The Golden Age of the Guptas is equally characterised by a remarkable economic development of the country. This was the period of the expansion of India and of much colonizing activity towards the Farther East from Bengal, Kalinga and the Coromandal Coast. Parts of Burma and Malacca were colonised, chiefly from Kalinga and Bengal as shown in Sir A.P. Phayre’s History of Burma and testified to by Burmese sacred literature and coins.

The main evidences for the Economic History of this period are supplied by the accounts of Fa Hien, the Christian Topography of Cosmos, the Sukranitisara, the Yajnabalkya Smriti, the Vishnu Smriti, the Narada Smrti and the Puranas. Yule’s Cathay and the Way Thither and the Chinese annals like the Kwai Yuen Catalogue of the Chinese Tripitaka have recorded many facts relating to early commerce between India and China.

The economy of India must have been based as in the previous periods on a system of Village Communities only with this difference that the degree of control from the central government was less than what existed under the Mauryas. The immense development of trade no doubt led to a vigorous growth of city-life in important centres of trade. Fa Hien says the towns of Magadha were large. But the majority of the people lived in the villages and agriculture was their principal industry.

In Chapter IV, Sec. 4, of Sukranitisara we get some of the Agri-flori-horti-cultural ideas prevalent in those times. Ordures and dungs were recognised as good manure (l. 94). There were also arrangements for irrigation; Wells, canals, tanks and ponds should be made accessible (by staircases etc.) There should be many of these so that there may be plenty of water in the Kingdom (ll. 124-127). Water-reservoirs are also maintained (Chap. IV. Sec. 5, line 141).


It is further laid down that if people undertake new industries or cultivate new lands and dig canals, tanks, wells, etc., for their good, the King should not demand anything of them until they realise profit twice the expenditure (ll. 242-44). Sukra is thus definitely an advocate of the Young Industry Argument.

The King shall take his due from the peasant in such a way that he be not destroyed. It is to be realised in the fashion of the weaver of the garland and not of the coal-merchant (ll. 222-23) the King should realise 1/3rd, 1/4th or 1/2 from places which are irrigated by tanks, canals and wells; by rains and by rivers respectively (ll. 227-29). He should have 1/6th from barren and rocky soils (l. 230).

Coming to Forest Produce we find mention of Udambara, Asvatha, tamarind, Chandana, Bata, Kadamba, Asoka, Bakula, Maego, Punnag, Chamapaka, Pine Pomegranate, Walnut, Neem, Date, Tamala, Likucha, Cocoanut, Plantain (ll. 95-102) which bear good fruits. Khadira, Teak, Sal, Arjuna, Sami and many other large trees are mentioned (ll. 115-122).

There were also Superintendents of parks and forests who had to know the causes of the growth and development of flowers and, fruits, who knew how to plant and cure the trees by administering proper soil and water at the suitable time and who knew of their medicinal properties (Chap. II. Lines 320-24).


Urbanisation Guild Society:

Town planning was also known. In the Silpasastras the proper place for each kind of building was strictly prescribed as well as the measurements of actual buildings down to the smallest ones. The whole was planned in the model of a city in Heaven. Thus all building is traced back to the work of the divine architect Viswakarma. Thus architecture becomes a sacred calling with the master craftsman as priest.

Hence Bana of the next epoch compares Ujjain to Kailash with its many peaks clear cut against the sky.

“The three closely allied arts of architecture, sculpture and painting” says Mr. V.A. Smith “attained an extraordinarily high point of development. The accident that the Gupta Empire consisted for the most part of the provinces permanently occupied at an early date by the Muhammadans who systematically destroyed Hindu building, for several centuries obscures the history of Gupta Architecture. No large building of the period has survived and the smaller edifices which escaped destruction are hidden in remote localities away from the track of the Muslim armies chiefly in Central India and the Central Provinces chiefly in Central Provinces. They closely resemble rock-cut temples (Oxford History of India, p. 160). Fa Hien noticed a huge stone samgha-rama in the Deccan (in the modern Chanda District). It is constructed out of a great mountain of rock hollowed to the proper shape. The building has altogether five stages. The lowest is made with elephant figures and has five hundred cells in it. The second is made with lion shapes and has four hundred chambers. The third is made with horse shapes and has three hundred chambers. The fourth is made with ox shapes and has two hundred chambers. The fifth has dove shapes and has 100 chambers in it. At the very top of all is a spring of water watch flowing in a stream before the rooms encircles each tier and so running in a circuitous course, at last arrives at the very lowest stage of all, where flowing past the chambers it finally issues through the door. Throughout the consecutive tiers in various parts of the building windows been pierced through the solid rock for the admission of light, so that every chamber is illuminated and there was no darkness. At the four corners of the edifice they have hewn out the rocks into steps as means for ascending”. (Beal LXVIII-LXIX). 


In Samkasya “there are 100 small towers. A man might pass the day in trying to count them without succeeding. If anyone is very anxious to find out the right number then he places a man by the side of each tower and afterwards numbers the men; but even in this case, it can never be known how many or how few men will be required”. (Beal, XLIIXLIII.)

“In old days” says Fa Hien “men bored through the rocks (10,000 feet high) to make a way and spread out side-ladders of which there are 700 steps in all to pass. Having passed the ladder we Proceeded by a hanging rope bridge and crossed the river”. The Viswakarma cave of Ellora has a hall which is 85 feet by 43 feet. The facade looks like an ordinary two storied house with verandahs richly sculptured.

At Ellora thare are many monasteries attached to the Viswakarma cave. Three temples here viz., the Do-tal, the Teen-tal and Das-Avatar show the gradual merging of Buddhist excavations into Hindu. The temples of Ellora constructed in a later period (8th or 9th century AD) make Ellora one of the wonders of the world. The Kanheri cave on the island of Salsettee in the Bombay harbor was excavated early in the fifth century AD, It copies the Karli cave (1st century BC) but the style is inferior.

The most important stone temple of this age is that of Deogarh in the Lalitpur subdivision of the Jhansi Destruct, U.P. the panels of whose walls contain some of the finest specimens of Indian sculpture. The larger brick temple at Bhitaagaon in Cawnpur district which has been ascribed to the reign of Chandragupta II, is remarkable for vigour and well-designed sculpture in terra-cotta.

Fragments including some beautiful sculptures indicate that beautiful stone temples of the Gupta age stood at sarnath near Benares.

“The Gupta sculpture exhibits pleasing characteristics which usually enable a student familiar with standard examples to decide with confidence whether or not a given work is of Gupta age. The physical beauty of the figures, the gracious dignity of their attitude and the refined restraint of the treatment are qualities which are not to be found elsewhere in Indian sculptures in the same degree. Other obvious technical marks are the plain robes showing the body as if they were transparent, the elaborate haloes and the curious wigs”. (Oxford History of India, p. 162).

Two of the finest caves at Ajanta Nos. XVI. and XVII. were excavated in this period. A Danish artist thus speaks of the paintings in Ajanta caves “they represent the climax to which genuine Indian art has attained” and that “everything in these pictures from the composition as a whole to the smallest pearl of flower testifies to depth of insight coupled with the greatest technical skill”.

The worth of the achievement will be further evident from the fact that “much of the work has been carried en with the help of artificial light, and no great stretch of imagination is necessary to picture all that this involves in the Indian climate and in situations where thorough ventilation is impossible” (Griffith, The paintings in the Buddhist Cave-temples of Ajanta).

About the truth and precision of the work which are no less admirable than its boldness and extent, Mr. Griffith has the following glowing testimony “During my long and careful study of the coves I have not been able to detect a single instance where o mistake has been made by cutting away too much stone, for, if once a slip of this kind occurred, it could only have been repaired by the insertion of a piece which would have been a blemish” (Ibid.). The closely related, frescoes at Sirgiriya in Ceylon were executed in this period (between 479-497 A.D).

Some of these crafts were organised into guilds. Sukra mentions the guilds of cultivators, artisans, artists, usurers, the dancers and the ascetics (Ch. IV. Sec. 5. II. 35-36). It is further laid down that “that the leader or captain of those who combine to build a palace or a temple and construct canal or furniture is to get twice the share got by each”. (606-07). The goldsmiths should get remuneration according to the labour undergone by each in cases where they combine to perform a work of art.

Evidence of Yajnabalkya, Narada and Vishnu tend to prove conclusively that the guilds were not only recognized as a part of the state fabric but also their authority was upheld by that of the state. Thus Narada says, “The King must maintain the usages of the guilds and other corporations. Whatever be their (religious duties), (the rules regarding) their attendance and (the particular mode of) livelihood prescribed for them, these the King shall approve of” (X. 2, 3).

We are further told that “those who cause dissension among the members of an association shall undergo Punishment of a socially severe kind because they would prove extremely dangerous, like an (epidemic) decease if they were allowed to go free” (X. 6.). The Yajnabalkya Samhita also prescribes that if a man steals the property of a guild or any other corporation or breaks any agreement with it he shall be banished from the realm and all his property confiscated (II. 187-192). Similar injunctions also occur in the Institutes of Vishnu Ganadrauyapohorta libarya.

Besides these, Yajnabalkya (chap. II. slokas 186-192) lays down that:

(1) The guilds could possess corporate property;

(2) That they could lay down rules and regulations corresponding to the Articles of the Association of the present day. Narada referee to the Samaya which he detunes as the aggregate of rules settled by the corporations;

(3) That the duties arising; from the rules and regulations (Samayika) not inconsistent with the injunctions of the sacred texts as well as the regulations laid down by the King must be observed with care, thus placing duty towards the guild on an equal footing with that towards the;

(4) Some pure and virtuous men were appointed as the Executive officers;

(5) They often transacted business with the Court in their name and were held in high respect there.

(6) They possessed executive authority over the members of the guild and could punish anyone who disobeyed their decision. Yajnabalkya here makes no mention of the President of the guild but there must have been one as the frequent reference to Streshthin in contemporary inscriptions show and as Sukra mentions the leader or captain of corporation in 606-07 quoted above;

(7) They were, however, bound by the laws and usages of the corporation and if they violated them in the exercise of their authority and there was dissension between them and the general members, the King had to step in and make both parties conform to the established usage. Mitramisra goes further.

He takes verse 187 of the second chapter of Yajnabalkya to refer to the Makhayas and cites the following text from Katyayana as an illustration of the doctrine (the right of the assembly to punish its chiefs):

Shahashi bhedkai cha gauadrabyavinashakah-

Uchachedyah Sara abaiti vishapyer wripe bhrigah.

Thus any of the Executive Officers who was guilty of any heinous criminal act, who created dissension or who destroyed the property of the association could be removed and the removal was only to be notified to but not necessarily to be sanctioned by the King. When the removal could not be effected on account of the enormous power of the Executive officers, the matter was to be brought to the notice of the King who would bear both sides of the case and decide (Narada X. 3 and Jagannatha’s comment on it).

Miramisra observes in be the same strain ‘Sawahashakle tosyo daudo ragyau vidheya)’ “the King should step in only when the assembly found itself unable to punish the officers”. He quotes as an illustration of this Manu (VIII. 219-21) “If a man belonging to a corporation inhabiting a village or a district after swearing to an agreement, breaks it through avarice (the King shall banish him from his realm”. He takes the whole passage as referring to the Mukbyas or Executive officers alone.

Some other cases of royal interference may be gathered from Narada (X. 4, 5, 6.) where it is laid down that the King could forbid combinations of different associations (possibly of a hostile nature), arming of those bodies without due causes and the conflict between them. He could also prevent them from undertaking such acts as were either opposed to his wish or interests or of contemptible and immoral nature.

Thus a King could interfere with them only in some specified cases but otherwise they were to act in whatever way they liked and the King was bound to accept their decision. According to Narada regular rules were laid down for the attendance of members in the assembly and the King had to approve of them whatever they might be (X. 3). It appears from Mitramisra’s comment on the passage that the sound of a drum or other instruments was a signal for the attendance of members in the guild hall for the transaction of affairs (Viram. p. 430).

These guilds also passed judicial authority over its members. Thus Sukra laws down “The cultivators, the artisans, the artists, the usurer, the corporations, the dancers, the ascetics’ and thieves should decide their disputes according to the usages of their guilds (ch. IV. Sec. 5. II. 35-36). Thus the guilds could only interfere in cases which affected or had a tendency to affect the transaction of their business.

The following passage from Sukra seems, however, to show that the guild also formed port of the ordinary tribunals of the country “The Kula (family) Sreni ‘(guilds) and Ganas (republican communities) are the three successively higher organisations of self-adjudication. When and where these fail, the King with his officers is to interfere” (ch. IV. Sec. 5. II. 59-60).

According to Narada also (107, p. 6) the guild formed the second of the four ordinary courts of justice from each of which an appeal lay successively to the next higher ones. This is supported by the recently published Damodarpur Copper Plates dated in the year 433 and 438 AD in the reign of the Gupta Emperor Kumargupta I, where we find a clear reference to courts presided over by the chiefs of different guilds of merchants and artisans. (Ep. Ind. Vol. XV. P. 130).

The existence and organisation of the guilds is further corroborated by the inscriptions of this period. Thus the Indoor Copper Plate Inscription of Skandagupta, (Fleet, Gupta Ins. No. 16) dated 465 AD records the gift of an endowment, the interest of which is to be applied to the maintenance of a lamp which has been established in a temple for the service of the Sun-god.

We are further told that “this gift of a Brahmin’s endowment of (the temple of) the Sun (is) the perpetual property of the guild of oilmen of which Jivanta is the head, residing in the town of Indrapur so long at is continues in complete unity (even) in moving away from this settlement” (Ibid p. 71). Here we find “the custom of designating a guild by the name of its headman, the mobility of the body, greater importance being attached to the unity of the guild than the place where it settles”.

It should be noted that “none but a fully organised body could thus shift from place to place and yet retain its unity and public confidence”. No less interesting is the Mandasor stone inscription of Kumargupta and Bandhubarman (Fleet, Gupta Inscriptions, No. 18) which relates how a guild of silk- weavers, originally settled at Lata immigrated into the city of Dasapur attracted by the virtues of the King of that place. Here some of them learnt -archery, some adopted the religious life, some learnt astrology and astronomy, some poetry, some became ascetics, while others adhered to their hereditary profession of silk weaving.

In built in 436 AD a magnificent temple of the Sun at Dasapur and while it fell into disrepair the same guild repaired it in 472 AD. This inscription shows that the guilds were not stereotyped close corporations of crafts busy alone with their own profession but that “through the autonomy and freedom accorded to them by the law of the land they became a centre of strength and an abode of liberal culture and progress which truly made them a power and ornament of the society.”