Temple walls reveal how elections in medieval Tamil Nadu were democratic.

From living rooms to boardrooms, morning walks to late night parties, there is one favourite topic to talk about: elections! Some say that both elections and democracy were a gift to India from the British. Is that true?

A study of inscriptions on temple walls reveals that ancient Indians were familiar with the electoral process. Primitive transport and communication facilities and a king always on the move meant that the villages were largely independent of the capital. Local villages were expected to maintain good governance and ensure that taxes were paid on time to the king and he was spared adjudicating local disputes.

Villages functioned with five-member committees called Variyams. Their duties included checking the gold deposited in the treasury, keeping the water bodies and orchards in good repair, collecting taxes, and checking the payment of tolls. Membership to these committees was by election. Two important records tell us how the elections were conducted. If we applied those standards today, it is clear that no candidate would qualify.

Manur in Tirunelveli district is hard to spot on the map. In 898 ACE, the village met to revise the qualifications of candidates who could stand for elections. The candidates had to be conversant with Mantra Brahmana and at least one dharma. They had to be seen as having good conduct by the community. Unlike today when people can contest from states where they may have no local stakes, in Manur to stand for election, one had to own property. Just inheriting it or receiving it as dowry wasn’t enough. Those committee members who constantly disrupted proceedings were fined five gold coins. Imagine how much that would have netted in this session of the Lok Sabha!

Minimum qualifications of property, education (not self-proclaimed but tested by a group of scholars through an oral exam) and good conduct ensured that the candidates had a greater stake in the community and required less monitoring.

The other inscription is dated 920 ACE and is from Utiramerur. The Cholas, unlike the Pandyas of Manur, had taken federal systems and village assemblies to increased levels of sophistication. Here, qualifications included age limit (35 to 75), compulsory ownership of land and house, and knowledge of Mantra Brahmana texts. The last was judged by how well they taught others. Knowledge of business, virtuous living, good conduct, honest earnings and not having served in committees in the last three years were also important requirements. Twelve types of relatives of existing committee members were barred from applying.

Utiramerur’s voting system saw names of the candidates being written on a palm leaf and dropped into a pot. The oldest temple priest held the pot high to show it had not been tampered with. A young boy who did not know the context was asked to take out one leaf and give it to the arbitrator. The person whose name was on the leaf was chosen as a ward head if he fulfilled the rules. Thirty such representatives were elected and from these0 30, committee members were drawn with complex rules that also entailed submission of personal and village accounts. Account discrepancies meant swift justice — auctioning personal assets to repay interest and principal. The inscription ends with the phrase: “These rules shall govern us for as long as the sun and moon rule the skies.”

The sun and moon still rule the skies and the inscriptions still stand but have been forgotten by a country where power, money and connections have replaced the qualifications. Not all committees were dominated by Brahmins. Trade groups like weavers and oil mongers found a place as did women, the most powerful being devar adiyar or women associated with the temple who were wealthy landowners.

Today we may have made immense progress in many fields but when it comes to democracy India could do well by resetting the clock.

Pradeep Chakravarthy is a historian and author.

Pradeepandanusha@gmail.com