Ancient India

Crafts Trade and Towns in the post Mauryan age

THE age of the Shakas, Kusbans, Satavahanas (200 B.C. A.D. 300) and the first Tamil states was the most flourishing period in the history of Crafts and commerce in ancient India. Arts and crafts witnessed a remarkable growth. We do not come across so many kinds of artisans in the earlier texts as are mentioned in the writings of the period. The Digha Nikaya, which belongs to pre-Maurya times, mentions nearly two dozen occupations, but the Mahavastu, which belongs to this period, catalogues 36 kinds of workers living in the town of Rajgir and the list is not exhaustive. The Milind Panho or the Questions of Milinda enumerates as many as 75 occupations, 60 of which are connected with various kinds of crafts. Craftsmen are mostly associated with towns in literary texts, but some excavations show that they also inhabited villages. In a village settlement in Karimnagar in Telangana, carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, potters, etc. lived in separate quarters and agricultural and other labourers lived at one end.

Eight crafts were associated with the working of gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, brass, iron and precious stones or jewels. Various kinds of brass, zinc, antimony and red arsenic are also mentioned. All this shows great advance and specialization in mining and metallurgy. Technological knowledge about the work of iron had made great progress. Iron artifacts have been discovered in greater number in Kushan and Satavahana layers at various excavated sites. But the Telangana region of Andhra seems to have been the richest in this respect. In addition to weapons, balance rods, socketed axes and hoes, sickles, ploughshares, razors and ladles have been discovered in the Karimnagar and Nalgonda districts of this region. Indian iron and steel including cutlery were exported to the Abyssinian ports and they enjoyed great prestige in Western Asia.

Cloth-making, silk-weaving and the making of arms and luxury articles also made progress. Mathura was a great Centre for the manufacture of a special type of cloth which was called shataka. Dyeing was a thriving craft in some south Indian towns. A brick built dyeing vat has been unearthed at Uraiyur, a suburb of Tiruchirapalli town in Tamil Nadu.

Similar dyeing vats were excavated at Arikamedu. These structures belong to the first third centuries A.D., during which handloom textile industry flourished in these towns. The manufacture of oil increased because of the use of the oil wheel. The inscriptions of the period mention weavers, goldsmiths, dyers, workers in metal and ivory, jewellers, sculptors, fishermen, smiths and perfumers as constructors of caves and donors of pillars, tablets, cisterns etc. to the Buddhist monks. All these suggest that their crafts were in a flourishing condition.

Of the handicrafts meant for manufacturing luxury articles, mention may be made of ivory work, glass manufacture and bead-cutting. Shell industry was in a very thriving state. Many products of crafts have been found as a result of digging in the Kushan complexes. Indian ivories have been found in Afghanistan and Rome. They are likened to ivory objects found in excavations at Satavahana sites in the Deccan, Roman glass objects appear in Taxila and in Afghanistan, but it was about the beginning of the Christian era that the knowledge of glass-blowing reached India and attained its peak. Similarly, large numbers of beads of semi-precious stones appear in post Maurya layers. Numerous beads and bangles made of shell belong to the same layers. Coin-minting was an important craft and the period is noted for numerous types of coins made of gold, silver, copper, bronze, lead and potin. The craftsmen also made fake Roman coins. Various coin-moulds belonging to the period have been found both in north India and in the Deccan. A coin mould from the Satavahana level shows that through it half a dozen coins could be turned out at a time. These urban handicrafts were nrMAURYA AGE supplemented by the manufacture of beautiful pieces of terracotta, which are found in profuse quantities. They have been found in almost all Kushan and Satavahana sites, but special mention may be made of Yelleshwaram in Nalgonda district, where we find the largest number of terracottas and the moulds in which they were manufactured. Terracottas and their moulds have also been found at Kondapur, at a distance of about 65 km from Hyderabad. Terracottas were meant mostly for the use of upper classes in towns. It is significant that with the decline of towns in Gupta and especially in post-Gupta times, such terracottas almost went out of fashion.

Artisans were organised into guilds which were called shrenis. In the second century A.D. in Maharashtra, lay devotees of Buddhism deposited money with the guilds of potters, oil millers and weavers for providing robes and other necessities to the monks. In the same century money was deposited by a chief with the guild of flour makers at Mathura out of the monthly income of which a hundred brahmanas were to be served daily. On the basis of different texts we can say that artisans of this period were organized into at least two dozen guilds. Most artisans known from inscriptions were confined to the Mathura region and to the western Deccan, which lay on the trade routes leading to the ports on the western coast.

The most important economic development of the period was the thriving trade between India and the eastern Roman Empire. In the beginning a good deal of this trade was carried on by land, but the movement of the Shakas, Parthians and Kushans from the first century B.C. disrupted trade by land route. Although the Parthians of Iran imported iron and steel from India they presented great obstacles to India’s trade with the lands further west of Iran. But since the first century A.D Trade was carried on mainly by sea. It seems that around the beginning of the Christian era the mom soon was discovered. So the sailors now could sail in much less time directly from the eastern coast of the Arabian Sea to the western coast. They could call easily at the various ports such as Broach and Sopara situated on the western coast of India and Arikamedu and Tamralipti situated on its eastern coast. Of all these ports, Broach seems to have been the most important and flourishing. To it were brought not only the commodities produced in the Satavahana kingdom but also the goods produced in the Shaka and Kushan kingdoms. The Shakas and the Kushans used two routes from the north-western frontier to the western sea coast. Both these routes converged at Taxila and were connected with the Silk Route passing through Central Asia. The first route directly ran from the north to the south connecting Taxila with the lower Indus basin from where it passed on to Broach. The second route called the uttarapatha was in more frequent use. From Taxila it passed through modern Punjab up to the western coast of the Yamuna. Following the course of the Yamuna it went southward to Mathura. From Mathura it passed on to Ujjain in Malwa and again from Ujjain to Broach on the western coast. Ujjain was the meeting-point of another route which started from Kaushambi near Allahabad.

Foreign Trade

Although the volume of trade between India and Rome seems to have been large, it was not carried on in articles of daily use for the common people. There was a brisk commerce in luxury goods, which are sometimes called articles of aristocratic necessities. The Romans first started trade with the southern-most portion of the country, because their earliest coins have been found in the Tamil kingdoms which lay outside the Satavahana dominions. The Romans mainly imported spices for which south India was famous. They also imported muslin, pearls, jewels and precious stones from central and south India, Iron goods, especially cutlery, formed an important item of export to the Roman empire. Pearls, ivory, precious stones and animals were considered luxuries, but plants and plant products served basic religious, funerary, culinary and medicinal needs of the people. Kitchen ware may have been included in the items of import. Cutlery may have been important for higher class people.

In addition to the articles directly supplied by India, certain articles were brought to India from China and Central Asia and then sent to the eastern part of the Roman empire. Silk was directly sent from China to tide Roman empire through the Silk Route passing through north Afghanistan and Iran, But the establishment of the Parthian rule in Iran and the neighbouring areas created difficulties. Therefore silk had to be diverted to the western Indian ports through tire north-western part of the subcontinent. Sometimes it also found its way from China to India the east coast of India: From there it went to the West. Thus there was considerable transit trade in silk between India and the Roman empire.

In return the Romans exported to India wine, wine-amphorae and various other types of pottery which have been discovered in excavations at Tamluk in West Bengal, Arikamedu near Pondicherry and at several other places in south India. Sometimes they travelled as far as Guwahati. Lead, which was used for making coins by the Satavahan, seems, to have been imported from Rome in the shape of coiled strips. The Roman goods have not been discovered in any good number in north India. But there is no doubt that under the Kushans the north-western, part of the subcontinent in the second century A.B. carried on trade with the eastern part of the Roman empire. This was facilitated by the conquest of Mesopotamia, which was made a Roman province in A.D. 115. The Roman emperor Trajan not only conquered Muscat but also explored the Persian Gulf. As a result of trade and conquest, the Roman objects, reached Afghanistan and north-western India, At Begram, 72 km north of Kabul, large glass jars made in Italy, Egypt and Syria have come to light. We also find there bowls, bronze stands, steel yards, weights of western origin, Greeco-Roman bronze statues of small size, jugs and other vessels made of alabaster. Taxila, which is identical with the modern Sirkap in North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, provides fine examples of the Graeco-Roman sculpture in bronze. We also find silver ornaments, some bronze pots, one jar and coins of the Roman emperor Tiberius. But Arretine pottery, which has been found commonly in south India, is not noticed in central or western India or in Afghanistan. Evidently these places did not receive popular western articles, which have been found mostly south of the Vindhyas in the Satavahana kingdom and further south. Thus the kingdoms-of both the Sdtavahanas as: well as the Kushans profited from trade with, the Roman empire, although the maximum profit seems to have accrued to the Satavahanas.

The mosf signiflcant Roman export to India was the large number of coins, invariably made of gold and silver. About 150 finds of Roman coins have come to light in the whole of the subcontinent and most of them come from the south of the Vindhyas. The total number of Roman gold and silver chins that have been found in India does not exceed 6000, but it is difficult to say that only this many coins come from Rome. This justifies the complaint of the Roman writer Pliny, who wrote his account called Natural History in Latin in A.D. 77. He believed that Rome was being drained of gold on account of her trade with India. This may be an exaggeration. But as early as A.D. 22 we hear of complaints against excessive expenditure on the purchase of pepper from the East. Since the Westerners were very much fond of Indian pepper, it is called yavaripriya in Sanskrit. There also began a strong reaction against the use of India-made steel cutlery for which the Roman nobles paid very high prices. The concept of the balance of trade may not have been known to the people. But numerous finds of Roman coins and pottery in the peninsula leave no doubt that India was a gainer in its trade with the Roman empire. The loss of Roman money was felt so much that eventually steps had to be taken in Rome to ban its trade with India in pepper and steel goods.

It seems that the major role in Indo-Roman trade and shipping was played by the Romans. Although Roman traders resided in south India, there is little evidence for Indians residing in the Roman empire. Some pot sherds with graffiti in Tamil suggest that some Tamil merchants resided in Egypt in Roman times.

Money Economy

How did the Indians Use the silver and gold currency which came to India from Rome? The Roman gold coins were naturally valued for their intrinsic worth, but they also may have circulated in big transactions. In the north the Indo-Greek rulers issued a few gold coins. But the Kushans issued gold coins in considerable numbers. It is wrong to think that all Kushan gold coins were minted out of Roman gold. As early as the fifth century B.C., India had paid a tribute of 320 talents of gold to the Iranian empire. This gold may have been extracted from the gold mines in Sindh. The Kushans probably obtained gold from Central Asia. They may also have procured it either from Karnataka or from the gold mines of Dhalbhum in south Bihar which later came under their sway. On account of contact with Rome, the Kushans issued the dinar type of gold coins which became abundant under the Gupta rule. But gold coins may not have been used in day-to-day transactions, which were carried on in coins of lead, potin or copper. Both lead and copper deposits are found in Andhra and gold deposits in Karnataka. The Andhras issued a large number of lead or potin coins in the Deccan. Some punch marked and early Sangam age coins appear at the tip of the peninsula. The Kushans issued the largest number of copper coins in northern and northwestern India. Copper and bronze coins were also used in large quantities by the rulers, of some indigenous dynasties such as the Nagas who ruled in-central India, the Yaudheyas who ruled in eastern Rajasthan together with the adjacent areas of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh and the Mitras who ruled in Kaushambi, Mathura, Avahti and Ahichchhatra (Bareilly dish let in Uttar Pradesh !. Perhaps in no other period had money economy penetrated so deeply into the life of the common people of the towns and their suburbs as during this period. This development fits well with the growth of arts and crafts and the country’s thriving trade with the Roman empire.

Urban Settlements

The growing crafts and commerce and the increasing use of money promoted the prosperity of numerous towns during this period. Important towns in north India such as Vaishali, Pataliputra, Varanasi, Kaushambi, Shravasti, Hastinapur, Mathura, Indraprastha (Purana Quila in New Delhi) are ail mentioned in literary texts and some of them are also described by the Chinese pilgrims. Most flourished in the Kushan period in the first and the second centuries A.D. This may be said on the basis of excavations, which have revealed better constructions belonging to the Kushan age. Excavations further show that several sites in Bihar such as Chirand, Sonpur and Buxar and others in eastern Uttar Pradesh such as Khairadih and Mason; witnessed prosperous Kushan phases. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, Sohgaura, Bhita, Kaushambi and Shringaverapur near Allahabad.

Atranjikhera and many more sites in the western districts were in a thriving state, to Kushan times. We notice considerable brick work, of the Kushan period at both Shringaverapur and Chirand. The excavations at Sonkh in Mathura show as many as seven levels of the Kushan phase and only one of the Gupta phase. Again in Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Ropar, all lying in Punjab, several sites show good Kushan constructions. The same is true of the sites excavated in Haryana. In many cases the Gupta period had poorly built structures made of used Kushan bricks. This also applies to towns in the Shaka kingdom of Malwa and western India. The most important town was Ujjain, because of its being the nodal point of two routes, one from Kaushambi and the other from Mathura. But it was also important because of its export of agate and carnelian stones. Excavations show that agate, jasper and carnelian were worked on a large scale for the manufacture of beads after 200 B.C. This was possible because the raw material could be obtained in plenty from the trap bedrock-in the bed of tire Sipra river.

Towns thrived in the Satavahana kingdom during the same period as they did under the Shakas and Kushans. Tagar (Ter), Paithan, Dhanyakataka, Amaravati, Nagaijuriakohda, Broach, Sopara, Arikamedu and Kaverfpattanam were prosperous towns in the Satavahana period in western and south India. Several Satavahana settlements, some of which may be identical with the thirty walled towns of the Andhras mentioned by Pliny, have been excavated in

Telangana. They had originated much earlier than towns in the coastal Andhra although not much later than those in western Maharashtra. But the decline of towns in Maharashtra, Andhra and Tamil Nadu generally started in the middle of the third century A.D. or later.

Towns prospered in the Kushan and Satavahana empires because they carried on thriving trade with the Roman empire. The country traded with the eastern part of the Roman empire as well as with Central Asia. Towns in Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh thrived because the centre of Kushan power lay in north-western India. Most Kushan towns in India lay exactly on the north-western or uttarapatha route passing from Mathura to Taxila. The Kushan empire ensured security on the routes. Its end in the third century A.D. dealt a great blow to these towns. The same thing seems to have happened in the Deccan. With the ban on trade with India imposed by the Roman empire in the third century A.D towns could not support the artisans and merchants who lived there. Archaeological excavations in the Deccan also suggest decline in the urban settlements after the Satavahana phase.


  1. Explain the meaning of the following terms and concepts: uttarapatha, yavanpriya, shataka, shrenis
  2. Explain how the growth and development of crafts and commerce promoted the prosperity of towns in post-Maurya times.
  3. Discuss the view that the period from C. 200 B.C. to A.D. 300 was the most flourishing period in the history of crafts and commerce is:
  4. Describe the contribution of India to the growth of science and technology form C. 200 B.C. to A.D. 300.
  5. On an outline map of India, show the major trade routes connecting important centres with India.
  6. On an outline map of India show important urban settlements of the period from C. 200 B.C. to A.D. 300.
  7. What is meant by the Silk Route? Show it on an outline map of Eurasia. Also show how it was connected with India.
  8. Collect pictures of the coins belonging to the period C. 200 B.C. to A.D. 300. Mention the dynasties that issued these coins, what metals they contained, and the images and writings that appear on them. How were these coins different from the punch-marked coins?
  9. What does the increased use of coins indicate economically? Discuss in the classroom the main aspects of the economy of the period circa 200 B.C. to A.D. 300.

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