A brief history of Dessaiado

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Tensing Rodrigues

A sardesai, from the same family that was described to Couto as the ‘primeiro sardesai’, (the first, meaning the topmost) has decided to write the history of sardesais. D R Sardesai, a scion of the Naik Pratap Rau Sardesai family, an Emeritus professor and former chairman, department of history, UCLA, has written a  brief history of the family; for the benefit of the family; not yet published and not yet in the public domain. But the light that it shines on the dessaiado is unprecedented.

However, before we go to the history of the family, let us step back to take a bird’s eye view of the history of the dessaiado before the advent of the Portuguese. We do not know exactly when the posts and positions like desai, sardesai, desmukh, sardesmukh, despande, sardespande, etc, which came to constitute the dessaiado later, were created, and by whom. But based on the available documents of the Vijayanagar, Adilshahi, Maratha and Peshwa courts, Sardesai generalises that the basic unit of administration in Brhatkomkan (Western Maharashtra, Goa and North Karnataka) above a village was a mahal (or pargana) with 40-50 villages. The next higher unit was a subha (or mamla) which included anywhere from five to twenty-eight mahals. The officials at each level, responsible for collection of land revenue and depositing it in the state treasury, were called: at village level – khot; at mahal level – desai (or desmukh or despande); and, at subha level – sardesai (or sardesmukh or sardespande or subhedar); under the Vijayanagar regime the last was also called the naik or nayak. [Sardesai, unpublished: The Naik Pratap Rao Sardesai Family of Goa, 10] We do not seem to have documentary evidence to trace these expressions prior to the Vijayanagar rule, which is around the 13th century. Also the geographical extent of their usage seems to have been restricted to the area where the Marathi and the Kannad domains overlapped.

However there exists sufficient evidence to believe that very similar posts and positions existed prior to the 13th century, and existed beyond this domain too, in South Karnataka and up to the Tamil territory. The correspondence could be more or less as follows, in the Kannad territory: khot = gaud, gavud, gavumd, odeya; desai = natu-mudime (?); sardesai = arasu; and in the Tamil territory: khot = udayan/kilavan; desai = velan ->muventavelan; sardesai = araiyan. [Veluthat, 1989: Landed Magnates As State Agents: The Gavudas Under The Hoysalas In Karnataka, in Proceedings Of The Indian History Congress, Vol 50] The earliest inscriptions in which we find these expressions in the kannad territory go back to about the 10th or 11th century, to the Hoysal rule. In the Tamil territory the references can be found a little earlier, about 9th or 10th century; they are the most abundant during the Cola rule. Therefore this hierarchy of posts and positions seems to have been a more widespread phenomenon, both temporally and geographically. That raises a question: was it a natural progression from the gamvkarior village republics or was it triggered by the rise of the monarchical state? We have consistently held that these ‘feudal lords’ arose out of the gamvkari and proceeded to be kings, and built empires. But this by itself blurred the dividing line between the village republics and the monarchy, thus making the transition from one to the other rather smooth; the result was a seamless political continuum. Interestingly, when the kings from outside the system intruded into it, with only a little friction they fitted themselves in; the symbiotic relationship between the two was quite remarkable.

One good case in point is of Chatrapati Shivaji. Although Shivaji was very much a native, he did not rise from the village based hierarchy; he drew his power from his ancestry of service to the ruling monarchs. Nevertheless, upon his coronation, he assumed the title of sardesmukh; for he felt the need to fit himself into the hierarchy. As a policy, Shivaji discontinued the practice of granting watans – the award of landsand tax collection rights in return for exemplary service rendered to a monarch; he preferred to give cash rewards. Ramchandra Neelkanth Bawadekar, Amatya (finance minister) to Shivaji from 1674 to 1680, and the author of Ajnapatra (Code Of Civil And Military Administration), recommends as follows: “the existing watans should be continued … whatever has been in their possession in the past should not be allowed to increase even a little, nor should it be reduced even by a fraction.” [Sirdesai, 2017: Native Officialdom In Western India, 15] This was partly due to the fact that Shivaji neither could nor would have liked to upset the land holding in his ‘kingdom’; for he had only a nominal right to the land. The territories were ‘permanently settled’ – the local desai, sardesai, desmukh, sardesmukh, despande, sardespande held them by hereditary succession under changing monarchs.

Shivaji’s attempt to interfere with Candrarao More, who was the Jahagirdar of Javliunder Adil Shah of Bijapur, was met with serious resistance. On the other hand, gaining the allegiance of the local chiefs could assure him of support to remain in power; the watandars were not just tax collectors but also maintained armies that fought for the monarch to whom they owed allegiance. When Shivaji was cornered in the Panhala Fort by Siddi Johar in 1660, it was Baji Prabhu and the Bandal-Deshmukhs, who laid down their lives to let Shivaji escape to safety. Ramchandra (Ajnapatra) puts very succinctly the symbiotic relationship between the monarch and the local chiefs : “The watandar in the kingdom, the Deshmukh, the Deshkulkarni, the Patil, etc, they may be called office-holders, but this is only a term of convenience. They are in fact very small but independent vassals. They are not strong on their own, but they succeed in keeping their power by allying themselves with the lord of the land; the Sarvabhaum. Yet it must not be thought that their interests coincide with that of the latter. These people are in reality the co-sharers (dayad) of the kingdom.” [Sirdesai, 2017: 15]

The posts and positions like those of desai and sardesai might have evolved bottom up from gamvkaris, so as to integrate them into larger village republics; but over time they became top down mechanisms of administration and defence; and eventually integrated symbiotically into the kingdoms and empires that arose.