Essay on Land Ownership during ancient and medieval India

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The largest part of population lived in compact groups in villages, which were mostly dependent on agriculture. The villages usually consisted of three parts namely residential area, arable land and pasture land.

References are sometimes made to barren tracts, forest, pits, canals, tanks, temples, roads, and cattle-tracks pertaining to the villages. There were numerous cities and town in all parts of the country which were developed round the residences of rulers, places of pilgrimage and centre of trade.

While the villagers were chiefly dependent on the produce of the soil and only partly on industry and commerce. The people of cities and towns followed mainly commercial and industrial pursuits, although some of them engaged themselves in agricultural, political, judicial and military activities. Cities were characterised by wealth and luxury while the villagers were mostly poor.

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Like the different type in villages land and uneven distribution of land the rights of holders, the subject of land ownership in the post-Gupta period is a highly complicated and controversial issue which is further more increased by the contemporary sources.

The copper plate grants usually refer to the free gift of pieces of land (sometime cultivated but often waste) or of entire villages made by kings in favour of Brahmanas or religious institutions.

Sometimes state lands were sold to particular parties, occasionally for the latter perpetual enjoyment but usually to enable them to make free gifts. In some cases, the land was said to have been ‘given’ but a specified rent was fixed for it. Whereas , there were some other cases in which the land was given without any clear specification, whether it was rent-free or free-gift.

Besides those who enjoyed the rent-free holding of different classes referred covered only a small portion of the agricultural land of the country. There was the large number of common cultivators. Little is known about their rights in soil.

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The fact, that some inscriptions speak of a piece of land as belonging to one but under the cultivation of a different person, shows that some of the cultivators were non-proprietary or expropriator tenants.

Medhatithi, a prominent law giver of the ninth century, for example records at one place that the king was the lord of the soil and elsewhere states that the field belonged to him who made it fit for cultivation by clearing it.

But land was commonly granted by the rulers with rights of varying degrees to Brahmanas and religious institution. All those grants were made for

different obligation such as religious and ideological purposes, to vassals and princes for military purposes. Thus, there developed a variety of interests and rights over the land of intermediaries.

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With the increasing extent and changing nature of the kings right of ownership over land and the issue of the royal ownership of land became very complicated in actual practice.

Some Post-Gupta inscriptions reveal that the emperors and over lords gave the land grant in the territories and estates of their “Samantas. So, the rights enjoyed over land by the over lords and “Samantas” of different categories depended upon their actual power and prestige.

With the increase of land grants the ownership of land along with everything went to the beneficiaries. Such increasing land grants may be considered as a general indication of an increasing claim of the king over the land. Sometime the actual cultivators of land were also transferred to the donees.

However, there is also evidence both literary and epigraphic, of private individual ownership of land by the aristocracy in the Gupta-period. Some literary sources have stray references suggesting individual ownership, while several inscriptions record cases of land grants and land sale by private individuals.

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In some inscriptions, lands owned by private individuals are indicated in connection with the demarcation of the boundaries of the donated land.

Uncultivated land belonged to the state, while the ownership of cultivated land, often claimed theoretically on the king’s behalf, lay actually with the tenants with the exception of non-proprietary cultivators, who were bound to pay to the state a share of the produce but could not be easily dispossessed of their fields.

Brihaspati and other speaks of particular classes of people like the “Sudras” who could not possess the land of a Brahmin, “by sale partition, or in lieu of wages”.

They further say that when the land was for sale, there was a right of pre-emption in favour of all brothers and relations, neighbors, creditors, and co-villagers, in that order. This indicates to the rights of transfer of land exercised by ordinary occupants.

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Thus, individuals or groups that cultivated lands in their possession were regarded practically as owner thereof, subject to the liability of pay land tax and the right of the state to sell the land for non-payment of tax.

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