Read this article to learn about the economic condition during Maurya-Scythian era of Indian history form 4th Century B.C to 6th Century B.C.
During the Maurya-Scythian era of Indian history there was an all-round development of agriculture, industry, and trade.
The economy of the time was built on both private enterprise and state control and management.
Our sources of information are Kautilya’s Arthasastra, Megasthenes, Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, and few other Greek writers.
Agriculture was the backbone of the rural economy and the main stay of a large part of the people of the country. A village which was a collection of families numbering from 30 to 1000 had been surrounded by a stockade, outside which lay the arable field of the village. Land was divided into small holdings which were cultivated by their owners themselves or by hired labour. There were large, very large holdings as well Landless labourers and slaves were employed for cultivation of land where the owner did not or could not cope with the work of cultivation.
Every village had its pastures which was used by all alike. Ditches for irrigation were excavated on a cooperative basis. Kautilya gives us a clear idea of the different kinds of lands that every village possessed.
These were :
(i) Cultivated land
(ii) Fallow land
(iii) High and dry ground
(iv) Land sown with crops
(vi) Fruit plantations
(viii) Sugar-cane plantation
(x) Land covered by roads.
Among the agricultural produce were rice of different varieties, wheat, sesame, pepper, pulses, linseed, mustard, vegetables, fruits like plantain, pumpkins, gourds, sugar-canes, grapes, etc. For the pin- poses of agriculture draught animals were necessary. The state, therefore, maintained cattle-studs and reared draught oxen, buffaloes, stud bulls, etc. The importance of cattle-breeding was recognised as a means to agricultural development. Agriculture depended mainly on rainfall.
Irrigation was the concern of the State and it was an important -source of revenue, for water-rates were charged for supply of water for irrigation.
The great importance of agriculture in the economy of the time becomes clear from the Jatakas where it is stated that the distressing sight of sturdy peasants leaving at home their empty barns, and swelling the ranks of landless agricultural labourers to toil as hireling on the estates of royal capitalists is a sign of social decadence.
The State derived a great part of its revenues from the variety of levies on agriculture and agricultural produce. Bhaga was the State share of the produce, Bali was the cess over and above Bhaga, Kara, i.e., tax levied on property periodically, Vivita, a tax on pasture, Rajju, a tax for survey and settlement, Chorarajju, a chowkidari tax.
The State had a large part of the agricultural land of the country directly in its own hands, in its vast crown estates. These were let out on condition of revenue payment. The state did not interfere in the enjoyment of these lands so long as revenue payments were made regularly.
The State used to run model farms where seeds were collected of various crops, fruits, and vegetables. The State also maintained flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens and raised commercial crops like jute, cotton, hemp, etc.
In the Age preceding the Gupta period India had developed an advanced system of agriculture, industry, and trade. The development of agriculture in the Gupta era seems to have continued on the traditional lines. In spite of the richness of the soil and availability of abundant water, Indian agriculture was dependent mainly on rainfall. From Varahamihira’s Brihat-Samhita we know how careful forecasts of excessive, sufficient, and scanty rainfall were made in light of astronomical and meteorological data.
Arrangements on the part of government for irrigation are illustrated by the construction of Sudarsana Lake, which had burst its dam due to a storm and was restored by a local Governor of Skandagupta in 455-58 mentioned in Junagarh Rock inscription. Amarakosa gives us the names of various agricultural implements and the details about agricultural operations.
Amarakosa and Brihat-Samhita refer to the different agricultural produce of the time: rice of different varieties, wheat, barley, peas, lentils, oilseeds, such as mustard, sesame, linseed, ginger, pepper, vegetables, medicinal herbs, sugarcane, etc. The agricultural crops and the fruits of trees and plants during this period were as remarkable as in the preceding centuries. The most prized fruits of the time, as of the past, were mangoes, melon, cocoanut, plantain, jackfruit, apple, tamarind, oranges, pomegranates, etc.
In the Smriti law certain rules were laid down for the encouragement of agriculture and deterrant punishment was prescribed for destruction of agricultural fruits, flowers, dams, roots, etc. Cultivators neglecting cultivation used to be fined and on the other hand one who turned waste land into arable land would be allowed to enjoy its produce for a period of seven or eight years.
The Nanda-Maurya-Scythian era saw a remarkable progress in industry. Our sources of information are the Mahabharata, Kautilya’s Arthasastra, Megasthenes, Periplus, and Smriti. Numerous arts and crafts and occupations are not only referred to in the literature and inscriptions but also in the sculpture of the period.
The main industries and handicrafts were those of weaving, wood-cutting, smithy, jewellery, ivory-working, confectionery, pottery, making of bows and arrows, etc. On the evidence of Megasthenes, we learn that gold, silver, copper and iron mines were worked. Making of furniture, carts, chariots, wooden buildings, and sea-going vessels were also important industries of the time.
Costly skins and furs were valued industries in the north-western Himalayas and Eastern India in the time of Kautilya. Finest ivory work was produced by the ivory workers of Vidisa. Ivory workers of Vidisa were employed for engraving the ornamental sculpture of the Gates of the Sanchi Stupa. Ivory was used for making hair-combs, dice, ornamental sword-hilt, etc.
Textile industry continued to be in the same flourishing condition in Maurya period during the period from/after the fall of the Mauryas and rise of the Guptas. From the Brahmanical, Jaina and Buddhist works of this period that refer to the variety of textile fabrics manufactured during this period as during the Maurya period, referred to in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Silk, wool and different kinds of cotton linen were extensively produced.
According to Kautilya Vanga, East Bengal was famous for fabrics of dukula (a kind of a plant), linen, and cotton. Pundra, that is, North Bengal was also famous for dukula and cotton fabrics. Vatsya, Konkon, Kalinga, Kausambi, Mysore were renowned centres of cotton industry. The Periplus mentions several centres of cotton manufacturers which agree to the list given in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Muslin in large quantities was produced in Kalinga, Argaru, etc.
While Arthasastra furnishes us with a wealth of materials about diverse subjects its information about mining and metallurgical industries during this period is scanty. According to Pliny, India had neither brass nor lead but exchanged these for precious stones, pearls, etc.
India imported copper, lead, tin from foreign countries through Barygaza (Broach), and Malabar ports during the latter half of the First Century A.D. On the other hand, according to the testimony of the Periplus, the manufacture of Indian iron and steel was so advanced in quality and quantity that they were exported from Kathiawar and the inland areas to East Africa. The Acharanga Sutra refers to bowls made of iron, tin, brass, etc.
According to Periplus, during the first Century A.D., pearl fisheries were operated off the coasts in Pandya and Chola countries. According to Pliny India was the greatest producer of most costly gems. He gives a long list of gems that India produced and called India a gem- bearing country.
Kautilya mentions various metallic ores extracted in India in those days, such as gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, iron, and a metal called Vaikrintaka, which has not been identified. He also refers to the knowledge of the Indians in technical sciences dealing with the art of smelting metals. This shows that the remarks of a Greek writer that although India was rich in gold and silver mines they were inexperienced in the arts of mining and smelting and followed too primitive a way in these regards are unfounded.
In Kautilya’s Arthasastra there is reference to the manufacture of weapons of war such as bows and arrows, swords, spears, axes, etc.
There were also lower crafts (hina-seppas) like those of manufacture of dyes, drugs, perfumes, pottery, rush-weavers, tannery, butchery, etc.
We learn from Kautilya that there was a considerable state-control both in trade and industry. The State had a monopoly of industries which depended upon risky, costly, and pioneering enterprise. Mines were nationalised and these were the main sources of State revenue. The State worked the mines of gold, silver, diamond, gems, precious stones, copper, lead, tin, iron, and bitumen.
State also worked the oil fields, explored the ocean for pearls. It held monopoly of salt and granted licences to private lessees for working the salt fields. Minting of coins was also a state monopoly. The Mint Master received from the public bullion and struck it into coins on payment of a small fee.
Convicts were employed by State to collect pearls from the seas and to work in the Prison factories. State had spinning houses for manufacturing cotton, silk, jute and wool yarn, as well as factories for manufacture of clothes of all kinds, blankets, curtains, ropes, etc.
During the Gupta Era different branches of industry were maintained in the same high level as in the preceding age. There was of course greater abundance of raw materials and much improvement in the skill and enterprise of the artisans and craftsmen during this period.
From the literature of this period we come across a large variety of clothes manufactured and used. These were of cotton, silk, wool, linen, and barks of trees. In the seventh century the textile industry continued to be of equally high standard and the varieties then in use have been referred to in the Sana’s Harshacharita, Rajyasri’s marriage garments comprised Kshauma (linen), badara (cotton), dukula (bark- silk), lala-tantu (spider silk), amsuka (muslin), netra (shot-silk), etc.
Hiuen T-Sang also refers to the Indians clothing materials as silk, cotton, linen, wool, goat’s hair, etc. Amarakosa also gives a variety of names of the wearing materials and refers to bleached and unbleached silk. From Ajanta frescoes we come across four distinct types of wearing, gold and silver brocades, dyed muslins, spotted muslins, etc.
Of the different centres of textile manufactures, Banaras was the producer of the best silk clothes. Pundra, i.e., north Bengal, Kamrupa, Mathura were other centres of cotton and silk textile manufacture.
From Amarakosa we come to know of the manufacture of leather-fur, leather-bottle for containing oil, leather boots and shoes. Ivory work also was highly developed and put into various uses. Ivory seals of the Gupta period have been found at Bhita near Allahabad.
Mining of metals, such as gold, silver, copper, iron, etc., was going on as usual. There was also an abundant influx of gold from the Byzantine Empire in exchange for Indian goods. Copper, tin, and lead were also imported from abroad.
In the Ajanta frescoes metallic mirrors have been traced by scholars. The iron pillar of King Chandra at Meherauli in old Delhi which belongs to his period is a wonderful specimen of polished cast iron and it has not undergone any corrosion despite exposure to weather for centuries.
The art of jewellery maintained the high standard of manufacturing excellence during the period which was attained during the previous age. In the Brihat-Samhita there is mention of twenty-two jewels which were in abundant use, such as sapphire, ruby, emerald, pearl, coral, beryl, amethyst, moon-stone, topaz, azure, opal, conch- shell.
Diamond was also in great use at that time. These jewels were also exported to foreign countries. Varahamihira mentions varieties of diamond and seven sources from which these are obtained. All these sources are Indian. Some of these place names from which diamond thus available have also been mentioned by Ptolemy; pearls, and jewels were extensively used in making ornaments.
Trade: Inland and Maritime:
From the 4th century B.C. Indian Trade and maritime activities had been highly developed. Alexander’s invasion (327-325 B.C.) resulted in close contact with the Hellenic world. Embassies were sent to the Maurya court by the Greek rulers of Syria and Egypt. Asoka had sent missionaries to five Greek Kingdoms.
These relations with the Hellenic world encouraged Trade relation between India and these countries. In fact, a good part of the State revenue was derived from the traders. Sulka, i.e., tax on merchandise constituted an important source of royal revenue. There was a large number of foreigners living in the metropolis during the Maurya period, many of them were traders.
In the first century B.C. there was a close contact between India and Rome. During the early centuries of the Christian era India had commercial intercourse with China, Hellenic world, Ceylon and South-East Asian countries. These are recorded in Milindapanha and Nagarjunikonda inscriptions.
Indian traders and merchants carried the products of various industries from one end of India to the other in bullock carts. At times hundreds of bullock carts formed into caravans and traversed the country from one end to the other. The roads being infested with robbers, the traders would engage on payment protection force for security. Commodities would also be carried to ports and harbours for export to foreign countries.
From the old Pali texts we come to know of several main trade routes. Growth of industry is dependent on facilities of cargo movement. In ancient India, therefore, there was particular recognition of this important pre-condition to growth of trade and commerce.
Some of the more important trade routes were, one that ran from Sravasti to Rajagriha with twelve halts including those at Vaisali and Pataliputra with a single crossing of the Ganges at Patna, another route linked Sravasti to Paithan with six halts and numerous crossing of rivers and one route led towards Sind and to Sauvira.
Caravans are known to have moved overland towards east and west as well as across the deserts requiring many days to cross the Rajputana desert only by the coolness of night. The old Grand Trunk road passed from Rajagriha through Banaras, Saketa, Sravasti, Taxila and the frontiers connecting India with Central and western Asia.
By the time of Chandragupta Maurya a Royal road linked up Pushkaravati in the north-west frontier with Pataliputra, the Maurya capital. According to Megasthenes the length of the road was 10,000 stades, i.e., 1156 miles.
Periplus gives us precise indications of the trade routes during the first century A.D. Two Trade-routes one from the terminus of the Maurya Royal Road to Minnagara, capital of Indo-Scythia and its capital Barbaricum; another joined Kashmir, Hindukush and Kabul countries with Brygaza. Ujjaini was also linked up with this port. To this famous port Barygaza routes from the Deccan marts of Tagara in Hyderabad and Pratisthana, that is, Paithan, were linked up.
Transports used for the purpose of trade were litter, horse carriage, bullock-carts, camels, and asses.
Simultaneously with the overland Trade coastal trade from eastern and western coasts was carried on. From Chola port, we are told by Periplus country boats sailed upto Malabar while large vessels sailed upto the mouth of the Ganges. A complete list of the names of the chief marts can be had from the Periplus and Geography of Ptolemy. Some of the more important ones were Barygaza, Supara, Muziris, Nelcynda, Poduca, Soptma, Tamralipti, Paloura, etc. Milindapanha also refers to Barygaza, Kaveripattanam, Vanga, i.e., Tamralipti, Barbaricum, etc.
Policy of friendship begun between India and the Hellenic world from the time of Chandragupta and followed during his successors created most favourable condition for the expansion of Indian trade with the West. Trade route between India and the Hellenic World was conducted both by land and sea. The most important land- route led from Taxila via Kapisa, Bactria, Hekatompylos and Ecbatana, another land-route connected the lower Indus Valley via Seistan and Carmania to the same terminus.
The Sea route was through West Indian ports through the Persian Gulf and Ports of South Arabia. The Indian exports to Egypt were ivory, tortoise-shell, pearls, unguents, dyes, indigo, iron, wood, etc. During early Saka-Pahlava era, the Greek mariners making use of their discovery of monsoons undertook direct voyages successively to the Indus delta and Gujarat coast and the Malabar ports. In the last quarter of the first century A.D. the Western merchants sailing from the Egyptian Coasts would reach Indian port Muziris, i.e., Cranganore in the South in forty days.
Indian trade with Rome reached its peak during the rule of Emperor Augustus (29 B.C.). Isidore of Chararx in his Parthian Stations gives a detailed itinerary of the caravan route from Antioch in the West to the valley of the river Helmund on Indian border. Roman maritime trade with India in the early Christian era was com ducted in large ships from the Egyptian Coasts.
Tamil works also refer to Yavana merchants’ colony in the coastal cities. Recent excavations at Arikamedu near Pondichery have brought to light the remains of a Roman trading station there. Fragments of Roman pottery and hoards of Roman imperial coins have been found on other sites in South India. The Arab merchants also carried on trade with the Indian ports in their own ships.
From the literary evidences we come to know that the export to foreign countries, particularly Rome, comprised agricultural products like rice, wheat, sesame-oil and sugar, forest products like teak, sandal-wood, black-wood, ebony, etc.; animals like lions, apes, tigers, monkeys, birds, specially parrots, ivory, shell of hawk-bill turtles, etc. Long-pepper, black-pepper, cinnamon-leaf, various other spices were exported to Rome.
Fine quality cotton textiles as also coarser varieties were exported to Arabia, East Africa, and Egypt. Indian iron and steel were exported to Somali coasts and Alexandria.
Such was the hugeness of the quantity of gold that Rome had to pay to India for the Indian merchandise that Emperor Tiberius in 22 A.D. wrote to the Roman Senate complaining that the country was being drained of its treasures for baubles. Pliny complained a little latter of the huge amount of gold paid to India annually for Indian products which were sold at one hundred times more than their original costs. Such was the abundance of the influx of the Roman gold coin in India that the Kushana emperors rest-ruck the Roman coins in their names.
Indian commercial relations with Ceylon and countries of South- East Asia, particularly Suvarna dvipa, go back to centuries before the Christian era. In the second century A.D. a regular sea route was in operation from the eastern India Sea Border. Another route linked up upper Ganges regions with Suvarna bhumi or Suvarnadvipa. Through Commerce Indian Kingdoms had begun to be set up in Malayan Peninsula, Cambodia, and Champa from the first century AD. The friendly relations between these colonies and the mother country led to increased commercial intercourse between them.
As early as the second century B.C. India had trade relations with South-West China through overland route by way of upper Burma and Yunnan. About 128 B.C. Chinese ambassador Chang-Kien while visiting Bactria was surprised at Indian textiles and bamboos in the market there. In the first century A.D. the Chinese historian writing about the Chinese traders travelling in foreign ships for buying pearls, beryl, rare stones, etc. visited India as also other countries and made purchases in exchange for gold and Chinese Silk.
In the same century there was a regular trade by overland route between India and China. Chinese raw silk, silk yarn, silk cloth, etc., were the main merchandise that came from China. In the second half of the first century A.D. sea route to China was in use and from the second century onwards we have evidences pointing to the use of sea route to Tonkin by the Indians.
The peace and order established all over the empire under the strong arm of the Gupta rulers led to expansion of inland trade and commerce. Coinage of gold and silver issued in extensive number by the Gupta emperors helped the growth of trade. Merchants and traders of the Gupta Age conducted trade both by overland and sea routes.
Amarakosa makes references to markets, shops as well as to merchants travelling by boats. In the Gupta site at Bhita rows of shops along the high street and side street have been discovered. From the records of this period it is learnt that import and export trade was conducted through sea ports. Cosmos writing in the early sixth century A.D. mentions a number of important trading stations of which are Sindhu, Orrhotha, Sibor, Calliana, and five marts on the Malabar coasts.
The names of the ports have not all been identified. Among the most flourishing among the ports of the time was Tramralipti. Even during the time of the visit by Hiuen T-Sang and I-tsang, Tamralipti, because of its happy geographical situation, became the emporium of vast trade of Eastern India and the port where voyagers from China, Indonesia, and Ceylon came for trading with Eastern India and left for home.
Most significant development in the economic history of Eastern and Southern Asia during the third decade of the sixth century A.D. was the inter-oceanic trade reaching from China through Indonesia and the east coast of India upto Ceylon and extending thence along the west Indian coast to Persia and the Homevite country (in Arabia) and Adula (the port of Assum, the capital of Ethiopian Kingdom).
According to Cosmos also merchandise from China, Indonesia and South India was carried to Ceylon and thence to western lands. We are also told that merchant ships from India, Persia, and Ethiopia often visited Ceylon. During the Gupta Age also several overland routes connected India with China.
Both Fa-hien and Hiuen-T-Sang testify to the great north-western route running by way of Central Asia and Bactria to the passes of Suleiman range, thence to the interior of India. A more difficult route ran across the Karakoram Range and Kashmir and connected India with China. A third route led from Tonkin through Kamrupa across Pundravardhana to Magadha.
India’s principal articles of trade were agricultural products, forest produce, gems and pearls, diamonds, etc., textiles and metals. Among agricultural products long pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, Cardamom, and other spices occupied the first place. Among the forest products were sandal-wood and images of Buddha carved out of sandal-wood, medicinal plants, etc. Pearls, corals, diamonds, silk and ivory were also important articles of export.
A variety of cotton brocades and cotton fabrics were exported to China. This is stated by Cosmos. Indian iron was an important item of export. Among the imports were Chinese silk, horses from Arabia and Persia, ivory from Ethiopia, Copper from the mlechcha countries, that is, countries of the Western Mediterranean, sapphire from Ceylon, etc.
Organisation of Trade and Industry:
Trade and industry during the Maurya-Scythian period had developed organisations of their own among persons of the same trade or industry, which compared favourably with the guilds of the Medieval Europe. The Indian guilds were called Srenis. Organisation of industrial guilds can be traced back to the period of the early Buddhist literature.
The Jatakas refer to eighteen Srenis. In the Arthasastra we come across references to types of industrial organisations and other associations called samgha and Sreni. In both Manu and Yajnavalka the rules and customs of the Srenis and other associations were put on the same level with those of regional caste and family customs.
Almost every industry had its guild which laid down rules and regulations for the guidance and conduct of its members in order to safeguard their interests. The law of the land recognised these rules and regulations. The guild had its constitution with a President or a Headman and an Executive Council. The executive officers at the head of the guilds were called Jethakas.
The guilds acquired in course of time great prestige and power and the heads of the guilds were members of the Court. Sometimes guilds were found to maintain trained armies which were used during fights between different guilds. The king could, in times of need, requisition the services of the armies of the guilds.
Epigraphic evidences of the first two centuries of the Christian era show that one of the important functions of the guilds was to act as the trustees of various pious and charitable endowments. Cash or property was deposited by pious donors in perpetuity with the guilds in return for interests on the deposits. Many donors to the guilds were foreigners.
People also deposited money with the guilds on condition that the interest accruing to the deposits should be spent for some specified purposes. Sometimes guilds became centres of learning and culture.
Guilds were both industrial and commercial. The industrial type of guilds were those of weavers, potters, makers of hydraulic engines, oil-makers, brazers, bamboo workers, etc. The business guilds were organised on the principles of joint-stock companies. There were Traders’ League, Union of Traders, Traders’ Corner, Traders’ Trust were also prevalent in those days. The Traders’ guilds were sometimes of the nature of Trusts. Smriti works mention business by partnership.
From the facts referred to above it is proved beyond doubt that a keen business instinct characterised the society and trade, commerce and industry, and commerce flourished in ancient India to a very high degree.
During the Gupta Age the guilds and partnerships were developed in a much greater extent. In the later Smriti works there were laws which dealt with the violation of agreements which related to groups, i.e., Sreni, Puga, and Naigama.
Srenis were guilds of artisans and traders referred to in the preceding age, which continued during the Gupta Age with greater efficiency. Puga has been defined variously by different authors. According to Katyayana these were groups of merchants, etc. Naigama, according to the same author, were groups of inhabitants of the same town. But in Amarakosa the term applied to merchants.
During the Gupta period, the trend was to enhance the status and position of the guilds. According to the late Smritis the guilds and other associations were to be headed by high executive Officers called Adhyakshas who were assisted by two to five persons called advisers. The adhyakshas had the power to punish wrongdoers by reprimand, censure or being excommunicated.
The judgements passed by the high executive officers, that is, the adhyakshas in discharge of their duties were respected by the king. The guilds had to follow the opinion of the advisers. The king had the right to intervene and settle disputes between the chief executive officers and the groups.
The guilds entered into compacts in order to preserve their rules, customs, and usages intact. These compacts or conventions were enforced by the king wherever necessary. The rules or conditions of the convention or compact had to be obeyed by the individual members and where these were in conflict with the order of the king, the king’s order was to be obeyed. Extreme punishment for disobedience was excommunication or banishment of the offending member.
The members of the guild had certain specific rights and duties. They were not to carry arms, nor enter into mutual conflict. One who would injure common interest or insult those who were learned in the Vedas was to be banished. One who would commit heinous: crime or cause a split in the guild or destroy property of groups was to be brought before the king and destroyed. All members were to have equal share in gains as well as in debts.
From the clay seals discovered at Basrah and Bhita of the Gupta times it is believed that industrial and trading guilds or groups entered into conventions or compacts with individuals, obviously for industrial or trading benefits.
From the Indore copper plate inscription of Emperor Skandagupta we come to know of the perpetual endowment of a sum of money by a Brahmana to the local guild of oilman for daily supply of fixed quantity of oil to a Sun temple. The guilds thus performed the functions of bankers. There are instances where kings and princes made endowments to the guilds for regular performance of acts of charity or piety.
Partnership as a business organisation is treated in the later Smritis on the lines of the older Smritis. It is mentioned that the income of each member should be in proportion to his share, or according to the agreement. The proportion of profit sharing has been mentioned by Katyayana and Brihaspati in the following order: apprentice, advanced learner, expert and teacher as 1: 2: 3: 4.
A document issued by a partner with the approval of other partners shall be binding upon all of them. Conversely a partner putting the organisation to loss due to his action without consent of others must make good the loss. An unscrupulous partner should be expelled. Such were the organisational discipline and rules of business organisation of that period.
Labour and Wage:
From sources—epigraphic, literary and classical as also the accounts of the foreign travelers—we can easily understand that the economic development from the Nanda-Maurya period down to the Gupta Age and even seventh century A.D. there was a clear realisation in India that wealth of the country was related to the exploitation of natural resources and the utilisation of skilled and unskilled man-power.
It goes without saying that the problem of labour is directly related to production and wages to profit. Compared to profits derived during the period under review wages were low. This was natural in a generally capitalist system of production.
Hired labour was used for agriculture, animal husbandry, industry and trade as also for domestic services. Hired labour was divided into three grades: (i) the soldiers, (ii) cultivators, (iii) porters, and domestic servants. Employment of labourers might be on daily basis, or fortnightly, three or six monthly or annual basis. Wages were paid either in cash or in kind.
Use of forced labour belonged, as in the previous age, almost exclusively to the State. Slaves were mostly employed by the public as personal attendants.
Labour laws were laid down in the later Smritis following the lines of Manu and Yajnavalkya. Hired labourers guilty of treachery in the performance of the work of his master forfeited his wages and was liable to be sued in the court of law. Labourers who received wages but failed to do his work was forced to pay double the amount of the wages received as fine to the king and refund the wages to the master.
Failure to complete the work for which an agreement or a contract was entered into was punished with a heavy fine. On the other hand, the master who failed to pay wages to the labourers on completion of the work was forced to pay the same by the king and pay a fine. According to Katyayana a servant was not liable for the loss due to theft, fire or flood.
A master who would abandon his sick servant was liable to a fine. Workmen who would be required to work overtime were paid extra wages. A workman engaged as herdsman who would let animals of his master to be lost, killed or maimed was liable to pay a heavy fine.
If the animals in his charge would cause loss to the field of others he would be liable to a fine. Similarly a washer-man was not to use, hire or pledge his employer’s clothes. The weavers and metal workers were required to conform to standard and not to decrease the materials in the process of manufacture.
Another important factor concerning labour was its mobility. There are references to the movement of artisans and skilled labourers from one region to another for better prospect or for avoiding slump at home. Further skilled labourers were also invited from one area to another. For instance, the sculptors from Mathura were invited to Sravasti and Saranath for carving stone images.
In the Gupta period the silk weavers who had formed into a guild migrated from Gujarata to Mandasor. Merchants also migrated from one region to another for better opportunities. The Pratihara inscription from Gwalior mentions emigration of Nagabhatta of the Vanik-var- khata caste from Anandapura.
Medium of Exchange: Currency and Banking:
In the pre-Maurya era India had silver and copper coins as medium of exchange. Gold rishka although in use as a medium of exchange did not possess all the characteristics of proper coinage in the early period. In Manu we have reference to silver coin of 32 ratis, i.e., 58.56 grams, called purana or dharana. Copper coin of 82 ratis, i.e., 146.4 grams was known as Karshapana.
In South India the name Karshapana was used for gold and silver coins also. The Buddhist texts use Kahapana for a coin. There are references to varieties of coin in the Buddhist texts. There are nikkha and Suvarna of gold, bronze and copper coins are mentioned as Kamsa,Pada, Masaka and Kakanika. 5 masakas were equivalent to 1 pada.
The most noteworthy feature of the economic development of the Maurya-Scythian period was the use of coins as common currency. The old barter system was gradually replaced by exchange in precious metals. From Herodotus we know that India paid 360 talents, of gold dust or ingots to the Persian emperor as annual tribute in the 6th century B.C.
This was soon followed by use of metal of regular shape, weight, and fineness guaranteed by competent authority. This marked the beginning of a common currency system. The coins were issued by the rulers only. Figures on the coins were marked by a punch, hence came to be generally known as punch-marked coins. There were, however, no names or legends on such coins.
It is with the coming of the Bactrian Greeks that names and portraits of the rulers issuing the coins began to be put on the coins, generally the image of the king on the obverse and of a deity on the reverse and were executed with great artistic skill. Needless to mention that the Indian currency system was largely influenced by the foreigners who ruled over parts of India.
The huge influx of Roman and Chinese gold into India as well as from Suvarnabhumi was an important factor in the development of Indian currency. The Graeco-Bactrian coins, the Roman coins influenced the system of coinage of the Sakas, Pahlavas, and the Kushanas and through them the coinage of later Indian rulers.
The Indian rulers not only copied the form, character, weight, and fineness of the foreign coins, particularly the Roman, but even used foreign names like dinara (denarius) and dramma (drachma). Circular coins bearing superscription of the ruler in whose name these were issued were the result of the influence of the West, though this system did not take root except in the case of the Gupta coinage.
Thus we may conclude that punch-marked coins served as Indian currency till the end of the Maurya period and later gradually under foreign influence Indian currency began to use coins of regular form, weight, and fineness with names of the rulers issuing them. It is very much likely that smaller transactions were carried on with cowries all throughout the period under review and continued down to the 18th century A.D.
Banking as an institution in the modern sense is not mentioned anywhere in our sources of information. But the basic principle of banking which is trust was fully realised during the Nanda-Maurya period down to the Gupta Age and beyond. The existence of credit and banking facilities as a part of the economic life in Ancient India is proved by literary and epigraphic evidences. We have numerous references to the functioning of guilds in the capacity of banks by accepting deposits of money and other endowments for performing specific duties in return or payment of interest.
Inscriptions of Saka Ushavadatta mention two weavers’ guilds in Nasik accepting permanent deposits on condition of payment of interest of 1 per cent and 75 per cent per month. From a Brahmi inscription of Mathura of the second century A.D. during the time of Huviska, we know that a foreigner from Badakshan in Central Asia deposited 500 Puranas each in two guilds for daily feeding the Brahmanas and distributing some stuff to the poor in lieu of interest.
From records belonging to period preceding the Gupta Age, we come to know of endowments made by princes and private individuals to guilds to perform certain acts of charity or piety as specified by the donors. There are also instances where kings put their fortunes into the guilds for these were considered safer than ever the royal treasury.
During the Gupta Age we have instances of the Emperors making perpetual endowments to guilds for the performance of some specific duty. For instance, from the Indore copper plate inscription we come to know of a certain Brahmana making an endowment to a local guild of oilmen to supply a fixed quantity of oil for a Sun temple.
The guild invested the endowment for earning profits for meeting the expenses of the supply of oil to the temple and certainly to some extent for its own profit. The guilds were rendering the services of bankers from the early times till the tenth century A.D.
Functions of the Bankers were also done by individual creditors who loaned out money on interest. This was in the nature of Mahajani System. Manu and Yajnavalkya were followed by later Smriti writers like Nada, Brihaspati, Katyanana, etc., in laying down the rules of interest. There were different rates of interests for secure and insecure loans. The rates of interest mentioned by different Smritis were different.
Interest at the rate of Rs. 1.25 per month mentioned both by Nanda and Yajnavalkya is definitely very high. If the loan was not repaid on demand the interest might be raised to 5 per cent. But it was also laid down that accumulated interest could not be more than the principal. As money lending helped people to better their economic prospects through profitable investments, the profession of money lending was accepted in the economic life of Ancient India.
State Control Over Trade and Industry:
In the Arthasastra, we have references to the traditional State policy in relation to trade and industry. Active encouragement of trade and industry was contemplated as a duty of the State by Kautilya. With regard to trade, the king was enjoined, to secure trade routes from obstruction by officers, frontier guards, as well as by thieves, robbers, and animals.
The king was also to cause construction of trade-routes and foundation of market-towns. The Arthasastra also describes the measures a king had to take for saving the people against the merchants and artisans. Kautilya characterizes merchants, artisans, and some other specified classes as thieves in fact, though not in name.
The rules detailed in the Arthasastra for dealing with cases of short weight and measure as well as various other ways that merchants and artisans might injure the interests of the people clearly point to the strict paternal care of the State for the people. Similar measures are prescribed for the security of the people against the trading classes.
It is mentioned in the Arthasastra that only old wares of proved ownership should be sold and mortgaged under the supervision of the market Superintendent. While a graduated scale of fines was laid down for the traders that gave short weights or measures, a fixed profit of 5 per cent for home grown commodities and 10 per cent on foreign goods was permissible.
During the Maurya period the State Policy as recommended in the Arthasastra in relation to trade and industry was followed. Construction of roads was put under the charge of a class of officers called Agronomoi by Megasthenes. Again in the cities the City Commissioners were divided into six boards, the fourth Board was in charge of sales and barter. There was also the Superintendent of weights and measures.
Goods were not to be sold where these were produced, but in appointed markets where the dealers had to register the quality and price of the goods. The Superintendent of Commerce fixed the wholesale prices. Traders had to get licence for their Trade. Foreigners had to take out a passport in addition to his professional licence.
As in trade, so in industry the State control during the Nanda-Maurya period was quite extensive. The State provided for the security of industrial classes. Injury to artisans or damage to agricultural implements were punished by the State.
The State had monopoly of industries which were costly, risky or required pioneering enterprise. Mines were a nationalised industry. There were gold, silver, diamond, precious stones, copper, lead, tin, iron, and bitumen mines which were worked by the State. The State also explored the ocean in search for pearls, mother-of-pearl, conch-shell and coral. Oilfields yielding mercury and other minerals were worked by the State.
Manufacture of salt was also a Government monopoly and it was done through farming out salt-beds to lessees. A special officer looked after the Government business in pearls, conch-shells, corals, diamonds, and precious stones. Another special officer was in charge of gold and silver. State had also monopoly of manufacture of wines, liquors and their sale. Arms and armaments, building of boats and ships were State monopoly. Minting of coins was done by the State.
The Government also had its own cotton, oil, sugar, dairy and agricultural industries besides private enterprises in these. There were State spinning and weaving houses, State warehouses.
In the post-Maurya and the Gupta periods although the traditional economic activities continued yet we have no information as to systematic State control of industries and trade by the State. Manufacture of arms and armaments, minting of coins, construction of roads, collection of ferry-charges, tolls and customs were, however, there as no Government could leave these in private hands.
Problem of the Origin of Feudalism in Socio-Economic Set-up:
In recent years there has been a tendency among some scholars to identify the origin of feudalism in the later Gupta period. Romila Thapar refers to an inscription of the later Gupta period in which the Gupta monarch had Surashmichandra as his feudatory who in return had Mantrivishnu as his sub-feudatory. This hierarchy is frequently described in the inscriptions of the later Chalukyas.
Basing her argument on this, she remarks that it is one of earliest evidences of the beginning of feudal hierarchy. Thapar also argues that although there was difference between the Indian System of land tenure and European feudalism, the difference is not so significant as to preclude the term feudalism for conditions prevailing in India during the period (800-1200 A.D.).
But before attempting to trace the origin of feudalism in India from the later Gupta period, it is necessary to discuss at some length what the term feudalism denoted in Western Europe from which the term had originated. Further, it has to be determined if the Indian feudatories like Samanta, Mahasamanta were the Indian version of their European counterpart.
There is no doubt that central principle of feudalism as it originated in the West was land tenure on condition of military service. But it was also a social and economic system which grew up from various sources under the pressure of the barbarian invasion. In the West feudalism grew from the bottom and reached the apex and gave it a pyramidal shape.
The king was last to be feudalized. Later the theory developed that the king was the owner of all lands. The tenants-in-chief who were his immediate under-lords had to hold their tenure in return for military service, paying homage to the king, making payments to him on certain specified occasions, such as marriage of the king’s son or daughter, pay an inheritance fee and ward-ship when the tenant-in-chief would die leaving a minor son to succeed him.
The economic aspect of feudalism was manorial system. The tenant- in-chief would have his manor within which he was the supreme lord. He allowed the serfs to cultivate strips of lands allotted to each of them in return for certain duties and he had his own acreage which he got cultivated by employing labourers whose work was supervised by the lord’s officers.
The lords, i.e., the tenants-in-chief appointed sub-tenants by following the system of sub-infeudation on same terms and condition as they received land from the king. The sub-tenants let out their acres to serfs who were tied to the soil.
Thus feudalism as we understand the term in the European context had the following main features;
(i) it arose as a defensive measure against the invasions of the barbarians,
(ii) it began from the bottom and at the ultimate stage reached the apex, i.e., the king,
(iii) it was a land tenure based on military service,
(iv) its economic aspect was Manorial System,
(v) it entailed certain specific payments on certain occasions,
(vi) Oath of fealty bound the tenant-in-chief with the king, the sub-tenants with the tenant-in-chief his overlord,
(vii) in it, the lowest stratum was composed of the serfs who were a sort of landed slaves.
But landlordism in ancient and medieval India does not bear any material resemblance with the Western feudalism and should not be confused with it. In India feudatory States formed out of conquered kingdoms of princes and local chiefs were not feudal estates. The feudatory States were in the nature of tributaries and not feudalised States. Further here is no trace of sub-infeudation by the tributary States on any contractual basis.
The apparent structure may be found to resemble the feudal structure such as the king, feudatories and smaller estate holders but the Indian system did not contain the essence of the Western feudalism. For there was no question of any formal oath of fealty to be taken by the feudatories, simply acceptance of suzerainty of the overlord would be enough. But this was not necessary in the case of sub-lords or estate holders. They were not required to accept any formal suzerainty of the overlord.
The Indian landlordism which has been likened by some scholars with Western feudalism was neither born as a measure of safety, nor was it based on any specific military service which was the essence of feudalism of the West. The under-lords of the feudatories likewise were not bound by any bond of military service.
The military help requisitioned from time to time by the king from the feudatories was by virtue of the authority of the suzerain over his tributaries. The Indian cultivators were not the villeins, nor were they tied to the soil. There were slaves and free labourers who could be employed by the small land-owing cultivators to assist them in agricultural work.
According to Dr. D. C. Sircar “In India the king was never the actual owner of the land under permanent tenants”. This virtually takes away the very basis of the feudal character from the Indian landlordism. The remark of R. Thapar that “The basic requisites of a feudal system were present in India” is not borne out by available evidences except in the Amara tenure in the Vijaynagar Kingdom.
According to Thapar the relationship of the feudatories to the king was subordinate and the feudatories conquered.
Problem of the Origin of Feudalistic Elements in India:
In recent years there have been attempts by scholars to find out origins of feudalism in the Indian political, social, and economic set up of Ancient India.
Feudalism, as we understand in the European context, had its origin in the fifth century A.D. and continued till the middle of the 15th century when rise of strong national monarchy in different European countries proved the end of feudalism. Of course some remnants and annoyances of feudalism still continued to exist for quite some time in some of the countries.
The origin of the feudalism in Europe lay in the need of self-defence among the people who had lands of their own, when in the fifth century the imperial rule at Rome became powerless to render protection to different parts and localities in the face of barbarian invasion. As the system was essentially a measure of self-defence military service constituted the very central principle of feudalism.
Lesser landlords sought protection from the bigger landlords who had more power and means to protect the locality against barbarian attacks. This voluntary surrender to the bigger lords meant surrender of the landed proprieties by the lesser lords on condition of retaining possession of the same but getting the bigger lord’s protection in times of danger and rendering military service to the bigger lord for a specific number of days, usually forty days in a year.
The lesser lord had to be bound to the bigger lord by an oath of fealty. He had also to make certain payments such as payment at the time of lord’s daughter or son’s marriage, an inheritance fee when his son would succeed on his death and ward-ship if the son was a minor. The system when became fully developed by the process of (he big lords appointing high born persons who had entirely frittered away their patrimony or became landless for other reason, as sub-lords.
In this way there were a double process through which Western feudalism became fully developed. Ultimately the king who was, in theory, the owner of all land of his dominions, became feudalised by recognising the big lords as his tenants-in-chief on similar condition on which the lesser lords had accepted the bigger lords as their suzerain. Ecclesiastics with vast landed property were no exception.
They also became tenants-in-chief and appointed sub-tenants by following the system of sub-infeudation. The tenants-in-chief had to render military service to the king on specific number of occasions (40 days a year), do him homage, pay fees and charges as did the lesser-lords to their suzerains.
Besides, the tenants-in-chief had to pay for ransoming the king if he would be taken prisoner in war. Below the tenants-in-chief came the lesser lords who came to be known as subtenants who rendered similar services, as already referred to above. The economic aspect of feudalism was Manorial System where the lords, tenants; or sub-tenants would parcel out their acres into strips and distributed them among the serfs who were landed slaves tied to the soil.
The lord had a portion of the land usually one-third under his direct possession which he got cultivated by the serfs under supervision of his own officers. He ran the flour mill, wine-press, oil mill, etc., the products of which were sold to the serfs. The life of the serfs was miserable, all work and suffering. Socially, the possession of land was the determinant of status and prestige. The life of the lords was one of luxury and abandon. This was in short, what Feudalism meant in Europe.
If we take the term feudalism in the sense it carried in European history during the middle Ages, we will perhaps make an initial mistake. It will be better if it is borne in mind that the Indian feudalism although structurally resembled European feudalism it vastly differed from in many aspects from other types of feudalism, European or others.
Prof. R. S. Sarma is of the opinion that tendenices towards feudalization of the administrative and political mechanism of India may be traced to post-Maurya and the Gupta periods. He also points out that traces of this system were also to be found in the Dharma-sastras and the epics.
Romila Thapar while pointing out that although Indian feudalism differed from other types of feudalism and that the Indian feudalism did not emphasize the aspects as did the European feudalism, yet the difference is not so significant as to preclude the use of the terms feudalism for conditions prevailing in India during this period (800-1200 A.D.) According to Thapar, basic requisites of feudalism existed in India.
Thapar’s main arguments are:
(i) Feudatories who had been conquered in war were allowed little scope for independent action although some of the feudatories were permitted to sub-infeudate their territories without obtaining permission from the king. Thus a feudal hierarchy grew up. A certain Gupta king had Surashmichandra as his feudatory who appointed Matrivishnu as his sub-jugator. Such hierarchy is met, Thapar points out, in the inscriptions of latter Chalukyas.
(ii) That the feudatories besides payment of their dues had to maintain a specified number of troops for the king, and had other obligations like attendance at king’s court on certain occasions.
(iii) That the Sudras carried out work of cultivation and they in effect were almost tied to the soil.
It may be pointed out that R. Thapar’s arguments are least a labourious attempt to almost equate Indian landlordism with feudalism as we understand the term in European context. Dr. D. C. Sircar rightly remarks that “landlordism of ancient and medieval India…. should not be confused with feudalism”. He points out that in India the king was never the owner of the land under permanent tenancy, but in feudalism the basic principle is king’s ownership of all lands in his kingdom.
Thapar’s argument that the feudatories were left without much independence of action is not borne out by facts of history. Samudragupta’s feudatories in South India were allowed to retain their autonomy only, accepting his suzerainty and payment of tributes, obedience to him and attending his court on certain special occasion.
The solitary instance of Surashmichandra does not explain the general character of landlordism in Gupta India. From numerous charters discovered all over India it is proved that grants of land were made to Brahmanas and temples without stipulating any obligation whatsoever. Obviously the priestly class was unsuitable for military obligation.
But even where military obligation was a condition of the land grant, the system was extremely limited. This again could be seen in South India in the late medieval time. Except the Amara tenure of the late medieval period of the history of South India there is absolutely no mention of obligations having resemblance with these of feudal type even in such records.
As to Thapar’s next argument that the feudatories had to maintain a special number of troops for service of the king is equally unrelated to facts. It is true that early Indian rulers sometimes granted Jagirs for the maintenance of their officers but the latter were not under any feudal obligations.
Further, we know from Arthasastra that the rate of the salary of the infantry was 500 panas a year. We also know that the Gupta emperors had regular army under their pay. This is borne out by the existence of the office of the treasurer of the War Department (Ranabhandagaradhikarana) mentioned in the clay seal, discovered at the site of ancient Vaisali by Theodore Block.
Both in the central and provincial governments under the Guptas the military finance was separate from the civil finance. It may as well be mentioned that the huge influx of bullion into India through foreign trade did not require payment of the officers and the soldiers by land grants, there was abundant supply of coins in the country during that period.
Thapar’s third argument that the Sudras Carried out the work of cultivation and were more or less tied to the soil is also not factually correct. To be tied to the soil would presuppose the System of villeinage which was the most inhuman aspect of Western feudalism.
In the Maurya-Scythian period we find that agricultural work was carried out by :
(i) landless agricultural labourers (Vishti) who worked as domestic servants on the basis of free food and a little wage,
(ii) ordinary labourers (Karmakaras) who worked for wage,
(iii) the slaves,
(iv) the agriculturists proper or peasant proprietors.
R. K. Mookerjee states that the arable land of the village that is the Gram Kshetra was distributed among individual holdings usually small enough to be cultivated by their owners, and with the help of hired labourers if necessary.
The idea prevalent at that time was that peasants leaving at home their empty barns and toiling as hirelings on the estate of royal capitalists was a symptom of social decadence. Obviously, the peasants could leave their land at their choice which the villeins could not. There has been no reference to the cultivators tied to the soil in any epigraphic or literary records.
On the contrary in Manu Smriti it is mentioned that “Land made fit for cultivation is to be settled on rent with its cultivator for life”. Megasthenes who in his Indica dealt with the husbandmen in details does not refer to their being bound to the soil. On the contrary he found them to be so important to the natural life that even in times of war they were not in any way disturbed.
In the Gupta period also we have no reference to the Sudras being tied to the soil. On the contrary there are numerous instances of Brahmanas and Kshatriyas adopting the occupations of the classes below them and the Sudras and Vaisyas following those of the classes above them. The Smritis mention cultivation of land and rearing of animals among the traditional occupations of the Vaisyas.
Lastly, the accounts of the Greeks and the Chinese as well as indigenous evidences show that the general condition of the people, the vast majority of whom lived a life of contentment. These are not facts which permit equating the Indian cultivators with the serfs of the Western Europe.
It may, however, be mentioned that Amara tenure of the late Medieval South India was a near approach to feudalism. Under this tenure the landlords under the Vijaynagar emperors were responsible for the supply of foot-soldiers, horses and elephants to the king in times of need for the enjoyment of the estates held under Amara tenure. The Amara-nayakas, as the feudatories were called, followed the process of sub-infudation and gave their hand in smaller estates to subordinate holders.
The occasional land grants made by the rulers during the early history of India to their feudatories called Mahasamanta, Mahamandalesvara and lesser feudatories called Samanta, Raja, Ranaka, etc., did not by themselves account for the origin of feudalism. These were tendencies which may be called feudal in nature.
In late medieval history of India, however, there were tenures which assumed more or less feudal character and reached its culmination in their own way during the Mughal period. In the period under review it is difficult to trace the obligations of feudatories for neither in the Smritis nor in any other source there has been any reference to these. But in the contemporary literature, Prof. R. S. Sarma points out; some trends are noticeable in this regard.