The Agrarian System in Ancient India, Part 5


An Ekka
F.B. Solvyns, c. 1799

Oct 24, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial historical account of the early Agrarian System in Vedic Culture.

A stock phrase used in some of the Jataka stories to describe the villages assigned or proposed to be assigned by the kings introduces us for the first time to an important development of the procedure in connection with such grants. In the cases in question the villages are described as satasahassutthanaka, meaning 'that which produces one hundred thousand pieces' (of coins). [1]

The figure itself is purely conventional, but a careful consideration of the context in which it occurs is enough to show that it corresponds to the process concerned with assignment which prevailed in Moslem India, and has been conveniently indicated by the term 'valuation'. By this is meant 'the estimate of the probable future income from any area required in order to facilitate the allocation of grants or assignments to claimants entitled to a stated income'. Historical instances of this process will be found later on in the records of Eastern India belonging to the ninth and subsequent centuries.

In the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., Northern India probably along with a considerable part of the Deccan was united under the powerful sceptre of Chandragupta Maurya (c. 322-298 B.C.), who overthrew the great Nanda dynasty of Magadha, drove back the Macedonian garrisons from the Punjab and Sind, and pushed his conquests as far as the line of the Hindu Kush. In the reign of his grandson Asoka, the empire reached outwardly the climax of its greatness, but at the same time the seeds of its decay were sown, and after the death of the great Emperor began the process of its dissolution.

The authorities throwing light upon the land-revenue arrangements of the Mauryas consist mainly of a few fragments from the lost work of Megasthenes, the famous ambassador of Seleucus at the court of Chandragupta, and a few references in Asoka inscriptions. Megasthenes is a faithful and accurate observer of institutions that came directly under his personal notice, although he was too prone to rash generalisations and too much inclined to believe in fanciful stories. His account of the administrative system of the Mauryas, which has been deservedly accorded a high weight, may safely be trusted to illustrate the conditions prevailing in the home provinces of the Empire with which he was personally acquainted. To the same region, as we shall presently see, belong the references in the Asokan inscription with which we are here concerned.

The important passage of Megasthenes bearing upon the Maurya land-revenue conditions occurs in the course of his description of the class of husband men, that forms the second of his group of seven Indian castes. Till very recently, the two chief versions in which this account has been preserved, those of Diodorus and Strabo, were held to be mutually contradictory, in as much as while the former was alleged to state that the husbandmen paid beside the 'land-tribute' a fourth part of the produce of the soil, the latter was held to state that the cultivators tilled the land on condition of receiving one-fourth of the produce. This difficulty has now been cleared up by the illuminating researches of a German scholar, who has shown the Greek text formerly translated as 'Beside the land tribute' to mean 'in the absence of special arrangement'. As thus explained, Megasthenes's statement resolves itself into the following points:

    (1) According to one version, the tax paid by the cultivators to the royal treasury amounted to one-fourth of the produce in the absence of special arrangements,

    (2) According to another version, the cultivators received from the king one fourth of the produce as their wages.

Both these classes of cultivators, it will be remembered, have their counterparts in the Arthasastra, the former corresponding to the cultivators employed on the royal farms by the Royal Steward (sitadhyaksa) and the latter corresponding to the revenue-paying (karada) cultivators. It is permissible to conclude that both classes of cultivators were included in Megasthenes's original account, while each of the later writers who transmitted his description mentioned only one class to the exclusion of the other.

If we take the account of the Greek ambassador to apply mainly to the central regions of the Maurya Empire with which he was doubtless principally acquainted, it would follow that within this tract of country the royal farms had become almost as important a source of the king's receipts from land as the revenue-paying lands. When, further, the share of the crop received by the cultivators on the royal farms is given by Megasthenes as one-fourth in place of the Arthasastra rate of one-half as well as one-fourth or one-fifth, this may be taken to indicate that the tenants were employed, as a rule, on the terms more advantageous to the State in the Maurya period. In so far as the revenue paving cultivators are concerned, the rate of the revenue-demand, it will be observed, is fixed at one fourth, which is precisely the rate prescribed by Manu and Kautilya for grave emergencies of the State.


Indirect evidence of the enhanced rate of the Maurya land-revenue is furnished by the Rummindei pillar inscription of Asoka implying the king's reduction of bhaga to the rate of 1/8 to be a very great concession. The same inscription also testifies to the fact that the agricultural cess called bali as in the Arthasatra, was in use along with the payment in kind (bhaga). It may be surmised that this high rate of the land revenue demand, if not a legacy of the preceding period, was immediately connected with the immense development of the administrative machinery under Chandragupta Maurya, while it doubtless contributed along with other causes to the eventual downfall of the Maurya Empire.

Of the method of assessment of the land-revenue in the Maurya period we have a hint in another extract from the account of Megasthenes. Describing a class of officers called the agoranomi (generally but incorrectly translated as 'officers in charge of markets'), Megasthenes, according to Strabo's version, wrote as follows:

    "Some superintend the rivers, measure the land as is done in Egypt, and inspect the sluices, by which water is let out from the main channels into their branches."

In so far as the phrase, 'as is done in Egypt' is concerned, its purport is explained in another extract from Strabo's work, which runs as follows:

    "This exact and minute subdivision is necessitated by the constant disturbance of boundaries caused by the Nile in its inundation in which it adds (to some) and takes away (from others), alters shapes and destroys the other signs by which the property of one can be distinguished from that of another, so that it (the land) is to be remeasured repeatedly."

Here we have conclusive evidence of an official arrangement for measurement of alluvial lands evidently for the purpose of assessment. Probably a similar arrangement was in use with respect to other agricultural lands as well. This would lead us to expect that the method of assessment mentioned in the Arthasastra and the Jataka stories to which we have applied the convenient title of Measurement was used under the Mauryas as well.

In the above-mentioned version of Diodorus it will be noticed that the class of husbandmen is stated as paying revenue (' land-tribute') to the king. The version of Arrian gives the same account, since he describes the class of cultivators as paying 'tribute' to the king and the independent cities. These statements which are expressed in very general terms need not be taken literally to mean that Assignments were altogether unknown, for we have reference to them in the immediately preceding period. But we may safely conclude that direct assessment of the cultivators by the State officials was the prevailing rule in Maurya times. That the Assignments to troopers or military officers at any rate were unknown at this period may be concluded from Megasthenes's testimony relating to the payment of cash salaries by the State to all branches of the army."

Finally we may mention a reference in an inscription of the second century A.C., which gives us a glimpse into the agricultural policy of the Maurya Empire. The Girnar rock inscription of the Satrap Rudradaman (dated c. 150 A.C.) states how the Sudargana lake ('the Lake Beautiful') was constructed by the governor of Chandragupta Maurya and was subsequently restored by the governor of Asoka. This record furnishes a practical illustration of the care which was bestowed by the Mauryas upon the construction of irrigation-works in the most distant provinces of their Empire. In this they only followed the traditional policy of development that is sketched in the Smrtis and described more fully in the Arthasastra.

For some five centuries and a half after the death of Asoka, the historical records throw but little light upon the conditions of land-revenue prevailing in Northern India. There is, however, good reason to believe from references in the inscription of Budradaman above-mentioned, that the payments in kind and in cash by the cultivators were continued at least in the regions of Malwa and Gujarat under the same titles (bhaga and bali) as in the time of Asoka. In the same record reference is also made to the benevolence (pranaya), the periodical tax (kara) and unpaid labour (visti) which are likewise known to the Arthasastra as familiar sources of financial oppression. [2]

Some light is thrown upon the agrarian conditions in Western India during this period by the inscriptions on the caves at Karle and Nasik belonging to two principal dynasties, viz., the Ksaharatas and the Satavahanas. In so far as the former dynasty is concerned, the inscription of Usavadata, the son-in-law of the famous satrap Nahapana, mentioning his gift of specified villages and fields in favour of temples, Brahmanas and the Buddhist order show how Assignments to the members of the royal family were known at this time, and how these were accompanied with the right of full disposal of the lands concerned.

We have a concrete instance of this kind of Assignment in an inscription of Gautamiputra Satakarni, the conqueror of Naha pana, referring to a field that was formerly 'enjoyed' by Usavadata. The records of the Satavahanas, mentioning the immunities and privileges granted in favour of charitable endowments, refer to the various burdens such as the visitation of State officers and troops, the fine for extracting salt which was a Government monopoly and so forth. But except in one doubtful instance there is no mention of a regular tax levied upon the village lands. On the other hand, the records refer to the royal allotments in the villages, as for example in one case where King Gautamiputra grants what he describes as 'our field' (amhakheta) to certain ascetics, and in another where the same king confers one hundred nivartanas of land out of 'the royal field belonging to us' (rajakam kheta amhasata kam). Here, then, in these oldest available references to agrarian conditions in Western India it would seem that the king's revenue was derived only from his own allotments in the villages, and not from his share of the agricultural produce.

The evidence of the Satavahana records, further, shows that religious endowments created by the kings in favour of Buddhist monks and accompanied with the usual immunities were common, indeed the documents often use a characteristic phrase called 'the immunities of the monks' land' (bhikhuhala-parihara). As this class of endowments has always been looked upon as occupying a privileged position, it may be mentioned that under the Satavahanas, they were neither perpetual nor irrevocable. Thus in one case, the king is said to give away the land according to the custom of aksayanivi, which is a technical term signifying perpetual enjoyment without the right of alienation. In another instance the king exchanges one village for another formerly granted by him to certain ascetics.

The oldest epigraphic records of South Indian dynasties, dating from about the third century of the Christian era, point to the fact that here again, the royal revenue was derived from the king's farms or allotments in the villages, while land-revenue in the proper sense of the term was as yet unknown. Let us first take the records of the Pallava kings of the Prakrit charters, who are generally assigned to the third and fourth centuries A.C. and whose rule extended not only over the Tamil and the Kanarese countries, but also over the Telugu territory. The records of these kings which are very similar in language and style to those of the Satavahanas, mention various immunities (pariharas) granted by the ruling authorities to the doners along with their donations of land the number of the immunities being specified in one case as eighteen, but they make no reference to the assignment of the land revenue.

On the other hand, the record just referred to mentions the king's gift of a garden along with certain lands and four ardhikas, while in another case the king's grant consists of a field cultivated by a named person. The reference to the ardhikas, who correspond to the ardhasitikas of the Arthasastra, shows that as in the earlier period, the royal allotments were let out to the class of tenants cultivating them in return for half the produce.

We next turn to the dynasty of the Brhatphalayanas, who apparently succeeded the Pallava Kings of the Prakrit charters in the Godavari tract. A record of King Jayavarman of this dynasty conveying a village in favour of eight Brahmanas mentions various immunities that were granted to the donee, but not the slightest reference is made therein to the immunity from the land revenue.

Let us next consider the dynasty of the Salankayanas who apparently succeeded to the inheritance of the Brhatphalayanas, and whose rule probably lasted from about 350 to 500 A.C. A record of Vijayadevavarman of this dynasty mentions the king's gift in favour of a Brahmana of certain lands together with the house-site for the ardhikas, the donation being accompanied with the usual immunities. Here, again, it will be observed, the king is described as holding farms or allotments which were cultivated by tenants on the principle of equal division of the crops, but no reference is made to the land-revenue.

References to the royal allotments in villages are also found in the records of the Pallava kings of the Sanskrit charters, who have been assigned to the period from the fifth to the beginning of the seventh centuries. Thus we have one example of a king conveying certain lands lying on the boundary of a specified village. In another case we are told that the royal allotment (rajavastu bhutva sthitam) in a certain village amounted to eight hundred pattikas (the Tamil equivalent of the Sanskrit nivartanas), out of which the king granted 432 paltikas to an individual Brahmana. It should be added that neither of these documents makes any reference to the assignment of the land-revenue.


[1] In Jataka Commentary (ed. Fausboll), Vol. IV, p. 862, the class of Brahmanas coming to the villages and towns and refusing to quit them unless given a gift, is compared to the tax-collectors (niggahakas). For the oppression of the tax-collectors, cf. Jat, Vol. V, pp. 98 ff.

[2] Cf. Contributions to the History of the Hindu Revenue System by U. N. Ghoshal, p. 189.


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