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Chola: local Government

Chola: local Government

Local self-government under the Cholas
  • The system of village autonomy with assemblies (Sabhas, Urs and Nagaram) and their committees (Variyams) developed through the ages and reached its culmination during the Chola rule.
  • Two inscriptions belonging to the period of Parantaka I found at Uttaramerur provide details of the formation and functions of village councils.
    • This inscription, dated around 920 A.D. in the reign of Parantaka Chola [907-955 A.D.] is an outstanding document in the history of India.
    • It is a veritable written constitution of the village assembly that functioned 1,000 years ago.
  • Uttaramerur is situated in Kancheepuram district.
    • The Pallava king Nandivarman II established it around 750 A.D. The Pallavas, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Sambuvarayars, the Vijayanagara Rayas, and the Nayaks successively ruled it.
    • The village has three important temples:
        • Sundara Varadaraja Perumal temple,
        • Subramanya temple,
        • Kailasanatha temple.
      • The three temples have a large number of inscriptions, notably those from the reigns of Raja Raja Chola (985-1014 A.D.), his son Rajendra Chola, and the Vijayanagar emperor Krishnadeva Raya.
    • Rajendra Chola as well as Krishnadeva Raya visited Uttaramerur.
    • Uttaramerur, built on the canons of the agama texts, has the village assembly mandapa at the centre. All the temples are oriented with reference to the mandapa.
    • Scholars are of the view that while village assemblies might have existed before the period of Parantaka Chola, it was during his reign that the village administration was honed into a perfect system through elections.
    • In fact, inscriptions on temple walls in several parts of Tamil Nadu refer to village assemblies. But it is at Uttaramerur on the walls of the village assembly (mandapa) itself that we have the earliest inscriptions with complete information about how the elected village assembly functioned.
  • During Chola period, there was democratic government at the village level as the Uttaramerur inscriptions give an idea of how a village assembly of Uttaramerur consisted of elected members.
  • The inscription gives astonishing details about
    • the constitution of wards,
    • the qualification of candidates standing for elections,
    • the disqualification norms,
    • the mode of election,
    • the constitution of committees with elected members,
    • the functions of those committees,
    • the power to remove the wrongdoer, etc.
  • On the walls of the mandapa are inscribed a variety of secular transactions of the village, dealing with administrative, judicial, commercial, agricultural, transportation and irrigation regulations, as administered by the then village assembly, giving a vivid picture of the efficient administration of the village society in the bygone ages.
  • The villagers even had the right to recall the elected representatives if they failed in their duty.
  • The entire village, including infants, had to be present at the village assembly mandapa at Uttaramerur when elections were held. Only the sick and those who had gone on a pilgrimage were exempt.
  • There were committees for the maintenance of irrigation tanks, roads, to provide relief during drought, to test gold, and so forth.
    • Member were Chosen once every year for the “Annual Committee”, “Garden Committee”, “Tank Committee”, Gold Committee.
    • Several works like maintenance of temples, agriculture, irrigation, collection of taxes, road construction etc was looked after by the local assembly through committees.
      • The Chola Emperors respected the decisions of these assemblies.
  • The village assembly of Uttaramerur, drafted the constitution for the elections. The salient features were as follows:
    • The village was divided into 30 wards, one representative elected for each.
    • Qualification and disqualification:
      • Specific qualifications were prescribed for those who wanted to contest.
      • Qualifications
        • In the thirty wards, those that live in each ward shall assemble and shall choose for “pot-tickets” (Kudav Olai) anyone possessing the following qualifications:
          • He must own more than a quarter veli of tax-paying land;
          • He must live in a house built on his own site;
          • His age must be below 70 and above 35;
          • He must know the Mantrabrahmana, i.e., he must know it by teaching others;
          • Even if one owns only one-eighth veli of land, he should have his name written on the pot-ticket to be put into the pot, in case he has learnt one Veda and one of the four bhasyas by explaining it to others.
          • Among those possessing the foregoing qualifications:
            • Only such as are well conversant with business and are virtuous shall be taken and,
            • One who possesses honest earnings, whose mind is pure and who has not been on any of the committees for the last three years shall also be chosen.
        • Hence, the essential criteria were age limit, possession of immovable property, and minimum educational qualification.
      • Disqualifications
          • One who has been on any of the committees but has not submitted his accounts, and all his relations, specified below, shall not have their names written on the pot-tickets and put into the pot;
          • Relatives like son, father, brother, son-in-law, father-in-law, uncle, sister-in-law etc;
          • One against whom incest (agamyagamana) or the first four of the five great sins are recorded,
          • All his relations above specified shall not have their names written on the pot-tickets and put into the pot;
          • One who is foolhardy;
          • One who has stolen the property of another;
          • One who has taken forbidden dishes of any kind and who has become pure by performing expiation;
          • One who has committed sins and has become pure by performing expiatory ceremonies;
          • One who is guilty of incest and has become pure by performing expiatory ceremonies.
          • All these thus specified shall not to the end of their lives have their names written on the pot-ticket to be put into the pot for any of the committees.
        • A person serving in any of the committees could not contest again for the next three terms, each term lasting a year.
        • Elected members who accepted bribes, misappropriated others’ property, committed incest, or acted against the public interest suffered disqualification.
    • Mode of Election
      • Names shall be written for pot-tickets in the thirty wards and each of the wards in these twelve streets of Uttaramerur shall prepare a separate covering ticket for each of the thirty wards bundled separately.
      • These packets shall be put into a pot.
      • When the pot-tickets have to be drawn, a full meeting of the Great Assembly, including the young and old members, shall be convened.
      • All the temple priests (Numbimar) who happen to be in the village on that day, shall, without any exception whatever, be caused to be seated in the inner hall, where the great assembly meets.
      • In the midst of the temple priests one of them, who happens to be the eldest, shall stand up and lift that pot looking upwards so as to be seen by all people.
      • One ward, i.e., the packet representing it, shall be taken out by any young boy standing close, who does not know what is inside, and shall be transferred to another empty pot and shaken.
      • From this pot one ticket shall be drawn by the young boy and made over to the arbitrator (madhyastha).
        • While taking charge of the ticket thus given to him, the arbitrator shall receive it on the palm of his hand with the five fingers open.
        • He shall read out the name in the ticket thus received.
        • The ticket read by him shall also be read out by all the priests present in the inner hall.
        • The name thus read out shall be accepted.
        • Similarly one man shall be chosen for each of the thirty wards.
    • Constitution of the Committee
      • Of the thirty men thus chosen, those who had previously been on the Garden committee and on the Tank committee, those who are advanced in learning, and those who are advanced in age shall be chosen for the Annual Committee.
      • Of the rest, twelve shall be taken for the Garden committee and the remaining six shall form the Tank committee. These last two committees shall be chosen by showing the Karai (pot-tickets).
    • Duration of the Committees
      • The men of these three committees thus chosen for them shall hold office for full three hundred and sixty days and then retire.
    • Removal of Persons
      • When one who is on the committee is found guilty of any offence, he shall be removed at once.
      • For appointing the committees after these are removed, the members of the Committee shall convene an assembly with the help of the Arbitrator. The committees shall be appointed by drawing pot-tickets according to this order of settlement.
    • Pancavara and Gold Committees
      • For the Pancavara committee and the Gold committee, names shall be written for pot-tickets in the thirty wards.
      • Thirty packets with covering tickets shall be deposited in a pot and thirty pot-tickets shall be drawn as previously described.
      • From these thirty tickets chosen, twenty-four shall be for the Gold committee and the remaining six for the Pancavara committee.
      • When drawing pot-tickets for these two committees next year, the wards which have been already represented during the year in question on these committees shall be excluded.
      • One who has ridden on an ass and one who has committed forgery will be ineligible.
    • Qualification of the Accountant:
      • Any Arbitrator who possesses honest earnings shall write the accounts of the village.
      • No accountant shall be appointed to that office again before he submits his accounts for the period during which he was in office to the men of the big committee and is declared to have been honest.
      • The accounts which one has been writing, he shall submit himself and no other accountant shall he chosen to close his accounts.
    • King’s Order
      • As long as the moon and the sun endure, committees shall always be appointed by pot-tickets alone.
      • To this effect was the royal letter received and shown to us graciously issued by the emperor, one who is fond of learned men, the wrestler with elephants, the crest jewel of heroes, whose acts i.e., gifts, resemble those of the celestial tree, the glorious Parakesarivarman.
    • Officer Present
      • At the royal command, a representative from Chola emperor sat with while writing the constitution and thus caused this settlement to be made.
    • Villager’s Decision
      • It is declared in inscription: We, the members of the assembly of Uttaramerur Caturvedimangalam, made this settlement for the prosperity of our village in order that wicked men may perish and the rest may prosper.
    • The Scribe
      • At the order of the great men, sitting in the assembly, I, the Arbitrator, thus wrote this settlement.
  • Each assembly functioned autonomously in accordance with its own constitution based on custom and usage, and took care of the problems of its members at the local level.
    • In matters affecting people of more than one assembly, decision was taken by mutual deliberation.
    • Local government gave a chance to population to air its grievances and to solve the problems. This strengthened the democratic characteristics of the village assemblies.
  • But Chola village assemblies had only some political practices as democratic.
    • The Chola polity was absolute monarchy.
      • The central government through its officers exercised general supervision and had right to intervene in the matter of village under emergency situations.
      • The village assemblies had to take into account the policies of central government.
      • There were close links between some of the Brahmana Sabhas and Chola court.
        • Uttaramerur inscriptions state that the resolution of the Sabha was made in the presence of an official especially deputed by the King.
        • Tanjavur inscriptions indicate that Raja Raja I issued orders to the Sabha of Cholamandalam to perform various types of services in the Brihadeshwara temple.
    • Other factors which indicate lack of proper democracy were:
      • Candidates were elected through lot system instead of voting system.
      • The members of the Ur (village assembly of non-Brahmins) consisted of the taxpaying land owners of the village. Whereas in case of Sabha (village assembly of Brahmans), membership was governed by criterion such as property ownership, family antecedents, learning and good conduct.
        • The Nagaram was local bodies comprised of traders of the nadu. They controlled market centers with their own functionaries, levied cesses on shops and organized commerce within the market centers.
      • There were many people, who were debarred from contesting election, for ex: relatives of criminals, those who had been on any committee for past three years.
      • In actual functioning of the assemblies, no reference is found regarding quorum or decision by voting.
      • Water supplies determined to a large extent that which villages would have their assemblies and which would not.
        • Those villages which were in the central region of Kaveri river basin were under direct Royal control, while those regions which were far away and located in drier region were autonomous and contained the self governing institution.
  • Therefore, the village assemblies cannot be called democratic in modern sense as the grassroots democracy was not absolute.
  • Adjustment of Chola’s centralized administrative structure with local self-government
    • Generally, the Chola Emperors respected the decisions of these assemblies. Each assembly functioned autonomously in accordance with its own constitution based on custom and usage, and took care of the problems of its members at the local level. In matters affecting people of more than one assembly, decision was taken by mutual deliberation.
    • The central government through its officers exercised general supervision and had right to intervene in the matter of village under emergency situations. The village assemblies had to take into account the policies of central government.
    • There were close links between some of the Brahmana Sabhas and Chola court. Uttaramerur inscriptions state that the resolution of the Sabha was made in the presence of an official especially deputed by the King.
    • Tanjavur inscriptions indicate that Raja Raja I issued orders to the Sabha of Cholamandalam to perform various types of services in the Brihadeshwara temple.
    • Important brahmadeyas were granted taniyur status. Taniyur means ‘separate village’. They were considered independent entities and granted considerable functional autonomy.
    • Those villages which were in the central region of Kaveri river basin were put under direct Royal control, while those regions which were far away and located in drier region were autonomous and contained the self governing institution.
    • Local assemblies like Nagaram (assemblies of traders) acted as an agent of monarchy in regulating trade and markets.
    • The assessment and collection of revenue were undertaken by local assemblies like Ur, Sabha and Nagaram, who passed the revenue onto the centre.
    • Local administration through the assembly units greatly lightened the burden of the central government. It not only gave a chance to population to air its grievances and solving the problems. This strengthened the basis of the state by minimizing opposition to it as the people could not hold the government responsible for the matters.

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