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Guilds in Ancient India

by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: October 01, 2004
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

Corporate life was in vogue in India since vedic times. The word gana meant community and head of the group, or corporate body, was known as 'Ganapati'. This name came to be associated in later times with Elephant God or deity of learning also known as 'Ganesha'. Mention of corporate bodies is found as back as 800 1000 B.C. Caravans (Sarthas, Sarthavahanas), of merchants which toured the entire sub-continent do find mention in good numbers in early centuries. Guilds were known as srenis or nigamas and these elected mercantile bodies controlled trade and commerce of various commodities. These were great supporters of royal power. Guilds arranged wrestling matches and athletic games. Harivamsa, mentions a wrestling match between Krishna & Kamsa for which an arena was constructed with pavilions of different guilds and banners each bearing an emblem signifying their craft.

We get a clear idea of formation and function of guilds from Kautilya's Arthashatra ( 4th century B.C). In an ideal scheme of a city, sites were reserved for offices and quarters of guildsmen. Taxes paid by guilds formed an important source of income to the state. Guilds of a cooperative nature were referred to as Samutthachara. These guilds supervised community projects of those times. The local interest was guarded by the elders of the guild. Various undertakings of the guilds helped amass huge fortunes and Kautilya prescribes methods of extracting money from these guilds in times of need by the state.

Constitution of a Guild

Sreshtin or Jyeshthaka was the elder. There used to be a treasurer (Bhandagarika) and a superintendent of accounts (karanika) who made regular entries in prescribed registers. The history, customs, professions and transactions of corporations were clearly notified. Various rules and regulations were laid down for the workmen of guilds and due concessions given. Representatives of guilds formed important members in royal meetings.

Joint guild of bankers, traders and transport merchants (Sarthavaha) existed with membership spread over a large number of towns and cities. In Karnataka, Aihole was a great center of guilds controlled by five hundred swamis. Their branches were spread throughout South India. There were seals of merchants, caravan traders and their commodities. Chief artisans (Prathamakulika) and number of artisans indicate a systematic network of corporate activities in ancient India.

Qualifications of Guildsmen

There used to be executive officers called karyachintakas who were appointed by the king. They were supposed to possess honesty, ability, self-control, knowledge of law-books and selflessness. Lekhakriya (documentation) was important and Madhyastha or middleman stood probably as guarantee for the faithful conduct of a guild. There were rules regarding membership of a guild.

Srenimukhyas or Heads of guilds were prominent members in city administration. In Gupta age (2nd century to 5th century) Sreshtnis, Sarthavahas, Prathamakuliks (Head of a local guild) and Prathamakayastha (Head Accounts Officer) figured prominently in town and district councils.

Functions of Guilds

Different crafts and artisans formed guilds which educated the youngsters of each craft, spinning, weaving, oil-crushing, ship-building, and other industries. The rich guilds maintained armies which accompanied trade caravans. Srenibala or Ayudha srenis (Guilds of arms) existed. Mandasore inscription of Kumara Gupta (414 - 455 A.D.) refers to a guild of silk-weavers. Some members of this guild took to arms. Some were bankers, some supervised endowments and some patronized art and religion. The guilds also acted as courts of law, disputes among members were settled by their own (elected) executives and not by the State tribunals.

This Mandasore inscription (modern Mandasore in Malva M.P.) gives some interesting information about corporate mobility of the times. Originally they came from Sourashtra in Gujarat. Some members learnt archery and became fighters. Some took to religious life. Some became astrologers. Some became ascetics. But all joined in constructing a temple to Sun-god. Oilmen and artisans find mention.

This only shows that there was mobility and flexibility in vocations though the Guild is mentioned prominently as one of silk-weavers. In the words of Dr. R.C. Majumdar, the eminent historian, "The guild in ancient India was not merely the means for the development of arts and crafts. Through autonomy and freedom accorded to it by the law of the land, it became a center of strength and abode of liberal culture and progress, which truly made it a power and ornament of the society".

See Also:

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