Temples and The State In The Indian Tradition – Part II

This is the second part of the series on Hindu Temples, their conception, history, heritage and legacy, first published on Indiafacts. Read part I.

Kings were the premier sevakas of the Deity

In recent times, the Vijayanagara Samrajya was a major effort at re-establishing sanatana dharma in Bharatavarsha. The Telugu chronicle on the Vijayanagara Samrajya, Rayakavachamu, begins with the following account of the daily routine of King Viranarasimharaya (the elder brother of Krishnadevaraya who ruled from 1505 to 1509), which clearly portrays the Indian ideal of a king functioning as the premier devotee and protector of temples:1

In the city of Vidyanagara, Viranarasimharaya [the elder brother of Krishna-devaraya who ruled from 1505 to 1509] …called the Great Court to assemble and then seated himself there. Sacred water and prasadam were brought from the 108 Tirupatis [temples of Vishnu] and sacred ash, scents and prasadam brought from the seventy-two temples of Siva.

The king rose and stepped forward, folded his hands in reverence and accepted the offerings. Then he raised his head again to greet the priests of Vishnu and Siva temples who had come from those distant places, requesting them to make themselves comfortable on seats befitting their honoured positions.

When the king asked the priests of the Vishnu temples if all was well and in order at the eight svayambhu kshetras of Srirangam, Srimushnam, Venkatachalam, Salagramam, Totadri, Naimisharanyam and Pushkara-kshetram, they replied that thanks to his lordships boundless majesty, the young officers appointed to assist the priests at the various temples were running matters so well that nothing further was needed and that, at the 108 Vishnu temples, all the daily rituals were being properly carried out.

The Siva temple priests reported that at the Panchabhuta Kshetras, temples dedicated to Siva in his forms as the five elements, earth, water, fire, air and akasa, namely Ekamranatha, Jambunatha, Arunachalesvara, Kalahastisvara and Chidambaram, as well as in the rest of the seventy-two temples of Siva and at the eighteen Devi Kshetras, all was prosperous, and the daily rituals were being carried out as they should be. When he heard this the king was greatly pleased and so he presented the priests with gifts of land.

Next he summoned Dharmasanam Dharmayya, the minister of religious gifts, who accordingly came forward and stood before the king. While the king listened Dharmayya reported: ‘In perfect accordance with your lordship’s orders, no one has caused either problem or misfortune for the residents of the brahmana villages in the Dravidadesa, Andhradesa, the Hayananadu, Morasanadu, Melnadu, Karnataka, Ghattamsima, Chera, Chola, Pandya, Magadha, Malayala and the other various localities. The inhabitants of these brahmana villages are devoted to the performance of the daily rituals; to the recitation of the four vedas; to the study of the six sastras; to the regular performance of the pancha mahayajnas; and to showing hospitality to guests. Fully devoted to their scholarly study, they are living comfortably in their villages’.

According to traditional Indian accounts, the kings Harihara and Bukka, the co-founders of the Vijayanagara Samrajya, are said to have handed over their kingdom, through Acharya Vidyaranya, to the deity Virupaksha at Vidyanagara (Hampi) and subsequently ruled their kingdom on the deity’s behalf. The same is recorded of the Gajapati kings of Orissa, at least from the time of Anangabhimadeva in the 12th Century, who referred to their kingdom as Purushottama Samrajya and themselves as Purushottama-sevakas, the servants of Sri Jagannatha. The Rajas of Thiruvanantapuram have traditionally called themselves as Padmanabha-dasas, the primary servants of the deity Padmanabhaswami at Thiruvanathapuram. On 3rd January 1750, Raja Martanda Varma made a public avowal of this relation when he made the celebrated Thrippati Danam of the entire kingdom in favour of in favour Sri Padmanabha Perumal.2

The duty of the kings with respect to temples: Dana (Gift) and Palana (Protection)

The main function of the kings or the state in the Indian tradition, in relation to temples and other religious institutions, was dana, making gifts and endowments, and palana, protection. Dana was not anything special to the kings, the records show that a large cross section of society made lavish donations to the temples, mathams and chatrams.

The dharmasastras lay down that that a king, whenever he makes a gift, should make a sasana, a written record, for the benefit of future kings. Thus, it is no wonder that most of the epigraphs and other records that have come down to us from ancient times are indeed records of such gifts made by kings and others for temples and other religious and charitable purposes. These have served as one of the major sources of historical information on state and society in India.

A majority of the gifts made by the kings are the so called “grants of lands” and even “grants of entire villages”. Here it is important to realise that kings in Indian tradition have only the right to receive revenue from the land in return for rendering protection; and when a king donates some land or even an entire village, what is being gifted away is only this revenue due to him and nothing else.

If a king wanted to confer ownership of some land on an individual or an institution, he had to first buy the land. The commentary Mitakshara on Yajnavalkya Smriti mentions3 krayena labhdhva. So do several inscriptions which mention how the king first purchased the given property and then gifted it away.4

The glory of Dana: Rajaraja’s endowments to the Great Temple at Thanjavur (c.1010)

The great Chola king Rajaraja I who ruled from 985 to 1014 AD, constructed the magnificent Rajarajeswvra or Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur. The construction was begun in 1003, and the kumbhabhishekam performed on the on the 275th day in 25th year of his reign which is said to correspond to April 22, 1010 AD. The temple is built in a rectangular area 750 feet in length and 400 feet in breadth. The vimana of the main shrine rises to nearly 200 feet and is built on a square base of about 100 feet, is amongst the grandest such structures in India. During the period 1010-14, Rajaraja also made substantial gifts and endowments to the temple to ensure that it functioned as one of the richest and most magnificent temples of the period.

There are 107 inscriptions in the temple; nearly 64 of them pertain to the period of Rajaraja, which were published, with translation in 1891, as the second volume of the series South Indian Inscriptions. They give an idea of the grand economy of the temple as supported by the munificence of Rajaraja, his elder sister Kunthavai, his queens and other prominent persons of the period.

Rajaraja himself presented 41,559 kalanju (at 70 grains per kalanju, this would be over 500 lbs.) of golden articles, gold jewels worth 5100 kalanju (about 60 lbs.) and silver ware of 51,600 kalanju (about 600 lbs). His sister Kundavai gifted over 10,000 kalanju of gold (about 120 lbs.) and utensils of 9000 kalanju in gold (about 105 lbs.).

To ensure a regular income for the temples, Rajaraja assigned revenue from various villages of his empire. The inscriptions give details of the revenue assignments in 40 villages in Cholamandalam and 16 villages distributed over the empire, from Thondaimandalam, to Ilamandalam (Sri Lanka). Rajaraja’s inscriptions clearly mention the extent of lands in each village, the lands which were already exempt from paying any revenue such as habitats, flower gardens, tanks, channels, cremation grounds etc., the extent of the balance land and the revenue demand on it. The average revenue claimed is about 100 kalams of paddy per veli of land. Incidentally this implies a very high productivity of about 15 tons per hectare, if we note that 1 veli is about 6.5 acres and 1 Thanjavur kalam is about 60 kg of paddy and take the rate of revenue (as stated by the Chola kings in various places) to be one-sixth of the produce.

The total revenues assigned by Rajaraja to the great temple at Thanjavur, as recorded by these inscriptions, add to 144,500 kalams of paddy and 2800 kalanju of gold (which was roughly the cost of 11,200 kalams of paddy at that time). The total revenue thus assigned amounts to about 9350 tons of paddy.

The inscriptions also describe grants made by Rajaraja to a host of shepherds for maintaining 4124, cows, 6924 eves and 30 buffaloes. In return for maintaining 16 buffaloes or 48 cows or 96 eves, the shepherds were required to supply I ulakku of ghee each day to the temple. In this way the temple received 158 ulakku of ghee per day adequate to keep to keep 158 lamps burning.

Apart from this the inscriptions record that Rajaraja put together a large temple establishment and made assignments for their emoluments. The annual allocation to these temple functionaries is mostly stated in units of a pangu or share; each share is an assignment of 1 veli of land which yields a revenue of 100 kalams of paddy per year. In all, the inscriptions mention 1001 functionaries and the annual allocations for these functionaries vary from a minimum of 0.4 share to a maximum of 2 shares.

One inscription gives details of 196 functionaries along with the names of the 144 villages from which they were drawn, and who were to pay for these functionaries. Among these are 174 brahamacharis (for temple paricharya) who were to get 1 padakku of paddy each day (amounting to 61 kalams a year) and 4 kalams each at the end of the year. This inscription also mentions 4 treasurers, 6 senior accountants who were to get 2 shares each and 12 accountants at 0.75 share each. Another inscription records 48 Thiruppadiyam singers and 2 drummers who were to get 3 kurunis of paddy each daily (about 91 kalams a year) from the city treasury.

Another inscription records the name of 131 villages from which 143 tirumeykappu (protectors of the temple, the watch and ward) were to be drawn; they were to get 1 share each, which was to be provided for from the revenues of the respective villages.

Another inscription records the allowances to be paid to 612 functionaries. Of these 400 are tallicceri pendugal (devadasis) who were to get a house and receive 1 share each. Their names, the names of the 69 temples where they were serving, are also mentioned along with the location of the house allotted. These houses were located along two long streets. Apart from these 212 other functionaries are mentioned who are to receive 180 shares in all. These included 6 dance masters (2 share each), 5 singers (1.5 share each), 7 nagaswaram players (1.5 share each), 16 musicians (0.75 share each), 66 drummers (0.5 share each), 1 master carpenter (1.5 share), 4 carpenters (0.75 share each), 1 master potter (1 share), 10 potters (0.5 share each), 7 lamp lighters (0.5 share each) and 10 parasol bearers (0.4 share each).

Further, the inscription also notes:

Instead of those among these share holders who would die or emigrate, the nearest relations of such persons were to receive that allowance and do the work. If the nearest relations were not qualified themselves, they were to select other qualified persons to do the work and receive the allowance. If there were no relations the other incumbents of such appointments were to select qualified persons from those fit for such appointments and the person selected was to receive the allowance.

Palana takes precedence over Dana

Though dana or making gifts for religious and charitable institutions, was a very important dharma or duty of the kings and every householder, and earned them great punya or merit, it was palana, protection, which was considered the supreme duty of the kings. In the sixteenth century, when the Pandyan King Abhirama Pandya assembled all the learned in his kingdom and asked them that between gift and protection which was greater, he was told:

Palanam paramam loke danat pandyamahipate danat svargamavapnoti palanat acyutam padam iti pauranikassarve palanam paramam viduh asmanmatamidam deva palanam kuru pavanam

[Protection, O Pandya King, is superior in this world than gift. By gifts one attains heaven, but by protection the imperishable state. Thus all men versed in the Puranas have declared protection to be superior. This, O King, is our view. Render thou protection which is purifying.]

Palana or protection meant the protection of all the properties, and income, especially the endowments of revenue and lands made to the temples and its functionaries by the earlier kings and devotees, and more importantly, ensuring the functioning of the temple as per its sampradaya, customs and traditions.

All the sasanas, copper plate and stone inscriptions and other records of these endowments, declare that the endowment is to last as long as the Sun and Moon shine (achandrarka) and cite, in the end, a number of verses from the smritis (dharmasastras and puranas) which emphasise the importance of palana and the terrible sin that would befall one who violates this dharma. P.V.Kane gives over 40 verses some of which invariably appear at the end of every inscription. We may cite a few here:

svadattat dvigunam punyam paradattanupalanam
paradattapaharena svadattam nisphalam bhavet
svadattam paradattam va yo hareta vasundharam
sastivarsasahasrani vistayam jayate krimih

The primary duty of the king is protection of Dharma

In order to understand the primary responsibility of the state in relation to the Temples, it is important to understand the essentials of rajadharma in relation to society and its institutions. Palana, or protection is indeed the primary duty of state in India. Yajnavalkya states that:

Pradhanam ksatriye karma prajanam paripalanam

[The primary duty of a kshatriya is to protect the people. ]

Protection of the people is to guard them against two sorts of dangers, those which come from outside and those that may arise in his kingdom. A King has to protect the people against the aggressive inclinations of his neighbouring or other states. Secondly, it is the protection offered against perils that threaten them within the kingdom. He should offer protection to individuals and institutions against thieves and oppressors and especially offer protection to the weak against the strong. Palana further includes protection of varta, the basic economic activity of agriculture, animal husbandry and trade, and ensuring livelihood for all.

Palana also implies protection of harmonious social order. All the classical Indian texts are unanimous that the role of state in relation to the society and its various institutions is not one of control, regulation, legislation or reform. It is essentially the protection of dharma.

To be continued in the next part of the series.


1. P.B.Wagoner, Tidings of the King, Honolulu 1993, p. 77-8.

2. In 1949, when the then Maharaja Chithira Thirunal was to take over as the Rajapramukh of the State of Travancore-Cochin, he informed the Government of India that it would not be possible for him to take the usual oath of office as the head of state as he had all the time been ruling on behalf of and as the servant of Sri Padmanabha Swamy. Finally a new precedent was created, where a letter was addressed by the Maharaja to the Government of India that he would give a solemn assurance (not an oath) that he would do his best to protect, preserve and defend the State of Travancore-Cochin, and this letter was read out by the Chief Justice in the presence of the Maharaja at the time of inauguration of the Union in 1949.

3. Vijnanesvara’s Mitakshara on Yajnavalkya II.17

4. Kane gives several instances of inscriptions, from the time of Ushvadatta (1st century AD), and later of the period of the Guptas etc., of the Kings having bought the lands which they donated (P.V.Kane, History of Dharmasastra, Vol. 2, Poona, 1974, p.856,864)

We welcome your comments at