Limitations of Judges’ Tenure
Dr. R. Nagaswamy
The author is a well-known archaeologist,
epigraphist and art expert of South India, and has authored
many scholarly works.
Recently some judges of the Madras High
Court were transferred. This attracted the attention of the
public: the transfers were effected, according to the authorities,
to maintain the highest standards of the judiciary and improve
its efficiency, but others questioned this stand and imputed
motives. One of the judges even expressed disappointment over
the transfers. In this connection, an ancient lithic (epigraphic)
record dated over one thousand years ago, regarding limitation
of service tenure of judges, would come as a revelation to
those interested in the history of ancient Indian judiciary.
The record is dated 930 CE, in the reign of the Chola King
Parantaka, and is found on a ceiling slab of the Bhaktavatsala
temple of Thiruninravur near Chennai, Tamil Nadu. It is engraved
in Tamil letters and relates to the constitution of Judiciary
and the limitation of their service.
Before the inscription is studied, it is necessary to note
that the Chola emperors aimed at superlative efficiency in
all walks of public administration and did achieve splendid
standards, which even modern administrators would envy. The
inscription, relating to the qualifications,
disqualifications, and process of election to the village
assembly is a well-known instance. Apart from the tenth-century
inscription mentioned above, an eighth-century record from
the Pandya country also gives a vivid picture of the constitution
of judiciary in ancient times.
The judiciary was by and large in the hands of elected village
elders, and only in exceptional cases went to the territorial
assemblies or ultimately to the king’s council. The
village courts served as the main backbone of the judicial
system in ancient India. Called the Panchayat system in modern
times, the village judiciary is mostly misunderstood as no
more than the collective decision of the elders, without the
application of any legal procedures known to present times.
Most historians held that the legal-judicial system came to
be introduced and learned only after the advent of European
rule in India. The eight-century record from the Pandyan country,
disproves this assumption emphatically. This record comes
from Manur, in Tirunelveli district, and is virtually a written
constitution of the village as regards the election of judges
to the village court. The entire village assembly met and
drafted the constitution for selecting judges.
The first qualification prescribed was that anyone to be elected
as a judge should be a master of at least one legal treatise.
(The legal treatises are known as dharma sastras and
there were many schools of dharma sastras like Manu,
Yajnavalkya, Brihaspati, Parasara and others.) The village
courts were therefore presided over by legal experts and not
by casual elders, as is commonly understood. There were strict
legal procedures to be adopted before a case was taken to
the village courts.
The Manur record also specifies that a candidate for election
to the court should be one known for his sterling conduct
(suvrittaray iruppar) and should be so accepted by
the village assembly. Since this village was a Brahmin settlement,
it further prescribed that the candidate should be a master
of one Veda and one Brahmana text, and should have passed
an examination to that effect. There are other aspects mentioned
in the record with which we are not concerned here. Thus the
above record stipulates virtuous conduct, a pass in the stipulated
examination, and mastery of one law book as basic requirements
for being elected to the court. This record does not, however,
stipulate the duration for which he can serve or, if he has
served once, the interval that was required before re-election.
This gap is filled up by the tenth-century Thiruninravur record
mentioned earlier. It mainly addresses itself to the minimum
duration for which the judge had to serve in the same court.
The Thiruninravur record is also a written constitution of
the village judiciary drafted by the whole village assembly,
which met for the purpose in 930 CE. That the village judiciary
and administrative committees were elected to serve for one
term is clear.
Once the elected judges had served for one term, they could
not be elected for another five years, not only as judges
but also in other administrative committees. The restriction
of five-year interval was reduced to two years in the case
of relatives like fathers, brothers or sons of those who had
served once. Thus a judge could not serve two terms consecutively
in the same court within less than five years. His close relatives
could not also aspire to become judges within two years of
It is pertinent to recall the qualification stipulated for
a judge of the village court; a pass in the prescribed examination,
mastery of a legal text and above all noble conduct. The dharma
sastras insist on the sanctity of judicial pronouncement,
failing which the judge was liable for punishment and would
also incur a sin and his emancipation was in danger. In spite
of such strict standards, like fair judgements, good conduct,
and high qualifications, his tenure was limited.
This indicates the high standards of the judicial administration
in the Chola period in the tenth and eleventh centuries CE.
Whether this system could be applied in modern times is not
our concern here, as the standards are different now. But
it does focus attention on the history of ancient India’s
judiciary, often labelled Panchayat system and brushed aside
as a collective conventional decision, rather than based on
a written constitution and a legal system. The ancient Indian
Judiciary functioned only with solid legal procedures and
a written constitution (called Lekhya Pramanam).
In view of the importance of Thiruninravur constitution, an
English rendering of the record is given below.
This is the resolution
adopted for the prosperity of our village, with effect
from the month of Kumbha in the twenty-third year, by
us the members of the great assembly, which include:
(1) the judicial assembly,
(2) the tank maintenance committee (eri variya perumakkal).
(3) the garden maintenance committee (totta variya
(4) the exponents of Sastras (bhattas) and
(5) the great men (visishta perumakkal)
and who assembled in full, inclusive of the young and
the old, in the great hall of our village on this day:
When the judicial assembly and the (various) committees
are to be constituted from this year onwards, the great
assembly (mahasabha) should meet in full in
the brahmasthana of our village, and select
only those who are acceptable to the mahasabha.
Those who are so selected should not have served in
judicial capacity or in the (administrative) committees
within five years, prior (to the date of selection).
The brothers, fathers and sons of those who served (within)
two years prior (to the date of selection), should be
One who is so selected, should not be demanded to do
(other) obligatory services while serving in the mahasabha.
Those who demand other obligatory services from such
selected persons, contrary to this resolution, are proclaimed
offenders of the village.
They (the selected) will receive one kunri
of gold per duration.
Those who complete their service in the judicial assembly
and the (other) committees, should settle and hand over
accounts to the assembly.
We the members of the great assembly resolved thus.
Those who act contrary to this resolution, should pay
twenty five kalancu of gold as fine at the
court (dharmasana) at the request of the shareholders
of sravanai of our village.
This resolution (may be) inscribed on stone.
© Dr. R. Nagaswamy, 2002.