The Agrarian System in Ancient India, Part 7


F.B. Solvyns, c. 1799

Oct 26, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial historical account of the early Agrarian System in Vedic Culture.

Let us, in conclusion, cast a glance at the land revenue conditions in the Deccan in the time of the Gupta Emperors. During this period the predominant power in that region was that of the Vakatakas. The land-grants of these kings seem to indicate the development of the traditional system in three respects. We refer, in the first place, to the fact that the clauses of their grants not only mention various burdens from which the donee was to be exempted, but also specifically mention the immunity from taxes (kara).

When we remember that the documents of the preceding dynasties in the Deccan as well as in Southern India refer only to the burdens from which the donee was to be exempted, the Vakataka inscriptions may be taken to mark the beginnings of the land-revenue properly so called in this part of the country.

In the second place, we have to mention that the lands or villages forming the object of the royal endowment are indeed sometimes described merely with reference to their boundaries, but they are oftener stated in terms of the current land-measure (called bhumi) and in one case reference is made to the royal measure (rajamana). In this last reference to an official standard of measurement we may notice a distinct advance as compared with the arrangements of the Satavahanas, who were content to use the current nivartana land measure.

The third point relates to a clause in one of the Vakaaka land-grants conveying a village to a body of one thousand Brahmanas. We are here introduced to a remarkable condition of the grant sana-sthiti) to be maintained by the donees as well as by the present and future rulers. Under its terms the donees are permitted to enjoy the grant in perpetuity in effect on the condition of continued loyalty and good conduct, failing which it is expressly declared that the grant should be resumed by the king.

When we consider how the endowments made in favour of Brahmanas have always enjoyed a highly privileged position, we cannot but look upon the above document as marking a noted departure from the beaten track.



In the previous lecture we have endeavoured, with the aid of the literary and epigraphic records, to bring down the history of the land-revenue system in Northern India to the memorable epoch of the downfall of the Imperial Gupta dynasty. It is proposed in the present lecture to continue the study down to the period marked by the collapse of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty of Kanouj, which in the height of its splendour under King Mahendrapala (c. 890-908 A.C.) ruled the whole territory extending from Northern Bengal to the Kathiawar Peninsula and from the Himalayas to the Narmada.

In the first half of the seventh century, the most considerable power in Northern India was undoubtedly that of Kanouj under the rule of the famous Harsavardhana (606-648 A.C.). The land grants of this Emperor refer to the usual branches of the land-revenue under the familiar title of bhagabhogakara and hiranya. We are, however, left completely in the dark as regards the method of its assessment. A curious phrase used in the documents, viz., ' with the piece taken out from the district', probably shows that the revenue-free lands were excluded from the ordinary jurisdiction of the district authorities.

Some light is thrown upon the land-revenue conditions prevailing in the country as a whole in the valuable but brief account of Hiuen Tsang, the illustrious Chinese pilgrim who visited almost every part of India excepting the extreme south between 629 and 645 A.C. [1] In the course of his general description of India prefacing the detailed narrative of his travels in its different parts he observes, "Taxation being light and forced labour being sparingly used, every one keeps to his hereditary occupation and attends to his patrimony. The king's tenants pay 1/6 of the produce as rent."

This last statement, as we have elsewhere explained, refers to the payment in kind by the cultivators on the revenue-paying lands, which corresponds to the bhagabhogakara of the contemporary inscriptions. We have here one of the few authentic instances of application of the uniform rate of 1/6 that is mentioned in some of the Smrtis. The evidence of the Chinese pilgrim, moreover, is important as showing what the historical records of the time fail otherwise to specify -- that the revenue-paying cultivators enjoyed in effect the advantage of hereditary possession of their holdings.

In another part of his general description of India to which reference has been made just now, Hiuen Tsang observes, "Of the royal land there is a four-fold division. One part is for the "expenses of Government and State worship, one for the endowment of great public servants, one to reward high intellectual eminence and one for acquiring religious merit by gift to the various sects. "Here the term 'royal land', as we have elsewhere explained, stands for the whole territory of the State.

Proceeding on this explanation, we may state that the first portion mentioned by the pilgrim evidently corresponds to the ordinary revenue-paying lands in the villages, and the third, which has its counterpart in the Arthasastra, is illustrated (as we shall presently see) by historical examples in Gujarat and the Central Provinces in the tenth and eleventh centuries respectively, while the last is represented by scores of examples in the Ancient Indian land-grants.

The second class of lands referred to by the pilgrim belongs to the same category as the Assignments of lands to State officers mentioned in the Arthasastra and the Smrtis. But while the latter authorities contemplate the bestowal of the Assignments only upon the lower officials (specially those concerned with the local administration), Hiuen Tsang's evidence shows that they were extended to the higher officers as well. As the pilgrim explicitly states in the same context, "The ministers of State and common officials all have their portion of land, and are maintained by the cities assigned to them." The general increase of the Grants and Assignments at the expense of the Reserved area directly administered by the king's revenue officers, is suggested likewise by Hiuen Tsang's division of the whole State territory into these parts.

Of the minor kings and dynasties of the seventh century we have a few isolated records which imperfectly illustrate the land-revenue conditions under their rule. A grant of Maharaja Bhimasena II belonging to the region of Chhattisgarh in the Central Provinces and of the year 601 of the Christian era, refers to the items of revenue called meya, hiranya and suvarna. The first two terms evidently stand for the usual payments in kind and in cash by the cultivators, but the distinction which is sought to be drawn in this document between the payment in cash (hiranya) and the payment in bullion (suvarna) is altogether exceptional.


We may next refer to a land-grant of a feudatory in the region of Orissa and dated apparently in 602-603 A.C. This document provides an instance of a religious endowment that was granted on the condition of perpetual enjoyment without the right of alienation (aksayanwi). In the extreme north-east of India we have for this period the Nidhanpur copper-plate inscription of Bhaskaravarman, King of Kamarupa, who was the contemporary of Harsa of Kanouj. In this document it is mentioned how an endowment of land originally granted to a Brahmana by the king's great-great grandfather became liable to revenue (karada) owing to the subsequent loss of plates, and how the king Bhaskaravarman afterwards renewed the grant in favour of the family of the same donee.

Here, then, in the oldest period to which the records carry us back in Assam, the villages are already found to be liable to a tax (kara), of which, however, the precise character is left unexplained. It further appears that a close scrutiny was maintained by the Government over the charitable endowments which could be made liable to revenue for loss of the title deeds.

Incidentally it may be remarked that the above inscription mentions in a list of officers attesting the grant a Marker of Boundaries (simapradata), which points to a regular organisation for the demarcation of village boundaries unlike the loose arrangement of the Smrtis. Of a slightly later date than the inscription of Bhaskaravarman is the Tipperah grant of a Chief called Lokanatha, who ruled some portion of Eastern Bengal in the latter part of the seventh century. It records an endowment that was granted by the Chief to a temple and to a community of Brahmanas within a forest region 'having no difference of natural and artificial'. This seems to show that as in the Arthasastra, the forests were regarded as the property of the State.

To the end of the sixth and first part of the seventh centuries belonged the Gurjara dynasty of Broach in Gujarat. The land-grants of these kings refer to the udranga and uparikara, pointing to the existence of State ownership of lands in the villages. In two documents, the objects of the gift are stated to consist of certain fields which are described according to their seed-capacity. This seems to show that unlike the dynasties of Gujarat ruling in the preceding period, the Gurjaras were content to use the primitive method of measurement by seed-capacity even in their official documents.

In the outlying territory of Nepal which was ruled during the fifth, sixth and early part of the seventh centuries of the Christian era by a Lichchhavi dynasty, the surviving records point to the fact that the payments of the land-revenue in kind and in cash were in use under the well-known titles of bhagabhogakara and hiranya, respectively. Other taxes of a more or less peculiar character to which reference is made in these records include the interesting mallakara, that is, the tax which was raised for defence against the Mallas, or for payment of tribute to them. There was, besides, the obligation of supplying load-carriers specially for the Tibet service (bhottavisti).

A curious feature of the religious and charitable endowments of this dynasty is that the donees are not altogether exempted from the burdens devolving upon the revenue-paying lands, but are charged with them at a reduced rate or are made liable to a pecuniary fine alone for specified offences. For the eighth century of the Christian era we have a few records of local kings illustrating the agrarian conditions in their time. An inscription of Jivitagupta II of the later Gupta dynasty, who belonged to the early part of the eighth century, refers to udranga and uparikara, which prove the existence of State-owned lands cultivated by tenants in the villages.

An inscription of the Chahamanas of Broach of the year 756 A.C. 10 mentions a king's gift of one-fourth of a village to a Brahmana and one fourth to another. This evidently involved the assignment of revenues that were assessed separately upon the lands concerned.


[1] Contributions to the History of the Hindu Revenue System By U. N. Ghoshal, pp. 228-229.


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