The Maurya empire, an Iron Age historical power reigned the Indian subcontinent from 322 BC to 185 BC. The weaknesses of the last Nanda ruler of Magadha Empire paved the way for Chandragupta Maurya to establish his kingdom in Magadha. He overthrew the last Magadha king with the help of Chanakya and laid the foundation of Maurya Empire. Chanakya, also known as Kautilya was the political adviser and teacher of Chandragupta Maurya. It is said that Dhana Nanda, the last ruler of Magadha Empire once insulted Chanakya. As a repercussion of this, Kautilya advised Chandragupta to usurp the Nanda dynasty.
The Maurya Empire was a geographically extensive power in ancient India. It originated in the Indo-Gangetic plain in the eastern side of the Indian subcontinent. The capital of Maurya Empire was in Pataliputra(modern Patna) of present Bihar. Later on the area of Chandragupta’s kingdom expanded rapidly westward across central and eastern India. The empire stretched to the north along the Himalayas, to the east into Assam, to the west into Baluchistan and into the Hindu Kush mountains.
Significance of Maurya Empire
Administration and Polity
The king was the head of the Mauryan administration. He used to issue ordinances called ‘Sasana’. The king was assisted by a council of ministers called the ‘Mantriparishad‘. There were officers in charge of various sections of the administrations. Rajukas were the officer in charge of land measurement and Yukta that of revenue. The pradeshika was the head of the district administration. The village head was known as Gramika.
In the Mauryan empire most of the functionaries were paid in cash. The mantrins(minister), purohits(high preist), senapatis(commamder-in- chief) and yuvaraja(princess) were paid as high as 48,000 panas., while lower official were paid only 10 -60 panas.
The administration of the Maurya’s was backed by an elaborate system of espionage. A good and well placed network of spies used to collect intelligence report about enemies(foreign or local) and kept eyes on the officials.
According to Arthashastra of Kautilya, there were twenty-seven superintendents to regulate the economic activities of the state. They controlled and regulated agriculture, trade and commerce, crafts mining and the like.
Most of the people were farmers and lived in villages. A wide range of crops like rice, wheat, sesame, pepper, saffron, mustard, linseed, vegetables, fruits etc were cultivated by them. The state constructed water reservoirs and dams for agricultural activities. Irrigation facilities were provided by the state for the benefits of the farmers. The state helped the subjects to bring new areas under agriculture to produce surplus crops.
Arthasashtra quoted that slaves were employed in the agricultural fields during the Maurya period. However, Megasthenes did not notice any slaves in India. But it seems that about 150,000 prisoners brought by Ashoka from Kalinga to Pataliputra may have been engaged in agriculture.
Trade and Commerce
During the rule of Ashoka, the Mauryans developed an International network of trade. The Khyber Pass was one of the strategically important point of trade with foreign land. The main trading partners were the Greek and the Hellinic Kingdoms. The states of southeast Asia were also connected to Maurya kingdom through the Malay Pass.
There was an efficient tax machinery for assessment, collection and storage during the Maurya rule.Different types of taxes like the land tax, toll tax, manufacturing tax etc were collected from artisans, traders and peasants. The samaharta was the highest officer in charge of assessment and collection. The sannidhata was the chief custodian of the state treasury and storehouse.
The imperial currency of the Mauryas was the punch-marked silver and copper coins. The coins were engraved with the symbols of peacock and crescented hill. Besides the punch-marked silver and copper coins, cast copper coins and die-struck coins were also issued.
Art and Architecture
According to Megasthenes, the Mauryas had great contribution to art and architecture. Mauryan artisans achieved high technical skill in carving out pillars and stumps from fragments of stone. They were experts in polishing stone structures and turn them into shiny surfaces. The erection of polished stone pillars throughout India shows the superior technical knowledge of the Mauryans in converting single stone into beautiful structures.
Besides these, hand modeled terracottas were produced on a large scale during Maurya era. They generally represented animals and women. Some exemplary examples that portrays the art and architecture of Mauryans are-the remains of the Maurya palace at Pataliputra, 84-pillared hall at Kumrahar on the outskirt of patna, Ashoka’s pillars, the rock cut Barabar caves near Gaya and the stone statue of Yakshini in the form of beautiful women found in Didarganj, Patna.
The Mauryan period saw a rapid development of material culture especially in the Gangetic plains. The material culture was basically based on an intensive use of iron, the prevalence of writing, punch-marked coins, pottery called Northern Black polished ware, the introduction of burnt bricks and ring wells and the existence of towns in north-eastern India. Due to access of iron ores of south Bihar, people used more and more iron. Some iron implements like the socketed axes, hoes, spades, sickles and ploughshares were all made of iron. Besides these the spoked wheel also came into existence in that period.
Causes of the Fall of Maurya Empire
The Maurya empire was such a large and powerful empire that one might not foresee such a kingdom disintegrating in the future. The empire had seen the start of it’s fall after the exit of Ashoka in 232 BC. The rulers after Ashoka could not continue the uprise of their kingdom as their forefathers did. Though the actual cause cannot be known, the historians have given several views in this regard.
The Maurya’s had maintained a large army. They had to spent a huge amount of money in the salaries of the bureaucrats and the soldiers. Despite imposition of taxes on the people, those were not sufficient to meet the expenses of such a huge superstructure. So financial crisis may be one of the factors in the fall of the kingdom.
Oppressive rule may be one of the factors behind the fall of the empire. It is reported that oppressive rule from the side of the bureaucrats were prominent from the days of Bindusara. He had to appoint Ashoka to control the wicked bureaucrats. However the same problem was prevalent during the rule of Ashoka too. Ashoka had to ask his officers not to tyrannize the people without any reason. He used to rotate the duties of officers in Taxila, Ujjain and Tosali. But no strategy could stop such oppressions on the common people.
The Maurya empire produced only three rulers with exceptional leadership qualities. Chandragupta Maurya, Bimbisara and Ashoka expanded their kingdom and added new glories to their title. However later Mauryan leaders proved to be incapable of handling the mighty kingdom. Because of these nearby provinces started moving away from the imperial rule and formed new states. This led to disintegration of the Maurya empire.
Vastness of the kingdom
The total area of Maurya empire was very vast. It included areas of Bihar, Odisha, Bengal , parts of north-eastern India, western and north-western India, areas of the south, and the Deccan. They also ruled in eastern Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and the areas west of the Indus. So literally controlling such a large area through a centralized form of government was a mammoth task. The rulers after Ashoka were too weak to handle such a large kingdom. They lacked in strategy to rule the entire empire from the centre.
Formation of Independent provinces
The administrations of Chandragupta, Bimbisara or Ashoka had very good strategies of ruling the provinces that were gained through expansion. But after Ashoka’s death, power in the centre started to lose. Insufficient power and weak authority on the provinces helped the rulers to gain authority over their provinces and finally they declared themselves as independent states.
The policies of Ashoka were contrasting with that of Bramanas. Ashoka, especially after the Kalinga war had laid down certain policies that were clearly against the principles of the Brahmanas. He issued his edicts in Prakrit and not in Sanskrit. Ashoka porihibited hunting or killing of any living thing. He was against the tradition of sacrifice in pujas of deities. Ashoka did not allow discrimination based on varnas. These steps made the Brahmanas unhappy and they got infuriated. In 185 BC the Maurya empire was destroyed by a brahmana Pushyamitra Shunga.
Spread of Knowledge in the Outlying Areas
The kingdoms that rose in the ancient time were basically based on certain advantages of new knowledges. The Magadha kingdom rose along the Ganga Basin as they learnt to use the nature in their favour. For example they were capable of using the materials like iron ore to manufacture weapons. The Mauryan people along with iron, used coins made of copper or silver, construted stone structures etc.
With the expansion of the kingdom, the knowledge of material culture also spread simultaneously. These ignited the minds of people in the adjacent areas or provinces to use material culture in their favour and establish new kingdoms themselves.
Neglect of North-West Frontier
Ashoka after Kalinga war was deeply engaged with missionary activities. He paid little attention to the passes of north-western frontier. These passes posed serious danger to the settled kingdoms in India. The Greeks that settled their kingdom in north Afghanistan invaded India through the north-western fronteir in 206 BC.
Internal revolt can be regarded as one of the major factor for final dismantling of the Maurya kingdom. Taking advantage of the weak ruler, internal revolt started evolving under the leadership of the commander-in-chief of Maurya army Pushyamitra Shunga. Finally around 185 BC he killed his king Brihadratha with the help of his army and took over the throne of the Maurya empire. Thus Pushyamitra Shunga established the Shunga dynasty.