FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY: Part 11

Canberra, 5 May 2013
THE GLORY OF THE MAURYAS
Section III
The Imperial Mauryan Rule
The Maurya Empire was of unprecedented size with its geography being extremely varied encompassing jungles, mountains, deserts and flood-plains. Similarly the population was also diverse, consisting of nomadic hunter gatherers, slash-and-burn tribesmen, pastoral herdsmen, fishing communities, regular farmers, and urbanised guilds of different craftsmen. Further, there were a number of religious sects that were at times violently opposed to each other and also the ever present distinctions of varna and jati that had by this time become entrenched in Indian society. However, in the Edicts of Ashoka, caste in the four-tier varna or the profession based jati is not mentioned although sectarian differences within the population is acknowledged. During Ashoka’s enlightened reign great attempts were made to find religious commonality through mutual tolerance and the furthering of the doctrine of all sects—an effort at creating a sort of universal brotherhood. [While this effort at unification of the society into one all-encompassing, yet diverse, religious entity was earnest and laudable, that fact that within a span of just a few decades his teachings were forgotten bears silent testimony to the entrenched and pervasive influence of the caste-system on the society of the time.] Such a vast and diverse empire required an elaborate administrative system, which the Mauryas provided with the able assistance of Chanakya the mentor of their founder Chandragupta, based primarily on the seminal treatise Arthashastra that he wrote. (Chanakya and Arthashastra will be discussed in Section IV).
The Government collected taxes and dispensed justice through an elaborate hierarchy of officials with the Emperor at the pinnacle and going down to the lowest collector in a clear and stratified manner. All officials were appointed by the Emperor, were personally loyal to him and had instant access to him when required. [While such ready access can have the advantage of immediate resolution of any emerging issue, in a vast empire like the Mauryan Empire, this would have put the Emperor at a great disadvantage in terms of available time. Some historians have commented on the enormous work load of the emperor and even mention the heavy and personal responsibility that he carried as being a contributory factor in the failing health of Ashoka during his reign. Ready access to the highest level of governance even to the lowest official is perhaps a viable process only in small kingdoms!] The process of governance and the officials involved were kept in control by an elaborate system of independent inspectors who were also beholden directly to the Emperor. Standardisation in the dispensation of justice through uniformity in the judicious process and punishments were introduced and enforced to knit the empire into a single entity.
The Mauryas realised the vital importance of communications in preserving the sovereignty of their empire and therefore were great highway builders. They built roads with shady trees that gave edible fruits on the sides and dug wells for drinking water at regular intervals, while also marking distances with regular pillars. The original Grant Trunk Road could have been built by the Mauryan kings since their empire covered the entire length of the road as it is known today. These efforts were also in keeping with the age-old Indian tradition of looking after travellers, of both religious and commercial inclination, by providing food and shelter. [The Ashokan pillars placed along these roads were obviously meant to provide food for the intellect and shelter from evil thoughts regarding other human beings!]
The King and the Capital. One has to be grateful for the true and accurate account that Megasthenes left behind of the splendour of the court of Chandragupta Maurya as well as the detailed description of the capital Pataliputra. Only the accounts of Akbar’s magnificent court, resplendent centuries later, rival these writings in detail and substance. Pataliputra, situated at the confluence of the Son and Ganges was a long and narrow parallelogram nine miles in length and about two miles in width. [Over the years the rivers have changed course and the confluence is now at the cantonment of Dinapur.] The defence of the city was made up of sturdy timber palisades and a broad and deep moat all around the city that was filled with water from the Son. There were 64 gates around the city with 570 observation towers. The Royal palace situated inside the city excelled the ones in Susa and Ecbatana in splendour. The King had all the royal trappings to be expected of his stature and was protected by foreign body guards, normally women, since they were considered less prone to corruption and were also personally loyal to the king. [Being guarded by women soldiers (mercenaries?) was a common practice amongst ancient Indian rulers. This is an indication of the palace intrigues that were an integral part of an ancient kingdom, and which could lead to the surreptitious poisoning or murder the ruling prince or king by another claimant to the throne even while he was within the confines of his palace.] It is certain that the king’s life was constantly under threat and it is also mentioned that some of the kings changed residence at random and frequently to avoid surprise attacks by rebels and would-be usurpers. However, the king also heard petitions every day, exposing him to the possibility of direct attack. Completely loyal bodyguards were a necessity for the physical well-being of the ruler. 
There is also evidence that general entertainment for the public was organised by the State and that the king attended many of them personally. These events were in the form of combat of animals and gladiatorial duels, much in the same mould as the Roman shows in their amphitheatres. Ox-races of 6000 yards were also a common sport with betting on the races a definite activity. [It is not certain whether or not the government taxed the betting, which, considering the efficiency of the Mauryan administration, would not be a far-fetched thing to imagine.] The king regularly went on royal hunting trips with beaters assisting in congregating the animals into an enclosed area to facilitate the hunt. However, this custom was abolished by Ashoka in 259 BC.
The Mauryan Administration
The great Maurya Empire was divided into four provincial administrative regions: the southernmost region in the peninsula with the capital at Suvarnagiri near Kurnool in current Andhra Pradesh; the south-western regions of Avanati and Malwa with Ujjain as the capital; the Punjab and areas further west ruled from Taxila; and the Orissa region with Tosali near Bhubaneswar as the capital. Each province was headed by a Governor who was usually a son or a close relative of the Emperor. However, since the Mauryan Empire was ruled based on the firmly embedded doctrine of centralised control, the amount of autonomy that the Governors had is open to debate. One suspects that they were very closely controlled by the Central administration in Pataliputra. The provinces were further sub-divided into districts, each governed by senior bureaucrats who were part of a very clearly stratified bureaucracy. 
Even though the Empire was divided into four provinces for administrative convenience, the Central authority always ruled on the basis of dividing the nation into three zones, in a concentric manner, based on the cultural and economic diversity of the vast area that it encompassed. The first zone was the inner core, the heartland of the Empire—the state of Magadha and the adjoining Gangetic plains. Here the Emperor exercised the highest level of political control (this kind of concerted control went back to pre-Maurya days) and was the ultimate residence of power. All power emanated from here and the officials in outlying areas derived their power base from the sanctified one of the Emperor in Pataliputra. The second zone was the conquered areas like Gandhara in the west, Karnataka in the south, Kalinga to the south-east and Saurashtra in the south-west. These areas had the inherent risk of being volatile, depending on the type of conquest that had taken place and the time elapsed from it, and therefore, a gentler rule was normally espoused. The conquered areas were used for state-formation once removed from the core and more importantly their great potential to improve trade and revenue as well as their role in the broader security strategy was well understood and exploited. The third zone was the isolated buffer areas in the outer periphery of empire normally inhabited by nomads, tribal groups, and forest dwellers. These areas were the source for valuable resources like timber, precious stones, and elephants—essential for the economic development of the state—and royal agents were appointed to exploit them as required. In governing the three zones it was the endeavour of the Emperor to ensure maximum compliance to the Maurya ideology and ethos using different methods to enforce them.
The Mauryan administration was not arbitrary tyranny based on personal autocracy of the Emperor or the Governors of the provinces. It functioned in a systematic manner with everyone in the hierarchy having designated responsibilities and being answerable to the next higher level of control, all the way to the Emperor. The administration of the Capital was given the highest importance and was the primary responsibility of a Municipal Commission. This body was an official development of the earlier-day village Panchayats that had governed designated villages in an inclusive manner without prejudice of caste or trade. The Commission consisted of 30 members, appointed by the Emperor, divided into six independent Boards of five members each. Board-I superintended industrial art and was responsible for fixing wages, ensuring the quality and control of material and the performance of the workers to the desired level of competence. The Board also decided on the special treatment to be meted out to the artisans whose works were esteemed for their high-value trading goods. Board-II took care of all dealings concerned with foreigners, both resident in the state and visitors—the members being the equivalent of consuls of the present day. Foreigners resident in the country as well as short-term visitors were provided designated accommodation and escorted by state officials most of the time. [Obviously their freedom to indulge in any kind of anti-state activities or even ‘spy’ would have been severely curtailed.] The Board also supervised the medical treatment of foreigners who fell sick and in case of death made arrangements for the reparation of their personal effects to the next-of-kin. Such elaborate arrangements to deal with foreign citizens is a clear indication of, and proof that, the Mauryan Empire had extensive and constant interaction with other states that necessitated the residence of a substantial number of foreigners within the state.
Board-III was concerned purely with the registration of births and deaths. Obviously this was needed to levy taxes, some of which could have been based on the number of persons in a household. There is only limited information regarding the efficacy of this system, but it can be safely assumed that the system of registration would have been strictly implemented considering the Mauryan emphasis on enforcement of the law and the strict punishments that were swiftly administered against defaulters. [Putting in place this sort of continually updated ‘census’ is an amazing achievement, which the British failed to achieve even at the zenith of their power in India!] Board-IV looked after all aspects of trade and commerce. They were responsible for regulating the sale of merchandise, enforcing standardisation of weights and measures, and levying licence taxes on merchants. It was ensured that merchants dealing in more than one commodity were taxed according to the number of commodities in which they traded. Board-V supervised manufacturing activities in a similar manner to Board-IV and also separated used and newly manufactured goods for sale as well as for taxation purposes. Board-VI dedicated themselves to the collection of tithe on the goods sold by a merchants or anyone else. [A sort of VAT or GST of today] Since this was one of the primary sources of income for the state, it was very strictly enforced with the death penalty being imposed for evasion. The enforcement of this particular tax was so efficient that it has never been done in a better manner before or after the Mauryan Empire. The ability to collect taxes from the entire population through a system of stratified bureaucracy—that in turn permitted it to maintain its powerful army and put in place a number of welfare measures—was a fundamental strength of the Mauryan administration.
This system of governance through Commissions was in place in all the provinces of the Empire and is detailed in Ashoka’s ‘Provincial Edict’ addressed to the city administration of Tosali in Kalinga. The Municipal Commission also controlled and oversaw all public works collectively and functioned directly under the supervision of the Emperor/Governor. Another aspect of the administration was that there was a system of ‘overseers’ appointed by the Emperor who regularly inspected the Municipal Commissions and the provincial administration, reporting directly and in confidence to the central administration on their performance. It is reported by Arrian (Greek historian) that the ancient Indians had an enviable reputation for honesty and straightforward dealings. This could have been an inherent character trait, reinforced through the strict enforcement of the criminal law with uncompromising sternness.
The Military Forces
The Mauryan Army was organised, equipped and administered for efficiency and was a standing force on regular pay and employment of the state rather than the normal part time militia favoured by smaller kingdoms of the time. Another novelty was that the membership of the army was not restricted to the Kshatriya caste, as was the custom, but the roles of foot soldier, charioteers, and attendants were open to men from the lower castes also. The Mauryan army consisted of 600,000 infantry, 30,000 mounted cavalry, 9000 elephants, and 8000 four/two horse chariots. The elephants were mounted by a mahout and three archers (9000 elephants amounting to 36,000 men) and each chariot had a driver and two fighting men (8000 chariots implying 24,000 men)—therefore, based on these figures, the Mauryan Army would have numbered a minimum of 690,000 persons excluding followers and other attendants. The infantry carried the broadsword as their principle weapon along with bows and arrows and lances to be used in the secondary mode. The bows were employed by resting one end of it on the ground and therefore the arrows had enormous penetrating power, even piercing hardy shields. [This procedure of the archers of using the ground to leverage the bow created the fundamental problem that Porus encountered in his battle against Alexander because the ground was wet and slippery and did not afford the necessary purchase for the bows of his archers to be effective. This situation reduced his fire power by almost half! Firmer ground or a drier weather may perhaps have led to his victory and changed the course of history itself!] The cavalry was armed with two lances and a buckler.
The army was administered by a War Office and was almost exactly like the Municipal Commission in its constitution—30 members divided into six boards of five members each. Borad-I was the admiralty; Board-II the transport commissariat and Army Service in charge of the provision of drummers, mechanics, grooms and other attenders [the ancient equivalent of the Engineering and Service Corps of the modern army]; Board-III controlled the infantry; Board-IV the cavalry; Board-V war chariots; and Board-VI the elephants. These Boards were responsible for the recruitment, training and maintenance of the independent arms that constituted the army. An ancient Indian army of any consequence always had four arms—the infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants. The addition of a department for supply and the admiralty to oversee the entire army was the innovation brought about by Chandragupta in the reorganisation of the army that he sort of inherited from the Nandas. Needless to state here, the entire organisation was systematic and efficient in keeping with the Mauryan ethos.
Agriculture
Agriculture was the central activity in the Mauryan Empire and responsible for a large part of the revenue that the state generated. It was critical to the state’s prosperity. The primary unit of agriculture was the village, the lands around which were cultivated by the villagers. Ownership of the land varied from private estates to crown lands leased for the lifetime of an individual (the lease never being permitted to be passed on automatically to the next generation). The Mauryan administration validated the concept of individuals owning landed property with titles, ownership, inheritance, purchase and mortgage being ratified by law and taxes levied on the owner. There were also powerful landlords, called gramabhojakas, who subleased their land for a price to other farmers and also had hired labourers as well as slaves (prisoners captured during wars) to work the fields. The treatment of slaves was neither very harsh nor benign, but became much more humane after Ashoka adopted and enforced the creed of non-violence.
The entire agricultural activity was controlled by a Superintendent of Agriculture who was responsible for the distribution of the seed stock and also hired out labourers from a central pool. Taxes were strictly levied with the amount varying according to the area of land in cultivation in addition to anywhere from one-sixth to a quarter of the total produce also being collected in kind as tax. Further, the village also paid a collective tax called Pindakara. In some cases labour delivered towards state enterprises was extracted/accepted in lieu of tax. The state also provided irrigation through a system of state-built canals for which the farmers had to pay a separate charge. [Even though the tax levied seems to be on the higher side, it is reported by several different sources that the rural population of the Maurya Empire was far better fed than when the British ruled the sub-continent.] The agricultural taxes also applied to shepherds who were taxed dependent on the number of animals in possession and the amount of their produce. In contrast, craftsmen were taxed in terms of a certain stipulated amount of time that they had to dedicate towards working for the state.
Architecture and Sculptor
The Mauryan Empire provides the first evidence of the use of hewn stone for building purposes in the sub-continent, wood having been the primary building material prior to that. There is active debate regarding the origin of this development. One theory is that this was the result of Persian and Greek influence since these two civilisations had already built a number of impressive stone structures—the palace at Persepolis and the Parthenon on the acropolis in Athens being prime examples—and a number of Persians and Greeks were already working in India. The other theory is that it was an indigenous and natural evolution from the traditional wooden architecture so far practiced. [I believe that there would have been Persian as well as Greek influence in the independent development of the indigenous architecture. It is only natural that close contact between different cultures on a continuous basis would create mutual influences on all aspects of life, especially in the arena of art and architecture.] Irrespective of the origin and influences on its architecture, the final product in the sub-continent is distinctly Indian, in reality and symbolism. Essentially it is secular urban architecture and the same concepts were used to create brick and stone defences and ramparts around towns.
The concepts of architecture from pre-Mauryan and Mauryan times form the foundation for the later text Shilpashastra that has been continuously updated over the years. During the Mauryan era, a set of pioneers in a particular strand of religious architecture, the Buddhists, developed two distinctive structures. First is the stupa; a massive dome housing the relics of one or more religious leaders standing on a square or circular base, flattened on the top with a kiosk being visible. Second is the cave form; caves hollowed out of living rock that subsequently became Chaitya halls or places for the retreat of monks. Examples of both these types of architectural forms are still found in the sub-continent.
Mauryan art was predominantly in the form of sculptor. The Ashokan pillars are prime examples of the sculptural excellence of the Mauryas and form some of the most beautiful crafting in the world.
The Ashokan pillars are beautifully polished monolithic shafts, made from sandstone quarried at Chunar, in Benares, without footing and with carved capitals in the form of lotus flowers with inverted petals, with an animal or animals mounted. The capitals are decorated in relief. The bull capital of Rampurava and the lion capital at Sarnath are the best examples of the animal figured pillars. Another animal sculptor of the Maurya period, of equal renown, is popularly called the Dhauli Elephant. With its slightly raised right leg and flowing trunk, this massive elephant, carved in situ from the living rock at Dhauli in Orissa, is one of the most impressive sculptures in animal studies anywhere in the world.
Burjor Avari, India: The Ancient Past, p. 122.                     
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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