With a reign of 137 years from 322 BCE to 185 BCE, the Maurya Empire is regarded as one of the greatest empires to have ever ruled the Indian subcontinent. Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Empire, was the first known ruler to have unified the Indian subcontinent and the empire he established became the largest political entity that has ever existed in the Indian subcontinent. The Mauryan dynasty’s long period of stability and prosperity consolidated the foundation of the Indian subcontinent as a unified nation. Further, the region witnessed an unprecedented level of economic prosperity and advancement of art and architecture, among other things. The Mauryans also contributed greatly in governance and administration with the introduction of a highly centralized administrative system with a frame of bureaucratic institutions. The Mauryan Empire came into being by overthrowing the Nanda Dynasty while it was succeeded by the Shunga Empire (187 BCE -78 BCE). Here are the 10 major achievements of the Maurya Dynasty including its contribution to Indian economy, administration, art, architecture and more.
#1 IT WAS THE FIRST DYNASTY TO UNIFY MOST OF THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT
The Maurya Empire was founded in 322 BCE by Chandragupta Maurya with guidance from his teacher Chanakya. Chandragupta overthrew Dhana Nanda, the last ruler of the Nanda dynasty. Chandragupta then conquered the Punjab region from the south-eastern edges of the former empire of Alexander the Great. He thus established his empire with its capital at Patliputra. Seleucus I, a Macedonian general from Alexander’s army, attempted to advance into India in 305 BCE. However, his army was defeated by Chandragupta and, after the conclusion of a treaty, the Seleucids and the Mauryans maintained friendly relations. With peace along his western border, Chandragupta focused his military exploits to the east and to the south. By the end of his reign, he had extended his empire across northern India. Chandragupta thus became the first known emperor to unify most of India under one administration. Bindusara, the son of Chandragupta, continued the expansion of the Mauryan Empire stopping around the region known today as Karnataka. His son, Ashoka, would add Kalinga to the already vast empire. However, seeing wide-scale death and destruction, Ashoka turned towards Buddhism and stopped military conquest. Thus, though the empire was maintained, no more territory was added to it.
#2 IT IS REGARDED AS THE LARGEST POLITICAL ENTITY THAT HAS EXISTED IN THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT
Maurya Empire reached its greatest territorial extent under Ashoka the Great, the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. At its pinnacle, the Maurya Empire stretched to the north along its natural boundaries of the Himalayas and in the east to the present state of Assam. In the west, it reached beyond modern Pakistan and significant portions of Afghanistan, including modern Herat and Kandahar provinces; and Balochistan. Thus, the Maurya Empire dominated almost the entire Indian subcontinent barring parts of present-day Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala in southern India. Extending over 5 million sq km (1.9 million sq mi), it is the largest political entity that has ever existed in the Indian subcontinent. Moreover, the population of the empire has been estimated to be about 50–60 million, making the Mauryan Empire one of the most populous empires of antiquity. After the death of Ashoka, the empire began to decline due to defections by southern princes and quarrels over ascension. The last Mauryan ruler was Brihadratha, who was killed in 185 BCE by Pushyamitra, who then founded the Shunga dynasty.
#3 IT HAD A UNIFIED CENTRAL GOVERNMENT
Before the establishment of the Mauryan Empire, the Indian subcontinent was fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms ruled by regional chieftains with small armies. After Chandragupta came to power, the Mauryan Army eliminated regional chieftains and laid the foundation of a highly centralized administrative system with a frame of bureaucratic institutions. The establishment of a centralized empire enabled an organizational structure which began at the imperial level with the emperor and his Council of Ministers known as the Mantriparishad. The council was headed by Mantriparishad-Adhyakshya, akin to the Prime Minister of today. Apart from the metropolitan area which was directly governed, the empire was divided into four provinces: the Northern Province with its capital at Taxila, the Western Province with its capital at Ujjain, the Eastern Province with its capital at Tosali and the Southern Province with its capital as Suvarnagiri. The head of the provincial administration was the Kumara (royal prince), who governed as king’s representative. Apart from regions, the Mauryan administration was divided into various departments including the Revenue Department, Military Department, Espionage Department, Judicial Department and Police Department. Moreover, there were numerous posts with well defined duties to control the vast empire.
#4 MAURYAN ARMY WAS THE LARGEST MILITARY FORCE OF ITS TIME
The Persian king Cyrus the Great, who ruled during 6th century BCE, is the first known emperor whose army had a strength of more than 500,000. The Mauryan Empire is believed to have had an army of 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry and 9,000 war elephants. This has been reported by ancient Greek historian Megasthenes. Thus, in all probability, the Mauryan Empire had the largest army in the world at the time. In comparison, at the peak of the Roman Empire in 400 CE, the emperors’ legions never exceeded 475,000 men. The King was the supreme commander of the army and planned military operations with his Commander-In-Chief known as the Senapati. The military was divided into five sectors namely, infantry, cavalry, chariots, elephant forces, navy and transport & provisions. It consisted of people from all castes and there was no discrimination in the process of recruitment.
#5 IT BUILT NUMEROUS STRUCTURES INCLUDING THE ASHOKA PILLARS
Mauryan rule marks an important phase in the cultural history of India since it witnessed an unprecedented development of art and architecture. Mauryan art also represents an important transition in Indian art from use of wood to stone. The stonework of the period was highly diversified and comprised lofty free-standing pillars, stupas, lion thrones and other colossal figures. The Great Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh is an important monument of Indian architecture. It was originally commissioned by Ashoka in 3rd century BCE to celebrate the achievements of Gautama Buddha. Iconic structures built by the Mauryans also include the Pillars of Ashoka. A series of columns dispersed throughout the Indian subcontinent, these pillars constituted of two main parts, the shaft and the capital. The shaft is a column made of one piece of stone with exquisite polish while the capital is placed on top of the shaft and is constructed with a different piece of stone. The most famous sculpture from the Mauryan era is the Lion Capital of Ashoka which consists of four Asiatic lions seated back to back. Originally placed on the top of the Ashoka pillar at Sarnath, the Lion Capital may now be seen at the Sarnath Museum. A graphic representation of the Lion Capital was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950 and the wheel, popularly known as “Ashoka Chakra”, has been placed at the center of the National Flag of India.
#6 FAMOUS INDIAN ROCK-CUT ARCHITECTURE IS DATED TO THE MAURYAN PERIOD
Rock-cut architecture is the practice of creating a structure by carving it out of solid natural rock. The rock-cut architecture of India is more various and found in greater abundance in the country than any other form of rock-cut architecture around the world. Indian rock-cut architecture is usually dated to the Mauryan era. The Barabar Hill Caves, the oldest surviving rock-cut caves in India, were built during the time of the Mauryan Empire. These caves are situated in the twin hills of Barabar (four caves) and Nagarjuni (three caves) in the Jehanabad district in the Indian state of Bihar. The most famous of these caves is the Lomas Rishi Cave due to its beautifully carved door. On the periphery of the door is a line of elephants advances in the direction of stupa emblems. This is the earliest surviving form of the “Chaitya arch” or chandrashala, which became an important feature of architecture and sculpture for many centuries in India.
#7 THE IMPRESSIVE MAURYAN POLISH TECHNIQUE WAS DEVELOPED
One of the most important features of Mauryan art is the bright polish imparted to the stone surface which makes it shine and look impressive. The Barabar Caves are the first known and dated example of Mauryan polish. The Mauryan polish may also be seen on the famous Pillars of Ashoka giving them a very smooth and shiny surface. After the Mauryan period, the general sculptural trend is towards the complete abandon of polishing techniques. This may be due to the high cost involved with polishing. Sandstone is very hard to work with and there is still debate over the technique and origin of Mauryan polish. It is believed by some that polishing was obtained by the use of emery grains and the technique was imported from the Greeks. However, this hasn’t been established with certainty. According to the British archaeologist John Marshall: the “extraordinary precision and accuracy which characterizes all Mauryan works, and which has never, we venture to say, been surpassed even by the finest workmanship on Athenian buildings”.
#8 MAURYAN ERA WAS AN AGE OF ECONOMIC PROSPERITY
The political unity and military security that came with the Maurya Empire allowed for a common economic system. The unified economy enhanced internal and external trade, increased agricultural productivity and helped other economic activities to thrive. Chandragupta Maurya established a single currency across India; and a network of regional governors and administrators. The farmers were freed from paying taxes to regional kings and crop collection burdens. Instead, they paid through a nationally administered system of taxation, which was strict but fair. Numerous public projects were also undertaken to enhance agricultural productivity, as agriculture was the backbone of the economy. Among other things, dams and irrigation projects were set up to aid the farmers. Another important and vital part of the economy was industries. As Mauryan Empire was a highly militarized state, artisans were important to the state, especially those related to making weapons. Apart from internal trade, trade relations were built with several countries including Syria and Egypt. The Khyber Pass, on the modern boundary of Pakistan and Afghanistan, became a strategically important port of trade with the outside world. Due to enhanced trade, eventually, a separate department was introduced to look after trade and commerce, ensuring that a transparent system was put in place.
#9 THE GRAND TRUNK ROAD WAS BUILT
One of Asia’s oldest and longest trade networks, connecting the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia, the Grand Trunk Road was built by Chandragupta Maurya of the Mauryan Dynasty. Extending it from the mouth of the River Ganges to the north-western frontier of the Empire, the ancient route was known as the Uttarapatha in the 3rd century BCE. Constructed in eight stages, this road is said to have connected the cities of Purushapura, Takshashila, Hastinapura, Kanyakubja, Prayag, Patliputra and Tamralipta. As mentioned by the Greek diplomat Megasthenes, who spent fifteen years at the Mauryan court, emperor Chandragupta had a whole army of officials overseeing the maintenance of this road. The Grand Trunk Road went under further improvements under the reign of Ashoka. Over the centuries, the road has acted as one of the major trade routes in the region and has facilitated both travel and postal communication. The Grand Trunk Road is still widely used for transportation in present-day Indian subcontinent, where parts of the road have been widened and included in the national highway system. In 2015, the UNESCO named the Grand Trunk Road under its list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
#10 MAURYAN EMPERORS WERE FIRST RULERS IN HISTORY TO ADVOCATE CONSERVATION
During the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, there was a regular forest department led by a Kupyadhyaksha (superintendent) and Vanpalas (forest guards). The department played a role of classifying the trees, plants and herbs and fixing their price. Moreover, they imposed fine on anyone who cut trees without permission. Chandragupta also imposed a severe penalty for those found guilty of cruelty to animals. After his conversion to Buddhism, Ashoka the Great went a step further and he is regarded as the first ruler in history to advocate conservation measures for wildlife. He not only introduced forest protection laws, but also ordered that all kinds of animals should be protected from being slaughtered. He implemented principles of “Ahimsa” or non-violence by relinquishing the royal practice of hunting and animal sacrifices. Ashoka also strictly banned burning of chaff after harvest and pollution of water bodies. In an act unmatched by even the most progressive modern states, Ashoka also established free veterinary hospitals and dispensaries in Pataliputra.