The autonomy provided to economic organisations like’guilds have been regarded as one of the basic features of the economy of the Gupta age.
Another basic feature of the economic life was that feudal system emerged partially during this age. The main interest of the economic history of the Gupta Age lies not so much in its foreign trade and money economy as in the partial feudalization of the land system and the rise of local units of production.
However it is not refuted that agricultural production had increased during the Gupta age. Thus, it is accepted that the system which the Gupta rulers evolved certainly brought increased prosperity to the people and strengthened the economic resources of the state.
It is only during the later Gupta period that we observe signs of a weak economy. Yet, it is difficult to deny that while the common people had a share in the increased property of the age, the largest share of it was grabbed by the mercantile community.
The period was marked by advancement in agriculture. Forest lands were cleared and brought under cultivation.
Land was of three kinds—fallow or wasteland, crownland and privately owned land. The wasteland was generally donated in lieu of salary. The crownland was owned by the state. Though it could also be donated, it was not usually done. The reason was that it was already under plough and yielding income. The last category of land was held by, private owners.
Amarakosa describes many types of soil and their relative fertility, Land prices depended on the fertility of the land. Thus the price of arable land was higher than the price of the wasteland. There seems to be no change in the agricultural implements and the lines of agricultural operations in the this period. Brihat-samhita speaks of two principal harvests — for the summer and for the autumn crops.
Amarakosa refers to several kinds of rice, which was one of the main crops cultivated. The other crops were wheat, barley, peas, oilseeds, ginger, spices, pepper, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables.
Irrigational facilities were improved. The Sudarsana lake repaired once before by Rudradaman was repaired again when it breached during the Gupta period. Water wheels were used for irrigation of land. Provincial governments were assigned the responsibility to build canals, dams, wells etc.
There was considerablee amount of industrial activity under the Guptas. The textile industry was one of the important industries during the period. There was not only a vast domestic market for the textiles, but there was also a great demand for them outside India. All kinds of textiles were made — silk, muslin, calico, linen, wool and cotton.
We have a reference to the members of a guild of silk weavers in Western India giving up the manufacture of silk and taking up other occupations. It is likely that silk production had declined in the Gupta period.
This might have been due to import of silk in large quantity from China consequent on the increasing use of the central Asian route and the sea route to China or it might have been due to the decline in trade with Rome. Or it is likely that this decline was only in Western India and not in the other parts of the country.
Metal work was another important industry especially copper, iron, lead and bronze. The Meherauli Iron Pillar with an inscription of Chandra is considered a marvel of metallurgic skill. More than seven metres tall and weigthing over 6000 kg it has not corroded or rusted. Iron of high quality was also exported. The art of jewellery was well-developed. Gold and silver were mainly used for making jewels.
The cutting and polishing of precious stones like jasper, agate, etc., reached high development. Ivory work was in a flourishing state. As sculpture was very much in favour during this period, stone-cutting and carving prospered. As pearls were in great demand in foreign countries, pearl-fishery flourished in western India.
Another important industry was pottery. Instead of elegant black polished ware an ordinary red ware with brownish slip was manufactured in large quantities. Sometimes mica was added to give metallic finish to the pottery.
The organisation of trade and industry in guilds was a feature of Indian economic life since early times, and it continued to be so during the Gupta age as well. Trade and industry, both high and low, were organised in guilds.There were guilds not only of the traders and bankers but also those of manual workers like weavers and stone-cutters.
As against the Mauryas who kept trade and industry under state control, the Gupta rulers emphasised the autonomy and independence of economic and administrative units and organisation. Therefore, these guilds enjoyed sufficient autonomy to manage their own affairs and participated effectively in the economic life of the people.
These guilds had their own property and trusts, worked as bankers, settled disputes of their members and issued their hundis and probably even coins. Probably this was one reason why the Gupta rulers did not issue copper coins.
Guilds continued to play a major role in the manufacture of goods as well as in commerce. They were practically independent in their internal organisation. They had their own laws which the government respected. These laws were prepared by the corporation of guilds. Each guild was member of this corporation.
Some of the industrial guilds like the silk weavers guilds had their own separate corporation. Such corporations were responsible for large-scale projects like endowments for building a temple. The corporation of guilds had its own functionaries; the chief among them being the elected advisers.
The guilds had their own seals and military arrangementsfor protecting their merchandise. At Basarh (ancient Vaisali) numerous sealing have been found. They belonged to a joing guild of bankers, traders and transport merchants having branches in various parts of north India. All their articles and letters were sent under a seal for preventing fraud. In an emergency, the guild could raise a militia from among its own members and employees for the protection of its merchandise and other property.
Both internal and foreign trade flourished during this period. It was carried on both by sea and land. All important cities and port like Broach, Ujjayini, Vidisa, Prayaga, Banaras, Gaya, Pataliaputra, Vaisali, Tamralipti, Kausambi, Mathura, Peshawar, etc. were well connected by public highways and the state arranged all facility and security for the travellers and traders.
Trade was carried on even through rivers like the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Narmada, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Kaveri, Kalyan, Chaul, Broach and Cambay were the principal ports of the Deccan and Gujarat.
Besides, brisk trade was carried on with countries of South East Asia and China from the ports of South India. India carried on huge profitable trade with the Roman empire in the West. It became so unfavourable to the Romans that their government had to put restrictions on trade with India.
The campaigns of Samudra Gupta improved the means of communication. As a result, goods moved to all parts of India quite easily. Pack animals and ox-drawn carts were used for transportation by roads. The Ganges, the Jumna, the Narmada, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Kaveri served as the chief waterways.
The conquest of western India by Chandra Gupta II brought the Gangetic provinces into direct communication with the western ports, especially those of Gujarat and through Gujarat with Alexandria and Europe. At the same time the land route through Persia continued to be used for purposes of trade. The literature of the period speaks about the sea voyages undertaken by the Hindus in pursuit of gain.
The chief articles of export were spices, pepper, sandalwood, pearls, precious stones, perfumes, indigo and medicinal herbs. The chief imports were China-silk, horses from Arabia, Iran and Bactria and ivory frorn Ethiopia. The increasing trade led to the development of Indian shipping. Ships which could carry 500 men were used for the purpose of trading with foreign lands.
Most of the Gupta rulers issued only gold coins. Chandragupta II issued silver coins for the first time while copper coins were first issued by Kumaragupta. Circulation of coins gave impetus to economic activities. The period witnessed considerable degree of monetisation.
Towards the end, financial crisis and growing importance of land adversely affected level of monetisation. Debasement of gold coins towards the end reflct this decline.
Growth of Cities
One of the indications of the economic prosperity under the Guptas was the rapid growth of cities. The testimony of Fahien is confirmed by inscriptions of the Gupta period that Magadha was a prosperous country with rich towns possessing large population.
Pataliputra was the Imperial capital and it must have been the centre of all economic activities. Though Pataliputra remained the official capital of the Gupta Empire, Ayodhya also rose to great prominence and was perhaps regarded as the second capital of the Empire.
Ujjain was the capital of Malwa. It was the headquarters of the Kshatrapas but it was conquered by Chandragupta II and added to the Gupta empire. Chandragupta II made it a practice to treat Ujjain as his capital and he lived there for some months in a year. Ujjain became the centre of all cultural activities sponsored by the Gupta emperor. Gargaratatapura was a, city situated on the bank of the river Gogra in Saran District. It is written in an inscription that this city was adorned with wells, tanks, temples, worship halls, pleasure gardens etc.
Dasapura in Western Malwa was a flourishing town where a guild of silk weavers migrated from the Lata provice as it was attracted by the virtues of the sovereign. Airikina is described as Svabhoganagara or pleasure resort of Samudra Gupta. Vaisali was situated to the North of Pataliputra, in modern Muzaffarpur district. It seems to have been an important industrial and administrative centre.
The other cities mentioned in the Gupta inscriptions are Indrapura, Manapura and Girinagara. These cities must have been characterised by great architectural beauty. As regards important sea ports, Tamralipti was on the Eastern coast and Bhrigukaccha on the Western coast. These sea ports served as the main spring-boards for Indian merchantmen and played an important part in the economic life of the country.
Other Economic Activities
Along with the traditional domestic system, capitalistic methods of production and distribution seem to have been prevalent in the Gupta period. Hired labour was used for agriculture, rearing of animals, industry, trade and domestic service, lending money and collecting interest for the money lent were prevalent.
The Buddhist Sangha in certain area acted as a banker and advanced loans on interest, besides renting land in areas where land gifts had been made to the Sangha. The rate of interest varied according to the purpose for which money was needed.
One interesting feature seen in this period was that the average rate of interest charged on loans required for foreign trade was not so high as it was under the Mauryas. This was probably due to the increased confidence in overseas trade.
Fa-hien’s portrayal is an excellent commentary on the economic condition of the Gupta empire and the role of private initiative in the foundation of institutions for the alleviation of the sufferings of the people.
This (Magadha) has the largest cities and towns. Its people are rich and thriving and emulate one another in practisig charity of heart and duty to one’s neighbour. The elders and gentry of these countries have instituted in their capitals free hospitals and here come all poor and helpless patients, orphans, widowers and cripples. They are well taken care of, a doctor attends them, food and medicine being supplied according to their needs. They are all more quite comfortable and when they are cured they go away. Extensive foreign trade and vigorous industrial life at home contributed to this general prosperity.