Ancient India

Spread of Civilization in Eastern India

Signs of Civilization

A REGION is considered to be civilized if its people know the art of writing, have a system for collecting taxes and maintaining order and possess social classes and specialists for performing priestly, administrative and producing functions. Above all a civilized society should be able to produce enough to support not only the actual producers consisting of artisans and peasants but also consumers who are not engaged in production. All these elements make for civilization. They appear in a large part of eastern India on a recognizable scale very late. Practically no written records are found in the greater portions of eastern Madhya Pradesh and the adjoining areas of Orissa, West Bengal, Bangladesh and Assam until the middle of the fourth century A.D.

The period from the fourth to the seventh century is remarkable for the diffusion of an advanced rural economy, formation of state systems and delineation of social classes in eastern Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, eastern Bengal and south-east Bengal and Assam. This is indicated by the distribution of a good number of inscriptions in these areas in Gupta times. Many inscriptions are dated in the Gupta era and appear in the form of land grants made by feudatory princes and others for religious purposes to Buddhists and brahmanas and also to Vaishnavite temples and Buddhist monasteries. These beneficiaries played an important role in spreading and strengthening elements of advanced culture. The process can be understood by attempting a region wise survey.

Orissa and Eastern and Southern Madhya Pradesh

Kalinga or the coastal Orissa, south of the Mahanadi, leapt into importance under Ashoka, but a strong state was founded in that area only in the first century B.C. Its ruler Kharavela advanced as far as Magadha. In the first and second centuries A.D., the ports of Orissa carried on brisk trade in pearls, ivory and muslin. Excavations at Shishupalgarh, the site of Kalinganagari which was the capital of Kharavela at a distance of 60 km from Bhubaneswar, have yielded several Roman objects indicating trade contacts with the Roman empire. But the greater part of Orissa, particularly north Orissa, neither experienced state formation nor witnessed much commercial activity. In the fourth century Kosala and Mahakantara figure in the list of the regions conquered by Samudragupta. They covered parts of northern and western Orissa. From the second half of the fourth century to the sixth century several states were formed in Orissa and at least five of them can be clearly identified. The most important of them is the state of the Matharas, who are also called Pitribhaktas. At the peak of their power they dominated the area between the Mahanadi and the Krishna. Their contemporaries and neighbours were the Vasishthas, the Nalas and the Manas. The Vasishthas ruled on the borders of Andhra in south Kalinga, the Nalas in the forest area of Mahakantara and the, Manas in the coastal area in the north beyond the Mahanadi. Each state developed its system of taxation, administration and military organization. The Nalas and probably the Manas, also evolved their system of coinage. Each kingdom favoured the brahmanas with land grants and even invited them from outside and most kings performed Vedic sacrifices not only for spiritual merit but also for power, prestige and legitimacy. In this period elements of advanced culture were not confined to the coastal belt known as Kalinga, but appeared in the other parts of Orissa. The find of the Nala gold coins in the tribal Bastar area inMadhya Pradesh is significant. It presupposes an economic system in which gold money was used in large transactions and served as medium of payment to high functionaries. Similarly, the Manas seemed to have issued copper coins, which imply the use of metal money even by artisans and peasants. The various states added to their income by forming new fiscal, units in rural DIA areas. The Matharas created a district called Mahendrabhoga in the area of the Mahendra mountains. They also ruled over a district called Dantayavagubhoga, which apparently supplied ivory and rice-grucl to its administrators and had thus been created in a backward area. The Matharas made endowments called agraharas, which consisted of land and income from villages and were meant for supporting religious and educational activities of the brahmanas. Some agraharas had to pay taxes although elsewhere in the country they were tax-free. The induction of the brahmanas through land grants in tribal, forest and red soil areas brought new lands under cultivation and introduced better methods of agriculture, based on important knowledge of weather conditions. Formerly the year was divided into three units, each consisting of four months and time was reckoned on the basis of three seasons. Under the Matharas, in the middle of the fifth century, began the practice of dividing the year into twelve lunar months. This implied a detailed idea of weather conditions, which was useful for agricultural operations.

In coastal Orissa writing was certainly known since the third century B.C. and Inscriptions up to the middle of the fourth century A.D. appeared in Prakrit. But from about A.D. 350 onwards Sanskrit began to be used. What is more significant, charters in this language appear outside the coastal belt beyond the Mahanadi in the north. Thus, the art of writing and the use of Sanskrit language spread over a good portion of Orissa and some of the finest Sanskrit verses are found in the epigraphs of the period. Sanskrit served as the vehicle of not only brahmanical religion and culture but also of property laws and. social regulations in new area. Verses from the Puranas and Dharmashastras are quoted in Sanskrit charters and kings claim to be the preservers of the varna system. The affiliation of the people to the culture of the Gangetic basin is emphasised. A dip in the Ganga at Prayag at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna is considered holy and victorious kings visit Prayag.


As regards Bengal portions of north Bengal, now in Bogra district, give evidence of the prevalence of writing in the time of Ashoka. An inscription indicates several settlements maintaining a storehouse filled with coins and foodgrains for the upkeep of Buddhist monks. Clearly the local peasants were in a position to spare a part of their produce for paying taxes and making gifts. Further, people of this area knew Prakrit and professed Buddhism. Similarly, an inscription found in the coastal district of Noakhali in south-east Bengal shows that people knew

Prakrit and Brahmi script in that area in the second century B.C. But for the greater part of Bengal we do not hear anything until we come to the fourth century A.D. In about the middle of the fourth century a king with the title of maharaja ruled in Pokhama on the Damodara in Bankura district. He knew Sanskrit and was a devotee of Vishnu, for whose worship he possibly granted a village.

The area lying between the Ganga and the Brahmaputra now covering Bangladesh emerged as a settled and fairly Sanskrit educated area in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Gupta governors seem to have become independent after about A.D. 550 and occupied north Bengal; a portion may have been seized by the rulers of Kamarupa. Local vassal princes called samanta maharajas had created their own administrative apparatus and built their military organization consisting of horses, elephants and foot soldiers and boats to fight their rivals and collect taxes from the local peasantry. By A.D. 600 the area came to be known as Gauda with its independent state ruled by Shashanka, the adversary of Harsha.

For a Century from A.D. 432-33 we notice a series of land sale documents recorded on copper-plates in Pundravardhanabhukti, which covered almost the whole of north Bengal, now, mostly in Bangladesh. Most land grants indicate that land was purchased with gold coins called dinara. But once land was given for religious purposes the donees did not have to pay any tax. The land transactions show the involvement of leading scribes, merchants, artisans, landed classes, etc. in local administration, which was manned by the governors appointed by the Gupta emperors. The land sale documents not only indicate the existence of different social groups and local functionaries but also shed valuable light on the expansion of agriculture. Mostly land purchased for religious endowments is described as fallow, uncultivated and, therefore, untaxed. Without doubt the effect of the grants was to bring plots of land within the purview of cultivation and settlement.

The deltaic portion of Bengal formed by the Brahmaputra and called Samatata, which was made to acknowledge the authority of Samudragupta in the fourth century, covered south-east Bengal. A portion of this territory may have been populated and important enough to attract the attention of the Gupta conqueror. But possibly it was not ruled by brahmanised princes and consequently it neither used Sanskrit nor adopted the varna system as was the case in north Bengal. From about A.D. 525 onwards the area came to have a fairly organised state covering Samatata and a portion of Vanga which lay on the western boundary of Samatata. It is called the kingdom of Samatata or Vanga whose rulers including Sama Haradeva issued a good number of gold coins in the second half of the sixth century.

In addition to this state, in the seventh century, we come across the state of the Khadgas, literally swordsmen, in the Dhaka area. We also notice the kingdom of a brahmana feudatory called Lokanatha and that of the Ratas, both in the Comilla area. All these princes of south-east and central Bengal issued land grants in the sixth and seventh centuries. Like the Orissa kings; they also created agraharas. The land charters show cultivation, of Sanskrit, leading to the use of some sophisticated metres in the second half of the seventh century. At the same time they attest the expansion of cultivation and rural settlements. A fiscal and administrative unit called Dandabhukti was formed in the border areas lying between Bengal and Orissa. Danda means punishment and bhukti enjoyment. Apparently the unit was created for taming and punishing the tribal inhabitants of that region. It may have promoted Sanskrit and other elements of culture In tribal areas. This was also true of Vatdhamanabhukti (Burdwan) of which we hear in the sixth century. In south-east Bengal in the Faridpur area five plots of land granted to a Buddhist monastery were waste and water-logged, paying no tax to the state. Similarly, 200 brahmanas were given a large area in Comilla district within a forest region full of deer, boars, buffaloes, tigers, serpents, etc. All such instances are sufficient proof of the progress of colonization and civilization in new areas.

The two centuries from about the middle of the fifth appear to be very momentous in the history of Bengal. They saw the formation of about half a dozen states, some large and others small, some independent and others feudatory. But each had its victory or military camp where it maintained its infantry, cavalry, elephants and boats. Each had its fiscal and administrative districts with its machinery for tax collection and maintenance of order. Each practised expansion through War and land grants to Buddhists and brahmanas. The number of endowments had increased so much that ultimately an officer called agraharika had to be appointed to look after them. Land gifts led to rural expansion and created new rights in land. Generally land was under the possession of individual families. But its sale and purchase was subject to the overall control of the local communities dominated by leading artisans, merchants, landowners and scribes. They helped the local agents of the king. But ordinary cultivators were also consulted about the sale of land in the village. It seems that originally only the tribe or the community could grant land because they possessed it. Therefore, even when individuals came to possess their own lands and made gifts for religious purposes, the community continued to have a say in the matter. Probably at an earlier stage the community donated land to the priests for religious services and paid taxes to the princes for military and political services. Later the king received from the community a good part of the land and arrogated to himself much more, which enabled him to make land grants. The king was entitled to taxes and also possessed rights over waste and fallow land. The administrative functionaries of each state knew Sanskrit, which was the official language. They were also familiar with the teachings of the Puranas and the Dharmashastras. The period therefore is very significant because of the onward march of civilization in this area.


Kamarupa, identical with the Brahmaputra basin running from east to west, shot into prominence in the seventh century. Excavations, however, show settlements in Arnbail near Guwahati from the fourth century of the Christian era. In the same century Samudragupta received tributes from Davaka and Kamarupa Oavaka possibly accounted for a portion of Nowgong district and Kamarupa covered the Brahmaputra basin. The rulers who submitted to Samudragupta may have been chiefs living on the tributes collected from the tribal peasantry.

The Ambari excavations near Guwahati show that settlements were fairly developed in the sixth and seventh centuries. This is supported by inscriptions. By the beginning of the sixth century the use of Sanskrit and the art of writing are clearly in evidence. The Kamarupa kings adopted the title varman, which obtained not only in northern, central and western India but also in Bengal, Orissa, Andhra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This title which means armour and symbolises a warrior, has been given to the kshatriyas by Manu. They strengthened their position through land grants to the brahmanas. In the seventh century Bhaskaravarman emerged as the head of a state which controlled good deal of the Brahmaputra basin and some areas beyond it. Buddhism also acquired a foothold and the Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang (Hieun Tsang) visited this state.

The Formative Phase

Although different parts of eastern India acquired prominence at different times, the formative phase ranged from the fourth to the seventh century. In this period writing, Sanskrit learning, Vedic rituals, brahmanical social classes and state systems spread and developed in eastern Madhya Pradesh, north Orissa, West Bengal, a good part of Bangladesh and Assam. Cultural contacts with the Gupta empire stimulated the spread of civilization in the eastern zone. North Bengal and northwest Orissa came under the Gupta rule; in other areas of these regions the Gupta association can be inferred from the use of the Gupta era in inscriptions. In Bengal new states were formed by feudatories, who maintained a good number of elephants, horses, boats, etc. in their military camps. Obviously they collected regular taxes from the rural communities to maintain professional armies. For the first time in the fifth and sixth centuries, we clearly notice large-scale writing, use of Sanskrit, formation of varna society; and progress of Buddhism and brahmanisni in the form of Shaivism and Vaishanavism in this area. We find only the remnants of communal authority over land, but we cart see the existence of private property in land and the use of gold coins with which it could be purchased. All this presupposes an advanced food producing economy. Apparently it was based on iron ploughshare; agriculture, wet paddy cultivation and knowledge of various crafts. Kalidasa refers to the transplantation of paddy seedling in Vanga, but we do not know whether the practice was indigenous or came from Magadha. North Bengal produced good quality sugarcane. All this made for sufficient agricultural production, which was able to sustain both people and government and could foster widespread rural settlements in such areas as were either sparsely inhabited or not at all inhabited. A connected narrative of the princes and dynasties and their feudatories, all revolving round a central power, cannot be prepared. But there is no doubt about cultural evolution and conquest of civilization in the outlying provinces in the eastern zone.

The decline and fall of the Gupta empire therefore coincided with considerable progress in the outlying regions. Many obscure areas, which were possibly ruled by tribal chiefs and were thinly settled, came into historical limelight. This applied to the red soil areas of West Bengal, north Orissa and the adjoining areas of Madhya Pradesh, which formed part of the Chotanagpur plateau and were difficult to cultivate and settle. It applied more to the jungle areas with alluvial soil and heavy rainfall in Bangladesh and to the Brahmaputra basin.


  1. Why is the period from about the fourth century A.D. to about the seventh century A.D. important in the history of large parts of eastern India? Discuss.
  2. Discuss the process of the formation of states in eastern India. What was the position and role of the brahmanas in these states? What is mcant by ‘land grants”?
  3. What was their significance in the social system that developed in the states of eastern India? Compile a list of the states mentioned in this chapter and identify the areas covered by them on an outline map of India.

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