In this article we will discuss about the transport facilities and sources of money during the epic age in India.

Transport Facilities during the Epic Age:

Travelling in those days may not have been very risky for pilgrims and others. But there were chances of merchants being robbed, and as we have seen, the Mbh 12.88.11 and Manu 7.127 while calculating cost takes into account not only the transport charges (adhvanam) but cost of protection (yogaksema) as well.

This protection was afforded by caravans (sartha) under a leader (sartha-vaha). This was an organized trade as known from other sources. In the Mbh, a description of a caravan is found in the Nalopiakhyana of the Vana-parvan. After Nala had left Damayanti, the forlorn queen roamed hither and thither in search of her husband.

As Monier Williams has translated it:


‘Many a tree she stood and gazed on,

many a river passed she o’er:

Passed she many a pleasant mountain,

many a wild deer, many a bird:


Many a hill and many a cavern,

many a bright and wondrous stream,

Saw king Bhima’s wandering daughter

as she sought her husband lost.


Long she roamed her weary journey.

The caravan had evidently travelled across perilous route under their leader who is called sartha-vaha (3.61.117, 121, 124), and in 3.61.121 he is described as sarthasya mahatah prabhuh, while in the next verse he describes himself as ahcam sarthasya neta (‘I am the leader of the caravan’). This indicates that the sartha-vaha was the owner of an organization which provided transport facilities including guards. It is known from Gupta inscriptions, that the sartha-vahas had an eminent status, and the chief amongst them played an important civic role.

The particular caravan which Damayanti joined was going to Cedi. At night, however, a band of wild elephants attacked the sleeping caravan and killed most of the merchants. But Damayanti managed to reach Cedi accompanied with a few brahmanas learned in the Vedas (3.62.17).

It is not clear as to what the brahmanas were doing in the caravan whose professed aim was profit (labha, 3.61.125). The merchants who joined a caravan were called sarthikas (3.62.8) and in 12.150.5, they are called sarthika vanijah, and it is indicated that they also had to take shelter in forests.

The Ram (2.76.8) refers to merchants who brought jewels from overseas country (samudra) and further on (4.16.22) refers to an overburdened ship tossing in the sea. In the Mbh there are several references to sea-voyages undertaken by merchants, but it appears that it was considered hazardous. When the Pandava soldiers began to run away, being attacked by Bhagadatta’s elephants, they are compared with “merchants in the stormy sea” (7.25.56).

After the death of Abhimanyu, Arjuna is said to have wept as a merchant whose ship has foundered (evam vilapya vahudha bhinnapoto vanig yatha, 7.50.44). At a critical moment in the war, Kama is described as the island, which provides refuge to the sailors whose boat has sunk (8.55.71-72). The Kaurava soldiers overwhelmed by Arjuna’s assault are compared to a great ship struck by a furious gale in the ocean 8.58.14. When Dhrstadyumna was saved from Kama by Draupadi’s sons and taken on their chariot, Dhrstadyumna is compared to a merchant whose ship has sunk but is safely taken aboard another vessel (8.60.22).

After Kama’s death, Krpacarya, while advising Duryodhana to come to terms with the Pandavas said- ‘O king, Arjuna is making your soldiers shake [as impetuously as] ships are lashed by wind to roll and pitch violently in the ocean’. (9.3.29). Describing the condition of the Kaurava soldiers after Salya’s death, Sanjaya compares them with merchants whose ship has sunk in ocean, but who wishes to cross it and reach a place of safety (9.18.2).

An example of misfortune is the fate of the merchant who, having crossed the sea and amassed a fortune, sinks in a small river due to his negligence. 10.10.23. These allusions clearly indicate that sea-voyage was not only known but also undertaken, though it was considered to be extremely risky. It is also probable that the Mbh was composed in north India, far away from sea, and its author or authors, like most men who have never seen the sea, considered it to be full of peril.

It is also true that a voyage in those, days, and long after, was dangerous, and only the most intense desire for profit would induce men to undertake a voyage. The passages quoted above also show that only the merchants undertook a sea voyage.

Going to sea was linked with earning a fortune; even a visit to the sea shore was expected to yield some money (12.165.10). Elsewhere it is said-‘Just as an overseas merchant makes profit in proportion to his investment, so in the sea of life a person attains progress according to his action and knowledge’.

There was some social stigma attached to a brahmana going overseas. For it is said- ‘A brahmana [who acts as an] usher in a court of law, a temple-priest, an astrologer, and a village priest are candalas [and so is] a maha-pathika the fifth.’ (12.77.8) Maha- pathika has been explained by commentators as dvipantara vanija that is, a merchant who goes overseas. This is the earliest known prohibition of sea voyage.

At a later age, this dictum was completely ignored and learned brahmanas freely went to South-East Asian countries and spread there the message of Indian culture. But later again a reaction set in, and not only the brahmanas, but even the vaisyas refused to venture outside India. This total abstention was not intended by the Mbh, but it may have supplied the original impetus towards the retrograde step.

In the Mbh the story of Ram is briefly related. In course of the story, it is said that when it came to the crossing of the sea with his army, Ramacandra said to Sugriva- ‘We do not have sufficient vessels to cross the sea, and how can a man like me cause loss to the merchants [by commandeering their boats] (3.267.28). From this statement it seems that the state in those days did not possess any ship, but the merchants owned them, probably in considerable number.

There could have been brisk coastal trade, with Ceylon, and with the countries in the Persian Gulf region. Manu does not forbid eating fish, and the epics show that the fish was an article of food even to the brahmanas. The earliest sea-farers, therefore, were probably the coastal fishermen, who, even today, venture miles into the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal in their tiny crafts.

However, the epics merely allude to sea-voyages, particularly its attendant dangers. It does not give a single story of a voyage such as are found in the Jatakas or in the Brhatkatha. There is also no reference to a navy. Taking together all these considerations, it appears that sea voyage was at its early stage during the epic age, and ships carried only a small part of its trade. The main export route was through Kamboja, that is, Afghanistan.

It is possible that all the objects which were labelled ‘Kamboja’ were not really produced in that country, but came through it. The main overland route to India lay through Afghanistan, so all imports coming by the overland route had to come through Afghanistan and usually the Khyber or the Bolan Pass. During the epic age, and long afterwards, these were Hindu territories and as much a part of India as Pakistan and Bangladesh were before 1947.

Sources of Money during the Epic Age:

The Ram mentions coins only a few times. It is said that Ramacandra distributed among brahmanas trimsat-koti-hiranya (thirty crores of hiranya 6.116.55), from which it is apparent that hiranya was a coin. When sending Satrughna on an expedition, Ramacandra gave him one million (niyuta) of suvarna hiranya (gold hiranya, 7.56.4). Hiranya also can mean gold, but as a coin it was evidently not always a gold coin.

Actually in the Ram (1.73.5; 7.85.15) and in the Mbh (13.57.34), the word hiranya seems to have been used in the sense of silver. Therefore, hiranna, which is also mentioned in the Mbh (3.183.30) as a coin, appears to have been usually a silver coin but gold hiranyas were also issued. The Ram (2.64.18) mentions rukmaniska, that is, golden niska, as a coin. In the Mbh (2.30.51) rukma seems to have been used in the sense of a gold coin, rather than gold.

The confusion in terminology is due to the fact that it was the practice in the epic age to use—particularly while making a gift- both coined and uncoined gold. The Mbh mentions krt-akrta kanaka (1.213.46) and krt-akrtam ca kanakam (13.53.39), which has been explained by an anonymous commentator as ghatit-aghatitam kanakam (made or unmade gold) that is, coined or uncoined gold.

But the coin more frequently mentioned in the Mbh is the niska, and its connotation is even more confusing than that of hiranya. We have seen that in the Ram, niska is mentioned once, when it is qualified by rukma (gold). In the Mbh, the word niska is used at least 35 times, of which it is used (i) six times as gold, (ii) eleven times as gold ornaments, mostly necklace, (iii) nine times as coin, (iv) five times as a gold coin, (v) while four times the word is used in such a manner that it may mean either gold or coin.

The variations in the meaning of niska arose in the Vedic times. Gold was known as niska, and when it was coined, the coin was also known as niska- and niska also meant a gold ornament— particularly a necklace. Niska is used in the Rigveda and later Vedic literature denoting a gold ornament worn on the neck as is shown by the two epithets niska-kantha (Aitareya Brahmana, VIII. 22) and niska-griva (Rigveda, V, 19.3, Atharvaveda, V, 17.14), meaning ‘having a gold ornament on the neck’. The epithets niska-kanthi (8.27.5: 13.106.29) niska-kantha (13. 106.33) are also as used in the Mbh. Niska was, however, or seems to have been, used even in the Rigveda as a coin (1.126.2), while in later Vedic literature its use to denote a coin is more abundant and clear.

Manu (8.284) mentions niska as a coin, but it is difficult to ascertain whether he means a gold or silver coin- Medhatithi explains niska as a ‘measure of gold’, but it is difficult to say how far he is correct. In the Kumarasambhavam (2.49), niska has been used to mean a gold necklace, while the Bhagavat (4.3.6) uses the phrase niska-kanthi.

But in a much later work, namely, the Dvyasrayakavya of Hemacandra, written in the 12th century AD, niska has been used to mean a gold coin, which, according to the commentator, weighed 108 palas. However, in his dictionary, Abhidhana-cintamani (Bhumikhanda, 4.10), Hemacandra has given niska as a synonym of gold.

Bhaskaracarya in his Lilavati states that 20 varatakas make 1 kakini, 4 kakinls make 1 panas 16 panas make 1 dramma, and 16 drammas make 1 niska. It is evident, therefore, that from the Vedic times onwards, the word niska has been used in a dual sense- to indicate a coin and also as a measure of gold.

The epics do not mention any other coin, except that the Mbh mentions the kakini once (12.282.16) as a coin of the smallest denomination and Nilakantha explains it as 20 varatikas. It may therefore be concluded, that the use of coins was known in the epic age, and that there was a gold coin. It is surprising, however, that Kautilya does not mention any gold coin.

His regulation regarding coinage is (2.12.24)- ‘The Mint Master should cause to be minted silver coins with one-fourth part copper (and) containing as hardening alloy one masa (in weight) of one of the. following, (viz.), iron, tin, lead, and antimony (of the denominations of) 1 pana, half pana, a quarter pana, and a one-eighth pana; (further) copper coins with one-quarter sustenance (of an alloy), (of the denominations of), one masaka, a half masaka, a kakani, and a half kakani. Most probably the kakani mentioned in the Mbh (12.282.16) was a copper coin.

It may be concluded, therefore, that the authors of the epics knew of a gold and a copper coin. The silence of the epics regarding a silver coin does not preclude the possibility of its use, but it is remarkable that the epics seldom mention silver, white they mention gold frequently.

This peculiarity may partly be due to the fact, that there is an element of exaggeration in the epics, and everything had to be of gold in order to be impressive. Alternatively, it is also possible that in those days gold was more abundant than silver.

It is quite possible that in the epic age minting was not a state monopoly, and the kings minted coins on special occasions. White commenting on astapada-padasthane laksamadreva laksyate (12.287.38), Nilakantha says that the reference is to a gold karsapana which had eight marks upon it. This description reminds one of the punch-marked coins. But Nilakantha is a very late commentator, his date having been assigned to AD 1650-1700.

Therefore, it is difficult to say as to how far one can reply on Nilakantha’s authority to affirm the existence of punch-marked coins in the epic. On the other hand, the origin of the punch marked coins has not been satisfactorily explained, and it is quite possible that those were issued in the epic age, and as has been suggested, by the trade guilds. The kings in that case shall have issued only gold coins on ceremonial occasions.