Janapadas Socio – Economic Life 2

Trade and Traders – Economy

The rapidly increasing trade made a range of material goods available for consumption. There were plenty of iron objects being traded, ranging from hoes, sickles and knives to hooks, nails, arrowheads, vessels and mirrors. Salt was mined in the Potwar Plateau in the north-west and may have travelled the long distance to the Ganges plain. Craftsmen and artisans in the towns produced textiles, beads, pottery, ivory objects, ceramics and

glassware, and artefacts of other metals, all of which were items of trade. Goods were also taken to the north-west, from where presumably horses were brought back; texts refer to the production of blankets and woollen goods in this area which were intended for trade. In fact, there were two major trans-regional  routes at that the time, known as the Uttarapatha and Dakshinapatha. The Uttarapatha was the major trans-regional trade route of northern India. It stretched from the north-west, across the Indo-Gangetic plains, up to the port of Tamralipti on the Bay of Bengal. The Uttarapatha had a northern and a southern sector. The northern sector ran through Lahore, Jalandhar, Saharanpur, along the Gangetic plains to Bijnor, and then through Gorakhpur, towards Bihar and Bengal. The southern sector connected Lahore, Raiwind, Bhatinda, Delhi, Hastinapura, Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, and Prayagaraj, and then moved on towards

Pataliputra and Rajagriha. The Dakshinapatha — the great southern trade route—  is mentioned in the Arthashastra but was operational from the early historical Period.

Buddhist texts talk of caravans with 1000 carts moving from one janapada to another, passing through deserted areas. We are told how caravans paid tolls and taxes to king’s men, much like the modern toll-highways. In fact, Buddhist texts refer to special

customs officials (kammikas) who levied taxes on merchandise and could even confiscate the goods of tax evaders 

The New Investors: Gahapati and Setthi

Pali texts repeatedly use the word gahapati to denote a wealthy property-owner, particularly associated with land and agriculture. The gahapati, literally speaking, could also mean the head of the household. He was no ordinary person considering

his vast amount of wealth. What was the basis of this large fortune? Pali texts often depict the gahapati as a peasant (kassaka) – but the gahapati was not an ordinary agriculturist. His holdings were so vast that he required and employed non-kin labour. 

The setthi was a high-level businessman, associated with trade and money lending. According to scholars, setthis combined the role of investors, financiers, and merchants. The setthis like the gahapatis were also important patrons of the new heterodox sects. There are many references to extremely wealthy setthis living prosperously in cities such as Rajagrha and Varanasi. 


The expansion of agriculture and emergence of craftsmen required greater specialization. Occupations encouraged separate categories for craftsmen, cultivators and labourers. Each of these began to be treated as a separate jati. Jati, comes from the root jata meaning ‘birth’ and served a different function than varna Both varnas and jatis as social groups were required to regulate marriage within specific circles as well as follow occupations according to hereditary status. The varnas were associated with a range of occupations, whereas the jatis were associated with specific occupations. Nevertheless both the systems were inter-related. For example, Pali texts refer to ukkatta (high) jatis performing high professions (kamma) and crafts (sippa) and similarly hina (low) jatis pursuing lower professions and crafts. The ukkatta jatis included khattiya, brahmanas, and gahapatis. These groups were associated with the ‘excellent’ professions mentioned above, i.e., agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade. In addition high-ranked crafts professions were those of a scribe (lekha), accountant (ganana), royal functionary (rajaporisa), etc. The inferior hina jatis included low-ranked professions such as that of basket makers (vena jati), washermen (rajaka), barber (nahapita), hunters (nesada jati), sweepers (pukkusa jati) and the chandalas.

The Chandalas, often called the fifth varna, were reduced to a status lower than the shudras. The Chandalas, who came to be treated as untouchable, appear to have been people on the edges of settlements, either forced there by encroaching settlers or requiring a habitat where they lived by hunting and food-gathering. Their occupations, such as weaving rush-mats and hunting, came to be looked upon as extremely low. Another social group that had similar low status in society was that of slaves (dasas and karmakaras). The Buddhist canonical text Digha Nikaya states that a dasa is one who is not his own master and is dependent on another; he cannot go where he likes. The texts of this period refer variously to both male and female slaves. For example, the Vinaya Pitaka speaks of three kinds of slaves – the antojatako, who was the offspring of a woman slave, the dhanakkito, who was bought as a slave, and the kara-mara-anito, who was brought from another country and enslaved.

Anuloma : Marriage between the man of a higher varna and woman of a lower varna.

Gahapati : Rich land-owners with vast estates; employed non- kin labour.

Ganasanghas : Non-monarchical polities in which power was exercised collectively, by a group of people.

Janapadas : Well-defined territories inhabited by people over whom ruled a political authority.

Jati : Occupational groups, different from varna. Each of these caste and sub-caste groups was associated with specific occupations. They were far too numerous to count.

Mahajanapadas : Larger and powerful janapadas whose rulers exercised greater territorial power.

Pratiloma : Marriage between woman of a higher varna and man of a lower varna. 

Setthis : Entrepreneurs of trade, financiers, merchants.

Urban center : Area with greater density of population than the village, where non-agrarian activities are pursued; it could also be the seat of royal power, or an important production and distribution centre of artisanal crafts and goods, or a nodal point along trading routes where traders congregated to buy and sell their goods in the market.