Ancient India

Economic Conditions of Gupta

Agrarian structure

The state was the exclusive owner of land. The most decisive argument is the evidence in Paharpur copper plate inscription of Buddhagupta where it is stated that the emperor acquired wealth as well as spiritual merit when he made land grants. This makes it obvious that he was the owner of the land. Landgrants indicate that the king had the supreme ownership of land otherwise he could not transfer comprehensive rights to the receipent. Even after the donation of land the king reserved certain prerogatives over it. Thus it appears that though the land was to all intents and purposes, that of the peasants the king claimed its theoretical ownership.

Classification of Land

The land of the Gupta period can be classified into the following groups:
Kshetra: Cultivable land
Khila: Waste land
Aprahata: Jungle or forest land
Vasti: Habitable land
Gapata Sarah: Pasture land

Land tenures

In the land grant inscriptions specific terms of land tenure are recorded. They are:

  • Nivi dharma: Land endowment in perpetuity

  • Nivi dharma aksayana: a perpetual endowment which a recipient could not alienate but could make use of the income accruing from it eternally.

  • Aprada dharma: It means that a recipient has all rights to enjoy such a property but no right to make a further gift of the same and can only enjoy the interest and income from the endowed land but not administrative rights.

  • Bhumichchhidranyaya: This means that the rights of ownership as are acquired by a man making barren land cultivable for the first time and is free from liability to pay rent for it.

While the nivi dharma kind of trusteeship was prevalent in many parts of north and central India other kinds of trusteeship were probably followed mainly in the eastern part of the Gupta Empire. Therefore they are frequently mentioned in inscriptions from Bengal. Land survey is evident from the Poona plates of Prabhavati Gupta and many other inscriptions. Location and boundaries of individual plots were carefully marked out and measured by the record keepers and influential men of the locality as mentioned in the Paharpur copper plate. An officer called ustapala maintained records of all land transactions in the district and the village accountant preserves records of land in the village. Agriculture remained the economic basis of society during the Gupta period. The Gupta rulers made it a point to increase agricultural production since land revenue was the primary source of income. Waste land was brought under cultivation. There were two principal harvests one for summer and the other for autumn. A large variety of agricultural crops, trees and medicinal plants were grown during the Gupta period. The main agricultural products of the period were wheat, rice, sugarcane, jute, oilseed, cotton, jowar, bajra, spices, incense and indigo.


Both internal and foreign trade flourished during this period. Trade was carried on both by land and sea. The main articles of internal trade were cloth, foodgrains, spices, salt, bullion and precious stones. The trade was carried on by road and through rivers. Important cities and ports of the Gupta period was Broach, Ujjayini, Vidisa, Prayag, Banaras, Gaya, Pataliputra, Vaishali, Tamralipti, Kausambhi, Mathura, Peshawar etc which were well connected by public highways and the state arranged all facilities and security for the travellers and traders. Rich riverine traffic was carried along the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Narmada, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri. Tamralipti, Kavripatnam, Kalyan, Broach and Cambay were the principal ports of South, Deccan and Gujarat. Brisk trade was carried on with countries of South east asia, China, Rome in the west, India exported pearls, precious stones, cloth, perfumes, spices, indigo, drugs, coconuts and ivory articles while its main items of import were gold, silver, tin, lead, silk and horses.

They can be divided into two groups. Firstly those incised by private individuals and secondly those engraved on behalf of the ruling king. The private records mentioned the donations in favour of religious establishments or installation of images for worship. The official records are either in the nature of Prasastis or charters recording land grants known as tamra sasanas. The Prasastis and the tamrasasanas usually provide us information on the genealogy of the kings mentioned in them. A large number of seals have been found from Vaisali in the Muzzaffarpur district. They give an insight into the provincial and local administration. A lot of useful information for the history of Guptas is found in the coins of the Gupta Emperor. The legends on the coins possess great poetic merit. The fabric and style of a coin helps to form an idea of the political conditions determining the sequence of events and ideas. Both gold and silver coins were issued by these rulers.


Many industries came into existence under the patronage of the Gupta rulers. The manufacture of textiles of various kinds was among the more important industries of this time. It had a vast domestic market since textiles featured prominently in the north-south trade within the whole of India and there was considerable demand for Indian textiles in foreign markets. Silk, muslin, calico, linen, wool and cotton were produced in great quantity. Ship building industry also developed during the Gupta period. This helped in trade and colonisation. Among the various industries that flourished in the Gupta period, mining and metallurgy certainly occupied the top position. The Amarkosha gives a comprehensive list of metals. Of all the metals, iron was the most useful and blacksmith were only next to the peasants in the rural community. The most eloquent evidence of the high stage of development which metallurgy had attained in the Gupta period is the Mehrauli iron pillar of King Chandragupta II. Ivory work, stone cutting and carving and sculpture were in great demand.

The cutting, polishing and preparing of a variety of precious stones -jasper, agate, carnelian, quartz, and lapizlazuli were also associated with foreign trade. Pottery remained a basic part of industrial production though the elegant black polished ware was no longer used instead an ordinary ware with a brownish slip was produced in large quantities some of it being made to look good with the addition of mica in the clay. Guilds continued as the major institution in the manufacture of goods and in commercial enterprise. There were guilds not only of traders and bankers but also of manual workers like weavers and stone cutters. These guilds enjoyed sufficient autonomy to manage their own affairs and participated effectively in the economic life of the people. They had their own property and trusts worked as bankers, settle disputes of their members and issued their hundis and even coins.


It is usually held that Chandragupta I was the first imperial ruler who introduced currency system and that the Chandragupta-Kumaradevi type of gold coins were the earliest gold coins of the dynasty. But according to the scholars it was Samudragupta who first issued Gupta coins that his first gold coins were of standard type and that later on he issued the Chandragupta-Kumaradevi type of coins to commemorate his father’s marriage to Lichchhavi princess which had proved to be great benefit to the Gupta dynasty. The minting of silver coins was first started in the reign of Chandragupta II and was continued by Kumaragupta I and Skandagupta.Along with gold and silver coins, copper coins were also issued though to a much limited extent at least in the reigns of Chandragupta II and Kumaragupta I. It seems that there was a paucity of coins from the Gupta period onwards. For the Gupta rulers did not issue as many copper coins as their predecessors. The Indo-Greeks and especially the Kushanas issued a large number of copper coins which were evidently in common use in different parts of their territories.

The comparative scarcity of Gupta coins shows that there was hardly any easy medium through which people of one town could enter into exchange relations with those of the other. The gold coins issued by the Gupta rulers could be useful only for big transactions such as the sale and purchase of land in which gold coins were used. Smaller transactions were evidently conducted through the barter system of cowries. Indian economy in the Gupta period was largely based on self-sufficient units of production in villages and towns and that money economy was gradually becoming weaker at this time. The bond of state control which kept these units together in the Maurya period and that of the copper currency which unified it in the pre-gupta period no longer operated during this period. This doesn’t mean that production declined. Instead agricultural and craft production had shown substantial increase.

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