Short Essay on the Urban Life of Ancient India

Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra gives a vivid picture of the life of a nagaraka or city-bred wealthy man of fashion. He lived in a harmya or prasada with a pleasure-garden attached to it. Various kinds of flowers and vegetables were grown in the garden under the care of the nagaraka’s wife.

Urban Life Two by Stefan Kuhn

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It contained a samudra-griha or summer house surrounded by water, and also rooms having secret passages for water in the walls in order to take away the heat. The inner apartment of the house was occupied by the ladies of the family, the nagaraka passing most of his time in the outer chambers.

Social Life-style and Beliefs: In a vast country like India the general character of the people must have varied in different localities and among various classes. Huen-tsang recorded his opinion of the character of the people in each region.


He writes that while the people of the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins were generally remarkable for their qualities of honesty, courage, love of learning etc., those of North-west India and of the Deccan plateau as well as the people of the ex­treme North, East, West and South were generally of a contrary disposition. In general, however, the character of the people was marked by an excep­tionally high degree of honesty.

The Brahmins and the Kshatriyas in particular were distinguished for the purity and simplicity of their lives. The Indian love of charity and benevolence is proved by ref­erences in the records of the Chinese pilgrims to the endowments made by kings and individuals for the free distribution of food and medicine to the needy and the sick and for similar objects.

The literature of the Gupta Age points to the continuity of the high standard of living attained in the preceding centuries. The evidence of the Brihat-Samhita proves that clubs, umbrellas, elephant goods, canes, bows, canopies, habberds, standards etc., were in general use.

The most costly of such articles, naturally, were reserved for the royal family and the officers. We learn from the same work that sets of five mansions each were conventionally prescribed for kings and queens down to the ordinary court officials, while four, three, two and one mansions were reserved suc­cessively for the four vamas.


Kings and nobles adopted extraordinary and rich dresses and modes of living which set the fashion for the rest. Jewels were naturally worn not only by members of the royal family but also by their attendants. The authority of Huen-tsang proves that in the seventh century, not only did kings use rich dresses, clothes and the like, but their example was fol­lowed by the people down to the rich merchants. The clothing of the people was made of silk, mus­lin, calico, linen and fine wool of two varieties.

The high standard of cleanliness and comfort formed in the older times was maintained in the Gupta period. The Amarakosa has a whole set of synonyms for bodily embellishments. The Brihat- Samhita refers to toothpicks, hair dyes and dif­ferent kinds of incense, scented hair oils and hair lotions, and other perfumes. The literature of the period contains repeated references to the use of sandal-paste, camphor and the like as unguents, and especially as sedatives. References are also made to the use of camphor with betel and of aloewood incense for perfuming drinking water.

The Lankavatara Sutra gives in a list of ap­proved foods the names of sati rice, wheat and barley, pulses of three kinds, clarified butter, oils. There is no doubt that people took fish and meat and were addicted to intoxicating liquor.

In the contemporary plays and prose works even the queens and other high ladies are repeatedly described as drinking wine. Huen-tsang says that while cakes and parched grain, milk and sugar along with their preparations, and mustard oil formed the common articles of food, fish along with the flesh of goat and sheep was occasionally taken; but some kinds of meat were forbidden. Eating onions and garlic was visited with loss of caste. On the other hand, different kinds of beverages and wines were drunk by different castes.


The use of magical incantation and spells of various kinds may be traced back in Indian litera­ture to the Atharvaveda- Samhita. The literature of the Gupta period contains repeated references to the belief in omens, portents and the like, prevalent among the people of all walks of life.

But deep and widespread as these beliefs were, they provoked reaction among the intelligent people. Literary evidence belonging to the Gupta period proves that kings and princes often rose above the popular superstitions, and, what is more, un­scrupulously exploited them for their own ends.

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