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Gram Sabhas: Puliyur Kottam, ancient Chennai, showed the way for decentralised governance

Kamal Haasan at a Gram Sabha meeting organised by his party at Uthiramerur on October 2

There is plenty of talk about the need to restore Gram Sabhas on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanthi. Even actor turned politicians Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth have been stressing on the need to revive the system of Gram Sabhas to focus attention on villages, and the need to take up the causes of villagers, who are removed from the process of development in urban areas.

The concept of Gram Sabhas or Assemblies was very much prevalent in both theory and practice under an efficient and decentralised local administration system during the rule of Chennai under the administrative unit of Puliyur Kottam. Village assemblies enjoyed considerable autonomy to deal with local matters including taxes, justice, administration and governance even though they functioned under the central government of monarchy. Such an efficient and democratic process of Gram Sabhas was prevalent even during the Pallava and Chola and Vijayanagara rulers of Puliyur Kottam, which was ancient, from over 2,000 years ago.

The Gram Sabhas were largely elected bodies which had regular elections governed by extremely strict rules and code of conduct which were far superior to what is being done now under the Central or state election commissions. For instance, nepotism was checked. If a person was found to have indulged in an act of corruption or misbehaviour, members of his family, even distant relatives were barred from contesting the elections.  Similarly, there was scope for inquiry and removal of corrupt officers.

Local government
“One of the most remarkable features of the administrative system that prevailed in South India, especially during the Chola period was the excellent functioning of the Central Government along with the vast network of village sabhas or assemblies which enjoyed considerable local autonomy and which were the real guardians of the welfare of the villages. The authority of the central government, even under strong kings like Rajaraja I or Kulottunga I, never crushed or curtailed the local initiative and freedom that were prevalent in the villages”, says historian Dr K V Raman.

There are inscriptions, right from the 9th century AD, when the Pallavas were ruling Tondaimandalam, that Gram Sabhas or assemblies were functioning in the Chennai region. Inscriptions from Tiruvottriyur belonging to later Pallava kings of 9th century mention the assemblies of Manali and Adambakkam which, besides doing many other duties, were evidently looking after the interests of the Tiruvottriyur temple also. In subsequent times, the functioning of the sabhas in places like Kurattur, Tirumazhisai, Poonamallee, Padi and Velachery is very well attested.

Inscriptions from Tiruvottriyur belonging to later Pallava kings of 9th century mention the assemblies of Manali and Adambakkam which, besides doing many other duties, were evidently looking after the interests of the Tiruvottriyur temple also.

In Koyambedu, there was the ur which was a simpler type of assembly than the sabha. Invariably, the sabha was associated with villages in which the Brahmanas were the largest land-holders – such as Manali, Kurattur, Poonamallee, Thirumazhisai and Velachery. Although in these rural assemblies, like the ur, sabha, and nagaram, all those who had a stake in the locality were entitled to be present, the leadership and prominence seem to have always fallen on those who possessed high qualifications by virtue of their age, property, character and learning.

Committees of the Assemblies
Villages being little republics, their assemblies had a wide range of powers with regard to the conduct of affairs affecting the village. The fact that the assemblies dealt with a variety of subjects can be inferred from the existence of committees within the assembly of each one being entrusted with a specific task. The committees were generally known as Variyams in the Chola period. Among such variams were eri variam (to look after tanks), the totta variam to look after gardens, and the pon variam to examine the fineness of gold deposited with the assembly. There was also the panchavara variyam which was perhaps appointed to collect a specific tax called pancha-vara. The executive authority of the ur and also some of the sabhas appears to have been vested in a body called alungunam, the ruling group.

Thus, for example, Velachery, which had a sabha. also had an alunganattar, the members of which appear to have been Brahmanas. An inscription records the gift made by a Brahmin lady, wife of one of the managing members of the alunganattar of Velachery, to the local temple. Not much is known about the body called alunganattar, though its origin goes back even to the Pallava period. It might have been the executive committee of the assembly.

The powers exercised by the villages assemblies appear to be great and varied. Some of the early Pallava inscriptions at Tiruvottriyur indicate that the assembly and the Amratagana of Adambakkam were in charge of the charitable endowments that were made to the Tiruvottriyur temple while another records a gift of gold to the same temple being deposited for interest with the assembly of Manali.

Regarding the nature of the institution called Amratagana, which is mentioned along with the assembly of Adambakkam, there are different views. The Government Epigraphist for 1912-13 connected it with the alunganattur who were managing members of the village. But Dr. C Minakshi opined that the Amratagana was not connected with the village administration but only with the temple and its management. She also said that the Amratagana was a body of people peculiar to the Tiruvottriyur temple which was a large and famous institution even in the time of Aparajita and which required the management by an organised committee of people like the amrataganattur.

The sabha of Manali which was in charge of the charitable endowments to Tiruvottriyur temple in the Pallava period continued to be in charge even in the Chola period. During the time of Parantaka I, it received a gift of gold on behalf of the Tiruvottriyur temple on interest made by a private individual.

On another occasion, the assembly of Manali purchased lands from a private individual to conduct certain rituals in the temple. There is also an instance of the assembly of Kurattur selling some lands to conduct daily rituals in the same temple. Another epigraph of the Chola period records the sale of a particular land by the assemblies of Sundarachola-chaturvedimangalam and Vanavan-madevi-chaturvedimangalam to conduct certain offerings in the Tiruvottriyur temple.

In Velachery, there is an instance of two persons buying lands from the sabha of that village and presenting them to the Shiva temple in the same village. There is also the case of an assembly receiving money from an individual and agreeing to pay the interest on it. Thus, the assembly of Kavanur received 30 kasus and agreed to pay every year the interest on that amount to be utilised for the expenses of the Panguni Uttiram festival at Tiruvottriyur. It is significant that in all the above instances, the assemblies acted in close collaboration with the temples, and did a lot to promote the interests of the latter. The village assemblies possessed the right of buying or disposing of land or other categories of properties owned jointly by the villagers, for them and on their behalf. In such cases, assemblies served as a common bond or the cementing force by which the corporate life of the villagers was maintained.

Another important power of the assemblies was to collect taxes whether on their own or on behalf or as agents of the central government for certain local purposes. An epigraph from Koyambedu records that the assembly (ur) of that village levied some cess on lands with different kinds of produce for the maintenance of midnight rituals in the local temple, which was discontinued for some time.

An instance of the assembly collecting taxes on behalf of the central government is seen in an epigraph from Tiruvottriyur wherein the assembly of Ponnaivaiyil is reported to have been charged with the duty of collecting the land tax.

The power of the assembly to exempt lands from paying certain taxes is brought out by a record of Velachery which says that the assembly of that village sold 1,500 kulis of land the temple of that place, making the land tax free.

Another feature that deserves to be noted about the assemblies is that each one of them had its own staff of officers, which assisted it in various ways in carrying out its duties.

Thus, there was the madhyastha who is mentioned in an inscription from Tirusoolam. The duty of madhyastha was to commit to writing the deliberations of the assembly. Another officer of the sabha mentioned in an epigraph of Velachery is the karanattan. His duty was to maintain the accounts of the assembly.

Though the measure of local autonomy was considerable, local autocracy was never allowed. Recalcitrant assemblies, which failed to carry out the orders of the central government faithfully, were brought to book and their members punished. Thus, we have an extraordinary case of the central government imprisoning some members of the assembly of Punnavayil for failure to collect the tax arrears from the people. An inscription from Tiruvottriyur records this and adds that the aforesaid assembly was specially directed by the central government to collect on its behalf the pon vari from the cultivated as well as uncultivated lands. But the people paid only partially. The members of the assembly were held responsible for this and imprisoned. Thereupon, some of the remaining members of the assembly took action for public auction of 80 velis of land for 200 kasus to clear the arrears and to free the arrested members.

The village assemblies continued to function in the Chennai region even during the Vijayanagar period. Thus the functioning of the assemblies in Thirumazhisai, Padi and Kovur during the times of Harihara II, Virupaksha Maharaya and Krishnadevaraya respectively are recorded. The assemblies of Padi and Kovur are called mahajanas, a name which came to be applied to the sabhas during the Vijayanagar period.

Law and Order
Regarding maintenance of law and order, there was a regular system by which the villages in ancient South India maintained their own watchmen to look after the peace and order, as well as the security of the property of the villages. Thus, an epigraph from Tirunirmalai refers to the existence of two officers called padi kaaval and ur kaaval who were responsible for safeguarding the villages. The watchmen were called as kavalkaaran or padikaappar. The villagers themselves seemed to have earmarked some land for the watchmen as remuneration for the task performed by them. Failure to do the kaaval duty properly was severely dealt with. This is reflected in an inscription from Tiruvottriyur. It speaks of some insecurity that prevailed in the region around Tiruvottriyur in the reign of Sayana Odeyar, consequent on the negligence of the kaaval duty by the agambadiyars (viz., Kalingarayan, Sediyarayan Adittan and others) of the chief of Paduvur. The epigraph says they had been doing the kaaval duty for a long time, but suddenly neglected it for some unexplained reasons. As a result of this, disturbances and dacoities became common, casing much loss to the people. For this, as many as 48 agambadiyars were taken to task and punished.

Regarding the judicial system, even from very early times, the king was considered to be the fountain head of justice, and as such it was expected of him  to discharge that sacred duty without fear or favour.

In the Pallava and Chola period, the royal court of justice, called dharmasana, was mentioned often. Thus, four early inscriptions of Tiruvotrriyur belonging to the Pallava kings inform us that the local assemblies like those at Manali and Adambakkam that undertook to be the custodians of certain gifts made to the Tiruvottriyur temple, paid  fines to the dharmasana for failure to discharge the functions to which they had agreed.

In the Pallava and Chola period, the royal court of justice, called dharmasana, was mentioned often.

A Chola record from Velacheri also mentions this council of justice called dharmasana. The exact nature of this court is not clear. But it seems to have been presided over by the king himself, who was assisted by many learned Brahmanas who were conversant with the laws and who were also known as dharmasanabhattas.

All the cases did not go to the king’s court; cases relating to minor disputes were settled by the village assemblies through small committees called the nyaayattar. Certain disputes which rose among the temple servants as happened in Tiruvottriyur were settled by the king’s special officers.

There was a longstanding dispute relating to the order of precedence to be followed during the rituals in the Tiruvottriyur temple by Ishabattaliyilar and Devaradiyar. The dispute could not be solved though several attempts were made. A attempt was made by one Mudaliyar of Perumbatruppuliyur (Chidambaram) in the time of Rajanarayana Sambuvarya and another by the temple trustees. Vittappan of Anegondai in the time of Kampana Udaiyar made another attempt. Though certain changes were made, it did not yield a smooth solution as a dispute rose again three years later and to be settled by a compromise. This showed that the temple disputes were looked into and settled by the agents of the central government. The Central government officers, while settling the dispute, invited the local authorities like the nattaar of the village and the district to be present and to assist them in their task.

Politicians of today and the governments of the day could well learn from the excellent decentralised administration through Gram Sabhas that once prevailed in Chennai. We are now in times where governments are even struggling to hold regular elections to the local bodies.

The British rule needlessly tampered with the efficient system of local bodies and Gram Sabhas so that it could collect taxes through its own officers and enrich its coffers. East India Company, which came to Chennai only to trade, saw opportunities to take over the revenue administration and collect taxes, following the line adopted by another set of invaders, the Moghul rulers.  When the East India Company saw that the Moghul rulers could use force or money power to ‘acquire’ villages, they too expanded their acquisition drive. This strategy ultimately proved to be their undoing, as local chieftains, polygars and others divested of powers began protesting against British rule. Today, it is a sad sight to see officials running local bodies instead of elected representatives through assemblies or Gram Sabhas.

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