Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 11, September 16-30, 2023

Death penalties in medieval South India

-- by U.C. Chandramouleeswaran, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Crime Branch, C.I.D, Madras

The prevalence of death penalties has varied to a great deal in different societies. Such methods of inflicting death as burning, (sic; read as boiling in oil, breaking on the wheel), the iron coffin, drowning and impaling have had their great frequency not only in the earliest or in the more recent societies, but also in the medieval period.

It is worthwhile looking back to how medieval South Indian rulers dealt with offences especially murder. Their judgments were based on the principle of repentance. Ancient Vedas and Upanishads laid down that even the greatest sin can be expiated by taking pilgrimage or having a dip in the holy rivers. Various expiative measures were prescribed for various sins.

In Tirukkural there is a couplet

(Chapter 55/10).

The couplet means that persons who have committed murder should be weeded out from society, as we remove weeds from food crops. It is therefore clear that persons accused of offences were segregated. Some commentators say that weeding meant by Tiruvalluvar, was decapitation while some say it is segregation.

In medieval period of Tamil history, we find that the Brahminical influence gained over either the Buddhist or Jain religious concepts. Brahminism brought with it the code of Manu. Manu dharma sastra was followed in day-to-day administration. Manu maintains in Chapter VII and VIII that by all executors of justice,various factors entering into the situation should be taken into consideration. A social situation is a focal point of many forces, visible and invisible, time, place, circumstances, the psycho-physical status of the individual who commits the crime. These and other factors should be duly considered. A crime is not to be judged on the basis of a prior i legalistic assumptions.

The first punishment should be a warning; second, public censure; third, a fine; fourth, corporal punishment.

Whereas an ordinary individual should be fined a trifle, king should be fined a thousand fold. In the case of theft, a Sudra should pay eight fold; a Vaisya twice as much, a Kshathriya twice as much as a Vaisya, a Brahmin twice as much as a Kshathriya, or even four times.

Punishment should therefore fit each case individually. The higher the status of the individual, the more he must realise his responsibility. Equality in law is a myth. There is no equality anywhere in nature, and there should be gradation in punishment also. It is only fair that the Brahmin, who is a model for men of the world to follow, should pay heavily for his defection. Relatively this is the law of social life.

Punishment should not be a vengeance unleashed by society. After the criminal has served his sentence, he should be considered as having been purged of the crime. The society must forgive him, as also the infant, the aged, and the rich. They who are proud of their virtue and will not forgive, will sink. Justice should be tempered with mercy and condemnation with kindness.

In Tamil Nadu, justice was tempered with mercy and condemnation was mellowed with kindness. The temples provide adequate evidence by way of inscriptions about the manner in which death sentences were made out in South India. Imprisonment was meted out only to those who defaulted in payments of taxes and convicted for theft. Offence against person and property resulted in confiscation of property. Social offences, or offence against cannons of social law of the community was meted out with excommunication.

Punishments were not meted out as a matter of course. The causes for the crime were studied as also the caste of the delinquent. Offences against the king, his kinsmen and property were viewed very seriously.

That death penalty was meted out is seen from the Chola inscriptions of Rajendra Deva II dated 1057 AD. A wrestler Ecca was sentenced to death for having murdered a kinsman of the king. Another inscription of Kulottunga II dated 1144 AD mentions that death penalty should not be meted out to Vellalas. The manner in which death penalty was carried out is also noteworthy. People convicted of murder were either decapitated or allowed to be trampled by elephants. Other methods were also advocated as seen in an inscription of a Pandya King where for killing a Brahmin the culprit was put to death by a directory to be done to death by a buffalo. That these forms of death penalty were in vogue in Chola reign is seen from the writings of Chau-Ju-Kua.

An inscription of Kulottunga III, in his 16th reginal year corresponding to 1194 AD from Bhumisvarasvamin temple, Marakanam, South Arcot District, records that a resident of Arampoondi shot and killed a person with a bow and arrow. His case was enquired into by the Nadavars and Brahmins and he was ordered to give 12 sheep for burning a lamp in the temple of Tiruppumisvara Mudaiyanavar temple, since the death was due to accident and not due to enemity. One Pallichelvan killed one Pallivenattarayan in an accident during the reign of Kulottunga II. The Nattavar and Sambuvarayan decreed that he should not lose his life for the offence, but should devote half a Tunanadar temple in expiation of his having killed Pallvenattarayan. This is found in an inscription of Siyamangalam in North Arcot District. This is a clear indication that justice was meted out only after broader enquiry into the causes and circumstances.

Benefit of doubt as now, was always given to the accused. The Vellala community as a general rule was not sentenced to death as it was felt that cultivation would suffer. The culprit was made to expiate for his sin by burning lamps in temples. Donations were given either in cash or kind to the temple for these burning of lamps. In the 9th reginal year of Vikrama Choladeva corresponding to 1127 AD in a case of affray between one Pillai Ponninadalvan and Vanavayappoyan, a watchman attached to Tiruvalandurai-Mahadeva, one Kuppai Perumal died. A fine of 72 sheep was ordered for burning three fourth of a lamp. It was also the custom of sacrificing human beings when either new places were built for irrigation projects completed. People condemned to death were kept in prison and their sentences kept in abeyance till such projects were completed. This was the practice of Vijayanagar Kings like Krishnadevaraya. The sentence was however carried out even before in case of people who attempted to escape.

Innumerable instances are available in various epigraphs bearing evidence to the humane consideration for life by the monarchs of South India. According to them premeditated murder, sedition plots against king and country were all meted out with death penalty. Wherever there was room for suspicion and when they felt that the deceased met with his death due to accident for which the accused was not a direct party, he was exonerated depending on family circumstances and was made to devote lamps in temple to expiate for sins. – Reproduced from Tamil Nadu Police Journal.

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