All the students of Indian history are aware of the caste (occupational) guilds, called as “Shreni” or “Nigam” those used to operate like todays Chamber of Commerce or trade/manufacturers associations. These guilds would manufacture the specialty articles, conduct internal, interstate and foreign trade. Nigams were allowed to issue coins too, which are found in excavations from Gandhar to south India. Rather in Janpada era till Gupta era the issuance authority of the coins were the guilds. Every guild had their own unique trademark associated with the symbol of their kingdom (janpada) or Gana’s. (Republics) Rather Shrenis were economic, socio-political dominant segment of ancient India that survived till 12th century AD.
Let us first understand what Shrenis were. Every Shreni was an association of artisans, merchants or traders. The traders engaged in the trade of specific articles or goods would form their Shreni. People residing in the same area and engaged in same occupation naturally cooperated with one another to achieve common goals. The Shreni of artisans existed for a particular group of persons engaged in the same vocation. There are mention in various scriptures and various epigraphs that there were Shrenis of the artisans like blacksmiths, goldsmiths, weavers, carpenters, bamboo-craftsmen, cobblers, makers of ivory articles, metal workers, miners, Jaggary producers, potters and so many other professions.
The merchants and craftsmen needed allied services like transportation also. Goods used to be transported by bullock carts, loaded on the backs of the oxen or donkeys or ships. The destinations could be far off. For example Al Masudi informs us how goods were brought to Cheul harbor loaded on thousands of oxen. Some transporters were transporting specialty goods, such as salt, food grains, wood etc. Other services included security providers to the inland caravans. Variety of service based occupations too emerged during this vast span of time to meet the needs of the craftsmen and merchants. Such service providers too formed their own guilds.
Romila Thapar informs us that "The ancient sources frequently refer to the system of guilds which began in the early Buddhist period and continued through the Mauryan period. ….Topography aided their development, in as much as particular areas of a city were generally inhabited by all tradesmen of a certain craft. Tradesmen's villages were also known, where one particular craft manufacturing was centred, largely due to the easy availability of raw material.”
The purpose of the guild (Shreni) was to regulate the manufacturing standards, ethical codes for the member artisans, prices of the crafts, quantity and quality, training to the artisans etc. which could ensure smooth and timely production. The major duty of the Adhayksh, Shreshthi or Jyetthaka to represent the guild in the Royal Court for any grievances about taxation or any other matter related with the supplies. The Guild would work as an assembly where specific problems related to their member artisans or business could be discussed and solved. If any criminal/unethical elements regarding the service or manufacture detected, the Guild could fine or banish the member artisan from the guild. The verdicts of the Shreni could not be challenged even in the Royal courts. Every Shreni had a respectable status in the society and in the Royal houses and normally no decision in connection with the production or trade of the crafts would be taken without consulting Shreni’s.
Unlike later “Independent Village System”, till tenth century AD manufacturing was almost centralized. This was ideal system to make mass productions of the articles or metals. From Jataka we know about the villages of bamboo Craftsmen (Burud) and other such 36 villages dedicated to mass manufacturing of specific goods. In Maharashtra, from copper plates and rock inscriptions, we know about the villages of the Cobblers, Jaggary makers, Weavers etc. The artisans, specialized in certain crafts, together would form Shreni, elect their President and other office bearers to represent them to protect their professional interests and account keeping as Craft guilds would provide loans or accept deposits from the member craftsmen and the public.
Merchant guilds would distribute the goods in local markets as well export in the other regions or foreign countries. Craftsmen could sell their goods individually as well through guild. Especially Merchant Guilds had the authority to mint the coins and issue them. All the coins we have from the 4th Century BC onward were issued by the merchant Guilds and not the king. Mauryan kings too didn't issue their coins. In a way Merchant and craft guilds were the backbone of Indian economic stability and prosperity. There are instances where we find that the Guilds even lent the King in the time of distress.
The post of the President (Shreshthi or Jyetthaka) of the guild was not hereditary. There are instances where the Shreshthi’s have been removed by the member artisans or merchants. Moreover, it seems that the mobility from one profession to another was frequent. It was because the vocational training was made available by the Guilds to meet needs of the additional workforce. The people who wanted to raise their economic status by entering into more flourishing businesses could get easy training and thus entry. Even local artisans would travel far afar in search for better opportunities. Depending on the demand, supplies of the raw material or political unrest, there could be rise and fall in all or the selective occupations. The craftsmen either would acquire other vocational training and change the profession by joining another guild or try to sustain in wait of the better days.
Guilds would donate to the temples or Buddhist or Jain sanctuaries. Mathura inscription (2nd century AD) refers to the two permanent endowments of 550 silver coins each with two guilds to feed Brahmins and the poor from out of the interest money.
A Nashik Inscriptions (2nd century AD) records the endowment of 2000 karshapanas at the rate of one percent (per month) with a weavers' guild for providing cloth to bhikshus and 1000 karshapanas at the rate of 0.75 percent (per month) with another weavers' guild for serving light meals to them. Apart from these more epigraphs and inscriptions are mentioned as evidence in this regard. In addition to this the guilds engaged in works of Charity as well. Guilds worked to alleviate distress and undertook works of piety and charity as a matter of duty. They were expected to use part of their profits for preservation and maintenance of assembly halls, watersheds, shrines, tanks and gardens, as also for helping widows, the poor and destitute. We have epigraphical proofs from Maharashtra that shows the craftsmen, like cobbler, Potter, Ploughsmen (Halik) etc. have donated in an individual capacity to build arches or water tanks for the Buddhist caves. This would mean that the artisans were in prosperous financial conditions.
So much so was the power of the craft and merchant guilds that Kautilya advises King that he should ensure that the heads of the guilds are not united. However, there is no evidence that the guilds ever tried to capture the political power, but they maintained their dominant position in the politics.
The position of the guild can be explained in different five stages doweling from 600 B.C. to 1200 A.D. in the perspective of socio-economic environment of ancient India.
I. Pre-Mouryan Period (600 – 320 B.C.)
II. Mouryan Period (320 -200 B.C.)
III. Post-Mouryan Period (200 B.C. -300 A.D.)
IV. Gupta Period (300 - 600 A.D.)
V. Early Medieval Period (600 – 1200 A.D.)
However, Post-Mouryan Period (200 B.C. -300 A.D.) saw a stiff rise in the Guild system in Indian economic scenario. Santanu Mahapatra in his essay states that-
“ In this period north-western and western part of India controlled by the Indo-Greeks, Sakas, Kushanas, and Parthians. The Mourya Empire disintegrated into a number of kingdoms and tribal republics. This led to the slackening of state control over administration and economy and the guilds assumed more power and influence that developed the closer commercial contact with the Roman Empire. The discovery of the north-eastern monsoon, ascribed to Hippalus, in C. 46 A.D. gave impetus to mid-sea voyage, reducing the time of journey, minimizing the danger of piracy and also obviating the need of the service of middlemen in Indo-Roman trade. Then Indian mercantile activity also extended to central Asia and China. India was the main exporter of the luxury items to the Roman Empire and earned huge profits. A large number of coins of this period those of the Indo-Greeks, Sakas, Parthians, Kushanas, indigenous rulers and tribal republics, cities and guilds have been found, some in hoards. It indicates a greater circulation of money-economy and fairly advancement of trade and commerce, in which guilds must have played a significant role. ‘Milindapanho’ (ed. Trenckner, 1880) refers to a number of occupational guilds, their number being much greater than the early period.”
In the Gupta era too, guilds, whether merchant or craft, remained prominent, but it seems that the authority to issue coins was withdrawn. We do not find coins issued by the guilds during Gupta era. Rather banking activities, accepting deposits and advancing loans, of the guilds gradually shifted towards select temples. Though the artisans and merchants, along with farmers were prosperous in this era too, foundation of the guilds started weakening. Post-Gupta era saw the rise of feudal lords and various independent powers, thereby disturbing the political stability that India had enjoyed even under foreign rule. Constant conflicts between regional rulers made it difficult to smoothly operate the trade.
Later, we find series of Islamic invasions in North-west India causing further political instability and disturbance in trade and commerce. “As a consequence, people’s confidence in these institutions must have waned. There prosperity and affluence an account of which they commanded social status must also have diminished. Thus political upheaval exercised its worst effect on the guild organization.” thus states P. C. Jain. In a way Samantas or feudal lords gradually became more dominant for the need of the time to fight out aggression. It diminished the earlier social status of the Guilds and their economy. Also the taxation structure was changed putting a heavy burden on the craftsmen, merchants and so the guilds.
“Arthuna inscription of Parmara Camundaraja, dated 1079 A.D, also gives a list of taxes levied on different trade and crafts. On the account of these taxes, the guilds of merchants and traders were loosing prosperity in the preceding centuries. This prevailed from their donations which clearly give the impression that they were poorer. To keep up their old reputation of donations and defraying there expenses views of a region federated themselves and pooled their resources” so informs us Mr. Mahapatra.
By the tenth century AD the guild system witnessed tremendous decline in the trade, which naturally hampered production of all the crafts. In a way it was like the situation of great recession. Craftsmen soon started deserting their centralized workplaces. This was exact situation which had caused decline of the Indus Civilization. But political instability, constant wars within local rulers and Islamic aggressors were not the only reason behind disintegration of the Guild system. Another series of natural calamities begun in 11th Century AD…and that were famines.
From the records we know that the year 1033, 1042 and 1052 witnessed nationwide dire famines causing complete disruption in trade and distress in the society. Series of regional famines followed almost in every alternative 3 years. In the year 1325 -1351 great famine befell in Gangetic regions and elsewhere including Maharashtra. The series of the famines continued till 1630. Within this period India suffered heavily from over 250 famines.
The contemporary travelers and historians have given the piercing accounts of the famines. For example Badouni states about the distressful situation he witnessed during 1555 famine of North India. He says, “I witnessed men eating human corpses like cannibals. The sight of the hungry faces was so pitiable that hardly one could bear it. …all the region had become a desolate desert and no farmer was left behind to look after the farms.” Abul Fazal of Ain-E-Akbari supports this with the statement that, “people were hell bent to eat each other!”
About 1596 famine of North-West Fazal states, “men ate men and all the streets were littered with dead bodies.” A Dutch trader Van Twist, various saints like Tukaram and Ramdas have described the calamities the nationwide great famine of 1630 befallen on the people. Morland states about south that, “…because of this famine over a generation Deccan remained pauper.”
From the descriptions, though they are scanty, scattered and all the famines have not been properly recorded, we can get a picture what people would have suffered from 11th century onwards till 1630. People used to abandon their villages, towns in search of the food, would sell their kids, properties and even the titles at throw away prices. Kavindra Parmanand in “Shivbharat” states, “during the famine, food became costlier than gold.” In a way the social structure too got disintegrated because of constant onslaught of the nature.
A grave impact on the economic and social structure was inevitable. The craft guilds and merchant guilds vanished completely under the Islamic rule and unstable grave climatic conditions. Inland trade became more risky because many tribes and even the earlier service-providing communities turned to robberies. The constant onslaught of the famines reduced the farmers to the pauper state. Naturally demand to the artisan’s crafts too drastically reduced. The farmers, artisans and service providers, those had enjoyed prosperity during the golden era for more than 1500 years, gradually became destitute and helpless.
Let us not forget here that the vocation means caste. Earlier caste mobility was easy as there were tremendous opportunities and the Guilds were their strong support. With new innovations or new inventions, new castes (vocations) would emerge and the guilds too used to be formed to safeguard their interests. The economy decides social structure and its culture. The economic prosperity provides more freedom to the people. Earlier Guilds used to be in a commanding position in the political system. Artisans and service providers of every kind enjoyed a reputation since they were well-off, rich and backbone of the prosperous economy. But with changing political and economic scenario, they too lost their glory.
Unfortunately, none of the scholar has taken into the consideration the significance of the decline and fall of the Guild (Shreni) system while proposing their theories on the Caste system. They have wrongly considered that the rigid, birth-based caste system is in existence and practice since antiquity. It was not the case. No scholar ever bothered to look into the social and economic history of India while theorizing origins of the caste system, hence it didn’t occur to them that the hereditary nature of the caste system is a product of drastically changed economic and political scenario which remained unchanged for centuries. The Caste system was not imposed on them by some authority. It was not the outcome of the sense of maintaining purity of the blood. People have innate tendency to find new ways of survival and to adjust with the changed circumstances, no matter how grave they are! Indians, too, gradually found their unique way of survival and when they found in later course that there was no hope left to see old prosperous days again or any change in the circumstances, they made their new system permanent. Norms and ethics of the life were rewritten.
We will discuss in the next chapter how did this transformation took place and how it started becoming unjust, discriminating and vulgar as we experience it even today!
1. GUILD, THE INSTITUTIONAL ECONOMIC BASE OF ANCIENT INDIA BY SANTANU MAHAPATRA, published in International Journal of Social Science & Interdisciplinary Research, Vol.1, Issue 9, September 2012.
2. Marathe Ani Maharashtra, A. R. Kulkarni, Diomond Publications, 2007.
3. Arthashastra by Kautilya.
4. Itihas : Prachin Kal, Maharashtra Gazetteer, Government of Maharashtra.
5. Coins of Ancient India:From the earliest Times Down to the Seventh Century- By Alexander Cunningham
6. Between the Empires : Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE- By Austin Patrick Olivelle