CHAPTER-17 : State Structure and the Varna System in the Age of the Buddha

Ancient History of India
Short Notes or Revision Notes 

Second Urbanization in Ancient India

Dating and Markers:

  • 5th century BCE (Northern Black Polished Ware – NBPW) marks the start.
  • NBPW: high-quality, glossy pottery for the wealthy.

Urban Development:

  • Evidence of wooden palisades in Patna (pre-Maurya era).
  • Champa (near Bhagalpur) – “Vaniyagama” (settlement of merchants).
  • Specialized artisan centers (e.g., 500 potter shops in Saddalaputta, Vaishali).

Rise of Coinage:

  • 7th century BCE: Invention of stamped metal coins in Lydia (Asia Minor).
  • “Nishka” and “Satamana” in Vedic texts might be prestige metal objects, not true coins.

Population Growth:

  • By 300 BCE, significant urban populations:
    • Pataliputra: 270,000
    • Mathura: 60,000
    • Vidisha/Besnagar & Vaishali: 48,000 each
    • Kaushambi & Rajgir: 40,000 each
    • Ujjain: 38,000

Rural Economy

Iron Tools:

  • NBPW phase in Kaushambi reveals iron tools like axes, knives, etc.

Village Types (Pali Texts):

  • Typical villages with various castes and communities (headed by bhojaka).
  • Suburban craft villages (e.g., carpenters near Varanasi).
  • Border villages at the edge of the countryside.

Taxes and Agriculture:

  • Peasants paid 1/6th produce as tax.
  • Rich peasants called gahapatis.
  • Large-scale paddy transplantation began around this period.

Administrative System in the Pre-Mauryan Era

Central Administration:

  • King held supreme power.
  • High officials (Mahamatras) assisted the king:
    • Ministers (Mantrins)
    • Commanders (Senanayakas)
    • Judges
    • Chief Accountants
    • Heads of Royal Harem
  • Ayuktas – Another class of officers with similar functions (in some states).


  • Vassakara: First minister who helped Ajatashatru conquer the Lichchhavi republic.
  • Chanakya: Helped the king of Koshala.

Local Administration:

  • Village headmen managed rural areas:
    • Originally tribal military leaders (Gramini)
    • Evolved into village heads (Gramabhojaka, Gramini, Gramika)
    • Bimbisara is said to have summoned 86,000 gramikas.

Army and Taxation:

  • Large professional armies emerged.
  • Example: Nanda army under Alexander’s invasion – 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots, 6,000 elephants.
  • Taxes:
    • Kshatriyas (warriors) and Brahmanas (priests) exempt.
    • Burden on peasants (Vaishyas/Grihapatis).
    • Bali (voluntary tribal payment) became mandatory tax collected by Balisadhakas.
    • Tolls collected by Shaulkikas/Shulkadhyakshas.

Decline of Assemblies:

  • Territorial kings abandoned Sabha and Samiti (old assemblies).
  • Replaced by Parishad – a smaller council consisting only of Brahmanas.

The Republican Experiment in Ancient India

Existence and Origins:

  • Republican system found in Indus basin or foothills of Himalayas.
  • Possibly remnants of Vedic tribes; some monarchies transitioned to republics.

Power Structure:

  • Tribal oligarchies held real power in republics.
  • Ruling class in Shakyas and Lichchhavis belonged to same clan and varna.
  • Membership criteria varied; some based on elephant supply.

Administrative Machinery:

  • Simple structure: raja, uparaja, senapati, bhandagarika.
  • Multiple hierarchical courts tried cases.

Differences from Monarchies:

  • Revenue claims made by tribal oligarchs in republics.
  • Each oligarch maintained own administration and army, unlike centralized monarchies.
  • Brahmanas had little influence in early republics.


  • Republican tradition weakened post-Maurya period.

Ancient India: Law, Society, and Economy (c. 600 BCE – 400 BCE)

Social Order & Legislation:

  • End of Tribal Law:Rise of the Dharmasutras (legal texts) marking the end of tribal law (no class distinction)
  • Varna System:Foundation of civil and criminal law based on the Varna system (4 social classes)
    • Higher Varnas (Kshatriyas & Brahmins): “Uttama” (best castes), expected higher moral conduct.
  • Lower Varnas (Vaishyas & Shudras): Assigned duties and limited rights.
  • “Hina” Castes: Mentioned in Pali texts as “despicable crafts and castes”.

Economy & Polity:

  • Iron Age Agriculture:Advanced food production using iron tools and paddy transplantation (esp. in Eastern UP & Bihar).
  • Rise of Towns:Development of towns due to trade, industry, and metal money.
  • Taxation System:Increased cereal production enabled collection of taxes from peasants, funding large states.
  • Varna System & Governance:Varna system established to maintain social order, with each Varna assigned specific functions.

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