The Daring Saga of the Kshatriya-śrēṇis

Kshatriya-śrēṇis or armed guilds form an important part of the history of Hindu corporate and social life. Their vestiges have endured till this day.
The Daring Saga of the Kshatriya-śrēṇis

In this Series

The Daring Saga of the Kshatriya-śrēṇis
Corporate and Business Life in Ancient India: A Brief Journey
The Daring Saga of the Kshatriya-śrēṇis
The Exciting World of Gāna, śrēṇi, pūga and Corporate Bodies in Ancient India

FROM THE MAURYAN PERIOD onwards, we had entire villages made up of a single guild and these guild-villages were given royal protection through a regulation: no guilds other than local cooperative guilds shall find entrance into such villages. For a protracted period of our history, we have ample evidence showing how, in many kingdoms, some guild-villages were so wealthy that they lent money to the King himself in times of need.

Community Service by Guilds

In fact, guilds and corporations played a central role in executing what are today known as community projects, and they took this role seriously, and punctiliously left behind stellar track records inscribing their demonstrated spirit of public service.

Apart from guilds, the village headman who was also the chief of the Village Assembly, actively encouraged his people to contribute to public works in some fashion. The Arthasastra explicitly says that “ if any one refuses to give his help in work beneficial to all, he shall be compelled to pay double the value of the aforesaid help due from him.” The village also had a common fund to which everyone including guilds contributed. The fund was also augmented by fines levied on “lazy” or work-shirkers.

Kautilya minces no words when he says that “ the acquisition of the help of corporations is better than the acquisition of an army, a friend, or profit.” Accordingly, corporate bodies throughout Hindu history were accorded special privileges. Guilds of artisans and workmen (Saṅghabhr̥tāḥ) enjoyed a grace period of seven nights over and above the project completion date. In some cases, they were even exempted from paying the mandatory security deposit to the treasury before starting a new business or project.

Some examples of guild-driven community projects included the construction of roads and bridges (Setubandha) and community buildings of any kind (rest houses, mandapams, hospitals, parks, etc). Given the cost of such large infrastructural endeavours, several guilds came together in a spirit of genuine cooperation to fund them. The State in turn, recognised that these initiatives were “beneficial to the whole country” and would “adorn the villages” and gave special concessions (priyahitam) and tax breaks to such guilds. Incredibly, their job didn’t end after the construction; guilds maintained their own watch-guards to patrol these roads.

The Vibrant World of Kshatriya-śrēṇis

Which brings us to another pronounced feature in the history and the evolution of our guilds and corporations. Over time, guilds and corporations had emerged as formidable, quasi military powers – that is, they were equipped with impressive private armies. Among others, this is indicated by the term, śrēṇi-vala which meant a class of troops that the king might call upon or enlist during war time or crises. Some powerful corporations were deliberately stationed in border towns to serve as deterrents to enemy kingdoms. In his Arthasastra, Kautilya mentions Kshatriya guilds which were found in abundance in the Kamboja (now eastern Afghanistan) and Saurashtra countries, and these guilds pursued war, and trade and agriculture in peacetime. In the chapter titled The Conduct of Corporations, he clearly lauds them as being “invincible to the enemy” and urges the king to secure their services and loyalty through gifts and conciliation.

In fact, the term śrēṇi-vala occurs in the Mahabharata itself while the Ramayana gives the word Sāyōdha śrēṇi or armed guilds. The other terms denoting armed guilds include Āyudha-jīvi, and Kshatriya śrēṇi – i.e., guilds who lived by the profession of arms.

Throughout the post-Mauryan period, armed guilds played a significant and decisive role in Indian politics. Even as Hindu political power in north India was being cannibalized by alien Muslim invasions, these Hindu armed guilds maintained their dominance in south India. The Chola Era reveals an outstanding scene of the power and prestige that these armed guilds enjoyed. The Vēlaikkāra community dominated the business and political life of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Two of its most powerful subgroups included the Vaḷaṅgai (Right Hand) Iḍaṅgai (Left Hand). Both Rajaraja Chola I and Rajendra Chola I named their army regiments after these two military guilds.

SOME OF THE MORE ENTERPRISING Vaḷaṅgai and Iḍaṅgai guilds were hired by Sri Lankan rulers for participating in wars, quelling insurrections, and providing security. An incredible inscription from Polannaruwa gives us eye-opening information about the prowess and influence of the Vēlaikkāra community of guilds.

Here is the summary of the inscription.

Devasena, the chieftain of King Vijayabahu of Sri Lanka constructed a Dhātu-bhavana or a temple containing the relic of the tooth of the Jina (Bhagavan Mahavira) in the city of Pulasti. Once the temple was finished, Devasena enlisted an army of Vēlaikkāras from the Tamil country to protect it. The enlistment procedure is described as follows:

The pious and the learned royal preceptor Vyarinimula, the mahāsthaviras of Utturulmulai together with the king’s ministers, called for a meeting of the members of the Mahātantra. These assembled together, bringing with them their leaders, the Vaḷḷan̄jiyār and Nagaraṭṭār denominated the shrine…and took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the temple and protecting its property. As remuneration, one Veli (6.5 acres) of land was assigned to each member of the Vēlaikkāras.

The contract was ratified by the Vēlaikkāras in the following words:

We protect the villages belonging to the temple, its servants' property and devotees, EVEN THOUGH, IN DOING THIS, WE LOSE OURSELVES OR OTHERWISE SUFFER. We provide for all the requirements of the temple so long as our community continues to exist, repairing such parts of the temple as get dilapidated in course of time and we get this, our contract, which is attested by us, engraved on stone and copper so that it may last as long as the Moon and the Sun endure.

Capitalisation Added

Outwardly, this is a commercial contract but the wordings clearly elicit awe, wonder, admiration and sublimity within us. It also opens a beautiful casket revealing the nuances of the guild system and the society that housed it. The inscription also gives a full list of the subgroups within the Vēlaikkāra community. Some notable groups include the Vaḷaṅgai, Iḍaṅgai, Śīrudanaṁ, piḷḷaigaḷ-danaṁ, vaḍugar, malaiyāḷar, and parivārakkoṇḍam. The aforementioned Vaḷḷan̄jiyār and Nagaraṭṭār communities were—and remain—ubiquitous throughout South India all the way up to our own time. For example, the Kannada equivalent of Vaḷḷan̄jiyār is Ban̄ajiga, and Nagaraṭṭār equates to Nagartaru; the renowned annual Bangalore Karaga begins its journey from the Dharmarayaswamy Temple situated in the Nagartapete, a locality named after Nagartaru.

Unarguably, the awesome history of our corporate guilds has been preserved till this day through these surnames or family names. And so, theory masters “researching” the “caste system” of India are clearly emitting hot, noxious fumes from unmentionable body parts.

To be continued

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