In this article we will discuss about the contribution of trade to the Indian economy and society during the reign of Maurya and Gupta rulers.  

India enjoyed immense prosperity during the period between 187 B.C. and 300 A.D. Agriculture and trade, both internal and foreign, flourished. The foreign trade was facilitated due to the infiltration of the Greeks, the Sakas, the Parthians and the Kushanas in India who established their kingdoms in north-west, sometimes extending up to Central Asia, as was the case during the period of the rule of the emperor Kanishka.

Besides, while the trade of the North by sea-route was limited to the Western world and China, the South carried on favourable trade by sea-route not only with China and countries of the West but also with the countries of South-East Asia. It resulted in the growth of industries and handicrafts and increased prosperity and also in the rise of an organised and powerful mercantile community. This change in economy affected the social, artistic and religious attitudes of the society which ultimately were reflected in its literature, fine arts and changes in religion.

The entire Indian sub-continent was covered by different and well-connected trade routes. They tended to follow highways and river valleys. The Mauryas had constructed many roads which connected different parts of the country with each other. That helped in trade. Buddhist sources refer to the more frequented routes, the north to the south-east from Shravasti to Pratishthana, the north to south-east route from Shravasti to Rajagriha, and the east to west route which followed the river valleys of the North.


Besides, India was well connected by road routes with Central Asia and Western Asia and through them maintained trade relations with the Roman and Hellenic world. Overland trade with Western Asia and the Roman and Hellenic world went through the cities of the north via Grand Trunk Road from Pataliputra to Taxila in the north-west.

Patliputra was connected by road with Tamluk, the chief port for trade with Burma, the east coast of India and Ceylon. The land routes to the south followed the river valleys and the coast. Broach was still the main port for the western sea-coast.

Besides, there were many other ports both on the eastern and western sea coasts of India like Barbaricum on the Indus delta and Kaverippattinam in the south which served the purpose of trade with the western world and the countries of South-East Asia. Thus, foreign trade was carried on by India both by sea and land and had connections with many and far-distant countries of the world.

The chief articles of export from India were spices, perfumes, medicinal herbs, pigments, pearls, precious stones like diamond, sapphire, turquoise and lapis lazuli, iron, steel, copper, sandalwood, animal skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, muslin, indigo, ivory, porcelain and tortoise shell. The principal imports were cloth, linens, perfumes, glass vessels, silver, gold, tin, lead, pigments, precious stones and coral.


The hinterland of Ethiopia provided African ivory and gold and was also a market for Indian muslin. Towns on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf received Indian copper, sandalwood, teak and ebony and sent to India pearls, purple dye, textiles, wine, dates, gold and slaves.

But the most lucrative foreign trade which India had at that time was with the Roman empire which was firmly established by the 1st century B.C. India mostly exported luxury articles to Rome such as spices, jewels, textiles, particularly muslin and amusing animals (apes, peacocks, parrots, etc.) and, in return, imported mostly gold.

Rome had a good market for Indian cotton and silk-cloth which helped in the growth of these industries. The Milinda-Panha states that Gautami, one of the relatives of Mahatma Buddha used five different techniques to produce cloth. Patanjali stated that Mathura produced a special quality of cloth called the Sataka. Rome had also large demand of Indian white sea-pearls as well which were tagged not only on garments but on ladies-shoes as well.

The frequency of hoards of Roman coins found in the Deccan and South India which had larger share in this trade as compared to the North at that time indicate the volume of the trade. India imported good variety of silk from China. Again, it was because of the demand of silk-cloth by Rome. India developed brisk trade-relations with China mostly to procure silk from China to feed the demand of Rome.


The period also witnessed the extension of trade with South-East Asia caused, at first, again by the Roman demand for spices. Firstly, trade relations developed with Burma and Ceylon but, later on, Indian merchants reached as far as Malaya, Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, Borneo etc. Merchants from South India, Kalinga and Magadha mostly dominated this trade.

Increased trade helped in the growth of industries and handicrafts. In the main, industry was organized in areas where raw materials were readily found or where a tradition of a particular craft existed. This was specially so with the spinning and weaving of cotton and silk. Textiles of various kinds were locally produced in every region.

Magadha continued to supply large quantities of iron and copper mined in Rajasthan, the Deccan and the foothills of the Himalayas; the Himalayan slopes supplied musk, saffron and medicinal herbs; and South India provided spices, gold, precious stones and sandalwood. The growth of industries and trade helped in the growing prosperity of India. It also increased the number of artisans and craftsmen particularly in cities.

It has been referred in the Mahavastu that there were thirty-six categones of craftsmen in the city, Rajgraha. Another Buddhist text, the Milinda-Panha refers to seventy-five different professions. The progress of different crafts and professions led to their specialization which resulted in their technological advance giving them further impetus. But the most notable feature in Indian economy was the growing number of guilds and their influence on politics and society.

The guilds existed even during the period of the rule of the Mauryas and wielded good influence. During this period, the guilds became more important factors in urban life, both in organizing production and in shaping public opinion. Different groups of artisans and craftsmen organized their different guilds. Leading guilds were those of the potters, weavers, metal-workers and carpenters.

The guilds enjoyed wide powers and influence. These guilds acted as bankers, financiers and trustees. The guilds fixed rules of work and the quality and price of the finished products. The guilds also enjoyed wide powers concerning even private lives of their members. The guilds and the establishment of money economy helped in making banking a widespread profession.

The guilds issued their hundis which were honoured as cash-money. In certain cases, coins were also issued by the guilds which were accepted in the market. Coins issued by a guild have been found in Taxila. It is now accepted by scholars that coins were issued by the guilds at Kosambi, Tripuri, Vidisa, Mahismati and Varanasi as well. The guilds, thus, helped in further growth of trade, industries and money-economy.

One more thing helped in internal and external trade. Several rulers issued good coins of good metals during this period. Coins were the best medium of exchange at that time. Their improved quality, certainly, facilitated trade leading to its growth both internally and externally.

The growth of trade, particularly with foreign countries, affected Indian society. Firstly, it helped in the rise of a mercantile community which continued to grow from strength to strength. As the merchant community grew wealthy it asserted its power and influence in society. Of course, it avoided holding political power directly which was regarded the sole privilege of the Kshatriyas, yet its influence on society went on increasing.

Both Jainism and Buddhism which were supported by merchants saw their heyday during these centuries. Besides, contacts with the western world through trade, which was further facilitated by the settlement of foreigners on the Indian soil, affected Indian society in some respects. One of the enduring results of this contact was the fairly detailed reference to India in the works of several western scholars such as Strabo’s Geography, Arrians’s Indica, Pliny’s Natural History, Ptolemy’s Geography tic.

Another impact is visible in the evolution of Buddhism and its manifestation in art. Of course, no Indian scholar accepts the view that Christianity contributed in any way towards the philosophy of Mahayanism but the Gandhara school of art was certainly influenced by the Greco-Roman art of sculpture. The art of Amravati also positively reflected the attitude of a mercantile social economy and that of an urban bourgeois society.

The Vaisyas who mostly constituted the mercantile community and the Sudras who mostly organised themselves in guilds clamoured for better status in society. The Brahamanas certainly allowed them to improve their social status as they were conferring the status of fallen Kshatriyas’ to foreign immigrants so as to tempt them to accept Hinduism.

But, at the same time, the Dharmashastras (Law Books) of this period repeatedly emphasized the superiority of the Brahamanas as compared to other castes because a challenge was posed to them by the rising importance of the mercantile community or the Vaisyas, the creation of new subcastes and the liberal atmosphere of urban life. Another impact of flourishing trade was the construction of stupas, chaityas and viharas in large numbers. The rich mercantile community mostly helped Mahayana-sect of Buddhism.

The result was that the Buddhist monasteries were richly endowed, huge stupas were built and the Buddhist order became affluent and respected. Education also received impetus during this period. The guilds provided professional education to their members. Knowledge of mining, metallurgy, weaving, dying, carpentary etc. was improved by the relevant guilds.

The knowledge of geometry and astronomy also grew as it was necessitated due to deep-sea navigation. The science of medicine also developed because of the contact with the West. Buddhism, Jainism and Brahamanism underwent changes during this period. While Mahayanism developed into a separate and distinct sect of Buddhism and drew large converts both in India and outside, Jainism spread to Kalinga, Mysore and Tamil-land in the South and to Mathura, Ujjain and finally in Saurashtra towards the West. Brahamanism also underwent change.

The Vedic religion lost its popularity and its place was taken by Bhagvatism which reached its zenith during the period of the rule of the Guptas. Vedic religion was not rejected. It still provided the ceremonial content on different occasions. But the worship of Vishnu and his different incarnations and worship of Siva became more popular. It was not a direct result of foreign trade but an indirect one.

The threat posed by the growing popularity of Buddhism and Jainism with the support of the mercantile community necessitated change in it. Yet. another result of foreign trade was the introduction of Indian culture in South-East Asia because the contacts with these countries there began with trade.

The growth of trade and industry affected Indian society in yet another way. It led to the growth of many prosperous cities both in the North and the South which, in turn, helped in the growth of city-culture. Vaisali, Pataliputra, Varanasi, Kosambi, Sravasti, Hastinapur, Mathura, Indraprashta. Ropar, Ludhiana. Jalandhar, Ujjain, Meerut etc. were among many prosperous cities of north India. Similarly, Paithan, Amravati, Nagarjunakonda, Baroach, Sopra, Kaveripattam etc., were prosperous cities in south India. All of these cities remained prosperous during most of the period of the third century A D.

Thus, the trade, particularly foreign trade affected Indian economy and society in various ways. All changes in these fields, barring exceptions, which finally found their culmination during the rule of the Guptas, began during this period.