Ancient Indian Government - Ancient India
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Ancient Indian Government

stone carving of man riding in chariot with people watching
Sanchi Stupa Northern Gateway (ca. 50 BC)

February 2017 - Nobody knows what Indian government was like in the Harappan period. Probably they had a king over each city, as in West Asia at the same time. Probably they had some queens, as in Egypt at this time. By about 1500 BC, after the Indo-European invasion, all of the people in India seem to have been divided up into castes. We know this from the Rig Veda. Only men from the highest caste - the Brahmins - could be rulers in the government, or even ministers or clerks in the government. These men did not allow women to rule either. Most of India was still divided into small kingdoms, each with their own king.

Beginning in the 300s BC, however, some of these kings began to form larger empires in India, especially in the north. During the 300s BC, Chandragupta conquered a lot of northern India and made it into one big empire. Chandragupta's Mauryan Empire lasted until about 200 BC, but then the small kingdoms of India regained their independence. The same thing happened again in 319 AD, when Chandragupta II formed the Guptan Empire. And then in 455 the Guptan Empire also collapsed. After that, the most important kingdom in India was the Chola kingdom, which ruled all of south India and east India along the coast. Then in the 1100s AD the Abbasids invaded and made northern India part of the Islamic Empire, while the Pandyas took over southern India. So during the medieval period, India went back and forth between being ruled by small kings and being ruled by larger empires.

Within the Mauryan and Guptan empires, and in the Chola kingdom, the kings appointed a lot of administrators to help them govern. The empires were divided into many smaller provinces, and each province had a governor to rule it (as in the earlier Persian Empire or in Ch'in and Han Dynasty China about the same time). Within each province, the governors had councils of ministers to advise them. The governors sent out tax collectors to collect an income tax and custom duties (a tax on anything you brought into the kingdom to sell) Other officials kept track of birth and death records, and the government budget. But all of these governors were controlled by the king, who kept a standing army of thousands of soldiers in case any of his governors rebelled.

Learn by doing: A Ramayana project
More about Ancient India

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Indian government:

Indian People
History of India
Ancient India home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 29 April, 2017