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Guptas: Economic conditions, Coinage of the Guptas, Land grants, Decline of urban centres, Indian feudalism- Part IV

Guptas: Economic conditions, Coinage of the Guptas, Land grants, Decline of urban centres, Indian feudalism- Part IV

Crafts production

  • The abundant inscriptions and seals mentioning artisans, merchants, and guilds suggest thriving urban crafts and trade.
    • Though Crafts production and commercial activities were brisk in the Gupta period.
    • Crafts production and commercial activities perhaps started declining from the Gupta period onward in most regions and according to some historians, this resulted in the decline of towns and cities and in greater dependence of society of agricultural production.
  • Crafts production covered a very wide range of items.
    • There were items of ordinary domestic use like earthen pots, items of furniture, baskets, metal tools for domestic use and so on.
    • Simultaneously a wide variety of luxury items including jewellery made of gold, silver and precious stones; objects made of ivory; fine clothes of cotton and silk and other costly items had to be made available to the affluent sections of people.
    • Some of these items were made available through trade; others were manufactured locally.
  • Gupta’s luxury objects, of which no trace is generally found in archaeological excavations, may be found in the literary texts or inscriptions of the period.
    • These sources also give us interesting hints regarding the status of different categories of craftsmen. For example, different varieties of silk cloth, called Kshauma and Pattavastra are mentioned in the texts of this period.
    • An inscription of fifth century from Mandasor in western Malwa refers to a guild of silk weavers who had migrated from south Gujarat and settled in the Malwa region. This indicates decline in trade and commerce.
  • Texts like Amarakosha of Amarasimha and Brihat Samhita which are generally dated to this period, list many items, give their Sanskrit names and also mention different categories of craftsmen who manufactured them.
    • Dharmashastra texts refer to partnerships in craft production and trade. They mention the apprenticeship of novices with master craftsmen.
  • However, for an idea of the quantity and variety of objects manufactured in this period one has to go through reports of what have been found at various archaeological sites.
    • Many important sites like Taxila, Ahichchhatra, Mathura, Rajghat, Kausambi and Pataliputra in the Ganges Valley and other sites in other geographical regions have yielded many craft products like earthen wares, terracottas, beads made of different stones, objects of glass, items made of metals, etc.
    • It seems that in comparison with crafts production in the preceding Saka Kushana period, crafts production in the Gupta period suffered some setback.
  • There are several references to artisans, traders, and occupational groups in Vakataka inscriptions.
    • The Indore plates of Pravarasena II mention a merchant (vanijaka) named Chandra, who bought half a village and donated it to some Brahmanas.
    • The gifted village Charmanka in the Chammak copper plates of Pravarasena II may have been a settlement of leather workers.
    • The Thalner copper plates record the gift of Kamsakaraka and Suvarnakara, which, from their names, seem to have been villages of bronze workers and goldsmiths.
    • A goldsmith named Ishvaradatta is mentioned as the engraver of the Pattan plates.
    • Kallara, mentioned in the Pandhurna plates, and Madhukajjhari, mentioned in the Patna Museum plates, may have been villages of alcohol distillers.
    • The inhabitants of Ishtakapalli of the Mandhal plates may have specialized in brickmaking.
    • Places such as Ishtakapalli, Hiranyapura, Lavanatailaka, and Lohanagara seem to have been connected with brickmaking, goldwork, salt manufacture, and iron working respectively.
  • Various crafts flourished in the Gupta period:
    • Metal working:
      • Metal working is listed in the Kamasutra as one of the 64 arts.
      • The Amarakosha lists various metals such as gold, silver, iron, copper, brass, and lead.
      • The Brihaspati Smriti mentions metal workers working with gold, silver, and base metals.
      • Apart from the many iron objects found at archaeological sites, the iron pillar at Mehrauli reflects the high level of metallurgical skill of the time.
      • A significant development of the period in metal technology was the manufacture of seals and statues, particularly of the Buddha.
      • Contemporary literature also testifies to the wide use of jewellery by the people of the time.
    • Pottery making:
      • Pottery remained a basic part of industrial production, though the elegant black – polished ware was no longer used, instead an ordinary red ware with a brownish slip was produced in large quantities, some of it being made to look more opulent by the addition of mica in the clay which gave the vessels a metallic finish.
    • Ivory work remained at a premium, as did stone cutting and carving, sculpture being very much in favour at this time.
      • The cutting, polishing and preparing of a variety of precious stones – jasper, agate, carnelian, quartz, lapis – lazuli, etc., were also associated with foreign trade.
    • Other specialised crafts:
      • Coin casting,
      • metal engraving,
      • terracotta work, and
      • wood carving.
    • Artistic remains indicate the existence of architects, builders, stone masons, sculptors, mural painters, and labourers. The Ajanta paintings abound in representations of royal palaces and mansions of the wealthy.
    • Cloth works:
      • The Amarakosha mentions several words connected with cotton textiles—weaver, loom, thread, coarse, and fine fabric.
      • We can note the evidence of stitched clothes in Indian sculpture from the early centuries CE.
        • The Ajanta paintings depict elaborate garments and imply skilled tailors and embroiderers.
      • The Mandasor inscription refers to the migration and activities of a prosperous guild of silk weavers.
    • Ornamental and cosmetic works:
      • Beautiful ornaments are described in literature and depicted both in sculptures and in Ajanta paintings.
      • The Amarakosha lists many types of precious and semi-precious stones.
      • Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita deals with the qualities of diamonds, rubies, and pearls.
      • Ornaments were also made out of coral and conch shell.
      • The descriptions of the life of the nagaraka in the Kamasutra and in kavya literature suggest the existence of garland makers and makers of cosmetics, unguents, and perfumes.
  • Inequality among craftsmen:
    • There were many types of craftsmen and they were not all identical either in wealth or in social status.
    • For example, there was vast difference between a goldsmith and his family with a shop in a city like Ujayini and a family of basketmakers in a village.
    • This is reflected to some extent in the Dharmasastras written by the brahmanas in this period.
      • The Dharmasastras assign different ranks to different groups of craftsmen, although the craftsmen and artisans held a status lower than that of the brahmanas, kshatriyas and vaisyas.
      • The Dharmasastras also suggest that each group of craftsmen formed a jati or caste.
        • For example, the Kumbhakaras or potters formed one caste, the Suvarnakaras or goldsmiths formed another caste and so on.
        • Although the system of caste was not really so simple, generally the trend among craftsmen was that persons following one craft formed a jati or a caste.
  • All items were not available at all places; the movement of items for trade from one place to another, therefore, continued as in the earlier periods.

Guilds

  • There were organizations which facilitated the functioning of both craftsmen and traders.
  • The ancient term which was generally used for these organizations was Sreni.
    • The term Sreni is often interpreted as guild but there are different interpretations of the term.
  • Guilds (nigama, sreni) continued as the major institution in the manufacture of goods and in commercial enterprise.
    • They remained almost autonomous in their internal organization, the government respecting their laws which were generally drafted by a larger body, the corporation of guilds, of which each guild was a member.
    • Each guild had a president called Prathama or Pravara. Some of the industrial guilds, such as the silk weaver’s guilds had their own separate corporation which was responsible for large-scale projects, such as endowments for building a temple, etc.
  • The State was expected to provide the guilds protection and to respect their customs and norms.
    • Similarly, members of the Sreni were also expected to follow the norms of the organization; otherwise, they were liable to punishment.
  • The Narada and Brihaspati Smritis describe the organization and activities of guilds.
    • They mention the guild chief and two, three, or five executive officers.
    • Guild laws were apparently laid down in written documents.
    • The Brihaspati Smriti refers to guilds meting out justice to their members and suggests that these decisions should, by and large, be approved by the king.
    • There is also mention of the philanthropic activities of guilds, for instance:
      • providing shelter for travellers and building assembly houses, temples, and gardens.
  • Certain inscriptions indicate the important role of the chief of the guilds of artisans and traders in district-level administrative bodies.
  • Also seals mentioned joint corporate bodies of merchant bankers, caravan merchants, and artisans.
  • Migration of craft guilds:
    • The Mandasor inscription refers to the migration and activities of a prosperous guild of silk weavers.
    • Indore copper plate of the time of Skandagupta states that the guild of oil men was supposed to provide oil for the Surya temple even if it moved to some other place.
    • These suggest that the migration of craft guilds was a reality.
  • Apart from the Mandasor inscription, the flourishing condition of guilds is indicated by inscriptions which refer to guilds as donors and bankers.
    • The Gadhwa inscription of the time of Chandragupta II mentions the investment of 20 dinaras in a guild headed by Matridasa, for the benefit of Brahmanas.
    • Two other inscriptions from Gadhwa, belonging to the reign of Kumaragupta I, record the investment of 13 and 2 dinaras with two guilds for the maintenance of sattras (almshouses).
    • The Indore inscription of Skandagupta records an endowment made by a Brahmana Devavishnu for maintaining a perpetual lamp in a Surya temple at Indore.
      • It states that the temple was built by two merchants of this place— Achalavarman and Bhrikunthasimha—and that the money was invested with a guild of oil manufacturers headed by Jivanta.
      • The guild was to ensure a regular supply of oil for the lamps in the temple, even if it migrated elsewhere.

Money economy

  • R. S. Sharma has argued that the Gupta and post-Gupta periods saw a decline in the money economy.
    • He points out that the Guptas issued many gold coins, but comparatively few silver and copper coins.
  • Till recently, it was believed that the Vakatakas did not issue any coins, but some recent finds have dispelled this notion.
  • Money lending:
    • Texts have the discussion of money-lending in texts.
      • For instance, the Narada Smriti refers to money gained through usury as ‘spotted wealth’ and ‘black wealth’, but the Dharmashastra texts of the time do lay down detailed rules concerning usury, including
        • the drawing up of contracts,
        • the role of local custom in fixing rates of interest, and
        • various kinds of pledges that could be accepted as security for loans.
    • Interest rate:
      • A general rate of 15 per cent per annum interest is advocated for secured loans.
      • The rates of interest for unsecured loans are much higher and vary with the varna of the borrower, members of the lower varnas being required to pay higher interest rates.
      • The rate of interest on loans varied according to the purpose for which money was required.
        • The high rates demanded during the Mauryan period on loans to be used for overseas trade were no longer demanded, indicating an increased confidence in overseas trade.
        • The lowering of the rate of interest from the earlier period indicates the greater availability of goods and the consequent decrease in rates of profit.
    • The Brihaspati Smriti states that when a piece of immoveable property such land has been enjoyed and has yielded more than the principal, the debtor should automatically recover the pledge.
    • The effects of defaulting on a loan are said to pursue the debtor in his next life.
      • The Narada Smriti asserts that a person will be born as a slave in the house of his creditor, in order to pay off the debt through his labour.
    • The detailed discussion of money-lending (including the mention of joint money-lending enterprises) clearly points to a context in which money was being used, borrowed, and loaned for profit.

Trade

  • India had extensive trade links with Central, West and Southeast Asia and with the Roman world in the preceding period, and trade routes connecting different regions within the country had been developing over centuries.
    • That commercial activities continued in the Gupta period are evident.
    • The commercial prosperity of the Gupta era was the concluding phase of the economic momentum which began in the preceding period.
  • Like their Kushana predecessors the Gupta rulers too minted coins of different types, and the gold coins of the Gupta rulers show excellent qualities of craftsmanship.
    • The Guptas also issued coins in copper, silver and lead. These coins were used for purposes of commercial exchange.
  • The Buddhist Sangha was by now rich enough to participate in commercial activities.
  • In some regions of the Gupta empire, the merchants held a high position in society.
    • For example, two types of representatives of merchants-the Nagarasresthi and the Sarthavaha-were associated with the administration of the district headquarters in north Bengal.
    • The seals of the Gupta period, found at Vaisali in north Bihar, suggest that the merchants constituted an important section of the population of the city of Vaisali.
    • The Faridpur plate of Gopachandra seems to refer to big traders (pradhana-vyaparinah).
    • Literary texts of the period show that in cities like Pataliputra and Ujjayini commercial activities were carried on briskly and people from different countries were present in them. Merchants were important communities also in these cities.
  • Texts mention rules for hiring conveyance such as bullock carts, boats, and beas.
    • They refer to various aspects of business activities such as the return of sold goods.
    • Rules for the protection of the interests of traders and consumers, and punishments for adulteration and the nondelivery of goods are also laid down.
    • Like the previous phase, we have reference to two types of merchants in the Gupta period:
      • Sresthi who was usually settled at a particular place and enjoyed an eminent position and
      • Sarthavaha who was a caravan trader.
  • Narada smriti and Brihaspati smriti laid down many regulations to govern the trade practices of the time.
  • The articles of internal trade included all sorts of commodities for everyday use, chiefly sold in villages and town markets.
    • On the other hand, luxury goods formed the principal articles of long distance trade.
  • Compared to the earlier period, there was a decline in long-distance trade because:
    • Silk and spices were the chief Indian export articles of Indo-Roman trade.
      • But by the middle of the sixth century silk worms were secretly brought overland from China and introduced into the Byzantine Empire.
      • This produced an adverse effect on India’s trade with the west.
    • Later, the expansion of the Arabs under the banner of Islam may have further disrupted India’s trade.
    • Indian merchants meanwhile had begun to rely more heavily on the South-East Asian trade.
      • The establishment of Indian trading stations in various parts of South-east Asia meant the diversion of income to this region.
  • The account of Cosmas mentions various ports on the western coast of India such as Calliena (Kalyan), Sibor (Chaul), and the markets of Male (Malabar), Parti, Mangarouth (Mangalor), Solapatana, Nalopatana (Necynda), and Pandopatana.
    • Faxian refers to Tamralipti in Bengal as an important centre of trade on the eastern coast.
    • These ports and towns were connected with those of Persia, Arabia, and Byzantium on the one hand and Sri Lanka, China, and Southeast Asia on the other.

Trade with China:

  • Faxian describes the perils of the sea route between India and China.
  • Monks moving from India to China along the land route via central Asia must have followed the routes of caravan traders.
  • Chinese sources mention items from India such as rare gems, pearls, fine textiles (probably muslin), saffron, spices including pepper, and aromatics.
  • Silk:
    • In spite of the indigenous manufacture of silk, India continued to import silk yarn and cloth from China and played an important role in trade networks that transported Chinese silk to the Mediterranean world.
    • The reason for the continuing demand for Chinese silk in India was that Indian artisans made silk out of the cocoons of wild silkworms.
      • The techniques of raising mulberry silk cocoons and unravelling the thread from boiled cocoons were unknown in India till they were introduced by central Asian immigrants in the 13th century.
    • Indian silk was, therefore, not as soft or shiny as Chinese silk, and although Indian cotton textiles were exported to other lands, its silk was never a major article of export in ancient times.
    • The silk that left Indian shores for export was probably imported Chinese silk.
      • Even after the technical innovations in Indian silk production in the medieval period, Chinese silk remained a luxury item that was much in demand. It figured among the gifts given by Chinese emperors to foreign embassies.
    • Kalidasa refers to rich people wearing garments made of chinamshuka (Chinese silk).

Connection with Southeast Asia:

  • Kingdoms emerged in the 1st millennium CE in areas such as Java, Sumatra, and Bali, and maritime trade was an important facet of the economic life of the region.
  • Sanskrit inscriptions appeared in mainland and peninsular Southeast Asia in c. 500 CE.
  • The genealogies of early kings often traced their ancestry to India.
    • For instance, according to traditional histories of Myanmar, the earliest kingdom in the Irawaddy valley was founded by a dispossessed prince from India.
    • Cambodian tradition tells of a Brahmana named Kaundinya who married a Cambodian princess.
    • A 9th century inscription from Dong Duong claims that the rulers of this area were descendants of sage Bhrigu of the Mahabharata.
  • In the course of the 1st millennium, Buddhist and Hindu sculpture and architecture appeared in these areas.
    • Yupa inscriptions and gold images of the Buddha and Vishnu have been found at Kutei in Bornea.
  • The Buddhist art of the Andhra region influenced sculptural styles in Indo-China.
  • The ports of South India played a pivotal role in trade with Southeast Asia and China.
    • The stories of the Tamil epics are set in the cities of Madurai, Kaveripumpattinam/Kaveripattinam, Vanji, and Kanchipuram.
    • Silppadikaram:
      • In the Silappadikaram, Manaikan, Kannaki’s father, was a ship’s captain living in the great river port of Puhar.
      • Kovalan was the son of a caravan trader.
      • The Silappadikaram mentions a street of cloth merchants at Madurai, where piles of cloth woven out of cotton, hair, or silk were stocked.
        • Weavers (karukas) brought fine silk and various kinds of cotton and woollen textiles to the markets of Kaveripattinam.
      • The Silappadikaram refers to yavana craftsmen in cities, yavanas living in their separate quarters in Puhar, and Tamil kings hiring yavana guards to protect the gates of their fortresses.
      • Cotton cloth was another important southern export and the Silappadikaram mentions 32 varieties of cotton fabric. It refers to kings dispatching vessels loaded with eaglewood, silk, sandalwood, spices, and camphor in the early cool season.
    • Manimekalai:
      • The Manimekalai has stories of merchants making sea voyages to Sri Lanka and Java.
      • In the Jatakas, Manimekalai is in fact the name of a goddess who protects and saves seamen.
    • The epics also describe the lavish lifestyle of Indian merchants.
    • Spices such as pepper and cardamom continued to be produced and exported from the Kerala region.
      • But with increased demand, these were also imported from Southeast Asia and then sent on westwards.
    • The evidence of coastal trade can be connected with the flourishing settlements off the coast of Sri Lanka such as Mantai in the north and Kirinda and Godavaya in the south.

Decline of trade in Gupta and Post-Gupta period

  • One of the conspicuous economic changes in the Gupta and post-Gupta period was the decline of trade. both internal and external.

Decline in foreign trade:

  • Indian foreign trade registered a peak during the post-Mauryan period, when India traded with the Roman empire, Central Asia and South-East Asia. However, commercial decline set in during the Gupta period, and it became more pronounced by the middle of the sixth century A.D.
  • The inflow of Roman coins into India stopped after the early centuries of the Christian era.
  • Other evidences suggesting contact with the western world are also absent.
  • Further, the Roman empire itself broke up at a later date. The emergence of the Arabs and the Persians as competitors in trade did not augur well for Indian merchants.
  • Some Byzantine coins ranging up to the sixth century, have been found in Andhra and Karnataka. But numerically they cannot be compared to the rich hoards of the early Roman coins.
  • Silk and spices were important items in the Indo-Byzantine trade.
    • The Byzantium learnt the art of growing silk worms in the middle of the sixth century A.D. Consequently the silk trade was badly affected.
    • The migration of silk weavers from Gujarat and their taking to other vocations acquires meaning in this context.
  • Gupta ties with Central Asia were also weak. Whatever little remained of the contacts with Central Asia and Western Asia were completely wiped off by the Huna invasions.
  • It is said that the coastal towns of India carried on some trade with countries of South-East Asia and China.
    • However, this interaction does not appear to have been of any intense kind.
    • There is evidence for the spread of many cultural influences from India to South-East Asia in early historical and early medieval times but there is no evidence of pottery, coins or other objects of this kind to suggest robust commercial interactions.
    • Earlier, India had carried on trade in beads and some other items with some areas of South-East Asia, but after the fourth century A.D. there is no evidence for such trade.
    • Not much can be made out of the Indian delegations to China. The number of such missions registered a declining trend from the sixth century onwards.
    • Besides, the reported Chinese coins and celadon ware from Tamil Nadu are placed in the ninth century or later, and prior to that we have no other material remains to suggest any kind of Indo-Chinese trade.

Decline in long distance internal trade:

  • Long distance internal trade too suffered owing to the weakening of links between coastal towns and the interior towns and further between towns and villages.
  • The decay of towns and shrinkage in urban commodity production and the decline of trade were related problems.
  • The decline of the status of traders and merchants in society during this period also indicates the falling fortunes of trade and commerce.
  • The rise of numerous self-sufficient units dominated by landed beneficiaries also had adverse effect on trade. In fact, the Kathasaritasagara, a later work, suggests that traders moved through forests to avoid the multiple payment of duties.
  • Sea voyages and long-distance travels were taboo. Such attitudes surely did not promote the cause of trade.
  • However, trade in basic necessities such as salt, iron artefacts etc. continued.
  • These essential commodities are not available everywhere.
    • Moreover, some long-distance trade went on in prestigious expensive luxury goods such as precious stones, ivory and horses. There was a demand for such commodities among the aristocracy, chiefs and kings.
  • It thus seems that for quite a few centuries large-scale, organised trade was replaced by itinerant petty traders, pedlars and trickle trade.

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