The origin and development of feudalism is to be sought in the land grants
made to Brahmins from the Ist century AD onwards. Their number
becomes considerable in northern India in the Gupta period and goes on
increasing afterwards. The monastery of Nalanda owned 200 villages in
the reign of Harsha. Brahmins and temples were apparently granted land
revenues not for rendering civil and military services to their patrons but
for spiritual service. In the benefices granted to them they were allowed
fiscal rights and such administrative rights as the maintenance of law and
order and collection of fines from criminals. Hiuen Tsang states that high
officers of the state were paid by land grants, but such grants are wanting
because of the perishable nature of the material on which they were
recorded.
The process of creating a class of landlords spread unevenly over the
country. The practice first appeared in Maharashtra around the beginning
of the Christian era. It seems that in the 4th-5th centuries AD land grants
covered a good part of Madhya Pradesh. In the 5th-6th centuries they
became prominent in West Bengal and Bangladesh, in the 6th-7th centuries
in Orissa, in the 7th century in Assam, in the 8th century in Tamil Nadu
and in the 9th-10th in Kerala. In order to find new avenues of wealth for
Brahmins and to bring virgin land under cultivation, the process of land
grants started in outlaying, backward and tribal areas first. When it was
found useful by the ruling class, it was gradually extended to central India
or Madhyadesa which was the civilised part of the country and the
epicentre of Brahmanical culture and society.
What distinguished early Indian feudalism was the provision for fiscal
units often, or twelve, or sixteen villages and their multiples. The lawbook
of Manu, a work of the 1st-2nd century AD lays down that collectors in
charge of ten villages or their multiples should be paid by land grants.
These units persisted in the Rashtrakuta and to some extent in the Pala
dominions.
The socio-economic aspect of feudalism in India was intimately connected
with the transformation of the Sudras, who were treated as the common
helots of the three higher varnas, into peasants from the Gupta period