Infrastructure, Evidence and Interpretation: Economic Fabric in Early India (Part Two)

In an earlier post, I discussed the problem of migration and agricultural output in early India. But besides agriculture, other economic activities in early India depended on similar factors as do economic activities in our times. For instance, let’s focus on infrastructure. Can you imagine a world without bridges, means of transport and communication, buildings, mints, dams, and roads? Where would our economy be without such infrastructure? Infrastructure, therefore, is a conditio sine qua non of any budding—or for that matter developed—economy, be it in the era of kings or emperors, or in the era of democracy and the welfare state.

Administrative Infrastructure

A critical economic action that has been engaged in throughout Indian history was the striking of coins, and the expertise with which the dies were carved and struck on minuscule pieces of metal makes it evident that mints constituted a crucial element of the city infrastructure and were located in every major town or trading center. The following extract from a modern work provides an excellent word picture of the mint organization in ancient India:

The mint house in ancient India was perhaps known as bhandagara, whereas the mahabhandagara was functioning just like the modern Reserve Bank….. The office of the bhandagara…had to maintain the establishment and accounts, and mint coins… [It] was headed by a board of Shreshtina









Figure 1. Interior of the Mughal mint in Fatehpur Sikri

For medieval India, we have the masterful documentation in the Dravyapariksha by Thakkura Pheru, mint-master during the rule of Alauddin Khalji (13th century), where detailed information is provided regarding the coins that were arriving at the mint for melting and re-coining, and about the metallic fineness of various coin nomenclature. Part of the infrastructure that housed the mint during the Mughal rule still survives in Fatehpur Sikri near Delhi (Figure 1).

Infrastructure for the Society

Moving to other elements of infrastructure that supported the economic fabric in early India, references to the construction of roadways, reservoirs, canals, forts, and rest houses are quite frequent in literature, and it is little surprise that the Arthashastra refers to such activities as one of the basic duties of the ruling authority:

[The King shall] construct roads for traffic both by land and water, and set up market towns…. He shall also construct reservoirs filled with water either perennial or drawn from some other source. Or he may provide with sites, roads, timber, and other necessary things those who construct reservoirs of their own accord. Likewise, in the construction of places of pilgrimage…

(Arthashastra, II.1)

From Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE) to Pashtun Emperor Sher Shah Suri (16th century, often called the forerunner of Akbar), all rulers in early India prioritized the building of roads and infrastructure to support travelers:

On the roads also banyans were planted to give shade to cattle and men, mango gardens were planted, and at each half kos wells were also dug; also rest houses were made….

(Ashoka in one of his rock edicts, c. 273-232 BCE)

For the convenience in travelling of poor travellers, on every road, at a distance of two kos, he made a sarai…another road he made from the city of Agra to Burhanpur…and he made one from the city of Agra to Jodhpur and Chitor, and one road with sarais from the city of Lahore to Multan…

(Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi)

The road from Lahore to Multan, then called the Sadak-e-Azam (the Great Road), later formed part of the Grand Trunk Road (Figure 2), which still serves as one of South Asia’s oldest and longest roads stretching over 2500 km. The road has undergone several improvements in the British period and even thereafter, and now extends from Kolkata to Peshawar. Over the centuries, the road has serviced trade and communication, and aided the movement of troops and invaders.






Figure 2 (Left): The Grand Trunk Road in India, Ambala-Delhi section, during the British Raj. Image at







Figure 3 (Right): A passenger train travelling from Bombay to Thane, 1855 Image at File:Dapoorie_viaduct_bombay1855.jpg


Dalhousie’s stint as Governor General in the mid- 1800s represents a watershed as far as the history of communication infrastructure is concerned, particularly with the introduction of the telegraph and the railway. Here is how the official website of the Indian Railways records the introduction of the railway in India:

The formal inauguration ceremony was performed on 16th April 1853, when 14 railway carriages carrying about 400 guests left Bori Bunder at 3.30 pm “amidst the loud applause of a vast multitude and to the salute of 21 guns.”

Three locomotives were put in service to cover this distance of 33 km, and a year later the Bori Bunder–Thane route was enhanced with India’s first railway bridge (Figure 3). From three locomotives and 33 km, Indian railways today has about 8,000 locomotives and stretches over 63,000 km across the country.

Clearly, therefore, infrastructure has been a primary economic activity of the administration through all historical epochs. In the 21st century, most cross-state, or even multinational, commercial enterprises and investments are determined by the infrastructural base of the target site. In other words, to attract investment from other states and from abroad, we must first build and expand state-of the-art infrastructural capabilities. No wonder, infrastructure in Mumbai has been compared—albeit in a false sense of regional pride—to Shanghai, and India is struggling to attract foreign direct investment by ramping up, inter alia, airports ports, and the hotel industry, and by repeatedly projecting how India’s infrastructure needs should be prioritized to meet the urban challenges that will be posed by 2050.


Migration and its Impact on Agriculture: Economic Fabric in Early India (Part One)

In absorbing knowledge, the discerning public today is presented with a limitless platter of documents, data, and research analyses to pick and choose from. In all compartments of human interface, the documentation base has reached an unprecedented high. For the researcher, the dangers in such a situation of information overspill are obvious: he is constantly hit with “word pictures” from all directions, and more often than not it is the researcher’s insight that helps absorb the good information and filter out the residue.
For the economic historian, however, such vivid descriptions of economic activity are either missing or enmeshed with irrelevant information, and his job becomes quite mind-numbing. While India is chalking its own path of modernity and breaking new ground in all aspects of economic endeavor—infrastructure, agriculture, industry, trade, the demand and supply equation, and fiscal policies—this post presents a random selection of word pictures that depict activities related to agriculture, irrigation, and migration of farmers at various milestones of Indian civilization.

Migration of Farmers and Agrarian History

India in circa 1500 BCE was a predominantly agrarian economy; 3500 years later, agriculture is even now the largest economic sector in the sense that it still accounts for about 60% of employment in the country, although its share in India’s GDP has been steadily declining (while it was ±17% in 2007–08, this share is likely to decline to 13.7% in FY13). The government is constantly devising new ways and methods to augment agricultural production, just as farmers are engaged in hitting on the right crop to produce. Our hunt for word pictures begins in the Vedic period, to which the first written records belong.


A Rigvedic hymn vivifies the importance of the produce of the land, and agriculture was obviously the mainstay of the Vedic people. The hymn also shows that the Vedic Aryan was well-acquainted with the art of sowing. In fact, several rituals were associated with sowing activity in those times. Besides sowing of seeds and ploughing, Vedic texts also mention other agricultural processes such as proper land usage, irrigation, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and storage of grains. As we move forward a few centuries to circa 300 BCE, the literature sheds its predominant religious/ spiritual tenor and becomes even more graphic in the description of agricultural practices. The Arthashastra casts a clear picture of the importance of rainfall and irrigation in agriculture, various crops and the cropping pattern, and the harvesting and gathering procedure. Today, when there is a global concern over climate change and changing pattern of the monsoons, it interesting to compare the geographical distribution of rainfall in circa 300 BCE with that of the 21st century.

Region Rainfall recorded in the Arthashastra Rainfall in modern times
Jangala (unidentified, possibly referred to forest land) 16 dronas = 100 cm
Avanti (Malwa, mod. west Madhya Pradesh) 23 dronas = 140 cm 75-100 cm
Asmaka (south of the Vindhyas, in the Deccan plateau 13.5 dronas = 85 cm 40-75 cm
western countries (west coast of India) “immense quantity”
>200 cm


While accepting that the measurement system in early India might only be taken to be indicative, it is still apparent that rainfall patterns have remained largely unchanged over time. A normal monsoon in those days is remarkably close to the pattern today. Thus, the Arthashastra clearly shows the importance of not only adequate amount of rainfall, but also its proper timing and distribution over various parts of the territory. All these three factors are equally important for agriculture, and even a 10% variance in the monsoons can cause havoc with agriculture.


Speaking of irrigation technology in early India, the Baburnama (memoirs of Mughal ruler Babur, 16th century) provides a vivid description of the irrigation devices used in various parts of India. Interestingly, as Irfan Habib writes, the Persian wheel had by this time become the principal means of lifting water for irrigation in northwestern India and the trans-Jamuna region.

agri3           agri2


(Left) Figure 2.  ‘Saharanpore with a Persian wheel for raising water,’ from ‘Views by Seeta Ram from Mohumdy to Gheen Vol. V’ produced for Lord Moira, afterwards the Marquess of Hastings, by Sita Ram between 1814-15. Print at The British Museum Online Gallery

(Right) Figure 3. The Persian wheel on a chilly morning on the Ganges Plain. Photograph: Bret Wallach, © The Great Mirror, 2009 

The wheel continued to be used for irrigation through the Mughal and British periods, and Babur’s graphic description of the wheel, based on his personal observations, is a perfect fit even for the system followed in the 19th century (Figure 2), and the system followed modern times (Figure 3). It is worthwhile to emphasize the major factors that have contributed to the produce of the land through history.

Migration of Farmers

Besides the dependence on monsoons, availability of land in plenty, and irrigation technology, the migration of cultivators was another critical factor. The Baburnama refers to the migration of entire villages, the ease with which new settlements were established, and the setting up of the required economic “infrastructure” in no time. In today’s context, migration is almost entirely to the cities to support urban industry and infrastructure (and of course eke out a living), but in early India setting up new agrarian settlements was a frequent phenomenon. Babur’s reference to migration and new agricultural settlements is not surprising because, even in the 5th century CE, we hear of migrations of farmers and various other occupation groups. The major factor that worked in favor of migration in early India was the availability of land in plenty, unlike the situation today where it is at a premium or not available at all.

Migration of farmers and its impact on agriculture in early India are thus well-evidenced in literature. It will surely be a worthwhile proposition to look at such evidence for other indicators of the economic fabric in early India and juxtapose such indicators with those in modern times.