Agrarian and Political Setup
Land grants and land tenure
In early India, land possessed great value and the gift of an estate was a marker of status. The earliest inscriptions recording royal land grants were issued during Satavahana rule. But the practice truly grew in scope from the fourth century CE.
By the 5th-6th centuries, ruling dynasties across the subcontinent, as well as their subordinates and feudatories were all engaged in making such grants. This phenomenon cut across dynastic boundaries, reflecting new modes of expression and a whole new political economy.
Land grant charters were usually engraved on sheets of hammered copper. They are described as tamrapatta, a ‘plate of copper’ ortamrashasana, ‘an order in copper’. If the text of the grant was long, then several copper sheets were used (often resembling leaves in a manuscript) and were bound together with a royal seal and ring.
In the period between the fourth and seventh centuries, grants of land were being made to brahmanas and temples. Villages granted to brahmanas were known as agraharas, brahmadeyas or shasanas. Some grants were also made to Buddhist and Jaina monasteries, Vaishnava and Shaiva shrines, and there were also a smaller number of ‘secular’ grants to officials.
Inscriptions record in considerable detail the name of the donor, as well as the recipients, terminologies and circumstances of giving and receiving. These statements were usually recorded in Sanskrit. While administrative arrangements varied from grant to grant, elaborate protocols were involved not just in making the gift, but also in framing these records. Only when the transaction had been sanctioned and recorded by the royal bureaucracy could such a grant be issued.
The ruler’s decision to grant land was reinforced not only by administrative force on the ground, but also by appeals to scriptural authorities. The inscriptions often invoke norms laid out by shruti, smriti and itihasa; they also refer to specific texts such as the Mahabharata of Vyasa.
They indicate how brahmanical ideology was being worked out in the fields of practice. They also tell us how the countryside was being shaped at this time.
The origins of Indian feudalism is located in land grants to brahmanas and temples from the Gupta period onwards, and later to state officials, involving the alienation of fiscal, administrative and judicial rights.
The emergence of multiple centres of power and a great deal of decentralization, consequent to continuous, systematic parcellization of sovereignty or state power which increasingly devolved on to the donees, making them independent lords, has been identified with feudalism. The many, hierarchised centres of power, different grades of samantas and graded land rights are perceived to be the result of state activity, i.e., land grants. The decline of long-distance and maritime trade,paucity of money, and urban shrinkage apparently nicely rounded off the argument.
However the decline of trade-towns-money thesis leading to the emergence of Indian feudalism had its share of ideological problems from the beginning, insofar as an external factor such as trade was perceived to account for momentous internal developments invoking the transition to a new social formation. Land grants were allegedly made to neutralise the pervasive social crisis, but it is another matter that they went on to usher in significant socio-political changes, including relatively closed, self-sufficient villages.
The growth of localism, regionalism and closed mindsets are ascribed to these developments. Notwithstanding the proliferation of castes and the emergence of new social categories such as the Rajputs and Kayasthas, society is usually perceived in bipolar terms, the lords and the peasants. The peasants were subjected to several exactions, including forced labour, loss of community rights to forests, pasture, ponds and grazing grounds, and even eviction. Sharp social divisions led to peasant unrest. Besides, there is also a tacit assumption that the land grants across regions were made from an epicenter with uniform consequences.
The continuous moving of the peasant frontier and enormous socio-cultural changes are reflected in the systematization of the idea of varnasamkara and the invention of new ones such as apaddharma, Kali yuga, as well as the emphasis on duty or dharma.
Similarly, the brahmanas and religious institutions, who were recipients of royal land donations from the Gupta period onwards, instead of being perceived as agents of decentralization have been revisited and seen as pacemakers of royal authority.
The regional distribution of early land grants clearly suggests their local origins, mostly being made by one local dynasty or another in a general context of local state formation. The case of the Matharas of Kalinga, Vakatakas of Vidarbha, Kadambas of Kuntala, and the early Pallavas, for example, easily makes the point. The spatial and temporal correspondence between land grants and the spread of state societies points to their mutually beneficial, and not antagonistic, relationship.