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8.1 Introduction

8.2 Writing

8.3 Orality, Literacy, Literature

8.4 Non-Verbal Communication

8.5 Summary

8.6 Exercises


In this Unit you will learn about different modes of expressing oneself in the Bronze Age Civilizations. We will start with the writing form, giving a brief narrative of its beginning and its importance in communication. Then we go on to discuss the relationship between orality and literacy. You will also be introduced to the form of communication through the use of images.


Writing has been called a way of encoding information, or a system of symbolling. A set of visibly recognizable signs (graphemes) stands for a coherent pattern of sounds (phonemes) that hold meaning in a particular language. This is the intellectual achievement that writing represents.

Illustration 3: The Earliest Writing (a): Egypt 31

Bronze Age Civilizations

3(b): Mesopotamia

3(c): South Asia

32 3(d): China (on the shoulder bone of an OX)

In another way, writing brings with it a new ‘technology’ as it were, its own skills and tools. Today writing is possible for a seven-year old because we use paper and pens/pencils. But the Sumerian scribe had to press signs with a wedge- shaped stylus on to clay, his Egyptian counterpart had to draw picture signs, according to a canon of size and proportions of figures, on papyrus and on temple and tomb walls— clearly adult work The first writing systems of the world each consisted not only of hundreds of signs that had to be learnt, they also involved the handling of papyrus and reed brushes (in Egypt), or inscribing a tortoise shell (China), or handling a moist clay tablet and shaping a stylus and getting the writing done while the tablet was still wet (Mesopotamia).

In all the civilizations except the Mesopotamian, the writing system was logographic, with one sign representing one word (a concept, quality, or thing). Egypt maintained this system till about the fourth century AD, and China, with great modification, until today.

The Harappan writing system died out with that civilization. In the case of Mesopotamia, the writing system was developed for the Sumerian language, but by 2000 BC the public language changed to Akkadian, and in the process of adaptation to the new language, the script became almost fully syllabic, with one sign representing one syllable (a combination of a consonant and vowel or vowel-consonant, or consonant-vowel-consonant).

Writing made possible the keeping of records, and it is no coincidence that it appears at those historical junctures when public architecture, elite burials, seals, and trade expansion are first evident. Neither is it a coincidence that writing died out when the Harappan civilization, state(s) and urban life came to an end, just as the scripts of the Minoans of Crete were forgotten when the Minoan civilization came to an end. Archives of written tablets in Mesopotamian temples, and of inscribed oracle bones in pits in Anyang, testify to the principle that writing enables a society to store information. Stored information in turn facilitates the complex exchanges that state institutions handled: multiple and otherwise anonymous participants, transactions staggered over time, diverse outgoings and incoming goods, as well as stock in storage, etc. It also made possible calendars and time reckoning. It was because of an early tradition of literacy that Mesopotamia was able to develop mathematics and astronomy long before any other region. Writing is also a device that renders feasible a series of communications between persons at a geographic distance from each other. The dispatch of the written command or order, or the identity of a state official, by way of letter or seal impression, would have been necessary for the political unification of large areas like the Indus plains. Not every local chief or elder would need to repeatedly come face-to-face with a ruling king, if he received written messages.

This comes through vividly in a Sumerian epic about a very early ruler of Uruk, before Gilgamesh, who organized the first exchange expedition into the eastern world for the procurement of lapis lazuli and gold. He began by sending his messenger over “five mountain ranges, six mountain ranges, seven mountain ranges” to the land of Aratta, but it was not easy to get the chief of that land to agree to collect and send the necessary materials. Sent back and forth constantly with verbal messages, the messenger became weary and confused. One day, the message of the king of Uruk was particularly complex.
Writing and Artistic Expression

When the tradition of taking oracles from turtle shells was forgotten, the signs associated with its ritual formulae were also forgotten, so that many of these signs have no later “descendants”

Perhaps the Harappan writing medium was birchbark or cloth, or something else that was perishable. We only have brief inscriptions on Harappan seals, ivory rods, potttery, etc. from the archaeological remains


Bronze Age Civilizations

His words being difficult, the envoy was unable to render them.
Since the envoy—his words being difficult—was unable to render them, The lord of Kullab (Uruk)*
smoothed clay with the hand and set down the words on it in the manner of a tablet.
Up to then there had been no one setting down words on clay, But now, on that day, under that sun, it came to be.
The lord of Kullab set down words on clay.
*(That is, the King of Uruk, Enmerkar by name).

Writing systems did not grow by incremental processes—they did not “evolve”. Potters’ marks may be visually similar to the characters of a script, but the meaning of potters’ marks is very limited, signifying the owner or the potter. Like modern dhobi marks, they have never evolved into scripts. However, small clay tokens of various shapes (spheres, pyramids, cones, etc) were used in Mesopotamia and the surrounding lands, before and after the invention of writing, as “calculi”. Several such counters could be enclosed in a hollow clay ball as a record of the numbers of male and female sheep and lambs that a shepherd had taken out from a village to graze on the steppe. He would be bringing the flock back to the village after several months (during which time a few animals were bound to die and lambs would be born) and a record had to be kept, even if those involved did not know how to read and write. In Egypt, soldiers on royal expeditions were given wooden tokens shaped like different kinds of bread and inscribed with numerals. These tokens denoted the ration allotments from the state that the holder was entitled to collect at appropriate times.

Illustration 4: Bread Ration Tokens For Egyptians

The first written objects in Egypt were painted or incised potsherds of about
3100 BC. The writing was “cursive” and recorded the names of chiefs or rulers, or deliveries of goods to their tombs/houses. Egyptian “hieroglyphic” writing

began a little later, on votive objects deposited in temples, on the walls of the tombs of chiefs or rulers, and on small ivory tags tied to objects deposited in tombs. It was used to make notations on highly symbolic reliefs depicting royal feats, on stone palettes, and ceremonial maces. At Hierakonpolis, the first capital of an inchoate Egyptian state, many inscribed objects were found in a cache of old things ritually buried in a temple. The signs of the second kind of writing were pictures, mainly of recognizable objects, but also the names of persons and deities.

While the cursive writing, for humdrum record keeping, was written with a few strokes, the unique quality of Egyptian hieroglyphic or formal writing was its aesthetic properties. Equipped with cakes of soot and red ochre, occasionally other colours as well, the scribe was an artist using reed pens, thin and thick brushes, and pointed erasers. Signs were closely spaced and their forms standardized, living things having to be shown in profile, but horns and eyes frontally, and so on. In some cases, writing blends into what we would call relief or painting. Sometimes hieroglyphic writing occurred together with painting on a temple or tomb wall, as an adjunct to art. It is the cursive form that changed over time, whereas the formal and aesthetic hieroglyphic script, used concurrently, changed little.

Note that hieroglyphic was not a system of picture writing pure and simple. The signs also had phonetic values. A sign depicting the por or ‘house’ also stood for the sound por. Because this could lead to ambiguity, there developed the use of a system of determinatives that indicated what kind of word would follow.

From a starting stage in which writing was used mainly to identify things or for labels, it progressed to continuous texts, so that by the late Old Kingdom, letters, mortuary spells, and the autobiographies of persons were also written. It was in the Middle Kingdom that fictional narratives and dialogues were written, as also the wisdom of sages and laments about bad times in the country. Egyptian literature affords us a glimpse of what it was to be a scribe. Boys were taught on practice pottery pieces and flakes of stone, as papyrus was expensive. They learnt the signs by making copies of inscriptions, but were also taught mathematics and composition. A father tells his son it is better to be a scribe than a metal worker who stinks worse than fish-roe, or a barber who “takes himself here and there”.

In a collection of didactic verses, we find an Egyptian’s thoughts on the significance of writing that could well be ours. Doors and mansions were made and have fallen to dust, it is written, but the writings of scribes are still remembered:

As for those scribes and sages
From the time which came after the gods,… Their names endure for eternity,
Although they are gone….
They did not make pyramids of bronze, Or stelae of iron….
They recognized not how heirs last as children,
…[but] made for themselves as heirs
[their] writings and teachings.
Writing and Artistic Expression


Bronze Age Civilizations
Just as the earliest writing in Egypt was limited and could not depict continuous language or long sentences, and therefore could not express abstract thoughts, so too was the case with the first written records of Mesopotamia. Almost
4,000 tablets were found in late Uruk period levels in Uruk. This was the period when the cylinder seal came into use, and temple architecture became ambitious, if you recall. The “expansion” northward was also of this period. The tablets were found in the temple area, but not as they had been stored: they were used for levelling the ground for new constructions!

Each of the earliest tablets recorded a single transaction (to revise, you might try to recall why such records were necessary). They may mention goods (fish, bread, oxen, etc.); numbers or quantities of them; places (temples or towns), and personal names. In the later tablets, several transactions were recorded in separate columns, and they clearly involved several persons. Among the latter were lists of rations handed out to individuals. One sign stood for one word, but this early writing did not totally encode spoken discourse with complete sentences. The reader would have to supplement the written semantic referants with his own sense of what was meant. Thus “7 rationed; 1 returned” had to be actually read, “7 measures of barley given as rations; 1 measure of barley returned.” Early Dynastic tablets refer to the “house” of a deity or of a king— the temple or the palace—in such records.

In the course of ensuing centuries, however, with the use of phonetic signs, ideograms, etc., the written text came increasingly to encode the sounds of the Sumerian language, though not of a particular spoken vernacular. In time this system of writing became less picture-like. Words and sound-syllables were impressed on the wet surface of clay tablets with the wedge-shaped end of a reed stylus so that the writing was called “cuneiform”. Many changes came about as Sumerian was gradually replaced by Akkadian as the generally spoken language of Mesopotamia. Texts were written to record the transfer of lands to royal houses; to inscribe royal messages on victory stelae and votive objects in temples; the laws propagated by certain kings; hymns to individual deities; lexical lists of professions, plants, animals, or minerals. By 2000 BC, literary form was given to a series of myths, epics, and heroic tales and folk wisdom that had been the oral tradition of Mesopotamia (in Sumerian and Akkadian).

This system of writing had little artistic attraction and was extremely difficult to learn. Yet, it spread to many parts of western Asia: to kingdoms in Syria on the coast and on the Orontes river, to the Hittite kindgom in Anatolia, and so on. Akkadian cuneiform was also the language of diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and the western Asiatic This spread had little to do with political hegemony: Mesopotamia had none over these regions. It had almost as little to do with trade. The script and system of writing spread together with certain genres of literature –the most striking being the narrative about Gilgamesh— that developed in, and strongly associated with, Mesopotamian high culture.


What happens when a transition occurs from orality to the written word? First, we must admit that in some cases (the Harappan for instance) no lasting literary tradition was created. We have suggested that one reason was the collapse of

the state and civilization and of interregional interactions. Was it also because of a very limited and utilitarian use of writing in the Harappan period? What about the possible role of a plethora of spoken languages and dialects in northern India and Pakistan at that time, especially with the migration of speakers of Indo-Aryan languages?

The social status of the literati is also relevant. Shulgi, a king of Ur around
2100 BC, claims in his inscriptions that he was an exceptional ruler in that he knew how to read and write. Writing was not a prerogative of the rulers, and its advent did not, anywhere, create a “class”. But Shulgi expressed satisfaction that, because the hymns he had composed were written down, they would not be changed in times to come.

It has been suggested by scholars that with the coming of writing, the modes of verbal expression would have changed, because now the teller and the listener were no longer in communication (in visual contact). A narrator could no longer resort to body language or inflexions of the voice in order to give meaning or lend excitement to his words. With nothing but words available for communication, it is thus suggested, writing involves a much more precise use of language and, inevitably, an expansion of the vocabulary of the concerned language. Besides, until the invention of the alphabetic system of writing (the simplest and quickest system of encoding single consonants and vowels), no singer of epics could maintain his flow if he had to slow down sufficiently to dictate his words to a scribe. The written version of any text is, therefore, bound to be different from the traditional, oral, version. There is another implication. That language or dialect in which the greatest literary output occurred in a country would become the standard language—Akkadian is a classic example, as we have seen.

However, it has also been said that the implications of literacy should not be overestimated. Writing does not dispense with speaking. The king Shulgi writes, in a hymn, “Let the singer come, let him read aloud [my hymn]”; and the “tablet-knowing scribe” and the “song-knowing singer” are mentioned together. Shulgi also refers to “flute songs and drum songs”. Rhythm, rhyme and metre, so essential to effective oral delivery, remain in the written versions of several texts when the orality-literacy transition occurs. (It has been suggested that the silent reading of a text is a very late development.) And except for a few hymns of a royal princess-priestess, Enheduana, daughter of the great Sargon King of Akkad, most of Mesopotamian literature is, like the oral tradition, anonymous. Early Mesopotamian narratives reveal many characteristics of orality, such as stock epithets and opening phrases, and long repetitions. In some genres of Sumerian and Akkadian literature we find proverbs or idioms couched in popular folk language and not in scribal diction.

And so we need to explore the interface between orality and literacy, and the dimensions of literacy in any society. The Mesopotamian evidence teaches us, in other words, that orality and literacy are not two separate compartments. Oral transmission continues in all societies after the advent of literacy, even after the coming of easy-to-learn-and-write alphabetic writing, so that changes in the written version may well be due to the history of the oral tradition. Conversely, oral traditions are sometimes influenced by a written version.
Writing and Artistic Expression


Bronze Age Civilizations

In China it was believed that writing was a treasure of the past experience of society; those who had knowledge of the past were able to guide rulers concerning the present course of action
The continuing scribal and literary tradition of Mesopotamia ensured that archives and their catalogues were maintained, so that a poem about Gilgamesh, first put to writing around 2000 BC, was re-written or copied hundreds of miles away in Anatolia, four centuries later, and the last written version was written around the first century BC. There were schools to train scribes, and the profession was neither hereditary nor wrapped in secrecy. Much of the literature that has come down to us in excavated cuneiform tablets is the work of school students set to the task of copying.

Such a scribal tradition also involved “intertextuality”: one text could show familiarity with another, referring to its events or protagonists in brief. It is the literary tradition that in many ways gave ancient Mesopotamia its civilizational stamp. This, despite political fragmentation, a plethora of spoken dialects, and continuous change in the spoken dialects. This literary tradition, in the singular, took its form from the schools and school curriculum.

A reading of Sumerian poetry in translation can be very rewarding. The imagery is often striking. Rhythm, metre, and rhyme are lost in translation, but Sumerian poetry, as we know it (i.e. in the written form and to the extent that we are able to understand the language) is characterized by repetitions of a particular sort. Words and phrases are used in pairs; there are repetitions and parallelisms. Shulgi says in a royal inscription,

King am I, warrior from the womb am I; Shulgi am I; mighty male from birth am I.

Here are some snatches from a poem that laments the destruction of the great city of Ur.

Behold, [the gods] gave instruction for the ravaging of the city,
gave instruction
for the ravaging of Ur….. Enlil*
called the storm
—the people mourn—
winds of abundance he took away from the land
—the people mourn—
good winds he took away from Sumer
—the people mourn—
deputed evil winds….
*(Enlil is a major Sumerian deity)

In a short poem relating how Gilgamesh defied his overlord, the King of Kish, his subjects address him:


The great wall1,
a heavy cloud resting on the earth as it is,
the august abode,
set against the sky as it is,
are entrusted to you!2
You are the king and warrior!
The basher of heads, The beloved of Anu.3

The great epic of Gilgamesh, which you can read in one of several English translations, ends with the hero’s dejection at having learnt, but soon lost, the secret of immortality. He returns to Uruk, his city, reconciled to the thought that he will die one day. In the section on urbanism in Unit 7 we had quoted four lines from the epic; these occur not only at the outset, but also at the end of the poem We find that Gilgamesh takes solace in the brick constructions he made in the city of Uruk. It is these structures that will endure. If this epic had been set in a tribal background, Gilgamesh would be consoling himself with the thought that his descendants, his lineage, would endure after him.


We have spent some time on oral and written communication; both of these are verbal, requiring the use of words or language. To balance things, let us also consider, unfortunately in very brief, communication through the use of images.

Illustration 5 : Egyptian Tomb Painting
(1. The city wall of Uruk, that we have mentioned above, 2. To Gilgamesh the king of Uruk,
3. He was the sky god)
Writing and Artistic Expression


Bronze Age Civilizations
Presented in Illustration 5 is a tomb painting (about 1400 BC) that depicts the inspection of cattle. Above we see two rows of writing that comments on the event. This illustrates the simultaneous use of visual and verbal communication.


Illustration 6 : The Narmer Palette

More complex is the combination of verbal and non-verbal communication on the famous Narmer Palette (the central hollow on one face was probably contained eye shadow, either for the king or for the statue of a god) of the Archaic Period.(Illustration 6) It was found in Hierakonpolis, in or near a
40 group of ritual artefacts cached away in a temple. It belongs to a category of

sculpted mace-heads and cosmetic palettes that date to the Archaic Period and carry a kind of political message, in that a hunter, lion, bull or king is shown, subduing or vanquishing wild animals or human enemies.

On the Narmer Palette, horizontal lines or base lines mark out the different registers/frames. The lowest registers of the obverse and reverse are thematically connected, depicting the siege of a fort by Narmer as a Bull (on a base line) who also tramples an enemy chief. Bearded Asiatic chiefs flee the fort or lie dead. In the centre of the reverse, the enormous figure of Narmer in the white crown of Upper Egypt and on a base line, is shown dispatching a bearded enemy with his mace. Behind him, shown on a much smaller scale, is his sandal- bearer and feet washer. He carries the king’s sandals and a water jug; at his neck is suspended the king’s seal; around his waist, a bowl for washing. The hieroglyphs above his head identify him as “Sandal bearer of the Ruler”. On the obverse, a central cavity is formed by the intertwining serpent necks of two animals. Above this register, Narmer is shown in the red crown of Lower Egypt, followed again by the sandal bearer, and preceded by a procession of standard bearers with clan or nome emblems surmounted on tall poles. They move toward a battlefield in which lie rows of beheaded enemy corpses. A long-haired scribe walks just ahead of Narmer, carrying his tools. Right on top, on both faces, are the heads of bovids flanking hieroglyphic signs, viz. the fish and chisel signs that stood for “Narmer”. (You can see that same repeated a third time on the obverse, in front of the king’s head.) The scholarly consensus is that the series of images on this palette recount a dramatic narrative that may well have actually occurred.

Illustration 7: Harappan Seals
Writing and Artistic Expression


Bronze Age Civilizations


Illustration 8 : Copper Tablets from Mohenjodaro

Our main source on Harappan images and writing is the corpus of seals, most of which were found in the large cities. Most (but not all) of the rectangular carved stone seals carry an image above which is a line of script. (Illustration
7) Almost a hundred kinds of images occur, the greatest number being single creatures, animals or hybrid/mythical creatures. There are comparatively few “scenes” depicting action. These emblems have no geographic patterns in the sense that we cannot say that a certain kind of emblem comes from particular Harappan sites. It is likely that the images are social symbols, the emblems of descent groups, clans, or tribes. As we shall see in the following Unit, the Bronze-Age state was superimposed on a society until recently structured on kinship, with many tribal institutions and identities continuing to function.

The writing on the Harappan seals, it was found through computer analysis, has no correlation with the image. Thus we cannot suggest any instrinsic connection between the writing and the visual component. However, on about
200 thin and small copper tablets from Mohenjo-daro, there does seem to be a correlation. (Illustration 8) These sheets were incised with sharp tools, with an image on one face, and writing on the other. The images included some of the seal animals like the elephant, bull and Unicorn, but also creatures like the hare, and a curious leaf-clad man whom scholars call the “hunter”. These copper sheets were individually incised and not mass produced. What is significant is that in many cases the same symbol and the same series of written signs occurs on several of them. So in this case there does appear to be a logical connection between word and image.

The copper tablets could have been used in the same way as is the tawiz today. Where the latter is concerned, a copper sheet or piece of paper carrying the name of a Pir written on it, is tied with a black thread and worn on the body. Instead of the name of the Pir, a sacred formula may be written on it. Either of these is believed to protect the wearer from evil spirits or malicious ghosts that bring disease or misfortune; they appear in an instant, doing misfortune, and then vanish. In keeping them away, words and speech are important. By uttering the name of a being you can propitiate it and keep it from doing you harm, or else, if it is a benign being, you can call it/him to your side. So the tawiz, and by logical transferance perhaps the Harappan copper tablet, show the power of utterance and of the word. In the Harappan case, the “utterances” are both verbal and visual. Thus we see once again that orality and literacy were not separate in their social operation.

Since we are concerned in this course with the emergence of ruling classes in history, let us take a brief look at how the king was depicted in Mesopotamian sculpture. If you consult books on Mesopotamian archaeology you will see that from the Early Dynastic period onwards, much of the imagery incorporates the figure of the king as a dominant male. There is Illustration 9, the stele of Naram Sin of Akkad, one of the most militarily successful kings of the third millennium BC. Naram Sin’s inscription indicates that this monument commemorated the defeat of the Lullubi, a mountain tribe. We see a huge mountain on top. One or perhaps two trees are fitted in to indicate the forests on the mountain. The largest, dominant, image is that of Naram Sin climbing the mountain with his bow, arrow, and battle axe. He wears a horned headdress, which, in Mesopotamian imagery, was a sign of divinity. His soldiers climb up the mountain in two files, as if all are marching in time. Naram Sin has his left
Writing and Artistic Expression


Bronze Age Civilizations

Illustration 9 : Stele of Naram Sin

foot on an enemy’s body, and just ahead, there are two other Lullubi men, pleading for mercy.

This stele was set up in the vanquished city of Sippar, and on top you see two solar emblems, the symbol of the Sun God of Sippar. The stele was excavated, however, in Iran, at the great city of Susa, to which a king who ruled almost a
44 thousand years after Naram Sin had carried it, after a successful invasion of

Mesopotamia. The Iranian king had his inscription engraved on the stele, in addition to that of Naram Sin. The history of this stele thus speaks eloquently for the impact that monuments and their imagery would have had on their viewers.

Illustration 10: Statue of Gudea

A statue of another king, Gudea, who ruled a little later in Lagash (Illustration
10) also portrays the dominant male, but with a subtle difference. It is carved in a hard, black, and naturally glossy stone, diorite. You will notice that although the right arm is one with the rest of the statue, for the rest there is absolute technical mastery of carving. Observe the perfect proportions of the head, the muscles of arm and chest even when covered by the garment, and the slender fingers. This is not light or graceful, but monumental, work. While on the one hand it depicts Gudea in person or as a person, it is also the depiction of the ideal strong king in the royal robe. Yet muscles, forcefulness and physical strength are not the only issue. The king is shown with clasped hands, in the attitude of prayer and there is piety in the figure of the king. Unlike the carved narrative relief, this was a statue placed in the main temple of Lagash, as a statement of Gudea’s perennial devotion and service to his deity. At the literal level it was intended to remind the deity always to protect Gudea.

Perhaps now you may be able to see the head of the Mohenjo-daro “Priest King” (Illustration 11) with new eyes. In the Harappan civilization, only statues of males were ever carved in stone, and in a formal or monumental style. The
Writing and Artistic Expression


Bronze Age Civilizations

Illustration 11 : “Priest King” of Mohenjodaro

Priest King is the most written about of these stone statues, all of which came from Mohenjo-daro. It will not take you long to answer why women were never depicted in this manner! To see what “monumentality” means, and it does not always refer to size, contrast this statue with Harappan clay figurines of the so-called “mother goddess” (Illustration 12).


Through a broad survey of written and artistic remains of the Bonze Age
46 Civilizations we have tried to understand various ways of expressions specific

Writing and Artistic Expression

Illustration 12 : Harappan Clay Figurines 47

Bronze Age Civilizations

to different civilizations. From a stage in which writing was used mainly to identify things we notice that gradually it is used to keep records or to write narratives and wisdom of sages. The script and system of writing spread and grew together with certain genres of literature. Even after the beginning of writing oral transmission continued to have importance in society. Besides the written and oral communication which are verbal there was also the use of images for expression.


1. What were the various mediums used for writing in different civilizations?

2. Give a brief account of the topics covered in early writing samples available to us.

3. Describe the transition from oral tradition to early written literature.

4. Discuss various images found in early Egyptian and Harappan Civilizations.


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