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Home  > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography > Chola Dynasty > Feudalism & Chola Rule

Feudalism & Chola Rule 

[paper presented at Second International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies,  Chennai, Tamil Nadu, January 1968]

“The vast majority of the population of the Chola country lived in villages and agriculture was their main occupation. Great prestige attached to ownership of land, and everyone, whatever his occupation, aimed at having a small plot he could call his own. The village was thus primarily a settlement of peasants and its assembly an association of landlords. 

A periodical redistribution of the arable land of a village among its inhabitants prevailed in many parts of the country till comparatively recent times. Besides the landowners, great and small, there was a fairly large class of landless labourers, an agrarian proletariat who assisted in the operations and shared the proceeds of agriculture; some of them were in a condition of serfdom, and all of them had less to do with the management of local affairs than the landlords. 

The artisans of the village had shares from the common land of the village, which were of the nature of retainers or inducements to them to stay in the village... Tenancy cultivation was quite common, especially on lands belonging to temples and other corporate institutions, the terms of the tenancy being fixed by either the terms of the original endowment or by separate negotiation in each case." (1)

That is the picture given by Prof. K. A. Nilakanta Sastri about the life in the countryside in the dominions of the Cholas. The passage does not give us a clear picture of the relations between the landless proletariat and the small peasant on the one hand, and the temples, Brahmins and freeholders who owned most of the land in the countryside on the other hand. Land being the chief means of production in the feudal system, the forms of ownership of land and the forms of employing the labour of the landless proletariat in agricultural production determines the relations between the two classes.

Construction work of huge temples and grant of endowments to them began in reign of Raja Raja I. Before his ascension to the throne, the main form of land proprietorship was ‘Vellanvagai’, free holdings by peasants and landlords. The construction of temples continued to the reign of Kulothunga III and grants were made to the newly constructed temples. Raja Raja I endowed the Tanjore Temple with lands in 35 villages. Five of them contained lands over 1,000 acres in extent, 5 others

500 to 1,000 acres, 3 of them 200 to 300, and six of them above 50 and below 100.(2) These lands were all made tax free. Such transfer of lands to the temple were made by every monarch successively to old as well as newly constructed temples. The example of the monarchs was followed by the officers and generals.

In whose possession were these lands before they were assigned in perpetuity to the temples? Inscriptions give an answer to this question.

(1) Fallow lands which could be converted into wet lands were made over to the temple at Maruthikudi. This was to be irrigated by the waters of a tank nearby.(3) Many such grants are recorded in inscriptions of Cholas from 1000 - 1125.

(2) All the fallow and wet lands, excluding those already assigned to temples, jainpallis and Brahmins, were granted as tax-free land to the temple at Nerur.(4) Such records relate to the same period as those mentioned in (1).

(3) All the wasteland lying around the whole village and also dry land, tank, cultivable land under the irrigation of the tank were assigned to the temple.(5)

The inscriptions cited above state that lands that could be cultivated were assigned to temples and the proprietary rights passed from the community to the temple.

There is another type of transfer such as the lands granted to the Tanjore temple. They were not fallow lands or lands lying waste for many years. They were lands under cultivation. The lands were assigned in two ways. (1) as ‘Kudineeki’- evicting the cultivator (2) as ‘Kudineenga’- without evicting the cultivator. The tenants were evicted and absolute rights were made over to the temple, or the tenants were retained but proprietary rights passed to the temple.

What happened to the landowners who bad proprietary rights over the lands thus taken over? A few of them were assigned lands of inferior quality elsewhere. Hence their annual income was reduced. A few of them migrated to other villages unable to produce enough grain to maintain their families, in search of fertile land. Mention is made in certain inscriptions about farmers leaving the village without cultivating lands assigned to them in exchange for lands taken over to be granted to the temple. These lands were sold in auction and bought by the temple authorities.

Thus it is clear the lands gifted to the temples were either communal lands of the villagers or lands of the free-holding type. In such transfer the free-holders lost their fertile land in exchange for land of low fertility. The tenants lost their tenancy rights and became day labourers. Most of the freeholders became day labourers, being unable to make both ends meet from the produce of the land he got in exchange. All this was thought to be justified, in that those whose lands were acquired for the temple attained religious merit in this life and heaven in the next. That was the consolation offered to them. (6)

But feudal landlords of the Vellan Vagai survived. They acquired extensive lands under the system of Karatchi (tenancy right) where the Meyatchi (Proprictory right) remained with the temple. They also bought lands abandoned by the small peasants sold in auction. Their influence and power grew.

Another type of grant of land was ‘Brabmadeya’- gift to Brahmins. Whole villages were converted into Brahmadeya, a group of Brahmins given a fixed share in all the lands of the village. Such villages were called Brahmedesam or Chathurvedimangalam - Raja Raja ordered all ‘Vellanvagai’ lands to be sold to Brahmins owning Devadana lands and assigned to those whose lands were thus taken over lands in other villages.(7) A number of Brahmadeyas were created during the Chola rule.

Service grants were also made to choirs of dancing girls (Pathiyilar, Devaradiar, Natakakanikai) whose number was 400 in Tanjore and 30 to 200 in the various temples of Chola country. Grants were made to feed Brahmins, these grants being known as ‘Salabogam’. Families of soldiers who gave up their lives in the service of the King were assigned land known as ‘Veerabogam’ or ‘Rakthabogam’ or ‘Uthirakkani’. Scholars who expounded religious scriptures were granted land known as ‘Bhattavirithi’. Besides these the officers and servants of the crown, the soldiers serving in the army were all remunerated by the produce of land assigned to them for their life time (Jeevitham).(8)

Thus land ownership in some form or other, either in perpetuity or for the life time of individuals, was vested in four classes of people.

(1) Temples: Devadana form of ownership. These affairs of the temple were managed by Brahmins who constituted themselves into Mahasabhas. Most of these Brahmins possessed proprietary rights over Brahmadeya lands.

(2) Brahmadeyam: The proprietory rights were vested in indi­vidual Brahmins.

(3) Vellanvagai: The proprietary rights were vested in free land­holders of non-Brahmin high castes.

(4) Jeevitham: Temple servants, dancing girls, musicians, religious instructors, barbers and washer men had rights to the produce of land assigned to them for their lifetime.

The dominant feudal class owning large extent of land and having control over the temple lands were Brahmins. These lands were tax free. Their partners in the feudal set up were the big landlords of ‘Vellanvagai’. The other classes stood between the feudal class and the actual tiller of the soil, the peasant and the agricultural labourer.

The classes that tilled the soil and produced the grain that was mainly appropriated by the feudal and parasitical classes were :(1) the agricultural labourer, (2) the tenants (Karatchi Udaiyar). (3) the sub-tenants (Kudimai Udaiyar), (4) the serfs and slaves of temples. 

The radical changes effected by royal orders and the decisions of the Mahasabhas affecting structure of land proprietorship produced more and more tenants and sub-tenants. The tenants were of two types: (1) landowners of Vellanvagai who took over tenancy of temple lands and Devadana lands, and (2) poor peasants who lived on their labour. 

The Brahmins were enjoined not to engage in work connected with agriculture. The ‘Vellanvagai’ landowners leased their lands to sub-tenants who were small peasants owning the implements of labour. They were the Kudimai Udaiyar. The landless labourers had no right to share in the produce but only received daily wages. 

The inscriptions also speak of slaves who either sold themselves to the temples as slaves and also those who were sold by their previous masters to the temples. (9) They tilled the temple lands but they were not paid any wages. They were only maintained by temple funds. All these classes of people produced the wealth of the country. 

These structural changes in land ownership reduced the small peasant, real tenants and sub-tenants and slaves to conditions of abject poverty. They were made to bear the main burden of the extravagant expenses of the temples, the royal household and frequent wars. Their conditions deteriorated. The promise of religious merit and the prospect of bliss in the next world did not allure them very much. The tax burdens also fell squarely on their shoulders since the major portion of land in each village belonged to the temple or Brahmins which were tax-free (Iraiyili).

The unbearable conditions of life made the peasant struggle against them now and then. These struggles took the forms described in the paragraphs which follow.

The introduction to ‘Temple Inscriptions’ mentions the following incident. A dancing girl by name ‘Chathuri Manikkam’ threw herself down from the temple tower to establish the right of her relatives to till the land assigned to her a ‘jeevitham’. Another incident at the close of the Chola rule is mentioned by another inscription. A Brahmin committed self immolation in a similar manner to establish the rights of the temple servants for their maintenance when it was not paid to them by the Sabha. (10) Self immolation appears to have been a form of protest against unjust measures and a method of focusing attention on the sad state of affairs in any village.

An inscription from Punjabi in Tanjore district mentions that the temple guards (Trisula Velaikarars) committed self immolation by leaping into the flames of a fire lit before the temple to establish their rights over the land assigned to them (jeevitham), when these were grabbed by the temple authorities.

An inscription found at Aduthurai reports the following: The Brahimins with the help of the officers of the crown and the Vanniyars wrought untold injustice on the people of 96 castes of the Idangai group (castes who were engaged in agriculture contributing their labour). It also enumerates the taxes the local village Sabha proposed to levy on them with the consent of the representative of the king, Mooventhavelan. A mass meeting of 96 castes decided not to pay any tax levied by the Sabha and the King’s officers. This reminds us of the no-tax campaign of recent memory. Such decisions of the Idangai castes are brought to light by many more inscriptions.

Two inscriptions dated 1239 state that the cultivating peasants of a village presented a memorandum to the Sabha telling them that they would not cultivate the land unless steps were taken to prevent people illegally demanding shares in produce and many persons claiming to be tax collectors harassing them. This appears to be an ultimatum to the feudal classes or rather a strike notice to press their demands.

There were occasions when the angry peasant masses rose in revolt and pulled down the walls of temples where the documents of transfer of lands, that robbed them of their rights, were inscribed, and also destroyed the original documents kept in the archives of temples. Two such inci­dents are recorded in the nineteenth year of Raja Raja III and the first year of Kulothunga I. The first inscription states that a riot took place in the fifth year of the king’s reign, during which the original records were destroyed. Hence the rights, of individuals had to be decided according to actual possession of lands. The second records that a riot between the Idangai and Valangai took place in the eleventh year of the reign of Kulothungan, when the walls of the temple were pulled down and the temple treasure was looted and the idols removed. Hence the temple was to be renovated and its property restored, and re consecrated.(11)

Such records are rare because the kings refrained from inscribing on stone and copper such indictments against the feudal system over which they presided. Even the records that have come down to us are half-hearted admissions.

These struggles of the peasantry were spontaneous protests aud limited actions for specific protests and limited actions for specific demands. A f.ew ameliorative measures were taken as we come to know from inscription such as remission of taxes, restoration of land forfeited,(12) recognition of the rights for which a section of the peasants struggled (13) and made sacrifices. These struggles did not bring about any radical change in the feudal structure, because these struggles were not intended to bring about a downfall of the feudal system.


1 K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India. Madras, 1955, p. 315.

2. Rajamanikar, History of the Cholas.

3. Temple Inscriptions, 2868, 637.

4.Temple Inscriptions, 713.

5. Temple Inscriptions, 727. Oriental MSS. Library.

6. At the close of every inscription there is a blessing to all those who support the gift and an imprecation against those who oppose it.

7. Sadasiva Pandarathar, History of the Later Cholas, p. 81.

8. ibid., Part III, p. 76.

9. S.I.I. No. 213 of 1928; S.I.I. No. 230 of 1921.

10. Temple inscriptions, 783, D 3355.

11. Temple Inscriptions, 111, D 2868.

12. Temple Inscriptions, 785, D 3357.

13. Temple Inscriptions, 94, D 2875.


Basham, A.L., The Wonder that was India, Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1954.

Kosambi, D. D., An Introduction to the study of Indian History, Popular Book Depot, Bombay, 1956.

Krishnamoorthy, S. R., Cultural Development wider the Cholas, Annamalai University, Annamalainagar.

Marx, Karl Notes on Indian History.

Nilakanta Sastri, K. A., The Cholas, 2 vols., Oxford University Press, Madras, 1936, 1937.

Nilakanta Sastri,  K. A., A History of South India, Oxford University Press, Madras, 1955.

Sadasiva Pandarathar, T. V., A History of the Later Cholas (in Tamil Pittkala Chola Charitharam) 3 vols., Annamalai University, Annaimalainagar, 1958-61.

South Indian Inscriptions, Relevant volumes.

Temple Inscriptions, 3 vols., Government Oriental MSS.Library, Madras,



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