THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY
Kings, Farmers and Towns
Early States and Economies
(c. 600 BCE-600 CE)
There were several developments in different parts of the subcontinent during the long span of 1,500 years following the end of the Harappan civilisation.
This was also the period during which the Rigveda was composed by people living along the Indus and its tributaries.
Agricultural settlements emerged in many parts of the subcontinent, including north India, the
Deccan Plateau, and parts of Karnataka. Besides, there is evidence of pastoral populations in the Deccan and further south.
New modes of disposal of the dead, including the making of elaborate stone structures known as megaliths, emerged in central and south India from the first millennium BCE. In many cases, the dead
were buried with a rich range of iron tools and weapons.
From c. sixth century BCE, there is evidence that there were other trends as well. Perhaps the most visible was the emergence of early states, empires and kingdoms.
Underlying these political processes were other changes, evident in the ways in which agricultural
production was organised.
Simultaneously, new towns appeared almost throughout the subcontinent.
Historians attempt to understand these developments by drawing on a range of sources – inscriptions, texts, coins and visual material.
As we will see, this is a complex process. You will also notice that these sources do not tell the entire story.
|Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions.|
1. Prinsep and Piyadassi
Some of the most momentous developments in Indian epigraphy took place in the 1830s. This was when James Prinsep, an officer in the mint of the East India Company, deciphered Brahmi and Kharosthi, two scripts used in the earliest inscriptions and coins.
He found that most of these mentioned a king referred to as Piyadassi – meaning “pleasant to
behold”; there were a few inscriptions which also referred to the king as Asoka, one of the most famous rulers known from Buddhist texts.
This gave a new direction to investigations into early Indian political history as European and Indian scholars used inscriptions and texts composed in a variety of languages to reconstruct the lineages of major dynasties that had ruled the subcontinent.
As a result, the broad contours of political history were in place by the early decades of the twentieth century.
Subsequently, scholars began to shift their focus to the context of political history, investigating whether there were connections between political changes and economic and social developments.
It was soon realised that while there were links, these were not always simple or direct.
2. The Earliest States
2.1 The sixteen mahajanapadas
The sixth century BCE is often regarded as a major turning point in early Indian history.
It is an era associated with early states, cities, the growing use of iron, the development of coinage, etc.
It also witnessed the growth of diverse systems of thought, including Buddhism and Jainism.
Early Buddhist and Jaina texts mention, amongst other things, sixteen states known as mahajanapadas. Although the lists vary, some names such as Vajji, Magadha, Koshala, Kuru, Panchala, Gandhara and Avanti occur frequently.
Clearly, these were amongst the most important mahajanapadas.
While most mahajanapadas were ruled by kings,
some, known as ganas or sanghas, were oligarchies where power was shared by a number of men, often collectively called rajas.
Both Mahavira and the Buddha belonged to such ganas.
In some instances, as in the case of the Vajji sangha, the rajas probably controlled resources such as land collectively.
Although their histories are often difficult to reconstruct due to the lack of sources, some of these states lasted for nearly a thousand years.
Each mahajanapada had a capital city, which was often fortified.
Maintaining these fortified cities as well as providing for incipient armies and bureaucracies required resources.
From c. sixth century BCE onwards, Brahmanas began composing Sanskrit texts known as the Dharmasutras. These laid down norms for rulers (as well as for other social categories), who were ideally expected to be Kshatriyas.
Rulers were advised to collect taxes and tribute from cultivators, traders and artisans.
Were resources also procured from pastoralists and forest peoples?
We do not really know. What we do know is that raids on neighbouring states were recognised as a legitimate means of acquiring wealth.
Gradually, some states acquired standing armies and maintained regular bureaucracies.
Others continued to depend on militia, recruited, more often than not, from the peasantry.
Inscriptions are writings engraved on hard surfaces such as stone, metal or pottery.
They usually record
Inscriptions are virtually permanent records,
The earliest inscriptions were in Prakrit, a name for languages used by ordinary
Names of rulers such as Ajatasattu and Asoka, known from Prakrit texts and inscriptions, have been spelt in their Prakrit forms in this chapter.
You will also find terms in languages such as Pali, Tamil and Sanskrit, which too were used to write
It is possible that people spoke in other languages as well, even though these were not used for writing.
|Janapada – means the land where a jana (a people, clan or tribe) sets its foot or settles. It is a word used in both Prakrit and Sanskrit.|
Which were the areas where states and cities were most densely clustered?
Oligarchy refers to a form of government where power is exercised by a group of men.
e:g: The Roman Republic
2.2 First amongst the sixteen: Magadha
Between the sixth and the fourth centuries BCE, Magadha (in present-day Bihar) became the most
Modern historians explain this development in a variety of ways:
- Magadha was a region where agriculture was especially productive.
- Besides, iron mines (in present-day Jharkhand) were accessible and provided resources for tools and
- Elephants, an important component of the army, were found in forests in the region.
- Also, the Ganga and its tributaries provided a means of cheap and convenient communication.
However, early Buddhist and Jaina writers who wrote about Magadha attributed its power to the policies of individuals: ruthlessly ambitious kings of whom Bimbisara, Ajatasattu and Mahapadma Nanda are the best known, and their ministers, who helped implement their policies.
Initially, Rajagraha (the Prakrit name for present day Rajgir in Bihar) was the capital of Magadha.
Interestingly, the old name means “house of the king”. Rajagraha was a fortified settlement, located
Later, in the fourth century BCE, the capital was shifted to Pataliputra, present-day Patna, commanding routes of communication along the Ganga.
What are the different explanations offered by early writers and present-day historians for the growth of Magadhan power?
Fortification walls at Rajgir
Why were these walls built?
3. An Early Empire
The growth of Magadha culminated in the emergence of the Mauryan Empire.
Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the empire (c. 321 BCE), extended control as far northwest as Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and his grandson Asoka, arguably the most famous ruler of early India, conquered Kalinga (present-day coastal Orissa).
3.1 Finding out about the Mauryas
Historians have used a variety of sources to reconstruct the history of the Mauryan Empire.
- archaeological finds, especially sculpture.
- Also valuable are contemporary works, such as
- the account of Megasthenes (a Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya), which survives in fragments.
- Another source that is often used is the Arthashastra, parts of which were probably composed by Kautilya or Chanakya, traditionally believed to be the minister of Chandragupta.
- Besides, the Mauryas are mentioned in later Buddhist, Jaina and Puranic literature, as well as in Sanskrit literary works.
- While these are useful, the inscriptions of Asoka (c. 272/268-231 BCE) on rocks and pillars are often regarded as amongst the most valuable sources.
Asoka was the first ruler who inscribed his messages to his subjects and officials on stone surfaces – natural rocks as well as polished pillars.
He used the inscriptions to proclaim what he understood to be dhamma. This included
- respect towards elders,
- generosity towards Brahmanas and those who renounced worldly life,
- treating slaves and servants kindly, and
- respect for religions and traditions other than one’s own.
3.2 Administering the empire
There were five major political centres in the empire –
- the capital Pataliputra and
- the provincial centres of Taxila, Ujjayini, Tosali and Suvarnagiri,
all mentioned in Asokan inscriptions.
If we examine the content of these inscriptions, we find virtually the same message engraved everywhere – from the present-day North West Frontier Provinces of Pakistan, to Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Uttarakhand in India.
Could this vast empire have had a uniform administrative system?
Historians have increasingly come to realise that this is unlikely.
The regions included within the empire were just too diverse.
Imagine the contrast between the hilly terrain of Afghanistan and the coast of Orissa.
It is likely that administrative control was strongest in areas around the capital and the provincial centres.
These centres were carefully chosen, both Taxila and Ujjayini being situated on important long-distance trade routes, while Suvarnagiri (literally, the golden mountain) was possibly important for tapping the gold mines of Karnataka.
|Languages and scripts
Most Asokan inscriptions were in the Prakrit language while those in the northwest of the subcontinet were in Aramaic and Greek.
Most Prakrit inscriptions were written in the Brahmi script; however, some, in the northwest, were written in Kharosthi.
The Aramaic and Greek scripts were used for inscriptions in Afghanistan.
Why is the lion capital considered important today?
Distribution of Asokan inscriptions
MAJOR ROCK EDICTS
MINOR ROCK EDICTS
Could rulers have engraved inscriptions in areas that were not included within their empire?
Communication along both land and riverine routes was vital for the existence of the empire.
Journeys from the centre to the provinces could have taken weeks if not months. This meant arranging
for provisions as well as protection for those who were on the move.
It is obvious that the army was an important means for ensuring the latter.
Megasthenes mentions a committee with six subcommittees for coordinating military activity. Of these,
- one looked after the navy,
- the second managed transport and provisions,
- the third was responsible for foot-soldiers,
- the fourth for horses,
- the fifth for chariots and
- the sixth for elephants.
The activities of the second subcommittee were rather varied:
- arranging for bullock carts to carry equipment,
- procuring food for soldiers and fodder for animals, and
- recruiting servants and artisans to look after the soldiers.
Asoka also tried to hold his empire together by propagating dhamma, the principles of which, as we
have seen, were simple and virtually universally applicable. This, according to him, would ensure the
well-being of people in this world and the next.
Special officers, known as the dhamma mahamatta, were appointed to spread the message of dhamma.
3.3 How important was the empire?
When historians began reconstructing early Indian history in the nineteenth century, the emergence
of the Mauryan Empire was regarded as a major landmark. India was then under colonial rule, and
was part of the British empire.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century Indian historians found the possibility that there was an empire in early India both challenging and exciting.
Also, some of the archaeological finds associated with the Mauryas, including stone sculpture, were
considered to be examples of the spectacular art typical of empires.
Many of these historians found the message on Asokan inscriptions very different from that of most other rulers, suggesting that Asoka was more powerful and industrious, as also more humble than later rulers who adopted grandiose titles.
So it is not surprising that nationalist leaders in the twentieth century regarded him as an inspiring figure.
What the king’s officials did
Here is an excerpt from the account of Megasthenes:
Of the great officers of state, some … superintend the rivers, measure the land, as is done in Egypt, and inspect the sluices by which water is let out from the main canals into their branches, so that every one may have an equal supply of it.
The same persons have charge also of the huntsmen, and are entrusted with the power of rewarding or punishing them according to their deserts.
They collect the taxes, and superintend the occupations connected with land; as those
of the woodcutters, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, and the miners.
Why were officials appointed to supervise these occupational groups?
Read the excerpts from Megasthenes and the Arthashastra
To what extent do you think these texts are useful in reconstructing a history of Mauryan administration?
Yet, how important was the Mauryan Empire?
It lasted for about 150 years, which is not a very long time in the vast span of the history of the subcontinent.
You will notice that the empire did not encompass the entire subcontinent.
And even within the frontiers of the empire, control was not uniform.
By the second century BCE, new chiefdoms and kingdoms emerged in several parts of the subcontinent.
4. New Notions of Kingship
4.1 Chiefs and kings in the south
The new kingdoms that emerged in the Deccan and further south, including the chiefdoms of the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas in Tamilakam (the name of the ancient Tamil country, which included parts of present-day Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, in addition to Tamil Nadu), proved to be stable and prosperous.
Chiefs and chiefdoms
A chief is a powerful man whose position may or may not be hereditary.
He derives support from his kinfolk.
His functions may include
He receives gifts from his subordinates (unlike kings who usually collect taxes) and often distributes these amongst his supporters.
Generally, there are no regular armies and officials in chiefdoms.
We know about these states from a variety of sources.
For instance, the early Tamil Sangam texts contain poems describing chiefs and the ways in which they acquired and distributed resources.
Many chiefs and kings, including the Satavahanas who ruled over parts of western and central India (c. second century BCE-second century CE) and the Shakas, a people of Central Asian origin who established kingdoms in the north-western and western parts of the subcontinent, derived revenues
from long-distance trade.
Their social origins were often obscure, but, as we will see in the case of the Satavahanas, once they acquired power they attempted to claim social status in a variety of ways.
Capturing elephants for the army
The Arthashastra lays down minute details of administrative and military organisation.
This is what it says about how to capture elephants:
Guards of elephant forests, assisted by
- those who rear elephants,
- those who enchain the legs of elephants,
- those who guard the boundaries,
- those who live in forests, as well as by
- those who nurse elephants,
- shall, with the help of five or seven female elephants to help in tethering wild ones,
trace the whereabouts of herds of elephants by following the course of urine and dung left by elephants.
According to Greek sources, the Mauryan ruler had a
standing army of 600,000 foot-soldiers,
30,000 cavalry and
Some historians consider these accounts to be exaggerated.
If the Greek accounts were true, what kinds of resources do you think the Mauryan ruler would have required to maintain such a large army?
4.2 Divine kings
One means of claiming high status was to identify with a variety of deities.
This strategy is best exemplified by the Kushanas (c. first century BCE first century CE), who ruled over a vast kingdom extending from Central Asia to northwest India.
Their history has been reconstructed from inscriptions and textual traditions.
The notions of kingship they wished to project are perhaps best evidenced in their coins and sculpture.
Colossal statues of Kushana rulers have been found installed in a shrine at Mat near Mathura
(Uttar Pradesh). Similar statues have been found in a shrine in Afghanistan as well.
Some historians feel this indicates that the Kushanas considered themselves godlike.
Many Kushana rulers also adopted the title devaputra, or “son of god”, possibly inspired by Chinese rulers who called themselves sons of heaven.
By the fourth century there is evidence of larger states, including the Gupta Empire.
Many of these depended on samantas, men who maintained themselves through local resources including control over land.
They offered homage and provided military support to rulers.
Powerful samantas could become kings: conversely, weak rulers might find themselves being reduced to positions of subordination.
Histories of the Gupta rulers have been reconstructed from
- coins and
- inscriptions, including prashastis, composed in praise of kings in particular, and patrons in general, by poets.
While historians often attempt to draw factual information from such compositions, those who composed and read them often treasured them as works of poetry rather than as accounts that were literally true.
The Prayaga Prashasti (also known as the Allahabad Pillar Inscription) composed in Sanskrit by Harishena, the court poet of Samudragupta, arguably the most powerful of the Gupta rulers (c. fourth century CE), is a case in point.
The Pandya chief Senguttuvan visits the forest
This is an excerpt from the Silappadikaram, an epic written in Tamil:
people came down the mountain, singing and dancing … just as the defeated show respect to the victorious king,
so did they bring gifts – ivory, fragrant wood, fans made of the hair of deer, honey, sandalwood, red ochre, antimony, turmeric, cardamom, pepper, etc. …
they brought coconuts, mangoes, medicinal plants, fruits, onions, sugarcane, flowers, areca nut, bananas, baby tigers, lions, elephants, monkeys, bear, deer, musk deer, fox, peacocks, musk cat, wild cocks, speaking parrots, etc. …
Why did people bring these gifts? What would the chief have used these for?
A Kushana coin
How has the king been portrayed?
What are the elements in the sculpture that suggest that this is an image of a king?
Why do you think kings claimed divine status?
In praise of Samudragupta
This is an excerpt from the Prayaga Prashasti:
He was without an antagonist on earth;
he, by the overflowing of the multitude of (his) many good qualities adorned by hundreds of good actions, has wiped off the fame of other kings with the soles of (his) feet;
(he is) Purusha (the Supreme Being), being the cause of the prosperity of the good and the
(he is) incomprehensible;
(he is) one whose tender heart can be captured only by devotion and humility;
(he is) possessed of compassion;
(he is) the giver of many hundred-thousands of cows;
(his) mind has received ceremonial initiation for the uplift of the miserable, the poor, the forlorn and
(he is) resplendent and embodied kindness to mankind;
(he is) equal to (the gods) Kubera (the god of wealth), Varuna (the god of the ocean), Indra (the god of rains) and Yama (the god of death)…
5. A Changing Countryside
5.1 Popular perceptions of kings
What did subjects think about their rulers?
Obviously, inscriptions do not provide all the answers.
In fact, ordinary people rarely left accounts of their
thoughts and experiences. Nevertheless, historians
have tried to solve this problem by examining stories
contained in anthologies such as the Jatakas and
the Panchatantra. Many of these stories probably
originated as popular oral tales that were later
committed to writing. The Jatakas were written in
Pali around the middle of the first millennium CE.
One story known as the Gandatindu Jataka
describes the plight of the subjects of a wicked king;
these included elderly women and men, cultivators,
herders, village boys and even animals. When the
king went in disguise to find out what his subjects
thought about him, each one of them cursed him for
their miseries, complaining that they were attacked
by robbers at night and by tax collectors during the
day. To escape from this situation, people abandoned
their village and went to live in the forest.
As this story indicates, the relationship between
a king and his subjects, especially the rural
population, could often be strained – kings
frequently tried to fill their coffers by demanding
high taxes, and peasants particularly found such
demands oppressive. Escaping into the forest
remained an option, as reflected in the Jataka story.
Meanwhile, other strategies aimed at increasing
production to meet growing demand for taxes also
came to be adopted.
5.2 Strategies for increasing production
One such strategy was the shift to plough
agriculture, which spread in fertile alluvial river
valleys such as those of the Ganga and the Kaveri
from c. sixth century BCE. The iron-tipped
ploughshare was used to turn the alluvial soil in
areas which had high rainfall. Moreover, in some
parts of the Ganga valley, production of paddy was
dramatically increased by the introduction of
transplantation, although this meant back-breaking
work for the producer.
While the iron ploughshare led to a growth in
agricultural productivity, its use was restricted to
certain parts of the subcontinent – cultivators in
Transplantation is used for
paddy cultivation in areas
where water is plentiful. Here,
seeds are first broadcast; when
the saplings have grown they
are transplanted in waterlogged
fields. This ensures a higher
ratio of survival of saplings and
(beautiful) lake in Gujarat
Find Girnar on Map 2. The
Sudarshana lake was an artificial
reservoir. We know about
it from a rock inscription
(c. second century CE) in
Sanskrit, composed to record
the achievements of the Shaka
The inscription mentions that
the lake, with embankments and
water channels, was built by a
local governor during the
rule of the Mauryas. However,
a terrible storm broke
the embankments and water
gushed out of the lake.
Rudradaman, who was then
ruling in the area, claimed to
have got the lake repaired using
his own resources, without
imposing any tax on his subjects.
Another inscription on the
same rock (c. fifth century)
mentions how one of the rulers
of the Gupta dynasty got the
lake repaired once again.
Why did rulers make
not to be republished
areas which were semi-arid, such as parts of Punjab
and Rajasthan did not adopt it till the twentieth
century, and those living in hilly tracts in the northeastern
and central parts of the subcontinent
practised hoe agriculture, which was much better
suited to the terrain.
Another strategy adopted to increase agricultural
production was the use of irrigation, through
wells and tanks, and less commonly, canals.
Communities as well as individuals organised the
construction of irrigation works. The latter, usually
powerful men including kings, often recorded such
activities in inscriptions.
5.3 Differences in rural society
While these technologies often led to an increase in
production, the benefits were very uneven. What is
evident is that there was a growing differentiation
amongst people engaged in agriculture – stories,
especially within the Buddhist tradition, refer to
landless agricultural labourers, small peasants, as
well as large landholders. The term gahapati was
often used in Pali texts to designate the second and
third categories. The large landholders, as well as
the village headman (whose position was often
hereditary), emerged as powerful figures, and often
exercised control over other cultivators. Early Tamil
literature (the Sangam texts) also mentions different
categories of people living in the villages – large
landowners or vellalar, ploughmen or uzhavar and
slaves or adimai. It is likely that these differences
were based on differential access to land, labour
and some of the new technologies. In such a
situation, questions of control over land must have
become crucial, as these were often discussed in
A gahapati was the owner, master or head of a
household, who exercised control over the women,
children, slaves and workers who shared a common
residence. He was also the owner of the resources –
land, animals and other things – that belonged to the
household. Sometimes the term was used as a marker
of status for men belonging to the urban elite, including
The importance of
The Manusmrti is one of the
best-known legal texts of early
India, written in Sanskrit and
compiled between c. second
century BCE and c. second
century CE. This is what the text
advises the king to do:
Seeing that in the world
controversies constantly arise
due to the ignorance of
boundaries, he should …
have … concealed boundary
markers buried – stones,
bones, cow ’s hair, chaff,
ashes, potsherds, dried cow
dung, bricks, coal, pebbles
and sand. He should also
have other similar substances
that would not decay in
the soil buried as hidden
markers at the intersection
Would these boundary
markers have been adequate
to resolve disputes?
KINGS, FARMERS AND TOWNS
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40 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY
5.4 Land grants and new rural elites
From the early centuries of the Common Era, we
find grants of land being made, many of which were
recorded in inscriptions. Some of these inscriptions
were on stone, but most were on copper plates
(Fig. 2.13) which were probably given as a record of
the transaction to those who received the land. The
records that have survived are generally about grants
to religious institutions or to Brahmanas. Most
inscriptions were in Sanskrit. In some cases, and
especially from the seventh century onwards, part
of the inscription was in Sanskrit, while the rest
was in a local language such as Tamil or Telugu.
Let us look at one such inscription more closely.
Prabhavati Gupta was the daughter of one of the
most important rulers in early Indian history,
Chandragupta II (c. 375-415 CE). She was married
into another important ruling family, that of the
Vakatakas, who were powerful in the Deccan (see
Map 3). According to Sanskrit legal texts, women
were not supposed to have independent access to
resources such as land. However, the inscription
indicates that Prabhavati had access to land, which
she then granted. This may have been because she
was a queen (one of the few known from early Indian
history), and her situation was therefore exceptional.
It is also possible that the provisions of legal texts
were not uniformly implemented.
The inscription also gives us an idea about rural
populations – these included Brahmanas and
peasants, as well as others who were expected to
provide a range of produce to the king or his
representatives. And according to the inscription,
they would have to obey the new lord of the village,
and perhaps pay him all these dues.
Land grants such as this one have been found in
several parts of the country. There were regional
variations in the sizes of land donated – ranging
from small plots to vast stretches of uncultivated
land – and the rights given to donees (the recipients
of the grant). The impact of land grants is a subject
of heated debate among historians. Some feel that
land grants were part of a strategy adopted by ruling
lineages to extend agriculture to new areas. Others
suggest that land grants were indicative of
weakening political power: as kings were losing
control over their samantas, they tried to win allies
How would you classify
the people described in the
text in terms of their
Life in a small village
The Harshacharita is a biography
of Harshavardhana, the ruler of
Kanauj (see Map 3), composed
in Sanskrit by his court poet,
Banabhatta (c. seventh century
CE). This is an excerpt from
the text, an extremely rare
representation of life in a
settlement on the outskirts of a
forest in the Vindhyas:
The outskirts being for the
most part forest, many
parcels of rice-land, threshing
ground and arable land were
being apportioned by small
farmers … it was mainly
spade culture … owing to the
difficulty of ploughing the
sparsely scattered fields
covered with grass, with their
few clear spaces, their black
soil stiff as black iron …
There were people moving
along with bundles of bark …
countless sacks of plucked
flowers, … loads of flax and
hemp bundles, quantities
of honey, peacocks’ tail
feathers, wreaths of wax,
logs, and grass. Village wives
hastened en route for
neighbouring villages, all
intent on thoughts of sale and
bearing on their heads
baskets filled with various
gathered forest fruits.
not to be republished
An agrahara was land granted
to a Brahmana, who was
usually exempted from paying
land revenue and other dues to
the king, and was often given the
right to collect these dues from
the local people.
Find out whether plough
agriculture, irrigation and
transplantation are prevalent
in your state. If not, are there
any alternative systems in
by making grants of land. They also feel that kings
tried to project themselves as supermen (as we saw
in the previous section) because they were losing
control: they wanted to present at least a façade of
Prabhavati Gupta and the
village of Danguna
This is what Prabhavati Gupta states in her inscription:
Prabhavati Gupta … commands the gramakutumbinas
(householders/peasants living in the village),
Brahmanas and others living in the village of Danguna
“Be it known to you that on the twelfth (lunar day)
of the bright (fortnight) of Karttika, we have, in order
to increase our religious merit donated this village with
the pouring out of water, to the Acharya (teacher)
Chanalasvamin … You should obey all (his) commands
We confer on (him) the following exemptions typical
of an agrahara …(this village is) not to be entered by
soldiers and policemen; (it is) exempt from (the
obligation to provide) grass, (animal) hides as seats,
and charcoal (to touring royal officers); exempt from
(the royal prerogative of) purchasing fermenting liquors
and digging (salt); exempt from (the right to) mines
and khadira trees; exempt from (the obligation to
supply) flowers and milk; (it is donated) together with
(the right to) hidden treasures and deposits (and)
together with major and minor taxes …”
This charter has been written in the thirteenth
(regnal) year. (It has been) engraved by Chakradasa.
What were the things produced in the village?
Land grants provide some insight into the
relationship between cultivators and the state.
However, there were people who were often beyond
the reach of officials or samantas: pastoralists,
fisherfolk and hunter-gatherers, mobile or semisedentary
artisans and shifting cultivators.
Generally, such groups did not keep detailed records
of their lives and transactions.
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42 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY
6. Towns and Trade
6.1 New cities
Let us retrace our steps back to the urban centres
that emerged in several parts of the subcontinent
from c. sixth century BCE. As we have seen, many of
these were capitals of mahajanapadas. Virtually all
major towns were located along routes of
communication. Some such as Pataliputra were on
riverine routes. Others, such as Ujjayini, were along
land routes, and yet others, such as Puhar, were
near the coast, from where sea routes began. Many
cities like Mathura were bustling centres of
commercial, cultural and political activity.
6.2 Urban populations:
Elites and craftspersons
We have seen that kings and ruling elites lived in
fortified cities. Although it is difficult to conduct
extensive excavations at most sites because people
live in these areas even today (unlike the Harappan
cities), a wide range of artefacts have been recovered
from them. These include fine pottery bowls and
dishes, with a glossy finish, known as Northern Black
Polished Ware, probably used by rich people, and
ornaments, tools, weapons, vessels, figurines, made
of a wide range of materials – gold, silver, copper,
bronze, ivory, glass, shell and terracotta.
The history of
Each city had a history of its own.
Pataliputra, for instance,
began as a village known as
Pataligrama. Then, in the fifth
century BCE, the Magadhan
rulers decided to shift their
capital from Rajagaha to this
settlement and renamed it. By
the fourth century BCE, it was
the capital of the Mauryan
Empire and one of the largest
cities in Asia. Subsequently,
its importance apparently
declined. When the Chinese
pilgrim Xuan Zang visited the
city in the seventh century CE,
he found it in ruins, and with a
very small population.
The gift of an image
This is part of an image from
Mathura. On the pedestal is a
Prakrit inscription, mentioning
that a woman named Nagapiya,
the wife of a goldsmith (sovanika)
named Dharmaka, installed this
image in a shrine.
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Some important kingdoms
Sketch map not to scale
BAY OF BENGAL
By the second century BCE, we find short votive
inscriptions in a number of cities. These mention
the name of the donor, and sometimes specify his/
her occupation as well. They tell us about people
who lived in towns: washing folk, weavers, scribes,
carpenters, potters, goldsmiths, blacksmiths,
officials, religious teachers, merchants and kings.
Sometimes, guilds or shrenis, organisations of
craft producers and merchants, are mentioned as
well. These guilds probably procured raw
materials, regulated production, and marketed the
finished product. It is likely that craftspersons
used a range of iron tools to meet the growing
demands of urban elites.
KINGS, FARMERS AND TOWNS
Votive inscriptions record gifts
made to religious institutions.
Were there any cities in the
region where the Harappan
civilisation flourished in the
third millennium BCE?
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44 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY
6.3 Trade in the subcontinent and beyond
From the sixth century BCE, land and river routes
criss-crossed the subcontinent and extended in
various directions – overland into Central Asia and
beyond, and overseas, from ports that dotted the
coastline – extending across the Arabian Sea to East
and North Africa and West Asia, and through the
Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia and China. Rulers
often attempted to control these routes, possibly by
offering protection for a price.
Those who traversed these routes included
peddlers who probably travelled on foot and
merchants who travelled with caravans of bullock
carts and pack-animals. Also, there were seafarers,
whose ventures were risky but highly profitable.
Successful merchants, designated as masattuvan
in Tamil and setthis and satthavahas in Prakrit,
could become enormously rich. A wide range of
goods were carried from one place to another – salt,
grain, cloth, metal ores and finished products,
stone, timber, medicinal plants, to name a few.
Spices, especially pepper, were in high demand in
the Roman Empire, as were textiles and medicinal
plants, and these were all transported across the
Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean.
6.4 Coins and kings
To some extent, exchanges were facilitated by the
introduction of coinage. Punch-marked coins made
of silver and copper (c. sixth century BCE onwards)
were amongst the earliest to be minted and used.
These have been recovered from excavations at a
number of sites throughout the subcontinent.
Numismatists have studied these and other coins to
reconstruct possible commercial networks.
Attempts made to identify the symbols on punchmarked
coins with specific ruling dynasties,
including the Mauryas, suggest that these were
issued by kings. It is also likely that merchants,
bankers and townspeople issued some of these coins.
The first coins to bear the names and images of
rulers were issued by the Indo-Greeks, who
established control over the north-western part of
the subcontinent c. second century BCE.
The first gold coins were issued c. first century CE
by the Kushanas. These were virtually identical in
weight with those issued by contemporary Roman
“Periplus” is a Greek word
meaning sailing around and
“Erythraean” was the Greek
name for the Red Sea.
The Malabar coast
Here is an excerpt from Periplus
of the Erythraean Sea,
composed by an anonymous
Greek sailor (c. first century CE):
They (i.e. traders from
abroad) send large ships to
these market-towns on
account of the great quantity
and bulk of pepper and
cinnamon, produced in these
regions). There are imported
here, in the first place, a great
quantity of coin; topaz …
antimony (a mineral used as
a colouring substance), coral,
crude glass, copper, tin, lead
… There is exported pepper,
which is produced in quantity
in only one region near these
markets … Besides this there
are exported great quantities
of fine pearls, ivory, silk
cloth, … transparent stones
of all kinds, diamonds and
sapphires, and tortoise shell.
Archaeological evidence of a
bead-making industry, using
precious and semi-precious
stones, has been found in
Kodumanal (Tamil Nadu). It is
likely that local traders brought
the stones mentioned in the
Periplus from sites such as
these to the coastal ports.
Why did the author
compile this list?
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emperors and the Parthian rulers of Iran, and have
been found from several sites in north India and
Central Asia. The widespread use of gold coins
indicates the enormous value of the transactions
that were taking place. Besides, hoards of Roman
coins have been found from archaeological sites in
south India. It is obvious that networks of trade were
not confined within political boundaries: south India
was not part of the Roman Empire, but there were
close connections through trade.
Coins were also issued by tribal republics such
as that of the Yaudheyas of Punjab and Haryana
(c. first century CE). Archaeologists have unearthed
several thousand copper coins issued by the
Yaudheyas, pointing to the latter’s interest and
participation in economic exchanges.
Some of the most spectacular gold coins were
issued by the Gupta rulers. The earliest issues
are remarkable for their purity. These coins
facilitated long-distance transactions from which
kings also benefited.
From c. sixth century CE onwards, finds of gold
coins taper off. Does this indicate that there was
some kind of an economic crisis? Historians are
divided on this issue. Some suggest that with the
collapse of the Western Roman Empire long-distance
trade declined, and this affected the prosperity of
the states, communities and regions that had
benefited from it. Others argue that new towns and
networks of trade started emerging around this time.
They also point out that though finds of coins of
that time are fewer, coins continue to be mentioned
in inscriptions and texts. Could it be that there are
fewer finds because coins were in circulation rather
than being hoarded?
Numismatics is the study of
coins, including visual elements
such as scripts and images,
metallurgical analysis and the
contexts in which they have
A punch-marked coin, so named
because symbols were punched or
stamped onto the metal surface
A Gupta coin
What are the transactions
involved in trade? Which of
these transactions are
apparent from the sources
mentioned? Are there any
that are not evident from the
A Yaudheya coin
KINGS, FARMERS AND TOWNS
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46 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY
7. Back to Basics
How Are Inscriptions Deciphered?
So far, we have been studying excerpts from
inscriptions amongst other things. But how do
historians find out what is written on them?
7.1 Deciphering Brahmi
Most scripts used to write modern Indian languages
are derived from Brahmi, the script used in most
Asokan inscriptions. From the late eighteenth
century, European scholars aided by Indian pandits
worked backwards from contemporary Bengali
and Devanagari (the script used to write Hindi)
manuscripts, comparing their letters with older
Scholars who studied early inscriptions sometimes
assumed these were in Sanskrit, although the
earliest inscriptions were, in fact, in Prakrit. It was
only after decades of painstaking investigations by
several epigraphists that James Prinsep was able to
decipher Asokan Brahmi in 1838.
7.2 How Kharosthi was read
The story of the decipherment of Kharosthi, the script
used in inscriptions in the northwest, is different.
Here, finds of coins of Indo-Greek kings who ruled
over the area (c. second-first centuries BCE) have
An Asokan inscription
Asokan Brahmi with Devanagari
Do some Devanagari letters
appear similar to Brahmi? Are
there any that seem different?
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facilitated matters. These coins contain the names
of kings written in Greek and Kharosthi scripts.
European scholars who could read the former
compared the letters. For instance, the symbol
for “a” could be found in both scripts for writing
names such as Apollodotus. With Prinsep identifying
the language of the Kharosthi inscriptions as Prakrit,
it became possible to read longer inscriptions as well.
7.3 Historical evidence from inscriptions
To find out how epigraphists and historians work,
let us look at two Asokan inscriptions more closely.
Note that the name of the ruler, Asoka, is not
mentioned in the inscription (Source 10). What is
used instead are titles adopted by the ruler –
devanampiya, often translated as “beloved of the
gods” and piyadassi, or “pleasant to behold”. The
name Asoka is mentioned in some other inscriptions,
which also contain these titles. After examining all
these inscriptions, and finding that they match in
terms of content, style, language and palaeography,
epigraphists have concluded that they were issued
by the same ruler.
You may also have noticed that Asoka claims that
earlier rulers had no arrangements to receive reports.
If you consider the political history of the
subcontinent prior to Asoka, do you think this
statement is true? Historians have to constantly
assess statements made in inscriptions to judge
whether they are true, plausible or exaggerations.
Did you notice that there are words within
brackets? Epigraphists sometimes add these to make
the meaning of sentences clear. This has to be done
carefully, to ensure that the intended meaning of
the author is not changed.
A coin of the Indo-Greek king
The orders of the king
Thus speaks king Devanampiya
In the past, there were no
arrangements for disposing
affairs, nor for receiving
regular reports. But I
have made the following
should report to me about the
affairs of the people at all
times, anywhere, whether I
am eating, in the inner
apartment, in the bedroom,
in the cow pen, being carried
(possibly in a palanquin), or
in the garden. And I will
dispose of the affairs of the
translated the term
pativedaka as reporter.
In what ways would the
functions of the
pativedaka have been
different from those we
generally associate with
KINGS, FARMERS AND TOWNS
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48 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY
Historians have to make other assessments as
well. If a king’s orders were inscribed on natural
rocks near cities or important routes of
communication, would passers-by have stopped to
read these? Most people were probably not literate.
Did everybody throughout the subcontinent
understand the Prakrit used in Pataliputra? Would
the orders of the king have been followed? Answers
to such questions are not always easy to find.
Some of these problems are evident if we look at
an Asokan inscription (Source 11), which has often
been interpreted as reflecting the anguish of the
ruler, as well as marking a change in his attitude
towards warfare. As we shall see, the situation
becomes more complex once we move beyond reading
the inscription at face value.
While Asokan inscriptions have been found in
present-day Orissa, the one depicting his anguish
is missing. In other words, the inscription has not
been found in the region that was conquered. What
are we to make of that? Is it that the anguish of the
recent conquest was too painful in the region, and
therefore the ruler was unable to address the issue?
8. The Limitations of Inscriptional
By now it is probably evident that there are limits to
what epigraphy can reveal. Sometimes, there are
technical limitations: letters are very faintly
engraved, and thus reconstructions are uncertain.
Also, inscriptions may be damaged or letters missing.
Besides, it is not always easy to be sure about the
exact meaning of the words used in inscriptions,
some of which may be specific to a particular place
or time. If you go through an epigraphical journal
(some are listed in Timeline 2), you will realise that
scholars are constantly debating and discussing
alternative ways of reading inscriptions.
Although several thousand inscriptions have been
discovered, not all have been deciphered, published
and translated. Besides, many more inscriptions
must have existed, which have not survived the
ravages of time. So what is available at present is
probably only a fraction of what was inscribed.
There is another, perhaps more fundamental,
problem: not everything that we may consider
The anguish of the king
When the king Devanampiya
Piyadassi had been ruling
for eight years, the (country
of the) Kalingas (presentday
coastal Orissa) was
conquered by (him).
One hundred and fifty
thousand men were deported,
a hundred thousand were
killed, and many more died.
After that, now that (the
country of) the Kalingas has
been taken, Devanampiya (is
devoted) to an intense study
of Dhamma, to the love of
Dhamma, and to instructing
(the people) in Dhamma.
This is the repentance of
Devanampiya on account of
his conquest of the (country
of the) Kalingas.
For this is considered very
painful and deplorable
by Devanampiya that,
while one is conquering
an unconquered (country)
slaughter, death and
deportation of people (take
place) there …
Look at Map 2 and discuss
the location of Asokan
inscriptions. Do you notice
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politically or economically significant was necessarily
recorded in inscriptions. For instance, routine
agricultural practices and the joys and sorrows of
daily existence find no mention in inscriptions, which
focus, more often than not, on grand, unique events.
Besides, the content of inscriptions almost invariably
projects the perspective of the person(s) who
commissioned them. As such, they need to be
juxtaposed with other perspectives so as to arrive at
a better understanding of the past.
Thus epigraphy alone does not provide a full
understanding of political and economic history. Also,
historians often question both old and new evidence.
Scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries were primarily interested in the histories
of kings. From the mid-twentieth century onwards,
issues such as economic change, and the ways in
which different social groups emerged have assumed
far more importance. Recent decades have seen a
much greater preoccupation with histories of
marginalised groups. This will probably lead to fresh
investigations of old sources, and the development
of new strategies of analysis.
A copperplate inscription from
Karnataka, c. sixth century CE
KINGS, FARMERS AND TOWNS
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50 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY
Major Political and Economic Developments
c.600-500 BCE Paddy transplantation; urbanisation in the
Ganga valley; mahajanapadas; punch-marked coins
c. 500-400 BCE Rulers of Magadha consolidate power
c. 327-325 BCE Invasion of Alexander of Macedon
c. 321 BCE Accession of Chandragupta Maurya
c. 272/268-231 BCE Reign of Asoka
c. 185 BCE End of the Mauryan empire
c. 200-100 BCE Indo-Greek rule in the northwest; Cholas, Cheras
and Pandyas in south India; Satavahanas in the Deccan
c. 100 BCE-200 CE Shaka (peoples from Central Asia) rulers in
the northwest; Roman trade; gold coinage
c. 78 CE? Accession of Kanishka
c.100-200 CE Earliest inscriptional evidence of land
grants by Satavahana and Shaka rulers
c. 320 CE Beginning of Gupta rule
c. 335-375 CE Samudragupta
c. 375-415 CE Chandragupta II; Vakatakas in the Deccan
c. 500-600 CE Rise of the Chalukyas in Karnataka and of the Pallavas
in Tamil Nadu
c. 606-647 CE Harshavardhana king of Kanauj; Chinese pilgrim
Xuan Zang comes in search of Buddhist texts
c. 712 Arabs conquer Sind
(Note: It is difficult to date economic developments precisely. Also, there are enormous
subcontinental variations which have not been indicated in the timeline.
Only the earliest dates for specific developments have been given. The date of Kanishka’s
accession is not certain and this has been marked with a‘?’)
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Major Advances in Epigraphy
1784 Founding of the Asiatic Society (Bengal)
1810s Colin Mackenzie collects over 8,000 inscriptions in
Sanskrit and Dravidian languages
1838 Decipherment of Asokan Brahmi by James Prinsep
1877 Alexander Cunningham publishes a set of Asokan
1886 First issue of Epigraphia Carnatica, a journal of south
1888 First issue of Epigraphia Indica
1965-66 D.C. Sircar publishes Indian Epigraphy and Indian
Answer in 100-150 words
1. Discuss the evidence of craft production in Early
Historic cities. In what ways is this different from
the evidence from Harappan cities?
2. Describe the salient features of mahajanapadas.
3. How do historians reconstruct the lives of
4. Compare and contrast the list of things given to
the Pandyan chief (Source 3) with those produced
in the village of Danguna (Source 8). Do you
notice any similarities or differences?
5. List some of the problems faced by epigraphists.
KINGS, FARMERS AND TOWNS
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52 THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY
If you would like to know
D.N. Jha. 2004.
Early India: A Concise History.
Manohar, New Delhi.
R. Salomon. 1998.
Indian Epigraphy. Munshiram
Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd,
R.S. Sharma. 1983.
Material Culture and Social
Formation in Early India.
Macmillan, New Delhi.
D.C. Sircar. 1975.
Inscriptions of Asoka.
Publications Division, Ministry of
Information and Broadcasting,
Government of India, New Delhi.
Romila Thapar. 1997.
Asoka and the Decline of the
Mauryas. Oxford University Press,
For more information,
you could visit:
Write a short essay (about
500 words) on the following:
6. Discuss the main features of Mauryan
administration. Which of these elements are evident
in the Asokan inscriptions that you have studied?
7. This is a statement made by one of the best-known
epigraphists of the twentieth century, D.C. Sircar:
“There is no aspect of life, culture and activities of
the Indians that is not reflected in inscriptions.”
8. Discuss the notions of kingship that developed in the
9. To what extent were agricultural practices
transformed in the period under consideration?
10. Compare Maps 1 and 2, and list the mahajanapadas
that might have been included in the Mauryan
Empire. Are any Asokan inscriptions found in these
Project (any one)
11. Collect newspapers for one month. Cut and paste all
the statements made by government officials about
public works. Note what the reports say about the
resources required for such projects, how the
resources are mobilised and the objective of the
project. Who issues these statements, and how and
why are they communicated? Compare and contrast
these with the evidence from inscriptions discussed
in this chapter. What are the similarities and
differences that you notice?
12. Collect five different kinds of currency notes and coins
in circulation today. For each one of these, describe
what you see on the obverse and the reverse (the front
and the back). Prepare a report on the common
features as well as the differences in terms of pictures,
scripts and languages, size, shape and any other
element that you find significant. Compare these with
the coins shown in this chapter, discussing the
materials used, the techniques of minting, the visual
symbols and their significance and the possible
functions that coins may have had.
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