UPSC Prelims 2020 Important topics: Ancient trade

The value of Indian trade may be estimated from the well-known passage of Pliny, in which he recorded that India drained the Roman empire of fifty million sesterces every year. The wealth of early India is confirmed by the lament of Pliny the Elder in Historica Naturalis (Natural History), completed in 77 AD that all of Rome’s coffers were being emptied into India to satisfy Roman demand for transulent Indian muslins. Pliny’s statement is corroborated by the discovery, in India, of innumerable gold coins of the Roman emperors, which must have come here in course of trade. Most of the coins have been found. Most of these coins have been found in South India, and their evidence is corroborated by many passages in classic Tamil literature. We read of ‘Yavanas of harsh speech’ with many wares; of foreign merchants thronging sea-port towns like Mamallapuram, Puhar, and Korkai; or busy customs officials, and those engaged in loading and unloading vessels in the harbor. The wealth of the Roman Empire reached India through the ports of Kalyan, Chaul, Broach, and Cambay in Western India. Tamralipti was an important port in Bengal. It carried on trade with China, Lanka, Java and Sumatra. In the Andhra region, the ports were Kadura and Ghantasala, Kaveripattanam (Puhar) and Tondail were the ports of the Pandya region. The ports of Kottayam and Muziris were on the Malabar coast. There was a great maritime trade between India and Southeast Asia and China. The rulers of India facilitated trade by building and maintaining lighthouses at the necessary points and by keeping sea routes free and safe from pirates. 

The close connection between the early civilization of Ninevah and Babylon and the West Coast of India is borne out by indisputable evidence and this was possible only through the navigation of the Arabian sea. There is ample evidence of a flourishing trade between the Levant and the West Coast of India, as may be inferred from allusion in the Old Testament. 

Indian seafarers did not absent themselves from the Middle East or the European mainland. From the Sanskrit name of Socotra (Island abode of bliss) and from certain Hindu-like divisions and customs among the people of East Arabia. C. Lassen suggested that the first sailors and colonizers on the Indian Ocean came from India. According to Jeannie Auboyer “merchant shipping was very active in India and had, even since Roman times, linked the Mediterranean world to China with great vessels (nava) of which the Indian king owned a fleet, though most of them belonged to wealthy individuals.

“The Hindus themselves were in the habit of constructing the vessels in which they navigated the coast of Coromandel, and also made voyages to the Ganges and the peninsula beyond it. These vessels bore different names according to the size.” writes Prof. Heeran. There were commercial towns and ports on the Coromandel coast. Masulipatam, with its cloth manufactures, as well as the mercantile towns situated on the mouth of the Ganges, have already been noticed as existing in the time of Periplus. Even as late as the 17th century, French traveler Tavernier in 1666 A.D. said: “Masulipatam is the only place in the Bay of Bengal from which vessels sailed eastwards for Bengal, Arrakan, Pegu Siam, Sumatra, Cochin China and the Manilla and West to Hormuz, Makha and Madagascar.”

India, indeed, began to exercise a profound cultural influence on her neighbors to the eastward – Burma, Siam, Malaya, Cambodia, Java and Sri Lanka all falling beneath her sway. And this, as far as one can may judge, almost entirely as a result of trading and peaceful penetration by missionaries, merchants and others, and not by force of arms.” “The beginnings of Indian colonization overseas eastward go back a very long way in time and it is almost certain that the results seen today were, in the main, not achieved by military expedition, but by peaceful trading and religious teaching – and thereby all the more permanent.” 

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