Indian Feudalism

The main exponent of the theory of feudalism in ancient India is Prof. R.S.Sharma, who uses the term feudalism to characterise the socio-economic formation in the post- Gupta period. Feudalism appears in a predominantly agrarian economy, which is characterised by a class of landlords and a class of servile peasantry. In this system, the landlords extract surplus through social, religious or political methods, which are called extra-economic. This seems to be more or less the current Marxist view of feudalism which considers serfdom, ‘scalar property’ and sovereignty as features of the West European version of feudalism.

The land grants provided to Brahmins starting in the first century AD are where one can find the beginning and development of the feudal model. During the Gupta era, the population in northern India grows significantly, and it continues to do so after that.

  • According to reports, Brahmins and temples received land revenues not for providing civic and military services to their patrons but rather for spiritual duty. 
  • They were given fiscal powers as well as administrative rights to maintain law and order and collect fines from criminals as part of the privileges that were awarded to them.
  • Unevenly across the nation, the process of forming a class of landlords took place. Around the time of the beginning of the Christian era, the practice initially arose in Maharashtra. 
  • The process of land grants began in outlying, backward, and tribal areas first in order to discover new sources of income for Brahmins and to cultivate untamed territory. 
  • When the ruling class recognised its value, it was progressively expanded to Madhyadesa, the civilised region of India and the centre of Brahmanical culture and civilization.
  • From the Gupta period onward, the Sudras—who were regarded as the common slaves of the three higher varnas—became peasants, which was directly related to the socio-economic element of the feudal model in India. 
  • Sudra labourers appear to have been given land in the more established districts. By land concessions, a sizable portion of the tribal peasantry in the backward regions was integrated into the Brahmanical system and given the name Sudras. 
  • As a result, Hiuen Tsang characterises the Sudras as farmers, and around four centuries later, al-Beruni confirmed this.
  • There were various phases of the Indian feudal model.
    • Land endowments to temples and Brahmins started in the Gupta era and continued over the next two centuries. 
    • In the kingdoms of the Palas, the Pratiharas, and the Rashtrakutas, the number of such grants rapidly rose and their character essentially altered.
    •  Only usufructuary rights were typically granted previously, but starting in the eighth century, the donees received proprietary rights as well. 
    • The land grant process came to a head in the 11th and 12th centuries when northern India was divided into a variety of political and economic divisions that were mostly owned by secular and religious donees, who treated the gift villages as little better than fiefs.

Different Theories on the Feudal Model in India

Two-Stage Feudalism Theory

  • Indian feudal model was given significant attention in the context of socio-economic history by D. D. Kosambi. 
  • In his seminal work, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, first published in 1956, he proposed that the rise of the feudal model in Indian history was a two-way process, originating both from above and below. 
  • Without the predominance of an intermediary land-owning class, the first stage was the primary phase with direct relationships between an overlord and his tributary/autonomous vassals. 
  • The second stage was a later, more complicated period that saw the emergence of rural landowners as powerful intermediaries between the ruling class and the peasantry.
    • According to them, the second phase, which lasted from the fourth to the seventeenth centuries, saw the establishment of the samantas as the feudatories, which resulted in administrative decentralisation and the transformation of the communal property into feudal property. 
    • As a result, one of the most interesting and important ongoing discussions in Indian historiography was set in motion. 
    • The social and cultural landscape underwent significant upheaval from the fourth to the seventeenth centuries. 
    • Some people saw these developments as medieval influences, which would suggest that feudalism and medievalism had a similar meaning in the context of India.

Indian Feudalism Theory 

  • Professor R. S. Sharma made the biggest advancement in the study of the feudal model in his 1965 book Indian Feudalism. 
  • Once the Gupta dynasty fell, he pictured the decline of long-distance trade between India and many regions of the world; as a result, urbanisation suffered and the economy became more agricultural. 
  • Hence arose a situation where financial resources were not scarce but money was. While there were no coins available, the state began giving out land as compensation to its grantees and employees, including the Brahmanas.
  • Along with land, the state gradually transferred to this new class of “intermediaries” more and more control over the cultivating peasants. 
  • The peasants’ growing subordination to the intermediaries reduced them to the status of serfs, who were their mediaeval European counterparts. 
  • The key component in R.S. Sharma’s conception of the Indian feudal model is the growth of the intermediary class through governmental intervention in the form of grants to them.
  • Later on in his works, he created other structures on top of this foundation, such as the expansion of the scribe caste, which was later cemented into the Kayastha caste since state grants had to be documented. 
  • The critical procedure of land allocations to intermediaries didn’t end until the eleventh century when trade restarted urbanization.

Significance of the Indian Feudal Model

Indian feudal model played a crucial historical significance for a number of reasons. 

  • In central India, Orissa, and eastern Bengal, land grants were a crucial tool for bringing virgin terrain under cultivation. South India experienced the same thing. 
  • Overall, the era of feudalism was marked by significant agrarian expansion. 
  • Innovative Brahmins were given important jobs in the underdeveloped, native territories so they could introduce innovative agricultural techniques. 
  • The priests’ sponsored ceremonies and some of the tribe’s beliefs contributed to their material advancement.
  • The administrative framework for upholding law and order in the given regions was supplied by land grants, and all such powers were transferred to the donees.
  • Religious donees fostered a sense of widespread devotion to the established order among the populace in both developed and underdeveloped places. 
  • Secular vassals, on the other hand, supported their rulers by managing their fiefdoms and providing soldiers during conflicts.
  • Land grants caused the tribal peoples to become Brahmanized and assimilated since they were given writing systems, a calender, works of art, literature, and a new, more elevated way of life. 
  • In this regard, the feudal model aided in the unification of the nation. 

Criticism of the Feudal Model in India

The legitimacy of the feudal model in the context of medieval India has recently come under scrutiny. 

  • It has been suggested that peasant production was independent or free in mediaeval civilization
  • The tools and procedures used in production were under the control of the peasants. 
  • Moreover, the social and economic structure was very stable, and there was little change in agricultural production practices. 
  • The disagreements were more about the distribution and redistribution of the surplus than a redistribution of the means of production. 
  • The main tool of exploitation was the state’s appropriation of agrarian surplus.
  • Empirically, a number of historians have questioned the idea that trade in the area was declining and that there was a shortage of money throughout the time of Indian feudalism.
  • R. S. Sharma had received criticism from D. N. Jha for blaming the development of the feudal model in India excessively on the absence of long-distance external trade.
  • The historians of the Indian feudalism school have also held a few different points of view. For instance, D. N. Jha discovered a discrepancy between the location of the Kaliyuga evidence and the location of the ‘crisis’ that the Kaliyuga predicted: the evidence came from peninsular India, but the crisis was anticipated in the Brahmanical north.
  • The validity of the evidence of a kali yuga as a sign of a crisis was questioned by B. P. Sahu as well; in his opinion, it was more of a reinterpretation of kingship and a subsequent reassertion of Brahmanical ideology than a crisis within it.


  • During the Gupta period many changes took place in the agrarian structureof the society. The striking development of the Gupta period was the emergence of priestly landlords at the expense of local peasants.
  • The practice of giving land grants to priests and officials became common during this period. The land grant system was originally started by satavahanas; it became a common activity during the Gupta period. The Brahmins priests were given tax-free land and given the right to collect rent from the peasants. The ownership of such land became hereditary.
  • These state beneficiaries were virtual rulers of their grant land and could administrate law and award punishments without any state interference. Many Brahmin became rich landlords who mostly oppressed the peasants.The local Tribal peasants were reduced to a lower status.
  • In centraland Western India, the peasants were also subjected to forced labour. On the other land a good deal of wasteland was brought under cultivation and better knowledge of agriculture seems to have been introduced by the Brahmin beneficiaries in the Tribal areas of central India.
  • On account of large inequalities some scholars opine that Gupta age may be called the Golden age as far as upper class are concerned. According to RomilaThapar, the description ‘Golden age is true in so far as we speak of the upper classes’.

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