This is the second article in Sneha Nagarkar’s series on the economy of Ancient India. Read the first part on Vārttā(Commerce) in Ancient India.
Agriculture was among the three important sources of livelihood or Vārtta along with animal husbandry and trade. Man has been practising agriculture at least for the last 10,000 years. There are various legends in India which tell us about the origin of agriculture. The most popular is that of King Pṛthu Vainya who milked the earth who had taken the form of a cow which led to ploughing and the production of grains. This legend is found in numerous texts like the Harivaṁśa as well as the works of Kālidāsa. Pṛthvi or the earth goddess has been invoked in certain sūktas of the Ṛg Veda and she symbolised fecundity and abundance. In the Atharva Veda she is considered to be the primordial mother and all of mankind is her progeny. Other names of the earth like Vasudhā and Vasundharā associate with her the quality of giving resources for subsistence to man which include food grains. The whole history of mankind changed dramatically after man took to agriculture. It paved the way for a settled life and the concept of territorial affinity emerged which led ultimately to the formation of states with definite geographical areas. This article takes a historical overview of agriculture in Ancient India.
Historical Overview of Ancient Indian Agriculture
Agriculture commenced in South Asia almost 10,000 years ago and sites like Mehrgarh (now in Pakistan) and Lahuradeva in Uttar Pradesh were some of the earliest sites which produced evidence of agriculture. Remains of wheat and barley were found at Mehrgarh and Lahuradeva gave proof of rice cultivation. Agriculture continued to flourish and prepare the strong and stable backbone for the rise of urbanisation in the valleys of the rivers Sarasvatī and Indus (Sindhu) around 2600 BCE. A field with preserved furrow marks was discovered at the Early Harappan levels at the site of Kalibangan in Rajasthan. Kalibangan lies on the bank of the river Sarasvatī and was one of the premiere urban settlements of the Sindhu-Sarasvaṭī Civilisation. The Mature Phase of this civilisation (2600-2000 BCE) proved beneficial for agriculture as well as the climatic conditions were very favourable. There were two kinds of crops- those which were grown during the rainy season and those which were cultivated in the winter season. Wheat, barley, green peas, mustard, millet, sesame and cotton were some of the noteworthy crops. Wells were commonly used and were built of stone or baked bricks. Manure was also in use. Agriculture was carried out with the help of oxen.
In the Vedic age, there were four categories of land-vāstu, arable land, pastures and forests. There are a few sūktas in the Ṛg Veda which pray for a good harvest on the agricultural land. Ploughing a field i.e. agriculture enjoyed the status of a noble profession and was said to bring happiness. Yava or barley was the most important crop and delicacies like apūpa were made with barley and offered to the gods. Fried barley was called dhāna. Small quantities of wheat and sugarcane were also grown by the Vedic people. To facilitate agriculture through irrigation, canals and wells were dug . Sūkta 25 in the tenth maṇḍala of the Ṛg Veda which is addressed to Soma has a reference to wells:
Our songs in concert go to thee as streams of water to the wells. (R.V. 10.25.4)
The plough and the ploughshare were objects of veneration in the Ṛg Vedic times. A sūkta in the fourth maṇḍala of the Ṛg Veda is addressed to a deity called Kṣetrapati who is supposed to be the guardian of the field. Indra, Puṣaṇa and Sītā, the goddess of the furrows have also been invoked to make the harvest sweet and for the furrowing to proceed smoothly (R.V. 4.57). Agriculture was an important and widely practised occupation of the Vedic period. The plough was regularly used and was called lāṅgala and sira. All agricultural processes like sowing the seeds in the furrow, cutting of the corn or grains with a sickle (called datva),laying it in bundles (parsa) on the threshing floor and sifting it with the winnowing fan (surpa) have been mentioned in the Ṛg Veda.
Moving to the later Vedic period, the plough had become a very heavy equipment as, as many as twenty-four oxen were required to pull it. Irrigation and manure were used to improve the agricultural produce. Barley, wheat, sesame and numerous other grains were grown. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad lists ten kinds of grains which include rice, barley, sesame, pulses, wheat and beans etc. (Das 1925: 51)
The Śukla Yajur Veda and the Taittirīya Saṃhitā also provide details about various crops. Two seasons of harvest were prevalent. The Rāmāyaṇa also contains a few details about agriculture. In the Ayodhyā Kāṇḍa, Rāma inquires with Bharata whether he was paying proper attention to the farmers. Ayodhyā was supposed to have many cultivators as her citizens (Das 1925: 51). There are also a few references to agricultural fields and irrigation in the Mahābhārata. These references indicate that arable lands were located at some distance from the settlements. By the time we come to the 6th century BCE, agriculture was very well developed. The arable lands or khetta lay a little outside the gāma or rural settlement. Individual plots of land were demarcated with digging of canals for watering fields. The landholdings were generally small enough to be managed by an individual or his immediate family though the Jātakas refer to extensive landholdings and hundreds of ploughs being used to plough the land. This period also coincides with the age of the Sūtras and the tone of the Sūtras seems to favour a rural life style with agriculture as its backbone rather than living in urban areas. Many rituals and invocations are prescribed for various agrarian processes like ploughing and reaping the harvest. The Buddhist texts also speak about privately owned groves or vanas just outside the city limits which were offered to the Buddha and his disciples as resting places. The Buddha, who belonged to the gaṇa sangha of the Śākyas is said to have helped his father Śuddhodhana in farming. Śuddhodhana was a part of the Sākya oligarchy and owned land which he himself cultivated.
As we move ahead to the Mauryan Age (4th century BCE- 2nd century BCE), the Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya is the most detailed source to know about details regarding agriculture. The village was in the form of a cluster of houses and the arable and pasture lands would be outside the village. Most of the cultivated lands were rice fields. The king was the owner of all the land. It was he who gave land for cultivation to others and these lands could be confiscated if they were not put to proper use. Various kinds of grains like rice, barley, wheat, pulses, sugarcane and oil seeds were among the prime agricultural products. For the majority of the population, agriculture was the main occupation. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador who visited Candragupta Maurya’s court is all praise for the fertile plains of northern India and the wide variety of crops which were grown. The writings of Megasthenes also provide evidence for the irrigation facilities made available by the Mauryan government for benefit of the cultivators. Further, Candragupta Maurya was also responsible for constructing a lake called Sudarśana near Junagadh in Gujarat. This lake was repaired later by Aśoka, Rudradaman- the Kṣatrapa king and Skandagupta during their respective regimes. The Arthaśastra has prescribed that the king should initiate the expansion of agriculture by helping people to settle in new areas and providing them with loans for cattle, grains and money. Agricultural implements were made out of wood and iron and iron sickles have been reported from the Mauryan levels in the excavations at Atranjikhera. Two rounds of crops- one in the monsoon and the other in autumn were sown and harvested. Rice, wheat, barley, millets and pulses were the major crops. Sugarcane was also produced and both sugar and jaggery were manufactured from it.
We lack definite information about agriculture during the Śunga period which was the immediate successor of the Mauryan Age. The next stage which is marked by the rule of the Kuṣāṇas (1st century CE-3rd century CE) in north India and the Sātavāhanas (1st century BCE-3rd century CE) in the Deccan and southern India brought unprecedented prosperity to India. In the territory of the Sātavāhanas, there were three kinds of agricultural lands: lands owned by the state, lands under the ownership of landholders as well as lands possessed by individual farmers. The state had no right to arbitrarily confiscate privately owned lands. The numerous inscriptions of this period testify the grant of agricultural fields made to Buddhist monasteries by the state. Land donations greatly increased during this stage. There is a high probability that the monasteries themselves cultivated these fields. The crops cultivated included rice, wheat, millets, pulses, sugar cane and cotton. The Gāthāsattasai, a Prākṛt anthology compiled by the Sātavāhana king Hāla speaks about two kinds of ploughs- smaller wooden ploughs called hāla and large, heavy metal ploughs known as nāṅgala. The ploughs were pulled by oxen. As a part of irrigation, wells were in common use. People were encouraged to clear forests and bring more land under cultivation. Agriculture was almost fully dependent on the monsoon and there was always a fear of draught and floods. Both these natural calamities would adversely affect agriculture.
The Guptas followed the Kuṣāṇas as rulers in northern India and the Sātavāhanas were succeeded by the Vākātakas in the Deccan in the second half of the 3rd century CE. Agriculture retained its position as the most important occupation of the people. Kālidāsa considered agriculture and animal husbandry as important sources adding to the national wealth (Maity 1957: 71). Manure was used for a better produce and the irrigation facilities like tanks, canals and wells were provided to support agriculture. These helped in bringing even dry lands under cultivation. The state supported people who took the initiative in expanding agriculture and constructing tanks and reservoirs by giving them concessions in land revenue. Hardly any land was left to remain fallow. The Dharmaśāstra texts of this period enlist stringent punishments for people who stole grains and agricultural implements (Ibid: 73). There were also concessions given to the producer if his grains were destroyed by cattle though generally fields were protected by fences.
Varāhamihira in his Bṛhat Saṃhitā has given predictions about rainfall through meteorological calculations. Going by the evidence in the Bṛhat Saṃhitā, agriculture in the Gupta period was fairly advanced. Fields were separated from each other by clear boundaries in the form of raised platforms of the soil or fences with thorns. This text describes various agricultural processes like ploughing, sowing, harvesting and piling of the grain on the threshing floor for threshing and pounding. The crops were then stored in a granary. Generally two crops were taken in a year and the farmers were familiar with crop rotation. Crops sown during the rainy season were called pūrvasasya and those sown in autumn were called parasasya (Shastri 1969: 262). Rice, wheat and barley were the principal crops. Varāhamihira has also provided the botanical classification of crops viz. śūkadhānya (awned or bearded grains), kośadhānya (legumes or those which grown in pods) and śamī jātī (pulses).
The end of the Gupta and Vākātaka rules by the mid 6th century CE paved the way for many dynasties like the Puṣyabhutis, Maukhāris, Cālukyas and Pallavas to come to power. The wide majority practised agriculture and in norther India Kaśmīra, Kauśāmbī and Magadha produced high quality of rice. Kāśmīra, like today produced the best saffron. Other agricultural products included cereals, mustard, ginger, melons and pumpkins. Onion and garlic were grown on a very limited scale. Various kinds of fruits were also grown which have been mentioned by Xuan Zang. He was a Chinese pilgrim who visited India in the first half of the 7th century CE during the reign of Harṣavardhana.
A Brief Note on the Kṛṣiḥ Pārāśaraḥ
The Kṛṣiḥ Pārāśaraḥ is an ancient text on agriculture. It is attributed to Rṣi Parāśara and is divided into three sections. In its first section which is like an introduction to the text, the author speaks about the significance of kṛṣiḥ or agriculture. It is because of agriculture that nobody becomes a yācaka and any person practising kṛṣiḥ can be a master of the land (K.P. 1. 3). A person may be very wealthy, with gold ornaments adorning his ears, neck and hands but he has to depend on the farmer for his food. In the absence of food even a well to do man will have to starve. The text considers agriculture to be the most useful vocation and instructs all to give up other professions and practice agriculture with putting in great effort (K.P. 1.7).
Prosperity was linked to agriculture and a field which was taken good care of by the owner produced gold i.e. a good harvest (K.P. 3.1). A farmer who works for the betterment cattle, the one who regularly visits his agricultural lands, knows the measuring of time, who takes care of the seeds and the one who is hardworking gets a good produce in his fields and is always happy and contended (K.P. 3.5) . The text has elaborate details regarding the cattle care and it emphasises treating cattle, specially those that were yoked to a plough, in appropriate manner. If these animals are treated well, the harvest will be bountiful. We are also told about the different components of a plough (hala sāmagrī) (K.P. 3.34) and the auspicious days on which the land should be ploughed (K.P. 3.44). The plough must be used after invoking Indra, Śukra, Pṛthu, Rāma and Parāśara and offering worship to Agni, Brāhmaṇas and other gods. Indra or Vāsava was the first deity invoked as he is the rain giver and the harvest was almost totally dependent on the rainfall. The blessings of the earth (Vasudhā) who provides all the resources were also sought as without the earth, there would be no agriculture. The text also carries details about the time of collecting seeds, places where they should be and should not be stored and the kind of grains which should be sown. There are also strict injunctions about the process of sowing seeds and taking care of them once they are sown. Rituals are prescribed in this case as well and the earth (Vasundharā) is invoked as the seed will germinate in her and grow from her. All these rituals and regulations were prescribed to ensure a good harvest as that would provide food for everyone.
The overview indicates that agriculture has been most enduring foundation for Indian economy. Fertility and fecundity are given pre-eminence in almost all Indian rituals. The earth was venerated and right from the Ṛg Veda, special prayers were addressed to various deities for a good harvest. Prayers and rituals were also prescribed as a mark of gratitude to Pṛthvi and other natural phenomenon when there would be abundant produce. A good produce was a symbol of good fortune and prosperity. The king was required to take measures which would help in the growth of agriculture.
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