The chapter introduces students to the early states and economies, it also enlists the fact about James Princep, an officer in the mint of the East India company who deciphered the two scripts used in the earliest inscriptions & coins named Brahmini and Kharosthi. We also highlight the Magadh region and its importance also the facts and history of the Mauryan Empire.
Early States and Economies
During the period between 1900 BCE & 600 BCE, the Rigveda was composed of people living along the Indus and its tributaries.
During this time Agricultural settlements emerged in many parts of the sub-continent, including North India, the Deccan plateau and parts of Karnataka.
Evidence of pastoral population in the Deccan was also there. During this period new modes of disposal of the dead, including the making of elaborate stone structures known as megaliths, emerged in central and south India.
The dead were also buried with a rich range of iron tools and weapons.
What are the sources to understand Early Indian History?
Historians attempt to understand early Indian history by drawing on a range of sources – inscriptions, texts, coins and visual material.
These include fine pottery, Bowls and dishes with glossy finish known as Northern Black polished ware probably used by rich people. Ornaments, tools, weapons, vessels made of a wide range of materials- Gold, silver, copper, glass, shell, terracotta.
James Princep & Piyadassi
In the 1830s James Princep, an officer in the mint of the East India Company deciphered the two scripts used in the earliest inscriptions & coins named Brahmini and Kharosthi.
It was found that the king was referred to as Piyadassi - meaning “pleasant to behold”. There were a few inscriptions that also referred to the king as Asoka, one of the most famous rulers known from Buddhist texts.
This gave a new direction to early Indian political history as European and Indian scholars used inscriptions and texts composed in a variety of languages to reconstruct the lineages of major dynasties.
Why Sixteen century often regarded as a major turning point in early Indian History?
This era is regarded as the major turning point because of various aspects:
It is an era associated with early states and cities.
The prevalence of iron was also there.
It is an era associated with the development of coinage.
This era also witnessed the growth of diverse systems of thought including Buddhism & religion. It is also associated with the emergence of Sixteen Mahajanapadas.
Features of Sixteen Mahajanapadas
Most of the mahajanapadas were ruled by kings, some were oligarchies known as ganas or sanghas, where power was shared by a number of men, often collectively called rajas.
Each Mahajanapada had a capital city which was often fortified. A well-maintained standing army & regular bureaucracies for administration was there.
Dharmasutras, written by Brahmans laid down norms for rulers. Rulers were ideally expected to be Kshatriyas.
Rulers were advised to collect taxes and tribute from cultivators, traders and artisans. The legitimate means of acquiring wealth was to raid neighbouring states.
Magadha was a particularly productive agricultural region. Magadha's capital was Rajagaha. It was a fortified settlement in the midst of the hills. The capital was later moved to Pataliputra, which is now Patna, in the fourth century BCE.
In Magadha, iron mines were accessible and provided resources for tools and weapons. Elephants were discovered in the region's forests, and they proved to be an important component of the army.
The Ganga and its tributaries provided a low-cost, convenient mode of communication. Magadha's powers were attributed to individual policies by Buddhist and Jaina writers who wrote about it.
The ambitious kings, including Bimbisara, Ajatasattu, and Mahapadama Nanda, as well as ministers who helped them carry out their policies.
What are the sources to understand the Mauryan Empire?
There are varieties of sources to understand the empire of Mauryas, the historians have also used a variety of sources to reconstruct the history of the Mauryan empire.
These include archaeological finds, sculptures, buildings, monasteries etc. Contemporary works, the account of Megasthenes called INDICA, which survives in fragments.
Another source in Arthashastra, parts of which were probably composed by Kautilya or Chanakya (Minister of Chandragupta).
The Mauryans are also mentioned in later Buddhist, Jaina, Puranic & Sanskrit Literature. The inscriptions of Asoka (c. 272/268-231 BCE) on rocks and pillars are often regarded as amongst the most valuable sources.
Asoka was the first ruler who inscribed his messages to his subjects and officials on stone surfaces – natural rocks as well as polished pillars. He was the most famous ruler of early India, he also conquered Kalinga.
He used the inscriptions to proclaim what he understood to be dhamma.
What was Dhamma?
Ashoka’s dhamma includes respect towards elders, generosity towards Brahmanas and those who renounced worldly life, treating slaves and servants kindly, and respect for religions and traditions other than one’s own.
The Administration of the Mauryan Empire
There were Five major Political centres in the empire:
Patliputra (The Capital)
The provincial centers of Taxila, Ujjayini, Tosali, Suvarnagri are all mentioned in Ashokan Inscription.
The administrative control was strongest in the areas around the capital and provincial centres. These centres were carefully chosen as both Taxila & Ujjayini were situated on important long-distance trade routes.
Communication along both trade and riverine routes were vital for the existence of the empire. Journey to the provinces could have taken and arranged for provisions as well as protection for those who were on the move by the army.
According to the accounts of Megasthenes, a committee with six sub-committees for coordinating military activities was made.
One committee looked after the navy, the second managed the transportation, the third was for the foot soldiers, the fourth for horses and fifth for the chariots and the sixth for the elephants.
Ashoka tried to hold his empire together by propagating dhamma. Special officers known as the Dhamma Mahatma were appointed to spread the message of dhamma.
Why is the emergence of the Mauryan Empire regarded as a major landmark in early Indian history?
The emergence of the Mauryan empire was regarded as the major landmark, as Mauryan Empire ruled India for about 150 years, its control extended as far as Afghanistan & Baluchistan and in the south up to the Andhra region.
Nineteenth and early twentieth-century Indian historians found the emergence of the Mauryan Empire in early India both challenging and exciting.
Some of the archaeological finds associated with the Mauryas, including stone sculpture, were considered to be examples of the spectacular art typical of empires. Many historians fond the inscription suggesting that Ashoka was very powerful, Industrious and humble than later rulers.
The nationalist leader in the twentieth century regarded Ashoka as an inspiring Figure.
New Notions of Kingship
The new kingdoms that emerged in the Deccan and further south, proved to be stable and prosperous including the chiefdoms of the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas in Tamilakam.
Many chiefs and kings, including the Satavahanas who ruled over parts of western and central India and the Shakas, a people of Central Asian origin who established kingdoms in the north-western and western parts of the subcontinent claimed social status in a variety of ways such as religious rituals & marriage alliance.
The Kushans ruled over a vast kingdom extending from Central Asia to northwest India. Colossal statues of the kushana ruler have been found installed in a shrine at mat near Mathura.
Some historians felt that Kushans kings considered themselves ‘Godlike’. They also adopted the title Devputra or ‘son of god’.
Rulers of the Gupta empire were dependent upon samantas, men who maintained land and army and they offered homage and provided military support to rulers.
Gupta also encouraged poets to compose poems to praise them. In the Allahabad pillar (Prayaga Prashasti) inscription Samudragupta was compared with god.
A Changing Countryside
Popular Perception of Kings
Historians have tried to reconstruct life in the countryside with the help of Jatakas and the Panchatantra. One story known as Gandatindu jataka describes the plight of the subjects of a wicked king.
The story indicates, the relationship between a king and his subjects, especially the rural population, could often be strained. The kings frequently tried to fill their coffers by demanding high taxes, and peasants particularly found such demands oppressive.
Strategies for Increasing Agricultural Production
The shift to plough agriculture was one of the strategies to increase production. This spread in the Ganga and the Kaveri Region. The Iron Tipped Ploughshare was used to turn the alluvial soil in areas that had high rainfall.
The production of paddy was dramatically increased by the introduction of transplantation in the Ganga Valley.
The agriculture practised in the semi-arid areas such as Rajasthan & Punjab and in the hilly tracts was hoe agriculture. The use of Irrigation through wells, tanks and canals were also there.
Differences in Rural Society
The growing differentiation amongst people engaged in agriculture was based on differential access to land, labour and some of the new technologies.
People were divided into three groups in the Countryside in Northern India - Landless agricultural labourers, small peasants & large landholders. The term Gahapati was used to designate the second and the third categories.
It is mentioned in the early Sangama texts, different categories of people engaged in agriculture were based on differential access to land and some of the new technologies. In south India, people were divided into three groups- Large landowners (Vellars), Ploughmen (Uzhavar) and slaves (Adimai).
Land Grants & New Rural Elites
Land grants were made to religious institutions, Brahmans, samantas & landless peasants. According to the Sanskrit legal texts, women were not supposed to have independent access to resources such as land.
The inscriptions indicate that Prabhavati, daughter of Chandragupta II, had access to land. This was exceptional because she was a queen.
Regional variations in the size of land donated were there, ranging from small plots of land to vast stretches of uncultivated land to the recipients.
These grants were a part of a strategy adopted by ruling lineages to extend agriculture to new areas. Many historians suggest that kings were losing control over their samantas; they tried to win allies by donating lands.
Town and Trade
Many urban centres emerged in several parts of the subcontinent from the sixth century BCE. Many of these were the capital of the mahajanapadas.
Major towns were located along the routes of trade and communication. Many cities were located on the riverine routes, somewhere along the land routes, others were near the coast.
Cities like Mathura were the centres of cultural, commercial & political activities.
Kings and ruling elites lived in fortified cities; people who lived in the town were merchants, blacksmiths, potters etc.
Inscriptions mentioning guilds or shrines, organisations of craft producers and merchants, are mentioned as well. These guilds probably procured raw materials, regulated production, and marketed the finished product.
Trade-In The Subcontinent & Beyond
During the sixth century, land and riverine routes were extended in various directions which connected all the parts of India. Rulers often attempted to control these routes, possibly by offering protection for a price. These routes were used by peddlers, merchants.
The sea routes connected across the Arabian Sea to Central Asia, North Africa and West Asia and beyond. South Asia and China were connected through the Bay of Bengal.
A wide range of goods was carried from one place to another like salt, grain, cloth, metal ores, finished products, stone timber, medicinal plants etc.
Coins & Kings
The introduction of coinage facilitated the Culture of exchange of commodities. The punched marked coins made of silver & copper were amongst the earliest which were used by many dynasties.
The Indo-Greeks who established control over the northwestern parts of the sub-continent issued the first coins with the images and names of the rulers.
The Kushanas introduced the first gold coins. Coins were identical in weight to those issued by Roman emperors.
Yaudheyas, the tribal republic of Punjab and Haryana also issued the copper coins.
The most spectacular gold coins were issued by the Gupta ruler, the earliest coins were remarkable by their purity. The Western Roman Empire collapsed causing the decline in long-distance trade, and this affected the prosperity of the states, communities and regions that had benefited from it.
The new towns and networks of trade started emerging around this time. Some historians suggest that people have recycled the coins for other purposes.
The Scripts used In Inscriptions
How the Brahmi & Kharosthi were deciphered?
Brahmi & Kharosthi were the two scripts used in the early inscriptions and coins. An officer of East India Company, James Princep deciphered these scripts. He gave a new direction to investigations into Indian political history.
He deciphered Ashokan Brahmi in 1838 with help of contemporary Bengali & devnagri manuscripts. Scholars who studied early inscriptions sometimes assumed these were in Sanskrit, although the earliest inscriptions were in Prakrit.
Kharosthi, the script used in the inscription and coins in the northwestern parts of India by Indo-Greek kings.
The kings had their names on the coins written in Greek & Kharosthi. European scholars who could read the former compared the letters. The symbol for “a” could be found in both scripts for writing names such as Apollodotus.
Princep identified the language of Kharosthi inscriptions as Prakrit and it was possible to read longer inscriptions. According to James Princep, the Brahmi script is an older form of Devnagri. He matched the inscription in terms of content, style, language and palaeography.
It was also discovered that Ashoka is the name of the ruler and devanampia and piyadassi are titles used for Ashoka in many inscriptions.
What are the limitations of the Inscriptional Evidence?
There are technical limitations as in many inscriptions letters are very faintly engraved. Some inscriptions are damaged and in some inscriptions, letters were missing, reconstruction was uncertain.
It is not always easy to be sure about the exact meaning of the words used in inscriptions, some of which may be specific to a particular place or time. This has to be carefully done to make sure the intended meaning of the author is not changed.
Several thousand inscriptions have been discovered, not all have been deciphered, published and translated.
Many inscriptions existed, which did not survive the ravages of time, which means what we are today is a fraction of that.