If you ask adults who work in an office what the most difficult thing about working in an organisation is, they will likely tell you that it is getting people to do what they should when there is no one to check whether they are following instructions and rules. In your school too, you may have noticed that sometimes children don’t follow guidelines, and what happens as a consequence. This problem hasn’t changed since the olden days. Today’s elected rulers have tools, such as CCTV cameras, mobile phones, email and quick means of transport to keep a check on things. But imagine how the rulers in the past did this without means of connectivity and surveillance. They would also have to make regular visits to different parts of the kingdom to see how things were faring.

Clearly, ruling a kingdom was hard work.

The king had a lot of power, money, and a position of great importance in society. But it all came at a cost. The rulers constantly faced the threat of internal rebellion by their own scheming ministers or external aggression by neighbouring rulers. To prevent such attacks, they had to keep their army happy, so they had to pay them well. For this, he relied on taxation and income from farming vast tracts of land. Most salaries were paid as grain and not in currency, so collecting and storing grain – usually rice, in South India’s case – was critical. There were different kinds of taxes, including those collected in coins – mostly copper ones but sometimes gold and silver too. These had to be stored away in the treasury. All of this without the help of technology!

So, to be working in the king’s administrative system, you had to have a good memory, great writing and fast-paced reading skills, and the willingness to travel to different parts of the kingdom to make sure that it was running like a well-oiled machine.

We get to know how the courts and administration of the kingdoms of southern India were
organised from three main sources.

The first is literature, where the poet or writer would write about the ruling king and his court. Many Tamil poems dating back to the Sangam times comprise guidance offered to the king, telling him what an ideal king should do. For instance, in Thiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural – a Tamil anthology of 1,330 rhythmic couplets or kurals – there is a chapter titled “Greatness of Kings”. Its couplets explain the duties of a king. Among the many listed are words of advice, such as speaking pleasantly; sharing one’s wealth; not sleeping too much; lifelong learning; being brave; and caring for the welfare of others, to mention a few.

Apart from this, there are also several texts on how kings (applicable to general folk as well) should conduct themselves. These include the Manasollasa, an early 12th-century Sanskrit text by the Kalyani Chalukya king Someshvara III, who ruled in a region of modern-day Karnataka, and the Raya Vachakam – a kind of diary recording the day’s events, written by Krishnadevaraya, the monarch from Karnataka.

The third kind of source is the many royal orders inscribed on the stone walls of temples. Similarly, they were inscribed on copper plates, bunched together and fashioned to look like the rotating card files of today. Temples or even homes would house them. And these usually contained information, such as records of land gifts or important judgements passed by a king. Based on these sources we come to know of two predominant styles of administration across South India. One, a decentralised style, in which power and responsibility were distributed across the lower levels, such as to village-level officers, meaning that local problems were addressed locally. For any major issues, they used to report back to the king.

The king used to rule from afar, and collected taxes to maintain the army and provide security to the citizens. All other decisions were taken at the village level. For example, we know from sources that each village was free to decide how it would elect its local government. This was recorded in inscriptions such as those located and found in Manur and Uthiramerur in Tamil Nadu. The second system of administration, a more centralised one, was one in which the king held more power when it came to making laws per se, but the task of making sure that the people followed these laws was left to local governors and landowning nobles. These lower-level officers also collected taxes on behalf of the king.

A king’s style of ruling the kingdom across all of south India can be slotted somewhere between these two kinds of administration, depending on their personality and power, and that of their nobles. Strong rulers like Krishnadevaraya preferred the second system of control as did the Kerala kings who ruled smaller kingdoms. The Chola kings preferred the former system since they had a very large area to rule and it worked better to give more power to the villages.

In the Manur and Uthiramerur temple inscriptions, we get an idea of elections for village assemblies. Rules for contesting in elections were far more stringent than today and age alone was not a criterion. The candidate had to own land in the village and have educational qualifications. They had to have done good work if they had been elected in the past and could not have relatives in the office.

Excerpted with permission from A History of South India for Children: From Prehistory to Vijayanagara, Pradeep Chakravarthy, Hachette India.