In Conversation with Professor Ranabir Chakravarti: Society and Economy in Early India through  an Epigraphic Lens

In Conversation with Professor Ranabir Chakravarti with the participation of Digvijay Singh, Jinsy JR and Devdutta Kakati: Society and Economy in Early India through an Epigraphic Lens

in Interview
Published on: 20 February 2020

Dev Kumar Jhanjh

Dev Kumar Jhanjh is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His area of specialisation is Epigraphy and Numismatics. He is presently looking at the Political Processes in the Central Himalayan Region (From pre-State to State) (c. first century BCE-twelfth century CE).

Dev Kumar Jhanjh in conversation with Professor Ranabir Chakravarti on Society and Economy in early India through epigraphic lens with the participation of Dr Digvijay Singh, Devdutta Kakati and Jinsy JR.

DKJ (Dev Kumar Jhanjh): In your Prachin Bharater Arthanaitik Itihaser Sandhane (name of a Bengali book), you have mentioned that inscriptions throw most important light on the socio-economic history of early India. Will you elucidate on it?

RC (Ranabir Chakrabarti): First, it’s a book published long back. It’s an old statement but perhaps still has the validity. I wrote this book in 1991, and the revised version came in 2002. The basic premise of this statement is that normally when we look at the economic and social history of the subcontinent in the long past, what is usually called Ancient India or early India up to 1300 AD, then the historians’ focus prior to 1970 was gleanings from normative treatises which is called the Dharmasastra text in general or the Arthasastra. These are invaluable source material but they mainly tell what one should do and what one should not, what is something good and bad, essentially prescriptive normative. How to find out what actually was happening or what was done? For that there are inscriptions which record what may be called descriptive events, and thereby generate data in the study of socio-economic history. I must put a caution here that inscriptions are not standalone sources. Like other sources, they have their limitations and it can be checked, verified, juxtaposed and contrasted with other categories of sources. The advantage with inscriptions, for studying early Indian economy and society, is that they tell us what was actually taking place in the context of a particular region, and you can date most of the inscriptions with some degree of certainty which is not available in the kind of literary texts whether it’s a normative or narrative literary text. So these are the advantages of studying inscriptions. Take, for example, what we find out by the study of inscriptions generating data of socio-economic history. However, these data are not available readymade. Historians have to frame certain questions by reading various books and sources, and then may see some of these framed questions in the light of sources including epigraphic sources. I am not the person who discovered that inscriptions can generate important data for socio-economic history. It was D.C. Sircar who first drew our attention in a systematic way by repeatedly referring to epigraphic materials on social and economic history. Other people also did that but if you look at the historiography of say the 1950s, giants like U.N. Ghosal mainly relied on Arthasastra, Dharmasastra literature, textual sources and normative treaties, thinking that what is stated as the norm was almost valid in society which was actually not. That inscription can generate data on completely different type of information and of a different category was shown by D.C. Sircar. I can give one example of this. Let us look at the inscriptions at Sanchi—more than 613 in number, all these are small records and not of kings or rulers as donors, except three. Most of these records are documents stating donations made by a wide range of social groups, including monks and nuns who were obviously followers of Buddhism. As donation is a pious act, so they are recording their pious act in a document, and the donors are keen to leave their identity which is a social phenomenon. They are not at all referring to their jati-varna status or what is called the caste status. They are repeatedly referring to their professional background and the areas they held from. This is exactly the time (c. 200 BC–200 AD) when major Dharmasastra texts were being composed, like the Manusamhita, Yajnavalkyasmriti. In these two texts everything emanates from the identity of either the four varna system or jati system. This is the ideal derived from the Brahmanical order. In the donation to the Buddhist Samgha, at least the donors never ever refer to their jati or varna status except in the case when the donor is a Brahman. 

This (inscription) is a different kind of a data presenting a different image, an image what I may call the descriptive category of sources vis. a vis. the prescriptive category of documentation coming from normative treaties. So, inscriptions are the special category of information. Later on, when a large number of inscriptions came out, the cooper plate records dealing with land grants which are mostly located in the rural areas naturally captured the rural social life, rural settlements, agrarian scenario in a very authentic way rather than the hackneyed presentation of the village life as depicted in the popular literature or the static representation of rural life in the normative texts. Inscriptions can generate data which is datable securely, which can be contextualised in terms of a region and therefore can indicate a dynamic picture of Indian society and economy unlike changelessness, immutable character that is usually presented by the normative treatises.

DKJ: So you are constantly emphasising that difference between the textual sources and the epigraphic documents. You are also saying that epigraphic sources throw better light on the socio-economic aspect and on other aspects in early India rather than the textual sources?

RC: I would say, not better but a different image. The textual source can be checked, verified, juxtaposed, and give the independent images that come out of the study of inscriptions. Inscriptions give something different which are not otherwise available in normative treatises.

DKJ: In early India, who was the owner of the land? Did individual ownership of land exist or the entire land belonged to the ruler? What kind of picture do the inscriptions present?

RC: First of all, in the pre-modern economic history of India, including that of early India, land naturally is the most important means of production, particularly for a predominantly agrarian country like India. Now the question of ownership of land neither works as static nor the same statement can be made cutting across different eras and centuries. There could be a position in the historical scenario where you may not come across any notion of the individual, private proprietary right of land and that can’t be not merely in hoary antiquity but even in early medieval times. If you look at the south Indian inscriptions, particularly land grants which are replete with rural life and rural material culture, there were even during the late Chola times, when certain areas within the villages called as pur area (the non-Brahman areas), where the land was held by the community. It’s a kind of commonly held land with little understanding of private individual ownership. It is from eleventh century onwards that Karashima, Subbarayalu masterly demonstrated that the war-like activities of the Cholas led to the amassing of wealth of many of the leaders of the army, and then with their increased wealth they began to purchase the land in areas where earlier no private ownership was in vogue, and these are in records. It went in such a proportion that prohibitory orders were issued in inscriptions by the local self-bodies in the pur non-Brahman settlement areas stating that the persons of ruling houses or royal family are debarred from further purchase of land in the commonly held zones. So this is an area where even in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the notion of community holding of land is very strong. On the other hand, if you go back between c. second century BC and first century AD, you have an inscribed roundel in Bharut which shows an area being covered with coins which were being unloaded with bullock carts. That scene is portrayed with an inscription which says that Anathapindaka, the great rich man during the time of the Buddha, figuring prominently in many Buddhist literatures, is donating Jetavana for the Buddha. Now here is the catch. The inscription merely says the gift of Jetavana by Anathapindaka. But, first of all, it shows that the gift of land is a proof of transfer of land. Transferability is intimately connected with ownership of land. The story in the Buddhist text says that Anathapindaka wished to present the Buddha with a pleasure garden near Jetavana near the city of Sravasti. He did not own this land. So he purchased the plot and then the purchased plot was handed over to Buddha. So the same plot of land, around c. sixth and fifth centuries BCE (if the Buddhist tradition is to be accepted), was transferred twice—first by selling and then by gifting, which speaks of a much-matured sense of private individual ownership of land. On the other hand, the question of land transfer which begins to be recorded in the Satavahana territory in the early centuries of the Christian era would show that land could be purchased by a member of the royal family from an individual Brahman who got his land from his father’s inheritance. He is selling the land to the king’s son-in-law (Nahapana’s son-in-law Ushavadata). If there is a complete unquestioned, unqualified royal ownership of all land which reduces all land ownership under crown ownership, then there is no need for a member of a royal family to purchase the plot of land from a Brahman by paying a price, and then again donating it to a Buddhist monastery—once again the double transfer of land. This is particularly very common in land grants from Bengal under the Gupta rule between the early fifth century and close to the end of sixth century AD. Twelve copper plates largely speak of the purchase of land by paying cash and then given to some individual Brahman or for some temple for meeting the expenses of religious performances. Now there is a catch. Most of these individual plots of land were described in the Bengal copper plates as being uncultivated, fallow, virgin lands. The money was paid by the intended purchaser who is also the final donor of the land to some religious person or institution. Now, who received the money? The money is being paid to the local administrative office, the district office at the district level. Why? After all the money goes to what may be called to the sarkari (government) treasury because there is the Dharmasastra notion that the ruler has a certain proprietary right over what is called in Arthasastra the sita that is the royal land (khas jamin). But over and above the king’s proprietary right over the sita type of land, there are other kinds of land over which the king was entitled to have some superior transcendental right like that of the forest, fallow land, treasure troves. So these plots of land in Bengal in c. fifth and sixth centuries are mostly described as fallow land. The transaction of fallow land is payable to the state administrative body at the locality level. So for the forest land or the fallow land, there can be a question of royal authority over this kind of land. There is some epigraphic evidence particularly in the Satavahana record—the evidence of rajakam kshettam (the royal plot), suggesting unquestioned royal authority over this land. But there is no sweeping case of royal ownership over all lands. In early India, there are certain cases like the earliest Gupta record discovered from Bengal—the record of Vainyagupta dated AD 504, thanks to the editing and excellent translation by Furui, a Japanese scholar. Here we find a single record revealing 28 cases of land transfer by purchase and sale from the easternmost part of Ganga delta as early as AD 504. This means that there is a procedure which is already well-rooted in society and polity. But there are cases of land ownership by the king in a very specific area as well, what is called royal plot or king’s superior transcendental right over certain categories of land. Usually if it’s a newly developed land undertaken by the administrative mechanism then those plots will come under the royal aegis. Similarly, forest and unproductive fallow lands are under the authority of the ruler, but individual plots even those given to the Brahmans as land grants which are not for a generation but for perpetuity—is contradictory to the claim of royal ownership of all lands. The king is entitled to collect revenues because he is the ruler who protects the life and property of subjects, and against this duty, he is entitled to a share of the produce. That is the actual implication of revenue rights over land and not as the owner of own land. 

DS (Digvijay Singh): Prof. Chakravarti, you are talking about the confusion that is there in the historiography of 1950s and 60s that you very well explained was depending on the normative text that made a claim that all the land in the society belonged to the king and that is why the king could have some sort of demand or ultimate authority over the land and taxation in the revenue system, which is also then seen as another extension of that dimension. So while you are arguing in an interesting manner that inscriptions actually ask us to change this kind of view and look at the society in a more dynamic—as changing and not static. So in that sense what do you think was the basis of this confusion—erroneous reading of the textual sources or not giving importance to the epigraphic material?

RC: I think there was not much confusion. Why certain issues are being raised at a particular time by a certain historian? As early as 1910, when Vincent Smith wrote his very popular almost textbook, he made a point that all land belonged to the king citing the statement of Megasthenes because at that time British government was trying to enforce new laws which would be essentially framed from the point of view of the advantage to the colonial government. In that case if the historical tradition could be established that in India it is not the private individual or the community that had some say on the land question but it was always the ruler who had the final authority, so that the historical tradition gets validity and in that case history supports the present case as it often does. Second point is that some of the texts like the Dharmasastra literature take the view that the ruler is the master of all land. But the point is that the Dharmasastra texts are also very divergent on certain issues and can give multiple answers by the multiple schools of theorists. So there are different positions even within Dharmasastra which would strongly recognise the question of individual proprietary right is indicated by the use of two roots of Sanskrit verb—one is sattva and another is svamittva, which was pointed out by U.N. Ghoshal, and it means full-fledged ownership. This word is coming out of the root bhuj (bhoga), which means enjoyment and does not mean only enjoyment and not proprietary ownership. This is remarkably figuring in land grant records. The record which I earlier referred to, the record of Nahapana from the early first-second century AD from Nashik says that the person selling the land to the son-in-law of the ruler because he has satva-ownership (pitu satakam means inherited from his father that’s why he has satva). On the other hand, if you look at the seventh-century inscription from Bengal by the rulers in Samatata, you will find a clear understanding of three levels of land-related access (not ownership). In one case, there is an indication of an owner, a bhujyamanaka (enjoyment) different from krisyamanaka means cultivating. So, over a particular area there can be three types of asymmetrical relationships in terms of access to the landed resources, and inscriptions bear out this tier of asymmetry. 

Devdutta Kakati (DK): So what is actually the scenario of agriculture? Can you shed some light on the exchange of agrarian products at the rural level?

RC: Yes, inscriptions do bear it out. First of all, one has to find out what the inscription is recorded for. If you look for a mere prasasti like the Allahabad pillar inscription, you won’t find data on agrarian products because Harisena (the composer of the Allahabad record) did not intend to write on that. Actually no inscription is intended to give you readymade available data on economic life because these are essentially the products of the court highlighting the achievement of the ruler and his greatness. But we can have incidental notices like the land grants giving the details of the products like paddy, other types of cash crops like gubaga (betel nuts or supari) even sometimes the sale of sakabartaku (green vegetable) in a tenth-century marketplace (mandapika like mandi) presently located close to Jabalpur. On the other hand, if you go to the coastal areas, an inscription would naturally highlight coastal products, including plant items like narikela (coconut), which are one of the typical features of rural coastal settlements whether it is west or east coast. Sometimes you’ll find cash crops like oilseeds which are vital for the production of oil not only for edible purposes but also meant for donation to the. Whether it is a Buddhist or Brahmanical deity, the burning of the lamp is essential, and lamp can only be burnt if you have the supply of oil, and oil comes from pressing the oilseeds which is an agrarian product but this is what may be called the commercial crop, and that you’ll find an inscription of, if the context is burning the oil before the deity. So the reference to oil seeds and the reference to the donation of such oil are considered as a pious act. It is not always the king but individual donors thinking of a pious act may also donates oil or oil mills to the temple. Without the production of oil, you cannot think of edible oil or oil for burning the lamp. References to crops even come from an urban context. Let us take into account the Mahasthan inscription from the northern part of Bangladesh (the earliest known urban centre in Bengal, c. third century BC, during the time of the Mauryas) which refers to kosthagara or storehouse. Storehouses are a typical feature of public building in an urban context. But what is being stored? Essentially food grains—dhanya, tila (oilseed). Another inscription dated around the same time of the Mauryas (c. third century BC) coming from northeastern part of present-day Uttar Pradesh, Gorakhpur area, the Sohgaura copper plate, mentions similar kinds of crops that were being stored for being released during an emergency situation. Interestingly, all agrarian products were stored in kosthagara which was related to the agrarian scenario but was located in an urban space—that is available in the record—which also depicts (perhaps an artist’s impression) the shape of the storehouse which is described as three-storeyed. So the agrarian product will naturally move from the field to the storehouse, from the actual field to the oil press and then to the temple and this is particularly seen in the c. tenth-eleventh century inscription from the Deccan and the deep south where there are mercantile groups who handled large-scale agrarian products—the Sasilvara group, the Chittilaveri group who are actually cultivators engaged in handling the agrarian products in the form of grain trade. So they provide the crucial link between the consumer and the producer of the agrarian commodities and also travel, and this is indicated by the epigraphic record. I will be a little bit more explicit on that. In the case of Konkan records, we find the very clear indication of betel nuts pugafala, various types of edible crops, and it also says that how they were carried to the market and the merchants themselves imposed a cess, self-imposed cess (not a tax), which they donate to the temple. This is the context where we find the reference to agricultural crops. So, in that case, they say that something is being carried on shoulders, some agrarian products on cart loads, sometimes oil in a jar. Then the self-imposed cesses are specified in terms of how the transportation has been made—whether on shoulder or jar or on cartloads or on basket—the rate of cess would vary according to this.

JJR (Jinsy JR): What about the non-agrarian sector, particularly the trade and craft?

RC: Thanks Jinsy, for raising this issue because we have been talking a little bit more on the agrarian scenario. I have no problem though because after all Indian social and economic life is rooted in agrarian scenario till today. The largest number of Indian population is engaged in agrarian activities. However, agrarian life is not divorced from the non-agricultural sector of the economy, where I would like to bring in the craftsmen and also the mercantile activities. This is once again a new area where inscriptions are being tapped to generate data. I will give you some examples of this. I already spoke of the donative records which are abounding between the broad chronological times of c. second century BC to third century AD with various sites cutting across north India, central India, western Deccan, eastern Deccan, and they even go to the deep south where Tamil Brahmi inscriptions record the donations. Now most of the donors are craftspeople, artisans like the carpenters (baddhaki), blacksmith (karmakaras/kammara). Inscriptions also indicate how these professions were specialised, like blacksmith is differentiated from brazier (kasakara, kamsakara). I can multiply many such cases but I will deal with something else. Along with these, we only find from the inscription how many of these artisanal groups tended to form into artisanal bodies which are called srenis. Srenis are already figuring in the Dharmasastra literature but only inscriptions give us the very specific function of it performing a rudimentary credit network system. They were receiving perpetual monetary endowment from different strata of society. An example of this can be seen from Nashik during Nahapana’s reign (early second century AD) where at Nashik or ancient Govardhana there were two specific weavers’ organisations. Once again Nahapana’s son-in-law Ushavadata makes monetary deposits, not donations, to these two organisations. The amount of money categorically mentioned is almost like present-day fixed deposits in a bank where you do not touch the principal but enjoy the interests (briddhi), and the interests will be spent for the upkeep or necessities of the Buddhists monks in a nearby monastery. This is the role of the organisation almost as a rudimentary bank, and except in inscription, this role is never present in any other kind of literature. There are many such cases. It would also indicate how the artisanal groups were functioning between merchants, craftsmen and also Buddhist monasteries. The nexus is very clear. On the other hand, many of the records talk about the remission of salt from taxes. These inscriptions are often land grants coming from coastal areas where salt production is quite natural. It is the ruler’s prerogative to extract the levy on the production of salt, which is considered to be almost like mining activities in early Indian tradition because you are actually working out salt either from the rock salt or sea salt. The ruler levies some licensing fees but in some cases he gives remission (alavanakhada). Thus on some special occasion, the recipient of the land grant would not be paid the taxes on salt production. So this is another manufacturing activity. Similarly, such manufacturing activities can be seen in terms of artisanal groups. Sometimes the names of villages relate to professional bodies that are stationed there—like the AD 592 inscription from Kathiawad where a large number of merchants have been asked to settle down at a marketplace, lohatagrama, by the local ruler. He gives inducement to the merchants and also a large number of craftsmen who would supply their products to the mercantile groups like potters, blacksmiths, braziers, manufacturer of indigo—all of which were taxable. Once again we have to take into account that many of the artisanal products are generating revenue which can be in money or in kind and this is particularly captured in the term of karukara in the Satavahana inscription where kara is tax, and karu stands for artisan. So the kara or tax is imposed on karu or the artisan. Regarding the merchants, this is something where we are now paying more and more attention. First there are categorical references to merchants of various types, like sometimes simple vanika, sometimes sarthavaha, sresthi and so on. Once again, I may take you into Bengal scenario by the time of the Guptas around the c. fifth–sixth centuries when we not only come across the nagarasresthi (the chief merchant of the city) but also the sarthavaha (the caravan traders). Both are not identical and represent two different types of merchants. They are so prominent that they are participating in the local administrative body by helping out the district administrator without themselves being the officials of the state. So they are emerging as elite components in the local administration. Inscriptions perhaps are one of the best indicators that the Indians were sea-fearing groups. The notion in the Dharmasastra for not crossing kalapani, particularly for the Brahmans, is that if you do so it may incur pollution and shame. This is simply blasted out in epigraphic records. We have the best possible indication coming in recent times by the remarkable researches of Ingo Strauch, who have found 193 inscriptions in the Socotra Island in the western Indian Ocean. These 193 inscriptions are written in Brahmi script and Sanskrit language datable between the first and fifth centuries AD. These records describe the actual visit by the Indian population, usually from the western seaboard of India. Inscriptions categorically mention that people came from ports like Bharukachha (Barugaza) and Hatab (Hastakavapra) to the island of Socotra. Therefore, they are taking a walk, and for undertaking an overland journey, you have to cross the sea by the ships—and interestingly we find inscriptions along with the image of the ship—crude images. They may not have painted the actual image of the ship but there is a clear indication that they cross the sea by ships and there are even names of Brahmans who have crossed the seas. So the Dharmasastra dictum is not actually insurmountable. Secondly, inscription from slightly later period, particularly from western India, speaks of mercantile organisation like vanikgrama. The term grama should not be taken merely in the sense of a village. The grama in Sanskrit means a collection, an association. So, vanikgrama represents an association of merchants, mercantile group or professional body like the artisanal body. We have got AD 503, 506 and 519 inscriptions refereeing to vanikgramam where local merchants (vastavya) and non-local merchants (vaidesya) combine together to form the vanigramam, and the context is their pious donation to a Vishnu temple. This vanigramam figuring in a very prominent way on an AD 592 Kathiawad inscription was studied by D.D. Kosambi and D.C. Sircar. It tells how the ruler induced merchants to settle down at a port area. The best example of a mercantile organisation is seen in inscriptions from Peninsular India and deep south where we find the celebrated 500 svamis of Aiyavole (Aihole in Karnataka). They are not living in Karnataka but emanate from Karnataka, and their inscriptions have been found from Karnataka, Andhra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and in fact outside the subcontinent, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Sumatra, Java, and also China. Recording the activities of this mercantile group, Karashima and Subbarayalu have called it an umbrella-like organisation of the 500 svamis within which there were smaller mercantile groups. They were reaching at these distant places across the Bay of Bengal and making donations to the religious shrines or the patrons of the religious shrines, and, interestingly, they provide the account of their business activities in a eulogistic manner. Karashima and Subbrayalu rightly note that the mercantile body, while inscribing their pious act overseas outside India, write their own prasasti (eulogy) instead of the royal eulogy which is more common. The mercantile body speaks eloquently about their activities—their patronage to religious and cultural activities—and thereby record their inscriptions. Interestingly, from South East Asia, we have got bilingual records. This has major implications on the social and cultural scenario. As the merchants are travelling far and wide across the sea, they are obviously meeting people who are speakers of Tamil language or Dravidian language. We have Tamil–Javanese inscriptions—and from China we have Tamil–Chinese inscriptions. Obviously they were interacting with the local people. So you have to be bilingual in order to communicate without which there will be no business. This is a social and cultural act which is enmeshed within the economic act of transaction. In the coastal areas, inscriptions also record the nauvittakas (ship-owning merchants) who are also known in the Perso-Arabic inscriptions of c. twelfth–thirteenth centuries as nakhuda. In fact, in some inscriptions nakhudas and nauvittakas are abbreviated, which means that they are so common in the vocabulary in a coastal society that an abbreviated term nakhu and nau would make their position intelligible to the readers of the inscriptions. They are fabulously rich merchants investing in trading business, which is a risky venture and would require investments of an enormous amount of money, and so they figure naturally in inscriptions in coastal areas. Both Indic merchants and the merchants from the Islamic world figure quite prominently in these kinds of records.

DS: We also have other examples of different communities of merchants coming from different regions and settling there—what Prof. Chakravarti was pointing out.

RC: Particularly in the case of Kerala where we have two such records.

DS: Yes, from Kerala two such records—given by the Chera rulers to two different communities.

RC: One to the Christian community and another to the Jew community, and every time the other merchants are present as signatories or witnesses to this act. Therefore, the accommodation of a diversity of ethnic groups, religious groups, culturally diverse interfaith communities can be seen from the inscriptions; it may not be explicit but you have to read between the lines to find this. Take, for example, the Socotra record, which is not donative records, not land grants, nor prasastis. These are one or two lines records where people are noting that they have visited the island. So there is every possibility that those who have written their names actually inscribed their names on the walls because you do not have actual engraver in the ship journeying along with these visitors to a distant place. So, these people are literate groups. 

DKJ: Although you have raised the revenue system earlier, just now as you have spoken on the agrarian and non-agrarian sector and presented a detailed account, that is why I would like to ask you about the scenario of taxation and revenue system?

RC: We know about the revenue system through the land grants mostly because they deal with the transfer of revenues in favour of the recipient of the land grant and therefore list which kind of revenues are being remitted. This is actually an exemption list. Therefore, if these are exemptions, the list also indicates that these were normally the heads of revenue and remission is given on special occasions. Two points are interesting. In many of the inscriptions, particularly from north India, between the fifth and thirteen centuries, inscriptions are categorically recording that taxes are piya, afflictions on the subjects. This is a remarkable admission that it is a piya or pain on the taxpayer. One of the earliest of such expression comes from Rudradaman’s prasasti where he says that when he had to repair the broken dam of Sudarshana, he did not impose extortionate taxes on the people. He financed the repair work from his own treasury which was overflowing with legally levied taxes like bali (kind of a levy on the land), bhaga (share of the agrarian produce), and sulka (tax on tolls and customs, commercial tax). If we look at the terms of revenue or the officials who were collecting those taxes under different heads, one gets an impression that the list is becoming more and more elaborate as one proceeds from fifth–sixth century to twelfth century AD. In other words, the rulers were increasing the burden of taxation on the subjects. As centuries wore on, the demands became proliferated and diversified. One such case of what may be called pida comes from the repeated references to the imposition of visti or forced labour on the villagers. One Vakataka record of early sixth century mentions sarvavisiti indicating varied types of forced labour. Another form of visiti comes from the inscriptions of Nepal—bhattavisiti, which means rendering forced labour in carrying merchandise on your shoulder in hilly tracts. This is also happening in the hilly region of Kashmir not known from inscriptions but from Kalahana’s Rajatarngini. Local products are seen as resources and mentioned as taxation items. Like if you look at Bengal and Assam, repeated references of samramadhuka, that is mango and mahuya tress, are seen as resources which are to be tapped for the maintenance of the done. If you go to the coastal areas, you’ll find the term salavana, which tells that taxes from salt manufacturing will be credited to the done. The Odishan records mention samatsya, sakachhapa as fish and tortoise are quite abounding in Odisha. So there is an overall pattern along with remarkable regional diversities. B.D. Chattopadhyaya has shown us the use of hydraulic resource in the arrangement of rural settlements and irrigation network. In Bengal you’ll find countless numbers of references to streams, rivulets and big rivers because Bengal is a deltaic area. Therefore, we find less of artificial irrigational projects, only kupas (well) and tadakas (pond or puskarini). If you look at the inscriptions of Rajasthan area, which is dry with more aridity and less moisture in the soil because the ground water level is much lower and at greater depth, that is why you won’t come across references to streams, rivulets and waterbodies like this, but you’ll find references to vapis or baolis, meaning stepwells. If you move to Karnataka, you do not come across references to waterbodies, which are replete in Bengal and Assam inscriptions, and nor vapis or baolis or araghattas (water wheels) like western Uttar Pradesh or western India—Gujarat, Rajasthan or Harayana. What you get in Karnataka is references to tanks—kere or gere. In Tamil Nadu, the Uttrameru inscription of Pallava and early Chola times indicates the tank irrigation with sluice gate, interestingly managed by local self-bodies like ur, brahmadeya assembly who look after the upkeep of local tax and its irrigation projects.

There are also prasastis with an elaborate description of irrigation projects. The best example of that comes from the second century AD of Sudarshana lake damage and the repair work. The history of the Sudarshana lake from the late fourth century BC to the middle of fifth century AD is known from two inscriptions—one is the Junagadh inscription of Rudradaman, and the other one is also from Junagadh, the prasasti of Skandagupta. What is very interesting is that the name Sudarshana became so celebrated through the epigraphic record that the Vakatakas in their own area began to name some irrigation projects as Sudarshana—the emulation of the same name. It almost became an iconic feature of a large river-based irrigation project patronised by ruling groups across centuries.

DKJ: Which section of the society was engaged in agrarian and non-agrarian sectors of the economy? Do the epigraphic documents inform us anything on this? 

RC: Normally if we find the cultivators and the merchants, we immediately try to bracket them as Vaisyas as indicated by the Dharmasastras. You’ll rarely come across the term Vaisya in inscriptions neither as a cultivator nor as a merchants except one or two cases. In Odisha, there is a vaisyagrahara, settlement of the Vaisyas. Like the Brahman settlement, Vaisyas were asked to settle there probably; they were merchants who were invited by the ruler. Otherwise you won’t come across mentions about Vaisyas in inscriptions. 

Sometimes you’ll find the terms like karsaka, halika, sometimes gahapati, kutumbins, mahattara. The implication of these terms only can be understood in terms of the context. There is a methodology to understand the epigraphic terms; mere reading of the inscriptions may not give you the actual import of certain terms. The context in which the terms appear is as important as the term itself. If in a Buddhist monastery like that in Karle, a cultivator or halika says that he has given huge cave for the residence of the monks—the kind of architecture that was patronised by this halika would immediately indicate that he is not an ordinary halika, if you take the context. He is a very resourceful cultivator who is able to part with a considerable portion of his resources to patronise that kind of a monument. 

Similarly, if you look at the context of the term karsaka figuring in many land grants, they may not be called ordinary peasants. There are terms like kutumbika, mahattara in inscriptions. The term kutumbika means well-to-do peasants (not very rich landholder) or ryots who is a peasant owing small plots. The mahattaras are affluent to some extent. Both are important categories in rural society. They often appear in land grants as witnesses to the actual procedure of donation of land transaction. They are eminent social groups in a village, but are not identical. If I recall correctly, there are records from eastern India, particularly from Bengal, where in one inscription there are 72 names of kutumbikas and only 9 names of mahattaras. B.D. Chattopadhyaya very rightly pointed out that the mahattaras are more in upward scale than the kutumbikas who number more in the society. Gahapatis who are rich landholders, landowners and regular donors to the Buddhist establishment up to the third–fourth centuries AD in various parts of India, gradually disappeared as a category of landholding groups. While the kutumbikas, mahattaras gradually disappeared, the simple karsaka, halika, which literally means ploughmen not even a peasant, survived. So the change in terminology in the inscriptions from c. eighth–ninth centuries onward up to thirteenth centurys would indicate that cultivators are there but their social position or their attachment to their landed property is undergoing significant changes. The karsakas are there in between the krisyamanaka type of cultivators who are possibly cultivating the land of others. These others are bhujyamanaka, bhogika, the holders of actual land grants—mostly the Brahmans  or monks in a Buddhist monastery. The jati-varna norms normally will not allow the Brahmans to touch the plough. The members of the Nalanda monastery are not expected to till the soil, which has been granted to the Nalanda monastery. Then inscriptions are completely silent on who are actually cultivating the lands given to these religious institutions/persons. The silence is eloquent. These are mostly the unstated karsakas or halikas who perhaps do not possess land but are now forced to work for others—the receivers of the land grant. So the asymmetry in the rural social network is now more and more pronounced—in the early medieval times. This becomes very clear if we look into a recently discovered land grant from the Chola times, dated between AD 1053–56, the time of the Chola ruler Rajadhiraja, and also actually Rajendra II. The land grant is issued in the time of Vira Rajendra between AD 1063–70 is the largest Cola land grant, and consists of 86 plates recording the details of the land grants but which also show that if someone defies the law, the person can not only be beaten but also can be killed (capital punishment) and this is the legal provision indicating the tremendous control of the authority, of the upper strata of the society on the lower and relatively disadvantageous social groups, thanks to the wonderful study of this inscription by Subbarayalu.

DS: In fact, some of the temple inscriptions from Kerala also record those kinds of provisions, penalty if the cultivator is not doing the cultivation on behalf of the temple, then there are a set of penalties along with the debts and, ultimately you will be committing panchamahapadakas (five great sins).

RC: So the religious sanctions are connected with your sort of sacred duty and that has been imposed through land grant records.

DS: Exactly.

DKJ: Do the epigraphic sources throw light on the early Indian varna-jati system, which is primarily captured in the textual sources, and also the issue of gender relations which again has been described mainly in the literary sources? In such a scenario do the inscriptions present a different picture than the textual sources? 

RC: Yes, in a way inscription has provided information not otherwise sanctioned by the Dharmasastra norms. I have a very favourite instance which I often point out. This is from AD 466, the time of Skandagupta’s reign in the Ganga–Yamuna valley supposed to be the cradle land of Brahmanical culture and in what is very erroneously called the Gupta golden age. Why? Because all the sastric norms are being performed—ideal age, the revival of Brahmanism. In that time, at a place called Indrapura (Indore, located between Meerut and Bulandsahar in Uttar Pradesh, different from Indore of Madhya Pradesh)—has yielded an inscription (of the time of Skandagupta) that records a pious donation of cash by two merchant brothers, which is quite common as merchants give money and other resources to temples. They gave money to a Sun temple. Once again, money is to be given as a perpetual deposit and the interest is to be paid for burning a perpetual lamp before the image of the Sun god—this is the context. Naturally the donors would give their identity. They are two brothers—Acalavarman and Bhrukutivarman—and they introduced themselves as ksatriyavanikas. This falls flat on the Dharmasastra norms according to which if you are Ksatriya you cannot be a vanika (trader) or if you are a vanika you cannot aspire for a Ksatriya status, but these two brothers have done so. Obviously their profession and their varna status do not match. Yet the money earned by them by transgressing the varna-jati norm is not considered as impure by the temple authority, who accepted the money for their patronage purpose. So the varna-jati norms are not insurmountable as it looks.

Similarly, take the case of non-change of the gotra by Prabhabatidevi (daughter of Candragupta II) after her marriage to the Vakataka household—and who herself issued inscriptions when her husband died—and when her two sons are too young, she accepts the regency, and there she gives an indication that she retains not only her maiden family name Gupta but also the maiden Dharini gotra (and not the Visnbraddha gotra of the Vakatakas). If the Vakataka inscription is to be read following B.N. Mukherjee, a Vakataka ruler is marrying his bhagineyi (niece) because this is valid in Deccan and south Indian context. This is impossible in north Indian context but possible in peninsular context. So the regional variation is very clear here. Regarding regional variation, I would like to point out to a mid-tenth-century record found from the present-day part of Bangladesh (politically in Bangladesh but which comes within the ambit of north eastern part of the subcontinent in the Kachar area in the Surma Barak valley and not very far from Kamarupa of ancient times) where in AD 930 a massive Brahman settlement was created, called Brahmapura, by a local ruler of the Candra dynasty, and there we not only find the Brahmans (stated that 6000 Brahmanas, which may be an exaggerated account but a very large number of Brahmans must have been settled) but others also. There are identical divinities worshipped in that Brahmapura, but the identical divinities are worshipped in two separate mathas within the same religious complex—one is called Vangladesiya and another one is known as Desantariya. The region is present-day Sylhet within which you cannot place the Vangala area which is the lower part of present-day Bangladesh. So people have come from outside (possibly from Vangala area, southeastern part of present Bangladesh) to Sylhet— possibly and definitely from elsewhere, which is called Desantariya. There must have been some regional differences in the two communities. So that even the identical divinities could not be worshipped in a common shrine and required two different shrines within the same precincts.

On the other hand, women question cannot be categorically answered because many of the inscriptions are coming from the court circles or sometimes women are figuring as donor in Buddhist and Jain contexts. We have a remarkable case of a courtesan or ganika donating lavishly at Mathura and recording that she was ganika and her mother too was a ganika, and the gift is being accepted in the Jain circle. It is perhaps next to impossible in the Brahmanical context. The Buddhist and Jain institutions are perhaps a little bit open in accepting such patronages from a courtesan. 

Female donors both from the category of nuns and the laywomen figure quite prominently, largely in Buddhist but also in Jain religious establishments. Other than that sometimes important queens figure as donor in inscriptions—that is a long history. We find Asoka’s queen Karuvaki as a donor. Please also note that she is seen as mahisi (someone’s wife) or someone’s mother, especially mother of a son (Tivaramata, mother of Tivara, name of her son). So the question of her independent stature is not so prominent. Although she is an important donor, she is either seen as someone’s wife or someone’s mother.

The major exceptional case comes from the Kakatiya realm in Andhra Pradesh dated early thirteenth century. Rudramaba was the daughter of a very powerful Kakatiya ruler, Ghanapati, who did not have a male heir. So the throne passed on to the female heir rather than the usual pattern of succession passing on to the brother of the collateral branch. Rudrama’s rule draws praise even from Marcopolo. Interestingly, he always figures in the inscriptions as ‘Rudramaharaja’ though her portraiture is that of a warrior woman on the back of a horse and clad in typical warrior attire. So that’s a completely different image of a very powerful queen. Though she was married, her husband rarely figures in a prominent way in any inscription. A record of her time (thirteenth century) comes from Malkapuram in Andhra Pradesh where a huge matha is established by a priest of the Mattaamayura Saiva sect. An elaborate provision has been made for different people not merely the religious groups but also the service groups within the matha. There is a peculiar provision for the ganakas (who could be astrologers or accountants), and that is if a ganaka dies, his wife will hold the post of the dead husband. That would indicate that if a ganaka is an accountant, perhaps his wife is also proficient in accountancy. These are certain snippets. You have to interpret a lot on the basis of certain quantum of epigraphic statement. One has to read between the lines. Often the inscriptions will give you only a little bit of hint, but the hints can become quite eloquent if you care to listen what Karshima said ‘the whispering of the inscriptions’.

The video interview can be found here: