Date:10/10/2003 URL:

Democracy of a high standard ancient example

The inscriptions on the walls of the Sundaravarada temple in Uttiramerur, near Kanchipuram, show how democracy was practised 1,000 years ago. DR. R. NAGASWAMY elaborates.

The towering gopuram of the Sri Sundaravaradaraja Perumal temple at Uthiramerur. Pic. by A. Muralitharan.

THE KUMBABHISHEKAM on June 8 last of the Sundaravarada temple of Uttiramerur, Kanchipuram district, was the culmination of a great renovation work.

This temple was built around 750 A.D. during the Pallava rule, but underwent a second great renovation in the hands of Rajendra Chola in 1013 A.D., and again in the reign of the great Vijayanagar Emperor, Krishnadevaraya in 1520 A.D.

The village is known for its historic inscription of a written constitution that deals with elections to the village assembly, qualifications required of candidates contesting in elections, circumstances under which a candidate may be disqualified, mode of election, tenure of the elected candidates and the right of the public to recall the elected members when they failed to discharge their duties properly and so on.

It is interesting how in every aspect of life the highest standard of democracy was enforced in Uttiramerur.

Fines for wrongdoers

A 10th Century record deals with how to administer fines imposed on wrong doers in the village. Those who were fined for misdeeds are classified into criminals ("dushtargal"), fined by the great village assembly and the serving elected members of the village assembly who were fined.

Inscriptions on a wall of the temple. - Pic. by D. Gopalakrishnan.

The great assembly met and decided that the fines imposed should be settled by the administrators of the village, through the Village Assembly, within the same financial year, failing which the Village Assembly itself would get the matter settled. This suggests that as the Village Assembly also had a judicial function, it could impose further fines and get the same realised. Regarding the second category it was decided that the elected members of the subcommittees, their servants, the village scribes and the village guards, who were punished for default, the cases should be settled by the village administrators (under the supervision of the Village Assembly), failing which the Village Assembly itself should collect the fine, within the same year.

The village administrators would be individually fined one "kaanam" (money) for their failure to discharge their duty. The record makes it clear that the elected members of the Village Assembly could not escape punishment by virtue of their elected memberships. The defaulting administrators were also dealt with severely.

Testing gold quality

Another record dated 921 A.D. was a regulation passed by the Village Assembly. As gold was in circulation for commercial transactions it was found necessary that the gold offered should be tested for its fineness to the satisfaction of the community.

A committee was elected by the villagers to test the gold by rubbing it against a touchstone. Four members were elected by the pot ticket method by the merchant community of the village, two members by the military garrison and two by the oil mongers.

Those who stood for this election had to be skilled in testing gold and for their upright conduct. They had to be neither too old nor too young. They should be taxpayers. Non-tax paying men were considered unsuitable for the work. All together 10 members were elected for a stipulated period.

The Gold Testing Committee, called "Pon Vaariyam", was strictly prohibited from using rough stones, which would lead to greater loss of gold while rubbing. They were also expected to recover the gold dust from the touchstone, at the end of each day and deposit it with the village assembly. Once in three months, they were obliged to go before the village assembly and swear that they had not committed any fraud in the testing. Also people were so proud of their oaths and sworn statements that they would sacrifice their life rather than break their own sworn statements.

Appointment of Professors

Another interesting record deals with an establishment of a higher institution of learning and the qualifications prescribed for the professor, the method of appointment and the duration of his service. As this was related to a Vedic college, the qualifications required mastery of the Vedas. For instance, the incumbent could not be a native of that village but one who came from other regions. It was believed that the teacher from the same village might take things easy and not do full justice to his profession.

The second clause states that the teacher should have mastered one Veda completely in addition to mastery of grammar, "Mimamsa", and the two religious systems, "darsanas". Alternately he should have mastered one of the Vedas, in addition to grammar with commentary ("Vyakarana" with "bhashya") and Logic with commentary and classical notes ("nyaaya" with "bashya" and "tika") and etymological science ("nirukta") with commentary.

Those who are conversant with ancient Indian learning know that these are very high standards compared to this age, where a professor of Ancient History, for example, need not have even basic understanding of Sanskrit or epigraphy to interpret the original sources of ancient Indian culture.

The Ancient Educationists on the other hand insisted on multi-dimensional understanding of the relevant subjects as the best system of education. The record states that the teacher is appointed for a period of only three years at the end of which one has to take an examination for another term of appointment. The endowment with all the stipulations was created by a gentleman of the village in association with the Members of the Village Assembly, which would monitor the functioning. Here one finds that local democracy played a vibrant role in keeping the standard of education high.

Protection of village tanks

The maintenance of the village tank received top priority. The work was looked after by the Tank Supervising Committee whose members were elected from among the non-serving members of the Village Assembly. Their tenure was also limited to three years. In this way a great number of people were involved in managing the affairs of the village. The duty of the Tank Supervisory Committee was maintenance of tanks, irrigation, levying of tank taxes and utilising the funds so collected for the same purpose. The work of this committee was so inspiring that many people, including women, came forward and endowed money for tank maintenance.

The committee also had to de-silt the village tanks once in three months and strengthen the tank bunds by widening and raising its height. The sluices and overflow channels were to be maintained properly. Uttiramerur shows the best example by providing a large number of records dealing with this type of secular transactions of the village Assemblies of Ancient India.

There is an example of road maintenance. A road, continuously used by the villagers and cattle, became unfit for use. The village assembly acquired lands from owners who had cultivable lands adjacent to the road. The long road was about 48 feet wide. The assembly purchased land 14 feet wide from all the owners, who were willing to part with the land for a common cause and the road was re-laid.

Efficient election system

It would be appropriate to close this account by referring to the election system that was in vogue. The record is a clause-by-clause document of high efficiency and those who drafted it could be considered constitutional experts.

The salient features were that a person should have a minimum educational qualification, should be above 35 years of age and below 70, should own a minimum of landed property, should have a residence built in his own land and finally, should be a tax payer. Only such men, who felt it was their responsibility to contribute to the governance, were allowed to contest. It was obligatory that a legislator should understand at least what he is legislating, as these acts affect the life of the people. In disqualifying a candidate, primary importance was given to elimination of corruption. Not only corrupt persons but those who abetted corruption and the near relatives, were debarred from contesting an election for seven generations.

Those elected could be recalled any time if they were found not discharging their duty properly. With all these rigid rules if one got elected he could not contest the next three consecutive elections. And one could contest only for three terms throughout his lifetime and should make way for other members and families to get elected. Uttiramerur definitely shows the way in democratic participation extended to a larger section of society, exerting at the same time constant vigil and scrupulous enforcement of the Law, without favours or prejudices.

In place were several committees such as the Annual Administrative Committee, Tank Committee, Gold Committee, Field Committee, Garden Committee, etc. which were all democratically elected under the overall supervision of the Annual Committee.

Each serving member is debarred from standing for any other committee within three terms. Many of the evils prevalent today were anticipated 1,000 years ago and this made the Constitution framers, men of great vision, who deserve to be at least remembered. Uttiramerur, in this context, has a message to be acknowledged.

(The author was Director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu).

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