Friday, April 11, 2014

Economy of the Gupta Empire

Chandragupta II
India occupies a large area of Asia. It is characterized as a sub-continent for its large territory. Alongside of its vast and wide ranging terrain it was gifted with many rivers that made its soil fertile for various wide of crops. It allowed subsistence and even wealth to its farmers. It allowed wide ranging of economic activities which had and would sustain various empires in history.  The most famous of these empires was the Mughal Empire that reign through the 16th to the 19th century. But even before back there were other powerful empires that had capitalized on the natural wealth of India. One such empire was the Gupta Empire.

India, 5th century CE – Various Kingdoms had divided India. After the last great Maurya Empire, various Kingdoms and empires had rose and fallen. Local leaders fought with other leaders in order to gain glory, power, and wealth. This had been the condition for several centuries until in the 3rd century when a dynasty began to unify the northern Kingdoms of India and form it into and Empire. The Guptas marched to glory and became formally established under its ruler Chandragupta I who ascended to the throne in 320 CE. He and his successors would preside over an economy that was plentiful and prosperous.

Various activities had gave energy to the Gupta Empire’s economy. Agriculture provided primary subsistence and source of many export goods. Industries of simple crafts flourished and provided a lot of earnings for many citizens and guilds. But a hallmark of the Gupta economy was its trade relations with various civilizations.  With these activities, it sustained the Gupta Empire for several hundreds of years.

Agriculture during the Gupta Empire was bountiful. The rivers of Ganges, Brahmaputra, Narmada, Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri provided the source of irrigation. With Gupta administration constructing numerous irrigation infrastructure such as aqueducts, dams, and canals, large areas of the Empire became very fertile for farmers to till. Various crops, important to the diet of the Indians, were grown. This include rice, wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. Spices in the southern region of the Empire. Landownership and sharecropping system was in existent.  For instance, a tenant farming a land owned by non-tiling land lord must give 33-55% of his produce. Transferring of landownership was not just the concern of the owner but also the community. Land transfers must be made in presence of the village council. The state also owned lands called Rajayavastu, which were usually given to landless farmers. The climate of India allowed farmers to harvest a lot of crops. The climate of India relied to the monsoons of the region. Because of the monsoons, farmers could have a harvest twice a year. But in times of luck, farmers could have three harvests a year.

For the industries of the empire, it mostly relied on light goods and handicrafts. Textile was fledgling industry during the Gupta Dynasty. Various source of thread like wool and animal skins were processed to make good quality cloth for both domestic and abroad. Handicrafts made of various materials were also used to make different goods. For example, ivory and bones were carved to create statues and accessories. Feathers were also made into fans. Besides animal raw materials, mining was also active during the period. India was abundant with gold, silver and copper. It abundance allowed the Gupta government to produce coins, which glorified its rulers. Besides coins, metallurgy trade was also healthy. Utensils and tools were produce out of the three metals. The best testament of the metallurgy during the Gupta Dynasty was the 7 feet iron pillar of Delhi. Production of incense and perfume were also made during the Empire. Herbs and other plants with beautiful fragrance were raised in some areas of India and then processed by some workshops to make it into perfumes for export, for nobility, and also for royalty. Incense were also produce as Buddhism flourished in India.

Most of the industries were tasked to numerous guilds. These trade guilds were both politically and economically influential. Guilds could control one trade in a province and wield economic dominance. Moreover, they became politically influential due to the militias they maintained. These militias were called upon by the ruler during in times of war. The original purpose of this militias were more of security. The militias provide protection for traders from attacks of bandits and, on sea, of pirates. The usual set up of governance of the guild placed a jethaka or a chief craftsman at the highest position. This position was hereditary and, mostly, the richest of all members of the guild. Bellow the chief craftsman was a council of senior craftsman. It was compose of members who were well-skilled and had a long experience under their belts.

Trade was another hallmark of the Gupta Empire. The Gupta Empire had a very diverse trade markets for its imports and exports. It had trade relations with the Roman Empire in the west. They export textile, perfume, and other luxury goods to Rome. However, when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, they shifted the focus of their trade to the east. They shifted their focus towards the Indianized kingdoms in Southeast Asia, such as Funan, Chenla, and Champa. Many guilds were also formed by trade. This guilds provide ship building and repair. As stated earlier, it also provided escorts for trading ships to avoid pirate attacks. Trade, however, did not just confine across the seas. With vast land mass, domestic trade flourished. River and canal provided the distribution highway of goods across the Gupta Empire. Various cities flourished with domestic trade. Cities like Ujian, Prayaga, Banaras, Gaya, Pataliputra, and Ayodhya experience bustling trade and prosperity.

Economically prosperity, however, was not matched by political and military mightiness. Several successors of Chandragupta II became weaker and weaker. Local warlords once again began to carve out the empire into small kingdoms. Militarily, invasions from foreigners also began to further weaken the Empire.  By the 6th century, the Gupta Empire disappeared.

See also:
Agriculture of Mughal Empire
The Economy of Mauryan Empire

Higham, C. Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2004. 

Jayapalan, N. Economic History of India: Ancient to Present. New Delhi: Atlantic Publisher and Distributor Ltd., 2008. 

Rai, R. Themes in Indian History. New Delhi: V.K. enterprises, 2010. 

Sen, S. Ancient Indian History and Civilization
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“Economic Life During Gupta Empire.” India Net Zone. Accessed April 11, 2014.