Agrarian System of Early Medieval India and the Feudalism Debate

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By looking at the recent historiography, a paradigm shift can be seen in the understanding of the historical change in the subcontinent, which was introduced by the Marxist interpretations that began as historical debates in the post 1950s time period. This ideology initiated and intensified the study of social and economic history, rather than that of the dynastic history. The Indian economy has primarily been an agrarian one and bringing our focus on the on the time period between 700 – 1200 AD, shows several alteration in the working of agriculture in India. This period is most commonly referred to as the early medieval period of Indian history. In this time, change in the agricultural methods was not the only important thing, but another prominent feature was the debate on feudalism. The relation between the changing features of agriculture and feudalism is what I aim to focus on as I proceed with my essay.

Before going into the detail of agriculture and feudalism in North India, it is essential to understand the origin of and the term feudalism in its true sense. Used for the first time by the Europeans, this concept began in Europe. It has however found its way into the Indian subcontinent as well. The term means the organisation of the whole administrative structure on the basis of land, where its economic essence lay in the institution of serfdom in which the peasants were attached to the soil held by landed intermediaries, placed between the king and the peasants, who had to pay rent in kind and labour to them. This system was based on a self sufficient economy in which things were mainly produced for the use of the peasants and their lords and not for the market. Historians are conflicted on the existence of feudalism in India. Some like R. S. Sharma, D. N. Jha, D. D. Kosambi and B. D. Chattopadhyaya opine that feudalism did exist in India, whereas B. C. Sircar and Harbans Mukhia do not agree with them.

There are various European historians who have given their hypothesis on the existence of feudalism. Many Indian historians have based their arguments on the hypothesis of these famous European historians such as Henry Perrain, Mark Blough, Perry Anderson and so on. Their views are known to the world and are taken as great writings. The Marxists also had their views regarding feudalism in Europe, they connected this to the change in mode of production. Perry Anderson and Dobb related feudalism to serfdom. However confusing serfdom with slavery would be wrong because a slave is given no rights at all but a serf is given limited rights. Therefore it could be said that in a way a feudal society is a society where low level of techniques are used with simple inexpensive technology, where production is not for market but for the needs of the lord by the workers, as it basically is self sufficient.

Royal land grants played a major role as a source of history for the early medieval period in India. The incidence of grants by kings to the Brahmans increased significantly during 600 – 1200 AD. These settlements were created by a royal order and the rights of the Brahman donees were declared and confirmed by a royal decree. A further and detailed study of feudalism interprets this as a major cause of political fragmentation. This period has been viewed NJ y most historians as one of agrarian expansion.

Records also make references to the grant of irrigational facilities emanating largely from rulers and their officials. In some cases, a corporate group called the gosthi was set up to look after the taxes on agricultural produce imposed on the irrigated area. 'The Guhila inscriptions issued from Kishkindha near Kalyanpur in the Dungarpur-Udaipur area of Udaipur district speak of various possible methods of irrigation.’ Artificial irrigation was carried out mainly by tank and well sources. Tank irrigation involved maintenance and the availability of inscriptional evidence for the repair and reconstruction of broken sluices and breached tanks due to excessive rainfall has been rendered useful. On some occasions, repair was taken up jointly by lords and peasants and by peasants and brahmana freeholders. ‘The Manglana inscription of 1215 CE indicates Cahamana initiative in the construction of vapis (step wells) in daumarabhumi (land lacking natural water sources).’

In his doctoral thesis, V.K. Jain has prepared a map showing the distribution of vapis in western India from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Other hydraulic improvements involve the construction of bunds to divert water from nearby rivers. However, a larger issue was the question of retention of water for irrigation purposes and the increase of storage capacity by constant dredging operations and by raising the embankment. In some tanks, boats were used in order to carry silt ashore.

In the 1940s, B. N. Dutta and S. A. Dange, both spoke of the growth of feudalism in India. Many early scholars have simply transplanted the European concept of feudalism onto the Indian soil. Soon, in the 1950s, emerged a new genre of , when through reasoned argument, feudal polity was shown to be a new stage which represented a structural change in the Indian social and economic order, characterised by a hierarchy of intermediaries between the state and the peasants.

B. D. Chattopadhyaya goes on the talk about the political decentralisation and how the conventional duality of the centrifugal and centripetal forces in the Indian polity has been replaced by the image of a structure which provides a counterpoint to the centralised bureaucratic state, the crystallisation of which is located only in the post Gupta period. He also mentions the emergence of landed intermediaries, which according to him are the hallmark of the feudal social formation and have come to be linked both to disintegration and decentralisation of state authority and major changes in the structure of agrarian relations. 

However in the context of the post Gupta period, terms such as ‘fief-holders’ and ‘free-holders’ are used in relation to secular recipients of such grants and to autonomous holders of land. A transformation from a money economy to a self sufficient village as a unit of production, led to the beginning of an important period in transition process. This transformation is seen as deriving from the decline of early historical urban centres and commercial networks, and it, in turn led to the practice of remuneration in land as a substitute for cash, to an agrarian expansion, and to the crystallisation in rural society.

R. S. Sharma goes on to discuss this theme further by talking about the closed economy and the loss of mobility. He has strongly been of the opinion supporting feudalism in the Indian context as he states, 'According to him (Harbans Mukhia), unlike capitalism, feudalism is not a universal phenomenon. But in my view, tribalism, the stone age, the metal age and the advent of the food producing economy are universal phenomena.’ Various charters have been found which mostly grant villages with fiscal and administrative immunities to the priests in the initial stage to the vassals and later to the officials. 

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The vassals and the officials were granted villages and land revenues, especially in the Rajput kingdom of northern India in the 11th and the 12th centuries. He also mentions the paucity of coins, even though they are not gold, silver or bronze yet the evidence of currency is very much present. He states that the society is primarily agrarian in nature and the growth of feudal society was due to decline in trade and decline in urbanisation. Initially land grants were religious in nature but slowly over a period of time they also gradually became a hereditary tradition.

D. D. Kosambi was one of the first to give a conceptual definition to feudalism in India. His approach to it was from two different aspects, the first being 'feudalism from above', which meant political feudalism. After the conquest and political expansion, kings started to transfer their monetary and administrative rights over land to subordinate autonomous chiefs, who recognized the suzerainty of the central authority and paid him tribute in exchage. An advanced stage of development in this was seen during the Gupta period, and later when a class of landowners developed within the village between the state and the peasantry, gradually to wield armed power on the local population, that is ‘feudalism from below’, which was essentially socio-economic in nature.

There was a considerable change in agriculture, the peasants were subjected to immobility, forced labour and payment of revenue at very high rates. This condition of the peasantry in the early medieval period, in this pattern of rural stratification was in a sharp contrast to the agrarian structure in early historical India. The peasants were treated as serfs, this was due to the high price they had to pay as rents many of them could not afford it and thus had to pay in kind as their services. The presence of serfdom was also seen in the European model of feudalism. R.S Sharma talks of the urban decay as the reason for the change in the agricultural pattern.

The discussion of existence of feudalism in north India during 700 - 1200 A.D is debatable. The source could be literature or epigraphic evidence. The earliest of literary source is that of the ‘Dharmashastra’. They are also referred as the law book, they give us ample amount of information regarding legal rights, taxation and so on. Manusmritis are also a good source of information. Yajnavalkya and Nibandhas are as rich as any other source. As far as the epigraphic evidences are concerned a number of charters are found which deals with the land grants, but many of them are flawed also, so one has to be really careful while studying them. For example the Gaya and Balinga charters are flawed.

It is only after B.L Datta that the writings on feudalism gained momentum. After he wrote on feudalism, others too started to take interest in this debate. B.N.S Yadav also wrote on feudalism and he focused on the feudal dues while emphasising on how the economy was a self sufficient one. R.S. Sharma argues that the peasants during this period were being subjected to some kinds of brutalities. He emphasized the fact that they were tied to the land, rendering them immobile and were brought into forced labour. R. S Sharma, in his article has stated that, 'It is argued that because soil in India was very fertile, there was no scope for the rise of serfdom or forced labour. 

But we have indications of forced labour in the middle Gangetic basin where the soil is most fertile.’ In response to this, Harbans Mukhiya disagrees and believes that the peasantry in the medieval and pre medieval stages were free. He states that the land to man ratio was very favourable. If the peasants were not treated in a proper manner they could simply shift to another piece of land. The peasants could show resentment by delaying production or by simply leaving the land and moving to another land.

R.S Sharma also connects feudalism with ruralisation. The main characteristics are the emergence of the landed intermediaries; the presence of a closed economy, natural economy and the emergence of the village as a self sufficient unit of production and distribution; and agrarian expansion on a substantially large scale. These structural changes in the economy are again traced to the growth of land grants, which granted extensive privileges to the people that received these grants. This was distributed and finally transformed the existing agrarian order. Ruralisation led to rural stratification, a number of intermediaries emerged between the state and the producing class.

D.N Jha and R.S Sharma both have similar views regarding the argument of the connection between feudalism and decline in trade. They say feudalism takes position with the decline in trade, which resulted in the shortage of currency for which land grants were introduced. D.C Sircar criticizes both their views and states that there was no shortage of currency in this period. Numerous coins were found from this period. Even though the coins were not made out of gold, silver or bronze, but the presence of metal coins also proves that the economy was not on a standstill. Money economy was very much in operation and could not collapse completely. He also questions the interpretation made by R.S Sharma of certain terms used in the inscription.

Kulke states that the purpose of land grants was a ritual legitimization, not reflecting crisis. He talks on them playing an integrative role and not a fragmentary one. Where B.D Chattopadhya says the role of land grants as a mean of exploitation is over emphasised. He has raised conceptual and empirical arguments against de-urbanisation and de-commercialisation. He gives us evidences of foreign trades existence and also continued participation of Indians in the trade. He says that the economic basis of the urban centres was an agricultural surplus generated by expansion and new method of cultivation. So cities could not decline due to trade decline because they were not dependent on it. Thus there was urbanisation in early medieval India.

Harbans Mukhiya also criticizes the fact that many people take feudalism to be an universal phenomenon, which is not the case. He states feudalism unlike capitalism is not a phenomenon which could be picked up and placed into any society. This concept was originated in Europe and simply placed in India.

However, assuming a certain validity of both arguments, K.S. Shelvankar’s view is that Indian feudalism remained fiscal and military in character, if not manorial like in Europe. There was in general none of the intermingling of peasant land with demesne land in a common village, nor interdependence for labour services such as marked the manorial system. The peasant was not the lord’s serf, and neither was the lord directly involved in cultivation. Therefore, conflicts were not between the manorial lord and the peasant over disposal and cultivation of land, but over the share of produce to be retained by the peasant or surrendered to the landlord. The element of subordination and subjugation does naturally point to a fundamentally feudal structure, which may had had its variants in different regional pockets of the subcontinent.

Thus to conclude, it can be said that the agrarian economy and system did see various alteration in north India between 700-1200 A.D. The emergence of landed intermediaries, subjection of peasantry, political de-centralisation, ruralisation, and a self sufficient economy were the changed characteristics of the agrarian scene during the early medieval period. These transformation along with the writings of great historians have helped us realise that there were some traces of feudalism in north India during 700-1200 A.D. 

Therefore its not just a model picked up from one nation and placed onto the other. But the question of presence of feudalism in India has always been a matter of great debates. As I have mentioned in my essay the writings of great scholars who talk of the existence of feudalism, it is a picture towards the conclusion about the existence of feudalism in north India. Hence, we may conclude by saying that the period moving from an Ancient to a Medieval society was marked by a largely feudal transition 

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