Vibrant trade and agriculture in the transitional zone of the Indo-Gangetic plain eventually led to the birth of the Mauryan Empire with Chandragupta Maurya ascending the throne circa 320 bce. He is said to have been assisted in this endeavour by his close adviser, Kautilya, and it is through his Arthashastra, a fine treatise on statecraft whose authorship and date of origin remains contested, that we glean more about migration in the ancient world.

The first point to note in the Arthashastra is that ordinary people travelled considerably, for personal reasons, pilgrimages and fairs and festivals. This was in addition to those who led a life of travel such as traders and entertainers, though the latter were forbidden to travel in villages during the monsoon to avoid distractions during farm work. Most journeys were by foot, some on animals and carts, and there were official specifications on roads and charges for their use.

Caravans of merchants paid escort charges and a road cess and boats could be hired for ferries. Special privileges were accorded to Brahmins who could travel free of charge. In fact, it was a punishable offence if they were made to pay the charges! Similar privileges were given to the pravrajita or wandering monks, men and women, though they had to carry a pass issued by the relevant authority.

Overall, migration was strictly controlled in the countryside and the fortified city through a chief passport officer, who collected a fee called mudradhyaksha. Different officers were appointed to oversee the safety of travellers and traders from thieves and wild animals. Village headmen were responsible for the traveller’s safety inside villages. Officers had travelling allowances included in their salary structures and were liable for compensation in case of robbery within their jurisdictions. Villagers were supposed take turns in accompanying the village headman on tours related to official business. Vanaprashtas or forest recluses had allotments in the forests for habitation and were permitted to take salt free of charge for consumption. The Chandalas were the untouchables, governed by strict rules on segregation and movement.

The secret service or spies disguised themselves as ascetics and traders in other kingdoms, but there were also secret agents deployed to keep track of arrivals and departures within the kingdom.

Lodging within the city was carefully monitored with merchants, artisans and artists allowed to accommodate visitors only from their own professions. Suspicious activity at eating places and brothels was to be reported to the authorities.

In the Kautilyan world, women’s position was one of dependence on men. This was reflected in the curtailment of their movement as long as they were not courtesans, in which case they were encouraged to travel even during battle expeditions and motivate the men to fight. The wife had to take permission from her husband to go on pleasure trips and could not leave the house when he was drunk or asleep. The categories of punishment for various forms of leaving the house are listed in great detail in the Arthashastra.

There were also detailed regulations regarding the absence of the husband for long periods, including oversight of the women left behind and punishments such as the nose and an ear being cut off in case the woman committed adultery. In case of domestic abuse, the wife could run away from the husband and it would be the responsibility of the village headman to give asylum to such women. She could always visit her own family on special occasions such as childbirth, death and illness.

Another aspect of migration was linked with the policies to counter famines, an age-old calamity in India that was the result of the failure of the monsoon that brought over 90 per cent of the rainfall to the Indian subcontinent between June and September every year. Kautilya recommended migration to different regions, and even the movement of entire populations including the king and court to places with abundant harvests or those near water bodies. Similarly, there were policies for new areas to be cleared and inhabited by Shudras deported from overpopulated areas.

This has also been inferred from the inscriptions of Ashoka, a Mauryan ruler in the 3rd century BCED, whereby some 1,50,000 people were deported from Kalinga in eastern India (around present- day Odisha). Separately, as a matter of transportation policy, Ashoka took great pride in planting shady trees, digging wells and building rest houses along highways.

Excerpted with permission from India Moving: A History of Migration, Chinmay Tumbe, Penguin Books.