The Agrarian System in Ancient India, Part 6


F.B. Solvyns, c. 1799

Oct 25, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial historical account of the early Agrarian System in Vedic Culture.

From this digression into the history of the agrarian conditions in the Deccan and in Southern India, let us turn to Northern India, the greater part of which was ruled by the Imperial Gupta dynasty during the fourth and fifth centuries. The Gaya grant of Samudragupta dated in his ninth regnal year 41 (c. 339 A.C.) shows that in the dominions directly ruled by the Gupta Emperors the usual branches of the land-revenue were in use.

In this record the revenues assigned by the Emperor to the donee are said to comprise meya ('what is to be measured ') and hiranya, of which the former evidently stands for the bhaga of the Arthasastra and the Asokan inscriptions, while the latter is the familiar title for cash payments by the cultivators. Direct reference is made to the payment of the land-revenue in kind in the brief and enigmatic statement of Fa Hian, the famous Chinese pilgrim, who visited Northern India between 399 and 414 A.C. in the reign of the Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II. In the course of his brief sketch of 'the Middle Kingdom' (corresponding to the central regions of the Gupta Empire), he observes, "Only those who cultivate the royal land have to pay a portion of the gain from it." As the term 'royal land' in this extract has been elsewhere shown to mean the whole territory of the State, the evidence of the pilgrim confirms the statement in the inscriptions about the payment in kind.

Of the methods of assessment of this branch of the revenue our documents give us practically no indication, but the testimony of Fa Hian just mentioned at least shows that the revenue demand was fixed on the basis of a certain share of the produce, the amount of which, however, is left unspecified. The records of the Gupta Emperors, in the next place, tend to show that besides the land revenue properly so called, the State income was derived from lands which the Emperor owned in the villages. In the aforesaid grant of Samudragupta, the village is given away by the Emperor not only along with its revenues, but also with the uparikara. We have elsewhere explained this term, which here occurs for the first time, to mean the rent paid by the temporary tenants.

Evidently, then, the Government sometimes owned lands in the villages, which were leased to the cultivators. A clause of the Gaya grant, moreover, illustrates the stringent restrictions which it was found necessary to impose upon the holders of pious endowments. According to this clause the donee thenceforth was not to admit, on pain of confiscation of the endowment, the revenue-paying cultivators and so forth from other villages. This rule, like its counterpart in the Arthasastra to which reference has been made in the preceding lecture, was evidently intended to prevent what had become a frequent method of defrauding the Government treasury on the part of the owners of revenue-free lands.

Another statement of the Chinese pilgrim tends to show that the Gupta Emperors were averse at least to Assignments for military service. "The men of the king's bodyguard," says Fa Hian in the course of the same general description of the Middle Kingdom to which we have referred, "all have fixed salaries."

A series of seven copper-plate inscriptions with known dates ranging from 432-433 to 533-534 A.C. which have been brought to light in recent years in North Bengal illustrates some features of land-revenue administration in this outlying part of the Gupta Empire. With these may be connected a set of five copper-plate inscriptions hailing from the Faridpur District of Eastern Bengal, which have been assigned on palaeographical grounds to the latter half of the sixth and the first part of the seventh centuries. Both these sets of documents relate, with one exception, to the sale by State authorities of selected plots of land out of the unappropriated waste.

As we have shown elsewhere, the evidence of the documents themselves proves that the waste land was held by the State in absolute ownership. The documents further mention the fact that the plots sold out of this waste were to be held in perpetuity, and according to the custom of non-destruction of the principal. It therefore follows that in the oldest period, to which the records in Bengal can be traced, the State was not only the owner of the unappropriated waste, but reserved its right to the same to such an extent as to exclude even the occupiers by right of purchase from the privilege of alienation.

Again, the documents describe the waste land as exempted from all revenues (samudayabahya). Whether the plots after sale became liable to the revenue assessment is a point on which the records are silent, but it may be guessed that they became liable to a progressive enhancement of the revenue till the normal rate was reached. One other point remains to be mentioned in this connection. In the documents the intending purchasers are frequently mentioned as making a formal application for purchase of certain kulyavapas of land according to the prevailing rates of sale for one kulyavapa, while the authorities at the time of making over the plots to them cause the lands to be severed according to the measure of 8x9 reeds (nala). The first of these measures related to the seed-capacities of fields (one kulyavapa comprising as much land as can be sown with a kulya of seed), while the second was evidently an oblong measure comprising an area of nine reeds in length and eight reeds in breadth.

We may then conclude that while the primitive measure by seed capacity was in popular use from earlier times, the Gupta administration engrafted upon it the more improved measure according to the area of the land. Even this last improvement was not enough, as the reed consisted of varying units of length called hastas. To produce a reliable standard it was necessary to fix the size of the hasta measure. This last step was taken in the documents from Eastern Bengal above-mentioned, where the lands are required to be severed according to the measure of 8 x 9 reeds by the hand of the famous and upright Sivachandra.

In the region of modern Bundelkhand and Baghelkhand, two dynasties were in power almost contemporaneously during the Gupta period. These were the Parivrajaka Maharajas of Dabhala (or Dahala) who were feudatories of the Gupta Empire with known dates ranging from 475-476 to 528-529 A. C., and the Maharajas of Uchchakalpa, whose known dates range from 493-94 to 533-34 A.C. The records of the latter dynasty specifically mention the payment of the land-revenue in kind (here called bhagabhogakara) and in cash (called by the older title of hiranya), while those of the former dynasty are silent about them. Both groups of records usually mention that the land is granted with udranga and uparikara, which have elsewhere been taken to mean the rent from permanent and temporary tenants respectively. This suggests that as in the central regions of the Gupta Empire there were State-owned lands in the villages, which were leased to tenants.

An additional item of revenue mentioned in some of the Uchchakalpa records is the tax on ploughs (halikakara), but nothing is explained about it. From the fact that in some of the documents a portion of a village or even portions of two distinct villages form the object of the gift, it may be surmised that the villages concerned were not assessed collectively, but with reference to the individual holdings. As might be expected, the records of both dynasties relate for the most part to religious and charitable endowments created by the kings in favour of temples and Brahmanas. A distinct type of grants, however, namely, that assigned to a courtier as a favour, is probably referred to in an Uchchakalpa document, where the clauses show that although it was perpetual, it could not be alienated without the king's consent.


We may next notice a few isolated records of kings who were probably feudatories of the Gupta Empire ruling in different parts of Northern India. An inscription of a Maharaja Laksmana belonging probably to 477 A.C. and assignable to the region of ancient Kausambi refers to the usual payment of the land-revenue in kind (called meya) and in cash (called hiranya). A record of Maharaja Nandana belonging to the region of Magadha and probably of the year 450-451 A.C. proves that as under the Parivrajakas and the Maharajas of Uchchakalpa, the pious endowments created by kings in favour of Brahmanas were held on the conditions of perpetuity and heritability and with the essential rights of ownership.

We may refer, lastly, to two records belonging to the region of modern Indore, those of Maharaja Svamidasa (probably of 386-387 A.C.) and Maharaja Bhulunda (probably of 426-427 A.C.). Both these are concerned with donations of lands in specified villages by the kings in favour of named Brahmanas. The former document mentions the king's gift of a piece of cultivated land which forms the holding (pratyaya) of a certain merchant, and the latter more vaguely refers to the gift of a similar piece of land. From the fact that in these instances the holdings of individual cultivators are sought to be given away, it may be concluded that the villagers were separately assessed for the land-revenue and not in a lump sum.

During the Gupta period, Gujarat was ruled by various dynasties whose records illustrate to some extent the prevailing conditions of land-revenue. We begin with the Traikutakas who ruled Aparanta (Northern Konkan) together with Southern Gujarat in the latter half of the fifth century. The land grants of these kings mention various immunities and privileges granted in favour of the donee, among which is included the exemption from all dues (ditya), but the precise meaning of this last term is left unexplained.

We next turn to the branch of the Katachuri kings who ruled Southern Gujarat in the latter half of the sixth century. The land grants of these rulers do not in general refer to the usual branches of the land-revenue. In fact, the terms meya andhiranya occur only in a land-grant of a feudatory of the dynasty. Separate assessment of the holdings of the villagers is proved by a record of the dynasty mentioning the king's gift of certain lands in a specified village.

We now turn to the important dynasty of the Maitrakas of Valabhl whose rule began in the region of Kathiawar towards the close of the fifth century, and continued down to the last quarter of the eighth century when they were apparently overthrown by the Arabs of Sind. The land-grants of these sovereigns distinctly refer to the payments in kind and in cash (called dhanyahiranyadeya). One grant, in mentioning the usual list of privileges assigned to the donee, further distinguishes the item of dhanya from that of bhagabhogakara, both of which terms usually mean the payment in kind. Probably the former is here to be understood in the sense of a fixed contribution, while the latter consisted of a varying proportion of the produce.

The Maitraka grants, moreover, usually refer to the udranga and uparikara items of revenue, which suggest that certain village lands were owned by the State. Most of these documents, again, mention the king's gift (along with the royal dues derived therefrom) of fields or wells or both lying in the extremities of specified villages and forming in many cases the holdings (pratyaya) of named cultivators. This seems to suggest separate assessment of the individual holdings of the cultivators. Lastly, while the known land-grants of the Maitrakas are concerned with the royal endowments in favour of temples, Brahmanas and monasteries, an official title referred to in some of these documents introduces us for the first time to the class of farmers of the land-revenue. This is the dhruvadhikaranika (otherwise called dhruvasthanadhikaranika), ' the officer in charge of the dhruvas', the last term being applied till recent times in Kathiawar and Cutch to denote persons who superintended the collection of land-revenue by the farmers on the king's behalf.


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