Feudalism was a combination of legal and military systems in medieval Europe that largely flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries A.D. It was a system in which King granted land to nobles who further granted them to their vassals (a holder of land on conditions of homage and allegiance), in return for military and other services on demand.
A similar system evolved in the early medieval period in Indian sub-continent, where the weaker kings engaged in compensating through land grants rather than paying in currency. But, the nature of Indian feudalism was quite different from the European feudalism structure and historians view it as an altogether distinct system.
Feudalism in India
Feudalism began in India with the advent of early medieval period, when the villages became economically selfsufficient due to decline in urban centers and commercial activities during the end of the Gupta period. During the 1st Century AD the kings began to donate land free of cost to the Brahmins (called as Brahmadeya), scholars and other religious institutions, thus conferring the ownership of the land and hence the right to collect revenues thereof.
The practice of making land grants to the Brahmanas was a custom, sanctified by the injunctions laid down in the Dharmashastras, Epics and Puranas. The Anusasana Parva of the Mahabharata devotes a whole chapter to the praise of making gifts of land (Bhumidana Prasamsa). This in turn enabled them to make a direct link and control over the peasantry.
With the growth of feudalism, community right on land diminished. The pasture-lands, marshes and forests were given as gifts by monarch. Thus, a middle order land owner class emerged and the peasant lost his land rights. They were forced to pay heavy taxes and do forced labour. Their status was reduced to slaves. There was the possibility of further transfer of land and in reality that happened too.
Along with the transfer of revenue rights, the system also resulted in the transfer of the administrative rights to the Brahmins in particular. This resulted in mushrooming of Brahmin feudatories. Also, ceding of the revenue and administrative powers resulted in disintegration of state and weakening of King’s power. The features of Indian feudalism can be summarized as:
Political Decentralization: The decentralization achieved in the form of Land grants gradually turned into a distinctly branched political organization made up of semi-autonomous rulers such as Samantas, Mahasamantas, etc.
Emergence of New Class: Feudalism resulted in emergence of landholding intermediaries which became a dominant social group. This was absent in the early historical period and was linked to the practice of land grants, which began with the Satavahanas.
Changes in Agrarian structure: With the growth of feudalism, from the sixth Century AD onwards the peasants stuck to the land granted to the beneficiaries. This led to immobility of the population and therefore isolation from the rest of the world. Its profound implication was development of localized customs, languages and rituals.
Changes in Land Grants
From the period of later Mauryas, land grants included the transfer of all sources of revenue, and the surrender of police and administrative functions. The grants of the second century AD mentions that the transfer of the king’s control only over salt, which implies that he retained certain other sources of revenue. But in some other grants, it was recorded that the donor (King) gave up his control over almost all sources of revenue, including pastures, mines including hidden treasures and deposits.
Then, the donor not only abandoned his revenues but also the right to govern the inhabitants of the villages that were granted. This practice became more prevalent in the Gupta period. There are many instances of grants of apparently settled villages made to the Brahmanas during the Gupta era. In such grants, the residents, including the cultivators and artisans, were expressly asked by their respective rulers not only to pay the customary taxes to the donees, but also to obey their commands. All this provides clear evidence of the surrender of the administrative power of the state.
One of the important aspects of the Kings sovereignty was that he used to retain the right of punishing the culprits. In the Post-Gupta times, the king surrendered over to the Brahmanas not only this right, but also his right to punish all offences against family, property, person, etc.
India and World Relations
Arabs are one of the primary population groups of the world. Their primary inhabitation is in the Arab states in Western Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and western Indian Ocean islands. The Arabs had close cultural and commercial relations with the Indians right from the pre-lslamic period. The links were established through trade and commerce across the Arabian Sea.
The spices and other exotic tropical products formed the mainstay of the trade and commerce between Indian and Arab world. The imports from Arab world constituted coffee, horses and other Mediterranean products. Therefore, to secure trade, the Arab traders built their permanent settlements on the western coast of India. These settlements played an important role in exchanging of Indo-Arab cultural relations.
Arab Contact with India
As aforementioned, in the earlier period, Arabs acted as a conduit for shipment of the Indian goods to the European world. But with the rise of Islam in the Arab world, they started to spread their influence in the neighborhood. After conquering Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Persia, they set their eyes on India which, at that time, was wealthy and prosperous.
The socio-cultural condition was also ripe for Arab invasion of India in 8th century. After the demise of Harshavardhana in north India, the political environment was highly unstable. Islam had already established foot-prints in India, through trade relations in the southern part of the country.
Condition of Sind
Long before the Arab invasions, the territory of Sind was contented by both Hindus and Buddhists in struggle for power and influence. Till 622 AD, Sindh was under a Buddhist Rai dynasty. A Brahmin minister of Rai usurped the throne and declared himself the king. He ruled from the capital city of Brahmanabad. His reign was marked by civil unrest which worsened during rule of his son Dahir. It was Dahir who faced Arab invasion in 712 AD.
Arab Conquest of Sind
In 8th century, the Arab world was ruled by the Islamic caliphate of Syria. Muhammad Bin Qasim, a general of the Caliphate, was sent by the Caliph-AI-Walid I to conquer India. The chief aim of the fanatic Muslim rulers in Arab was to strengthen Islam and punish those who refused to accept Islam.
He attacked Debal, an ancient port city (near modern Karachi) and defeated the nephew of Raja Dahir, who was in-charge of the port city. The city was plundered of its wealth and all the people who refused to accept Islam were brutally killed. After Debal, Qasim crossed the river Indus and fought battle with Raja Dahir. Dahir admirably fought but was defeated and killed in the Battle of Aror (712). Enormous wealth was looted from Brahmanabad, and this brought an end to the Hindu Kingdom of Sind.
Significance of Conquest
After the conquest of Sind, Islam was established in Sind and the Multan region. Though, the influences of Arabs couldn’t reach farther east and north due to strong Rajput rulers, this was the first instance of Islamic aggression in India.
It also led to interaction between two distinct cultures and evolution of Indo-lslamic culture. Thus, Sind was the birth-place of Sufism which in turn was related to the emergence of the bhakti movement in the middle ages.
The significance of the Arab conquest of Sind also lies in the tolerance shown to Hinduism by Islam. The Arab governors chose to leave Hindu religious practices untouched. The persecution of Hindu by Islamic invaders started much later after invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni.
Sind province was earlier more of a desert with minimal trade and commerce. Arab occupation resulted in introduction of camels and horses, which began to be used for trade. The investment by Arabs brought development and prosperity to the region.
The decimal system which is the basis of modern mathematics, and which developed in India in the 5th Century, travelled to the Arab world during this period and later came to be known as Arabic numerals.
Many Indian works dealing with astronomy and mathematics were also translated to Arabic. The famous work on astronomy, Surya-Siddhanta was one of these. Work of Charaka and Sushruta dealing with medicines were also translated. A number of Sanskrit literary works such as Kalila wa-Dimna or Panchatantra were translated into Arabic and formed the basis for Aesop’s Fables in the West.
The Indian subcontinent and Africa are separated by the Indian Ocean. The geographical proximity between the eastern coast of Africa and the Indian subcontinent has played an important role in the development of the relationship since ancient times. The Indian merchants traded in cotton, glass beads and other goods in exchange for gold and soft-carved ivory from Africa. The significant influence of the Indian art and architecture in ancient African kingdoms shows the level of trade development between the two civilizations. Gradually, the trade routes were established in the Indian Ocean region, and the African ports became the great centers of exchange of Indian and European goods.
India and China
The diffusion of Buddhism in China from India was the center-point of the contacts between the two countries in the early medieval period. Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana branch, still practiced in Tibet Autonomous Region, was the most popular in China. Along with Buddhism, Indian architecture, like pagodas and martial arts also diffused into the Chinese culture.
From 1st century onwards, many Indian and Chinese scholars and monks travelled between the two countries. The two most famous travelers from China were – FaXian (Fa Hien), a Buddhist monk who traveled in the time of Gupta dynasty in 5th Century AD and Xuanzang, who spent almost 17 years in India during the reign of Harshavardhana.
The southern kingdom of Cholas also maintained good relationship with the Chinese rulers. This is evident from large number of ancient Chinese coins being discovered in the Cholas homeland (i.e. present day Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Pudukkottai districts of Tamil Nadu). Under the reign of Rajaraja Chola and his son Rajendra Chola, the Cholas established strong trading links with Song Dynasty of China. The Chola navy conquered the Sri Vijaya Empire of Indonesia and Malaysia and thus, secured a sea trading route to China.
India and Japan
As with China, Buddhism has been a cementing factor in the ancient ties between India and Japan. It is still among the dominant religions of Japan. Along with Buddhism, many strands of Indian culture and religion also diffused to Japan. The Indian gods and goddess have been incorporated in different forms in Japanese theology.
The link of Buddhism between India and Japan ensured that monks and scholars often embarked on voyages between the two nations. Ancient records at Nalanda University in India have descriptions about the scholars and pupils who attended the school from Japan. The famous Japanese traveller to the Indian subcontinent was Tenjiku Tokubei.
India and Korea
India and Korea have had historical ties with one another. As with other eastern Asian nations, Buddhism was the bedrock of relationship between Korea and India. It is believed that Buddhism was introduced in Korea in the second half of fourth Century AD. Supposedly, Buddhism reached from India to Korea via China. Various Korean monks visited India, from the eighth century onwards.
There have also been legends of a Korean princess who married the king of India, and thus establishing close relations. There are some archaeological evidences like ‘double-fish’ pattern discovered inside the tomb of Korean princess which were also prevalent during the same time in central India, which corroborate this legend.
During the medieval period, the south-eastern islands of Sri-Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia came under the Indian Influence. Cholas were the first to spread their influence through superior naval power. The spread of influence was achieved in 3-fold manner:
Military Factor: The southern kingdoms of Cholas, Pallavas and Pandyas were militarily superior to the south-east Asian islands. The control of these Islands was essential for these states to thwart any external threat and to further ensure safe trade.
Trade Relations: Due to the development of ports and ship-building industry, the trade between India and these Islands increased manifold. The south-east Asian islands also served as the trade outposts for the Africa-India-China trade routes.
Cultural Outspread: Along with traders, there went the Hindu and Buddhist priests and monks, who propagated their religion and culture in the South-East Asia. This is evident from spread of Buddhism in the region and presence of colossal temples like Angkor-Wat in Cambodia. Another famous temple is temple of Borobudur dedicated to Buddha. Indian Epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata continues to provide favourite themes for literature, folk-art, plays etc.
Significance of the Relations
While Buddhism declined in India it flourished in South-East Asia.
The inter-mixing of different cultures has resulted in historical bonds between the people of the region, which is helpful in exertion of ‘soft power’ by India.
Countries like Indonesia and Thailand had top leaders of Indian origin which helped India during its struggle of freedom as well as in its global agenda.
South-east Asia has emerged as a significant trading bloc (ASEAN), and India is a key trade partner of ASEAN.