The Theory and Practice of Property in Premodern South Asia: Disparities and Convergences
Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 61.5/6 (2018)
50 Pages Posted: 2 Feb 2017 Last revised: 24 Jul 2018
Date Written: January 1, 2017
This article reviews the main scholastic norms relevant to property and land rights in ancient and medieval India, and then surveys a range of inscriptions that illustrate the contours of land law in practice. The evidence suggests that India developed a sophisticated concept of landed property from earliest history, with conceptual tools and legal instruments to define the rights of owners vis-à-vis rulers, rival claimants, and holders of subordinate interests (such as tenants, cultivators, mortgagees, etc.). It further shows that although earlier inscriptions deployed those tools and instruments in a narrow range of transfers between rulers and Brahmins or other religious groups, subsequent periods provide evidence of an increasingly wider application, including gifts by non-elite donors, ordinary contractual land transfers, and resolution of property disputes. In some cases, the implication seems to be that the legal framework was more widespread in practice but generated durable records (in metal or stone) only for elite actors; in many cases, it seems likely that elite legal resources became more widely available over time. Moreover, documents sometimes bring to the fore aspects of property law — the role of councils and arbitrators in administering the law (rather than the king or his officers), or the use of documents to carve out special rights — that are less prominent in scholastic treatments such as Dharmaśāstra.
Keywords: Ancient and Medieval India, South Asia, Property, Ownership, Legal History, Land Rights, Endowment, Inscription, Epigraphy
JEL Classification: B11, K00, K11, K40, Z12
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation