The Ancient India people also got themselves engaged in many a new professions such as art and handicrafts. During the reigns of the Sakas and the Kushanas there were art and handicrafts on many metals like gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead.
Though the market of these art work were essentially the urban areas, they were mainly made in the villages where the craftsmen of different trades were living together and had good relations—like the carpenters, jewellers, goldsmith, iron-smith and others.
Thus, as political unity and stable empires were achieved, people felt a sense of security and hence trade and commerce began. As there were different professions, they formed guilds for their commercial interest. As during the 6th century B.C. and in the later period, administration became quite sound, it facilitated the expansion of trade and commerce and the cottage industries turned into small-scale industries. Accepting the craftsmen engaged in arms making, ship-building, cotton-weaving and mining industries, all the other craftsmen used to do their trade either alone or through the guilds. The co-operative guilds were quite large institutions where the workers and traders enjoyed all sorts of benefits. They could save the extra expenditure and also were relieved from the uneven competition with the guilds.
The organization of the guilds was also helpful for the government as the latter could easily extract the revenue and the industries could work smoothly. Moreover, as the professions became hereditary, the guilds also became rigidly organized. From the contemporary literature and inscriptions we came to know that the trade and commerce was well-organized in those days. The term “Sreni” was used frequently in the literature and inscriptions. The term ‘Sreni’ had been defined as the group of people engaged in co-operative trading or belonging to the same or different castes. This guild of ancient India can be compared with the guilds of the medieval Europe. From `Jataka’ we came to know that there were eighteen such guilds during and after the 6th B.C. But the number was much more as mentioned in other contemporary literatures. In fact, there were guilds for all types of commercial activities—big or small. The craftsmen used to remain in this profession for generations together and used to settle permanently in a particular place headed by one ‘Jetdhok’ or ‘Pramukha’. He was in fact, the older man or chairman of the guild. The guild used to enjoy all sorts of administrative and judicial rights and the king too accepted their rights.
The functions of the guilds were performed by a number of high officials who also performed the judicial functions as well to settle all disputes among the members. According to the Buddhist law to obtain the membership of the guild one had to obtain the permission of his wife. Kautilya in his ‘Arthasastra‘ had elaborately discussed about the importance of the guild and its economic prosperity. In a planned township enough spaces was kept for the guild. The guilds also acted as the bank and used to keep deposited money for charity.
The guilds of the Mauryan period played important roles in the production commodities necessary for the city life. The workers used to take part in the guilds because it was easy to work through the guild than the individual entrepreneurship. It also increased their social prestige and security. As the demands of certain goods increased some of the guilds even hired slaves for the production of those goods. Guilds could be formed by the workers or craftsmen of any trade. The principal guilds were, however, of the potters, metal workers and the carpenters. Some of them were too big that, the contemporary literature told us, they consist of even five hundred factories each.
The guilds had some set rules. The prices of the commodity were fixed by the guild to help both the buyer and the seller. They controlled the behaviour and action of the members. The convention and practice of the guild were given much importance. The guilds could even interfere in the private life of the members. A Buddhist married women, if she wanted to be a nun had to seek permission from the guild of which her husband happened to be a Member.
Since there was caste system, the craftsmen belonging to different castes continued their professions for generation together and as such there was no dearth of membership for the guilds. When a number of sub-castes emerged they changed their professions and eventually it endangered the existence of the guild itself. Apart from these ‘Sreni’s’ there were another types of co-operative guilds and other guilds too. By excavation we have unearthed a number of seals that on winch the names of the co-operative guilds were engraved. During the time of festival the guilds used to make processions with the banners and symbols of their own. The guilds used to donate huge money to the religious institutions. Even the royal families gave importance to the guilds and invested their money there. From the Buddhist literatures we came to know that there were the workers guild, artist’s guilds and the trader’s guild which was formed by the `Settis’ or ‘Sresthis’. Their head was known as the ‘Mahasetti’. Anathpindaka was such a Mahasetti of Sravasti who gifted the ‘Jetavana’ to Gautama Buddha.
The guilds of Gupta period have some special characteristics. From Manusmriti Samhita and other literature of this period we came to know about the guilds of this period. During this period the guilds were known as `Sreni’. The chairman of each `Sreni’ was known as Adhyaksha or `Mukshya.’ There was an advisory committee consisting of two, three five members, known as Karya-Chintaka to aid and advise the chief for the welfare of the people (Samuhahitabadin). Power was nicely decentralized among the members of the guild. According to Vrihaspati they could punish and even dismiss a member of the guild. Even the kings accepted their judgments. In case of a rift between the members and the office bearers of the guild the matter was settled by the king himself. As there were different guilds they used to form agreement among themselves to keep their interests and everyone always obeyed that. To implement those agreements was however, the duty of the kings, provided they were not against the interest of the people. If a member intentionally violated the terms of agreement his property was confiscated and he was expelled from the guild. It was prohibited for the members to fight among themselves. In Basara (ancient Vaisali) and Vita (near Allahabad) we have found some seals of the Gupta period which contain the terms ‘Nigam’, ‘Sreni-Kulik-Nigam’ and ‘Sreni-Searthabaha-Kulik-Nigam’. Sometimes these titles were included with the names of the members of the guild. Thus, the guilds of ancient India not only controlled the market and the artisan but also did many social welfare activities as well.