IN LETTER DATED SOMETIME IN 1830, CHARLES METCALFE wrote this about Indian villages:
But Metcalfe was merely echoing our ancient Dharmasastra writers like Gautama and Bodhayana.
Rishi Gautama, revered as a Gōtra-pravartaka, composed his Dharmasutra roughly between 600 - 400 BCE.
Rishi Bodhayana, also venerated as a Gōtra-pravartaka, postdated Gautama and composed his Dharmasutra.
Both of their Dharmasutras define a village in a simple declarative sentence: a village is where righteous men throng. The simplicity conceals its profundity and in a way, also gives us the essence of what is known as Sutra literature. Sutras or aphorisms couch extraordinary truths in their nourishing breasts. Which is why such a vast body of work interpreting Sutras eventually arose in the Sanatana tradition.
And then Bodhayana delineates the specifics: "a righteous man shall seek to dwell in a village where fuel, water, fodder, sacred fuel, kusa grass, and garlands are plentiful. Access to all this must be easy, and many rich people should dwell in such a village. It ought to abound in industrious people, and where Aryas (virtuous, cultured, honest and honourable men) must form the majority. It should have a strong defence against robbers and other disturbers of peace.”
But both Gautama and Bodhayana mention that their tenets were based on the authority of the “ancients.” Which only means that this conception of a village predated even them.
At any rate, it is clear that this theory and practice of a village had endured nearly intact for several millennia, leading Metcalfe to make his remark in 1830. It is unlikely that Metcalfe had studied our visionary Dharmasastra sages. He was simply describing what he had witnessed: the unbroken continuity of that village system still in operation.
The evolution and flowering of the Sanatana civilisation inevitably ushered in complexity and change in the village system. However, the raw but profound simplicity at the core of the village setup that our Dharmasastra Rishis had conceived, largely remained intact. The external devices and methods of its functional administration underwent modifications in response to changing times. In fact, we can pick up this theme and reconstruct the political and social history of Bharatavarsha from its civilisational dawn. We get a hint of this element in Metcalfe’s observation that “this union of the village communities, each one forming a separate little state in itself, has… contributed more than any other cause to the preservation of the people of India, through all the revolutions and changes which they have suffered.”
The “revolutions” that Metcalfe mentions were mostly sudden and substantial upheavals caused by alien Muslim invasions and exploitative European pirates disguised as traders. Pre-Islamic “revolutions” in India were typically battles of territorial conquest or reconquest by Hindu kings. These battles neither disturbed the Hindu cultural continuity nor harmed the existing social harmony. Likewise, unless faced with extreme conditions — for example, the mass migrations of Hindus from their ancestral villages etc., forced by Islamic depredations — the village system remained unspoilt despite these disruptions.
This feature is precisely what we observe in the administrative histories of all notable and obscure Hindu empires sprawled over nearly two millennia. As such, barring minor differences, the administrative history of one Hindu empire drawn at random almost mirrors that of another. For example, the 28 administrative departments mentioned in the annals of the Sena Empire (Bengal) are directly derived from the Arthasastra. Roughly around the same period, we notice a similar administrative setup in the Sevuna (Yadava) Empire ruling from Devagiri.
The Sevuna Empire is as good an exemplar as any to expound on the awesome Hindu village administrative system. Its selection has the additional advantage of tracing back the origins of some of the contemporary names and terminology and functions that have survived in our own age.
But before that, we’ll take a brief sojourn into the undateable cradle of the Hindu village administrative setup.
IN GENERAL, the Grāma or village was always recognised as a unit of administration. We have already noted the definition of a typical village, given by Gautama and Bodhayana.
Kautilya defines a village as one constituting 100 - 500 families. Each village has well-defined boundaries and affords common defence against threats, internal or external. If required, the State could establish more villages in sites suited for the purpose. Housing sites of various measurements were to be allotted to all classes of people according to social status and the number of members in the family.
Overall, some features of the village administrative system in ancient India are common although the terminology varies. This is typically how it looked:
Grāma: The smallest unit, i.e., the individual village.
Saṅgrahaṇa: A group of ten villages.
Kharvāṭikā: A group of two hundred villages.
Drōṇamukha: A group of four hundred villages
Sthānīya: A group of eight hundred villages.
Gulma: A unit of thousand villages subdivided in three specific groups: (1) two hundred (3) three hundred (4) five hundred.
Dēśa: A group of thousand villages. The familiar meaning of Dēśa as “country” came much later.
Each Grāma had to conform to definite measurements, roughly about two square miles. It’s physical layout too, had to adhere to a strict plan of streets and roads, and each street and road was named according to function.
Padya: Footpath. Width = Three cubits.
Vīthi: market street. The Kannada word Bīdi is derived from this. Width = Five cubits.
Mārga: road, transit road, vista, avenue, etc. Width = Ten cubits
Rājamārga: literally, “road on which the king or royal family travels.” Also means a highway, trunk road, road on which carriages and carts travel. Width = Fifteen to thirty cubits.
An inseparable element of this village system was the ubiquitous Śāla or resthouse, a term that is familiar to us today with its prefix: Dharma-Śāla. These were built between Grāmas for the primary purpose of providing protection to travellers during the night. Helmed by an official known as the Śālādhipa, he played a double role of a quasi police and a manager.
Which brings us to a partial list of officials who kept the village administrative setup well-oiled.
Gōpa, grāmabhōjaka, grāmāṇi: The village headman in charge of all functions in the village including maintaining account books.
śālādhipati: The village police chief.
The officials in charge of Saṅgrahaṇas, Kharvāṭikās, and Drōṇamukhas respectively.
Sthānika: In charge of eight hundred villages, i.e., one Sthānīya.
Samāhartā: The imperial official to whom the Sthānika reported. His office can be roughly equated with the contemporary Finance ministry. The Samāhartā directly appointed the Sthānika.
This system clearly exhibits a strict administrative hierarchy which was scrupulously followed. Violation of this hierarchy at any level would invite swift punishment.
A measure of the incessant continuity of this system is available in the introductory essay of D.V.G’s classic volume, Maisūrina divānarugaḷu (The Divans of Mysore), where he shows with hard data and lived experience how even the British did not overtly disturb this administrative system. He says that for all practical purposes, the villagers regarded the Amaldar (roughly, the Sthanika) as synonymous with Government. Likewise, in his brilliant Tabbaliyu Neenaade Magane, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa gives a vivid account of how this system operated in practice and how it impacted the real life of the villagers.
The foregoing birds’ eye view of the village administrative setup in ancient India should serve as a reasonable primer for exploring some details of its practical functioning in the Sevuna Empire, which Ala-ud-din Khalji extinguished in the beginning of the 14th century. The details are quite eye-opening to say the least.
To be continued
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