Overview of land rights

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By Shri Sudheer Birodkar

Socio-economic development and the development of land rights passed through the following three stages from 1000 BCE to 1200 CE.

The 1st Stage

In the post-Harrapan age cattle and later largely land became the object of ownership. There existed large landholdings of two types - the first were the tribal oligarchies like the Mallas and Lichhavis as depicted in the Jataka stories. These oligarchies were eliminated by the pre-Mauryan monarchical states of Koshala and Magadha.

Alongwith these oligarchies in the hills, there existed on the plains within the kingdoms of Koshala and Magadha, large landed estates owned by absentee landlords. These were the second type of large land-holdings. Such absentee landlords are mentioned in the Pali text of Buddha's time. These absentee landlords had landholdings relatively near the monarchical states of the Ganges valley. As these landlords came under the sovereignty of the kings of Koshala and Magadha their landholdings came to be integrated with the prospering mercantile economy of these kingdoms.

In the Pali texts we find mention of landlord-merchants like Anathapindaka and Kossiyagotta. The state in whose territory these landlord-merchants lived also gained in the form of increasing collection of taxes and the general prosperity. In these monarchical states, the landlord-merchants played the role of intermediaries between the state and the actual tillers of the soil. Thus a nexus was established between the state and the landed aristocracy.

The corollary of these large estates of the absentee landlords were classes like the ardha-sitika share croppers. This indicates the existence of a society sharply polarized into two classes. Extensive landed estates in the Ganges Valley which were under private ownership were tilled by the labor of classes like the ardha-sitikas . Independent small peasantry seems to be largely absent in the civilized belt of the Ganges valley in that period.

The 2nd Stage

The imperialism of the Mauryas marked the second stage which led to the extinction of the big landowners and also of the urban merchants. The object of this was to eliminate centers of potential opposition to the state, through the almost complete elimination of this intermediate class between the state and the peasantry. The Mauryan state itself assumed the role of this class which it had successfully eliminated. But after the departure of the Mauryas and along with them of the highly centralized multifunctional administrative apparatus, a void was left between the state power and society (of peasant cultivators).

The 3rd Stage

The filling up of this void marks the beginning of the third stage. This void was filled up by the policy of giving land grant; followed by the emperors in the post-Maurya period and continued by the Gupta and Post-Gupta Kings. The titles assumed by the Gupta kings also indicate that they ruled their large empire by proxy. The Gupta kings did not call themselves Samrat as Ashok Maurya and Chandragupta Maurya were called. The titles of the Gupta kings like Samudragupta and Vikramaditya included Param-Eshwara (The Greatest - God), Param-Bhattaraka (The Greatest - Protector of the Brahmins), Maharaj-Dhi-Raj (King of Kings). All this indicates that the Gupta kings recognized themselves not as undisputed absolute monarchs, but as Chieftains of many other lower (and defeated) chieftains who paid tribute to the Guptas.

But now the social relationships were of a qualitatively different nature than those prevailing in the pre-Maurya period. During the Maurya period too land was granted to farmer cultivators. But what was granted was not the right of revenue collection, but the right to cultivate and pay a part of the produce to the Mauryan state in the form of tax. The land grantees of the Gupta age were not owners of the lands and the villages granted to them. They were not interested in actual cultivation of the land themselves. They were only invested with the rights of revenue collection and exacting of forced labor, etc. A part of this revenue collected they gave to their overlord - the Gupta Emperor. In this respect they were neither land-owning aristocrats, nor were they absentee landlords, they were feudal intermediaries between the state and the peasantry.

It can thus roughly be summed up that in the pre-Mauryan period the landholding class in the tribal oligarchies comprised mostly the Kshatriyas. This must have been so as the passage from a tribal to a settled agrarian society the social class that could have established, through muscle power, its ownership over property (mainly land in an agrarian society) would have been that which wielded arms.(But in the kingdoms they seem to have been mainly Vaishyas like Kossiyagotta and Anathapindika).

In the later periods i.e. in the Gupta and Post-Gupta Periods, the grantees must have been largely, though not necessarily individual Brahmins and temples as they constituted the class which commanded royal patronage and had a lesser tendency to rebel against the king, unlike the nobility which had a martial attitude. The temples also exercised religious influence and hence were most acceptable as revenue collectors to the God-fearing peasantry.

These land grants along with the rights of revenue collection and the free forced-labor services of nearby villagers and the generous offerings of devotees had made Hindu. temples into conglomerates of vast collections of wealth in terms of gold, silver, gems, artifacts apart from acres of land and the rights of revenue collection.


  • Sudheer Birodkar, "A Hindu History: A Search for our Present History". Reprinted with permission.