In conversation with Professor Suchandra Ghosh: Prashasti and Land Grant Charter

In conversation with Professor Suchandra Ghosh with the participation of Debarati Ganguly, Soumita Mallick and Durbar Sharma: Prashasti and Land Grant Charter

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).

Following is an edited interview transcript of Professor Suchandra Ghosh with Dev Kumar Jhanjh on prashasti and land grant charter. Debarati Ganguly, Soumita Mallick and Durbar Sharma also participate.

Dev Kumar Jhanj (DKJ): What is prashasti?

Suchandra Ghosh (SG): Prashasti is a very important genre in the whole gamut of epigraphs that are found; they are directly connected to the achievements of the rulers. But we, as researchers, have to use the prashasti very judiciously. Do not actually believe in all that is written . . . you have to understand which work is actually your source for understanding history. Some examples of prashastis are the Allahabad prashastis, the prashastis of Gautamiputra Satakarni’s mother Gautami Balashri which is the very famous Nashik prashasti, or we have Kharavela’s prashasti. Kharavela is so important for us because this is the main inscription from where we know about the actual achievements of the ruler. If this prashasti didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have known about Kharavela. Thus, prashastis are a very important source of history.

Durbar Sharma (DS): Was there any particular format for writing prashasti in early India?

SG: Yes. There were two different formats followed, one in the early historical and one in the early medieval period.  In the early historic period, we do not find any specific format. The prashasti of Gautami Balasri in Nashik, the Junagarh prashasti of Rudradaman and Kharavela’s prashasti are three prashastis of three different periods, all belonging to the early historical period—we find that that they don’t talk in a similar tone. So there is no proper format for the early historic period. But even then there is a common tradition from which all these prashastis drew and therefore in all these prashastis you will find that the physical countenance of the ruler is very highlighted. A ruler is always described as very good-looking, with a face like the full moon. His gait, the way he walks, the way he carries himself, these things are prominent in all these three prashastis. They also mentioned the kind of education that the ruler had received. Another interesting aspect these prashastis tell us about is that there is the idea of contestation. To give an example, in the Nashik prashasti we have this statement, that the Sakas, Yavanas and Pahlavas were destroyed by the Satavahanas and then it also talks about the Khaharatas whom they completely exterminated. We know that the Khaharatas were the western Kshatrapas. Here we find an impression of contestation. Again, go to Rudradaman’s prashasti where he talks about how he destroyed and defeated Satakarni. So here again is an element of contestation. Look at Kharavela’s prashasti; Kharvela talks of his escapes in Magadha. The kind of antagonism he has with Magadha is very clear and twice or thrice he talks about his antagonism. He speaks of destroying a Magadhan ruler or something along those lines. This has been drawn to attention by Ranabir Chakravarti in his book Exploring Early India, the antagonism of Kalinga towards the power of Magadha. Therefore for the early historical period, I would like to say that there was no common format but they all drew upon a shared tradition. There was something common in the whole idea of writing a prashasti. Let me bring to your attention the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta, written by Harisena. This prashasti does not fit in with the format that we find in the early historical period. It is in a class by itself, you will not find any other prashasti where the achievements of the ruler are mentioned along with the kind of policy he laid out for each of the vanquished groups. This is a completely different format. 

Now coming to the early medieval period, what we find is that there is a classic format, but this format did not grow suddenly. I’m talking about the major prashastis which everyone knows and uses for historical reconstruction. In Aihole prashasti, the format begins with siddham svasti or adoration, then we have an invocation, then a eulogy of the rulers that came before, the father, the grandfather, his fathers and then comes the main portion, which explains why these prashastis are being written. A pure classic format is also found in prashastis from Bengal, in the prashastis of the Senas. I’m talking about the famous Deopara prashasti where you have a complete classic format beginning with the adoration of gods, followed by three-four invocatory lines, and ending with political history. This is followed by the genealogy, which mentions the grandfather, the great grandfather of the ruler and not just their names but also their achievements as rulers. These inscriptions are so important as a source on political structures because you find that while talking about these achievements, there is a tendency among the rulers to always compare themselves with other dynasties. To give an example, we have the Apshad inscription where Aditayasena talks about how his forefathers defeated the Maukharis, he says they defeated the Maukhari ruler Isanavarman who had defeated the Hunas. So the mighty Hunas were defeated by Isanavarman and the same Isanvarman was defeated by the forefathers of Adityasena. So there is an element of prashasti in a roundabout way. A similar tradition has surely existed from the early historic period but the format only gets crystallised completely in the early medieval period.

DKJ: So, you are arguing that even though there was a shared tradition in the early historical period, a common format didn’t develop until the early medieval period.

SG: Yes.

DKJ: Regarding prashasti, you are saying prashastis throw light on the royalty. Do you have any instances where prashastis talk beyond royalty?

SG: Yes, of course. Generally, when we talk of eulogistic inscription (panegyrics) as prashastis are known, it is always the royal prashasti which comes to our mind. Because, to make someone write prashasti, you also need power, money and patronage. Therefore, you find that it is the sabhakavi (court poet) who writes the prashasti. One thing I forgot to mention is that the kernel of the prashasti comes from the danastuti hymns which we find in the Rigveda. So we have to remember that it is in praise. But apart from the royal prashasti in early India, we have several other genres of prashastis. For example, again I’m drawing from Bengal where we have the famous Badal pillar inscription which is a prashasti of the ministerial family of the Pala rulers. It belongs to the time of Narayanapala. What is interesting is that it talks about the achievements of the ministers, their fathers, grandfathers and how these ministers were in close company with the rulers and how there was a kind of a reciprocal relationship between the ruler and the ministers. Daud Ali had talked about the courtly culture. This is particular to the Badal pillar inscription, where the ministerial family is being highlighted because it is a very important family. Then there is another prashasti, the Udaypur prashasti which is a prashasti of a brahmana family. You must know about the Cintra prashasti which talks about the might of Tripurantaka, his escapades, how he went for the tirthas and the kind of power and money he actually accumulated. Another important genre of prashasti we find is that of the copper plate charters, developed in the early medieval period. In the copper plate charters, we find that gradually there is an attempt to write the genealogy of the rulers but it is not a plain genealogy. Naturally, the praise of the father and grandfather comes in and their achievements. So, the prashastis in copper plates are also very important when we take the entire domain of prashasti for studying as a historical source.

DKJ: As you have brought in the case of the copper plate charters, let us talk a bit about them now. As we know, the main purpose of copper plate charters was to document the news of land donation. Could you tell us what kind of land was being donated and who was the donor and donee?

SG: Yes, of course. Copper plates are immensely important as land grant documents. They also functioned as land sale documents in the Gupta period. The donor in most cases is royalty and the donee is generally—we have two/three types of donees—a single brahmana, a group of brahmanas, or a religious institution like a Buddhist Vihara, Jaina Vasadi or Brahmanical Matha. So, these are the donees that we find in the early charters. But later on we have secular grants also where persons who were in the service of the ruler got land, but that is much later in time.

DKJ: We were talking about the land grant charters. Recently I was going through a very interesting article written by you. I was wondering while reading the article. Normally we find the coin from hoards, coin hoards. But in your article, you have shown that from Balkha, a place of Madhya Pradesh, 27 copper plates have been found from a hoard which is unusual. Would you like to throw some light on those copper plate charters?

SG: You are referring to my article in Studies in History. This was a very interesting discovery and written upon by K.V. Ramesh. Yes, it’s absolutely true that we have the coin hoards. We don’t have copper plate hoards. But this hoard was found, as it happens, with most of the copper plates, while they were tilling the land. It was a big jar where these 27 copper plates (small in size) were kept together. What is interesting about these copper plates which drew our attention is that they are very significant documents of the early copper plate charters. And the ruler mentioned is the first ruler who has an autochthonous name (his name is Bhulunda).

DKJ: What are the dates of these copper plates?

SG: They are contemporary to Samudragupta and were being issued until fifth century CE.

DKJ: So, these are the earliest ones.

SG: They are very early copper plates and I think it is the earliest in that region, in western India. So, there we find that this Bhulunda is an autochthonous king but he is contemporary to Samudragupta and the phrase tadpadhanudhyata is there and they are using dating of the Gupta era. The location of Balkha is very interesting. It is a buffer zone between the Gupta territory and the Vakataka’s territory. To the north of it is Eran. It is located on the banks of the river Narmada. It’s referred to in the inscription as Narmadaparapare. Very interestingly, in the Balkha charter, we have the word agrāhāra not agrahāra which is the word normally used. I must mention that agrahāra is actually a kind of land grant that is revenue-free, this kind of land grants became very prolific in the early medieval period. Here we find agrāhāra which comes from agra+ahāra, it means land which is given for the sustenance of the brahmanas.

DKJ: Instead of agrahāra?

SG: So, the original term is agrāhāra that means agra+ahāra, the land which is given for the sustenance of the brahmanas and later on perhaps this agrāhāra became agrahāra. These charters are from the initial period of land grant charters where the format has not been properly formed. Therefore we do not find imprecatory verses in these charters. We also know there was a tension that these plates may be destroyed. You have words such as nabehantam, meaning ‘no one should destroy this’. These kinds of one-liners are available, but not proper imprecatory verses. Then it also talks about perpetuity. So I think you can place it in the format of early charters.

DS: Is it written in Sanskrit?

SG.: Yes, this is in Sanskrit and you can see the evolution of palaeography. The early charters were different from the later charters. There was an evolution. Good that you pointed this out, because the early ruler was Bhulunda (which was not a Sanskritic name) but later rulers have Sanskritic names in these charters, like Svamidasa. They also mention the gods Bappapisachadeva and Narayanadeva. So you have both the autochthonous god and the Brahmanical god.

Soumita Mallick (SM): Why did land donation take place? Was there any specific context to it?

SG: Yes, of course. This is a very important question. Why do we have land donations? The answer is that it emerges from our belief, our system where land is donated for merit. You must know about the sixteen mahadanas (sodasamahadanas). Among these mahadanas, this granting of land is one of the greatest dana. So, at one point of time land donations were a way for rulers to accumulate merit. But that’s not all. Let us go back to the early medieval period when you have the beginning of regional formation, you have new kings coming in. Many of the times, the new rulers did not have a very rich pedigree to write about. I just spoke about prashastis where they have their eulogies. These kings were building up this eulogy and for that you need brahmanas. The brahmanas acted as supplicants of the rulers. So, there was a relationship between the rulers and the brahmanas. By donating land, the ruler got his share of merit (punya) and at the same time, the brahmana also became his supplicant. You know in the social order, the brahmanas are in the highest position. So, it is always necessary that the ruler has the support of the brahmanas. I will give you an example from a much later period: the Gahadvalas of Kanauj, Uttar Pradesh. If you look at their inscriptions, you will find that for every occasion they were very religious and catered to all the rituals. They would go to Prayaga, take a dip in the Prayaga and then grant land. So for each vrata, each religious ritual, they were donating land. This was in their case and the context for donating land was religious practices. But if you come to Assam, you have very few land grants. Odisha has an ample amount of land grants. Whereas in Kamrupa (Assam), you have three different dynasties and only 26/27 grants. So, the context also varies and it is very important for us to understand this when we look at the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the early medieval period, that regional specificity is very important. And we cannot just have a blanket answer for everything for the entire subcontinent.

DKJ: Taking a cue from Soumita’s question of land grant donation and as we’re discussing the land donation, how far was this land donation responsible for the agrarian expansion?

SG: Very much, I must say. Because agrarian expansion is very crucial to the emergence of the state, state society, particularly. What happens when you are donating land? I did not talk about the different kinds of land that were donated. You have the three kinds of land—kshetra or land which is already cultivated, khila or land which has not been cultivated but can be cultivated, and then you have the fallow land called aprada. Normally, you have the term khilakshetra in the inscriptions which means the land is donated and can be cultivated but is not yet cultivated. And you have the term bhumichhidranyaya which refers to the person who has actually cultivated (made a hole in it) the land first. Here we find that when this land is donated to a brahmana or a group of brahmanas naturally they will not leave it like that. It gets cultivated and there is agrarian expansion. These are simple examples but we have examples from Bengal itself where reclamation of forest lands was done. I am talking about the Tippera inscription of Samanta Lokanatha where you have a vast area of forest land being reclaimed for cultivation and then settlement of around two hundred brahmanas. So, naturally, it was also an expansion of the state society.

DKJ: Two hundred brahmanas?

SG: Two hundred brahmanas were settled there. Take the case of Paschimbhag, you have six thousand brahmanas being settled. Whether actually six thousand were there we do not know. But the inscription talks about six thousand brahmanas. Naturally, the lands were cultivated and it changed the political economy of the region. Agrarian expansion and changing political economy were interrelated.

DKJ: Professor B.D. Chattopadhyaya has drawn a vivid picture of the spatial characteristics of the rural settlements of the early medieval period by using a massive scale of land grant charters. Taking a cue from that, you have also attempted to throw light on the landscapes of the rural settlements of early Kamarupa, present-day Assam. So, could you please tell us how we can understand the aspect of rural settlements through these donated lands? 

SG: We always have to go back to Professor B.D. Chattopadhyaya and his famous book Aspects of Rural Settlements. He was the first person who drew our attention not just to the grant portion of the land but also to the boundary markers. You find that there exist natural boundary markers, for example, we have puskaranis, tadakas (water bodies). They also refer to different kinds of plants on the boundaries as markers. There is a reference to people who are settled at the boundaries and the people who are owners of land. Here you can understand that there are not only brahmana land-owners but also non-brahmana people who are owners of the land. Of course, we do not know who gave them the land. For the brahmanas, we have the charters that tell us that they have been granted land. But for the non-brahmanas we have no such things. But we have the reference to land being enjoyed by them. In the inscriptions of Assam where I was working, we have references to the land of Chandenauki. Look at the surname Nauki. Nauki relates to nauka (boat). So, this was the land of a boatman. This way, you can understand that in this area, there were a lot of boatmen and it is because Assam is a land of rivers like Bengal. Boatmen formed a very important population in that area. Therefore, you can actually delineate, understand that among the social groups, the boatmen were very important. Then we have reference to a puskarini (pond) and this is the puskarini of Avanchi Kaivarta. So you know that the Kaivartas were there. These are the few examples. In this manner from the boundary markers, it is possible for us to understand the different aspects of the rural settlements and the social groups. B.D. Chattopadhyaya has shown us the way and I have developed that further. For example, in Assam we have a group called Orangitantras, a group of weavers. We have an entire village of weavers in Assam. This is actually the way I have separated the brahmanas and the non-brahmana landholders and tried to understand the different social groups that were prevalent.

DKJ: So, the elements of social history is also present here.

SG: Of course, social history is present and with that, you have a little bit of economic history. If you have references to boatman, weavers and potters then you have also references to certain plants which are actually crash crops. Inscriptions thus also give you an idea of the resources. For example, though it is not directly talking about the resources, in case of the Assam inscription, it talks about the agaru trees (aloe root). We know about the aloe root from the Arab geographers’ account but then you also have it in the inscriptions. When you study inscriptions, it is important that you look at this aspect of mutual referability. It’s not that they always have to corroborate but you have to consider all the possible kinds of referability when you are constructing or writing history.

DKJ: As you have pointed about the boundary markers, can you tell us a bit more on the boundary markers? Why were these boundary markers needed?

SG: That’s a very good question actually. Boundary markers show the control of the state. Because, a very clear definition of boundary gives an idea that the authority, the state, will not allow any kind of intrusion into the donated land. The boundaries also mean that the donee cannot encroach upon other people’s land. They have to stick to their own boundary. It shows the control, the interest of the state in locating the area where the land was being donated. Secondly, it also shows there were lot of land grants, and thus pressure on the availability of land as well.

DKJ: So, the tension on the land was going on . . .

SG: Perhaps there was a pressure on the availability of land. I am going to south-eastern Bangladesh to look at the inscriptions of the Chandras as an example. Look at the inscriptions of the Chandras for the mention of land measurement. Originally we have patakas or nalas as land measurement units. But you also have yasti, kaka, danda—very small measuring units which were used for very small lands. Therefore, you can understand that there was pressure on land also. It was important that the boundaries be delineated in a very formal way.

Debarati Ganguly (DG): In connection with the discussion on the land grants, I have a query about the associated subject of decentralisation of the political powers. We often hear that the land grants resulted in the stratification of the society which created intermediaries between the ruler and the peasants and it led to the decentralisation of political power. So, how did the donation of land accelerate the rise of landed gentry? What do you think about it?

SG: Yes, this is an age-old question which is always related to land grants. When we are talking about land grants, we cannot avoid this question. But this point was raised from the view of Marxist historiography. R.S. Sharma talked about the decentralisation of power. I won’t go very deep into this topic because much has been written about it and there were lot of debates. Nowadays, we do not go into those debates. Those are not very important for our studies but what is important is the creation of the landed gentry. I totally agree that there was the creation of the landed gentry. I wouldn’t say that there was the decentralisation of power because if you look at the kind of land being donated, it is not always that the rulers were donating all types of land. Therefore, the parcelisation of power which Marxist historiography talks about is perhaps not applicable but that is beyond our discussion. But the question of the landed gentry is very important because, in many of the inscriptions, you’ll find that with the grant of land, a family of brahmanas are getting land or a monastery. Take the case of Nalanda, a huge amount of land was donated in Nalanda. So, there was a kind of middle category. You have the Svami (at the top), Karshaka (at the bottom) and in between, you have the enjoyers of the land, the Bhujjamanakas. Therefore, what we find is that with these donations of land, the gentry were formed. And I can give you one very solid example. I am going back to the example of the Gahadvalas of tenth/eleventh centuries and there we find that they had a chief priest called Jagusarman. What is very interesting is that he was the chief priest but not the minister. But the rulers were very dependent upon him. For any occasion, as I mentioned earlier, the Gahadvalas were donating land a lot. They donated land to this particular priest called Jagusarman. Now, if you calculate the amount of land his family received, you have to calculate that he got land from the rulers and then the succeeding rulers donated land to his son Praharajasarman and his brother. So, if you do the statistical analysis by making a table to know the amount of land that was donated by the Gahadvalas, for example, 68 villages were donated in total, out of that at least 20-22 villages were donated to Jagusarman. That means 1/3 of the villages were enjoyed by this family. Naturally, when a family enjoys such a large number of villages, they must be very powerful. So, from a priest (of course a royal priest) they became the landed gentry. Therefore, we have the making of a gentry family from a brahmana family. So they were brahmanas but became landowners. There are many more examples. We have references to the Kshatriyas also, who would change their titles to ones these landed gentry had. So this was there that we cannot deny.

DKJ: So, you are arguing that the land grant accelerated the rise of landed gentries. We are again and again talking about the land donation and you have emphasised on the land donations to the brahmanas particularly and you have also pointed about the Paschimbhag copper plate from which we have the reference of donation of land to six thousand brahmanas. These brahmanas were coming from distant lands as well as the local brahmanas. The distant brahmanas were settling in a new area. Don’t you think the presence of these brahmanas (coming from distant lands) was disturbing the cultural ambience of the newly donated land?

SG: Very tricky question but I’ll try to satisfy you. Yes, of course, migration changes. You know when we talk of migration it means that a group is moving from their own locale, own known area to another area. For the group who is migrating, there is also a change. It is not only affecting the place where they were migrated, for them also it is a change. Isn’t it?

DG: It’s a two-way process . . .

SG: Yes it’s a two-way process. We find that in the case of early India, there were many areas where you did not have a lot of brahmana population but new states were emerging, something that B.D. Chattopadhyaya and Hermann Kulke talk about. And with the emergence of the new states, you have settlements of these new brahmanas. Let’s suppose, a local deity exists in this area and now when a new group of brahmanas come, they try to amalgamate, appropriate this autochthonous deity into their Brahmanical fold. Therefore, there is a change in the cultural ambience but that is more from a religious point of view. Again, if you look at the inscriptions, we have the reference of madhyadesavinirgata which means coming from Madhyadesa. In Assam, we have reference to Sravasti, Tarkari etc. But this Sravasti is not the Sravasti of north India. This is a local place here. Migration could be from distant places, or from one locality to another locality within the same region. In the case of Assam, we have seen that generally the brahmanas were the ones who were being granted land and most probably those brahmanas were brought because they were practitioners of the Yajurveda. Why the Yajurveda? Because of the sacrifices and the sacrificial rituals. These brahmanas were very adept at that. The new kings needed sacrifice due to which the Yajurvedic brahmanas got priority. 

Let me talk about the Paschimbhag copper plate where we find six thousand brahmanas. There are two groups of the brahmanas here—one group is the Bangaladesiya (who are from the region of Bangala) and the other one is the Desantariya (who have come from the outside). Recently, with the decipherment of an inscription by Ryosuke Furui, we find that this inscription also talks about the people who have the surname called Bangala like Amalabangala. We thought earlier that Bangala as a sub-region developed later but when in a sixth-century inscription you have reference to Bangala this shows the existence of Bangala since earlier. In the case of Paschimbhag, you first have these two distinctions. These two groups were supported by a lot of artisans. And this is a very unique character of Paschimbhag that you have their list. Generally, when you are settling the brahmanas, it is understandable that the brahmanas cannot come alone. They need other kinds of social groups. For example, they will need a Karmakara, Vaidya, Pachaka and so on. But it is not always mentioned very directly. But in case of Paschimbhag, you have the entire list of people who actually were brought in with the brahmanas. And if you look at the amount of land, you’ll see that sometimes a brahmana is getting lesser land than an artisanal group. So, the brahmanas who came from outside had some kind of reflection on the existing society and naturally, the ambience changed. Another factor is language. Sometimes, you have very good Sanskrit written and then in between local words being added. So, Sanskrit was used for the brahmanas and the linguistic affinities of the local people were eventually included within Sanskrit. So, definitely, when there was a migration, there was a change in the cultural ambience. I think there can be deep studies into this. This is a very interesting topic where you can actually go deeper. What I said is just my understanding.

The video interview can be found here: