Ancient India

Transformation of the ancient phase

Social Crisis aid Agrarian Changes

THE CENTRAL factor that ultimately transformed the ancient Indian society into medieval society was the practice of land grants. Why did this practice originate? The charters say that the givers, mainly kings, wanted to acquire religious merit and the receivers, mainly monks and priests, needed means for performing religious rites. But the practice really came into being because of a serious crisis that affected the ancient social order. The varna society was based on the pro during activities of the peasants who were called vaishyas and of the labourers who were called shudras. The taxes collected by the royal officers from the vaishyas enabled the kings to pay Salaries to their officials iand soldiers, reward their priests and purchase luxury and other articles » from merchants and big artisans. But in the third-fourth centuries A.D. a deep social crisis; described as Kaliyuga in the Puranas, afflicted this system. Contemporary Puranic texts complain of a situation in which varnas or social classes discarded the functions assigned to them. The lower orders attempted to arrogate to themselves the status and functions of tire higher orders. In other words, they refused to pay taxes and. render labour services. This led to varna-samkara or intermixture of social classes. Varna barriers were attacked because the producing masses were oppressed with heavy taxes and impositions and were denied protection by the kings. This state of affairs is known as Kaliyuga in the Puranic passages of the third-fourth centuries A.D.

Several measures were adopted to overcome the crisis. The almost contemporary law-book of Manu advises that the vaishyas and shudras should not be allowed to deviate from their duties. This may have led to coercive measures. But a more important step to meet the situation was to grant land to priests and officials in lieu of salaries and remuneration. Such a practice had the advantage of throwing the burden of collecting taxes and maintaining law and order in the donated areas on the beneficiaries. They could deal with the recalcitrant peasants on the spot. The practice could also bring new lands under cultivation. Moreover, by implanting brahmanas in the conquered tribal areas, the tribal people could be taught the brahmanical way of life and the need of obeying the king and paying taxes to him of Landlords.

Land grants became frequent from (lie fifth century A.D. According to this the brahmanas were granted villages free from taxes. All the taxes which were collected by the king from the villages were transferred to the brahmanas. In addition to this the beneficiaries were given me right to govern the people living in the donated villages. Government officials and royal retainers were not permitted to enter the gifted villages. Up to the fifth century A.D., the ruler generally retained the right to punish the thieves, but in later times the beneficiaries were authorised to punish all criminal offenders. So the brahmanas not only collected taxes from the peasants and artisans but also maintained law and order in the Villages granted to them. Villages were granted to the brahmanas for ever, so that the power of the king was heavily undermined from the end of the Gupta period onwards. In the Maurya period taxes were assessed and collected by the agents of the king and law and order were maintained by them. But as a result of land grants there sprang up many pockets which were free from royal control.

Royal control was further eroded through the payment of government officials by land grants. In the Maurya period the officers of the state from the highest to the lowest were generally paid in cash. The practice continued under the Kushans, who issued a large number of copper and gold coins and it lingered under the Guptas where gold coins were evidently meant for the payment of army and high functionaries. But from the sixth century A.D the position seems to have changed. The law-books of that century recommended that services should be rewarded in land. Accordingly, from the time of Harshavardhana public officials were paid in land revenues. A fourth of the royal revenue was earmarked for the endowment of great public servants. The governors, ministers, magistrates and officers were given portions of land for their personal upkeep. All this created vested interest at the cost of royal authority.

New Agrarian Economy

We notice an important change in the agrarian economy. Landed beneficiaries could not cultivate lands by themselves, nor could they collect revenues by themselves. The actual cultivation was entrusted to peasants or sharecroppers who were attached to the land but did not legally own it. The Chinese pilgrim I-tsing states that most Indian monasteries got their lands cultivated by servants and others. Hsuan Tsang describes the shudras as agriculturists, which suggests that they no longer cultivated land mainly as slaves and agricultural labourers; they possibly occupied it temporarily. This evidently happened in the old settled areas in north India.

When villages were granted in the tribal areas, the agriculturists were placed under the control of religious beneficiaries, especially the for ananas, because the brahmanas began to be granted land on a large scale from the fifth-sixth centuries onwards. From the sixth century onwards sharecroppers and peasants were particularly asked to stick to the land granted to the beneficiaries in the backward and mountainous areas such as Orissa, Deccan, etc. From there the practice spread to the basin of the Ganga. In north India also artisans and peasants were asked not to leave the villages granted to the beneficiaries. So they could not move from, one village to another; on the other band they had to live in the same village to cater to all their possible needs.

Decline of Trade and Towns

From the sixth century A.D. onwards there started a sharp decline. Trade with the western part of the Roman empire ended in the third century and silk trade with Iran and the Byzantium stopped in the middle of the sixth century. India carried on some commerce with China and South-East Asia, but its benefits were reaped by the Arabs who acted as middlemen. Before the rise of lslam the Arabs had practically monopolized the export trade of India. The decline of trade for well over 300 years after the sixth century is strikingly demonstrated by the practical absence of gold coins in the country. The paucity of coins after the sixth century is true not only of north. India but also, of south India The decline of trade led to the decay of towns. Towns flourished in west and north India under the Satavahanas and Kushans. A few cities continued to thrive in Gupta times. But the post Gupta period witnessed the ruin of many old commercial cities in north India Excavations show that several towns in Haryana and East Punjab.

Parana Quila (Delhi), Mathura, Hastinapur (Meerut district), Shravastl (Uttar Pradesh), Kaushambi : (near Allahabad), Rajghat (Varanasi), Chirand (Saran district), Valshali and Pataliputra began to decline in the Gupta period and mostly disappeared SE.

in post-Gupta times. The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang visited several towns considered sacred on account of their association with the Buddha but found them almost deserted or dilapidated. On account, of restricted market for Indian exports, artisans and merchants living in these towns flocked to the countryside and took to cultivation. In the late fifth century a group of silk weavers from the west fern coast migrated to Mandasor in Malwa, gave up silk weaving and adopted other professions. On account of the-decay of trade and towns, the villagers had to meet their needs in respect of oil, salt, spices, cloth, etc., all by themselves. So this gave rise to smaller units of production, each unit meeting its own needs.

From the sixth century A.D. onwards some changes occurred in the social organisation. In the Gangetic plains in north India, the vaishyas were regarded as free peasants, but land grants created landlords between the peasants on the one hand and the king on the other, so that the vaishyas became as good as the shudras. In this way the old brahmanical order was modified. This modified social order spread from north India into Bengal and south India as a result of land grants to the brahmanas, brought from the north, from the fifth-sixth centuries onwards. In the outlying areas we find mainly two orders, the brahmanas and the shudras.

Changes in the Varna System

Frequent seizures of power and land grants gave rise to several categories of landed people. When a person acquired land and power he naturally sought a high position in society. He might belong to a lower varna, but he was favoured with generous land grants by his master. This created difficulties because though economically well off, socially and ritually he was low. According to the Dharmashastras social positions hitherto were mainly regulated by the varna system. The people were divided into four varnas, the brahmanas being the highest and the shudras being the lowest. The economic rights of a person were also determined by the varna to which he belonged. So some changes had to be made in the written texts to recognize the position of the new landed classes. An astrologer called Varahamihira, who belonged to the sixth century, prescribed houses in sizes varying according to the varna, as was the old practice. But he also fixed the size according to the grades of various classes of ruling chiefs. Thus, formerly all things in society were graded according to the varnas, but now they also came to be determined according to the landed possessions of a person.

From the seventh century onwards numerous castes were created. A purana of the eighth century states that thousands of mixed castes were produced by the connection of vaishya women with men of lower castes. This implies that the shudras and untouchables were divided into countless sub castes. So were the brahmanas and the Rajputs who appeared as an important factor in Indian polity and society around the seventh century. The number of castes increased on according to the nature of the economy. Although people, living in different areas followed the same occupation, they became divided into sub-castes according to the territory to which they belonged. In addition to this, many tribal people were admitted into brahmanical society because of the land grants given to the brahmanas in the aboriginal tracts Most of these people were enrolled as shudras and mixed castes. Every tribe or clan was now given the status of a separate caste in brahmanical society.

Cultural Development

In about the sixth-seventh centuries started the formation of cultural units which later came to be known as Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, etc. The identity of the various cultural groups is recognized by both foreign and Indian sources. The Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang mentions several nationalities. The Jaina books of the late eighth century notice the existence of 18 major peoples or nationalities. It describes the physical features of 16. It produces samples of their language and ‘says something &bout their character. Vishakhadatta, an author of about the ninth century A.D., speaks of different regions inhabited by peoples, different in customs, clothing and language, The sixth-seventh centuries are equally important in the history of Sanskrit literature. Sanskrit continued to be used by the ruling class from about the second century A.D. onwards. As the rulers came to live in pomp and splendour, the style of their language became verbose and ornate. The ornip style in Sanskrit prose and ne common from the seventh century and the traditional Sanskrit Pandit still love to write in it. The best example of verbiage in prose is found in the writings of Bana. Al though the prose of Bana was not easy to imitate, it continued to serve as a model for Sanskrit writers in the medieval period.

Prom the seventh century A.D., a remarkable development takes place to the linguistic history of India. Buddhist writings from eastern India show the faint beginning, of Bengali, Assamese, Maithili, Oriya and Hindi. Similarly, the Jaina Prakrit works of the same period show the beginning of Gujarati and Rajasthani. In the south, Tamil was the oldest language but Kannada came to grow at about this time. Telugu and Malayalam developed much later. It seems that each region came to develop its own language on account of its isolation from the others. On the break-up of the Gupta empire, there arose several independent principalities, which naturally hindered countrywide contacts and communications. The decline of trade meant lack of communication between the various regions and this promoted the growth of regional languages.

Regional scripts became more prominent in the seventh century A.D. and later. From Maurya to Gupta times, although the script underwent changes, more or less the same script continued to obtain throughout the greater part of the country. Thus a person who has mastered the script of the Gupta age can read inscriptions from different parts of the country in that period. But from the seventh century every region came to have its own script and hence one cannot read post-Gupta inscriptions found in different parts of the country unless he has the knowledge of regional scripts.

In sculpture and construction of temples, every region came to evolve its own style from the seventh-eighth centuries onwards. Particularly south India tended to become the land of stone temples. Stone and bronze were the two main media in which divinities were represented. Bronze statues began to be manufactured on an impressive scale. Although they are also found in good numbers in the Himalayan territories, they predominated in south India because of their use in brahmanical temples and in eastern India because of their use in Buddhist temples and monasteries. Although the same gods and goddesses were worshipped throughout the country, people of every region portrayed them in sculptures in their own way.

Bhakti and Tantricism

We also notice some religious changes in post-Gupta times. Hindu divinities came to be arranged according to their grades in the hierarchy. Just as society was divided into unequal classes based on ritual, landed property, military power, etc., so the divinities were also divided into unequal ranks. Vishnu, Shiva and Durga appeared as supreme deities, presiding over many other gods and goddesses, who were placed in lower positions as retainers and attendants. We i find the practice of worshipping Brahma, Ganapati, Vishnu, Shakti and Shiva. They were called panchadeva dr five divinities. The chief god Shiva or some other deity was installed in the main temple, around which four subsidiary shrines were erected to house the other four deities. Such temples were known as panchayatana. The Vedic gods Indra, Varuna and Yama were reduced to the position of lokapalas or security guards. Early medieval pantheons give us a good idea of divine hierarchy based on wordly hierarchy. In many of them the supreme mother goddess was represented in a dominating posture in relation to several deities. We find such pantheons not only in Shaivism, Shaktism and VaishnaVism but in Jainism:and Buddhism as well where: gods were depicted and placed accord ing to their-position in the hierarchy.

The monastic organisation of the Jainas, Shaivites, Vaishnavites, etc., also came to be divided into about five ranks. The higher rank was occupied by the acharya, whose coronation took place in the same manner as the coronation of the prince; The Upadhyaya and Upasaka occupied lower positions.

From the seventh century A.D. onwards the Bhakti cult spread throughout the country and especially in the south. Bhakti meant that people made all kinds of offerings to the god in return for which they received the prasada or the favour of the god. It meant that the devotees completely surrendered to their god. This practice can be compared to the complete dependence of the tenants on the land owners. Just as the tenants offered and rendered various services to the lord and then received land and protection as a kind of favour from him, a similar relation came to be established between the individual and his god. Since elements of feudalism persisted in the country for a very long time, Bhakti came to be deeply embedded in the Indian ethos.

The most remarkable development in the religious field in India from, about the sixth century A.D. was the spread of tantricism. In the fifthseventh centuries many brahmanas received land in Nepal, Assam, Bengal, Orissa, Central India and the Deccan and it is about this time that tantric texts, shrines and practices also appeared; Tantricism admitted both women and shudras into its ranks and laid great stress on the use of magic rituals. Some of the rituals may have been in use in earlier times, but they were systematized and recorded in the tantric texts from about the sixth century A.D. onwards. They were intended to satisfy the material desires of the devotees for physical possessions and to cure the day-to-day dis eases and injuries. Obviously tantricism arose as a result of the large-scale admission of the aboriginal peoples in brahmanical society. The brahmanas adopted many of the tribal rituals, charms and symbols, which were now officially compiled, sponsored and fostered by them. In course of time these were distorted by the brahmanas and priests to serve the interests of their rich patrons. Tantricism permeated Jainism, Buddhism, Shaivism and Vaishnavism. From the seventh century onwardis it continued to hold ground throughout the medieval age. Many medieval manuscripts found in different parts of the country deal with tantricism and astrology and the two are completely mixed with each other.

Overall the sixth and seventh centuries show certain striking developments in polity, society, economy, language, script and religion. During this period the dominant features of ancient Indian life were making way for those of medieval life. Taken together these changes herald the transition to a different type of society and economy dominated by the landlords who now stood between the state and the peasants. They ran the administration which was hitherto manned mainly by the officers appointed by the state. This development was similar to what, happened in Europe where the landlords acquired effective authority from the sixth century A D, onwards, after the fall of the Roman empire. Both the Roman empire and the Gupta empire were attacked by the Hunas, but the consequences were dissimilar. So strong was the pressure of the Hunas and other tribes on the Roman empire that independent peasants were compelled to surrender their freedom to the lords for the sake of protection. The Huna invasions of India did not lead to such a result.

Unlike the Roman society, ancient Indian society did not employ slaves in production on any scale. In India, the main burden of production and taxation fell on the peasants, artisans, merchants and agricultural labourers who were placed In the categories of vaishyas and shudras. We find signs of revolt against this system which made it difficult for the state officials to collect taxes directly from the producers. Therefore, land began to be granted on a large-scale to remunerate various functionaries. The earliest grants were made to the brahmanas and temples just as they were made in Europe to the Church.

Both India and Europe show a clear trend of decline in, artisanal and commercial activity after the sixth century A.D. In the fifth-sixth centuries, towns decayed on the whole in both India and the Rpman empire. Both India said Europe witnessed agrarian expansion which gave rise to many rural settlements. In India this was promoted by the practice of land grants. The emergence of landlords as a powerful class became a prominent feature of the social, economic and political landscape after the end of the ancient period in both Europe and India. Whether they held land for religious or other purposes, the landlords played the key role in shaping the course of society, religion, art and architecture and literature in both India and Europe from the seventh century A.D. onwards.


  1. Describe the changes in Indian polity, economy and society during the fifth-seventh centuries. Discuss the significance of these changes. Describe the developments in religion and culture during the fifth- seventh centuries.
  2. What is meant by the end of the ancient period of Indian history? When can one period of history be said to have ended and another begun? Discuss.


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