In this article we will discuss about provincial administration in ancient India.
In ancient India big empires were divided into provinces and districts for the sake of administrative convenience, while small kingdoms like Pallavas, Vakatakas and Gahadawalas had only one type of division viz. the districts known by different names like vishaya or rashtra.
The provincial administration during the times of the Mauryas and Guptas was organised on elaborate basis, and was modelled on the pattern of the central government.
The governors of the provinces were the chief channels of communication government and its administrative unit. Each province was under-a Governor directly appointed by the King, and was usually a member of the royal family.
Under the Mauryas, Bindusara, Ashoka and Kunala had all served as viceroys in different provinces of the empire. Similarly, under the Sungas the crown prince Agnimitra served as a Governor of Malwa. The Gujarat viceroys under the Chalukyat and the Rashtrakutas were also scions of the royal family.
There are also instances to show when the office of the Governor was offered to the senior and trusted officers of the empire—usually the military generals.
The Governors or Viceroys of the provinces maintained their own courts and ministers, but they had to carry out the policy communicated to them through imperial writs or through special messengers. In view of the very primitive means of communication the Viceroys successfully used discretion in numerous matters.
The general duties of the viceroys included the maintenance of law and order, supervision of revenue collection, construction and repair of works of public utility like irrigation tanks and canals and strengthening the foundations of the empire by promoting public confidence.
Each province was further sub-divided into units like bhukti (under Guptas), rashtra (under Rashtrakutas), mandala (under Cholas and Chalukyas) etc. This division roughly corresponded to the size of Commissioner’s Division consisting of three or four districts.
The Officers in-charge of these units enjoyed extensive powers over subordinate officers. The Divisional Commissioners also maintained strong contingents of military forces and often used it for controlling their subordinate officers and local feudatories. The Divisional Commissioners also performed revenue functions and were responsible for revenue settlement of villages.
It is not known for certain if there was any popular councils at the Divisional headquarters levels to guide and advise the Divisional Commissioners. We get only two references about the existence of a council known as rashtramahattaras, which guided and advised the Divisional Commissioners, but it would be difficult to generalize that it existed in all the divisional headquarters.
The district was the next unit of administration. It was under the district officers which were designated differently in different states. Some of the common titles applied to them include vishayapati (Mauryan administration), Sahastradhipa (Smritis) etc.
The district officers were appointed by the provincial viceroys and were responsible for the maintenance of law and order in their district. They also supervised the collection of the government taxes and revenues. The District Officers were assisted by a large number of subordinate staff. This included the yuktas, ayuktas, niyuktas, and vyapritcs.
The district officer also maintained a small military force for the maintenance of law and order. The officers of the police department known as dandapasikas probably also worked under the directions of the district officer. It is not known for certain whether the district officer enjoyed any judicial powers also.
At the district level, at least in certain parts of India, the government was assisted by a council consisting of the chief banker, chief merchant, the chief artisan and the chief Kayastha (writer). The district officer usually took decisions in consultation with this body.
The members of the council were no doubt heads of the guilds or castes, and most probably held office by hereditary right. Under the Cholas especially the district councils enjoyed very extensive powers. They levied local taxes and exercised judicial functions with the concurrence of the representative of the central government.
Another unit of administration existed between the village and the district, but its nature and dimensions varied a great deal in different periods. This organisation was also given different names in different periods and parts viz. pathaka, peta, sthali or bhukti.
It corresponded very much with the modern Tehsil or Taluka. It must have been under the charge of a Tehsildar or Mamlatdar. They were assisted by hereditary revenue officers. Most probably there were popular councils on the pattern of the d strict council to help the sub-divisional officers. But how the popular councils were constituted is not fully known.
We have very little knowledge about the administration of cities and towns during the Vedic period. This is probably due to fact that the Vedic civilization was primarily a rural one and there were not many cities. We do not get sufficient information about the town administration during the later Vedic period also.
It is only on the eve of the invasion of Alexander that we learn that a large number of towns and cities flourished in Punjab. Most of these cities and towns were autonomous units of administration and were governed by their own councils.
However, we do not know for certain as to how these councils were constituted. Most probably the members of these councils were co-opted from amongst experienced and elderly people with the general consensus of public opinion.
Magasthenes has given us very interesting information about the municipal administration under the Mauryas. While giving a description of the government at Pataliputra Magasthenes says it was under a mayor known as Nagaraka. He was assisted by a number of subordinate officers.
The general administration was carried on by a municipal commission consisting of thirty members, further subdivided into six sub-committees of five members each. These committees looked after the artisans, foreigners, census, trade and manufacture and collection of taxes due to the city. The Nagaraka was personally responsible for the maintenance of law and order within the jurisdiction of the city.
In this regard he received valuable assistance from an official known as dandanayaka. The nagaraka was also responsible for the collection of the revenue. Arthasastra tells us that the nagaraka received great assistance from a petty part-time official gopa in matters regarding the collection of revenue.
Each gopa was expected to keep supervision on forty house-holds and kept a careful note of the births, deaths, income and expenditure in the families under his charge. He was also expected to keep a note of the important visitors and other developments in the households. The gopas passed on this information to the town office where it was permanently recorded.
The chief duties of the city governor included cleaning of the streets, prevention of disasters like faming, flood and plague and take other welfare measures. We get more detailed information about the city administration from the times of the Guptas onwards.
The city was under a purapala who was usually a military leaded, but sometimes they were selected from amongst the scholars as well. The purupala was assisted by a non-official committee called goshthi, panchakula or chaukadika in various parts of the country. This committee contained representatives of different classes and ‘interests. How these members were selected or elected is not known for certain.
Village has been the pivot of administration in India since earliest times. The village government was usually carried under the supervision of the village headman called gramani in the Vedic literature. Even the Jatakas and Arthasastra testify the important position of the village head-man in the administration of the village.
The post of the village head-man was usually hereditary though he was frequently looked on as the king’s representative,, who could displace him at his pleasure. Usually the headman was a military leader and belonged to the Kshatriya caste, but the Vaisyas also succeeded in acquiring this office.
As life was most unsettled in ancient India, the primary duty of the village headman was the defence of the village against raids of bandits and robbers. He was also responsible for the collection of government revenue and kept the necessary records for the purpose.
The headman was assisted by a village council, of which he was the ex-officio president. In the Arthasastra we find references to village elders acting as trustees, but do not hear about the village council or its sub-committees. It appears that the village councils as regular bodies were evolved only during the Gupta period.
In addition to this council there was a popular body or the Primary Assembly of the Village. All the respectable householders of the village were the members of this Primary Village Assembly. But as it was a petty large body, it transacted its business only through an executive committee or council, about which we have referred above. In certain areas the Primary Village Assembly consisted of all the village residents.
In South India the village institutions were organised on democratic lines during the Chola period which has been described as the Golden Age of the Village Assemblies. There were two types of assemblies the Ur and Sahba. While the former was the general type the latter one was peculiar to the Brahmadeya villages.
The precise rules regarding the conduct of elections and qualifications of members are mentioned in the Utteramerur Inscriptions of the Chola King Parantaka I. The Village Assemblies exercised full powers in all departments of administration.
They were absolute proprietors of village lands collected taxes, evicted cultivators for non-payment of taxes, received deposits of money and grants of land for charitable purposes. They also enjoyed certain judicial powers.
The existence of the democratic institutions at the lowest level encouraged the communal life of the people and developed among them a sense of civic duty and love for liberty. It also contributed a great deal to the efficiency and purity of administration.