, according to its definition, specially with the Art of Government in the widest sense of the term, it gives a fuller and a more concrete description of the affairs of internal administration and foreign policy of States than any other work in the whole range of Ancient Indian literature.

The date and authorship of the Kautiliya have formed the subject of controversy among scholars almost from the moment of its dramatic discovery, and the final solution of the problem seems to be as far off as ever. Happily these difficulties are not of much importance for our present purpose. As we have shown elsewhere, the work of Kautilya involved a compilation, or more properly a reconstruction, of the material that had grown up in the older Arthasastra literature. Accordingly the description of the institutions of government in this work may be safely taken to represent the traditional system that was current among the schools and authors of the science from early times.

The Arthasastra includes the land-revenue and connected charges in the class 'country-part' (rastra), which itself forms a branch of a wider division into seven stated heads of revenue. Another item included in the same class is sita, which may be roughly translated as 'produce of the royal farms.

This latter class of lands, which is now met with in literature for the first time, is required to be cultivated directly by the agency of the Royal Steward or, in the alternative, to be leased to tenants on the principle of division of crops. In this last case the tenants providing the capital were to receive half the produce, while those who simply supplied the manual labour received 1/4 or 1/5 of the crop. This method of farming has its modern parallel in the practice of the Zamindars of Bengal and elsewhere who cultivate their private lands (called nij-jote, khamar, zirat, etc.), either by employing their own men, or else let them out to tenants (burgadairs) on the same principle of division of crops.

In connection with the rules relating to the cultivation of the royal farms, the Arthasastra has a difficult and obscure passage which seems to mean that when the tenants fail to cultivate the plots taken up by them, they should ordinarily pay the king's share of the crop according to contract or customary rates. This is the only reference to a method of assessment akin to what prevailed afterwards in the mediaeval period and has been designated as Contract. 37 "Under it a peasant came to terms with the assessing officer to pay a fixed sum of money annually for his holding, whatever crops he might grow."

In the same context, the Arthasastra refers, again for the first time in literature, to water-rates (udakabhaga) levied apparently upon the tenants cultivating the irrigated lands belonging to the royal farms. This tax, consisting doubtless of a share of the produce, is assessed at three distinct rates (1/5, 1/3, and 1/4) for lands served by the State irrigation-works, and at the uniform figure of 1/4 for State lands irrigated by rivers, lakes, tanks and wells. To judge from later analogies, it seems probable that these charges were levied not as a substitute for, but in addition to, the ordinary item of land-revenue.

Of the branches of land-revenue properly so called, by far the most important is bhaga ('the king's share of the produce '), which corresponds to the bali of the Smrtis. Besides this there are the occasional and periodical cesses called bali and kara, with which may be compared the kara of the Smrtis. Another charge mentioned in the Smrtis, namely, hiranya, is well-known to the Arthaastra, though it is not included in its general scheme of classification, evidently because it was not held to be of sufficient importance.

Nothing illustrates more clearly the fullness of the data in the Arthasastra as compared with the Smrtis than the wealth of material which it furnishes into the details of land-revenue assessment. This may be gathered from the description of the functions of the officers severally called the samaharta, the sthanika and the gopa in another part of the Arthasastra. To begin with, the lowest class of these officers, the gopa (loosely translated as ' village accountant ') is required in the first instance to ascertain the total area of the villages (five or ten, as the case may be) within his jurisdiction by means of inspection of the village boundaries. He is also required to ascertain the total area of the village lands by numbering cultivated and uncultivated fields, upland and lowland soils, gardens of three distinct varieties, the village jungle, the homestead land, the sacred sites and the shrines, the embanked reservoirs, the cremation-grounds as well as the sites for public charities, the grazing grounds and the roads. On the basis of the above numbering the gopa is to prepare various registers, such as the register of boundaries and village fields, the register of unculturable lands and the register of transfers, besides which he is to keep an account of the Government advances and remissions in respect of the villagers. He is also to compile what may be called census-lists of dwelling-houses and families under various specified heads.

Above the gopa stands the sthanika ('circle officer') who is required in the cryptic language of the Arthasastra to superintend his charge (namely, 'the fourth part of the kingdom') in the same manner as the gopa. Apparently he is expected to prepare similar registers and census-lists for the larger area comprised within his jurisdiction. At the top of all stands the samaharta ('Collector general'), whose functions comprise the preparation of a record of revenue-free lands as well as those liable to military service, and above all the compilation of a virtual revenue-roll of the kingdom indicating the Government dues payable from the villages under different heads.

The above arrangements suggest some striking analogies with the advanced methods of Land revenue Settlement in vogue in the provinces of British India at present. We may first point in the above account to the demarcation of village boundaries, which still forms the necessary prelude to the process of Revenue Settlement. Of equal interest is the reference in the above to what may be called a comprehensive topographical survey of the whole village involving not only the listing of the various classes of the village lands, but also their numbering, probably by numerical signs. This process forms in the Arthasastra the basis of a record of boundaries and village fields, with which may be compared the khasra, or 'field-index' of modern settlements.

Not improbably village maps were prepared then, as now, in connection with the field-registers. The Arthasastra account, moreover, refers to the classification of soils not only under the broad heads of upland and lowland still known to the processes of modern settlements, but also those of gardens under three distinct heads. In this connection it may be mentioned, as an example of the thoroughness of the arrangements concerned, that provision is made in the Arthasastra for inspectors being deputed to selected villages to check the accuracy of the returns under the head of area and outturn of the fields, and so forth. Among other points of contact between the system of the Arthasastra and that of modern times may be mentioned the fact that the gopa, like the modern patwari, was required to record changes in ownership through transfers, to keep the village accounts in respect of Government revenues and to prepare various statistical returns.

Another feature reminiscent of the modern advanced methods is the grouping of villages by the samaharta into three grades, with which may be compared the division of villages into Assessment-circles, known to Settlement Officers in our own times.

The prevailing method of land-revenue assessment in the Arthasastra may be deduced from the above facts. We may take it that for the purpose of assessment there was a standard or average figure for the State share of the produce for a known unit area, and that the actual assessment was made by applying this figure to the returns supplied by the gopas as just mentioned. In other words we have here, in contrast with the primitive methods of the Smrtis and connected works, an instance of what may be called the method of measurement at fixed grain-rates. It is needless to state that cash assessment of the land-revenue as a whole is unknown to the Arthasastra, as it is to the Smrtis.

A word may be said in the present place as regards the share of the produce which was fixed in the Arthasastra as the basis of the assessment rates. The Arthasastra is well acquainted with the rate of 1/6 known to the Smrtis, but there is good reason to believe that it contemplated a differential scale of rates for different classes of soils or crops. The Arthasastra, again, is completely silent about the rate of hiranya ('the cash assessment for selected crops') which, as we have seen, is fixed at 1/50 in the Smrtis.

A Rehroo (cart)

The branches of land-revenue that we have considered so far together with their rates belong to the administration of the State in normal times. The Arthasastra, moreover, like the Smrtis provides for grave emergencies of the king. Its rules under this head present some features of striking interest. In the first place the emergency tax, as it may be called, is known in the Arthasastra by a distinct title called pranaya ('the gift of affection'), with which may be compared the 'benevolences' of the Yorkist and Tudor periods of English History. Its purely temporary character is proved by the fact that it is required to be levied once and not twice. In so far as the pranaya upon cultivators is concerned, it is assessed at different rates for different classes of soils, the maximum rate of the Arthasastra (namely1/3 or 1/4) being almost identical with the highest rate of bali in Manu (namely, 1/4).

Another point to be noted in the present connection is that the Arthasastra recommends as a last resource what may he called the compulsory raising of a second crop by the cultivators. At the sowing season, we are told, the cultivators should enter into a written agreement making them liable to a fine of double the value or the amount of the crops destroyed through their negligence. When the crops are ripe, they should be forbidden to take away the ripe and the unripe crops, the penalty for theft ranging from eight times the value to death. These remarkable rules not only carry the special jurisdiction of the king over the cultivators to the highest point, but they introduce us for the first time to the institution of written documents regulating the relations between the State and the cultivators.

The foregoing account of the duties of the samaharta and his staff of officers implies individual assessment of the villagers for the land-revenue. Thus to return for a moment to the census-list of dwelling-houses prepared by the gopa, we observe that he is required to specify not only whether the houses are taxable or tax-free, but also the contributions charged upon them severally under the heads of cash payment, unpaid labour, tolls and fines.

Again, it may be noticed that the inspectors deputed to selected villages by the samaharta, as mentioned above, are required to report on the dwelling-houses under the heads of revenue assessed and the revenue remissions. It therefore follows that the land revenue and connected charges were assessed upon the individual holdings of the villagers. Another form of assessment, namely, the collective assessment of villages, is referred to in the Arthasastra under the technical title of pindakara. This means, according to the commentator, the lump assessment upon the villages, and it is evidently to be distinguished from bhaga which was assessed upon the individual villagers.

In another context, the Arthasastra mentions the conversion of the lump assessment (samksepa) into individual assessment (viksepa) and vice versa, as well-known modes of fraud practised by the revenue officials upon the king's treasury. Whether the collective assessment in this case was made through the village headmen or through farmers is a point on which the Arthasastra throws no light, but the probability is in favour of the former alternative, since the headman (called gramakuta, gramika, gramamukhya and gramasvamiri), unlike the farmer, is a well-known figure in this work.

Some features of the State agricultural policy in the Arthasastra may be gathered from its description of the methods of settling a tract of country. It appears that State-directed emigration already at this early period was well understood, for we are told that the king should attract emigrants from other countries or draw away the surplus population of his own kingdom for the settlement of territories. Further, the village was evidently taken to be the invariable unit of administration, for the king is directed to found villages consisting mostly of sudra cultivators who were no doubt the most industrious of their class, at intervals of one or two krosas from each other.

Suitable administrative centres were to be established around groups of 800, 400, 200 and 10 villages. Proper provision was to be made for grants or assignments of land, for we are told that the king's sacrificial priest, spiritual preceptor and the domestic chaplain as well as the learned Brahmana, were to receive lands exempted from taxes and fines, while the superintendents, the accountants and so forth, as well as the gopas, the sthanikas and others were to receive other lands without the right of sale or mortgage.

By far the most considerable share of attention is, naturally enough, bestowed upon the revenue-paying cultivators (karadas). With regard to these we are told that prepared fields were to be given to them for one generation, but unprepared fields were not to be taken away from those making them fit for cultivation, while with regard to cultivators who neglected their plots, their fields were to be taken away from them and assigned to others, or else given up to be cultivated by village labourers and pedlars.

The above description illustrates the tenures of different classes of tenants settled on lands that may be presumed to belong to the Crown. It shows that while the tenants neglecting cultivation of their fields were liable to be superseded by others, those who cultivated the plots prepared at Government expense were allowed to hold them for a period of one generation, and those who prepared the plots at their own cost enjoyed the privilege of hereditary possession thereof. It may be presumed from this that hereditary occupation of holdings by the cultivators was the general rule in the settled villages.


1 Yajnavalkya Smrti, I, 878.

2 See Contributions to the History of the Hindu Revenue System by U. N. Ghoshal, pp. 168-159, for reference.

3 Ramayana. n, 100, 82-88; Maha, II, 5, 48-49.


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