Early Medieval Period – Polity

The distinctiveness of the early medieval polities of our period, in opposition to that of the early historical ones, has been noted in several respects. In these discussions of the transition from the ancient to the early medieval, Mauryan state and administration provide a point of comparison of the ancient Indian states with the early medieval ones, beginning with the Gupta Empire. Unlike the ancient Indian polities as exemplified by the Mauryan state, the early medieval ones were decentralised structures. The contrast has recently been modified somewhat, but it remains nonetheless. In earlier discussions, it used to be viewed in terms of a highly centralised Mauryan state versus the decentralised, ‘feudal’ set-up of the early medieval polities. Now that the terms of discussion are the degree of decentralisation rather than of centralisation, with a revised judgment of the overall character of the Mauryan state (which is now seen as far less centralised than earlier), the distinctive character of the early medieval states is now expressed differently. They are stated to have been ‘more decentralised’ than the Mauryan state.

A major indicator of the early medieval political transformation is seen in the nature of royal titles. In contrast with the practice in ancient India, when kings (including the mighty Mauryan monarchs) usually made do with the simple title of raja or ‘the king’, there was a tendency for the royal titles to become increasingly more magnificent and high-sounding in early medieval times, when even petty rulers were known as maharaja, ‘the great king’, and maharajadhiraja, ‘the supreme king of great kings’. The trend began early with the Gupta emperors. Although they were usually called maharajadhiraja in most of the inscriptions, from the time of Chandragupta II some of them were sometimes also called paramabhattaraka maharajadhiraja, ‘the most excellent great lord, the supreme king of great kings’,and bhattaraka maharaja rajadhiraja ‘the great lord, the great king, the supreme king of kings’.In continuation of this practice, Harshavardhana, like his father and grandfather assumed the title of paramabhattaraka maharajadhiraja.

About the same time, the Maitraka ruler Dharasena IV (641-650 CE), a powerful regional king of Saurashtra, though a lesser potentate than Harsha, added two more and equally high- sounding titles – parameshvara, ‘the supreme lord’, and chakravatin, ‘the universal emperor’. The Chalukyas of Badami called themselves variously maharaja, parameshvara, rajadhiraja parameshvara, or, most elaborately, maharajadhiraja parameshvara paramabhattaraka. Apart from these titles that are indicative of political status, these kings often had those of other types as well, more often indicating their religious affiliations (e.g. paramamaheshvara and paramabhagavata) but also referring to their other qualities. The seventh-century Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman II is known to have assumed more than two hundred fifty titles! Among other things he was called rajasimha (‘lion among kings’), sankarabhakta (‘devotee of Shiva’), and agamapriya (‘lover of Shaivite scriptures called agama’). Both the high political status and religious commitment of the Pallava rulers was captured by their title dharmamaharaja or dharmamaharajadhiraja; the prefix dharma seems to be emblematic of their known inclination for Brahmanism and hostility to the non-Brahmanical religions.

These high-sounding political titles are interpreted as reflecting a qualitative shift in the nature of political organisation, apart of course from the growing ornateness of Sanskrit language. Unlike the ancient kings of India, the paramount, imperial sovereigns of early medieval period like the Chalukyas and the Vardhanas did not directly administer their entire dominions with the help of officials, but only the central part of it. For the rest they ruled through their overlordship over a host of lesser kings. There was, in other words, a hierarchy of kings in a large political formation, and this hierarchy corresponded to a hierarchy of titles. There were many types of these subordinate kings, from big kings of large areas to petty chieftains, including tribal leaders. This structure did not prevail only in the biggest states of the times, namely those of the Vardhanas, Chalukyas or Pallavas, but could exist in smaller states as well. The regional kingdom of Kashmir in the seventh century, for instance, had a number of dependent states, including the kingdoms of Taxila, the Salt Range, and the lower hills.

These subordinate kings of the paramount sovereign, the parambhattaraka maharajadhiraja, were often known collectively by the term samanta. Samanta was an old word, but earlier it meant a neighbour, including a neighbouring king. Now it acquired a new meaning of ‘subordinate king’. In the Madhuban Copperplate Inscription of Harsha, for instance, it is in this sense that a person named Ishvaragupta is called a samanta maharaja. In contemporary literature also we get numerous references to the political importance of these samantas. Samantas, it needs to be underlined, were no simple political allies of the paramount sovereign and thus outsiders, but were important functionaries within his realm. They rendered valuable military service to him and were considered integral parts of his defence system. They accompanied their overlords in their expeditions, shared with them in the glories and spoils of victory, and paid for their defeats. Thus the Chalukya king Pulakeshin II, in his campaigns against the Pallavas, had first to overcome the opposition of the Banas, who were the subordinates of the Pallavas. On being defeated, the Banas seem to have been transferred their loyalty to the Chalukyas as their principality, which figures as an administrative unit (Banaraja- vishaya, ‘the vishaya of the Bana king’) in a Chalukya record. The samantas attended the overlord’s court regularly, and even performed valuable administrative duties directly under him. Ishvaragupta, for instance, was a keeper of records of Harsha.

Samantas have been identified as a major source of the political instability and turbulence that mark the early medieval period. Always a potential source of trouble, they were the first to take advantage of the problems and weakness of the centre and declare themselves independent and, if possible, even seize power from their overlords. Thus the Chalukyas were overthrown by the Rashtrakutas, who had been their subordinates, and the empire of Harshavardhana did not outlast him, and was followed by a long period marked by a multiplicity of independent small kingdoms.

How did the paramount sovereign and his subordinate rulers govern the areas under their direct control? In this respect also a number of differences with the earlier systems of administration have been pointed out. In general, royal control of affairs slackened. The early medieval kings, as typified by the Guptas, are supposed to have taken a less active part in government than the ancient rulers, as typified by the Mauryas: ‘Whereas Ashoka insisted that he be kept informed of what was happening, the Guptas seemed satisfied with leaving it to the kumaramatyas and the ayuktakas [their officials].’

A number of official designations are seen for the first time in early medieval records. Some of these, such as sandhivigrahika and dandanayaka, appear early and soon became very important offices in most polities all over India. There was also a strong tendency to elevating these offices by adding the prefix maha to them and making them mahasandhivigrahika, mahadandanayaka, and so forth. In a great majority of cases our records do not provide the details of these numerous designations, so that their exact nature is often no more than a matter of reasoned guesswork. However, the plethora of these new names indicates a certain reorganization of the administration, some of which was clearly necessitated by the growing importance of the new concerns of the state. For instance, the practice of creating agraharas through land grants called into existence the office of agraharika; in early medieval Assam the task seems to have been divided between two officers, the lekhayitri, who was in charge of getting the grants recorded, and shasayitri, whose duty was to get them executed.

However, it is not easy to say if the large numbers of designations that are seen in the early medieval records represent an increase in the total number of state functionaries. For one, these designations pertain to the records of different kingdoms so that not all of the known functionaries worked as part of the same state apparatus. For another, in a number of cases we see the same person holding a number of high offices.

In fact, on two sets of grounds it is thought that there was a shrinkage of officialdom during the early medieval period as the state began to withdraw from a large number of activities. One is the practice of land grants, the other being local autonomy in administration.

By the time of Xuan Zang (Hiuen-Tsang), officials had begun to be paid commonly through grants of land (or a share in local taxes) instead of salaries. This saved the government the heavy duty of organizing the collection of resources for conversion in cash for the disbursement of salaries. During this time, the state also began to grant in perpetuity fiscal, juridical and administrative rights on a considerable scale to religious functionaries and institutions. The fiscal, juridical, and administrative administration of the villages over which such authority was granted consequently no longer remained the headache of the government. In a further contrast with the Mauryan state, in early medieval polities the government now stopped taking an active role in the development of agrarian economy, and instead began granting land to ‘individuals, who were expected to act as a catalyst in rural areas’.

The grantees became an additional source of the decentralisation of the polity. In fact, they are supposed to have added to the ranks of the samantas. Examples such as of samanta maharaja Ishvaragupta, who was a keeper of seals in the court of Harsha can be, and have in fact been, interpreted in a different way than we have done above. It was not necessarily a case of a samanta maharaja who served as a keeper of seals, but could as well have been one of a keeper of the seals who had risen to the rank of samanta by means of land grant. In the context of samanta–making power of land grants, some historians believe that a Brahmin king in early medieval India must have been the descendants of some donee brahmin, and that his ancestors might have enjoyed the first access to political power by means of land grants.

A further curtailment of state activities resulted from local autonomy in administration, both at village and town levels. This has been identified as a major development in early medieval India, although it did not develop in the same way everywhere. In ancient India the committees or persons supervising local government were appointed by the state, as in the Mauryan set-up; later local representatives came to be entrusted with these tasks. Where the villagers were allowed to manage their own affairs, as in the Sangam period, they did so only in a limited and adhoc sort of way; it is only in later times that a developed and well-organized system of local autonomous bodies, entrusted with a large number of tasks, emerged gradually.

In South India, local assemblies and/or councils must have been in existence during the post-Sangam period, but their activities in the Tamil country remained obscure to us for a long time. However, from the late eighth and early ninth centuries when inscriptions begin to refer to three types of them – ur (non-brahmin assembly), sabha (assembly of brahmins), and nagaram (generally mercantile corporation) – they already appear with all or most of their known features. It follows that, if their growth was not sudden but gradual (as was probably the case), it must have occurred during this period.

As to the rest of India, a fourth century record from Andhra Pradesh refers to village officials, and village headmen such as gramabhojakas and gramakutas figure in a number of records, but in general local notables seem to have played an important role in rural administration on a regular basis, in conjunction with the state functionaries. At the time of issuing a charter in an area, it was usual for the king to inform these notables of it and their consent was deemed important for carrying out land transactions. In the western Deccan they were known as gamundas and mahajanas; elsewhere mahattara was the most common term for them during this period.

A typical feature of political life at the level of locality was the grant of varying degrees of autonomy to urban corporate groups by the king. This is seen for the first time in this period in a number of charters over a wide area from modern Gujarat to Maharashtra and Karnataka, from the end of the sixth till the first quarter of the eigth century CE.

Not everything was transformed, however, and we must be careful, when tracing the transition from the ancient to early medieval times, to note that administration continued to bear many similarities to earlier practices. Like Ashoka, Harsha is said to have built rest houses for travellers in his kingdom. Just as Ashoka undertook a regular tour of his realm, and Manu prescribed such tours of inspection as an important part of the king’s duty, the early medieval kings, Harshavardhana for instance, are often seen to be moving about in their domains. As Xuan Zang (Hiuen-Tsang) says of Harsha,“The king made visits of inspection throughout his dominions, not residing long at any place, but having temporary buildings erected for his residence at each place of sojourn; but he did not go abroad during the three months of rain- season retreat.” However, historians who do not accept this observation as valid interpret this evidence very differently. They think that if the king had to do all this himself, he was behaving more like a ‘royal inspector’ than a king and he was not having a proper administrative machinery. In other words, Harsha relied more on personal supervision than on the assistance of an organized bureaucracy for the efficient rule of his vast empire. In a contradictory move, when the king’s officials are seen to be doing the state’s work, historians criticize the Gupta kings for leaving it to them rather than doing it themselves!

It should also be clear from the examples already referred to that things did not change in the same way everywhere. In fact, from royal titles to local administration, regional variations in the polities could be very marked. For instance, a general feature of early medieval kingdoms was the king’s right to choose his successor and appoint him as heir apparent (yuvaraja or yuvamaharaja); the importance of these heirs apparent, however, seems to have varied significantly from one polity to another. Further, the line of royal succession was through males generally, but in the Kara kingdom of Orissa women rulers were quite as normal (and not something exceptional). While a number of designations for the state functionaries, such as mahadandanayaka and senapati were common everywhere, a greater number of them (at any rate in configuration) were specific to different regions. For instance, a revenue official called dhruva is not found outside Saurashtra, and lekhayitri and shasayitri were peculiar to the Assam region.

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