Kings, Farmers and Towns: Early States and Economies Class 12 History Notes

CBSE Class 12 NCERT History Notes: The Chapter Notes given here are based on The Class 12 History Theme -2 “Kings, Farmers and Towns”. Enjoy the free notes and click here for Ques./Ans. given in the textbook.

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1. Development of Early States and Economies (c. 600 BCE – 600 CE)

Emergence of Agricultural Settlements

  • Spread of Agriculture: Agricultural settlements appeared across various regions of the subcontinent.
    • North India
    • Deccan Plateau
    • Parts of Karnataka

Pastoral Populations

  • Presence in Deccan and South: Evidence of pastoral populations found in the Deccan and further south.

Evolution of Burial Practices

  • Megalithic Structures: Elaborate stone structures known as megaliths emerged in central and south India from the first millennium BCE.
  • Associated with new modes of disposal of the dead
  • Burials often accompanied by rich range of iron tools and weapons.

Emergence of Early States and Kingdoms (c. 6th century BCE)

  • Political Transformation: Visible emergence of early states, empires, and kingdoms.
  • Underlying Changes: These political processes were underpinned by changes in agricultural production organization.

Rise of Urban Centers

  • Expansion of Towns: New towns appeared extensively across the subcontinent.
  • Growth Indicators: Reflective of economic and social shifts.

2. Historiographical Challenges

Source Analysis

  • Range of Sources: Historians draw upon various sources including inscriptions, texts, coins, and visual material.
  • Complexity of Interpretation: Understanding these developments is a complex process.
  • Incomplete Narrative: Sources may not provide a comprehensive account, leaving gaps in historical understanding.

I. Prinsep And Piyadassi

1. Epigraphic Decipherment and Historical Reconstruction

Contribution of James Prinsep

  • Decipherment of Scripts: James Prinsep deciphered Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts in the 1830s.
  • Key Revelation: Most inscriptions mentioned a king referred to as Piyadassi, also known as Asoka in some texts.
  • Piyadassi translates to “pleasant to behold”.

Impact on Historical Understanding

  • New Direction in Research: Prinsep’s work revolutionized investigations into early Indian political history.
  • Reconstruction Efforts: European and Indian scholars utilized inscriptions and texts in various languages to reconstruct dynastic lineages.
  • Establishment of Political History: By the early 20th century, the broad contours of political history were established.

2. Shift towards Contextual Analysis

Integration of Economic and Social Factors

  • Emergence of New Research Focus: Scholars began examining the interplay between political changes and economic/social developments.
  • Complex Dynamics: Realization that links between political, economic, and social spheres were not always straightforward.
  • Nuanced Understanding: Contextual analysis sought to uncover the complexities of historical processes beyond surface-level correlations.

II. The Early States

1. The Sixteen Mahajanapadas

Significance of the Sixth Century BCE

  • Turning Point in History: Marked by the emergence of early states, cities, iron usage, coinage, and diverse philosophical systems like Buddhism and Jainism.

Mention in Early Texts

  • Buddhist and Jaina Texts: Refer to sixteen states known as mahajanapadas.
  • Prominent Names: Vajji, Magadha, Koshala, Kuru, Panchala, Gandhara, and Avanti are frequently mentioned.
  • These were amongst the most important mahajanapadas.

Political Structures

  • Variety of Governance: While most were ruled by kings, some were ganas or sanghas, oligarchies where power was shared by a group of men, often called rajas collectively.
  • Examples: Mahavira and the Buddha belonged to such ganas.

State Longevity

  • Historical Persistence: Despite challenges in reconstruction due to limited sources, some states lasted nearly a thousand years.

Administrative Centers

  • Capital Cities: Each mahajanapada had a fortified capital city.
  • Resource Management: Maintenance of cities, armies, and bureaucracies required significant resources.

2. Evolution of Governance Norms

Role of Dharmasutras

  • Sanskrit Texts: Brahmanas composed Dharmasutras from the sixth century BCE onwards.
  • Norms for Rulers: Provided guidelines for rulers, ideally expected to be Kshatriyas.
  • Taxation and Tribute: Rulers advised to collect taxes and tribute from various sectors of society including cultivators, traders, and artisans.

Resource Procurement

  • Uncertainties: Limited understanding of resource procurement from pastoralists and forest peoples.
  • Legitimization of Raids: Raids on neighboring states recognized as a legitimate means of acquiring wealth.

Military and Bureaucratic Development

  • Military Evolution: Some states developed standing armies and regular bureaucracies.
  • Dependency on Militia: Others relied on militia, often recruited from the peasantry.

3. Magadha: Foremost Amongst the Sixteen Mahajanapadas

Rise to Power (6th – 4th Centuries BCE)

  • Dominance: Magadha, located in present-day Bihar, emerged as the most powerful mahajanapada.
  • Historical Explanations:
  • Agricultural Productivity: Region known for highly productive agriculture.
  • Access to Iron Mines: Abundance of iron mines in present-day Jharkhand provided resources for tools and weapons.
  • Elephants for Army: Forests in the region provided elephants, vital for military strength.
  • Geographical Advantage: Ganga and its tributaries facilitated cheap and convenient communication.

Attribution of Power

  • Perspective of Early Writers:
  • Early Buddhist and Jaina texts credit Magadha’s power to individual policies.
  • Notable Figures: Bimbisara, Ajatasattu, and Mahapadma Nanda, along with their influential ministers.

Capital Centers

  • Initial Capital: Rajagaha (present-day Rajgir in Bihar) served as the capital.
  • Fortified Settlement: Located amidst hills, the name Rajagaha translates to “house of the king”.
  • Shift to Pataliputra (4th Century BCE):
    • Geographical Advantage: Capital relocated to Pataliputra (present-day Patna) in the fourth century BCE.
    • Strategic Position: Pataliputra commanded communication routes along the Ganga, enhancing its significance.

III. An Early Empire: The Mauryan Empire:

1. Emergence of the Mauryan Empire

  • Foundation: Established by Chandragupta Maurya around 321 BCE.
  • Territorial Expansion: Extended control northwest into Afghanistan and Baluchistan.
  • Conquests by Asoka: Asoka, Chandragupta’s grandson, conquered Kalinga (present-day coastal Orissa).

2. Sources for Mauryan History

Archaeological and Contemporary Accounts

  • Archaeological Finds: Sculptures and artifacts provide insights into Mauryan history.
  • Contemporary Works: Accounts of Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya’s court, survive in fragments.
  • Arthashastra: Attributed to Kautilya or Chanakya, traditionally believed to be Chandragupta’s minister.

Asokan Inscriptions

  • Significance: Asoka’s inscriptions on rocks and pillars are valuable sources.
  • Dhamma Propagation: Asoka used inscriptions to promulgate his understanding of dhamma, emphasizing ethical principles and social harmony.

3. Administration of the Mauryan Empire

Political Centers

  • Capital and Provincial Centers: Pataliputra served as the capital, with provincial centers including Taxila, Ujjayini, Tosali, and Suvarnagiri.
  • Uniformity of Administration?: Asokan inscriptions carry a consistent message across diverse regions, prompting questions about the administrative system’s uniformity.

Administrative Challenges

  • Diversity of Territories: The vast empire encompassed diverse geographical regions, from the hilly terrain of Afghanistan to the coastal plains of Orissa.
  • Communication and Logistics: Essential for maintaining control; land and riverine routes vital for transportation.
  • Military Organization: Megasthenes describes a committee with subcommittees coordinating military activities, including naval, transport, and recruitment operations.

Propagation of Dhamma

  • Ethical Framework: Asoka propagated dhamma as a means to ensure societal well-being.
  • Appointment of Dhamma Mahamatta: Special officers appointed to disseminate the principles of dhamma.

4. Evaluation of the Mauryan Empire’s Importance

Historical Significance

  • Nineteenth-Century Perspective: Initially regarded as a major landmark in early Indian history.
  • Colonial Context: Seen as a challenging and exciting aspect, especially during British colonial rule.
  • Nationalist Interpretation: Asoka portrayed as an inspiring figure by twentieth-century nationalist leaders.

Limited Duration and Control

  • Duration: Lasted approximately 150 years, relatively short in the subcontinent’s history.
  • Territorial Extent: Did not encompass the entire subcontinent.
  • Uniformity of Control: Control within the empire’s frontiers was not uniform, with the emergence of new chiefdoms and kingdoms by the second century BCE.

IV. New Notions of Kingship

1. Chiefs and Kings in the South

Emergence of New Kingdoms

  • Deccan and Southern Regions: Kingdoms like the Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas in Tamilakam (ancient Tamil country) emerged as stable and prosperous.
  • Sources of Information: Early Tamil Sangam texts provide insights into the chiefs and their governance.

Revenue Sources

  • Long-Distance Trade: Chiefs and kings, such as the Satavahanas ruling western and central India and the Shakas from Central Asian origin, derived revenues from long-distance trade.
  • Social Status Acquisition: Despite obscure social origins, rulers like the Satavahanas attempted to claim social status upon acquiring power.

2. Divine Kings

Divine Identification

  • Kushanas: Ruled over a vast kingdom from Central Asia to northwest India, projecting notions of kingship intertwined with divine attributes.
  • Symbolism in Coins and Sculpture: Colossal statues found in shrines at Mat near Mathura and in Afghanistan suggest a godlike self-image.
  • Adoption of Titles: Many Kushana rulers adopted titles like “devaputra” (son of god), possibly influenced by Chinese rulers.

3. Transition to Larger States

Rise of Larger States

  • Fourth Century Evidence: Larger states, including the Gupta Empire, emerge.
  • Dependency on Samantas: Rulers depended on samantas, local lords who maintained themselves through control over land, for homage and military support.

Role of Samantas

  • Path to Kingship: Powerful samantas could ascend to kingship, while weak rulers might be subordinated.
  • Historical Reconstruction: Gupta rulers’ histories reconstructed from literature, coins, and inscriptions, including prashastis (eulogies) composed by court poets.

Literary Sources

  • Treasured Compositions: While historians extract factual information from compositions like prashastis, they were often treasured as works of poetry rather than literal accounts.
  • Example: The Prayaga Prashasti, composed by Harishena, court poet of Samudragupta, offers insights into Gupta rulership and its glorification.

V. A Changing Countryside

1. Changing Perceptions About Kings

Use of Anthologies

  • Jatakas and Panchatantra: Stories in these anthologies provide glimpses into subjects’ perceptions of rulers.
  • Oral Origins: Many stories originated as popular oral tales before being recorded in writing.

Gandatindu Jataka

  • Plight of Subjects: Describes the suffering of subjects under a tyrannical king.
  • Response to Oppression: Subjects curse the king for their miseries, leading some to abandon villages for the forest.

2. Strategies for Agricultural Expansion

Shift to Plough Agriculture

  • Adoption: Spread in fertile river valleys like the Ganga and Kaveri from the sixth century BCE.
  • Impact: Iron-tipped ploughshares increased productivity, especially in areas with high rainfall.

Irrigation Methods

  • Use of Wells, Tanks, and Canals: Communities and individuals organized construction for irrigation.
  • Recorded Activities: Powerful individuals, including kings, often recorded irrigation works in inscriptions.

3. Socioeconomic Differentiation

Emerging Categories

  • Buddhist Tradition: References to landless laborers, small peasants, and large landholders.
  • Pali Texts: Term “gahapati” used to designate different categories, highlighting social stratification.

Role of Legal Texts

  • Control Over Land: Legal texts discuss issues of land ownership and control.
  • Discussion in Legal Texts: Reflects the significance of land control in rural society.

4. Land Grants and Rural Elites

Record of Transactions

  • Inscriptions on Copper Plates: Used as records for land grants, often made to religious institutions or Brahmanas.
  • Surviving Inscriptions: Mostly in Sanskrit, but later ones incorporate local languages like Tamil or Telugu.

Case Study: Prabhavati Gupta

  • Exceptional Situation: Daughter of Chandragupta II and queen of the Vakataka ruling family, granted land despite legal restrictions on women’s land ownership.
  • Insight into Rural Populations: Brahmanas, peasants, and others expected to provide produce to the king or his representatives.

Debate on Land Grants

  • Historical Interpretations: Views on land grants vary, with some considering them part of agricultural expansion strategies and others seeing them as indicative of weakening political power.
  • Insight into Cultivator-State Relationship: Land grants shed light on the relationship between cultivators and the state, but other groups like pastoralists and artisans often remain beyond official records.

VI. Towns and Trade

1. Emergence of Urban Centers

Geographical Distribution

  • Routes of Communication: Major towns located along land and river routes.
  • Variety of Locations: Some towns situated on riverine routes, others along land routes or near the coast.

Urban Activity

  • Commercial and Cultural Centers: Cities like Mathura bustling with activity in trade, culture, and politics.

2. Urban Populations: Elites and Crafts Persons

Artifacts and Occupations

  • Excavated Artifacts: Pottery, ornaments, tools, weapons, vessels, figurines made of various materials.
  • Votive Inscriptions: Provide insights into occupations of urban dwellers, including craftsmen, merchants, officials, and religious teachers.
  • Guilds or Shrenis: Likely regulated production and marketing, using iron tools to meet demands.

3. Trade Networks: Regional and Overseas

Routes and Traders

  • Land and River Routes: Extending across the subcontinent, into Central Asia, and overseas.
  • Peddlers and Merchants: Traversing routes on foot or with caravans, as well as seafarers navigating risky but profitable sea voyages.

Goods Traded

  • Wide Range of Commodities: Salt, grain, cloth, metal ores, finished products, spices, textiles, medicinal plants, etc.
  • Demand in Roman Empire: Spices, textiles, and medicinal plants transported across the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean.

4. Role of Coinage

Introduction and Usage

  • Punch-Marked Coins: Amongst the earliest minted and used, made of silver and copper.
  • Indo-Greeks and Kushanas: First to issue coins bearing names and images of rulers, indicating enormous value of transactions.
  • Regional Coins: Issued by tribal republics like the Yaudheyas, facilitating economic exchanges.

Symbolism and Significance

  • Symbols on Coins: Linked with ruling dynasties, merchants, bankers, and townspeople likely issued some.
  • Gold Coins: Indicate prosperity and extensive trade networks, with connections beyond political boundaries.
  • Transition in Coin Finds: From sixth century CE onwards, finds of gold coins decline, sparking debate about economic implications.

5. Debates and Interpretations

  • Economic Crisis or Transition?: Historians divided on whether decline in coin finds indicates economic crisis or emergence of new trade networks.
  • Continued Mention of Coins: Despite fewer finds, coins continue to be mentioned in inscriptions and texts, suggesting ongoing circulation.

These developments in towns and trade reflect the dynamic economic and social landscape of ancient India, characterized by thriving urban centers, diverse trade networks, and the use of coinage as a medium of exchange and symbol of economic prosperity.

VII. Deciphering Inscriptions

1. Deciphering Brahmi Script

European Scholarship

  • Derivation from Modern Scripts: Comparison with contemporary Bengali and Devanagari manuscripts.
  • Assumption of Sanskrit: Initially assumed, later corrected to Prakrit.

James Prinsep’s Contribution

  • Painstaking Investigations: Prinsep’s work in deciphering Asokan Brahmi in 1838.

2. Deciphering Kharosthi Script

  • Indo-Greek Coins: Greek and Kharosthi inscriptions on coins facilitated comparison.
  • Prakrit Language: Prinsep’s identification allowed for reading longer inscriptions.

3. Historical Evidence from Inscriptions

Understanding Ruler’s Identity

  • Asoka’s Titles: Epigraphists concluded shared authorship based on matching titles across inscriptions.
  • Assessment of Statements: Historians evaluate the accuracy and plausibility of inscriptions’ claims.

Interpretive Challenges

  • Brackets in Inscriptions: Added for clarity, but must preserve original meaning.
  • Literacy and Audience: Consideration of literacy rates and audience comprehension of inscriptions’ language.
  • Evaluating Impact: Assessment of the likely impact and reception of inscriptions by the populace.

Missing Inscription

  • Absence of Anguish Inscription: Its absence in conquered regions raises questions about its interpretation and significance.

The decipherment of ancient inscriptions involves meticulous scholarship, comparison with contemporary languages and scripts, and careful evaluation of historical context. While these inscriptions provide invaluable historical insights, interpreting them requires addressing various challenges and complexities.

VIII. Limitations of Inscriptional Evidence

Technical Challenges

  • Faint or damaged letters make reconstructions uncertain.
  • Missing or damaged inscriptions limit interpretation.

Interpretive Ambiguity

  • Exact meanings of words may be unclear or specific to a particular context.
  • Scholars constantly debate alternative readings.

Incomplete Record

  • Not all inscriptions have been deciphered, published, or translated.
    • Many inscriptions may have been lost to time.

Selective Representation

  • Inscriptions often focus on grand, unique events, neglecting routine practices or daily life.
  • Perspectives in inscriptions reflect those of the commissioning party, requiring juxtaposition with other sources.

Limited Scope of Epigraphy

  • Epigraphy alone does not offer a comprehensive understanding of political and economic history.
  • Historians question both old and new evidence.

Evolution of Historical Inquiry

  • Shift from focusing solely on kings’ histories to broader topics like economic change and social emergence.
  • Increased attention to marginalized groups prompts re-evaluation of old sources and development of new analytical strategies.

Understanding the past requires considering various sources and perspectives, recognizing the limitations inherent in each. As historical inquiry evolves, scholars continually refine their methods to construct more nuanced narratives.


The chapter delves into the socio-economic and political landscape of ancient India, spanning from the Mauryan period to the post-Mauryan era, shedding light on various aspects of administration, society, economy, and culture.

1. Mauryan Administration:

  • The Mauryan Empire, under Chandragupta and Asoka, exemplified centralized administration, with an extensive bureaucracy, efficient revenue system, and sophisticated administrative machinery.
  • Asoka’s inscriptions, such as the Rock and Pillar Edicts, reflect his concern for moral governance, social welfare, and religious tolerance, highlighting the ethical dimensions of Mauryan rule.

2. Economic Developments:

  • Economic prosperity in ancient India was fueled by trade networks, agricultural innovations, and urbanization, with cities like Pataliputra and Taxila emerging as centers of commerce, culture, and political power.
  • Craft production, evidenced by archaeological finds and textual references, flourished in urban centers, supported by artisan guilds, trade routes, and patronage from ruling elites.

3. Society and Culture:

  • Ancient Indian society was marked by social hierarchies, occupational diversity, and religious pluralism, as depicted in literary sources, inscriptions, and archaeological remains.
  • The caste system, though prominent, coexisted with guild-based social organization, regional identities, and cultural syncretism, shaping the fabric of ancient Indian civilization.

4. Notions of Kingship:

  • Kingship in ancient India was multifaceted, encompassing divine, secular, and charismatic dimensions, as rulers sought legitimacy through religious patronage, military conquests, and moral authority.
  • Dynasties like the Kushanas, Guptas, and Cholas projected themselves as divine or semi-divine, drawing upon religious symbolism, monumental art, and royal inscriptions to assert political power.

5. Agricultural Transformations:

  • Agricultural practices underwent significant changes, driven by technological innovations, land grants, and environmental adaptations, leading to increased food production, rural settlement, and social differentiation.
  • Irrigation systems, plough agriculture, and land reclamation transformed the agrarian landscape, facilitating economic growth, urbanization, and state formation.

6. Limitations of Epigraphic Evidence:

  • Epigraphy, though invaluable for reconstructing ancient history, has limitations, including decipherment challenges, incomplete preservation, and biases inherent in inscriptions.
  • Epigraphists face interpretive challenges, as inscriptions may not fully represent the diversity of ancient Indian society, economy, and culture, necessitating interdisciplinary approaches to historical analysis.

In summary, the chapter provides a comprehensive overview of ancient Indian civilization, highlighting the dynamic interplay of political power, economic prosperity, social diversity, and cultural innovation, as evidenced by epigraphic, archaeological, and literary sources.

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