Agrarian Condition in Ancient India

In India way back during the Neolithic age (10,000 B.C.) people led a settled life by practicing agriculture and raising crops like wheat, rice, ragi, barley, etc. They had domesticated animals, knew art of pottery, spinning and weaving of clothes. Hence by the time of Vedic age agriculture was well advanced and been the chief industry of the country and played a significant role in the evolution of material culture in ancient India. We come across many prayers in the Vedic literature which were offered for the success of agriculture. Artificial waterways and wells were used for purposes of irrigation and cow dung was used to enrich the soil. The people knew the importance of deep ploughing and grew better and abundant crops.

Ownership of Land

In earlier times there was no pressure of population on land and land was not at all scarce. It was quite possible to enjoy the land without hindrance by the first man who cleared the woods and started cultivation. In the Vedic period the king had no proprietary rights on agricultural land. In return for good governance he was entitled to a defined portion of the gross produce as tax. Land belonged to those who tilled it. According to Kautilya people suffering from anarchy elected Manu, the Vaivasvata to be their king and allotted one-sixth of the grains and one-tenth of the merchandise as sovereign dues. In Rig Veda it has been stated that the king could claim bali from his subjects which was the amount due to him for the protection granted to his subjects. Later in Atharvaveda we find a prayer for the grant of a share of the village to the king. This shows that the king at that time was not regarded as the sole owner of the village and that people granted him some land for maintenance of his authority and dignity.

Later as the king assumed more power and consolidated his position, the institution of monarchy acquired a divine status and this led to the belief that all land belonged to the king. Kautilya suggests that all land essentially belonged to the king and even Greek writers dealing with the pre-Gupta times invariably state that all lands belonged to the king. However as long as the cultivators paid their taxes to the king, they were not disturbed and only if they did not paid tax or till the land, the kings exercised his power as the ultimate owner of the land and confiscated it.

Consequently by the time of the commencement of the rule of the Mauryas, there existed individual ownership of land side by side with the royal ownership which was not different from individual ownership as the king appeared as the biggest landholder. Besides as a result of land grants, collective or communal ownership of land also seems to have been introduced.

  • In lands owned by individuals, the owner carried on cultivation with the assistance of his family members or hired labourers, who were of two types; permanent and temporary.
  • The State farms or crown land was under the charge of Sitaadhyaksha (Superintendent of Agriculture) who with a band of assistants, labourers, slaves and prisoners raised crops. The State also used to lease its land to tenants who used to pay some amount of rent along with 1/4th share of the produce.
  • In communal ownership of land, that is land held by religious or educational centers and those held by the trading class, land was divided into small plots and leased to crop sharers.

Classification of Land

In Vedic age land was classified as Urvara (cultivable land), Khila (barren land), Dhanva (waste land) and Aranya (forest). In Amarakosha land has been grouped according to fertility, physical composition and situation like-

  1. Urvara- fertile land
  2. Usara- barren land
  3. Maru- desert land
  4. Aprahata- fallow land
  5. Saadvala- grassy land
  6. Pankila- muddy land
  7. Jalapraayamanupam- wet land
  8. Nadimaatraka- land watered by river
  9. Devamaatraka- land watered by rain
  10. Kachcha- land contiguous to water
  11. Sarkara- Land full of pebbles
  12. Sakravati- sandy land

Arable land was classified under two categories; dry land requiring water for cultivation and wet land requiring less water for cultivation. The pasture lands around the villages were held in common by the villagers. These lands were under the direct ownership of the state but the people were allowed to enjoy the rights of grazing their cattles. The boundaries of the fields were marked by trees, bones, stones, anthills, charcoal dikes, raised grounds, etc.

Crops grown

Paddy, wheat, barley, oil-seeds, sugarcane, pulses and cotton were grown. They also grew various kinds of fruits and vegetables.

The Cultivating Class

In the beginning agriculture was considered as a noble profession and each family possessed a number of cattle and fertile corn fields. Later agriculture became the main occupation of the Vaishyas. All the writers of Dharmasastras consider cultivation as an occupation exclusively meant for Vaishyas. At the same time they permitted Brahmins and Kshtriyas to follow the profession in emergency. Apart from farming the Vaishyas were also involved in trade and banking and comprised a wealthy and respectable section of the society. They were hospitable, good nature and god fearing. With the rise of ahimsa doctrine, agriculture profession came to be disliked by the virtuous as it was felt that the act of tilling will injure living beings like insects and resulted in the Vaishyas giving up the profession of agriculture. This prompted Kautilya to permit the Shudras to adopt the occupation of agriculture. On being converted into peasants, the Shudras gained status in the societal hierarchy.

Knowledge of Agricultural Practices

Ancient Indian cultivators possessed a fair knowledge of climatology, plant physiology, soil classifications, seasonal cultivation, rotation of crops, protection of crops, treatment of seeds and different kinds of manure. In Yajurveda we find distinct reference to the rotation of crops, the metal plough and crops like wheat, sesame, etc. The Atharvaveda mentions animals’ enemies of corn, the locust, the rat, etc. and contains exorcism of these pests, charm for procuring increasing grain and many other references to agriculture. As for the use of manure besides bones, flesh of animals, vegetables and animal products; manure primarily consisted of the excreta of various animals mixed with litter which absorbed urine.

Agricultural acts were ceremonial

In Rig Veda we find numerous prayers for agriculture, invocation of the divine for timely rains and solicitude for the safe keeping and well being of cattle. For instance sacrifices were made in honour of Indra ‘the wielder of the dreaded thunder bolt’, the god who alone was believed capable of killing Vrtra ‘the demon of drought’, and thereby release the pent up rains so vitally important for carrying on successfully agricultural operations. Cultivators used to offer oblations to gods of the elements before cultivating their fields and later when they reaped their harvest.

Amenities provided to Cultivators

It was one of the important regal duties to take a personal interest in agriculture and to see that there might be nothing detrimental to the interest of agriculture and agriculturists who were exempted from fighting.  Smritis (law books) exclaim the great merit of excavating water reservoirs. In the Sabha Parva of Mahabharatha we find Narada asking Yudhisthira if he was attentive to the improvement of agriculture by digging tanks in his kingdom at proper distances so that agriculture might not have to depend entirely on rain. In Arthashastra, book II, chapter I enjoins that the king shall construct reservoirs filled with water either perennial or drawn from other sources. The State allowed remission of taxes to those who built tanks, lakes or repaired neglected or ruined tanks. The lake Sudarsana which was excavated by Pushya Gupta, the viceroy of Chandragupta Maurya and whose channels of irrigation were completed by Tushaspha in the days of Emperor Ashoka is one of the greatest monumental works that points to the great importance attached to irrigation in ancient India. In south India the Chola ruler Karikala Chola constructed a dam (Kallanai) across river Kaveri in Trichy district of Tamilnadu around 2nd century A.D. To save crops from destruction, provisions were made by the State to destroy rats, locusts, injurious insects, wild beasts and birds. During the Gupta period the state took several measures to increase agricultural output by extending the area under cultivation. The cultivator was not allowed to leave the land uncultivated. The Narada Smriti states that if the owner of the land is unable to cultivate it, any stranger can cultivate and appropriate the produce. The state took every care to protect the agricultural produce. Brihaspati another law giver says stealers of agricultural produce were to pay ten times the damages to the owner and double the damages to the state as fine. The state was interested in the scientific method of agriculture is evident from Varahamihira’s elaborate directions for the treatment of seeds and for digging the pit for sowing seeds. The state had fully realized the importance of irrigation to agriculture. The Junagadh Rock Inscription of Skandagupta states in detail how when due to much rainfall, the dam burst and the lives of people were in danger, Chakarpalita with his father saved the country by raising an embankment.

Assessment of Land Revenue

In the early Vedic period, the king’s power was not well established and taxation seems to have been occasional and voluntary. The term Bali originally used to denote voluntary offerings made to gods for securing their favour came to be applied later to the presents and taxes offered to the king more or less voluntarily. In course of time when the authority of the king came to be stabilized Bali was converted into a tax. What was once a type of voluntary contribution later came to be regarded as a right of the king to tax the people.

Before fixation of land revenue, the fields were measured and the soil classified according to the fertility and all these details like the area, grade, nature of produce, ownership, etc. were recorded in the registers of the government. The villages were grouped into three categories, Jyeshta (first grade), Madhyama (middle grade) and Kanishta (lowest grade) and the officer in charge of the village (Gopa) recorded in his register the land under different categories like cultivated land, uncultivated land, plain land, wet land, garden land, vegetable growing land, irrigated land, etc. Assessment varied according to the quality of the land and the nature of the crop raised. The share of the king was determined after taking into account the fertility of the soil, the need of the State and producer’s surplus.

Unit of Measurement

There existed two kinds of measurements, linear and square. Linear unit of measure consisted of

  • Angula- 3/4th of an inch
  • Pradesa- 9 inches
  • Pada- 10 inches
  • Hasta- 18 inches
  • Danda- six feet
  • Rajju- 60 feet
  • Krosa- 1.13 miles
  • Yojana-4.54 miles

Square unit of measurements consisted of

  • Adhavapa-1/2 acre
  • Nivartana 3100 sq yards or less than one acre
  • Dronavapa- 1.5 to 2 acres
  • Vel- 5 to 6 acres
  • Hala- 10 to 12 acres
  • Kulyavapa- 12 to 16 acres
  • Pataka-60 to 80 acres
  • Kula- 96 acres

 Types of Land Tax

  • BaliSmritis consider bali as king’s share which varied from 1/6th, 1/8th, 1/10th and 1/12th. But Arthashastra says bhaga as king’s share and bali as an undefined cess over and above the kings normal share of the produce (bhaga).
  • Bhaga – This was a kind of revenue which was payable to the king in kind or cash on the land produce. The rates of bhaga as fixed by Manu varied between 1/6th, 1/8th and 1/12th according to the quality of land. Kautilya fixed the lower limit at 1/6th; Gautama and Baudhaayana agreed to 1/6th.
  • Bhoga – This denotes king’s share in vegetables, fruits, flowers, milk and forest products like firewood.
  • Hiranya – King’s share of certain commercial crops like sugarcane, ginger, cotton, etc. to be paid in cash as distinguished from tax in kind (bhoga).
  • Udranga and Uparikara – According to Ghoshal Udranga was a tax/rent imposed on permanent land tenants while Uparikara was a tax/rent on temporary land tenants. The former tax was deposited in the royal exchequer and the latter given to tax collectors for their subsistence.
  • Kara – A kind of tax to be levied periodically on the villagers to be paid in cash or taxes levied upon fruit trees.
  • Pindakara – Tax levied upon whole villages, i.e. lump sum assessment upon villages as distinguished from the king’s grain share assessed upon the individual cultivators.
  • Jalakara – Irrigation tax / Udakabhaagam– water cess
  • Pranaya – Tax levied during grave emergencies. Different rates were assessed for different classes of soils, the maximum rate being 1/3rd or 1/4th.

According to Kautilya the highest revenue officer was called Samahatra (during the Mauryan period). During the Gupta period this officer was known as Uparika and as Bhogapati during the rule of Harshavardhana.

Tax exemption

Taxable land was known as Karada and non-taxable land akarada. The lands were made akarada or exempted from taxation generally in return for some specific service rendered in respect of persons other than Brahmanas. Land granted to scholarly Brahmins, Hindu and Buddhist monasteries and temples were exempted from land tax. Exemption was also extended to those unable to pay taxes, while farmers who brought uncultivated land under cultivation were given remission of taxes for two years. The Rummindei Pillar Inscription of Ashoka records the Emperor order that the village of Lumbini, because of its being the birth place of Buddha has been made liable to 1/8th of the bhaga and exempted from bali. Law giver Aapastamba prescribed that the Vedic student, men of Vedic learning, women of all castes, ascetics, children, boys in the residence of their teachers for study, Shudras doing menial work as well as the blind, the dumb, the diseased and crippled and persons over seventy years were exempted from paying taxes.

Land Grants

Land grants were of four types,

  1. Beneficial tenure

         Under beneficial tenure we have

  • Brahmadeya – This type of land grant which was exempted from taxes and fines was given to a Brahmana who was a performer of sacrifices, a scholar and a priest. In this type of land grant the king had no claim on it even on the failure of an heir on the part of the donee. The Brahmadeya land could be transferred only to those members of his caste who enjoyed similar endowment. The settlement of the Brahmins in this type of land grant was known as Agrahara and they were supposed to impart regular religious or secular instruction to others.
  • Devadana – This type of land grant was given to temples which were serving as religious and social centers. The donors were kings, queens, officials, private persons and village communities. Kings gave lands to temples with a view to secure a powerful empire or to record their visits. The common people donated land to temples to secure the four objects of life namely, dharma, artha, kama and moksha. The income from these lands was used for daily worship and for conducting festivals.
  • Mathapura – This type of land grant was given to the mathas (monasteries) for their maintenance, promotion of study and the spread of their respective theologies.
  • Buddhist Sanghas – The Buddhist monasteries were also centers of education and received land grants from kings and commoners alike to carry on their activities. For instance the University of Nalanda had been endowed with more than two hundred villages.

       2. Service tenure

Under Service tenure land was granted to government officials of definite categories and members of some professions. For example, superintendents, Gopas, Sthanikas, accountants, veterinary surgeons and physicians, horse trainers and some messengers were the recipients of land grants. During the time of Harshavardhana high officers were not paid in cash for their services to the state and Hiuen Tsang explicitly sates that the governors, ministers, magistrates and officers had each a portion of land assigned to them for their personal support. These grants of land were not hereditary and not transferable through sale or gift.

  1. Contractual tenure

Under this tenure the crown land was assigned to persons who brought new areas under cultivation or raised crops in the crown land and paid rent or a share in the produce.

  1. Miscellaneous types of land tenure
  • Aatithya – Land grants given to state officers for the purpose of public charities.
  • Aayudhiya – Land given to villages which supplied troops or land held on condition of supplying troops.
  • During the Ganga rule over southern parts of Karnataka land grant called Bittuvatta was given to persons who took care of irrigational facilities and land grant called Nettarukodige was given for subsistence to the dependents of the deceased in battles.

The deeds of grants were broadly divided as royal (rajakiya) and private (laukika). Royal records were issued by the king, queen, nobles, governors and other high officials of the state. Private records were issued by the guilds and by the common people.

Famine Relief

Magasthenes states that famine has never visited India but this is not true. Due to natural calamities like drought and excessive rain and man-made calamities like constant warfare and oppressive taxation system, famine like situation used to prevail in ancient India.  But people were able to cope up with it as every village had a sufficient stock of food grains and forest open to public use provided fodder for livestock. The existence of public granaries shows that grains were stocked. For instance at Harappa a granary have been discovered. Ashoka’s Rock Edict from Rupnath records two store houses each divided into three apartments at Shravasti for storage of grains. Arthashastra lays down the following measures as relief during famine- supply of seeds and other provisions; employment of famine stricken people in public undertakings like construction of bridges, buildings, etc., supply of food, sending the famine stricken people to another country for the time being or seeking the help of a friendly state.

Decline in Agricultural produce and the status of Agriculturists

  • As we know in ancient India the cultivators belonged to the Vaishya caste who had expertise in agricultural activities. Under the influence of ahimsa doctrine many of them gave up cultivation as it involved killing of insects and pests. This led to decline in agricultural produce as those who replaced them had poor knowledge of agricultural production.
  • During the Gupta rule land grants (made in Madhya Pradesh) gave the donee the right to subinfeudation. The donee reserved the right to evict the cultivators and as a result the permanent tenants were reduced to the status of ‘tenants at will’. This resulted in the depression of the peasantry and subdued their interest to bring more areas under cultivation.
  • Since the time of Harshavardhana, high officers were not paid in cash for their services but by tax free land grants. As long as waste land was in plenty the kings share (tax given by individual cultivators) did not vary much. When there was no more waste land the kings share increased by imposition of various levies at places to such a point that many cultivators had to give up their lands than cultivate them.
  • The Mohammadan system of farming revenue (revenue leasing) established a chain of middlemen of which the highest were the farmers of revenue and the lowest, the headsmen of villages, all of whom squeezed out the cultivators to the utmost extent.
  • From 10th century onwards Muslim jihadists like Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad of Ghur and Timur during their frequent raids over northern India devastated, ravaged and burnt whole villages and cities. They also butchered lakhs of men including farmers, women and children and completely destroyed standing crops in the fields and looted or destroyed stores of grains. All these led to famine and pestilence and it took many years to recover. Also Sultans like Ala-ud-din Khilji loathed Hindus, raised land revenue to one-half of the produce and imposed other tax like grazing tax, house tax and jizya. The result was that the Hindus who were mainly connected with land in one form or the other were reduced to extreme poverty and retarded agriculture activities.

References

  1. Ganesh Prasad Sinha – Post Gupta Polity (500-750 A.D.)
  2. N.Ghoshal – The Agrarian System in Ancient India, University of Calcutta, 1930
  3. Kunwar Deo Prasad – Taxation in Ancient India, Mittal Publication, Delhi, 1987
  4. N.Luniya – Life and Culture in Ancient India, Lakshmi Narain Agarwal, Agra, 1978
  5. Muddachari – Economic History of Karnataka
  6. Narendra Nath Kher – Agrarian and Fiscal Economy in the Mauryan and post Mauryan Age
  7. Radharaman Gangopadhyay, Some Materials for the study of Agriculture and Agriculturists in Ancient India, N.C.Mukherjee & Co, Serampore, 1932
  8. P.Rayachaudhuru and Mira Roy, Agriculture in Ancient India – A Report, Publication and Information Division, New Delhi, 1993
  9. R.Sarkar – Public Finance in Ancient India, Abhinav Publication, New Delhi, 1978
  10. Saroj Dutta – Land System in North India 400-700 A.D.
  11. N.Saletore – Life in the Gupta Age
  12. V.Sreenivasa Murthy – History and Culture of India to 1000 A.D., S.Chand & Company, New Delhi, 1980
  13. L.Srivastava – The Sultanate of Delhi, Shiva Lal Agarwala & Co, Agra, 1995
  14. Sushil Maltidevi – Economic condition of Ancient India

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