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  • THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY28

    THEME TWO

    There were several developments in different parts of thesubcontinent during the long span of 1,500 years followingthe end of the Harappan civilisation. This was also theperiod during which the Rigveda was composed by peopleliving along the Indus and its tributaries. Agricultural

    settlements emerged in many parts of thesubcontinent, including north India, theDeccan Plateau, and parts of Karnataka.Besides, there is evidence of pastoralpopulations in the Deccan and furthersouth. New modes of disposal of the dead,including the making of elaborate stonestructures known as megaliths, emerged incentral and south India from the firstmillennium BCE. In many cases, the deadwere buried with a rich range of iron toolsand weapons.

    From c. sixth century BCE, there isevidence that there were other trends as well. Perhapsthe most visible was the emergence of early states, empiresand kingdoms. Underlying these political processes wereother changes, evident in the ways in which agriculturalproduction was organised. Simultaneously, new townsappeared almost throughout the subcontinent.

    Historians attempt to understand these developmentsby drawing on a range of sources inscriptions, texts,coins and visual material. As we will see, this is a complexprocess. You will also notice that these sources do nottell the entire story.

    Kings, Farmers and TownsEarEarEarEarEarllllly Sy Sy Sy Sy Stttttatatatatates and Economieses and Economieses and Economieses and Economieses and Economies

    (((((c.c.c.c.c. 600 600 600 600 600 BCEBCEBCEBCEBCE-600 600 600 600 600 CECECECECE)))))

    Epigraphy is the study ofinscriptions.

    1. Prinsep and PiyadassiSome of the most momentous developments in Indianepigraphy took place in the 1830s. This was whenJames Prinsep, an officer in the mint of the EastIndia Company, deciphered Brahmi and Kharosthi,two scripts used in the earliest inscriptions andcoins. He found that most of these mentioned a kingreferred to as Piyadassi meaning pleasant tobehold; there were a few inscriptions which also

    THEME

    TWO

    Fig. 2.1An inscription, Sanchi(Madhya Pradesh),c. second century BCE

  • 29

    referred to the king as Asoka, one of the most famousrulers known from Buddhist texts.

    This gave a new direction to investigations intoearly Indian political history as European andIndian scholars used inscriptions and textscomposed in a variety of languages to reconstructthe lineages of major dynasties that had ruled thesubcontinent. As a result, the broad contours ofpolitical history were in place by the early decadesof the twentieth century.

    Subsequently, scholars began to shift their focusto the context of political history, investigatingwhether there were connections between politicalchanges and economic and social developments. Itwas soon realised that while there were links, thesewere not always simple or direct.

    2. The Earliest States2.1 The sixteen mahajanapadasThe sixth century BCE is often regarded as a majorturning point in early Indian history. It is an eraassociated with early states, cities, the growinguse of iron, the development of coinage, etc. Italso witnessed the growth of diverse systems ofthought, including Buddhism and Jainism. EarlyBuddhist and Jaina texts (see also Chapter 4)mention, amongst other things, sixteen statesknown as mahajanapadas. Although the lists vary,some names such as Vajji, Magadha, Koshala,Kuru, Panchala, Gandhara and Avanti occurfrequently. Clearly, these were amongst the mostimportant mahajanapadas.

    While most mahajanapadas were ruled by kings,some, known as ganas or sanghas, were oligarchies(p. 30), where power was shared by a number ofmen, often collectively called rajas. Both Mahaviraand the Buddha (Chapter 4) belonged to such ganas.In some instances, as in the case of the Vajji sangha,the rajas probably controlled resources such as landcollectively. Although their histories are often difficultto reconstruct due to the lack of sources, some ofthese states lasted for nearly a thousand years.

    Each mahajanapada had a capital city, which wasoften fortified. Maintaining these fortified cities aswell as providing for incipient armies andbureaucracies required resources. From c. sixth

    InscriptionsInscriptions are writ ingsengraved on hard surfacessuch as stone, metal orpottery. They usually recordthe achievements, activitiesor ideas of those whocommissioned them andinclude the exploits of kings,or donations made bywomen and men to religiousinstitutions. Inscriptions arevirtually permanent records,some of which carry dates.Others are dated on thebasis of palaeography orstyles of writing, with a fairamount of precision. Forinstance, in c. 250 BCEthe letter a was written likethis: . By c. 500 CE, it waswritten like this: .

    The earliest inscriptionswere in Prakrit, a name forlanguages used by ordinarypeople. Names of rulers suchas Ajatasattu and Asoka,known from Prakrit texts andinscriptions, have been spelt intheir Prakrit forms in thischapter. You will also findterms in languages such as Pali,Tamil and Sanskrit, whichtoo were used to writeinscriptions and texts. It ispossible that people spoke inother languages as well, eventhough these were not usedfor writing.

    Janapada, meaning the landwhere a jana (a people, clan ortribe) sets its foot or settles. Itis a word used in both Prakritand Sanskrit.

    KINGS, FARMERS AND TOWNS

  • THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY30

    century BCE onwards, Brahmanas began composingSanskrit texts known as the Dharmasutras. Theselaid down norms for rulers (as well as for othersocial categories), who were ideally expected to beKshatriyas (see also Chapter 3). Rulers were advisedto collect taxes and tribute from cultivators, tradersand artisans. Were resources also procuredfrom pastoralists and forest peoples? We do notreally know. What we do know is that raids onneighbouring states were recognised as a legitimatemeans of acquiring wealth. Gradually, some statesacquired standing armies and maintained regularbureaucracies. Others continued to depend onmilitia, recruited, more often than not, from thepeasantry.

    Oligarchy refers to a form ofgovernment where power isexercised by a group of men.The Roman Republic, aboutwhich you read last year, wasan oligarchy in spite of its name.

    Map 1Early states and their capitals

    Arabian SeaBay of Bengal

    KAMBOJA

    GANDHARA

    Pushkalavati

    Taxila

    SHURASENA

    MathuraMATSYA

    IndraprasthaAhichchhatra

    KURUPANCHALA

    Kaushambi

    CHEDIAVANTI

    Ujjayini

    ASHMAKA

    VATSA

    Shravasti

    VANGA

    Champa

    ANGA

    Rajir

    MAGADHA

    VaishaliVAJJI (VRIJJI)Kusinagara

    MALLA

    Varanasi

    KASHIKOSHALA

    Sketch map not to scale

    Which were the areaswhere states and cities weremost densely clustered?

  • 31

    2.2 First amongst the sixteen: MagadhaBetween the sixth and the fourth centuries BCE,Magadha (in present-day Bihar) became the mostpowerful mahajanapada. Modern historians explainthis development in a variety of ways: Magadha wasa region where agriculture was especially productive.Besides, iron mines (in present-day Jharkhand) wereaccessible and provided resources for tools andweapons. Elephants, an important component of thearmy, were found in forests in the region. Also, theGanga and its tributaries provided a means of cheapand convenient communication. However, earlyBuddhist and Jaina writers who wrote aboutMagadha attributed its power to the policies ofindividuals: ruthlessly ambitious kings of whomBimbisara, Ajatasattu and Mahapadma Nanda arethe best known, and their ministers, who helpedimplement their policies.

    Initially, Rajagaha (the Prakrit name for present-day Rajgir in Bihar) was the capital of Magadha.Interestingly, the old name means house of theking. Rajagaha was a fortified settlement, locatedamongst hills. Later, in the fourth century BCE, thecapital was shifted to Pataliputra, present-dayPatna, commanding routes of communication alongthe Ganga.

    Discuss...What are the differentexplanations offered by earlywriters and present-dayhistorians for the growth ofMagadhan power?

    KINGS, FARMERS AND TOWNS

    Fig. 2.2Fortification walls at Rajgir

    Why were these walls built?

  • THEMES IN INDIAN HISTORY32

    3. An Early EmpireThe growth of Magadha culminated in the emergenceof the Mauryan Empire. Chandragupta Maurya, whofounded the empire (c. 321 BCE), extended control asfar northwest as Afghanistan and Baluchistan, andhis grandson Asoka, arguably the most famous rulerof early India, conquered Kalinga (present-daycoastal Orissa).

    3.1 Finding out about the MauryasHistorians have used a variety of sources toreconstruct the history of the Mauryan Empire.These include archaeological finds, especiallysculpture. Also valuable are contemporary works,such as the account of Megasthenes (a Greekambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya),which survives in fragments. Another source thatis often used is the Arthashastra, parts of whichwere probably composed by Kautilya or Chanakya,traditionally believed to be the minister ofChandragupta. Besides, the Mauryas are mentionedin later Buddhist, Jaina and Puranic literature, aswell as in Sanskrit literary works. While these areuseful, the inscriptions of Asoka (c. 272/268-231BCE) on rocks and pillars are often regarded asamongst the most valuable sources.

    Asoka was the first ruler who inscribed hismessages to his subjects and officials on stonesurfaces natural rocks as well as polished pillars.He used the inscriptions to proclaim what heunderstood to be dhamma. This included respecttowards elders, generosity towards Brahmanas andthose who renounced worldly life, treating slavesand servants kindly, and respect for religions an