As in the earlier Gupta age in the North, villages formed the administrative unit in the Chola hingdom. However, in the nature of the village administration, there were significant differences: the Chola villages were remarkably autonomous for their times. The role of the Chola officials in the village administration was more like that of an adviser and observer than that of a controller and superintendent. Consequently, there was continuity in growth and development at the local level, reasonably free of the effects of the political changes at the upper level. This is also the reason behind the general cultural continuity that is a characteristic of the Tamil country as compared with other regions of India.
The basic premise in the concept of village autonomy of the Cholas was that the villagers should administer their villages themselves. For this purpose, village assemblies vested with the power of administration were constituted. In the larger villages with a number of rural organizations, there were a number of assemblies and a villager could be a member of any number of these subject to the conditions of membership. A village would consist of wards, each ward having an assembly of its members some of whom could also be members of a professional body such as smiths or carpenters or part of a group looking after other village functions like the maintenance of the local temple. These various groups constituted the social structure of the village and their relationships were basic to its social life. There would be a general assembly in addition to the smaller groups.
Most of the local residents were members of the general assembly. The general assemblies were of three types: the ur, comprising of the tax-paying residents of an ordinary village; the sabha, whose membership was open only to the Brahmans of the village or else was found exclusively in villages gifted to brahmans; and the nagaram, generally found in centres of trade and commerce, since it was devoted entirely to serving the interests of the mercantile community. The ur and the sabha were found together in some villages while larger villages had two urs. if necessary.
Local conditions determined the working method of these assemblies. All adult males of a village were eligible to become members of the Ur, but in effect only elder residents took active interest, some of them forming a committee to look after routine matters. The sabha worked in the same manner and had the power to constitute subsidiary commities for works of a specialized nature. Members were elected to the sabha apparently by lot, subject to the conditions of eligibility, but the sabha made changes in the method of its working if that was necessary.A tenth century inscription on a temple wall of the brahman village of Uttaramerur gives the details of how the local sabha worked:
“…There shall be thirty wards.
In these thirty wards those that live in each ward shall assemble and shall elect each person possessing the following qualifications for inclusion for selection by lot.
He must own more than one-quarter of the tax- paying land.
He must live in a house built on his own site.
His age must be below seventy and above thirty-five.
He must know the mantras and brahamanas.
Even if he owns only one-eighth of the land, his name shall be included provided he has learnt one Veda and one of the four Bhashyas.
Among those possessing these qualifications only such as are well conversant with business and are virtuous shall be taken, and one who possesses honest earnings whose mind is pure and who has not been in any of the committees for the last three years shall also be chosen. One who has been on any of the committees but has not submitted his accounts, and his relations specified below, cannot have his name written on the tickets…”
There follows a list of the relations who cannot contest and then the five sins debarring candidature: killing a Brahman, drinking alcohol, theft, adultery and associating with criminals. The debarred list also includes fools, one who has taken forbidden dishes, etc. Next is a description of how the tickets for each of the wards are to be bundled, one bundle is to be placed inside a pot, then shaken loose by the chief priest, out of which a young boy would take one. The chief arbitrator would receive the ticket in his palm with all five fingers open, read out the ticket, get the name confirmed by showing the ticket to other priests, and record the name and so on.
“Of the thirty men thus chosen, those who had been previously on the Garden Committee, and on the Tank Committee, those who are advanced in learning and those who are advanced in age shall be chosen for the Annual Committee.
Of the rest, twelve shall be taken for the Garden Committee and the remaining six shall form the Tank Committee. The great men of these three committees shall hold office for full 360 days and then retire. Anyone on a committee found guilty of an offence shall be removed at once. For appointing the committees after these have retired, the members of ‘the Committee for Supervision of Justice’ in the twelve streets shall convene an assembly with the help of the arbitrator. The Committees shall be appointed by drawing pot tickets…
Next the qualification (‘possesses honest earnings’) of the arbitrator is specified and the stipulations for the accountant (honest, should submit his accounts in time and should write it himself) is given, and it ends:
“We, the assembly of Uttaramerur- Chaturvedimangalam made this settlement for the prosperity of our village in order that wicked men may perish and the rest may prosper. At the order of the great men sitting in the Assembly, I, the arbitrator Kaladipottan Shivakkuri Rajamangala- priyan thus wrote the settlement.” (as quoted by Romila Thapar, A History of India Volume One)
Inscriptions found elsewhere also describe similar procedures with a different set of requirements and qualifications for the candidates as also other methods of sanctioning expenses. Assemblies were generally convened by the beating of a drum and they were usually held in the temple courtyard. They were instances of fraternal cooperation and exchanges between the assemblies.
Tax for the government was collected by the assembly from its members, in some instances it was the tax for the entire village taken as a whole. The assembly also had the power to impose a tax for a particular purpose say, for the construction of a water tank. Such collections were kept separate from the amount obtained for the state. Records, particularly of taxes and charities, were maintained by the assemblies and they intervened and mediated in matters relating to agricultural land holdings, disputes over irrigation rights, etc. Salaried personnel were maintained by the large assemblies; in other instances, such works were usually done on a voluntary basis.
Between the village and the king, the king’s officer was not the only intermediary and the assembly was not in any manner affected by that. Feudatories like the Pallava chiefs and other minor rulers were there in the Chola kingdom, but the assemblies were not involved in any manner in the relationship between the king and his feudatories. The assemblies were independent to such an extent that the changes in the relationships at higher levels had no effect on the life of the village. This freedom from the effect of changes in the administrative and political structure at the top was possible because of the economic and political self-sufficiency of the village, and, within this framework, social institutions were established and economic activity in the village was carried out. The revenue was collected by the assembly, from which the feudatory remitted the king’s share. This system was followed only in the Chola kingdom. In the North as also elsewhere in the Deccan, the feudatories were no longer politically subordinate to the king; their relationship with the king meanwhile had transformed into one based on comparative strength. They did not just pass on the king’s share of revenue, but did so on a definite political and economic basis.