Rise and Fall of the Maurya Empire

It dominated India from 321 BCE to 185 BCE becoming the subcontinents earliest Empires. Whether influenced of Alexander the Great or not, it placed huge lands under the command of Mauryan Emperors. At its center, Pataliputra, a show piece of wealth, sophistication, and piety of the powerful Mauryan Empire.


The Mauryan Empire owed its establishment to Chandragupta Maurya. Before, Northern India, especially the Ganges plains saw war between numerous kingdoms called majahanapadas. Then a new dynasty, the Nanda, emerged to be the most powerful in the region until the emergence of Chandragupta.

Chandragupta Maurya lived a life clouded with mystery. He had a mysterious background, but surely he became a protégé of a Brahmin thinker who loathed the Nandas – Kautilya. He, said to be inspired by Alexander the Great who marched into India in 320’s BCE, rebelled against the Nandas. In 321 BCE, with Kautilya as his chief counsel, he defeated the Nandas, took Pataliputra, and placed under his command Magadha region establishing the Maurya Dynasty.

Rise of the Maurya Empire

Chandragupta campaigned to expand and to defend his empire. From Magadha, he extended his reach to the neighboring kingdoms. When his borders reached that of the Seleucid Empire, tensions rose until it erupted into a war in 305 BCE. Chandragupta successfully repulsed the invasion and a truce struck by both sides. This led to peace and friendship between the 2 empires. During this period of friendship that the Greek writer Megasthenes served as ambassador to the Mauryas recounting his impressions of India to his now fragmented work Indika.
An impression of Kautilya
Kautilya, Chandragupta’s mentor, served as his chief minister. He contributed in the effective administration of the empire allowing it to consolidate and thrive. He preserved many of his ideas in his political treatise called the Arthashastra which many called India’s The Prince even though the Indian work was made thousands of years before Machiavelli.

The powerful tandem of Chandragupta and Kautilya formed the foundation on which his successors built upon. He established a standing army later numbering 100,000 at its height. It also boasted hundreds of trained war elephants at its disposal.
Chandragupta welcoming a bride
from the Seleucid Empire
With effective administration and a large powerful army, Maurya Emperors expanded their control until it dominated Northern India and poised to strike on much of Southern India. They reached their apex under the rule of its famous Emperor Ashoka.

Pinnacle of Power

Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta, became the most famous Emperor of the Maurya and dubbed as the greatest ruler in Indian History. Though he began his reign in conflict, he later ruled with compassion and remorse throughout the rest of his years as ruler. Under his rule, the Mauryan Empire reached its zenith.

Emperor Ashoka came to power after a civil war in 268 BCE. He continued to expand Maurya’s border until 260 BCE when he conquered the lands of Kalinga. The cost of the Kalinga campaign in human lives, however, brought Ashoka deep sense of guilt.

He found solitude with the growing religion called Buddhism and converted. Since then, Ashoka ruled with compassion and determination to promote dharma or righteous living preached by the Buddha. He showed great interest to the welfare of all his subjects – from the lowest to the highest, from animals to humans. He expressed his desire for the prosperity and well-being of his subjects through numerous pillars and rock carvings he had erected in major centers of the Empire.
Kandahar Edict
And as a man changed by Buddhism, it came no surprise he promoted the religion. Though he kept tolerance and freedom of worship, he gave tremendous attention to the growth of Buddhism. He hosted a Buddhist Council or a Sangha in the capital of Patalipura, He then sent missionaries to foreign lands even to the extent of having his relatives participate. His devotion led also to a change in landscape of the Empire as hundreds of temples and stupas – huge dome structure containing a Buddhist relic – went up.

Ashoka considered himself the father of his subjects and to do so he maintained keeping an effective government. Due to the extensive size of the empire and limits in communication, he established 4 provinces within the empire: Kalinga, Taxila, Ujjain, and Survarnagiri (modern day Karnataka). He placed under each provinces a governor answerable to him. He also appointed Dharma Minister to report on the performance of his officials and on the conditions of his subjects. He also built roads and rest houses to connect major centers of the empire to Patalipura.

Pataliputra – Center of the Maurya Empire

The vast Mauryan Empire ruled over much of India and even beyond, but at the center of this vast domain laid its capital Patalipura. Now known as Patna, the city located in the junction between the Ganges and Son Rivers. Much of the details of the city came from the Greek emissary Megasthenes who described it as a parallelogram in lay out and surrounded by palisades and ditches.
Remains of the wooden palisade
Halls and palaces occupied the city center. Ruins of the palaces with beautiful carvings amazed pilgrims visiting the city even centuries after the fall of the Maurya. Some pillars had capitals inspired by Greeks and Persians. The Assembly Hall of 80 Pillars impressed many archaeologist who found its remains by the capability of the Mauryans to move sandstones and polish it just like their contemporaries in Greece and Egypt. With Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhism, temples and stupas also scattered in the capital making the city a major pilgrimage site.
Capitals excavated in Pataliputra
Architectural Monuments

Moreover, Buddhist temples and stupas not only scattered within Pataliputra but also across the Empire. Ashoka ordered the construction of these structures in many places displaying sculptures and carvings inspired by Greeks and Persians. Sites like the Sanchi Stupa and the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, had their origins during the Maurya Empire.

Pillars and rock carving edicts also served as a reminder of the Mauryan Empire. It became means for Ashoka to communicate with his people. Made of polish sandstone, beautifully carved animal capitals topped the pillars. It had griffins, horses, and lions. The Sarnath Capital, however, became the most widely known. Its capital of 4 lions facing different direction in a pedestal with the “Ashoka” wheel became the national emblem of the Republic of India.
National Emblem of India

The Mauryan Empire had a dynamic and organize economy. It based from agriculture especially within the Ganges and Indus plains. Trade flourished especially with currency being minted and used. Special guilds also existed. The caste system also allowed specialization in trade.

Small industries also existed. Smiths worked to arm the military and equip farmers. Masons had employment with huge construction projects planned by the Mauryan Emperors.

With bountiful agriculture and industries, the Maurya Empire thrived.

Decline and Fall of the Mauryan Empire

Right after the end of Ashoka’s rule in 232 BCE, not much details came about his successors. The decline of the empire remained a mystery. However, by 184 BCE, the Empire descended into internal strife. Ambitious general Pushyamitra Shunga rebelled against his Mauryan liege and killed the last Mauryan Emperor Brihadnatha. The death of Brihadnatha put an end to the Mauryan Dynasty. 

See also:

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Mauryan Empire.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. (September 30, 2018). https://www.britannica.com/place/Mauryan-Empire

"Mauryan Empire." Encyclopedia of India. Encyclopedia.com. (August 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mauryan-empire

General References:

Jiu-hwa Lo Upshur. “Mauryan Empire.” In Encyclopedia of World History. Edited by Marsha Ackermann. New York, New York: Facts on File, 2008.

“Maurya Empire.” In Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. Edited by Shona Grimbly. Chicago Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.


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