Essay on the Nature of the Agrarian Economy


Different views have been put forward on the nature and character of early medieval agrarian economy. One school views it as a manifestation of feudal economy, while the other claims it to be a peasant state and society. The first group says that a subject and immobile peasantry functioning in relatively self-sufficient villages buttressed by the bonds of the varna system was the marked feature of the agrarian economy during the period 800-1300 ad. The theory of autonomous peasant societies presented by the other group is based on the evidence from South Indian sources chiefly.

According to the first group, the emergence of hierarchical landed intermediaries resulted in gross unequal distribution of wealth, power, land and its produce. Forced labour, originally a prerogative of the state, was now used by the land grant benefi­ciaries; even the artisans were not spared. In the Chola inscriptions there are about one hundred references to such practices. The superior rights of the landed class meant deprivation of the peasants’ rights. This, along with increased taxation, coercion and indebtedness reduced the peasant to a pathetic state. The surplus was extracted by various methods. It was a relatively closed village economy. The land grant charters transferred the artisans and peasants of the villages to the donees thereby ensuring control over them by the beneficiaries.

The supporters of peasant state and society theory point to the autonomous peasant regions called the nadus which evolved in the south in early medieval times, organised on the basis of clan and kinship ties. The people of the nadu organised and controlled the agricultural production there. The autonomy of these nadus is indicated by the fact that when land grants were made by the kings or chiefs orders were issued only after obtaining the consent of the nattar, who were, incidentally, velalas or non- brahman peasants. As the organisers of the produc­tion, they demarcated the land that was being gifted, and supervised the entire process. The brahmans and rich peasants were just their allies or partners in the agricultural production. It is to be noted that this theory also presupposes self-sufficient villages, an essential feature of feudalism anywhere.


Some scholars are of the opinion that region­alism, instability and chaos in the political and administrative structure of India in the early Medi­eval period were a direct consequence of the land system prevailing at that time. It was customary in those days to give land to the military and the government (king’s council’s etc.) officers as a part of their remuneration. Also, there was the practice of granting land to samantas, who, in return, pro­vided the king with troops and money. The samantas enjoyed complete autonomy and independence in matters connected with the land given to them. For that tract of land, the administration was with him and him only, even to the extent of dispensing justice. Slaves, serfs and forced labour cultivated it and the income therefrom went to his coffers. All that he was required to do was to provide (often indifferent) military service and to pay a fixed amount to the king.

An awareness of communal rights in land can be traced in early texts like the passage in Aitareya Brahmana stating that the Earth protested against the action of Visvakarman Bahuvana when he donated land to the priests as sacrificial fee. It was held that no gift of land could be made without the consent of the clan, a view that was later modified to include the rights of those who did not belong to the clan, like the members of a village community belonging to various clans and professions. Jaimini (third century bc) stated that even a king could not give away the land over which he ruled, because the earth belongs to all. In the Gupta and the post-Gupta phase, the Dharmashastras got round this indivisibility clause by stating that it applied to everyone except­ing the brahmans.

Community had a major role to play in land disputes and sales, mediation byjati (kinsmen) and evidence of cultivators, artisans and even hunte were enjoined in law texts. It was for this reaso of communal welfare priests were gifted lands so to enable the temple to function in the interest the community.

It would appear that the kings were the first deprive the community of its land rights: th previously quoted instance from Aitareya Brahma points to that. As a representative of the community, he gradually assumed the communal rights on land. Kautilya proposed king’s control over agriculture, but no absolute ownership. Manu was the first to refer to the king’s supreme power over earth and Katyayana surpassed them all by declaring the king Bhusvamin (owner of the earth).


That he got his rights over the soil as the first representative of the community, the king forgot conveniently; he started giving land to secure reli­gious merits for himself and his ancestors; he became a private landowner. Manu’s provision that the owner loses legal title if someone is in possession of a property for ten years was changed to twenty years by Yajnavalkya, to sixty years by Vishnu, Narada and Brihaspati. The Mitaksara provision of hundred years in the eleventh century made the process of establishing the rights of the possessor very difficult indeed, almost impossible for tempo­rary peasants cultivating a piece of land. In this way, the laws helped the landlords to continue their hold over the lands by making the proprietary rights of tenants difficult. The owner had the right to change his tenant and the laws stressed the obligation of the tenant to pay even when they neglected cultivation.

It would therefore be seen that the common people viewed the constant warfare among the petty chiefs and principalities with nothing but dread. The feuding parties, no bigger than the administrative divisions of a modern district or division, each had its army, court, judiciary, revenue department, temples and priests, the costs of which were borne by the peasantry. Naturally, they had little interest in the continuation of such states.

The chief obligation of the vassals to their lord was to provide military service. Literary and epi- graphic evidences indicate that to provide military aid to the overlord and to accompany him in times of war was the samanta’s principal duty. Dhanapala’s Tilakamanjari and Merutunga’s Prabandhachintamani contain such references showing that along with mantrins the samantas constituted an important element of the body politic. This made the rulers quite dependent on their feudatories on military aid. Admittedly the kings had their own standing armies, but they perhaps relied more on the quotas supplied by their vassals. “The king waged war, but did not rule; the great land-owners ruled but no longer as officials and mercenaries, but as independent lords.

They constituted the master class claiming for itself all the prerogatives of government, the whole ad­ministrative machine and all important positions in the army”. (Arnold Hauser)


All these feudal states were identified with their ruling clans, tribes and communities, they could not accept one another. Their sense of personal freedom was inflated, their ego was over blown and their vanity was limit less and they just could not accept that some one else could be better than them. It was not possible for them to seek someone capable to become their leader and to listen to him. They lacked political foresight, did not know what national consciousness meant and could not overcome petty rivalries. Patriotism, motherland and state were terms associated with parochial or at the most regional entities leading to almost continuous feuds and clashes among the various clans, tribes and commu­nities. They went to fight each other to show-off their strength over the flimsiest of reasons. Consequently, there was little time or energy left to develop national unity and the emergence of a confederacy of such states who believed in some sort of a national ideal. Instead, they went on measuring their swords against each other thus wasting valuable resources in men and material and depleting their military strength.

In view of these continuous wars and fights to self-destruction and mutual annihilation, no con­certed effort against the invaders was possible. Furthermore, the ruling dynasties changed frequently and the princes of the royal houses changed sides, broke alliances or formed new ones with bewildering rapidity, leaving their subjects with no time to develop a sort of emotional attachment or to grow a sense of loyalty. There were claims on territories of others, when they responded with counter claims. Might was the dispenser of justice and war was the arbitrator in such instances.

A small principality, on being strong, would lay claim on the territory of some weak neighbour. Usually such claims were vague and generally never exceeded the breaking point. The weaker states were left with no alternative but to concede to such demand, knowing that resistance would be futile, all this had a demoralising effect on almost everyone, weak or strong. There was no one sufficiently strong to keep these feuding princes from hurting each other and thereby increase national strength.

It was a feudal society from an administrative point of view, consisting of various clans (there were forty of them) each one under a hereditary ruler or rulers. The chief supposedly owned all the lands, which he distributed among his thakurs (followers), and got a fixed payment as well as olaga or chakari (military service) in return. Like villages elsewhere in India, they had their fairly autonomous Panchayats and were economically self-sufficient. Tradition and local customs formed the laws and the administration was neither efficient nor stable.

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