Prof. Kiran Kumar Thaplyal

K K ThaplyalBorn in 1936, he obtained his Master’s degree in Ancient Indian History and Archaeology from Lucknow University in 1957, then joined Archaeological Survey of India, where he was in charge of archaeological antiquities. He participated in ASI’s excavations at Ujjain, Lothal, Alamgirpur and Gilund, then joined Lucknow University in 1960 where he was awarded a gold medal for the best PhD thesis, Studies in Ancient Indian Seals. He went on to head the University’s Department of Ancient Indian History and Archaeology. 

Prof. Thaplyal has been Visiting Fellow at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, Vikram University, Ujjain, and at Kurukshetra University. He was also a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (1991-93). Since his retirement, he has worked on two major research projects of the University Grants Commission: Village and Village Life in Ancient India, and Reappraisal of the Political History of the Imperial Guptas.

Prof. Thaplyal has been a member of various official committees and the recipient of many honours and awards. He has published more than 120 research papers, and edited Select Battles in Indian History (2 vols.). His eleven books include Studies in Ancient Indian Seals; Inscriptions of the Maukharis, Later Guptas, Pushpabhutis and Yasovarman of Kanauj; Sindhu Sabhyata; Jaina Paintings; Guilds in Ancient India; Coins of Ancient India (jointly); Village and Village Life in Ancient India; Imperial Guptas: A Political History; and Asoka: The King and the Man.

Abstracts of the lectures

Economic Guilds in Ancient India

Economic guilds played important part in ancient Indian economy. Of the terms shrenī, nigama, gana, vrāta and sangha used for guilds, the first two are most common. Shrenī denoted guilds of artisans and nigama, of merchants (the latter term was also been used, in some contexts, in the sense of town). In the absence of written records nothing can be said about the existence of guilds in the Harappan period. Scholars differ whether or not terms like shrenī in the Vedas should be taken in the sense of guild. The evidence of the Chhandogya-upanishad shows the existence of guilds.

People belonging to the same caste or different castes following the same profession joined together to form guilds. By this they would get regular work, feel more secure, get an opportunity to learn by mutual contact, redress grievances and enjoy some social status. There is mention of villages of smiths, potters, carpenters, etc. Within a city separate areas were assigned to people following different professions. This localization of guilds helped in assembling its members for meetings to discuss guild affairs. It created solidarity among members. Heredity of profession was an important feature of guilds. Father handed over his capital, credit and accumulated experience to his son.

The guild followed the system of apprenticeship in which one learnt to train his head, heart and hands under the guidance of master craftsman, staying at his house for a stipulated period. This helped in making skilled workers available to guilds at all times.

The guild had three tiers—General Assembly, executive officers and alderman. After performing certain formalities, one became guild member. All members shared liabilities and assets either equally or as per agreement. It is not definitely known whether alderman was elected or hereditary, served for stipulated period or lifelong, acted honorary or paid. The executive officers were to be learned and to possess knowledge of the Vedas, and perhaps were mostly brāhmanas. The executive officers could punish erring members, and the alderman, them as well as executive officers. The head of the guild helped in procuring raw material, and searching market for sale of finished goods. The executive officers helped the alderman in day-to-day affairs.

Guilds could migrate, because of political instability or economic considerations. A silk-weavers’ guild migrated from Lāta to Dashapura (Mandasor inscription). The terms of agreement continued even if a guild migrated (Indor inscription).

Guilds had their office, storeroom and meetings hall or meetings were held in a temple mandapa. To witness shows they were allotted separate pavilions marked with their banners.

The main sources of guild income were members’ contribution, profits from sale of commodities, gifts received, fines from erring members, and by acting as bank. Expenditure were incurred on production, travel and transport, purchase of raw material, on safety of men and merchandize, distribution of profits to members and doing religious or philanthropic works, like helping the poor and destitute.

People made permanent deposits with guilds for performing acts of religion and piety out of the interest accruing from them, and not for earning interest in cash. Two rates of interest are known for two deposits made by Ushavadāta. Deposits with north Indian guilds were mostly in cash and with south Indian guilds in the form of cows, buffaloes and sheep.

Guilds acted as courts for their members, and their alderman and executive officers were members of State courts meant for public. Yājñavalkya mentions four courts—king, pūga, shrenī and kula. Most legal and administrative matters were decided at guild court and village panchayat.

The status of an individual depended considerably on his varna, caste, sect and guild. Guild was economic while caste was social, and the shrenī-dharma was different. Caste was hereditary, not so the guild. One could be member of only one caste, and remained in it life long, while one could leave one guild and join another. People of different varnas could become member of the same guild, but not of the same caste.

Some texts mention guild as a constituent of State (Amarakosha). Guilds enjoyed considerable autonomy. They had their laws, based on customs, traditions and usages. Kings respected guild laws and took them into consideration while passing judgment. However, if guild laws were against the laws of State or against morality, the king had the power to reject them. Kings themselves made permanent endowments with guilds. The king punished wicked executive officers and alderman who were harsh on members or acted against the guild. The king honoured guild heads and invited them to State functions, and consulted them on economic matters. The king was to help the guild in distress. The guild helped king when he faced economic hardship. A Chālukya king entrusted to a guild the collection of taxes. A sixth-century inscription mentions several immunities and tax concession extracted by the guild from the king. A guild ruled that its members should not offer any cooperation to the royal officers. Defeated king was shy of facing guild-heads. But some unscrupulous kings exploited the guild by dubious means. The diverse guilds, scattered in different parts with no central organization, could hardly think of capturing political power.

In the post-Gupta period Indo-Roman trade declined. Invasions of the Hūnas, and later of Mahamud Ghaznavi and Muhammad Ghori, made people migrate from urban centres to villages leading to decline in industries. Feudalism increased. Occupational groups fossilized into castes and sub-castes. Trade and industry became bereft of State protection and temples began to perform the acts of guilds. These are some of the causes for the decline of guilds.

Village in ancient India

Since hoary antiquity, the village has been one of the primary units of social life and administration.

The village could evolve from a single household or founded by several families together. There are references to various types of villages, such as of agriculturists, herdsmen, hunters, potters, smiths, etc. Authorities differ about the size of the village and its population. They mention 60,000 villages in Varanasi, 80,000 in Magadha, 93 crores in the whole Bhāratavarsha, which are highly exaggerated figures. Kautilya prefers 100 to 500 hundred families for a village. The Jātaka stories mention villages with the number of families ranging from 30 to 1000.

Normally a village had the following components: habitation area, which often had places earmarked for different varnas and professions, pasture, forest, roads and cremation ground. The chandālas who acted as scavengers and executioners resided outside the village.

Three main types of professions were followed by villagers—agriculture, cattle rearing, and crafts. Some villagers followed the professions prescribed in the Dharmashāstras, but a few followed others. Some artisans worked under jajamani system, others on payment in cash and kind.

Two main types of land—cultivable land demarcated with individual holding, and uncultivable. Some lands had irrigational facilities, others not. Some lands belonged to king. Forests and pasture were meant for the whole village.

Education was imparted in gurukulas situated near the villages where students stayed and learnt at the teacher’s house. Generally marriages took place within the same varna and were arranged by the elders. But inter-varna marriages were not unknown, and Dharmashāstra works permit anuloma form, but not pratiloma form. Widow marriage was rare. The occurrence of satīs in earlier period was rare but the number increased in early mediaeval period. Purdah was confined to a few females, generally of royal household. Of prostitutes some were highly sophisticated and rich, while some lived in poverty.

Agriculturists produced various kinds of grains, pulses, vegetables and fruits. Meat too was part of the diet of many people. Milk and milk products formed important part of the diet. Drinking was not uncommon. Clothes wore made of cotton, wool, etc. Villagers, women in particular, were fond of ornaments of various metals, generally cheaper ones, and of terracotta.

Dance, music, wrestling, animal fight, snake charming, etc. were means of recreation.

Money was lent by rich merchants, and the rate of interest varied according to the varna of the borrower, risk involved in the work for which loan is taken, etc. Besides coins, barter system was used for sale and purchase. People made permanent endowments with guilds with the interest of which some religious or philanthropic work was done.

The Harappan villagers seem to worship mother goddess, animals and trees. Vedic villagers worshipped Indra, Varuna, Mitra, etc. In the post-Vedic period the cult of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, etc. became more prominent. Buddhists and Jainas worshipped Buddha and Tīrthankaras respectively. Folk deities, like yakshas, kinnaras, gandharvas, the tree, etc. were popular with village folk. People performed rituals to please goblins and vampires to protect themselves from their ire. Pilgrimage and yoga were common features. Magic and charms were resorted to. Rituals were performed for potter’s wheel, smith’s tong, weaver’s loom and farmer’s plough.

The mandapa of the village temple was used for discussing socio-economic and religious matters. In some cases educational centres were attached to the temple, for maintaining which king made endowments. The temple employed architects, priests, cooks, sculptors, florists, dancing girls (south India). In some villages all members followed the same religion, and converted to another religion en masse.

The village headman was responsible for its administration, and acted as an intermediary between village people and government officials. He kept law and order, and punished erring villagers. He respected the laws of cultivators, herdsmen, etc. Perhaps earlier he was elected and later his office became hereditary. All heads of householders, irrespective of their castes were members of village assembly. The elderly and the learned formed village council. The villagers had to pay many taxes. Agriculturists were to pay 1/6th or more of the produce. Villagers, except for those belonging to the brāhmana villages, had to supply, food, fodder and labour free of cost.

In south India three types of villages existed—common village with general assembly and council, village with merchants, traders and craftsmen, and brāhmana village (agrahāra). According to the Uttaramerur inscription (near Chennai), an agrahāra village was divided into 30 wards, and from each ward one representative was chosen. The names of all persons who fulfilled the qualifications were written on palm-leaf tickets, kept ward-wise in a pot and shuffled, and a child picked one ticket from each pot, and he was declared winner. These winner formed different committees, such as garden committee, tank committee, etc. Such villages enjoyed considerable autonomy. King intervened when there was complaint of misdeed of a councillor. The village acted as judiciary, played role in the advancement of learning, and performed religious and philanthropic acts.

Villages, towns and cities differed in area, in population, in the size and material of the buildings, and in the quality and size of roads. Under favourable condition a village evolved into a town and in unfavourable circumstances a town could devolve into a village. The villagers were mainly agriculturists, cattle-rearers and village craftsmen. The townsmen generally were not agriculturists and cattle-tamers but earned their livelihood as policemen, accountants, merchants, poets, painters etc. In comparison to village people, the city people were more cosmopolitan, liberal, heterogeneous, secular, less rigid, and less superstitious. The brahmanical gurukulas were near the villages; cities were deemed unfit for Vedic recital.

There has been no change or very little change in plough, spinning wheel, the loom and in the caste system. However, villages did not remain in complete isolation. There were contacts between different villages, and between village and town (or city). The villagers went to city markets for purchases, and city craftsmen came to villages for raw materials. Village people visited pilgrimage centres in cities, and city people, such centres in villages. Some villagers after the end of harvesting season went to the city, working there for money. Village drummers, conch-blowers, etc. performed in the city and earned money. Learned brāhmanas of far and near were granted land and villages by kings. There are more examples of city people cheating village people and lesser of village people cheating the city people. There were matrimonial alliances between people of village and town. Often there would be rivalry between neighbouring villages. The city elite held villagers in poor esteem and considered them as unsophisticated and unworthy of company. Grāmya, like dehati, came to connote vulgar.

The Buddha and His Teachings

The sixth century BCE is known for great philosophers and religious leaders in India, China, Iran and Greece. There were a large number of sects in India, 363 according to Jaina texts. They performed several types of rituals, penances and meditation. Never in Indian history was there so much debate and discussion as in this period, followers of one sect trying to show flaws in others’ sects, and merit in their own sect.

Gautama Buddha belonged to the Shākya clan of Kapilavastu, and was born at Lumbini near Kapilavastu. His father was the head of the Shākya-gana, and his mother Māyādevī was a Koliya princess. His mother died, and he was brought up by his step mother. He was married to Yashodharā and had a son from her. He saw four scenes—an old man, a diseased man, a dead man and a recluse. The first three made him sad when he was told that everyone has to face such condition. He was impressed by the serene face of the recluse and decided to renounce the worldly life, like him. The birth of a son he deemed as bondage, and the horrifying scene of sleeping women meant for his entertainment, in awkward poses, made him renounce the world. He practised dhyāna under two teachers, one after the other but could not attain parama jnāna. He underwent severe penances and became very weak. He realized that meditation, and not penances, would help achieving the end. He took milk-rice brought by Sujātā, gained strength, and after deep meditation, obtained true knowledge under a pipal tree at Bodhagayā.

He delivered his first sermon at Sarnath to five bhikshus, who had been with him for some time, but left him when he took full meals. He taught them four noble truths— sorrow, cause of sorrow (tṛishnā), sorrow can be eliminated, and it can be eliminated by following eight-fold path—right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. He told that one should follow the middle path—neither self-indulgence nor self-mortification is good.

Pratītya-samutpāda (law of causation) is an important teaching of the Buddha. According to it ignorance of the truth formed the basic cause of worldly sufferings, and that removal of avidyā is the means for reaching the ultimate.

Buddha did not consider Vedas as created by god, and was against animal sacrifice. He did not believe in the existence of god and said that man himself is responsible for his acts and their results, neither any external power, nor the merit earned by the ancestors will help him. He also did not believe in the existence of ātman. There is no place where there is no problems, fear, blame, sickness, old age and death, and one cannot experience good conditions all the time. No one received only praise in the past, or is receiving in the present, or will receive in the future.

He reluctantly allowed the formation of the bhikshunī sangha, as he felt it would lead to corruption. He was keen that as far as possible the bhikshus should not come in contact with the bhikshunīs. The rules for the bhikshunīs were stricter than those for the bhikshus.

He told not to believe anything, even if said by a great authority or accepted by tradition, unless found true after critical examination. He did not believe in the efficacy of rituals. In his opinion, no amount of listening to his teachings will bring any good, they will bring good only when they are put to practice. His job is to show the path, everyone has to make effort to reach the destination.

Buddha believed in punarjanma. He preached that good and bad deeds must result in pleasant and unpleasant reward respectively, maybe in this life or maybe in the next life. Hatred can be won by love, and attachment by detachment. One should fulfil his duties towards, his family, relatives, friends. He should serve parents, respect teachers, be charitable to monks, poor and destitute and sympathetic to slaves and servants. He told that everything is perishable, and one should exert to the utmost to attain ultimate goal. He allowed people of all castes to enter his sangha. His teachings are for people of different strata of society. He made strict rules for monks, and not so strict for the lay Buddhists. His teachings are liberal, rational and practical. His sangha was governed on the pattern of the republican states, following democratic principles. Wherever Buddhism spread, it did not eliminate the existing way of life, nor did it force conversion, but got adjusted to the new culture.


  1. Guilds in Ancient India