As we have seen above the Tamil polity in pre-Vijayanagar times was a multiple monai supported or hampered, as the case might be, by a number of lesser chieftains. The monarchies were the Chera, the Chola and the Pandya.
In medieval times new monari like the Pallava, came in but the characteristics of the polity remained unchanged. The political boundaries of these kingdoms were not clearly demarcated; they were mai cultural boundaries.
The relationship among these powers was one of nearly perpel hostility. The consequences of this state of affairs must have been hard on the economy of the land. The cultural chauvinism noticeable among the residents of this area had its beginnings even then. Each of the chieftains bore allegiance to one crowned monarch, but this subordination was only theoretical except when they were compelled by force of air to obey the monarchs.
Normally they were distinguished from the monarchs by the exit of their territory, the size and shape of their crowns and by the economic or military resoi they could command. When monarchical supremacy was recognised the chieftains’ pail tribute, commanded their lord’s armies and bore their titles. But the aberrant chieftains warred against their lords, and even supported their enemies. This mercenary trait was a common feature of those times.
The ancient Tamil monarchies were hereditary. Hereditary succession did not necessarily] mean succession by primogeniture. But usually the first-born was recognised. At least it can be confidently stated that there was no matrilineal succession. In the whole of ancient Tamilaham which comprised modern Kerala also as part of the Chera country and part of j the Pandyan country the ‘same system of succession was adopted.
The matrilineal succession to ordinary property as well as to the throne became a common practice in Kerala only in early medieval times. Mere ownership of some property or the uses of metronymics in different parts of South India, as we have seen before, do not constitute matrilineal system in society. The kings treated their kingdoms as practically their private property. The incredible’ philanthropy of some kings and chieftains towards their favourites-be they poets, singers or dancers-bears some evidence to this.
The entire revenue, whatever its source, was treated by the king as his personal earning and lodged in an apartment in the palace and termed the treasury. This gave the king a monopoly of national resources with which he could stabilize despotism or increase popular welfare, as he pleased. Usurpations were not unknown and there were no political arrangements to guard against them.
A peculiar feature of ancient Tamil monarchy was that each of the three kingdoms was ruled by representatives of more than one branch of the royal families; hence there were at least two capitals for each kingdom and at least two main branches simultaneously exercising royal functions. The king could succeed to the throne at any age, for example Karikala assumed royalty at the age of five. There was no provision for regency when the king died without proper successor.
The abdication of royalty was, though not a frequent occurrence, not unknown. It was thought that the king attained merit when he died in battle facing his enemy. If however he happened to die a peaceful death he used to be ritually quartered and deemed to have died by the martial sword. The king was the representative of God on earth; he was even considered to be an incarnation of the deity. His palace was called Koyil which also means the residence of God.
The ritual worship of God was also given to the king, though it is difficult to state positively whether the temple ritual followed the palace ritual or vice versa. The king had his paraphernalia like an elephant, a horse, the whisk, the conch; the throne, the crown, the scepter and the royal umbrella were special emblems of royalty. The accession of the king to the throne was marked by a ceremonial occasion on which crowning (adorning the king with the crown) or coronation was an important element.
The kings assumed titles which marked some important event in their royal career: A battle they won, a place where they died etc., were usually such events. The royal umbrella represented not only the sovereignty of the king but also the protection that he gave his subjects. The scepter stood for justice and the Tamil kings at least in most of the cases were anxious to be just. An unjust act was deemed unworthy of a king.
Each dynasty had a crest or an emblem and these were inscribed not only on their flags but on the seals which were affixed to royal correspondence. Exported and imported cargo stocked in ware-houses bore these seals. The Pandyas adopted the fish emblem;-it was a double carp which was inscribed on their flags. The tiger was the Chola emblem and the bow the Chera emblem.
Each ruling family, especially among the chieftains held a belief that it was protected by certain trees which according to them possessed mystic protective power. If these trees were cut down they believed that their families as well as their capital would be destroyed. Hence every aggressive invader first tried to cut down the tutelary tree of the enemy and it was equally zealously guarded by the defenders.
The king had absolute power in the government of his subjects. There were certain traditional bodies of advisers whose advice he might accept if it pleased him but he was not under any legal or constitutional obligation to do so. The king was advised and ministered by advisers called Amaichchar and served by a host of petty servants who waited on him. The former were five official groups called Aimperunkulu and the latter the Enperayam.
There is no reference to these bodies in the Kural which is supposed to be a standard treatise on ancient Tamil polity. There is mention of these bodies, however, in the Silappadikaram. The king employed a number of spies, not only to know the condition of the populace but also to be informed of the activities of enemies. The spies if caught by the enemies would be executed. There was so much suspicion in the world of government that even spies were spied upon.
The king was a busy person. He had political, judicial, military and other duties and had to receive and reward poets and artists. He had to go out hunting and occasionally move out in disguise to know the welfare of his subjects in person. The Purohita was a spiritual functionary who advised royalty on religious, educational and allied matters.
He played an important role on the occasion of the coronation. We know of a Sangam king Perum Cheral Irumporai who followed the example of his Purohita, renounced the world and turned ascetic. The king maintained a harem; his chief queen could share throne but not participate in government.
One of the essential functions of the king was judicial. The king was constantly told the wise men of the land that a just king would flourish and be prosperous while an undid king would be punished by God. Meting out justice apart from the formal structure3 judicial administration was a difficult task.
A Sangam poet somewhat quaintly ren that the penance of the ascetics and the chastity of women depended on the justice o| government. A Pandyan king died of remorse when he learnt the injustice he had unwitl caused to an innocent person falsely accused of theft. Senguttuvan, the famous Chera rut1 remarked that great was the anxiety of a king who wanted to rule justly. The instance o| Manu Niti Cholan illustrates the sense of justice which then prevailed. In that partici instance, the kind of justice meted out was Hammurabian. Judicial procedure was far: well established. Karikala observed the formalities of judicial procedure which include the calling of witnesses, recording of evidence and passing of judgement.
The king him” presided over the law court in the royal court. From the Silappadikaram we learn that the Pandyan king had instituted in front of his palace a chain of justice that a complain” could, by pulling it, appear before the king and submit his case for royal judgement. Front the Periya Puranam we learn that there was a similar chain of justice in the Chola caught there was no time bar for litigation. Even civil disputes could be heard long after the cause of action arose.
In the villages there was a simple court presided over by village officials. If a thief could be executed for his offence as the Silappadikaram seems to make it out the penal code was certainly harsh. One of the methods used for detection of crime was trial by ordeal. This system is naturally devoid of any semblance of natural justice. Though it was a fairly widespread practice in the world in those times its prevalence anywhere meant that the judicial system however crude required some proof.
In Sangam times the trial was either by water or by fire. We hear of interesting modes of trial by ordeal like compelling an accused to put his hand into a pot containing a cobra. There were prisons to hold not only the guilty persons who awaited punishment but also captives taken prisoners in war. We know of at least two royal prisoners, one a Chera prince Mandaran Cheral Irumporai and another again a Chera Kanaikkal Irumporai who were put in prison and even held in chains by their enemy kings.
The polity of the Sangam Tamils was noted for its almost uninterrupted military activities. Aggression was a routine function of monarchies and chieftaincies, though in those times I it was deemed a natural function of royalty, in view of the fact that the kings and the chieftains perhaps wished to save victims of tyranny from their condition or it was thought that it was legitimate for any king to aspire to extend his territories at the expense of his neighbours.
So the army was an important institution. In the Sangam texts we come across descriptions of numerous battles and many poems applaud their patrons for their military achievements. Theoretically the Tamils believed in ethical warfare which meant a certain canon of behaviour on the part of warriors in the matter of dealing with enemies or prisoners of war. They held that Brahmins, womenfolk, ascetics and cows were not to be injured. This we find only in theoretical treatises, but in practical accounts of war, violation of these humane ethical laws is very much in evidence.
The army was four-fold. It consisted of the infantry, the cavalry, the elephant corps and the chariots. They knew a sophisticated system of defence of fortified places. The siege of the Parambu of Pari by all the three kings of Tamilaham is an example of such siege. Perum Cheral Irumporai besieged Tahadur and reducing the fortress, defeated Adigaiman and conquered his country. A system of forest fortification was also known.
One such was the Kanappereyil which belonged to one Vengaimarban who was defeated by the Pandyan Ugrapperuvaludi. They knew the use of a wide variety of war weapons and also the shield. The spear, the sword and the bow and arrow were the main offensive weapons. Even in the Sangam age the navy was a powerful sector of the Tamil kings’ military establishment. Karikala attacked Ceylon successfully with his navy.
Successful war was rarely followed by annexation of territory but when Nedunjeliyan of Talaiyalanganam invaded the Chola country he succeeded in his mission and annexed two Chola Kurrams to the Pandyan kingdom. Usually the conquered territory was restored to defeated king and tribute alone was levied. The army was generally mercenary.
When war broke out the fact was proclaimed by beat of drum and whoever responded was recruited. They knew different kinds of armies like the standing army, the mercenaries, the national militia, the guerilla army, allied army and prisoners of war used as fighters. The booty that was collected in the battlefield was enormous and many kings used it for the improvement of their own kingdoms.
The Sangam Tamils knew the necessity for taxation and the main source of revenue for their government was land revenue. Almost all the taxes were paid mostly in kind and occasionally in cash. The king used the revenue for public purposes of popular welfare as well as for private expenses of his household. The taxes were called karai or Irai. The tributes paid by conquered chieftains etc. were called Tirai.
Customs duties and tolls were Sutigam. Vari was a general term for tax. From this, later on a department in charge of levying tax came to be called a Variyam. There was no constitutional arrangement to control the receipt and expenditure of public revenue. Alteration in the rate of taxation also could be arbitrarily done by the king though he generally confined himself to the dharmic prescription of l/6th of the land yield in the case of land revenue. Even this was a theoretical prescription. There is reason to believe that the actual revenue exceeded this rate.
Though land revenue was the chief item, government was possible only because there were other considerable sources of revenue. The kural mentions three kinds of royal revenues: (1) Uru Porul, i.e., taxes which are normally due: This evidently means land revenue; (2) Ulgu Porul, i.e. cesses and duties and (3) Onnartteru Porul, i.e., war booty and tribute. The tributes paid by subordinate chieftains and booty collected in the battlefield and from the enemy’s territory were quite regular sources of income.
Anyone who visited the king had to make a present and these added up were considerable. The king spent the revenue perhaps primarily on his palace establishment which was a large one and in undertaking public welfare activities like laying a road, cutting a canal, digging a tank, building a temple and feeding the poor. But it would appear the bulk of the expenditure related to military activities as also giving largesse to indigent poets and artists and others who waited on him awaiting such favours.
But this system of income and expenditure was a prerogative of the king. Forced loans, however, were discouraged and-the kings were often reminded that revenue got by unfair means brought ruin to the revenue as well as to the king. When necessary, exemption from payment of tax was granted. This was usually when the rains failed. For religious reasons Brahmins and temples were granted tax-free land. Revenue was collected by hierarchy of officials.
The king’s government was centralized at the capital and decentralized in the villages which were fairly autonomous units of administration. This decentralization was necessitated mainly by the absence of a system of close-knit bureaucracy and secondarily due to lack of communication. It was also perhaps felt that the affairs of a village were best understood and conducted by its own leading elders.
These elders were not elected; but age, nobility of lineage and status in society played a role in the selection of these persons. These elders attended to the civil duties in a village and acted as arbiters in local disputes. Customs and common sense guided them in their official activities. The local residential area was either a Ur or a Cheri, the former being an urban conglomerate and the latter literally a collection
of houses but meaning a suburban or a sub-village area. The capitals of the kingdom wer large, but otherwise residential areas were of perhaps less than three or four thous* population. Among the capitals and ports could be mentioned Madurai, Uraiyur, V Korkai, Puhar and Tondi. Kanchipuram is mentioned in a conventional way in Manimekalai. There were some roads which connected major centres of commercial political activity and they were called Peruvali.
The village road was not laid but it was merely a path which laid itself due to the passage of traffic, and in the village itself the street was but the distance between two rows of houses; the condition of these street” especially after rains was attempted to be improved by fresh sand being laid on the– Separate cheris existed for different sections of society. Distances along the road we demarcated by stones which bore the name of the road as well as the distance from a give place. We do not know if there was any municipal system of administration.
The police duties rested with local servants called kavalar and employed by the local village assembly The village itself was managed by an institution called Ambalam, Avai, Manram or Podiyil These were simple structures around the foot of a tree in the nature of a raised platform This was the forum for the village elders. It is not to be imagined that the Sabha was so autonomous as to be entirely independent of royal authority.
Ultimate supervision and sovereign authority rested with the king and his officers. The kingdom itself was divided into Nadus, Kurams etc. Among the local groups the merchants who grouped themselves into guilds or corporations, though of a primitive nature, were perhaps influential.