Agrarian Relations during the Chola Period

This study by S. Raghavan of agrarian relations in a fertile region of South India about 1000 years ago assumes contemporary importance in the context of ongoing controversies over the acquisition of agricultural land for industry and other private businesses today. It is being serialised in two parts.

This study by S. Raghavan of agrarian relations in a fertile region of South India about 1000 years ago assumes contemporary importance in the context of ongoing controversies over the acquisition of agricultural land for industry and other private businesses today. It is being serialised in two parts.

Part I

When taking up any aspect of ancient Tamil history, most historians tend to look at the “pre-Aryan” or “Dravidian” influences and the “Aryan” influences as two separate and parallel trends, often contradicting and nullifying each other. However, in the light of several recent archaeological discoveries of Harappan remnants in Tamil Nadu and the growing evidence that the Aryans are not exogenous to India including South India, an attempt is made to look at all the developments during the Chola regime without colouring them as Aryan and Dravidian.

The Cholas re-emerged as a major power in south India around the 9th century AD. Over a period of two centuries they consolidated a system of rule that was extensive in its range of functions(1). The Chola state is believed to have had an elaborate administrative structure, which dealt with a large number of autonomous lower level political units such as the mandala (province), valanadu (district) and nadu (group of villages). There are plenty of recorded inscriptions to prove that both at the level of nadu and at the individual village level, local and group assemblies were considerably active in the social and political life of the kingdom, especially in matters such as rural administration and justice.

There are differing opinions about characterising the overall nature of the Chola state. Some historians such as Nilakanta Sastri describe the Chola Empire as having a “Byzantine royalty” and liken South Indian villages to the Roman cities of Gaul(2). Others such as Burton Stein argue that the Chola state was a ‘segmentary’ state with its central, intermediate and peripheral zones, with further segmented internal divisions. According to this view, effective territorial sovereignty of the Cholas was confined to the fertile, prosperous core of the Cauvery Delta(3).

The tradition of a strong local government and of active participation of the predominantly rural population in social and political matters was not a development of the Chola period alone. The merit of the Cholas was to strengthen these features and record them properly. Much earlier, in the period when the Pallavas reigned supreme from the end of the sixth century AD, the basis for an agrarian economy had been laid. Large tracts of land were cleared and cultivation extended. Large-scale tank irrigation works were built. A land revenue system was developed. The income from land served to meet the expenses of the expanding state apparatus, the army and navy. The Pallava period saw the emergence of relatively autonomous organs of government at the level of villages.

The autonomous village level organs of power were of three types: the ur, was an assembly of all landholders in the village; the sabha was believed to be an exclusively Brahmin, or learned men’s assembly; and the nagaram consisted of local traders and merchants. Besides these, there are records of assemblies which cut across villages and were based on occupations, such as guilds of merchants, craftsmen and artisans. While there are numerous records of sabhas, since the Brahmin villages were centres of learning, it appears that all these organs were guided by the same rules and principles of governance, and the ur and sabhas carried out such functions as land control, irrigation, administration of justice and maintenance of records.

Starting from the Pallava period and extending into the Chola period, groups of Brahmins – presumably the more learned – were settled in so-called Brahmadeya villages. Whether the Brahmins took to education and became learned or the most educated and learned were considered as Brahmins is a topic being debated, but is outside the scope of this study. All that can be said is that these villages played a very central role in the administrative affairs of the empire. These villages were generally tax free but unlike the Special Economic Zones of today, these villages provided certain public services for the population in return for the waiver of tax.

These villages served as centres of education and led the other villages in establishing norms and procedures, maintenance of records and documentation of village administration. Villages were important…constant and significant interaction with other institutions such as traders guilds and the revenue and irrigation departments of the empire. It is in this period of innovation that the bhakti movement also first emerged, led by the Vaishnavite Alwars and the Saivite Nayanmars. The movement attempted to remove caste barriers and increase the space for ordinary people in political and social life.

The Chola empire being vast, economic and social conditions and structures varied considerably from region to region. One part of the empire belonged to the irrigated agrarian ecotype, characterised by differentiation within the peasantry with big and small land holders and tillers. The second type of region was characterised by arid, semi dry and dry ecotypes where the peasantry was relatively sturdier with little differentiation among them(4).

As the Chola empire expanded, it is said that occupational divisions cutting across groups of villages strengthened. Broadly, there were two divisions, the Valangai or right hand castes (peasant castes) and the Idangai or left hand castes (artisan and trader castes).

Many historians have argued that private property expanded during the Chola empire.  However, a close examination of property transactions shows that private property in the Chola empire had a very different meaning from the capitalist private property of today. Property relations were also very different from the ryotwari system that the British colonialists introduced in vast areas of Tamil Nadu.

Ownership of property was in most cases common, land being owned by village communities and temples. The transfer and use of land were governed by strict rules. As U.N. Ghoshal points out, though the principle of royal ownership of all territory of the kingdom was recognised, the King’s duty was to protect the land, and in return he had the right to a share in the produce of the land(5).

The land was extremely productive and yielded a variety of crops. Among the major crops grown were paddy, wheat, barley, rice, millets, pulses, sugarcane, cotton, indigo, etc(6). It has been documented that there were lands yielding three, two and single crops.

Land was measured and demarcated clearly in those days. Pallava records describe various kinds of measures. Boundaries were marked by stones and shrubbery. The entire cultivable land was periodically surveyed during the Chola period during the reign of Rajadhiraja I, Rajendra I and Kulottunga I.  Persons who were unwilling to cultivate their lands and migrated, had their lands confiscated by the king, who granted them to others who undertook to cultivate them.

The foundation for the Cauvery basin, known as the “granary of south India” was laid by ensuring a good system of irrigation and regular cultivation. Canals from rivers were supplemented by irrigation tanks and wells. The sabhas played an important role in ensuring the regular removal of mud and silt from the beds of lakes. Both the Raja and the village sabhas had the responsibility to construct and maintain irrigation tanks. It was during the period of the Pallavas and Cholas that major irrigation works were attempted, a well-knit system of canals was established, and a system of irrigation tanks and wells in the rainfed areas put in place.

Lease tenancy was a common form of agricultural holding. Temple lands were leased out to tenants. Again the reader should be cautioned that this lease tenancy was very different from the lease tenancy system introduced by the colonialists and which continues until today, in which the tenant has no security of tenancy and is exploited to the bone by the landlord. The tenants in the Chola period had clear-cut rights and duties. They had the duty to maintain tanks. Where they took the initiative to repair tanks in disuse or bring jungle lands into cultivation, they were rewarded. The tax on land (called melavaram or irai) ranged from one-fifth of the produce for dry lands to one-third for wet lands. Records show, that in the case of lands brought under cultivation by clearing jungles, the peasant had to pay a concessional tax of one-tenth in the first year, one-ninth in the second year and so on(7).

Irai was a common term for land tax. There was tax-free land called Irayili and land which was taxed was called Iraikattinanilam. Lands were further classified as Nansei (wetland), Punsei (dry land), Nattam (common) and Thottam (garden). Rate of revenue varied according to the nature of soil, crops raised and the capacity of the cultivator to pay the revenue. The land had to yield a certain minimum amount to be eligible for assessment. The assessment was generally non-permanent and varied from season to season depending on the yield. This situation prevailed until the British colonialists introduced the Permanent Settlement and established capitalistic private ownership of land; they introduced the Ryotwari and Zamindari systems in Tamil Nadu.

An interesting incident has been described by Rajalakshmi that at one point in time an assembly of all the Desams, including 78 Nadus of Cholamandalam, and 48,000 Bhumis was held to fix the schedule of taxes to be levied during the reign of the Cholas.

Though the King operated through revenue officials and tax intermediaries, reduction in taxes and remission of taxes were common. Tax exemption was granted to particular groups and institutions as a policy. Villages which served as centres of learning were tax-free. In every village, the residential part, i.e., the Ur nattam, washermen’s quarters, temples, tanks, canals, etc. were exempt from all taxes. Fresh lands brought under cultivation generally enjoyed tax exemption to encourage extension of farming to new areas. Records show that in the 14th year of Rajadhiraja II, reductions in the rate of rent were effected and the resolution to this effect was made in the village assembly(8).

The agrarian revenue code that the Pallavas and Cholas established lasted more than a millenium, during which time agriculture and trade flourished. The British company annexed Tamil territory gradually, in the same way as it did the rest of India, employing devious stratagems and taking advantage of the fall of the Vijayanagara rule. With the establishment of Fort St. George in Madras in1638, it spread its tentacles slowly, capturing the jagir of Chingelpet in 1792 and many other areas later. One of the first steps that the colonialists took was to change land relations and establish a land revenue system that would maximise revenues for the colonialists. The Permanent Settlement was implemented in the region with disastrous results. It was an extremely regressive step that set back agricultural development by many centuries.


S. Raghavan is a social activist
interested in rights, economics
and history

For further reading:
1 Tamil Nadu Economy: Performance and Issues, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Oxford & IBH, 1988
2 K.A. Nilakanta Sastri,The Colas,  University of Madras, 1955
3 Burton Stein, Peasant state and society in medieval South India, OUP, 1999
4 Tamil Nadu Economy: Performance and Issues, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Oxford & IBH, 1988
5 U.N Ghoshal, A History of Indian Political Ideas, Oxford, 1966,
6 A. Appadorai: Economic Conditions of Southern India: (A.D. 1000-1500), Vol. I
7 R. Rajalakshmi, Tamil Polity (600-1300), Ennes Publications, 1983
8 Annual Report on Epigraphy, 133 of 1914       

(Part II continued…here)

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