Mauryan Empire: Economy, Society and Art

The Mauryas maintained a huge standing army and employed a large number of state officials. These soldiers and officials were paid in cash. As the normal taxes were not considered sufficient to meet all the needs of the state and hence the state undertook and regulated numerous economic activities to generate more and more resources.

The mainstay of economy in this period was agriculture. The Mauryan state founded new agricultural settlements to bring virgin land under cultivation. People from overpopulated areas and prisoners of war were brought to these new settlements to work on the fields. These villages belonged to king and were looked after by government official called sitadhyaksha or superintendent of agriculture.

Besides state farms there were individual land holders who paid a variety of taxes to the state. The importance of irrigation was fully realised and peasants had to pay more tax on irrigated land. The bali or land tax was the main item of revenue, levied at the rate of one sixth of the produce. Peasants had to pay many other taxes like pindakara, hiranya, bhaga, bhoga, etc. The exact nature of which is not clear. Principal crops were various varieties of rice, barley, millet, wheat, sugarcane and most of the pulses, peas and oilseeds, which we know today.

Trade and urban economy received great impetus under the Mauryas and influenced almost all parts of the empire. The main centres of textile manufacturing were Varanasi, Mathura, Bengal, Gandhara and Ujjain. Mining and metallurgy was another important economic activity. Trade was conducted through land and river routes. Patliputra was also connected through various trade routes with all parts of the subcontinent. The main centre of trade in the northwest was Taxila, which was further connected with central Asian markets. Tamralipti (Tamluk in west Bengal) in the east and Broach in the west were important seaports.

Craft activities were also a major source of revenue to the state. Artisans living in towns had to pay taxes either in cash or kind or work free for the king. Traders and artisans were organised in associations called srenis or guilds.

The Mauryas were responsible for introduction of iron on a large scale in different parts of the subcontinent. They maintained a monopoly over production of iron, which was in great demand by the army, industry and agriculture. It was done through the official called loha-adyaksha.

As far as society is concerned, despite the challenge posed by Buddhism and Jainism the varna system continued to exist and brahmanas and kshatriyas dominated the social hierarchy. However, as a result of greater trade and commerce, there was improvement in the social status of vaisyas or trading communities and shudras. Now shudras could be involved in the agricultural and artisanal activities. This period also saw increase in the number of untouchables.

The Mauryan period provides the earliest examples of ancient Indian art and architecture. Megasthenes has described the grandeur of the Mauryan palace at Pataliputra. Some remains of this palace have been found at Kumrhar near Patna.

Ashokan pillars at Rampurva, Lauriya Nandangarh and Sarnath present excellent examples of stone sculptures which developed in this period. Our national emblem comes from the Asokan pillar at Sarnath near Benaras. All these pillars are circular and monolithic, and are made of sand stone found at Chunar, near Mirzapur in U.P.

We also find some rock cut architecture like Lomasa Risi cave in the Barabara hills near Gaya belonging to the Mauryan period. Among several stone and terracotta sculptures of this period, polished stone sculpture of a chauri-bearing female known as Didarganj Yakshini is most famous.