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Though the Indians have practically no hand now in the commerce of the world, yet there was a time when they were the masters of the seaborne trade of Europe, Asia and Africa. They built ships, navigated the sea, and held in their hands all the threads of international commerce, whether carried on overland or by sea.

As their immense wealth was in part the result of their extensive trade with other countries, so were the matchless fertility of the Indian soil and the numberless products of Hindu arts and industries the cause of the enormous development of the commerce of ancient India.

As poet William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote: “And if a boundless plenty be the robe,
Trade is a golden girdle of the globe.”

India, which, according to the writer in the Chamber’s Encyclopedia, “has been celebrated during many ages for its valuable natural productions, its beautiful manufactures and costly merchandise,” was, says the Encyclopedia Britannica, “once the seat of commerce.”

Mrs. Charlotte S Manning says: “The indirect evidence afforded by the presence of Indian products in other countries coincides with the direct testimony of Sanskrit literature to establish the fact that the ancient Hindus were a commercial people.” She concludes: “Enough has now been said to show that the Hindus have ever been a commercial people.”

(source: Ancient and Medieval India – By Charlotte S Manning volume II p. 354)

Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeran (1760-1842) says: “The Hindus in their most ancient works of poetry are represented as a commercial people.”

In Sanskrit books, we constantly read of merchants, traders, and men engrossed in commercial pursuits. Manu Smriti, one of the oldest books in the world, lays down laws to govern all commercial disputes having reference to seaborne traffic as well as the inland and overland commerce. Traders and merchants are frequently introduced in the Hindu drama. In Shakuntala we learn of the importance attached to commerce, where it is stated “that a merchant named Dhanvriddhi, who had extensive commerce had been lost at sea and had left a fortune of many millions.” In Nala and Damyanti, too, we meet with similar incidents. Sir William Jones is of the opinion that the Hindus “must have been navigators in the age of Manu, because bottomry (marine insurance) is mentioned in it.” In the Ramayana, the practice of bottomry is distinctly noticed. Lord Mountstuart Elphinstone says: “The Hindus navigated the ocean as early as the age of Manu’s code because we read in it of men well acquainted with sea voyages.

According to Max Dunker, ship-building was known in ancient India about 2000 B.C. It is thus clear that the Hindus navigated the ocean from the earliest times and that they carried on trade on an extensive scale with all the important nations of the Old World.

(source: History of Antiquity – By Max Dunker volume IV).

With Phoenicia the Indians enjoyed trade from the earliest times. In the tenth century B.C., Soloman of Israel and Hiram of Tyre sent ships to India, whence they carried away ivory, sandalwood, apes, peacocks, gold, silver, precious stones, etc., which they purchased from the tribe of Ophir. Now Ptolemy says there was a country called Abhira at the mouth of the River Indus. This shows that some people called Abhir must have been living there in those days. We find a tribe called the “Abhir” still living in Kathyawar, which must, therefore, be the Ophir tribe mentioned above. Christian Lassen (1800-1876) author of Indische Alterthumskunde vol I p. 354, thinks “Ophir” was a seaport on the south west coast of India. Mrs. Manning says it was situated on the western coast of India.

Among the things sent by the Hindus to Solomon and Hiram were peacocks. Now, these birds were nowhere to be found in those days except in India, where they have existed from the earliest times. “We frequently meet in old Sanskrit poetry with sentences like these: ‘Peacocks unfolding in glittering glory all their green and gold; ‘peacocks dancing in wild glee at the approach of rain;’ peacocks around palaces glittering on the garden walls.’ Ancient sculptures, too show the same delight in peacocks, as may be seen, for instance, in graceful bas-reliefs on the gates of Sanchi or in the panels of an ancient palace in Central India, figured in Colonel Tod’s Rajastathan p. 405. “The word for peacock in Hebrew is universally admitted to be foreign; and Gesenius, Sir Emerson Tennent, and Max Muller appear to agree with Christian Lassen in holding that this word as written in Kings and Chronicles is derived from the Sanskrit language.

With regard to ivory, it was largely used in India, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Elephants are indigenous in India and Africa, and ivory trade must be either of Indian origin or African. But the elephants were scarcely known to the ancient Egyptians, and C Lassen decides that elephants were neither used nor tamed in ancient Egypt. In ancient India, they were largely used and tamed. All the kings processions and battles have elephants mentioned in them. The elephant is the emblem of royalty and a sign of rank and power. The god Indra, too has his ‘Airawat.’ The Sanskrit name for domestic elephant is ibha, and in the bazaars of India ibha was the name by which the elephant’s tusks were sold. In ancient Egypt, ivory was known by the name of ebu.

It would be interesting to many to learn that “it was in India that the Greeks first became acquainted with sugar.” Sugar bears a name derived from Sanskrit. With the article the name traveled into Arabia and Persia, and thence became established in the languages of Europe.

Samuel Maunder (1785-1849) in his The Treasury of History wrote: “In the reign of Seleucidas, too, there was an active trade between India and Syria.” Indian iron and colored cloths and rich apparels were imported in Babylon and Tyre in ships from India. There were also commercial routes to Phoenicia, through, Persia. Lord Mountstuart Elphinstone says: “The extent of the Indian trade under the first Ptolemies is a well known fact in history.” Vincent Smith observes that in the Book of Genesis, “a caravan of camels loaded with the spices of India and balm and myrrh of Hadramaut.” John Forbes Royle in his book Ancient Hindu Medicine p. 119, observes that myrrh is called bal by the Egyptians, while its Sanskrit name is bola, bearing a resemblance which leaves no doubt as to its Indian manufacture.

Of the products of the loom, silk was more largely imported from India into ancient Rome than either in Egypt or Greece. “It was so alluring the Roman ladies,” says a writer, “that it sold for its weight in gold.” This is confirmed by the elder Pliny, who complained that vast sums of money were annually absorbed by commerce with India. “We are assured on undisputed authority that the Romans remitted annually to India, a sum equivalent to 4,000,000 pounds to pay for their investments, and that in the reign of Ptolemies 125 sails of Indian shipping were at one time lying in the ports whence Egypt, Syria, and Rome itself were supplied with the products of India.”

(source: Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: or the Central and Western Rajput States of India - By Colonel James Tod p. 221).

Agarthachides, who lived upwards of 300 years before the time of Periplus, noticed the active commercial intercourse kept up between Yemen and Pattala – a seaport town, in Sindh. Pattala in Sanskrit means a “commercial town.” “which circumstance, if it is true, says Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeran “would prove the extreme antiquity of the navigation carried on by the Indus.”

Max Dunker wrote: “Trade existed between the Indians and Sabaens on the coast of south Arabia before the 10th century B.C. – the time according to some when Manu lived. In the days of Alexander, when the Macedonian general, Nearchus, was entering the Persian Gulf, Muscat was pointed out to him as the principal mart for Indian products which were transmitted thence to Assyria.

Egypt was not the only part of Africa with which the Hindus traded in olden days. The eastern coast of Africa called Zanibar and the provinces situated on the Red Sea carried on an extensive trade with ancient India. Myos Hormos, was the chief emporium of Indian commerce on the Red Sea. Of the trade with Zanzibar, Periplus gives us pretty full information. He says: “Moreover, indigenous products such as corn, rice, butter, oil of seasamum, coarse and fine cotton goods, and cane-honey (sugar) are regularly exported from the interior of Ariaka (Konkan), and from Barygaza (Baroucha/Broach) to the opposite coast.”

This trade is also noticed by Arrian, who adds that “this navigation was regularly managed.”

Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeran (1760-1842) says, it is a well known fact that the banians or Hindu merchants were in the habit of traversing the oceans and settling in foreign countries. The Eastern countries with which ancient India traded were chiefly China, Trangangetic Peninsula and Australia. Professor Heeran says that “the second direction, which the trade of India took was towards the East, that is, to the Ultra-Gangetic Peninsula, comprising Ava Mallaca, etc. The Hindus themselves were in the habit of constructing the vessels in which they navigated the coast of Coromandel (Cholamandel), and also made voyages to the Ganges and the peninsula beyond it. These ships bore different names according to their sizes.

Land Trade
As regards the trade with central and northern Asia, we are told that “the Indians make expeditions for commercial purposes into the golden desert Ideste, desert of Cobi, in armed companies of a thousand or two thousand men. But, according to a report, they do not return home for three or four years.” The Takhti Suleman, or the stone tower mentioned by Ptolemy and Ctesias, was the starting point for Hindu merchants who went to China.

Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeran says: “By means of this building it is easy to determine the particular route as well as the length of time employed by the Hindu merchants in their journey to China. If we assume Cabul, or rather Bactria, as their place of departure, the expedition would take a north-easterly direction as far as the forty-first degree of the north latitude. It would then have to ascend the mountains, and so arrive at the stone tower through the defile of Hoshan, or Owsh. From thence the route led by Cashgar, beyond the mountains to the borders of the great desert of Cobi, which it traversed probably through Khotan and Aksu (the Casia and Auxazia of Ptolemy). From these ancient towns the road lay through Koshotei to Se-chow, on the frontiers of China, and thence to Pekin, a place of great antiquity. The whole distance amounts to upwards of 2,500 miles.”

Foreign trade of a nation presupposes development of its internal trade. Specially is this true of a large country like India, with its varied products, vast population and high civilization.

Christian Lassen (1800-1876) of Paris considers it remarkable that the Hindus themselves discovered the rich, luxurious character of India’s products; many of them are produced in other countries, but remained unnoticed until sought for by foreigners, where as the most ancient Hindus had a keen enjoyment in articles of taste and luxury. Rajas and other rich people delighted in sagacious elephants, swift horses, splendid peacocks, golden decorations, exquisite perfumes, pungent peppers, ivory, pearls, gems, gold etc. and consequently caravans were in continued requisition to carry down these and innumerable other matters between the north and the south, and the west and the east of their vast and varied country. These caravans, were met at border stations and about ports by western caravans or ships bound to or from Tyre and Egypt or to or from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.”

Strabo, Plutarch, and Apollodoras agree in their statements that India had considerable trade roads in all directions, with mile stones, and was provided with inns for travelers. And these “roads” says Heeran, “were planted with trees and flowers.”

Active internal commerce was carried on in northern India along the course of the Ganges. Here was the royal highway extending from Taxila on the Indus to Patliputra (in Bihar) and which was 10,000 stadia in length, according to Strabo.

Periplus, too, after saying that “the Ganges and its tributary streams were the grand commercial routes of northern India,” adds that the “rivers of the Southern Peninsula also were navigated.”

According to Arrian, the commercial intercourse between the eastern and western coasts were carried on in country built ships. Periplus again says that “in Dachhanabades (Dakshina Patha in Sanskrit, or the Deccan) there are two very distinguished and celebrated marts, named Tagara and Pluthama, whence merchandise was bought down to Barygaza (Barauch). Ozene (Ujjain) was one of the chief marts for internal traffic, and supplied the neighboring country with all kinds of merchandise.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says: “It (India) exported its most valuable produce, its diamonds, its aromatics, its silks, and its costly manufactures. The country, which abounded in those expensive luxuries, was naturally reputed to be the seat of immense riches, and every romantic tale of its felicity and glory was readily believed. In the Middle Ages, an extensive commerce with India was still maintained through the ports of Egypt and the Red Sea; and its precious produce, imported into Europe by the merchants of Venice, confirmed the popular opinion of its high refinement and its vast wealth.”

(source: Hindu Superiority – By Har Bilas Sarda p 405-426). For more refer to chapter on Greater India: Suvarnabhumi and Sacred Angkor












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