History Optional Paper-1 Solution – 2009: Q.5 (a)
Q.5 (a) Write a short essay on: “Applicability of the term ‘Indian Feudalism’ to early Medieval Society.”
The early medieval period shows transition, changes, and developments taking place in society, economy, polity, and agriculture. The most significant change that can only be seen in this period is the expansion of the land grants system which is often cited by Marxist historians to propound the theory of ‘Indian Feudalism’.
Feudalism refers to a practice of establishment of superior rights over land which becomes basis of appropriation of a part of produce and acquisition of several other rights related to land and several inhabitants. The superior rights accord the beneficiaries, the status of overlord and subordinate, the status of peasantry hence develops a typical overlord subordinate relationship agrarian structure.
Arguments in the favor of Indian Feudalism
The early medieval period was considered synonymous with Indian feudalism. Indian feudalism emerged as a separate school in 1970s. Its early proponents were Marxist historians like D D Kosambi and R S Sharma. They envisaged the feudal formation in India in two stages: “Feudalism from above” and “feudalism from below”.
“Feudalism from above” was the first stage in which the direct relationship between overlord and his tributary/autonomous vassals without the prevalence of an intermediary land-owning class.
“Feudalism from below” was more complex, witnessing the rise of rural land-owners as powerful intermediaries between the ruler and the peasantry which led to administrative decentralization and the conversion of the communal property into a feudal property. The donees enjoyed the revenue right as well as administrative and judicial rights. The grantees therefore derived many material advantages at the cost of both, ruler and the actual peasantry. Expansion of agriculture was the only positive feature of the early medieval times. Otherwise, there was broadening of different castes, hierarchization, social inequality, and peasant exploitation.
Kosambi explained his theory taking into account both “feudalism from above” and “feudalism from below”, whereas, Sharma was mainly interested in “feudalism from above”.
Earlier Sharma proposed that decline of foreign trade is the cause of feudalism. This led to a great uproar in the Marxist circles. According to Marxism changes in a society comes from within not from outside. Changes in social, economic, and political structure originates from internal contradictions.
Later in early 1970s, Sharma proposed the theory of urban decay. Urban decay resulted in decline of trade, collapse of artisan activity, disappearance of metallic money, and an overall decline which reduced the power of the state.
Later to counter his critics R S Sharma invented the kali age crisis theory to explain the cause land grants. He said that the Brahmanical system was threatened with the prosperity of Vaishyas and Shudras. They started challenging the Brahmana-Kshatriya superiority. The Brahmanical order and Varna system were questioned. This led to the kali age crisis which is also prophesied in the Puranas and other texts. To overcome the crisis rulers started granting lands to Brahmanas so that they can bring order in the society. Land grants resulted in dissemination of Brahmanical ideology and expansion of agriculture.
Arguments against the Indian Feudalism
In 1966, D C Sircar criticized the feudalism model. But there was a difference in the style of criticism before 1979 and after 1979. Before 1979 scholars were criticizing the feudalism school by using its own terminology (such as “decline of trade”, “urban decay”, “loss of metallic money”, and “collapse of cities”). The critics were fighting on a battlefield chosen and prepared by the Indian feudalism advocates.
The intellectual arguments changed after 1979 when new ideas came. In 1979, Harbans Mukhia wrote a paper titled, “Was There Feudalism in India?” He discussed that there was no manorial system in India like Europe. The climatic conditions were better in India than Europe. Indian soil was more fertile. Indian peasants owned their lands. In Europe, land and agricultural tools were given by the lord to the peasants. Peasants had to work on lord’s land before tilling their own land.
Another big blow to feudalism theory came from Hermann Kulke and B Chattopadhyaya in 1980s and 1990s. Chattopadhyaya questioned the very basis and thinking of feudalism school. He argues that in the period before 4th-5th century we see expansion of trade, development of new towns and cities, increase in metallic coins, expansion of artisan activity. It is not possible that suddenly after 4th -5th century the situation became totally opposite (as reconstructed by Sharma). Chattopadhyaya says that history is a process and everything is connected. Land grants were given by the state to consolidate its power. Most of the lands were granted in virgin territories to bring agricultural activity in those areas.
Argument against “Urban decay” and “Collapse of artisan activity”
B D Chattopadhyay has argued that the early medieval period saw the decline of urban centres but there were others that continued to flourished, as well as some new ones that emerged.
Inferences about the continued vibrancy of city life can also be made on the basis of the numerous literary works and the sculpture and architecture which must have been patronized by urban elites.
Argument against “Decline of trade”
KN Chaudhury had shown that by the eleventh century, the Indian Ocean trade was divided into smaller segments- the stretch from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf to Gujarat and Malabar, from Indian coast to Indonesian archipelago and from South-East Asia to East Asia. Hence the nature of trade changed instead of decline of trade.
Argument against “Disappearance of metallic money”
John S Deyell has argued that money was not scarce in medieval India, nor were the states of the time suffering from a financial crisis. There was a reduction of coin types and decline in the aesthetic quality of coins but not in the volume of coin in circulation.
Argument against “Reduced power of the state”
Far from being symptom of the disintegration of polities and Royal disempowerment, land grants too Brahmanas were one of the several integrative and legitimizing policies adopted by Kings. The increase in the wealth and power of a section of Brahmanas and institutions such as temples did not take place at the expense of Royal power.
Argument against “the theory of kali age crisis”
In 1980s, Burton Stein proposed the segmentary state theory which was another blow to the Indian feudalism model. Stein talked about the Brahmana-peasant alliance in the Tamil Nadu region where the maximum number of land grant inscriptions was found.
Yellava Subbarayalu says that at any time in history not more than 20% of the total land was given to Brahmanas as grants. Then how can we build a theory of kali age crisis over whole of India based on 20% of the total land. There is remarkable data collected from the Kaveri delta of pre-10th century where hierarchy had come in the Brahmanical settlements but there was communal ownership in non-Brahmanical settlements. This shows that developments were not same everywhere and all areas do not change simultaneously.
Recent historical studies and writings have raised several questions on the applicability of the term ‘Indian Feudalism’ to early medieval society. All in all, we should not restrict ourselves to rigid models but be open to new ideas, interpretations, theories, and connections while reconstructing the history.