Article 1 of 3 Descriptive inventory of beers from the Maurya Empire

The Indian empire of the Maurya (320-185 BC).


Founded by Chandragupta Maurya (c. 317-293) around 320 BC, the empire of the Maurya dynasty controls a few decades later almost the entire Indian subcontinent, from Pakistan to Bengal, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the south of the continent, except the tip of the Indian peninsula. One of the most powerful empires of antiquity covers about 5 million km2 and governs an estimated population of 50 million people of very diverse cultures and origins living in the indian peninsula.

Maurya Dynasty in 250 BCE


The empire reaches its climax with the king Ashoka. The territorial expansion is achieved either by the more or less peaceful integration of kingdoms that become dependent, or by fierce military campaigns. The imperial armies reputed to be overpowering crush the enemy. The political force of the empire Maurya rests on its centralisation, on the tight administrative mesh of its huge territories, on an omnipresent police and army. This one is estimated, according to the Greek ambassador Megasthenes, at 600,000 infantrymen, 30,000 horsemen and 9,000 war elephants in the time of the king Chandragupta [1].


The organisation of this vast empire is described in the Artha-shastra (sanskrit arthašastra), a treatise about Politics and Economy written between the 4th and the 2nd centuries BC[2]. The Arthashastra espouses the viewpoint of the central power, its interests and the upholding of its political strength, even its potent territorial expansion. The dominant economic themes are the control of wealth, population, territory, the watchful eye on the enemies of power and the collection-transfer operations to the imperial treasury of luxury goods (gold, precious stones, etc.). Artha-shastra can be translated as Science of Material Gain , in other words a Treatise of Political Power through the management of the material things.

This imperial policy requires enormous human and financial resources. Every economic field, every activity of the population becomes a source of taxes and duties paid to the imperial treasury. The Arthashastra must be read in this perspective. The production and consumption of fermented beverages, especially beer - the most common fermented beverage within the empire - is described in detail to better identify a financial source. Such a policy creates order and security, which are seen as a counterpart given to the subservient peoples, that is the conditions for a certain economic prosperity and commercial development within the empire and beyond its borders.

One must be careful not to consider as effective all the prescriptions of such a Treatise which fixes in many fields an ideal State, prescribing the conduct of the wise king - the Rajarshi - and that of his entire administration. Some information provided by the Arthashastra has been corroborated by the inscriptions of the Edits that the king Ashoka had engraved throughout the empire at the end of the bloody war of the Kalinga in 264 BC. The geographical distribution of these inscriptions and their contents also confirmed the borders of the empire and its political reality. These reservations of principle, moreover, little concern the subject that interests us, namely the social role of the brewery within a vast Asian empire, its brewing techniques and its economic management.


The Arthashastra lists and describes the composition of the fermented beverages of its time with an outstanding precision. Such technical accuracy concerning the making of beer was only achieved in the Chinese technical documents of the 6th century and later in Europe. The document speaks about 7 different beverages, beside various beer ferments and spices. The number and diversity of the spices used is astonishing. Some of them are used for technical reasons: addition of sugars and preservatives. Others serve as condiments and modify the flavour of the beverages. It is difficult to ascertain the completeness of this inventory, and it is unlikely that it could exists for a such wide territory as that of the Maurya empire.

The presence of the amylolytic ferment kinva links the ancient Indian brewery to the Chinese and Asian brewing traditions in general. The central historical question is posed. Did one tradition influence the other, Indian tradition ⇔ Chinese tradition? And if so, in what direction?

It would seem, subject to further study, that each of the brewing traditions is not as unified as it is believed to be at 1st millennium BC. In China as in India, several technological paths for beer brewing coexist: malted beers, beers with amylolytic ferments, and probably also beers brewed with acid-alcoholic fermentations and anothers with insalivated loaves from cooked starch.


For a detailled depiction of the fermented beverages : Mauryan empire.

The Arthashastra speaks about 7 fermented beverages: the medaka, the prasanna, the svetasurā, the ásava, the arista, the maireya  and the madhu.

The first 3 (medaka, prasanna, svetasurā ) are rice, barley or millet beers brewed with the amylolytic ferment (kinva) made with cooked grains or beans.

The next 3 (ásava, arista, maireya) are palm, fruit or sugar cane wines.

The last (madhu) is a mead, sometimes mixed with sugar cane wine as a substitute for honey.


[1] But the Prasii surpasses in power and glory all other peoples, not only in this region, but for the whole of India; its capital Palibothra, a great and rich city, after which some call the people themselves the Palibothri, - indeed the whole area along the Ganges. Their king has to his command an army of 600,000 infantrymen, 30,000 horsemen, and 9,000 elephants: one can only guess at the immensity of his resources.(Pline Nat. Hist. VI. 22). And Strabon, Geography, Book XV. Chap. 1 § 35-36 (Pataliputra), § 53-56 (beverages and food of Indians). McCrindle J. W. 1877, Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian.

[2] Kautilya's Arthashastra, translated in English by R. Shamasastry (1915).

Article 1 of 3 Descriptive inventory of beers from the Maurya Empire