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Ancient History / Mauryan Era

Sources of Mauryan Empire

The two sources of Mauryan Empire that are available today are literary sources and archaeological sources. The archaeological sources are again divided into epigraphical and numismatic sources. The numismatic sources are punch marked coins, but not much information can be gathered from these coins of Mauryan dynasty. According to the available sources of Mauryan history, the dynasty was founded in 321 BC by Chandragupta Maurya and it ended in 184 BC. The same Magadha Kingdom came under Mauryans.

Literary Sources of Mauryan Empire

Literary sources of Mauryan empire comprises of texts written by both indigenous as well as foreign authors.

Foreign Sources

  • Megasthenes, who has been sent as an ambassador by Seleucus Nicator to the court of king Chandragupta Maurya, gave in his book "Indica" (written in Greek) some controversial points saying that (i) There was no slavery in India, (ii) No famines were there in India, (iii) He divides the Indian society into 7 castes, altogether mentioning new castes and (iv) Usury (lending money with higher interest rate) was absent in India.

  • Pliny, who belonged to 1st Century AD and a native of Rome, in his book "Natural History" (written in 72 AD), mentioned about the military strength of Mauryan empire.

    Pliny said that Mauryan army had 6 lakh infantry, 30 thousand cavalry, 9000 elephantry and 8000 chariotry. These are 4 wings of army, known as Chaturangabala.

  • Sri Lankan Buddhist texts (written in Pali) Mahavamsa, Culavamsa, Dipavamsa and Vamsathapakasini talk about the history Mauryan dynasty.

  • Travel accounts of 3 Chinese travellers give information about Mauryan empire. Fa Hien visited India when Chandragupta II was the king. Hiuen Tsang was in India when Harshavardhana was the king. I-Tsing, who resided at Nalanda monastery for ten years, was in India between 673 AD and 685 AD.

Indigenous Sources

  • The most important Mauryan literature is Arthashastra of Kautilya (Vishnugupta or Chanakya), who is believed to be the advisor of Chandragupta Maurya. Arthashastra gives information on public administration of Mauryan empire.

  • Mudrarakshasa, a Sanskrit drama (about Mauryan dynasty) written by Vishakhadatta, who lived in 5th Century AD, details about dethroning of Nanda dynasty (Dhana Nanda) by Chanakya and Chandragupta.

  • Harshacharita (a biography of Harsha), written in 7th Century by Bana, who is the court poet of Harsha, contains some reference towards Mauryan empire. It gives information about the end of Mauryan rule.

    According to Harshacharita, the last Mauryan king Brihadratha was assassinated by his senapati, Pushyamitra Shunga (a Brahmin) and Shunga dynasty got established.

  • Rajatarangini, written in 12th Century by Kalhana, mentioned that Kashmir was part of Mauryan empire and Srinagar city was built by Ashoka.

  • Puranas give genealogical records (vanshavali) of ancient kingdoms including Mauryan dynasty.

Epigraphical Sources of Mauryan Empire

The epigraphical sources that are available today, are Edicts of Ashoka on which inscriptions are written. All the Ashokan inscriptions can be classified into 3 categories based on the surface of the rock. They are Rock Edicts, Pillar Edicts and Cave Edicts.

Rock Edicts

These archaeological sources of Mauryan empire are engraved on the big boulders of the stone on a hill. Here, the stone is not moved. The Rock Edicts are divided into Major Rock Edicts and Minor Rock Edicts.

  • Major Rock Edicts

    Major Rock Edicts are 14 separate Edicts which are explained significantly. All the Major Rock Edicts contain the same information. Major Rock Edicts are found at 10 different places. They are

    • Girnar (near Junagadh), Gujarat
    • Shahbazgarhi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan (written in Kharosthi script)
    • Mansehra, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan (in Kharosthi script)
    • Yerragudi, Kurnool district, AP
    • Dhauli, near Bhubaneswar, Odisha
    • Jaugada, Ganjam district, Odisha

      Ashokan Rock Inscription of Jaugada

      Fig: Ashokan Rock Inscription of Jaugada

    • Sopara, Maharashtra
    • Kalsi (near DehraDun), Uttarakhand
    • Sannati, Gulbarga district, Karnataka
    • Kandahar Greek Inscription, Afghanistan

  • Minor Rock Edicts

    Minor Rock Edicts, depending on the location, have slight variations in the content. These Rock Edicts predate all other forms of Ashokan inscriptions. Many Minor Rock Edicts were found all around the Indian sub-continent.

    • Bhabru, Rajasthan - In this inscription, Ashoka expresses his faith in Buddhism. It is also the only inscription in which Ashoka was calling himself "Laja Magadhe".

    • Kandahar Bilingual inscription, Afghanistan - It is the only Minor Rock Edict which is not in Prakrit language. It used Greek and Aramaic languages with their respective scripts.

    • Some other Minor Rock Edicts include (a) Rajula-Mandagiri, Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, (b) Sahasram / Sasaram, Rohtas district of Bihar, (c) Sohgaura, Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh, (d) Mahasthan, Bogra district in Bangladesh, (e) Panguraria, Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh, (f) Suvarnagiri, Koppal district of Karnataka, (g) Rupnath, near Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.

Pillar Edicts

They are found on pillars. In this, a tall boulder was chiseled into a beautiful pillar. They are only found in North India and not in South India. The Pillar Edicts are divided into Major Pillar Edicts and Minor Pillar Edicts.

  • Major Pillar Edicts

    Major Pillar Edicts are seven separate Edicts that are inscribed on tall columns or pillars, which are explained significantly. They are found at 8 places.

    • Lauriya-Araraj, Champaran, Bihar
    • Delhi-Topra, Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi - It was moved to Delhi from Topra by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in 14th Century
    • Delhi-Meerut, Delhi - It was also moved to Delhi from Meerut by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in 14th Century
    • Lauriya-Nandangarh, Champaran, Bihar
    • Ranigat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan
    • Rampurva, Champaran, Bihar
    • Kandahar, Afghanistan
    • Vaishali, Bihar

  • Minor Pillar Edicts

    Minor Pillar Edicts are five separate Edicts that are inscribed on tall columns. When compared to Major Pillar Edicts, the inscription technique is somewhat poor.

    • Allahabad-Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh - It was moved to Allahabad from Kaushambi by Jahangir
    • Lumbini (Rummindei), Nepal
    • Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh
    • Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh
    • Nigliva, Nepal

Cave Edicts

Hills are cut into caves and inscriptions are engraved in the entrance of the cave. The Cave inscription of Mauryan period is found at Barabar Cave near Gaya in Bihar (Barabar Hills and Nagarjuni Hills).

Here, beautiful caves were built and donated to Ajivika monks. These caves testify as an example of Cave architecture of Mauryan period.

Extra Information

  • Inscriptions of Ashoka are called Edicts (Rajagnas) or Royal Orders. These inscriptions do not come under eulogy or land charters. These are mainly engraved on stones. People have to follow those instructions.

    The language that was used in these inscriptions, was Prakrit (official language of Mauryan empire) and the scripts that were used, were Kharosthi (written from Right to Left) in North West India and Brahmi (written from Left to Right) in rest of India.

  • The major importance of Mauryan empire is that it united the whole of Indian subcontinent. It was up extended to Kaveri river in South. Only Tamil Nadu and Kerala were outside the Mauryan Empire.

    After Mauryans, the Brahmi script got disappeared. Prakrit continued up to Medieval History. In 1837, a British ICS officer (Indologist) James Prinsep deciphered the Brahmi script successfully.

  • From all the sources of Mauryan Empire, the real name of Ashoka was not known till 1915 as most of the inscriptions of Ashoka have his titles, Devanampiya (Sanskrit - Devanampriya) and Piyadassi (Sanskrit - Priyadarsi).

    In 1915, at a place called Maski, in Raichur district of Karnataka, an inscription mentioning the name of Ashoka along with the titles was found. After Maski, 3 more places (minor rock edicts) were found where the name of Ashoka was found. They are Nittur and Udegolam (both in Karnataka) and Gujarra (near Jhansi, MP).


  1. In which inscription or edict, Ashoka expresses his faith in Buddhism?

    1. Jaugada rock inscription

    2. Bairat or Bhabru inscription

    3. Kandahar Bilingual inscription

    4. Rampurva pillar inscription


    Ans: B

  2. Who wrote Arthashastra, which is one of the most important literary sources of Mauryan empire?

    1. Megasthenes

    2. Bana

    3. Kautilya

    4. Vishakhadatta


    Ans: C