How the Pallavas administered land

The Hirahadagalli plates of Siva Skanda Varman from 338 CE in Prakrit language and Brahmi script is one of the oldest sets of records and throws light on the administrative setup.

Published: 18th November 2021 12:55 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th November 2021 12:58 AM   |  A+A-

Children having fun at the Pallava Caves, a prominent tourist destination in Tiruchy, on Monday (Photo |M K Ashok Kumar/Express)

South Indian history is generally identified as a combination of accounts from the Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties. It was only after the advent of archaeological and epigraphic studies that the Pallavas got their due recognition and their contributions towards the overall development of Tamil Nadu was brought to light. The very term ‘Pallava’ went through several debates over its origin and meaning. Finally, academicians accepted it to be of Sanskrit origin, meaning an indigenous tender creeper (Bryonia grandis). With available sources, we can conclude their active existence between the 3rd–9th century CE. Several copper plates and inscriptions help us understand the polity and governance under their rule. Extending from the south of today’s Andhra till the northern banks of River Kaveri, their rule was a forerunner to that of the mighty Cholas.

A few old inscriptions help us define the territorial extent of their rule in the early stages. The Maidavolu inscription (305 CE) identifies their rule quite close to the Krishna river basins. On the western side, it seems to have extended till today’s Bellary district in Karnataka. From around the 4th–5th century CE, this demarcation seems to shift focus to a Kanchipuram-centric rule. The copper plates issued by the Pallava kings during different times help us understand the societal setup and the nature of governance to a great extent. The Hirahadagalli plates of Siva Skanda Varman from 338 CE in Prakrit language and Brahmi script is one of the oldest sets of records and throws light on the administrative setup that was prevailing. The copper plate records donation of a village to a certain Gola Sarman, a Brahmin belonging to Atreya gotram. The meticulous detailing of the order certainly draws our attention. The administrative hierarchy is clearly listed and includes designations such as Rajakumara (the viceroy), Senapati (army commander), Rashtrika (governor) and Desadhikrita (regional administrative officer). The names of these officers are clearly mentioned. This is followed by local officers and the list of designations include gramabhojaka (beneficiaries of local revenue), vallava (confidential officers), go-valla (officer in charge of cattle), amatya (interim officers trained in warfare and medical practice), aranyadhikrita (officer in charge of forest tracts), ghumike (division commanders), tutika (agents) and neyika (leaders of platoons). The king in his capacity declares that this gift is done “for increase of ourselves and of our family in respect of our good deeds, length of life, strength and fame as also victory and prosperity”.

The designations are so well demarcated that it gives us a general idea about the administrative hierarchy and the distribution of power down a clear structure. Gifting of a village to an individual in a particular division demands that a list of officials involved in various departments are informed. This is similar to transfer of power over land ownership. Moreover in this case, it is given as a gift by the king and hence made tax-free. To ensure that all the bureaucrats are well informed about it and there is no doubt anytime in the future, the document puts it all in black and white.

Let us now take a look at a similar land gift record from the times of Nandi Varma Pallava, whose rule extended between 731–795 CE. The set of copper plate records grant of Tandantottam, a village in the Chola heartland, to a group of 213 Brahmins where the place is divided into 244 shares to be distributed among them. While a few shares are given to officials concerned with the village’s administration, major beneficiaries are listed as scholars qualified in various texts. Unlike the earlier grant that records the importance of protecting dharma, quotes dharma sastras and has a long list of officials, this plate enlists the terms and conditions to be followed by the beneficiaries.

The norms include prohibition on altering the edges of an individual’s share of land. It further describes the conditions to construct and maintain a head of water that sources the life-giving liquid for cultivation from a canal adjacent to the river. Here again stringent rules to ensure no disturbance is made to the existing water head are enlisted. But notable changes are seen here wherein several professional duties collected from various artisans, other conveyance fees and taxes of different kinds were collected by the scholars who were not liable to pay any of these to the king as earlier. In other words the Brahmins were entitled to collect and use them.

Oil merchants owning mills, weavers who owned looms, people with private wells and potters were all taxed. A certain charge was paid during registration of marriages too. Toddy drawing, brokerage, cattle rearing, salt making, selling areca nuts, grains and pulses were other professions that were taxed.

The two copper plates and the grants that are etched on them are clean indicators of societal changes between the early and the last phase of Pallava rule. Gifting land or villages was considered a part of the king’s duty to the Brahmins. While the earlier plate speaks about a piece of land to an individual and his successors, Nandi Varman’s record speaks about a complete settlement being gifted along with rights to enjoy the tax duties collected from people practising other professions. While quotes from dharma sastras are seen in detail in the first, the second one does not consider it important. These donations seem to have been popularised and accepted by the society as standard norms. The list of officials discussed in the first plate is missing in the second, which enlists various different tax policies that seem to have again evolved over years.

Development of society causes changes on the social, cultural and economic fronts. A more efficient administration policy could be framed considering these lessons from history.


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  • Shillaja

    Very interesting to note the changes and development over time. It seems to be regressive rather than progressive and looks like the base of caste system developed slowly post this. Have heard before that Brahmin used to be by Karma and not by birth. Could you throw light on that? Was that true or was it always by birth?
    1 year ago reply
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