“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
(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
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
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
(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
(2) Brahmadeyam: The proprietory rights were vested in
(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
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
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
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.
K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India. Madras, 1955, p. 315.
Rajamanikar, History of the Cholas.
Temple Inscriptions, 2868, 637.
Temple Inscriptions, 727. Oriental MSS. Library.
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.
Sadasiva Pandarathar, History of the Later Cholas, p. 81.
ibid., Part III, p. 76.
S.I.I. No. 213 of 1928; S.I.I. No. 230 of 1921.
Temple inscriptions, 783, D 3355.
Temple Inscriptions, 111, D 2868.
Temple Inscriptions, 785, D 3357.
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