Ancient History Notes for UPSC [Part 9] Growth of Trade

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In this post we will study about the Growth of Trade in Ancient India.

Silk Route in India

Silk Route upsc
  • Multiple routes- for silk, incense, cotton, etc. Main route and its route till Europe.
  • Stephen F. Dale has argued that while Silk was a major product of the Silk Route trade, India also exported Cotton fabrics into China and the West.
  • Roman link– trade with Rome. Indian merchants profited because they acted as middlemen between Mediterranean, Byzantine and China. Pliny’s statement. Trajan and Augustus and nearness at Muscat.
  • India also gave an alternative route when the Pahalvis blocked the land route. Now, the route came from Oxus to Gandhara to Taxila to Bharoch. The goods were shipped to the mouth of the Tigris-Euphrates. Then they travelled on land till the Mediterranean sea from where they reached the Roman empire. In any case, India benefitted the most.

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  • Link with central Asia– Most of the route fell under Kushan empire in central Asia which resulted in relative political stability for certain time when nomads used to raid cities. Many towns developed in the oasis where the traders offloaded their products. Strict security was also provided due to the fear of dacoits. These towns served as resting places due to the hard terrain that was to be crossed
  • Buddhist Link– The missionaries used this route to preach Buddhism in far off lands in west and east. Dharmaguptaka and Sarvastivadin sect spread. Mahyana reached China and further to Japan.
  • The Iranian polymath Al-Beruni referred to the existence of Buddhism as far west as Syria, before Zoroastrianism replaced it as the dominant faith in the region.
  • A number of Jataka stories also make their ways into Arabic literature.
  • The Kalam doctrine of Sufism was influenced by the Nyaya, Vaisesika philosophy of Buddhism.
  • The Indian historian D.D Kosambi noted Buddhist influences in a number of West Asian religious texts.
  • Link to spread of Islam and Sufism.
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Trade routes in anient India

Trade in Ancient Times
  • Greek scripture Periplus mentions about the trade routes and different ports on the Red Sea and Indian coast.
  • It also gives details about the goods traded. It mentions many ports like Bharoch, Sopara, Muziri, etc.
  • Due to continuous invasions in the north-west, land routes were blocked during Kushan and Shaka times.
  • This made the southern kingdoms to find sea routes for trade with the Roman Empire. Sopara and Bharoch in west and Tamralipti and Arikamedu in east were famous ports.
  • The eastern cities were also well connected to the western ports for trading.
  • Bharoch was of special importance since it was connected to Silk route via land. This happened because the land route of Silk Route was blocked by the Parthian empire in Iran.
  • Many kingdoms apart from Satavahanas exported through Bharoch.

A land route from Taxila to Mathura to Ujjain to Bharoch existed. One form Kaushambi to Bharoch also existed. Ganga also formed an important part of the river trade. These routes also reached Pratishthana in Maharashtra. It signals development of many new and existing trade routes within India connecting important kingdoms and ports. In the south, routes existed from Bharoch to nasik, Kondapur right up to Amravati.

  • The seafarers made excellent use of monsoon winds for speedy travel through the Arabian sea. The south-west monsoon winds that subsided and became less ferocious were used to travel to India and the north-east winds were used to return.

Trade with Romans

indian trade with roman empire
  • Roman trade in two parts- direct trade and intermediary to China. In direct trade, Romans were interested in spices, precious jewels, ivory, cloth and iron cutlery from India. In return, they gave gold and silver coins. Romans also introduced glass artefacts in India. The balance of trade was in favour of India which writers like Pliny complain about.
  • There was widespread anger in Rome about excessive expenditure on pepper. Hence pepper is called Yavanapriya in Sanskrit.
  • In indirect trade, Indian artisans used to tale silk from China and spin them into textiles and trade along Silk route to Romans.
  • The deeper contact with Romans was established when they captured Mesopotamia in AD 115 and also started to explore the Persian gulf. Emperor Trajan also conquered Muscat. The Vienna Papyrus also mentions a business deal between two shippers from Alexandria and Muchiri to buy ivory, textiles, etc.
  • Embassies of Augustus in 1st century and Trajan in 2nd century.
  • A poem in Pattupattu mentions the sound of weavers in Madurai same as the sound made by workers loading goods on Yavana ships at midnight.
  • Coins- Roman silver coins Denarii and gold coins Aurei are found in multiple places like Arikamedu, Puhar, Muchiri, Sopara and Satavahana locations like Kondapur, Nagarjunakonda, etc. Many graeco- roman statues of bronze, coins of king Tiberius, pottery, etc has been found at Begram in Afghanistan which proves the Roman trade with Kushans.
  • Historians claim that Kushanas melted gold coins for bullion while eastern Deccan used them as currency due to absence of indigenous currency systems.
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Thus, the northern kingdom of Kushans and southern kingdom of Satavahanas benefitted from the trade with Romans. But the Satavahanas benefitted more due to fixed sea routes and older contacts.

The Kushan decline is coterminous with the decline of Roman influence in central Asia after 4th century CE. However, the southern kingdoms continued their trade via sea.

Trade with south-east

Ancient India in South East Asia
  • HP Ray has concluded that there is evidence of maritime trade between India and southeast Asia since 500/400 BCE.
  • Arthashastra refers to a specific kind of incense imported from Suvarnabhumi. Milind Panho and Jataka stories mention sea voyages to south east Asia.
  • In the post-Mauryan age, multiple ports in peninsular India carried trade with south-east Asia like Puhar, Korkai, Tamralipti, Muchiri, Mosali, Kalinganagara, etc.
  • The trade with south-east was a result of demand of spices by Romans that were not easily available in India. Thus, Indian merchants used the eastern coast to start trade with south-east Asian countries.
  • The main articles of import in India were- gold, spices like cinnamon and cloves, aromatics, sandalwood, camphor, etc. Exports from India included cotton, sugar, beads, iron, pottery, etc.
  • South-east Asia was marked by the presence of local chalcolothic cultures. Earliest settlement in Java dates back to 56 AD.
  • Different ivory artefacts, rings have Brahmi letters on them. Etched carnelian beads have been found in Thailand. Indian artefacts have been found in burials of Malay Peninsula and also in river basins of Irrawady and Mekong.
  • Thus, when the trade with Romans went down, the traders turned full fledged to south-east Asia
  • These islands were a centre of Hinduism till 10th century AD. The early Pallavas at start of Christian era spread to Cambodia and Vietnam. These places became the seat for Puranas and Dharmashastras. Their official language was Sanskrit.
  • The kingdoms of Cambodia and Champa were devotees of Shiva. The Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia is famous for this.
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Palas of Bengal had trade relations with Suvarnadwipa (Indonesia), Java and Sumatra from the port of Tamralipti. Nalanda inscription where Devapala granted revenue of 5 villages to a king of Shailendra dynasty.

The same trade was carried forward by Cholas in 10th century. Both Cholas and Palas relations with Shailendra dynasty of Java and Sumatra..

  • In early medieval times, many stories like Harisena’s Brihatkathakosha appear where merchants settle in SE Asia.
  • Overall, it resulted in sustaining trade when Roman and Han empire collapsed. It also resulted in spread of Indian culture in SE asia. It sustained the economies of peninsular kingdoms because sea trade was their chief source of revenue. As an urban civilization, India’s domestic demands were supplied by SE asia like spices, sandalwood, incense, etc.

Growth of Cities

  • Due to flourishing trade with the Romans, Kushan and Satavahana cities show excellent growth but as the trade declined, the later cities show a decline.
  • Cities like Patliputra, Vaishali, Kaushambi, Atranjikhera, Shringaverapur are found in UP.
  • Excavation at Sonkh in UP show 7 layers of Kushans but only one layer of Guptas.
  • Jallandhar, Ropar and Ludhiana also have Kushan history.
  • In south, Nagarjunakonda, Sopara, Pune, Nashik, Kaveripattanam, Uraiyur, Amravati, Paithan, etc are cities.
  • Pliny mentions of 30 walled cities of Andhras.
  • The Shaka capital of Ujjain also flourished being on the ancient trade route.