Economy and Trade in Post Mauryan Period

Literature and archaeology amply indicate that the period between 200 BCE and 300 CE was one of urban prosperity all over the subcontinent. Indeed it can be said to represent the apogee of early historic urbanism. Not only did cities that arose in the sixth century BCE, primarily in the Gangetic valley and the Malwa region, flourish but new towns came into being and city life spread to new regions as well, such as Kashmir, Sindh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Orissa, Andhra, Karnataka and the deep south. This went hand in hand with the expansion of agriculture, crafts production and trade, on the one hand, and the establishment of new ruling dynasties and power centers, on the other.

Economy in Post Mauryan Period

Growth of Cities

Cities in this period not only show extensive construction activity, complex burnt brick buildings, well laid out streets and drains, and fortification walls but the adoption of new techniques like the use of tiles in flooring and roofing. There is also abundant evidence from the urban centers of the presence of coinage, a range of sophisticated artifacts like fine pottery, beads and terracottas, and of a population that engaged in a variety of urban occupations. A list of the thriving cities of this period includes Rajagriha, Pataliputra, Varanasi, Shravasti, Kaushambi, Mathura, Hastinapura, Ayodhya, Ujjayini, Pratishthana, and new towns like Sirkap, Sirsukh and Shaikhan (north-west) Hushkapura and Kanishkapura (Kashmir), Purushapura (Pakistan), Jaugada and Shishupalagarh (Orissa), Bairat and Nagari (Rajasthan), Kaundinyanagara and Bhogavardhana (Maharashtra), Nagarajunakonda and Amaravati (Andra). At the root of this urban efflorescence was undoubtedly a firm agrarian base. While we no longer hear of state farms like under the Mauryas, texts like the Jatakas, Milindapanho and Manusmriti convey a picture of thriving cultivation on privately or individually owned plots of land in this period. Some inscriptions from the western Deccan indicate that the fields ranged in size from 2,3 or 4 nivartanas (one nivartana=one and a half acres) to 100 nivartanas or more. Nonetheless, the king exercised a general territorial sovereignty thanks to which he could grant (the revenue from) entire villages as dana to brahmanas and bhikkhu sanghas. In fact the earliest inscriptional evidence of royal land grants comes from the Satavahana kingdom (Maharashtra) from the first century BCE and then again from the second century CE. Royal land grants carried certain privileges for the donee like exemption from tax freedom from entry of royal troops. They begin to be endowed in perpetuity, known as the akshaya nivi land tenure, under the Kushanas. The practice of making land grants was to become common from the Gupta period onwards, with important consequences for the agrarian structure.

Crafts Production

A striking feature of the post-Mauryan economic scene was the remarkable growth in crafts production. Both texts and donatives inscriptions from stupa sites like Sanchi, Bharut and Mathura indicate proliferation and a high degree of specialization of craft-based occupations. The Mahavastu lists 36 kinds in Rajagriha alone and the Milindapanho enumerates as many as 75. Some of the artisan groups mentioned are blacksmiths (lohakara), goldsmiths (suvarnakara), jewellers (manikara), stone masons (selavaddhaki), carpenters (vaddhaki), leather workers (carmakara), oil-pressers (tailaka), perfumers (gandhika), garland makers (malakara), and also weavers, potters, ivory carvers, sugar manufacturers, corn dealers, fruit sellers and wine makers.


Significantly, craftspersons and traders were organized into guilds (shreni, nigama) and the post-Mauryan period saw a considerable increase in their number and the scale of their activities. The Jatakas refer to 18 guilds. Inscriptions from the western Deccan record gifts made by various shrenis which reflects their prosperity and social standing.

Guilds were headed by a chief called the jetthaka or pramukha who could be close to the king. Guilds could issue their own coins and seals as have been founded at Taxila, Kaushambi, Varanasi and Ahichchatra. They also functioned as bankers when people wishing to make a donation to the sangha deposited a sum of money with a guild. From the interest that accrued on that sum, the guild supplied at regular intervals provisions like grain or cloth, in accordance with the donor’s wish, to the sangha.


A natural concomitant of all these developments was a monetary economy. A large number and variety of coins were in circulation in this period. As we have seen, these included coins issued by royal dynasties, ganas, shrenis and city administrations. They were made of gold (dinara), silver (pana), and copper (karshapana). The Kushanas issued a large number of coppers), lead, potin, nickel, etc. The range of metallic denominations shows that transactions at different levels-high value of small scale-were now being carried out in cash.


If the sixth century BCE was the ‘take-off’ stage, the post-Mauryan period saw trade activity, both internal and external, overland and maritime, acquire full-blown proportions, literary sources mention various items involved in trade within the subcontinent-cotton textiles from the east, west and far south, steel weapons from the west, horses and camels from the north- west, elephants from the east and south, and so on. Cities were renowned for particular merchandise, like the silk, muslin and sandalwood of Varanasi, and cotton textiles of Kashi, Madurai and Kanchi.

Goods traveled up and down long distances connecting market towns by an intricate web of land and riverine routes that crisscrossed the subcontinent. For instance, the Uttarapatha was the major transregional route of north India, joining Taxila in the north-west with tamralipti on the east coast via Mathura, Vaishali, Shravasti and Pataliputra. The Dakshinapatha started from Pataliputra and went up to Pratishthana and from there to ports on the west coast. Another route ran from Mathura to Ujjayini and on to Mahishmati, on the one hand, and Bhrigukaccha and Sopara, on the other. Many routes then went further south.

The subcontinent’s internal trade networks were integrally linked up with its trans- continental commercial interactions-with central and west Asia, south-east Asia, China and the Mediterranean. India’s external trade consisted of two kinds: Terminal trade and Transit trade. Terminal trade was in merchandise manufactured in India and exported to other shores, or imported for sale in India’s internal markets: either way, India was a terminus. Transit trade involved such commodities that originated in India and were destined for other lands and only passed through the subcontinent; India functioned as an entrepot.

The chief stimulus for India’s transit trade was the demand for Chinese silk in the

western world. The famous overland Great Silk Route from China to the Mediterranean passed through the northern frontiers of the Kushana empire-Kashmir and north Afghanistan, touching the cities of Purushapura, Pushkalavati and Taxila. Later, due to instability in the central Asian region, a part of this trade was diverted south further into India, and then from the Indian ports on the west coast, like Bhrigukaccha, Kalyana and Sopara, traveled on to the Roman Empire via the Persian Gulf. This maritime route was facilitated by the south-west monsoonal winds. (India also had independent trade with China, exporting pearls, glass and perfumes and importing silk.).

Indo-Roman trade, however, went beyond Chinese silk. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Sangam texts tell us that there was brisk commerce between first century BCE and second century AD in spices, muslin and pearls that the Romans imported from India. In return the Romans, described as yavanas, exported to India wine and certain kinds of jars known as amphorae and a ceramic type named Arretine ware.

Most of all, it was Roman gold and silver that poured into the subcontinent as a result of the balance of trade being favourable to India. Pliny, the first century Roman historian, complains of the drain of gold to India. Hoards of Roman coins, especially of the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, have been found at numerous sites in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Earlier it was believed that yavana traders founded trading colonies or ‘emporia’ here at sites like Arikamedu but historians now feel that this was not necessary since groups apart from Indians and Romans, like Arabs of the Persian Gulf and Greeks of Egypt, may have played the role of middlemen in carrying out Indo-Roman trade.

The subcontinent also had commercial links with south-east Asia that expanded perceptibly in the post-Mauryan period. The Jatakas and the Milindapanho refer to traders undertaking difficult sea voyages to Survarnadvipa (Malaysia and Indonesia) and Survarnabhumi (Myanmar and Thailand). Archaeological discoveries in this region corroborate interaction. Imports from south-east Asia to India included gold, tin, spices like cinnamon and cloves, sandalwood and camphor. Exports from India were cotton textiles, sugar, valuable beads and pottery.

It is important and interesting to note that social and cultural exchange went hand in hand with India’s commercial contracts with the world. As we have seen, the north-west of the subcontinent was a cultural crossroads that witnessed the commingling of Greek, Persian and Mongol populations and traditions with the India. In the case of China, interaction took the form mainly of the spread of Buddhism-doctrines, scriptures, relics, and monks and pilgrims traveled over many centuries between the two regions; it is from China that the religion went further east to Japan and Korea and underwent significant transformations. And early south-east Asia was long believed to have been actually ‘colonized’ by people from India since the names, practices, religious affiliations and rituals of the earliest kingdoms that arose there (seen in their inscriptions) are Sanskritic and brahmanical while both Hindu and Buddhist sculpture and architecture prevail. However, it is now clear that all this may be evidence only of cultural borrowing rather than of a direct Indian presence and role.

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