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Economy and Society

Economy and Society


  • Agriculture formed the backbone of the economy.
  • It was the largest sector in terms of its share in total revenue to the state and employment.
  • The Greeks noted with wonder that two crops could be raised annually in India because of the fertility of the soil.
  • Besides food grains, India also grew cash crops such as sugarcane and cotton, described by Megasthenes as a reed that produced honey and trees on which wool grew.
  • These were important commercial crops.
  • The fact that the agrarian sector could produce a substantial surplus was a major factor in the diversification of the economy beyond subsistence to commercial production.

Crafts and Goods

  • Many crafts producing a variety of manufactures flourished in the economy.
  • We can categorise the products as utilitarian or functional, and luxurious and ornamental.
  • Spinning and weaving, especially of cotton fabrics, relying on the universal availability of cotton throughout India, were the most widespread occupations outside of agriculture.
  • A great variety of cloth was produced in the country, ranging from the coarse fabrics used by the ordinary people for everyday use, to the very fine textures worn by the upper classes and the royalty.
  • The Arthasastra refers to the regions producing specialised textiles – Kasi (Benares), Vanga (Bengal), Kamarupa (Assam), Madurai and many others.
  • Each region produced many distinctive and specialised varieties of fabrics.
  • Cloth embroidered with gold and silver was worn by the King and members of the royal court.
  • Silk was known and was generally referred to as Chinese silk, which also indicates that extensive trade was carried on in the Mauryan Empire.
  • Metal and metal works were of great importance, and the local metal workers worked with iron, copper and other metals to produce tools, implements, vessels and other utility items.
  • Iron smelting had been known for many centuries, but there was a great improvement in technology after about 500 BCE, which made it possible to smelt iron in furnaces at very high temperatures.
  • Archaeological finds show a great qualitative and quantitative improvement in iron production after this date.
  • Improvement in iron technology had widespread implications for the rest of the economy.
  • Better tools like axes made more extensive clearing of forests possible for agriculture; better ploughs could improve agricultural processes; better nails and tools improved woodwork and carpentry as well as other crafts.
  • Woodwork was another important craft for shipbuilding, making carts and chariots, house construction and so on.
  • Stone work–stone carving and polishing–had evolved as a highly skilled craft.
  • This expertise is seen in the stone sculptures in the stupa at Sanchi and the highly polished Chunar stone used for Ashoka’s pillars.
  • A whole range of luxury goods was produced, including gold and silver articles, jewellery, perfumes and carved ivory.
  • There is evidence that many other products like drugs and medicines, pottery, dyes and gums were produced in the Mauryan Empire.
  • The economy had thus developed far beyond subsistence production to a very sophisticated level of commercial craft production.
  • Crafts were predominantly urban-based hereditary occupations and sons usually followed their fathers in the practice of various crafts.
  • Craftsmen worked primarily as individuals, though royal workshops for producing cloth and other products also existed.
  • Each craft had a head called pamukha (pramukha or leader) and a jettha (jyeshtha or elder) and was organised in a seni (srenior a guild), so that the institutional identity superseded the individual in craft production.
  • Disputes between srenis were resolved by a mahasetthi, and this ensured the smooth functioning of craft production in the cities.


  • Trade or exchange becomes a natural concomitant of economic diversification and growth.
  • Production of a surplus beyond subsistence is futile unless the surplus has exchange value, since the surplus has no use value when subsistence needs have been met.
  • Thus, as the economy diversified and expanded, exchange becomes an important part of realising the benefits of such expansion.
  • Trade takes place in a hierarchy of markets, ranging from the exchange of goods in a village market, between villages and towns within a district, across cities in longdistance overland trade and across borders to other countries.
  • Trade also needs a conducive political climate as was provided by the Mauryan Empire, which ensured peace and stability over a very large area.
  • The rivers in the Gangetic plains were major means for transporting goods throughout northern India.
  • Goods were transported further west overland by road.
  • Roads connected the north of the country to cities and markets in the south-east, and in the south-west, passing through towns like Vidisha and Ujjain.
  • The north-west route linked the empire to central and western Asia.
  • Overseas trade by ships was also known, and Buddhist Jataka tales refer to the long voyages undertaken by merchants.
  • Sea-borne trade was carried on with Burma and the Malay Archipelago, and with Sri Lanka.
  • The ships, however, were probably quite small and might have hugged the coastline.
  • We do not have much information about the merchant communities.
  • In general, longdistance overland trade was undertaken by merchant groups travelling together as a caravan for security, led by a caravan leader known as the maha-sarthavaha.
  • Roads through forests and unfavourable environments like deserts were always dangerous.
  • The Arthasastra, however, stresses the importance of trade and ensuring its smooth functioning.
  • Trade has to be facilitated through the construction of roads and maintaining them in good condition.
  • Since tolls and octroi were collected on goods when they were transported, toll booths must have been set up and manned on all the trade routes.
  • Urban markets and craftsmen were generally closely monitored and controlled to prevent fraud.
  • The Arthasastra has a long list of the goods – agricultural and manufactured – which were traded in internal and foreign trade.
  • These include textiles, woollens, silks, aromatic woods, animal skins and gems from various parts of India, China and Sri Lanka.
  • Greek sources confirm the trade links with the west through the Greek states to Egypt. Indigo, ivory, tortoiseshell, pearls and perfumes and rare woods were all exported to Egypt.

Coins and Currency

  • Though coinage was known, barter was the medium of exchange in pre-modern economies.
  • In the Mauryan Empire, the silver coins known as pana were the most commonly used currency.
  • Hordes of punch-marked coins have been found in many parts of north India, though some of these coins may have been from earlier periods.
  • Thus while coins were in use, it is difficult to estimate the extent to which the economy was monetised.

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