An Enchanting Miniature of Village-Level Jurisprudence in South India

With the aid of inscriptions, we present a miniature of the awesome history of village-level judicial administration in South India.
An Enchanting Miniature of Village-Level Jurisprudence in South India

THE CIVILISATIONAL, CULTURAL AND SOCIAL HISTORY of Bharatavarsha is also the history of its Grāmas or villages. It is in this treasure-chest that we find the foundational and enduring aspects of the all-round life of our people. Our Grāmas really hold the magic key that unlocks an array of secrets. Indeed, from time immemorial, our villages were the countless miniature centres that provided civilizational sustenance and cultural preservation and cushioned both these in face of serial depredations from all sorts of unclean Mlecchas.

As we never tire of repeating in these pages of The Dharma Dispatch, the administrative system of Bharatavarsha was characterized by a genius-level decentralization of which the Grāma was the last, the smallest, and the best functioning unit. If a backhanded compliment was needed to extol its glory, it comes from two Mlecchas.

The first is by a British joint collector, B. Knight:

It is in the villages of southern India that we must go to see Hindu life at its best, unaffected as it is by Mahommedan conquest or by the influence of Western civilisation.

The second is by another British official, the vile racist Grant Duff:

…no good can be effected for these people, but only much harm, by introducing European methods of Government, foreign to their characters and conditions. What we can do is to enable these myriad little worlds to live in peace, instead of being perpetually liable to be harried and destroyed by every robber or petty tyrant who could pay a handful of scoundrels to follow him.

However, within the scope of this essay, we shall focus on just one chief feature: the typical, timeless Hindu village as a centre of noble jurisprudence, a feature that “democracy” has wholly obliterated and made irrecoverable.

An Enchanting Miniature of Village-Level Jurisprudence in South India
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To do this, we will consider a few illustrative examples drawn from inscriptions and epigraphical records describing some real-life cases and their judgements in the Tamil desam. The period spans about three centuries: from the tenth and eleventh century Chola era to the thirteenth century Pandyan era.

Custom as a Hallowed Judicial Precedent

IN THE VEDIC ERA, the Grāmyavādin was the village judge assisted by a Sabha or advisory council. There was also the Śatapati, a judicial official who doubled as a revenue collector.

The Manusmriti gives us Grāmika or grāmaṇi, or village headmen who also performed juridical duties.

Then, Kautilya wisely says that disputes should be settled by Sāmanta-grāma-vr̥d'dhāh, meaning elders and leaders of the village.

All these ancient Sanatana lawgivers and luminaries of jurisprudence were unanimous on a cardinal precept: the centrality of custom and usage which were honoured by time and which no law-book can adequately and fully define. This among others is the reason for Kautilya’s emphasis on the wisdom and the sense of judgement of grāma-vrd'dhāh. In this, he echoes his predecessor Manu:

The customs handed down in regular succession (since time immemorial) … in any country is called the conduct of virtuous man.

The other famed lawgiver Gautama says:

The customs of countries, varnas, and families, which are not opposed to the sacred literature (i.e., Vedas), have authority.

We can append any number of such citations but all of them affirm and reaffirm the same truth of Sanatana jurisprudence: Custom and usage were inextricable from the life of Hindus taken in a total sense. And in the specific case of justice, ancient usage was raised to the dignity of law. The more ancient, greater the dignity, i.e., this antiquity added sanctity to the sanction of law.

If this was the attitude of the proverbial ordinary citizen, there is a profounder side to it. An injunction found in every text of Dharmasastra is this: the ruler had to preserve, respect, uphold and defend the ancient customs of even those lands which he had newly conquered. As we have noted elsewhere, this injunction forms part of the Dharma-Vijayi king.

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Imprint on History

Now, when we consider how this tenet of Hindu jurisprudence manifested itself in South Indian history, we get a term used for centuries in the Karnāṭa-dēśa: Pūrvada maryāde, meaning customs, usages, mores and manners inherited from an un-dateable past.

Inscriptions and records from the earliest political empires of the Karnāṭa-dēśa up to the splendid Vijayanagara Empire invariably mention the term. From the obscure chieftain up to fabled monarchs, every ruler proudly declared that he was a promoter of Pūrvada maryāde. In fact, even the Vijayanagara Empire at its zenith under Sri Krishnadevaraya, rarely altered this Pūrvada maryāde; on the contrary, he scrupulously adhered to it. His governors and chieftains and judges decided cases based on these ancient customs and usages that had the sanction of the eons.

Which brings us to the pre-Vijayanagara Era of South India.

In the early years of the consolidation of Vijayanagara power, Tamil and Karnataka kings had already established an efficient and well-oiled system of judicial administration, which largely continued to endure in the same unbroken fashion till the demise of the Wodeyar rule. The success of the awesome longevity of this system was not only its time-consecrated and citizen-sanctioned roots but the manner in which changes or reform were introduced. No drastic changes were thrust. No “revolution” occurred. By itself, that is a subject of a separate study.

Village Jurisprudence in South India: Inscriptional Glimpse

IN THIS SYSTEM, villages had their own well-defined courts of justice, in which the king scarcely interfered.

We have a brilliant inscription authored in the third regnal year of the King Parthivendradhipati Varman, which throws some superb radiance on the spirit of the era and the people embodying the spirit. It was issued by the members of the Great Assembly (Mahānāḍu) of the now-fabled Uttaramēlūr-Caturvēdimaṅgalaṁ. Here is how it reads:

We, the members of this Great Assembly, having received Pūrvācāraṁ from Sandiran Eḷunnūruva Nuḷamba Māyilaṭṭi for the above land, ordered it to be free from all taxes as long as the moon and sun last. We shall not show any kind of tax… against this land. We, the members of this Great Assembly, have also ordered that if any such taxes are shown against it, each person so showing, shall be liable to pay a fine of twenty-five Kaḷan̄ju of gold in the Dharmāsana or court of justice.

Clearly, the operative word here is Pūrvācāraṁ, meaning these tax-free lands were allotted to the village by a certain ruler of the Nuḷamba (Noḷamba) dynasty preceding Parthivendradhipati Varman. The Uttaramēlūr- Caturvēdimaṅgalaṁ villagers are asserting their moral right in writing to continue this tax-free status by directly addressing the King. The assertion makes it unambiguous that it has judicial sanction and penal authority to punish violators.

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When we travel up from Uttaramēlūr to South Arcot, we discover some more inscriptions and records that offer us a clear picture of the manner in which these village courts of justice dealt with cases of a serious nature.

We have considered a couple of epigraphs that contain details about cases of murder under provocation and accidental death, and the method by which the culprits were punished.

The first occurs in 1054, in the reign of Rajendra Chola II. A village officer in his dominions demanded taxes from a woman, who declared that she was not liable to pay taxes. However, the unrelenting officer who disbelieved her, put her through an ordeal (Divya). Accordingly, she consumed poison and died. A general assembly comprising the people from “the four quarters, eighteen districts, and various countries” was summoned, and the man was pronounced guilty. As punishment, he had to pay a fine of thirty-two kasu for burning a lamp at the temple of Tiruttandonri-Mahadeva. Unfortunately, I have been unable to trace this temple.

The second incident occurs in the third year of the rule of Kulottunga Chola Deva. In his kingdom, a Sudra, who had gone out hunting, missed his aim, and fatally shot a Vellala. The villagers “from the seventy-nine districts” assembled together, and found the Sudra guilty of homicide not amounting to murder. He was ordered to pay sixty-four cows to the selfsame Tiruttandonri-Aludaiyar temple for burning two lamps.

Functioning of Village Courts

AS WE HAVE NOTED EARLIER, the King not only did not interfere with the village courts, he also gave them full sanction even in the conduct of criminal cases.

Two inscriptions in the regime of the selfsame Kulottunga Chola testify to this.

One of these inscriptions says that a certain individual shot a man belonging to his own village by mistake. Then the provincial governor and people of the district to which the culprit belonged, called an Assembly. The verdict: the man had committed the offence out of mere carelessness. He had to expiate the sin and guilt by burning a lamp in the Tundandar temple at Siyamangalam. This is the same Stambhēśvara Temple we had written about in The Dharma Dispatch.

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Accordingly, the guilty man provided the temple with sixteen cows from the milk of which ghee was prepared for burning the lamp.

Another notable feature of a majority of these cases was the near-total absence of Brahmanas in these judicial proceedings. They were called only on rare occasions.

Here’s one such occasion.

In the thirteenth century, a citizen of Arumbondai aimed an arrow at another man, mistaking him for an animal. The wound never healed and the man died.

The Nāṭṭar (derived from Nāḍu; people of the district) formed a court of enquiry and sought the participation of Brahmanas. The final judgement: the accused, on behalf of the deceased, had to provide for a lamp in the temple of Bhūmīśvaraṁ (now spelled, “Bhoomeeshwarar”) at Marakkanam, in the South Arcot district.

A marked feature of these punishments is the fact that they were extremely mild even by today’s standards given that the crime was murder not amounting to homicide. While this is clearly a direct inheritance of the overall humane and gentle nature of penal action in Sanatana jurisprudence, severe punishments were imposed for crimes that disturbed public order and social harmony.

We can cite the case of a certain venal criminal named Aliyangaiyan Sattiyanavan, who with his armed gang, murdered Vamana Bhatta at night. The gruesome episode occurred when Vamana Bhatta, a Purohita, was returning home from the temple. It occurred in the reign of Jatavarman Sundara Pandya I in the village of Karuvakkurichi.

The criminal Aliyangaiyan Sattiyanavan eluded arrest and ran into hiding and became untraceable. At this, the village court approached Sundara Pandya directly. After patiently hearing the case, the Tribhuvanachakravarti ordered the confiscation of all properties of Sattiyanavan. The properties were indeed substantial: vast tracts of land, several houses and a retinue of servants. These were then attached as the Tirunāmaṭṭu kāṇi (seva) to the temple of Nayanar Chokka-Narayana at Tirukkoshtiyur in Ramnad district. Tirukkoshtiyur now falls in the Sivaganga district.

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Sundara Pandya’s punishment elicited the anticipated result. The villain, still in hiding, was distraught and sent a representation to the village court pleading his case. After much negotiation, Sattiyanavan agreed to cough up a whopping sum of 800 pon (gold coins) as compensation and recovered his properties.

Closing Notes

WE CAN CITE scores of similar cases but the aforementioned ones suffice to give us a representative flavor of the spirit that informed and shaped the structure, substance and operation of justice in south India, broadly speaking.

These instances also give us the following unerring conclusion: that South India—including the Tamil Desam—from very ancient times, had already put into practice these fundamental and time-tested injunctions of our ancient Sanatana lawgivers: that justice (1) had to administered in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and in a timely fashion (2) that the culprit was always entitled to appeal even after having received his sentence for grave crimes (3) in every case, justice had to strictly conform with ancient custom and usage, and (4) only people living for generations in a particular geography (i.e., village) were the best judges of these customs and nuances, i.e., dēśācāra and kulācāra.

Evidently, this essay is only a pixel of a miniature of an endless panorama representing the lived history of village-level Sanatana jurisprudence.

An ardent student of the subject will find his lifetime insufficient for a single-minded and devoted tapas in this realm.

|| धर्मस्य तत्वं निहितं गुहायां महाजनो येन गतः स पन्थाः ||

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