Maurya Economy

The mainstay of the economy under the Mauryas was agriculture, though trade was becoming increasingly more important. It would seem that cultivators formed a majority of the population and taxes on agriculture were the main source of revenue. The Arthashastra lays great stress on increasing revenue potential by seeking new lands for cultivation. Peasant migrations from over-populated areas were to be encouraged. One of the Ashokan edicts speaks of the deportation of prisoners after the Kalinga war. These may have been used for establishing new settlements, but this seems to be the only instance of this kind. There is no confirmation from other sources of any such effort made by the state.

Land Ownership

An important issue is the question of the ownership of land. It is quite clear that no single type of land-ownership could prevail in an area as vast as the Mauryan empire. In some parts of the empire the gana sangha system with communal ownership continued. There are also references to state-owned lands called sita lands. These were worked on under the supervision of the superintendent of agriculture by either directly employing hired labourers or by leading out to individual cultivators. In the latter case a part of the produce had to be paid to the state. In addition to these were private owners of land who were required to pay taxes to the king. A small section of the Arthashastra refers to the sale of land. A category of land was auctioned and sold to those who bid for it. It would seem that village pastures were largely held by the entire community.


In the fertile Gangetic plain, a variety of taxes are mentioned. These include bali, shulka, etc. It is not clear how much the tax was as different sources give dissimilar figures. Megasthenes states that one-quarter of the produce had to be paid as tax. It is likely that this the figure in the fertile region around Pataliputra. Most Sanskrit texts, on the other hand lay down that not more than one-sixth of the produce could be claimed by the king. It is very unlikely that a uniform tax was levied over the entire area as the fertility of soil varied from region to region. In addition the Arthashastra states, that the amount of tax would also depend on the nature of irrigation facilities and would range from onefifth to one third.

The Rumindei inscription is the only Ashokan edict where a precise reference is made to the amount of tax levied. It is said that because the village of Lumbini was the birth place of the Buddha the king exempted it from taxes and only one-eighth of the produce was required to be paid. It is likely that as the region of Lumbini was further north from the Ganga plain and not as fertile, the tax may have been lower. For the assessment of revenue all cultivable land was carefully demarcated and the boundaries fixed.


The Arthashastra also instructs that the state should assist in the setting up of irrigation facilities. But so far there is only one example of a large-scale irrigation project attributed to the Mauryas and that is the dam on the Sudarshan lake at Girnar. Other references are mainly to small-scale irrigation works like wells, etc., set up with the help of the local populace.


The other source of revenue was trade and this was to become a major earner in the post-Mauryan period. The Arthashastra deals at length with the duties of the superintendent of trade and the director of tolls and customs duties. The sale of merchandise was strictly regulated by the state and a toll tax of one-fifth of the value of the commodity was levied. The percentage of profit to the merchants was fixed and excess profit-making was curtailed. Goods could be sold only at authorised places and customs houses at the gates of the city were empowered to check the goods being brought in. Commodities manufactured in the country were stamped at the place of manufacture while those that were brought in from foreign countries were stamped as the toll-gates. Quality was strictly maintained and if found guilty of any contravention, traders had to pay heavy fines. Buddhist literature provides a very different picture of the organisation of trade. It talks of much less state control and attributes a major role to merchants and guilds. A range of commercial transactions from barter to those conducted by the guilds are described. It would then seem that the state exercised monopoly over items that were of direct relevance to it such as gems, precious stones, horses, etc.

Trade Routes

Trade routes in the Mauryan period followed either the main highways or the navigable rivers. Important among these was the royal highway extending from the region around Taxila to Pataliputra. This route extended eastwards along the Ganga to the port of Tamralipti. It was from here that sailed for Sri Lanka and for Suvarnabhumi, identified with Burma at this time. Another route connected Pataliputra through Ujjain with the west coast port of Bharuch. Buddhist literature refers to the jouney of Vijaya, the first king of Sri Lanka from Sopara, also on the west coast. There are references to voyages between Bharuch and Baveru or Babylon. As compared to these northern routes, traffic to the Deccan and the South was still limited and just opening up. The Arthashatra has an interesting discussion on the merits and demerits of the different types of routes. The water route was cheaper than the land route but could not be defended in the same way. Of the water routes, the route along the coasts was more profitable than the ocean-route because the former touched many ports. The safest, of course, was the route along a navigable river. Of the land routes, Kautilya preferred the route to the South as it passed through mineral rich areas, and gold and gems could be obtained along it.

Arts and Crafts

The Arthashastra also lays Down rules for artisans and craftsmen. They could either work independently on their own or were organised in guilds. Of the two, the latter system was preferred. Wages were determined according to the quality of the work and the quantity produced. In addition, the state also employed some artisans such as armourers, ship-builders, etc. These were then exempt from tax but had to work in the state’s workshops. Guilds of textile workers must have been prominent at this time and the Arthashastra mentions several places in the country which specialised in textiles. Cotton fabrics were made at Madhura, Aparanta, Kalinga, Kashi, Vanga, Vatsa and Mahisa. It is likely that cotton fabrics were exported from the port of Bharuch on the west coast.


The mining of gold and access to semi-precious stones like agate, carnelian and quartz seems to have been the main reason for Mauryan expansion to the south. Indeed, the name of the southern province itself has a marked association with gold and Ashokan inscriptions near Maski and Brahmagiri are located in gold-rich areas. The Arthashastra has a section on the technology of gold mining and the supervision of its production. But when we compare this with the archaeological evidence from Karnataka, we find that the Iron Age Megalithic settlers were content to exploit the gold reserves but made no attempt to change the Megalithic economy, so that it could generate a greater surplus. This, as mentioned earlier, was the greatest weakness of the Mauryan economy.

A similar situation prevailed with regard to pastoral groups. Megasthenes lists shepherds and herdsmen as the third division and adds that they paid tribute to the state. This is confirmed by the Arthashastra which also mentions payment in dairy produce. Ashokan edicts refer to various forest tribes who lived both in the interior regions as well as along borders. But these were again left alone by the state. In the final analysis, though the state obtained revenue from a variety of sources it did very little to either increase the revenue potential or to generate new sources of revenue. This lack of regenerative resources may perhaps explain why the Mauryas did not leave behind magnificent and grandiose monuments generally associated with major empires. In general Mauryan remains are more modest in nature and include primarily pillars, caves and a few sculptures.

The ‘Indica’ of Megasthenes

Our understanding of the early Mauryan world in the reign of Chandragupta is enhanced by fragments of the contemporary account left behind by the Greek ambassador Megasthenes at the court. He was a native of Ionia (modern Turkey) who represented Seleukos Nicator in the Mauryan court. During his period in India, from 302 BCE to 298 BCE, he observed and recorded the various features of life in India. His diary, Indica, is now lost, its contents were known to later European writers such as Strabo, Arrian and Diodorus Siculus, and it is from their writings that we learn what Megasthenes had earlier described. However considerable doubt was cast on both the veracity and the credibility of Megasthenes’ writing even by the ancient historians themselves, particularly Strabo. Megasthenes denied the existence of slavery in the India of the Mauryas, although it undoubtedly existed then as it did in later times. he might have been misled by the fact that the working and living conditions of slaves did not differ much from that of the shudras. His erroneous calculations of the area of India and the length of the rivers can be excused by the fact that no one could have done better with the sort of instruments they possessed at that time. Megasthenes also claimed that there were gold-digging ants in India, that India never suffered famines, that there was a river there on which nothing could float, that winged snakes dropped their urine from above, and that there were men who had no mouths. He was one in a long line of European observers who, through no particular malice, wrote inaccurate accounts about oriental nations making them appear as fabulous or exotic places.

Notwithstanding such errors, historians are satisfied that on at least some of the matters, Megasthenes was correct in his observations. The first is his social picture of India. He observed that its people formed seven estates. At the pinnacle were the philosophers, who, according to him, performed public sacrifices, learned the ancient texts, gave blessings to kings and led a life of abstinence and frugality. Many of them went about naked. In the context of the ritual caste system of India, this class would include the brahmans and various groups of sages and mendicants belonging to both Vedic and dissident traditions. The second estate consisted of the majority of the Indian people, the cultivators. Their task was to produce food and remit a quarter of it to the king, who owned all the land. Unlike in medieval Europe, they did not have to fight for him, although this was not strictly true. In the third estate were the herdsmen and the hunters, who had to bring in a certain proportion of their cattle into the cities as tribute, for which, in return, they received free corn. Traders, artisans and the boatmen constituted the fourth estate. The fifth estate was that of the soldiers, who did nothing else but fight and were always paid and maintained, thereby constituting a standing professional army. The sixth estate was made up of spies and intelligence officers, whose work is also described at length in the Arthashastra. The seventh and the smallest estate was that of those who constituted the political and imperial establishment. This sevenfold division seems to be a more elaborate classification of Indian society than the ritual hierarchy of the traditional caste system. Another item of interest in Megasthenes’ diary was his description of the Magadhan capital, Pataliputra, which he called Palimbothra. This is especially valuable, as we have relatively limited evidence for what the cities and towns of India in the third and fourth centuries BCE looked like. While the splendid bricks and the isolation of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa preserved the original layout of those cities for posterity, the cities of the Ganges have suffered from both poor quality materials and periods of great turbulence. That is why Megasthenes’ Pataliputra is so evocative. Built at the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Son, the palisade defences of Pataliputra formed a great oblong, 9 miles long and 1.8 miles in width. All along the palisade were 570 towers and sixty-four gates. Outside the palisade ran a ditch, 60 feet deep and 200 yards wide, serving as both defence and public sewer.3 Megasthenes describes both the hustle and bustle of the streets of the capital and the peace and beauty of the royal park, and he gives a colourful account of the royal palace, which he considered more sumptuous than those of Susa and Ecbatana in Iran (Raychaudhuri 1996: 242-6). It is also in his accurate understanding of the way in which the municipality of Pataliputra was organised by Chandragupta that historians have found Megasthenes most useful. The work of six major committees is described at length. Their duties covered such varied issues as the promotion of arts and crafts in the city, the reception and care of foreigners, the registration of births and deaths, the supervision of weights and measures, the quality control over manufactures and the collection of duties over goods sold. An examination of the departmental details indicates to us not only a high level of bureaucracy but also a certain concern for the quality of life of the ordinary people (Raychaudhuri 1996: 246-60). The greatest of all the Mogul emperors, Akbar, ‘had nothing like it, and it may be doubted if any of the ancient Greek cities were better organised’ (Smith 1958: 110). When the accounts of Megasthenes are corroborated by the vast number of details in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, our knowledge of the world of Chandragupta Maurya becomes more complete. It was indeed a highly ordered and well-regulated world.


Leave a Reply