Scholars are of the view that land grants started first in outlying and backward areas and then gradually extended to the Ganga valley the hub of Brahmanical culture. The chronological sequence of land grants obtained from various sources is as follows. In the fourth-fifth centuries, Andhra, northern Deccan and a major portion of central India began the practice. In the fifth-seventh centuries, Bengal and Orissa as also Gujarat and Rajasthan followed. In the seventh- eighth centuries, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu began the system; and in the ninth century, Kerala; and by the end of the 12th century, the practice had spread to almost the entire country with the possible exception of Punjab.
Land grants were given to brahmans as gifts or danas in the belief that such acts would earn religious merit [punya) for the giver and destroy his sins. It seems this belief was actively propagated by the brahmans to secure their means of livelihood. All the Smritis and Puranas of the post-Gupta periods recommend that land grant charters should be engraved on copper plates, while the Dharmasastra provided the set legal formula systematised for such purposes.
While the earlier land grants were made to the Vedic priests (srotriya brahman), from the fifth to the thirteenth century, such grants were made to the temples (Devadana) and other non-Brahmanical religious institutions as well (Buddhist sanghas and Jaina basadis). Such institutions, some of them possessing vast tracts, came to play a significant role in agricultural expansion and organisation from the eighth century onwards. Likewise, lands granted to officials for services rendered to the state (the earliest reference to which is as early as c. 200 ad) began to be in evidence in the post-Gupta period. Literary works dealing with Central India, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Orissa and Bengal in the period between 10th-12th century make references to various kinds of land grants to officials of all kinds. The Pala charters refer to Rajaputras and Rajas who are mainly vassals connected with land. All such recipients were given fiscal and administrative rights over the land; the word parihara (exceptions) appearing on the charters indicated that what was theoretically payable to the king was not completely exempted, but now stood transferred to the donee. Apparently, it was as per a provision in the Dharmasastra establishing royal ownership of land and hence justified such grants by creating intermediary rights.
With the expansion in agrarian economy, there developed self-sufficient units of production and consumption under the control of brahmans or religious institutions like temples, which had little to do with outside trade. Essentials like salt, iron tools, etc., were obtained from merchants, no doubt, but in general there was a decline in trade. This picture, certainly true for the period, say, 400-800 ad, underwent a change in the next five centuries. The rapid increase in agrarian settlements and growth in local markets led to the need for regular exchanges, which in turn led to the re-emergence of organised commerce. All this led to a change in the pattern of land ownership towards the close of the early medieval period. Merchants and economically well- off artisans like weavers, etc., started to acquire and made gifts of land. For instance, in south Karnataka a group of weavers known as jagatikottali and the community of oil-expellers, telligas were active participants in agriculture; the first group was repeatedly referred to as excavators of tanks and promoters of gardens and orchards.
As is to be expected, this non-homogeneous rural landscape, where the majority were landless or without any control over land, was not entirely free of tensions. The dependent peasants, sharecroppers, labourers, etc., the ranks of karshaka, kshetrika, halika, ardhika and so on, without any landholding, occasionally expressed their resentment in protests against the stratified landed intermediaries like brahmans,
bhogapatis and so on. The damara revolts in Kashmir, rebellion of the kaivartyas in the reign of Ramapala in Bengal, acts of self-immolation in situations of encroachment on lands in Tamil Nadu, appropriations of donated lands by shudras in the Pandya country are instances of the anger against the new landed intermediaries.