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.


Map showing the expansion of Magadha to the detriment of the kingdom of Nanda, then the maximum expansion of the Maurya empire encompassing the countries beyond the Indus River around 260 BC. Some regions such as Kerala retain relative political autonomy. Only the southern tip of the peninsula escapes the control of the Maurya. (Avantiputra7, CC BY-SA 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons).
Map showing expansion of Magadha and the Maurya Empire.


Book II of the Arthashastra entrusts each economic activity to a superintendent responsible for its organisation, whose principles and practical details are laid down in Book II. It has 36 chapters covering each of these economic sectors. Chapter no 25 concerns the Superintendent of the surā, i.e. the management of fermented beverages which are mostly beers.

In the classical period called Vedic (ca. 1300-300 BC), the Sanskrit term surā refers to beers of various kinds. Some of them are made from malted barley or millet or sprouted paddy rice, others based on husked rice and made with amylolytic ferments[3]. In the texts of Vedic rituals, the beer named surā is opposed to soma, a vegetable juice with psychotropic properties and reserved for Brahmans (Vedic beers and Brahmanism).

In the imperial era of the Maurya (320-185 BC), the term surā takes on a wider acceptance. It refers to all the traditional fermented beverages encountered in the empire: beers, palm wine, sugar cane, fruit, de sugar berries, hydromel, and all mixed drinks based on cereals or sweet juices.


Among the fermented beverages, millet, barley and rice beers play a central economic role on the Indian continent for two main reasons :

  1. their preparation is linked to the management of the royal granaries, and therefore to imperial control of harvests and grain warehouses, and to the food supply of the populations. The economy of the empire maurya rests primarily on the cultivation of cereals, their storage and redistribution.
  2. The trade in amylolytic ferments and the resale of the dregs grains (spent grains) are under the control of the Superintendent of Beverages who is responsible for collecting taxes and monitoring the selling price of beverages. Only beers generate spent grains that are recycled as animal feed and require ferments to be brewed.


We will therefore most often translate surā = beer, and "surā (surākara) maker" = brewer, although the term surā includes locally produced palm, cane or fruit wines. Cereals are the main agricultural resource of India and the empire Maurya. The precise term beer is preferred to generic terms such as "liquor" or "beverage", because both lead to misunderstandings. "Alcohol" suggests that Sanskrit surā could also refer to distilled alcoholic beverages at that time, which is not the case. "Beverage" overlooks the fact that we are talking about fermented products, not water, milk or fruit juices. But the decisive argument in favour of beer as a translation of surā  is the crucial and historical link between the management of cereals and the brewing of beer. This relationship is economic, social and political. Without this relationship in mind, we cannot understand the many and complex developments in brewery throughout ancient and modern times, whether they took place in India, China, Africa, Europe or America.


The Arthashastra deals with the management of fermented beverages from the point of view of control (production, points of sale, price, quality). Its trade is a source of income for the State: 5% of the selling price goes to the royal treasury. Brewers and beer merchants have to pay a fee of 40 karas [4].

Book II of the Arthashastra (especially its chapter 25) verifies what we find for other empires. An imperial policy is concerned with filling up the treasury and running its administrative machinery. It controls the local production and consumption of beer (taverns, inns, village trade), but especially the trade of fermented beverages to collect taxes. The brewery and the beer-houses are financial resources, but the imperial administration also aims the selling of the ferments and of the recycled brewing residues as animal feed. Everything the brewery produces is a source of imperial taxes.

An imperial policy does not create a brewing tradition. It exploits the commercial and "fiscal" potential of pre-existing traditions, usually originating in our case from the beer brewing customs of the smaller kingdoms conquered and integrated into the imperial political edifice.

Such a policy presupposes a certain economic unification, the principles of which are laid down in the Arthashastra: 1) an imperial currency to calculate and levy taxes on beverages; 2) an imperial system of measurement to calculate the volumes of grains and beverages; 3) an administration to control the production of beverages, their sales and the frauds; 4) a codification of the rules that local stewards, administrators, collectors and managers must apply to a vast mosaic of peoples, languages and customs.


Thanks to the Arthashastra, beer management and certain brewing techniques are known to us in detail for this period of ancient India [5]. Indeed, this document :

  • lists several traditional beverages consumed in the empire, and leaves nothing to escape the potential for taxing their consumption ;
  • regulates the sale of alcoholic beverages to prevent public drunkenness, to protect certain categories of the population (poor, children, women) or social classes (Aryas), and to isolate certain residential areas. This should not be seen as the beginning of a public hygiene policy - a flagrant anachronism - but as a concern to respect the social order and comply with Hindu religious precepts;
  • describes the preparation of beers, including the quality and proportion of their ingredients, without however modifying, "improving" or prohibiting certain brewing techniques. The concern is "fiscal" rather than hygienic. By fixing the proportion of grains or substitutes in the composition of a beer, the imperial authority controls the ratio of grains contained in each volume of beer sold to define the arithmetic basis of its selling price, which is the basis for its taxation;
  • it also monitors the selling prices of each type of beer;
  • tt decides who can sell or collect the amylolytic ferments for beer brewing, the (kinva);
  • it allows, and even incites, tavern owners and beer merchants to spy on soldiers or busy foreigners drinking with company women. It is a political police device designed to keep a watchful eye on seditious, scheming or banditry;


The Arthashastra shows that there is a qualitative difference between the management of beer (of fermented beverages in general) within an empire and this management within the ancient kingdoms that preceded its foundation. In a kingdom, the policy of redistribution of grain and beer takes precedence over the taxation of their trade. The flows in kind (grains, intermediate brewing products, beers, spent grains and ferments) are the subject of direct management through the control of the grains warehouses inputs and outputs.

In contrast, the imperial administration of the Maurya aims and organises first of all the financial levy through the collection of taxes and tolls whose 4 main sources are :

  1. the paying right to brew and sell beer imposed on the brewers and merchants of beers
  2. taxation of the sales of beer, ferments and brewing dregs (spent grains)
  3. the tolls imposed at the gates of towns to sell beer
  4. exorbitant fines to be paid by offenders


Let's see in detail what the Arthashastra tells us about beer and the brewing economy in India more than 2000 years ago.


[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).

[3] It is a substrate of cooked starch on which microscopic fungi or moulds are cultivated which have the power to hydrolyse starch thanks to their enzymes. Dried in the form of a small loaves or pellets weighing a few dozen grams, this ferment can be kept for several months. Once rehydrated and mixed with the mash, it triggers the conversion of starch into sugars. If this ferment contains yeast, the alcoholic fermentation starts simultaneously.

[4] The value or equivalence of the kara at that time is unknown. We do not know whether this trade duty was paid annually or not.

[5] These details concern what a central power wants to know. The Arthashastra says nothing about the mores of the peoples it governs, their drinking manners and the customs inspired by the fermented beverages. This social and "ethnographic" survey is not the subject of a Treaty of Government.

02/05/2012  Christian Berger