Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Economy of Mauryan Empire

Mauryan Empire
The Indian Sub-Continent hosted numerous kingdoms and empires. It lands became fertile thanks to the flow of numerous rivers and estuaries, including the well-known rivers of Indus and Ganges. One of the first and largest empire in Ancient India was the Mauryan Empire. The laws of its ruler Ashoka made Maurya well-known. But the strength of its rulers equaled the strength of its prosperous economy.

For two centuries, the Mauryan Empire dominated the Indian sub-continent. Founded in 322 BCE by Chandragupta Maurya, it became a superpower that earned respect and also enemies. For more than two centuries it existed. Behind its long period of existence was its economy. 

Based on the records of Megasthenes, a picture of Maurya’s economy could be painted. Maurya had an organized economy with the status given to each field chosen.

The caste system of the Mauryan Empire showed the most important and ranking of the different professions within the empire. From the seven levels in the caste system, three levels involved being a farmer, shepherd, or an artisan. Second, from the top of the caste system were the farmers. Farmers had the privilege of being exempted from fighting in wars. But farmers had the obligation to pay a tax of 25%. Next, third within the caste system, shepherds shared the rank with other animal involved activities like trappers, hunters, and pest controllers. Following the shepherds were the artisans in the fourth rank. Artisans included armorers, shipbuilders, implement makers, and other crafts and industries. They were also tax exempted. Also, some artisans, like shipbuilders, weapon makers, and armorers, were made to work for the state in exchange for salaries paid by the treasury.

Agriculture was the primary source of livelihood of most Mauryan Indians. Maurya’s agriculture was dominated by small landlords. Slaves and Sudras helped to maintain the lands. But there were some lands made into farms by slaves and Sudras under the orders of the state. Land ownership was reserved for the King. Virtually, all lands in the Mauryan Kingdom were owned by the King. But the King allowed small landowners to keep the land in exchange for tax payments. The agriculture of Maurya India was bountiful and strong. According to Megathenes, India didn’t have a famine. Farmers could harvest crops twice a year. Their main crops were grains, millet, rice, and a special type of Indian millet called bosporum. Other than grains, some farmers cultivated orchards of different fruit trees as well. Another factor for a good agricultural sector was the government’s support. One example was Chandragupta’s lake Sudarshana project, a dam meant to provide irrigation in the Gujarat Province.

Agriculture also became the backbone of Maurya’s finances. A 25% tax was imposed on every harvest of farmers. But in special cases, some villages were allowed to pay a collective tax known as the pindakara.

Alongside agriculture, animal husbandry also became a source of livelihood and supplied food to the empire. Lands not fit for agricultural use were utilized for grazing of various animals, from cattle, to sheep, and to goats. It was a lucrative job. The state also provided security and welfare towards the shepherds. Compensation and other financial support were given to them.

Another important and vital part of Maurya’s economy was its industries. Artisans were important to the state, especially those related to weapons-making and shipbuilding. Maurya Empire was a highly militarized state involved in many wars. The state then provided work and protection to many artisans. One example was a law under which a man causing an artisan to lose his sight or hands would be executed. But for other peaceful industries, like weavers, oil-millers, ivory workers, and others, much of the support they needed came from their guilds. Guilds or Shrenis dominated the artisan’s world. Shrenis provided financial support in times of trouble. They provide warehouses, workshops, and also transportation and protection from attacks. Shrenis provide patronage for work. Also, it allowed artisan's position to become hereditary. Thus, a father could pass his skill to his son, and so on.

In addition to industries and agriculture, trade and commerce were also lucrative. The rivers of India provided a network for transportation and distribution. Besides, the Mauryan kings supported the construction of roads and highways that boosted trade further under a special department created for the task. Commerce also became a source of revenue for the government. A 10% tax was issued for every good sold. Moreover, the Mauryans also developed its currency. Made out of either silver or gold, it was usually bear figures inspired by nature: sun, moon, mountains, etc.

Mining was also important for the Maurya Empire. Gold, silver, copper, iron, and tin were mined in many areas across the empire. It became the source of minerals needed for the manufacturing of weapons and armors for the King’s military campaign. It also provided the needed metal to maintain the currency.

A special part of the Maurya economy was the business of money lending. Moneylenders provided loans for farmers and new settlers looking for a land to work on. Also, they provided loans for merchants and artisans as well. Moneylenders impose a .15% interest charge on loans and advances were needed. But loans in very hazardous and volatile industries were charged with higher interest: 50%. However, the state did not provide protection on such lenders. If a person chose to default or not to pay his loan, the lender could not file a complaint to the government. It was highly profitable but dangerous.

The economy of the Mauryan economy shows a dynamic and organized economy. It helped the Empire to grow and prosper for several years. It gave wealth to the kingdom and its kings. It added to the prestige and power of the great Mauryan Empire.

Avari, B. India: The Ancient Past, A History of the Indian-Subcontinent from 7000 BC to AD 1200. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Megasthenes. Indica. Ancient Greece, 3rd – 2nd century BCE.

Rai, R. Themes in Indian History. New Delhi: V.K. Enterprises, 2011.


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