A Scottish historian says more than a thousand years ago, people in Bengal and in Scotland were transferring the ownership of property in “almost exactly similar” ways….A special report by Sahana Ghosh for Asian Lite News
By unravelling the sources for landholding and lordship in early medieval Bengal and medieval Scotland, one might be able to peep back in time into the origins of democracy.
“People in India in Bengal and people in Scotland, 6,000 miles away, areas with no immediate connection or influence, were transferring the ownership of property in almost exactly similar ways,” John Davies of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, said on the sidelines of a lecture at the Indian Museum.
Davies was talking about the research collaboration between the University of Glasgow and the University of Calcutta on “Land-holding and the recording of property transfer: The comparative experience of medieval Scotland and early medieval Bengal”.
He drew parallels between the Sanskrit inscriptions of Bengal and the Latin characters of Scotland (ninth to 13th century) with regards to the records or charters of property transfer transactions.
Noting the similarities in the modalities of property transfer, Davies also highlighted the difference between the processes in the two regions.
“In Scotland, the record of these transactions were written in the Latin language, in ink on animal skin. In India it was going on for a longer period… hundreds of years longer, and it was written in Sanskrit language, engraved on copper plates or stones,” he said.
Further elaborating on the similarities in these transactions, Davies pointed out that it’s not just the simple fact that many of the forms of text are similar, but the language in which it was done and the concepts were also related.
“Latin and Sanskrit are related languages. If you want to give land to someone forever, it was done in Scotland… in Bengal they used the same concept. In both concepts you have kings giving away land usually to religious communities. Doing this, they (communities) would pray for his (king) soul, the gift would be forever tax free and the same thing is happening in both situations,” he said.
In India these texts always start with big poems praising the king, reciting his genealogy (called Prashasthis).
“In Scotland that element doesn’t occur in the charters, it occurs somewhere else. The genealogy with the kings of Scots is never put in the charters but it is read out at the crowning of the king.”
“What’s going on in Scotland is that the king… by reading out his genealogy… that makes him the legitimate king and therefore land can be granted and confirmed and guaranteed.”
The research collaboration helps to offer insights into perennial questions about who rules us, why and how and what rights do they have over our properties.
“The roots of a society where people owned property developed in one particular way. We are working together with colleagues in Kolkata to understand this more thoroughly, how government developed, what the relation between the ruler and the ruled was. What the impetus was. Did change happen when people on the ground wanted change or whether everything came from the top?”
The findings of the project are being documented in the forthcoming book “Copper, Parchment, and Stone”. It will be launched in Kolkata in November.
Davies added: “The more we look at it we see perhaps there has always been a tradition of people, as it were, making demands from the government. We might be able to see, as it were, roots of democracy.”