The Mauryan Empire: Sources, Inscriptions and Literature
Posted on : 18-11-2017 Posted by : Admin


Inscriptions and literature are a valuable source to know about the history of Mauryan empire. The Ashokan rock edicts were deciphered by James Princep in 1837. As these scripts were inscribed on rocks and pillars they are known as rock edicts or pillar edicts. These edicts were installed in al prominent places like major travel routes, near towns and religious places to catch the attention of the people.

In course of time many of the pillars were moved from their original places. For example, Topra and Meerut pillars were shifted to Delhi by Firoz Shah Tuglaq, Pillar at Kausambi was shifted to Allahabad and Bairat pillar was shifted to Calcutta by Cunningham.

These edicts were commonly in Prakrit language and Bramhi script. But in North West the script was Karosti whereas in Extreme west the script was Greek and Aramaic. The Edicts of Ashoka generally provide information on Administration, Religion, Ethics, Foreign and domestic policies and also about the extent of Mauryan Empire.


Major Rock Edicts

The Major rock edicts are total fourteen in number. They are called so as they are inscribed on large boulders. Major rock edicts represent the exposition of Ashoka’s government and ethical system. These edicts define the nature, scope and application of dhamma. The original location of the major rock edicts is given in the below table:

Major rock edict Location
Kalsi Dehradun
Girnar Gujarat
Yerragudi Andhra Pradesh
Mansehar Pakistan
Sopara Mumbai
Dhauli and Jaugada Odisha
Shahbazgarhi Pakistan

In Kalinga, two separate edicts called Edicts XV and Edicts XVI are located. They are substitute for the three edicts namely,

* Edict XI on charity and kinship of mankind

* Edict XII on religious tolerance

* Edict XIII on Kalinga war and change of heart


Minor Rock Edicts

The minor edicts are concentrated in south and central parts of the Mauryan Empire. They are called so as they are inscribed on smaller boulders. These edicts highlight the activities of Ashoka as a Buddhist and also about Dhamma. The following table gives the information about the location of Minor rock edicts.

Minor rock edict Location
Bairat Rajasthan
Jatinga-Rameshwaram Karnataka
Sahsaram Bihar
Rupanath Madhya Pradesh
Gavimath Mysore (Karnataka)
Bramhagiri Karnataka
Maski Karnataka
Gujjara Madhya Pradesh
Palkigundu Karnataka
Rajula-Mandagiri Andhra Pradesh
Siddapur Karnataka
Suvarnagiri Karnataka
Yerragudi Andhra Pradesh
Nittur Karnataka
Udegolam Karnataka
Kandahar Afghanistan

The minor rock edict found at Kandahar is bilingual and is inscribed in Greek and Aramaic scripts. The name Ashoka is clearly mentioned in the rock edicts at Maski, Gujjara, Nittur and Udegolam. The title most commonly adopted by Ashoka in his edicts is Devanampiya Piyadasi (Beloved gods). The latest discovery of three minor edicts is made from Sannati village, Karnataka.

Pillar Edicts

Originally there could have been many Pillar edicts but, only nineteen survive with inscriptions and seven survive with capitals. The stone of these pillars was transported from either Mathura or Chunar hills to different parts of the Empire. The pillar edict VII is considered to be the last edict issued by Ashoka. The following is the table giving information about few important pillar Edicts,

Topra-Delhi Pillar Edict
Delhi-Meerut Pillar Edict
Rampurva Pillar Edict
Lauriya-Araraj Pillar Edict
Lauria-Nandangarh Pillar Edict
Allahabad-Kosam Pillar Edict


Literary sources are the accounts written by authors. These authors would write the real-time information in books. These books can be referred by the later kings to know about political or administrative systems followed by their fore-fathers. Information from Written records both by the Indian and foreign authors provide an excellent source for the study of Mauryan History.


Written records by Indian Authors


It is a comprehensive treatise in Sanskrit language, on the public administration and statecraft of Mauryan Empire. This work was given by Kautilya, the prime minister of Chandragupta Maurya. This work gives a very clear and methodological analysis of the economic and political conditions of Mauryas. The whole work is divided in to 15 books or Adhikaranas with 10 chapters each. In whole the work consists of 180 sub-chapters or Prakaranas and six thousand verses. The following is the list of all the books of Arthasastra.

Book No. Book deals with
Book 1 Kingship
Book 2 Civil administration
Book 3 Administration law and Justice
Book 4 Control of crime
Book 5 Courtiers of king and salaries of officials
Book 6 Theory of foreign policy
Book 7 Use of foreign policy
Book 8 Calamities
Book 9 War Preparations
Book 10 Main battle camp
Book 11 How conqueror should tackle oligarchies
Book 12 Frustration of weak king threatened by Strong king
Book 13 Conquest of enemy fort
Book 14 Secret and occult practice
Book 15 Logical techniques used in work

Other Literary sources

  • Rajatarangini of Kalhana
  • Kathasaritsagar of Somadeva
  • Brihatkathamanjari of Kshemendra mentions that Mauryas were of Sudra origin.
  • Mudrarakshasa of Visakadatta gives an account of the socio-economic conditions during Mauryans. It mentions that Chandra Gupta Maurya was the King all over Jambudvipa. It mentions Mauryas to be connected with Nandas.
  • Stavirali charita or Parisisthaparvan of Hemachandra gives information about early life, conquests of Magadha and conversion of Chandragupta Maurya into Jainism. This is a Jaina work.
  • Dipavamsam and Mahavamsam which are Sri Lankhsn chronicles give a detailed description of the role-played by Ashoka in spreading Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
  • The information about the origin of Mauryas is given in mahavamsatika, the commentary of Mahavamsam.
  • Jataka stories of Buddha’s previous life gives information about the socio-economic life during Mauryan period. Buddhist tradition mentions Mauryas as being kshatriyas.
  • Ashokavandana and Divyavandana give information about Bindusara and Ashoka’s expeditions to Taxila to suppress rebellions. These two mention Mauryas as belonging to Moriya clan of Pipphalivana.


Written records by Foreign Authors

Megasthenes recordings in his book ‘Indica’

In the book named Indica, Megasthenes gave a clear account of Mauryan Empire. Megasthenes was the ambassador of Seleucus to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. Some of the important information provided by Megasthenes is as follows:

  • King was the very important person in the administrative structure of the Empire. According to Megasthenes, king is a very hard working person
  • King was assisted by small number of influential councilors
  • King employed large number of spies
  • Criminal law was very severe during Mauryan period
  • One of the recognized punishment was mutilation
  • For injuring royal artisans, the punishment as death
  • The state also supplied its soldiers with arms and equipment along with regular salaries
  • The chariot was usually drawn by four horses
  • Broad sword was the principal weapon during Mauryan period. Additional arms include Javelins, bows and arrows
  • According to Megasthenes, Indians were free and there existed no slavery.
  • He mentions that Indians are very honest and that theft was a very rare occurrence.
  • He also mentions that famines have never occurred in India and that there never has been scarcity of supply of nutritious food.
  • The remained in the palace under the protection of armed female guards
  • Hunting was principal royal amusement.

Other foreign written records include

  • Strabo wrote about the geography and marriage alliance between Seleucus and Chandragupta
  • Diodrous gave Greek account of the work produced by Megasthenes
  • Pliny, the author of Natural history gives the geographical information of India based on Greek sources
  • Arrian gives the best account of Alexander’s expedition and social life of India
  • Plutrach mentions the meeting of Chandragupta and Alexander.
  • Justin gives the account of Mauryas rising to power. Justin mentions Mauryas to be of humble origin.

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