People’s history of the Punjab: Two thousand years of solitude

Dr Manzur Ejaz traces the origins of the isolation and monotony of village life

When I was growing up in my village during the 1950s, the only thrill for us used to be visiting my maternal uncle’s family every summer. They lived just two miles away in a neighbouring village. New clothes were made and special preparations were carried out for the visit. On our arrival my aunt and their children would give us special treatment and my uncle would pamper us as much as was possible. Such was the monotony of village life that it made perfect sense to be thrilled at seeing different faces, different houses and to be treated royally.

Punjabi villages have been isolated and desolate for millennia. They have replicated the same old system wherever new settlements were created. This was one of the characteristics by which Karl Marx defined the Asiatic mode of production as a distinct historical phenomenon. Although Marx had no detailed knowledge of evolution in India, his basic point was valid.

The same oxen plough with all its accessories has been in use since the time of the Indus civilisation. Archaeologists have unearthed a ploughed field of the Indus civilization era in Swat which looks just like the ones used in my village in the 1960s. The Punjabi word for plough, hal, cannot be traced even in the Sanskrit dictionary. The word phala (iron blade that penetrates the soil) has been in use as such since the Vedic period. It means that parts of the hal found in Vedic literature belonged to the Iron Age (phala is made of iron) but the wooden hal of exactly the shape used in the 1960s was in use during the Indus civilisation. Therefore, the word hal may belong to a pre-Vedic era.

The peasants remained indolently indifferent to wars going on around them. When the Greeks invaded the Punjab, they were wonderstruck to see that the peasants would go about their work even if two armies were fighting a fierce battle a few yards away from them. Probably, the ruling elites comprising of Kshatriyas and Brahmans did not want to involve the lowly castes in their wars. In addition, whichever side won had to collect the king’s share from the peasants, therefore it made sense not to disturb them. This tradition changed with the coming of the Muslims because they were interested in capturing the maximum number of people for their slave markets. In pre-Muslim India slavery was not necessary because the caste system was sufficient to keep most of the working population in subjugation. Both power as well as religious indoctrination were used to subjugate the Shudras and the lower castes.

The isolated villages and the caste system were the outcome of the propagation of agriculture and the advance of feudalism in the Punjab. It was the Maurya dynasty under which the seeds of the isolation of villages were sown by design. Rashtra and sita lands were the two categories during that period. Rashtra land owners were usually obliged to pay taxes, and these lands were held by Brahmans and other higher castes. The sita land however was under the absolute ownership of the state. Mostly, it was the state that cleared jungles and populated the new settlements with Shudras or condemned citizens for one reason or the other. With time the proportion of sita lands was so overwhelming that when the Greeks passed through the Punjab they thought the king owned the entire land, because along their route there were only sita lands.

The settlers on sita lands could be immigrants from outside, Shudras deported from the king’s own main territory or they could have come from overcrowded urban slums or villages. Of course people from conquered areas were forced to settle on sita lands as well. Similarly, long term prisoners or penal slaves (the individuals enslaved for a certain period for some outstanding obligations) were also given sita land to work on.

The new villages were settled miles apart from each other, with demarcated definitive boundaries. They were populated with 500 to 1000 Shudra families each, and were grouped into 10, 20, 100 or 500 villages, managed by the administrative headquarters. The peasants had to pay from one-fifth to one-third of the produce to the state intermediaries. In cases where the state provided the appliances and oxen, it would claim half of the produce. (Incidentally, the tradition of the owner taking the half from the tiller was very common in Punjab villages until the ‘60s). If the land was abandoned by the peasant the state intermediaries would use bonded labour to cultivate it.

These villages were like labour camps. No assembly was permitted except for kinship gatherings or collective public works. Even preachers of new religions were prohibited from entering the sita villages. The Emperor Ashoka had converted to Buddhism but Buddhist preachers were not permitted to come into these villages. No sita villager could become a monk without first making provisions for his dependents and distributing all his property. Even bards, dancers, clowns, singers, jongleurs or other entertainers could not enter these villages. Furthermore, buildings to accommodate public meeting, plays or games could not be built there.

The whole system was crafted according to a well-prepared design and the emptiness of village life was fostered by deliberate efforts. This is clear from the Mauryan political philosopher Chanakya’s statement that, “From the helplessness of the villages and the exclusive preoccupation of men with their fields, stems the growth of revenue for the royal treasury, as well as the supply of forced labour, grain, oil, and other produce.”

There was no artisan class in these villages and that was also a planned situation. The state was the main manufacturer, having appliances and other essential goods produced by artisan guilds. The villages were entirely dependent on these state-sponsored guilds for supplies. This was another channel to fill the coffers of the royal treasury.

A few centuries later, during the period of the Gupta dynasty, feudalism was establishing itself in India. In the Gupta scheme the administration of sita villages was abandoned and the administrators’ institution was abolished. Peasants were permitted to move out and establish new settlements. Consequently, there was a proliferation of new settlements all around with increasing demands for appliances and other goods produced by the state guilds. It was impossible to meet such demands.

To solve this problem the state made it imperative that each village should have its own class of artisans who would be compensated by payment in kind. Therefore, all the villages had their own carpenters, ironsmiths, potters, priests, weavers, barbers, skinners of dead cattle and so on. Twelve artisans were approved for each village. Each artisan was provided with a plot to build a house on and a small piece of land to cultivate in his spare time. He could alternately share the produce with a tenant peasant who could do the work. In addition, artisans received a small share of the produce of cultivating families, and thus they became an integral part of the community. This meant that every village was self-sufficient and could live on a barter economy, involving a minimum amount of cash, which was hard to produce for the state. There was hardly any incentive to produce commodities and interact with the rest of the world through trade. This system completed the process of the insulation of the villages for many centuries. These isolated lonely villages continued replicating themselves till the last quarter of the 20th century.

If I fast forward, I can describe the makeup of my village in the 1960s, a village that the British had settled through the colonization of the Punjab. There was a mohalla or a street allocated for all the artisans. About a square, 25 acres of land, adjacent to the village, was also reserved for these artisans, who were called saipy, which means a service provider who would receive compensation when the crop was brought home. Usually, most of the compensation was paid in grain according to a custom that must have been established centuries earlier. Different artisans, including the imam, would get a different amount of grain every year. The duties of all artisans were well-defined, therefore, for any extra work, the household would compensate in kind, with grain, gur or any other produce of the season. Likewise, on the occasion of marriages and other ceremonies the artisans would be paid in kind and sometimes even in cash. On the occasion of a marriage the artisans were give the title of ‘lagi’ and either the bride or the bridegroom’s side would pay them the customary amount. I remember that anyone who paid over Rs. 100 on lagis was considered to be extremely generous.

There was a class of working poor, mostly converted Christians, who were not provided abodes in Artisan Street. They would take refuge in the extra spaces of farmers’ houses and provide free labour when needed. They were also hired on an annual basis for compensation in kind. I remember during the 50s and 60s my father used to hire such farming hands. Their compensation was 12 bags of grain (a bag equaled 2.5 maunds of grain), three sets of clothes, two pairs of shoes and food. They were paid no cash even at Christmas time.

Along with the economic arrangement that remained in practice from the Guptas of the third to the fourth century, the caste system also remained intact, and this worsened in these insulated villages. The artisans were taken to be of the lowest caste in the village despite most of them being Muslims. This description of my village is similar to the rural settlements of the Gupta period. Therefore, there would be no exaggeration in saying that Punjabi villages (and the same is the case for the rest of India), have gone through two thousand years of solitude.
Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore for many years and now lives in Virginia

2 responses to “People’s history of the Punjab: Two thousand years of solitude

  1. So what! Where is the chicken vindaloo recipe?

  2. sukhdev singh sohal

    An excellant historical analysis of Punjabi village in isolation though with a slight exaggeration. Constant political changes brought about social change in the village life. The Punjabis responded to the call of social reformers with open mind.The Punjabis are vibrant,open to challenges.

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