Several developments happened in different parts of the subcontinent (India) in the long span of 1500 years following the end of the Harappan Civilization. These are covered in the Chapter Kings, Farmers & Towns
Let's discuss them with the help of Chapter Notes
1. Prinsep and Piyadassi
In the 1830s James Prinsep, an officer in the mint of the East India Company, deciphered Brahmi and Kharosthi, two scripts used in the earliest inscriptions and coins.
Lithograph by Prinsep
He found that most of these mentioned a king 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.
Try yourself:Who deciphered Brahmi and Kharoshtl scripts?
The inscriptions of Asoka were first deciphered by James Princep in 1837. They are written in the Pali language and in some places Prakrit was used. The Brahmi script was employed for writing. In northwestern India, Asokan inscriptions were found in Kharoshti script.
2. The Earliest States
The Sixteen Mahajanapadas
The sixth century BCE is an era associated with early states, cities, the growing use of iron, the development of coinage, etc.
- Early Buddhist and Jaina texts mention, amongst other things, sixteen states known as mahajanapadas. Although the lists vary, some names such as Vajji, Magadha, Koshala, Kuru, Panchala, Gandhara, and Avanti occur frequently. Clearly, these were amongst the most important mahajanapadas.
- While most mahajanapadas were ruled by kings, some, known as ganas or sanghas, were oligarchies where power was shared by a number of men, often collectively called rajas.
- Each mahajanapada had a capital city, which was often fortified.
- From c. sixth century BCE onwards, Brahmanas began composing Sanskrit texts known as the Dharmasutras. These laid down norms for rulers (as well as for other social categories), who were ideally expected to be Kshatriyas.
- some states acquired standing armies and maintained regular bureaucracies. Others continued to depend on militia, recruited, more often than not, from the peasantry.
First Amongst the Sixteen:
Magadha: Between the sixth and the fourth centuries BCE, Magadha (in present-day Bihar) became the most powerful mahajanapada.
- It was a region where agriculture was especially productive. Besides, it was also rich in natural resources and animals like elephant, which ws an important part of the army, could be procured from the forest spreads of the region. Ganga and its tributaries provided a means of cheap and convenient communication.
- Magadha attributed its power to the policies of individuals: ruthlessly ambitious kings of whom Bimbisara, Ajatasattu and Mahapadma Nanda are the best known, and their ministers, who helped implement their policies.
- Rajagaha (the Prakrit name for presentday Rajgir in Bihar) was the capital of Magadha initially. In the fourth century BCE, the capital was shifted to Pataliputra, present-day Patna.
Try yourself:Which of these was the most powerful Mahajanapada from the 6th to 4th century BCE?
In about two hundred years, Magadha became the most powerful Mahajanapada. Rivers like the Ganga and Son flowed through it which provided water, improved transport and helped make the land fertile. Also, some forested parts of Magadha provided: Animals like elephants – captured and trained for the army.
3. An Early Empire
The growth of Magadha culminated in the emergence of the Mauryan Empire.
- Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the empire (c. 321 BCE), extended control as far northwest as Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and his grandson Asoka, arguably the most famous ruler of early India, conquered Kalinga (present-day coastal Orissa).
The Lion Capital
- Sources of Mauryan Empire: Account of Megasthenes (a Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya) called Indica, Arthashastra probably composed by Kautilya or Chanakya, the minister of Chandragupta, later Buddhist, Jaina and Puranic literature. Besides,the inscriptions of Asoka (c. 272/268-231 BCE) on rocks and pillars are often regarded as amongst the most valuable sources.
- Dhamma: Ashoka used the inscriptions to proclaim what he understood to be dhamma, which included 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. According to him, this would ensure the well-being of people in this world. Special officers known as dhamma mahamatta, were appointed to spread the message of dhamma.
- Administering Centres: There were five major political centres in the empire – the capital Pataliputra and the provincial centres of Taxila, Ujjayini, Tosali and Suvarnagiri.
- It is likely that administrative control was strongest in areas around the capital and the provincial centres. These were wisely chosen as both Taxila and Ujjayini being situated on important long-distance trade routes, while Suvarnagiri (literally, the golden mountain) was possibly important for tapping the gold mines of Karnataka.
- Communication along both land and riverine routes was vital for the existence of the empire.
- Megasthenes mentions a committee with six subcommittees for coordinating military activity.
- In the nineteenth century, the emergence of the Mauryan Empire was regarded as a major landmark, as India was under colonial rule during that time.
- Some of the archaeological finds associated with the Mauryas, including stone sculpture, were considered to be examples of the spectacular art typical of empires.
- Nationalist leaders in the twentieth century regarded Ashoka as an inspiring figure as the inscriptions suggested that was more powerful and industrious, as also more humble than later rulers who adopted grandiose titles.
4. New Notions of Kingship
By the second century BCE, new chiefdoms and kingdoms emerged in several parts of the subcontinent.
- This development was mainly seen in the Deccan and further south, including the chiefdoms of the Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas in Tamilakam (the name of the ancient Tamil country, which included parts of present-day Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, in addition to Tamil Nadu), proved to be stable and prosperous.
- Many chiefs and kings, including the Satavahanas who ruled over parts of western and central India (c. second-century BCE-second century CE) and the Shakas, a people of Central Asian origin who established kingdoms in the north-western and western parts of the subcontinent, derived revenues from long-distance trade.
A Kushana Coin
- Divine kings: One means of claiming high status was to identify with a variety of deities. The Kushanas (c. first-century BCEfirst century CE), who ruled over a vast kingdom extending from Central Asia to northwest India followed this strategy. They adopted the title devaputra, or “son of god”, installed colossal statues in shrines.
- By the fourth century, there is evidence of larger states, including the Gupta Empire. These states depended on samantas, men who maintained themselves through local resources including control over land.
- The Prayaga Prashasti (also known as the Allahabad Pillar Inscription) composed in Sanskrit by Harishena, the court poet of Samudragupta, arguably the most powerful of the Gupta rulers (c. fourth century CE).
5. A Changing Countryside
Popular perception: Anthologies such as the Jatakas and the Panchatantra gave a glimpse of subject-king relation. For instance, one story known as the Gandatindu Jataka describes the plight of the subjects of a wicked king.
- Kings frequently tried to fill their coffers by demanding high taxes, and peasants particularly found such demands oppressive.
- Certain strategies aimed at increasing production to meet the growing demand for taxes also were adopted. For example, the shift to plow agriculture, which spread in fertile alluvial river valleys such as those of the Ganga and the Kaveri from c. sixth century BCE. Also, production of paddy was dramatically increased by the introduction of transplantation.
- Another strategy adopted to increase agricultural production was the use of irrigation, through wells and tanks, and less commonly, canals.
- The benefits of increased production led to a growing differentiation amongst people engaged in agriculture as it was not equally distributed.
- The stories of Buddhist tradition refer to the term ‘gahapati’ which was often used in Pali texts to designate the second and third categories. Tamil literature mentions large landowners or vellalar, ploughmen or uzhavar, and slaves or adimai.
- With rising differences questions of control over land must have become crucial, as these were often discussed in legal texts.
- During early centuries of the common era, grants of land were made and many of which were recorded in inscriptions. For instance, according to Sanskrit legal texts, women were not supposed to have independent access to resources such as land.
- Land grants provide some insight into the relationship between cultivators and the state.
6. Towns and Trade
Major towns were located along routes of communication.
- Some such as Pataliputra were on riverine routes. Some were near the coast, from where sea routes began. Many cities like Mathura were bustling centers of commercial, cultural, and political activities.
- A wide range of artifacts have been recovered from the excavations in these areas. These include fine pottery bowls and dishes, with a glossy finish, known as Northern Black Polished Ware, probably used by rich people, and ornaments, tools, weapons, vessels, figurines, made of a wide range of materials – gold, silver, copper, bronze, ivory, glass, shell and terracotta.
The gift of an image
- By the second century BCE, we find short votive inscriptions in a number of cities. Sometimes, guilds or shrenis, organisations of craft producers and merchants, are mentioned as well.
- From the sixth century BCE, land and river routes criss-crossed the subcontinent and extended in various directions. Rulers often attempted to control the routes, possibly by offering protection for a price.
- Those who traversed these routes included peddlers who probably travelled on foot and merchants who travelled with caravans of bullock carts and pack-animals.
- Spices, especially pepper, were in high demand in the Roman Empire, as were textiles and medicinal plants, and these were all transported across the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean.
- Exchanges were facilitated by the introduction of coinage. Punch-marked coins made of silver and copper (c. sixth century BCE onwards) were amongst the earliest to be minted and used.
- Attempts were made to identify the symbols on punch-marked coins with specific ruling dynasties.
- The first coins to bear the names and images of rulers were issued by the Indo-Greeks, who established control over the north-western part of the subcontinent c. second century BCE.
- The first gold coins were issued c. first century CE by the Kushanas. The widespread use of gold coins indicates the enormous value of the transactions that were taking place. Some of the most spectacular gold coins were issued by the Gupta rulers. From c. sixth century CE onwards finds of gold coins taper off.
- Coins were also issued by tribal republics such as that of the Yaudheyas of Punjab and Haryana (c. first century CE).
- Hoards of Roman coins have been found from archaeological sites in south India. It is obvious that networks of trade were not confined within political boundaries: south India was not part of the Roman Empire, but there were close connections through trade.
7. How Are Inscriptions Deciphered?
- Brahmi: Most scripts used to write modern Indian languages are derived from Brahmi, the script used in most Asokan inscriptions. It was only after decades of painstaking investigations by several epigraphists that James Prinsep was able to decipher Asokan Brahmi in 1838.
- Kharosthi: Kharosthi is the script used in inscriptions in the northwest. The coins of Indo-Greek kings, who ruled over the area (c. second-first centuries BCE), contain the names of kings written in Greek and Kharosthi scripts. European scholars who could read the former compared the letters. With Prinsep identifying the language of the Kharosthi inscriptions as Prakrit, it became possible to read longer inscriptions as well.
- Epigraphists and historians after examining all these inscriptions, and finding that they match in terms of content, style, language, and paleography, come to a conclusion. Historians have to constantly assess statements made in inscriptions to judge whether they are true, plausible, or exaggerations.
8. The Limitations of Inscriptional Evidence
- However, it is probably evident that there are limits to what epigraphy can reveal. Sometimes, there are technical limitations, or inscriptions may be damaged or letters missing.
- Besides, it is not always easy to be sure about the exact meaning of the words used in inscriptions.
- Although several thousand inscriptions have been discovered, not all have been deciphered, published, and translated.
- Thus epigraphy alone does not provide a full understanding of political and economic history. Also, historians often question both old and new evidence.
Timeline to Remember
- 600-500: BCE Emergence of Mahajanapadas
- 544-492: BCE Reign of Bimbisara
- 492-460: BCE Tenure of Ajatsatru
- 269-231: BCE Reign of Ashoka
- 201: BCE Kalinga war was fought
- 335-375: BCE Reign of Sumudragupta
- 375-415: CE Reign of Chandragupta-II
- 1784: Asiatic Society (Bengal) was founded
- 1810: Colin Mackenzie collects over 8,000 inscriptions in Sanskrit and Dravidian languages.
- 1838: Brahmi script James Prinsept deciphered.
- 1877: Alexander Cunningham published a set of Asokan inscriptions.
- 1886: First issue of Epigraphia Camatica, journal of South Indian inscriptions.
- 1888: First issue of Epigraphia Indica.
- 1965-66: D.C. Sircar published Indian Epigraphy and Indian Epigraphical Glossary.
Key Concepts in Nutshell
Several developments in different parts of the subcontinent (India) the long span of 1500 years following the end of Harappan Civilization:
- Rigveda was composed along the Indus and its tributaries.
- Agricultural Settlements emerged in several parts of the subcontinent.
- A new mode of disposal of the dead like making Megaliths.
- By C 600 BCE growth of new cities and kingdoms.
- 600 BCE major turning point in early Indian history.
- Growth of 16 Mahajanapadas. Many were ruled by kings.
- Some known as ganas or sanghas were oligarchies
- Between 600 BCE and 400 BCE, Magadha became the most powerful Mahajanapada.
- The emergence of Mauryan Empire Chandragupta Maurya (C 321 BCE) founder of the empire extended control up to Afghanistan and Baluchistan.
- His grandson Ashoka, the most famous ruler conquered Kalinga.
- Variety of sources to reconstruct the history of the Mauryan Empire – archaeological finds especially sculpture, Ashoka’s Inscriptions, Literary sources like Indica account of megasthenes, Arthashastra of Kautilya and Buddhist, Jaina and puranic literature.
- Five major political centers – Pataliputra, Taxila, Ujjayani, Tosali, and Suvarnagiri to administer the empire.
- Ashoka’s Dhamma to hold his empire together.
Some Solved Questions
Very Short Answer Questions: 2 Marks
Q.1. What are megaliths?
a) Megaliths were elaborate stone structures in central and south India in first millennium BCE.
b) These were kept on the burials. Dead were buried with a wide range of iron tools and weapons.
Q.2. Why was six century BCE often considered as a major turning point in Indian history?
a) It is an era associated with early states and cities, growing use of iron, the development of coin.
b) It also witnessed the growth of a diverse system of thoughts including Buddhism and Jainism.
Q.3. Define Dhamma Mahamatta?
a) Special officers appointed by Ashoka.
b) Appointed to spread the message of Dhamma.
Q.4. Write any two sources of Mauryan history?
a) Arthashastra of Kautilya.
b) Ashoka’s inscriptions.
Q.5. Who were Kushanas?
a) Kushanas were a clan of nomadic people living in China.
b) Kushanas ruled over a vast kingdom extending from Central Asia to North-West India.
c) First to issue gold coins in India.
Q.6. In which languages and script, Ashokan script were written?
a) Language- Prakrit, Aramaic, and Greek.
b) Script- Prakrit in Brahmi, Greek, Aramaic, and Kharosthi.
Q.7. Who was a Gahapati?
1. Gahapati was the owner, master or head of a household.
2. He was the owner of the resources- land, animals and other things that belonged to the household.
Short Answer Questions: 5 Marks
Q.8. Discuss factors responsible for the rise of Magadha.
- Powerful rulers- Bimbisara and Ajatasattu
- Availability of iron.
- Fertile soil
- Availability of elephants in the forest.
- Strong capital – Rajgir and Pataliputra
Q.9. Describe five features of Mahajanapadas?
- Maximum Mahajanapadas were ruled by kings but some ruled by Ganas or Sanghas.
- Each had its own capital often fortified.
- The permanent army was recruited from the peasantry's regular bureaucracies.
- Dharmasutras laid down norms for kings and other people.
- The function of king is to collect taxes and tributes from people.
Q.10. Explain main features of Ashoka’s Dhamma?
- Respect to elders, love for young, and kindness to servants.
- Religious tolerance to other religions.
- Liberal policies towards Brahmanas, Shramanas.
- Appointment of Dhamma mahamattas.
Q.11. Important changes in agriculture during the period between 600 BCE to 600 CE
- For increase of agricultural production use of plough with iron-tipped plowshare.
- Introduction of transplantation of crop (paddy).
- Irrigation by wells, ponds, and canals.
- Hoe agriculture in semi-arid parts of Punjab, Rajasthan and hilly tracks in North-Eastern and Central Parts.
- Landlords and heads of villages were more powerful and had control over farmers.
- Land grants by kings to extend agriculture to new areas.
Q.12. How does inscriptions help in the reconstruction of history?
- Knowledge about the rulers and their achievements.
- Scripts and language of that time.
- Land grant and economic condition.
- The extent of the empire.
- The social and religious condition of kingdom.
Q.13. Main features of Mauryan administration?
- Central administration- King had control over legislative, executive, judiciary, army and finance.
- Provincial administration- The Empire was divided in to many provinces.
- Local Government- There was a committee of 30 members to maintain rules and regulations in Pataliputra.
- King used to run the administration with the help of high officials.
- Five major political centres in the empire
- Law and order system setup.
- Organised army- a committee with six subcommittee for coordinating military activity.
- To spread Dhamma , appointment of Dhamma Mahamattra.
- Officers were oppointed to manage the land revenue, irrigation and roads
- Institution of spies was very strong and working effectively.
Q.14. Source based questions:-
Read the following passage and answer the questions given below:
What did the king’s officials do?
Here is an excerpt from the account of Megasthenes:
Of the great officers of state, some … superintend the rivers, measure the land, as is done in Egypt, and inspect the sluices by which water is let out from the main canals into their branches, so that every one may have an equal supply of it. The same persons have charge also of the huntsmen, and are entrusted with the power of rewarding or punishing them according to their deserts. They collect the taxes, and superintend the occupations connected with land; as those of the woodcutters, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, and the miners.
Q.1- Explain the duties of the officers of state.
1. Some superintended the rivers, measured lands and inspected the sluices by which water was let out from the main canals into their branches, so that everyone would
have an equal supply of it.
2. They had also charge of huntsmen, entrusted with the power of rewarding or punishing them according to their deserts.
3. They collected the taxes, and superintended the occupations connected with land; as those of the woodcutters, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, and the miners.
Q2.- Explain the role of the sub-committees for coordinating military activities.
1. Megasthenes mentioned the committee with six subcommittees for coordinating military activity.
2. They looked after navy, transport, and provisions, foot soldiers, horses, chariots, and elephants.
3. The second committee had to arrange bullock carts to carry equipment procure food for soldiers and fodder for animals and recruit servants and artisans to look after the
Q3. What did Ashoka do to hold his empire together? 2
1. Ashoka tried to hold his empire together by propagating dhamma.
2. Special officers called dhamma mahamattas were appointed to spread the message of dhamma.