Janapadas Socio – Economic Life 1


Increased agricultural activity and settled life led to the rise of sixteen Mahajanapadas (large territorial states) in north India in the sixth century BC. Anga, Magadha, Vatsa, Kasi, Kosala, Kuru, Pancala, Surasena, Matsya, Gandhara, Kamboja, Cedi, Avanti, Asvaka, Malla and Vajji. It  enabled Magadh, one of these states to defeat all others to rise to the status of an empire later under the Mauryas. 

The evidence of the growth of agriculture comes from the archaeological and literary sources of this period. In fact, a ploughshare dated to around 500 BC has been found from Jakhera in Etah district in western U.P. Many other important pieces of evidence of the use of iron in this period come from Rajghat, Kaushambi, Vaishali and 

Sonpur. The Buddhist texts tell us how cultivation of paddy, sugarcane and mustard required utmost care and several rounds of ploughing. Expansion of agriculture resulted in improved food supply and helped in the development of craft production, trade and urban centres.

The sixth century BC is known as an era of ‘Second Urbanisation’ in the Indian Subcontinent. After the decline of the Harappan Towns urban centres now emerge again after a gap of more than a thousand years. However, this time towns developed in the middle Ganga basin and not in the Indus plain. It is said that more than sixty towns and cities such as Pataliputra, Rajagriha, Sravasti, Varanasi, Vaishali, Champa, Kaushambi and Ujjaini developed be tween 600 and 300 BC. These cities became centre of craft production and trade, and were inhabited by a large number of artisans and merchants. The goods produced by artisans like textile, silk, jewellery, pottery etc, were carried by merchants to other towns. Varanasi was a major centre of trade connected with Sravasti and Kaushambi. Sravasti was also connected with Vaishali  through Kapilavastu and Kusinara. Jataka stories tell us that traders travelled from Magadh and Kosala via Mathura to Taxila. Mathura was the transit point for travel to Ujjain and coastal areas of Gujarat also.

Development of trade is reflected in the discovery of thousands of coins known as punch marked coins (PMC). Various kind of marks such as crescent, fish, trees, hill etc. are punched on these coins, they are therefore called Punched Marked Coins. Numismatists have identified nearly 550 types of such coins, made mainly of silver and sometimes copper. The improvement in agriculture and development of trade, money and urbanisation had an impact on the society as well. Indeed, due to these  changes traditional equality and brotherhood gave way to inequality and social conflict. People wanted some kind of reprieve from new social problems like violence, cruelty, theft, hatred, and falsehood. 

Buddhism and JainismTherefore, when new religions such as Jainism and Buddhism preached the concept of peace and social equality, people welcomed it. These religions emphasised that true happiness does not lie in material prosperity or performance of rituals but in charity, frugality, non-violence, and good social conduct. Besides, the general economic progress had led to the rise of vaisyas and other mercantile groups, who wanted better social position than what brahmanas gave them. Therefore, they preferred to patronise non-vedic religions like Buddhism and Jainism through substantial donations. 

Both textual and archaeological evidences also indicate diversity in craft production in the Ganga valley in this period. Some craft specialists may have lived in their own settlements on the margins of cities, supplying goods for an urban clientele. These included the vehicle maker (yanakara), ivory worker (dantakara), metal smith (kammara), goldsmith (suvannakara), silk weaver (kosiyakara), carpenter (palaganda), needle maker (suchikara), reed worker (nalakara), garland maker (malakara), and potter (kumbhakara). We will take a closer look at some of these professions in the next section.

The city emerged as the central seat of monarchical power. It was often portrayed as an ideal space, built along an ideal structuring of moral and social order; one in which the king was central. Employing a number of people including number of specialists such as soldiers of various kinds, foot soldiers, archers, members of cavalry, elephant corps, and charioteers. The king’s staff also included ministers, governors (rathhikas), estate managers (pettanikas), the royal chamberlain (thapati), elephant trainers (hattirohas), policemen (rajabhatas), jailors (bandhanagarikas), slaves (dasas and dasis) and wage workers (kammakaras).