Agriculture in Ancient India


Vedic Farmers
F.B. Solvyns, Calcutta, c. 1796

Dec 07, CANADA (SUN) — Yesterday's Feature article on the Battle of the Ten Kings focused on the Rigvedic period of India's history, and the epic battle fought by various tribes, who converged under the leadership of ten powerful kings of the time. But another interesting aspect of the Rigvedic civilization was the role agriculture played in society. Indian society during this period was primarily agrarian, with a greater focus in the early part of the period on cattle, rather than on farming. Out of 10,462 hymns in the Rigveda, only 24 hymns mention agriculture.

Although agriculture apparently didn't flourish in Rigvedic society until the end of the period, it was clearly going on as a mainstay of society. In the first and tenth mandals of Rigveda we find mention of many agricultural processes, such as forestry, ploughing of fields, sowing seeds, and harvesting corn. The mention of corn of quite interesting, given the general notion that corn was not common in India until much later on the timeline. The Rigveda mentions the process of separating the corn from the chaff, whereas in the Bible, there is the well known passage about separating the wheat from the chaff. In Rigveda, the only plant mentioned amongst the cereals and pulses is barley.

During this period of India's history, the owner of a plot of land was considered to be the individual who was cultivating it. Corn was one of several forms of payment to the tribal leaders who protected local residents, although the trading of cows is also mentioned.

Today, all aspects of ancient Vedic culture are a popular area of study, and Indologists are putting greater focus on the exceptional role India played in refining so many fields -- science, mathematics, medicine and agriculture, to name but a few. As India's population grows, agriculture is an increasingly important field of study, and this gives us hope that many Vedic concepts will come to attention that have been long forgotten, such as the role of Varnasrama in agriculture.

In a paper entitled, "Science in India with Special Reference to Agriculture", historians P.M. Tamboli and Y.L. Nene surveyed India's role in various sciences in the post-Harappan era. Making note of recent archeological evidence that challenges long-held beliefs about the Aryan colonization of India, they acknowledge that Vedic civilization flourished throughout Northwest India and Pakistan and elsewhere on the subcontinent more than 6,000 years ago, particularly along the banks of the Saraswati River. Following is their overview of various aspects of agricultural practice from ancient India:

"Archaeological findings have revealed that rice was a domesticated crop grown along the banks of the Ganges in the sixth millennium BC. Later, it extended to other areas. Several species of winter cereals (barley, oats, and wheat) and legumes (lentil and chickpea) domesticated in Southwest Asia were grown in Northwest India before the sixth millennium BC. Archaeological research also revealed cultivation of several other crops 3000 to 6000 years ago. These include oilseeds such as sesame, linseed, safflower, mustards, and castor; legumes such as mung bean, black gram, horse gram, pigeonpea, field pea, grass pea (khesari), and fenugreek; fiber crops such as cotton; and fruits such as jujube, grapes, dates, jackfruit, mango, mulberry, and black plum. Animals, including livestock, sheep, goats, asses, dogs, pigs, and horses were also domesticated (Mehra, 1997).

Despite destruction of ancient libraries by invaders, some literature did survive and is available to us to this day. This literature includes the four Vedas, nine Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Sutra literature, Sushruta Samhita, Charaka Samhita, Upanishads, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, eighteen Puranas, Buddhist and Jain literature, and texts such as Krishi-Parashara, Kautilya's Artha-sastra, Panini's Ashtadhyahi, Sangam literature of Tamils, Manusmriti, Varahamihira's Brhat Samhita, Amarkosha, Kashyapiya-Krishisukti, and Surapala's Vrikshayurveda. This literature was most likely to have been composed between 6000 BC and 1000 AD. We find information related to biodiversity and agriculture (including animal husbandry) in these texts. Specifically, in the Puranas (300–750 AD) we find names of Shalihotra on horses and Palakapya on elephants, as experts in animal husbandry. For instance, Garudapurana is a text dealing with treatment of animal disorders while the classical work on the treatment of horses is Ashwashastra. One chapter in Agnipurana deals with the treatment of livestock and another on treatment of trees (Sensarma, 1989). The science of arbori-horticulture had developed well and has been documented in Surapala's Vrikshayurveda (Sadhale, 1996).

Forests were very important in ancient times. From the age of Vedas, protection of forests was emphasized for ecological balance (Nene and Sadhale, 1997). Kautilya in his Artha-sastra (321– 296 BC) mentions that the superintendent of forests had to collect forest produce through the forest guards. He provides a long list of trees, varieties of bamboos, creepers, fibrous plants, drugs and poisons, skins of various animals, etc. that came under the purview of this officer (Shamasastry, 1961). According to Manu (Manusmriti, 2nd century BC), the preservation of wild animals was encouraged and hunting as a sport was regarded as detrimental to proper development of the character and personality of the ruler (Dwivedi, 1959).

There is more to learn from our ancient literature; for example, we learn about the biodiversity of flora. The four Vedas mention more than 75 species, Satapatha Bhrahmana mentions over 25 species, and Charaka Samhita (c. 300 BC) – an Ayurvedic (Indian medicine) treatise – mentions more than 320 plants. Sushruta (c. 400 BC) records over 750 medicinal plant species (Krishnamurthy, 1991). The oldest book, Rigveda (c. 3700 BC), mentions a large number of poisonous and non-poisonous, aquatic and terrestrial, and domestic and wild creatures and animals. Puranas mention about 500 species of plants.

Farm implements. Ancient literature of the subcontinent did not miss out on farm implements. Vedas describe a simple bullock-drawn wooden plow, both light and heavy, with an iron bar attached as a plowshare to open the soil. Krishi-Parashara (c. 400 BC) (Sadhale, 1999) gives details of the design of the plow with Sanskrit names for different parts. This basic design has hardly undergone any change over centuries. Even today the resource-poor farmers use a similar bullock-drawn plow. A bamboo stick of a specific size was used to measure land. Vedic literature and Krishi-Parashara also mention disc plow, seed drill, blade harrow (bakhar), wooden spike tooth harrow, plankers, axe, hoe, sickle, supa for winnowing, and a vessel to measure grain (udara). Pairs of bullocks used for plowing in ancient days varied from one to eight.

Forecast of annual monsoon rains. Since crop production depended almost entirely on seasonal monsoon rains, it was imperative that methods of predicting rainfall were developed. Indian knowledge base in mathematics, astronomy, and astrology was strong. Krishi-Parashara (c. 400 BC) and Brhat Samhita (Bhat, 1981) give, what today one could describe as, simple astrological models for predicting rains in a particular season. Parashara's main technique of forecasting rain was based on the positions of the Moon and the Sun in the sky. Varahamihira (505–587 AD) in his Brhat-Samhita considered lunar mansions in predicting seasonal rainfall. It is noteworthy that even today a large number of farmers in India, carry out farm operations based on the local variations of these old models.

Kautilya in Artha-sastra indicates primitive models for optimum rainfall for most crops. It is significant that the great poet, Kalidasa (c. 500 AD) in his immortal poem, Meghdoot, described the course of monsoon clouds from the Bay of Bengal through central and northern Indian plains to the Himalayas. It is remarkable that this accurate knowledge was obtained without the aid of modern instruments.

Types of lands. Rigveda identified productive and non-productive soils (Sharma, 1991). The Amarkosha (c. 400 BC) (Jha, 1999) described 12 types of lands in its chapter on Bhumivargaha, depending upon the fertility of the soil, irrigation, and physical characteristics. These were: urvara (fertile), ushara (barren), maru (desert), aprahata (fallow), shadvala (grassy), pankikala (muddy), jalaprayah (watery), kachchaha (land contiguous to water), sharkara (full of pebbles and pieces of limestone), sharkaravati (sandy), nadimatruka (land watered from a river), and devamatruka (rainfed). In the chapter on Vaisyavargaha, soils based on suitability for specific crops are mentioned. For example, vraiheyam (vrihi rice and corn), shaleyam (kalama rice), yavyam (awned barley), yavakyam (awnless barley), tilyam (sesame), mashyam (black gram), maudginam (mung bean), etc. are crops mentioned in relation to the soils. Sangam literature (200 BC to 100 AD) of Tamils in southern India provides information on soil types (Bedekar, 1993).

For example, in Tholkappiyam, written by a poet named Tholkappier (200 BC), four types of land are mentioned. These are mullai (forest), kuringi (hills), marudham (cultivable), and neithal (coastal land). Surapala's Vrikshayurveda (c. 1000 AD) (Sadhale, 1996) mentions three types of land – jangala (arid), anupa (marshy), and samanya (ordinary) – further subdivided by color into black, white, pale, dark red, red, and yellow and by taste into sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Samanya land was considered suitable for all kinds of trees. It is important to note that one of the most sustained land use practices, since the days of Kautilya, has been the use of river beds for raising cucurbits throughout India.

Manures. Importance of manures in obtaining high crop yields was fully appreciated in ancient India. In Krishi-Parashara, it is stated that crops grown without manure will not give yield, and a method of preparing manure from cowdung is described. Kautilya mentioned use of cowdung, animal bones, fishes, and milk as manure. In the Kural (1st century AD) (Aiyar, 1952), it is stated that manuring is more beneficial than plowing. Agnipurana (Gangadharan, 1986) recommends application of "excreta of sheep and goat and pulverized barley and sesame allowed to be soaked in meat and water for seven nights" to increase flowering and fruiting of trees. In Varahamihira's Brhat Samhita, growing of sesame to flowering stage and then incorporating it as green manure is recommended. Surapala (c. 1000 AD) describes the "ancient" practice of preparing liquid manure (kunapa) prepared by boiling a mixture of animal excreta, bone marrow, flesh, and dead fish in an iron pot and then adding to it sesame oilcake, honey, soaked black gram, and a little ghee (or clarified butter). No fixed quantities of materials were required to prepare kunapa. This liquid manure was mainly used in raising trees and shrubs.

Irrigation. Archaeological investigations in Inamgaon in Maharashtra, India (1300 BC), revealed a large mud embankment on a stone foundation for diverting floodwater from the Ghod River through a channel. Rigveda mentions irrigation of crops by river water through channels as well as irrigation from wells. Buddhist literature (500–300 BC) provides evidence of building small tanks for irrigation (Randhawa, 1980). Artha-sastra of Kautilya refers to sluice gates of tanks and mentions that "persons letting out the water of tanks at any other place other than their sluice-gate shall pay a fine of six panas; and persons who obstruct the flow of water from the sluice-gate of tanks shall also pay the same fine." It is further stated that "the water of a lower tank, excavated later on, shall not irrigate the field already irrigated by a higher tank and the natural flow of water from a higher to a lower tank shall not be stopped, unless the lower tank has ceased to be useful for three consecutive years." Costs were levied on irrigation water, regardless of the source.

Extensive tank irrigation systems were developed in Sri Lanka and southern India during the first two centuries of the Christian era. Availability of irrigation made it possible to extend cultivation of rice to large areas, and thus improve food security. Sri Lankan knowledge of tank irrigation technology was most advanced. They could build large tanks and control release of water by 3rd century BC (Brohier, 1934). For the maintenance of tanks in southern India, a committee of villagers called eri-variyam was appointed. The committee ensured repairs and desilting of tanks and distribution of water (Randhawa, 1980).

Irrigation from wells was practiced throughout India in ancient times. Bullocks pulled a leather bag with ropes to draw water from wells for irrigation. The so-called "Persian wheel" used for drawing water from wells was first developed in northern India prior to invasions by Turks.

Seed and sowing. Ancient scholars showed awareness of the importance of good seed; i.e., selection of the apparently healthy seed from a ripening crop, preserving it safely in storage, with or without treatments, and sowing the good seed, again with or without some treatment. About 2000 years ago, Parashara (Sadhale, 1999) recommended (i) proper drying of seed, (ii) freedom from the seeds of weeds, (iii) visual seed uniformity, (iv) storing seeds in strong bags, and (v) storing seed where white ants would not have access and at a location where seed would not come in contact with substrates that would allow molds to grow such as cowshed wastes, damp spots, or leftover foods. Kautilya in Artha-sastra indicated that decision to sow seeds of specific crops should be taken on the basis of known rainfall patterns. He recommended that rice be sown first and mung bean and black gram later. He also suggested some seed treatments (e.g., cowdung, honey, and ghee) to ensure good germination. Manu (Dwivedi, 1959) mentioned that a professional farmer (the Vysya) must be able to determine the quality of seed. The most significant recommendation by Manu was severe punishment to a trader selling spurious seed. Varahamihira recommended pelleting of seed with flours of rice, black gram, and sesame and fumigating them with turmeric powder to ensure good germination. Surapala listed several botanicals such as seed treatment materials for shrubs and trees. Even today cowdung, suggested by Kautilya in the 4th century BC, is used for treating cotton and some other seeds by a large number of farmers (Nene, 1999).

The art of sowing rice seed in small areas, i.e., in nurseries, and transplanting of the seedlings is not a recent practice. It was first perfected in the deltas of Godavari and Krishna rivers in the 1st century AD (Randhawa, 1980).

Pests and their management. One of the earliest references to birds as pests is found in Rigveda. In the Kallavagga, Buddha pointed out when a disease called ‘mildew' attacked a rice field, the latter would not produce grain. Likewise, sugarcane would be adversely affected if a disease called ‘blight' affected it. Parashara (Randhawa, 1980) listed white ants and a number of other pests such as the gandhi bug and stem borer of rice. Parashara used the word "disease" in Sanskrit (vyadhi) to differentiate from visible pests. He even listed goats, wild boars, pigs, deer, buffaloes, parrots, and sparrows as pests. However, no remedies except chanting of a mantra to ward off pests were indicated. Agnipurana states that if fruits were destroyed, a paste of horse gram, black gram, mung bean, barley, and sesame should be applied after sprinkling the affected areas with cold water.

In a later period, Varahamihira wrote a chapter on treatment of trees. He mentioned that trees are vulnerable to disease when exposed to cold weather, strong winds, and hot sun; consequently, their leaves become pale white, sprouts scanty and sickly, branches dry, and their sap oozes out. It seems Varahamihira laid the foundation of classifying tree diseases based on humors such as vata, pitta, and kapha, which were formalized in later centuries in Surapala's Vrikshayurveda. Varahamihira describes cleaning of "ulcers" on trees and treating those with application of paste of vidanga (Embelia ribes), ghee, and silt. Premature destruction of fruits of a tree was to be controlled by application of water and milk (boiled and subsequently cooled) with powder of seeds, as mentioned in Agnipurana.

Surapala's Vrikshayurveda, which deals with arbori-horticulture, gives considerable information on topics such as importance of trees, soil types, classification of plants, seed, sowing, planting, plant protection recipes, nourishment, types of gardens, locating groundwater, and bio-indicators for suitability or otherwise for raising crops and animals. Surapala gave description of disease symptoms associated with the three humors, vata, pitta, and kapha. In addition, he described disorders caused by excessive heat and wind, fire, lightning, drought stress, physical injury, ants (and other insects), excess water, bird damage, and possibly phanerogamic parasites. For treatment of disorders, he suggested use of a number of botanicals (many of which have antimicrobial properties) including mustard paste and milk. It is interesting to note that Surapala's reference is largely to those plant species, which originated in the Indian subcontinent, confirming thereby that plant introduction had occurred to a very limited extent. He described a method of dwarfing trees in situ to create the "bonsai" effect.

Horticulture and arboriculture. Excavations at Harappa have indicated that people were familiar with date palm, pomegranate, lemon, melon, and possibly coconut. Emperor Ashoka (274–237 BC) encouraged arbori-horticulture (Randhawa, 1980). Commonly grown fruit trees were plantain, mango, jackfruit, and grapes. The Sangam literature (Bedekar, 1993) refers to jackfruit, coconut, date palm, areca nut, plantain, and tamarind. Agnipurana (Gangadharan, 1986) mentions many trees; it has a separate chapter on horticulture, which formed the base of treatises that followed.

Varahamihira wrote a chapter on "treatment of trees" in his Brhat Samhita. One of the highlights of Varahamihira's writing (Bhat, 1981) is specific reference on grafting to be done on trees such as jackfruit, plantain, jambu (black plum), kapittaha (wood apple), lemon, and pomegranate. A method of grafting described was what is known today as "wedge grafting" (Bhat, 1981).

Surapala's Vrikshayurveda provides excellent information on arbori-horticulture in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. The text mentions 170 species of plants including trees, shrubs, and a few herbs and deals systematically with raising of orchards; procuring, preserving and treating seeds and planting materials; selection of land; preparation of pits for planting; methods of irrigation and ways to locate groundwater; nourishment and fertilizers; disorders of plants and their protection; laying out gardens and orchards; and growing unusual trees (Sadhale, 1996). Woodland gardening was a developed art. Layouts included designs such as mandapa (canopy), nandyavarta (quandrangle with an opening to the west), swastika (design of religious significance to Hindus), chaturasra (square), sarvatobhadra (a square enclosing a circle), vithi (line), nikunja (arbor), and punjaka (cluster). The text recommends layouts for the "pleasure gardens" (Sadhale, 1996).

Amarkosha mentions gardens such as griharamah (house garden), vrikshavatika (garden of ministers or prostitutes), aakrida (royal garden), and pramadavanam (garden for harem) (Jha, 1999).

Support to agriculture. Agriculture in India was almost always supported by the multitudes of rulers because the sages impressed upon these rulers that prosperous agriculture was the base of strong kingdoms/empires. The tradition had been to impose minimal tax on farmers, rarely exceeding one-sixth of the produce. A couple of examples from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata will illustrate the point. In Ramayana, Rama asks his brother Bharata in Chitrakoot, "Dear Bharata, have you ensured that all those engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry receive your special care and attention?"

In Mahabharata, the grand old man, Bhishma, advises King Yudhishthira in "Shantiparva": "Agriculture, animal husbandry and trade are the very life of people. Have you ensured that the cultivators are not forced to deserting the country because of the exaction imposed by you? It is indeed the cultivators who carry the burden of the king on their shoulders and also provide sustenance to all others." Do we recognize this today? We probably need to continuously remind ourselves the wisdom of our ancestors."

For more information on Vedic agricultural practices, see "Ancient History of Indian Agriculture".


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