Ancient Indian government

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Sanchi Stupa Northern Gateway (ca. 50 BC)

Indian government: Sanchi Stupa Northern Gateway (ca. 50 BC)

Early Indian government

Nobody knows what Indian government was like in the Harappan period. Probably they had a king over each city, the way West Asia did at this time. Probably they had some queens, the way Egypt did.

Who were the Harappans?
All our India articles

The caste system

But about 1500 BC, there was an Indo-European invasion. Sometime after that, the government seems to have divided up all of the people in India into castes. We know this from the Rig Veda.

What is the caste system?
What’s the Rig Veda?
Who were the Indo-Europeans?

Brahmin men control power

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 let women rule either. Most of India was still divided into small kingdoms. Each kingdom still had its own king.

India’s first empires

Starting in the 300s BC, some of these kings formed 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.

More about the Mauryan Empire
What is an empire?

Medieval Indian empires

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. The Chola 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, under the Delhi Sultanate. Meanwhile 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.

All about the Guptans
The Chola kingdom
The Delhi Sultanate
And the Pandyas

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. Each province had a governor to rule it. That’s the same as in the earlier Persian Empire or in Ch’in and Han Dynasty China about the same time.

Government of the Persian Empire
Early China’s government

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. (That’s a tax on anything you brought into the kingdom to sell.)

How did taxes work?

Other officials kept track of birth and death records, and the government budget. But all of these governors were controlled by the king. And the king 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

By |2018-10-19T14:02:35+00:00July 20th, 2017|Government, India|9 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Ancient Indian government. Study Guides, July 20, 2017. Web. December 15, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. hector October 19, 2018 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    great job karen

  2. Alice October 18, 2018 at 7:04 am - Reply

    Thanks Karen, without this I wouldn’t have been able to do my project. Love your work!

    • Karen Carr October 18, 2018 at 8:14 am

      Ooh, thank you! That means a lot to me!

  3. oscarr September 13, 2018 at 6:56 pm - Reply

    how did people get power to govern

    • Karen Carr September 14, 2018 at 11:57 am

      Mostly they inherited power from their fathers or mothers. Sometimes, they married a prince or princess, so they got power that way. Other times, they might become army generals, and then use their army to conquer land or overthrow a king and get power by force. Once in a while, someone might become popular enough that people would just insist that they get power.

  4. Mollie May 13, 2018 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Can you do a medieval India one?

  5. Olive February 23, 2018 at 10:27 am - Reply

    Where is the copy write date

    • Karen Carr February 23, 2018 at 11:17 am

      All the citation information is at the end of the article, just underneath it.

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