“THE typical Hindu village consists exclusively of husbandmen; but as husbandry and manufacture cannot exist without each other, the village had to receive a number of artisans as members of its governing body. But they are all ‘strangers within the gate,’ who reside in a village solely for the convenience of the husbandmen on a sort of service contract. It is a perpetual contract, but in the lapse of 3,000 years, the artisans have constantly terminated their connection with a village, or have had to provide for sons in some other place, and they at once sought their livelihood in the towns which began to spring up everywhere round the centres of government, and of the foreign commerce of the country. It is in this way that the great polytechnical cities of India have been formed.”

Let us pass on to a picture of the craftsman as a member of a great guild of merchant craftsmen, controllers of the wealth of mighty cities and once of the markets of the world.

“Community of interests would naturally draw together the skilled immigrants of these cities in trades unions; the bonds of which in India, as was also the case in ancient Egypt, are rendered practically indissoluble by the force of caste ... The trade guilds of the great polytechnical cities of India are not, however, always exactly coincident with the sectarian or ethnical caste of a particular caste of artisans. Sometimes the same trade is pursued by men of different castes, and its guild generally includes every member of the trade it represents without strict reference to caste. The government of the guilds or unions is analogous to that of the village communities and castes, that is, by hereditary officers. Each separate guild is managed by a court of aldermen or mahajans, literally ‘great gentlemen.’ Nominally it is composed of all the freemen of the caste, but a special position is allowed to the seths, lords, or chiefs of the guild, who are ordinarily two in number, and hold their position by hereditary right. The only other office-bearer is a salaried clerk or gumasta.

“Membership in the guild is also hereditary, but new-comers may be admitted into it on the payment of an entrance fee, which in Ahmedabad amounts to £2 for paper-makers, and £50 for tinsmiths. No unqualified person can remain in or enter a guild. It is not the practice to execute indentures of apprenticeship, but every boy born in a working caste of necessity learns his father’s handicraft, and when he has mastered it, at once takes his place as an hereditary freeman of his caste or trade-guild; his father, or if he be an orphan, the young man himself, giving a dinner to the guild on the occasion. In large cities the guilds command great influence. The Nagar-Seth, or City Lord of Ahmedabad, is the titular head of all the guilds, and the highest personage in the city, and is treated as its representative by the Government. In ordinary times he does not interfere in the internal affairs of the guilds, their management being left to the chief alderman of each separate guild, called the Chautano-Seth, or ‘lord of the market.’ ... The funds of the guilds of Western India, where they prevail chiefly among the Vaishnavas and Jainas of Gujarat, are for the greater part spent on charities, and particularly charitable hospitals for sick and helpless domestic animals: and in part also on the temples of the Maharajas of the Wallabhacharya sect of Vaishnavas, and on guild feasts. A favourite device for raising money is for the men of a craft or trade to agree on a certain day to shut all their shops but one. The right to keep open this one is then put up to auction, and the amount bid goes to the guild fund.”1

The guilds likewise regulated the hours of labour, and the amount of work to be done in their workshops, by strict bye-laws, enforced by the levy of fines. But this old order is passing away.

“Under British rule, which secures the freest exercise of individual energy and initiative, the authority of the trade-guilds in India has necessarily been relaxed, to the marked detriment of those handicrafts, the perfection of which depends on hereditary processes and skill. The overwhelming importations of British manufactures also is even more detrimental to their prosperity and influence, for it has in many places brought wholesale ruin on the hereditary native craftsmen, and forced them into agriculture and even domestic service. But the guilds, by the stubborn resistance, further stimulated by caste prejudice, which they oppose to all innovations, still continue, in this forlorn way, to serve a beneficial end, in maintaining, for probably another generation, the traditional excellence of the sumptuary arts of India against the fierce and merciless competition of the English manufacturers. The guilds are condemned by many for fixing the hours of labour and the amount to be done in them by strict bye-laws, the slightest infringement of which is punished by severe fines, which are the chief source of their income. But the object of these rules is to give the weak and unfortunate the same chance in life as others more favoured by nature. These rules naturally follow from the theocratic conceptions which have governed the whole organisation of social life in India, and it is incontrovertible that the unrestricted development of the competitive impulse in modern life, particularly in the pursuit of personal gain, is absolutely antagonistic to the growth of the sentiment of humanity and of real religious convictions among men.”2

The principles upon which they acted were indeed, altogether socialistic, and realised as an accomplished fact many of the ideals for which the European worker is still fighting. Thus the guild both prevented undue competition amongst its members, and negotiated with other guilds in case of dispute amongst the craftsmen.

“In 1873, for example, a number of the bricklayers in Ahmedabad could not find work. Men of this class sometimes added to their daily wages by rising very early in the morning, and working overtime. But when several families complained that they could not get employment, the bricklayers’ guild met, and decided that as there was not enough work for all, no member should be allowed to work in extra hours.3 … The trade-guild or caste allows none of its members to starve. It thus acts as a mutual assurance society and takes the place of a poor law in India. The severest social penalty which can be inflicted upon a Hindu is to be put out of his caste.”4

The following abbreviated details of the organisation of the Guilds in Ahmadabad are taken from the Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. V., p. 101:

“In consequence of the importance of its manufactures of silk and cotton, the system of caste or trade unions is more fully developed in Ahmedabad than in any other part of Gujarat. Each of the different castes of traders, manufacturers and artisans forms its own trade guild, to which all heads of households belong. Every member has a right to vote, and decisions are passed by a majority. In cases where one industry has many distinct branches, there are several guilds. Thus among potters, the workers of bricks, of tiles, and of earthen jars, are for trade purposes distinct; and in the great weaving trade, those who prepare the different articles of silk and cotton, form distinct associations. The objects of the guilds are to regulate competition among the members, e.g., by prescribing days or hours during which work shall not be done. The decisions of the guilds are enforced by fines. If the offender refuses to pay, and all members of the guild belong to one caste, the offender is put out of caste. If the guild contains men of different castes, the guild uses its influence with other guilds to prevent the recusant member from getting work. Besides the amount received from fines, the different guilds draw an income by levying fees on any person beginning to practise his craft. This custom prevails in the cloth and other industries, but no fee is paid by potters, carpenters and other inferior artisans. An exception is also made in the case of a son succeeding his father, when nothing has to be paid. In other cases the amount varies, in proportion to the importance of the trade, from Rs. 50 to Rs. 500. The revenue derived from these fees, and from fines, is expended in parts to the members of the guild, and in charity. Charitable institutions, or sadavart, where beggars are fed daily, are maintained in Ahmedabad at the expense of the trade guilds.”

How long ago the craftsmen were organized into these great municipal guilds, is suggested by a well-known passage in the Rāmāyana, describing the procession of citizens who went out into the forest with Bharata in search of Rāma. The gemcutters, potters, weavers, armourers, ivoryworkers, “well-known goldsmiths,” together with many others, the foremost merchants as well as the citizens of all classes went out to search for Rāma; such a procession as even in the nineteenth century, perhaps even to-day, might be drawn together in one of the great merchant cities of Western India.

Again, we read in the Harivamsa,5 of the preparations made for the royal family and citizens of Mathura to witness the contest between Krishna and Balārāma and the king’s champions.

“The amphitheatre was filled by the citizens, anxious to behold the games. The place of assembly was supported by octagonal painted pillars, fitted up with terraces, and doors, and bolts, with windows, circular or crescent-shaped, and accommodated with seats with cushions,”

and so on; and then we are told that

“The pavilions of the different companies and corporations, vast as mountains, were decorated with banners, bearing upon them the implements and emblems of the several crafts.”

It is interesting to note also how much all this splendour depended upon these very crafts whose position was thus recognized and honoured; for the tale goes on to say that

“The chambers of the inhabitants of the inner apartments shone near at hand, bright with gold, and painting, and network of gems; they were richly decorated with precious stones, were enclosed below with costly hangings, and ornamented above with spires and banners.”

Compare with this, also, such a description as the following account of the preparations for the marriage of a princess (in the seventh century, A.D.): “From every county were summoned companies of skilled artists ... Carpenters, presented with white flowers, unguents, and clothes, planned out the marriage altar. Workmen mounted on ladders, with brushes upheld in their hands and pails of plaster on their shoulders, whitened the top of the street wall of the palace. ... The outer terraces resounded with the din of gold-workers engaged in hammering gold. Plasterers were beplastered with showers of sand which fell over them from freshly erected walls. A group of skilled painters painted auspicious scenes. Multitudes of modellers moulded clay figures of fishes, tortoises, crocodiles, cocoanuts, plantains and betel trees. Even kings girt up their loins and busied themselves in carrying out decorative work set as tasks by their sovereign.”6

Another interesting mention of craftsmen in procession is found in the Mahavamsa, where we are told that following the officials in the annual Perahera at Kandy, were “people of strange countries, and men skilled in divers tongues, and numerous artificers and handicraftsmen.” The period spoken of is the latter part of the eighteenth century.

I have not been able to hear of any accounts of guilds in Persia, where they must have existed from the earliest times. It is reported, however, that when in the recent troubles 14,000 people in Teheran took refuge in the foreign legations, each guild organised with perfect ease and order the policeing and feeding of its own people. This makes one realise how powerful an element in social stability is represented by the guilds even at the present day.

The nature of guild responsibility7 is well indicated in some of the Tanjore inscriptions. A common form of pious offering consisted in the dedication of a lamp, i.e., providing for a lamp to be kept continually burning before a certain image. This was generally arranged by the payment of a sum of money, or more often by the gift of a certain number of sheep or cattle to the guild of shepherds, who undertook to provide the necessary oil in perpetuo. The payment for thus maintaining one sacred lamp was 96 ewes, or 48 cows, or 16 she-buffaloes. “The shepherds who received the cattle, themselves and their people, viz., their relations, and the relations of the latter, had to supply ghi to the treasury of the Lord, as long as the sun and moon endure, at the daily rate of one urakku of ghi … for each sacred lamp.”8

The manner in which the shepherds as a guild bound themselves jointly as security for an individual contractor is as characteristic of true guild methods as their solidarity in the defence of their own interests would have been. In an inscription of Rajendra Soladeva at Tanjore, we have a detailed account of this acceptance of responsibility by the guild of shepherds: “We,” runs the inscription, “all the following shepherds of this village .... agreed to become security for Eran Sattan, a shepherd of this village, (who) had received 90 ewes of this temple in order to supply ghi for burning one perpetual lamp. We shall cause the shepherd E.S. to supply daily to one perpetual lamp one ulakku of ghi ... If he dies, absconds, or gets into prison, fetters (or) chains, we all these aforesaid persons, are bound to supply ghi for burning the holy lamp as long as the sun and moon endure.” This inscription ends with the name of a local merchant, who may have been the donor of the lamp.

The origin of the guild has not yet been worked out in any detail. With regard to the existence of actual guilds in early Buddhist times, the Jātakas give us but little information. The craftsmen associated in villages no doubt had their own laws and customs, tantamount to guild regulations, but of guilds in the great cities we hear little. In the Nigrodha Jataka, however, it is stated that to the king’s treasurer was given also the judgeship of “all the guilds” (sabbaseninam). “Before that,” says the Jātaka, “no such office existed, but there was this office ever after.” In the Uraga Jataka, a guild quarrel (senibhandana) is mentioned, between two men in the king’s service, who were heads of guilds (seni-pamukha).9 Such evidence belongs, however, to the period of redaction of the Jātakas rather than to the times described in them. There can be no doubt, however, that at least the germ of the guild system existed at a very early time in the form of co-operative associations within the merchant community.10 The merchant (setthi) himself was at a very early time a man of much wealth and social importance. He was the principal representative of the householder (grahapati) class, the typical burgher in the great town. The word setthi in some cases seems to imply a private trader, in others, a representative of commerce, holding an official position at court. Many such merchants were evidently exceedingly wealthy; of one we are told that goods were brought to him in a caravan of no less than 500 wagons. But any detailed enquiry into the position of the trader, as a middleman, and not himself a craftsman, would be exceeding the limits of the subject of the present volume.

In slightly later literature the existence of guilds is more clearly indicated. In the Dharma sutras it is stated that the farmers, merchants, cowherds and money-lenders had bye-laws of their own. applicable to their communities, and having due legal validity. In later law books, guilds (sreni) are often mentioned, e.g., Manu, viii. 41, where it is stated that the king must examine and establish the laws of the guilds. Likewise in the epics, the guilds are recognised as an important factor in industrial and political life.11

  • 1. Sir George Birdwood, "Industrial Arts of India" 1880, pp. 137-140.
  • 2. Sir George Birdwood, loc. cit., p. 139.
  • 3. No incident could better illustrate the close relation of the industrial problems here treated of, and those in the modern West. For at the "Right to Work" Conference at the Guildhall, of December, 1908, one of the resolutions passed and afterwards laid before the Prime Minister, included a condemnation of overtime, based on the very sound principle laid down above.
  • 4. Sir W. W. Hunter, "Brief History of the Indian Peoples," 1903, ed. p. 98.
  • 5. Quoted by Wilson, Vishnu Purana, Vol. V., p. 27.
  • 6. Sana's 'Harsha Carita,' Trans, by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas, p. 124.
  • 7. See also Appendix VII.
  • 8. Hultzsch, South Indian Inscriptions, Vol. II., part III., p. 251.
  • 9. But in Rouse's translation of this Jataka, the quarrel is between two soldiers, not guild masters.
  • 10. Fick, "Indien zu Buddha's Zeit," pp. 172-177.
  • 11. Fick, loc. cit., p. 172.