During the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the construction of a new Parliament building, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Indian democracy predates the Magna Carta as the Chola dynasty in Tamil Nadu had practised it around the 10th century.
Magna Carta or Charter of Liberties, drafted by the British and published in 1215, is considered one of the most important documents in human history. It says that each and every individual is equal before the law. The document has become the basis of many democratic countries’ model of a republic.
Modi invoked religious texts like the Rig Veda and cited tales from kingdoms like Licchavi and of a statesman like Lord Basaveshwara to highlight the different systems of democracies that were prevalent in ancient India and to drive home the point that democracy in the country was much older than in other nations.
While talking about the Chola kingdom in Tamil Nadu, Modi said that the panchayat system existed as early as the 10th century. During the Chola regime, people had the right to recall an elected representative and there was a rule that said if a candidate was unable to disclose his sources of assets, they would be prevented from taking part in the elections.
It is a well-known fact that Uthiramerur, a village in Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu, is a living example of the ancient Constitution. The inscriptions found in three temples — Sundara Varadaraja Perumal temple, Subramanya temple and Kailasanatha temple — have many details about how elections were conducted through the ‘Kudavolai’ system. The references Modi made during his speech are also found on these temple walls.
But there are more unsaid and unknown aspects of the democratic system that existed in the Chola Kingdom. If one looks into the aforesaid references closely, one will realise how the Cholas followed a nuanced administrative system. The three major aspects of democracy found in the Chola administration were decentralisation of powers, people-friendly taxation and judicial system sans heinous punishments.
Efficient local self-governance
“The Chola bureaucracy did not differ much from its contemporaries. However, what distinguished it was its highly organised nature. A careful balance between central control and local independence was maintained and non-interference in local government was sacrosanct,” Vijayakumar H Salimani, assistant professor of history, Chittapur Government First Grade College, Karnataka, said in one of his papers published in 2016.
Like how we have a three-tier local body governance — village panchayats, town or district panchayats and municipality or corporation, in Chola period, too, the local body existed as Ur (villages), Sabhas or Mahasabhas (towns) and Nagaram (cities, which were mostly trading centres).
“There was remarkable autonomy at the village level. The Chola officials participated in the village administration more as observers than as administrators,” adds Salimani.
Value for physical labour
When it came to taxation, the village assemblies collected tax from people and submitted them to the central government, ie, the king, annually. The tax was collected in the form of paddy, cash or physical labour.
“It is interesting to note that the kings then valued physical labour equal to cash. The people’s labour was mainly used to create public assets such as water tanks, laying roads, etc,” says S Chandini Bi, associate professor, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, in one of her articles.
Land was the main source of income and it was the Cholas who introduced the land surveying system.
“People were asked to give one-sixth of their produce to the king. This could be given after they shared their produce with forefathers, gods, guests and relatives,” she added.
The village assemblies collected tax from defaulters by confiscating their land and selling it to the temple. This was how most of the temples accrued lot of lands, which are now under the purview of the state government. Though the tenants are enjoying those lands, the rent is not collected regularly.
“Temples played a major role in taxation. The central government gave sufficient amount to the village assemblies for efficient administration. If they needed additional amount, it could be paid from the endowments given to temples. Levying 12.5 per cent interest, the Centre would collect the amount from the villages and again deposit it into the temple’s treasure,” said renowned epigraphist Kudavayil Balasubramaniam.
At a time when there is no transparency found in PM CARES Fund, the Chola kings maintained a high level of transparency.
“A total of 1,200 workers were involved in the construction of the Thanjavur big temple (periya koil). All their contributions were listed in the inscriptions, including that of King Raja Raja Cholan I,” he added.
The judicial system was very compassionate, said Balasubramaniam.
“Once there was an accountant in Thirupoonthuruthi, a village in Thanjavur district, the mainstay of the Cholas. He embezzled funds and a case was registered. He had two brothers and one of them helped him to get bail. While the case was pending, the convict died. The village assembly, which acted as a local judiciary, punished the convict’s brother by confiscating his land and selling it to the temple. The case was mentioned in 12-and-a-half lines in an inscription.
“The second part of the case is more interesting. The two brothers made an appeal to King Sundara Cholan. After hearing their plea, he ordered the temple to return the land to the brothers and advised the village assembly not to punish the family members of the convict. The interesting thing was, the appeal was also registered in the same inscription, making it impossible for the temple administration to confiscate the land some time later. That’s how compassionate Cholas judiciary was at that time,” he said.
Even murder charges were handled in an empathetic manner. If a murder convict had a family and no one to support them or no resources to depend upon, he would be given the punishment of maintaining and cleaning the temples and the salary would be paid by the village. Women served as judges in those days, added Balasubramaniam.