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Trade and Traders in Early Indian Society

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Trade and Traders in Early Indian Society
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Item Code: NAL386
Author: Ranabir Chakravarti
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2020
ISBN: 9788173046957
Pages: 305
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 395 gms
About the Book

Situating trade and traders in the overall agrarian milieu of early India, this book highlights the diversities of merchants and market places, which are not viewed as an undifferentiated category. Chakravarti strongly argues against the perception of declining trade in India during the period AD 600-1000, and demonstrates the linkages of trade at the locality level during this period. The author questions the stereotyped account of early Indian commerce merely in terms of trade in luxuries and draws our attention to transactions in daily necessities. In-depth analysis of maritime commerce in the Bengal coast (c. 200 BC to AD 1300) is a major feature of the book.

The author also explores different, if not sometimes conflicting, attitudes of early Indian society to merchants, who were lauded as patrons to cultural activities and also branded as 'open thieves'; yet the presence of non-indigenous merchants was always favoured. The settlements of foreign merchants especially in coastal tracts witnessed in different ages remarkable cultural synthesis and coexistence among diverse trading communities. Most significantly, the social and cultural accommodation of several non-indigenous minority groups is inseparably associated with the history of early Indian commerce. The author also examines the role of trading communities in the making of a plural and complex society like India.

About the Author

Ranabir Chakravarti, Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi specializes in the social and economic history of early India, with a thrust particularly on the maritime trade of India in the Indian Ocean (c. AD 700-1500). In addition to his research articles in international journals both from India and abroad, he has so far published Warfare for Wealth: Early Indian Perspective (Calcutta, 1986; Prachin Bharater Arthanaithik ltihaser Sandhane (in Bengali, 1st edn. Kolkata, 1991, 2nd edn. Kolkata, 2002); A Sourcebook of Indian Civilization (Hyderabad, 2000, one of the contributors and Associate Editors); Samaj, Sanskriti, ltihas: Essays in Memory of Professor Ashin Das Gupta (in Bengali, one of the editors, Kolkata, 2000); Trade in Early India (ed., New Delhi, 2001; paperback edition 2005). He has recently completed Membership of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (2005-6).


A pleasant surprise awaited me as Mr. Ramesh Jain and Mr. Ajay Jain of Manohar Publishers and Distributors informed in mid-2004 that the copies of the first edition of this book had sold out. This was neither intended to be a text book nor a popular one. Given the present intellectual climate in which the study of history in general creates few opportunities and economic history in particular is somewhat less attractive with the preference for cultural and linguistic turns in historical studies, my reaction to the publisher's proposal to go for a second edition was one of hesitance and perplexity. As the second edition now goes to press, the credit should first go to my publishers for having initiated such a thought and persisting with the idea for nearly two years. The second edition is an enlarged one, with the incorporation of two more recently published essays. 'Information, Exchange and Administration: Case Studies from Early India' , was presented first to the Panel on Information and Communication Technologies in India Through the Ages, organized by the Indian History Congress (Mysore session) in 2003, and subsequently published in the collection of essays, Webs of History, Information and Communication Technology from Early to Post-Colonial India, edited by Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Dipankar Sinha and Barnita Bagchi (New Delhi: Manohar, 2005). I am thankful to the editors and the publisher for kindly permitting me to include this piece in the present volume as chapter 12. The second essay and the last piece (chapter 13) in this volume originally appeared in the Studies in History, vol. 20, 2004 as a review article. My sincere thanks go to Professor Neeladri Bhattacharyya and Dr. Kumkum Roy (Members of the Editorial Board for the Studies in History) and Sage Publications for their generous permission to reprint this article here. I have taken this opportunity to slightly modify the two new essays mainly for the sake of maintaining uniformity in style and on some occasions for retouching a few statements. I take the cue from Professor R.S. Sharma who in a jocular vein once described all historians as revisionist: here, however, I proceed on a serious note and try to improve my shortcomings which are ever present. The second edition is in paperback with the hope that it will be accessible to a wider and larger readership than the previous one. Needless to explain, the Bibliography has also been upgraded. The second edition of this book was planned and prepared at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. I would like to record my most sincere thanks to the Institute for Advanced Study for providing me with Membership and with fascinating facilities of study. The authorities of Jawaharlal Nehru University by granting me the necessary leave enabled me to avail of this opportunity. I am most thankful to the authorities of Jawaharlal Nehru University for this.


It will perhaps not be out of place here to tell my readers the reasons of my incorporating the two new pieces to the second edition. First, both the essays relate to the broad theme of the book, merchants in early Indian society. Second, the two pieces are connected with the history of India's maritime commerce prior to AD 1500 which has been one of themes of this volume. The third point of commonalty between the two new pieces is in the nature of sources used. In the Jewish geniza letters and the inscriptions of Tamil mercantile groups as well one hears the voice of merchants who speak about themselves, their success and failure, aspirations and frustrations, their families and their cultural and social worlds. Recent historiography has given due recognition to the role of trade and merchants in the making of the history of early India. Without diminishing the importance of the agrarian material milieu of the subcontinent over millennia, historians of late do not necessarily view the subcontinent as a landlocked area, engaged in agriculture and crafts production. That the coastal tracts also have a distinct impact on the early history of the subcontinent is gaining ground in academic circles. It is therefore in the fitness of things that recent overviews and textbooks of Indian history (including early India) have underlined the importance of trade in the 'traditional' economy and society of India. The previous imbalance of viewing Indian history primarily from the 'epicentric' Ganga valley/landlocked north India has also undergone interesting shifts, resulting in considerable attention to the peninsular part which has better accessibility to coastal tracts and sea-lanes. Contrary to the Eurocentric image that the subcontinent opened out to the wider world as an outcome of the advent of the Europeans in the fifteenth century, there is an impressive body of evidence of India's trade and cultural networks with Central Asia, Southeast Asia and West Asia, also East Africa and eastern Mediterranean regions.

The economic impact of this trade was not incidental, as indeed also its imprint on various cultures and its linking of Roman, Indian and Chinese centres.

These studies indeed contributed to exploding the myth of the insularity of India during the pre-modern times. Even more important is the point that the lively tradition of multi-culturalism and plurality has gained a greater visibility. This provides the context of bringing in the essay (chapter 12) on communication and exchange of information which were crucial to existing polities and the world of merchants in early India. However, the intention of the present author is to situate trade and traders (including maritime commerce) in the non-agrarian sector of early Indian economy which was indeed predominantly agrarian. The merchants, however rich they might have been, were at the fringe of a vast continental society which they were not in a position to alter substantially.

The study of India's maritime trade in the Indian Ocean tries to impress upon, in this book, the crucial linkages between the vast subcontinental landmass and the coastal areas-where stood India's ports-and the connectivity of the ports with their respective forelands and hinterlands. A word on early Indian ports may be relevant here. It has recently been pronounced that in the ancient period no specific terminology for 'port' is in evidence or was for that matter required. Among others, the term pattana was used for both a market centre and also a riverine settlement.

While ancient harbour structures associated with the port area are rarely visible in archaeological terms in India, one comes across regular references to pattanam/pattinam (different from pattana) in Sanskrit and Tamil sources and also to velakulas. As Hall demonstrated long ago, pattanam/pattinam-distinct from erivirapattanam-in Tamil designated ports in or near the sea-coast. Contrary to the unsustainable claim made in the above quote, terms like pauanam/pattinam and velakula, figuring in textual and epigraphic sources, clearly denote ports. For instance, Tamralipta (near modern Tamluk, West Bengal), the well known ancient port in the Ganga delta, figures in the Dasakumaracarita of Daudin (c. AD seventh century), as a velakula. At this velakula came vahitras (a type of sea-going craft) of the yavanas, as Dandin narrates. Similarly, the port of Ghogha in Gujarat carried the suffix velakula in its 'nomenclature; this velakula was regularly visited by ships from Hormuz in the Persian Gulf (Hurmujivahana). The association of ships (vahana/vahitra) with the term veldkula cannot but demonstrate that the term velakula stood for a port. Many Tamil inscriptions, especially those eulogistically describing the activities of the merchants' body-the 500 svamis of Ayyavole-regularly speak of velapurams (ports). Impressing upon the distant voyages undertaken by merchants belonging to the 500 svamis of Ayyavole, these inscriptions describe in a standardized manner their visiting 32 velapurams (ports). It is therefore impossible to lose sight of the vocabulary regarding ports in Classical Indian languages like Sanskrit and Tamil.

I would also like to add here that I have used the term 'seascape' in the last essay not in the sense of seeing the land from the sea. In fact this presents a view of the maritime space- 'the liquid plains of the sea', to quote Braudel-from land, since the Tamil mercantile groups were not solely maritime merchants. Ayyavole or Aihole, the celebrated centre of the 500 svamis, was very much an inland location in Karnatka. Many of the merchants, belonging to mercantile groups, were active in inland trading in Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhrapradesh, as Karashima and Subbarayalu (among others) have ably demonstrated. Yet when some of these merchants voyaged in and across the Bay of Bengal, they left fascinating images of their sea-borne communications and exchanges. Early Indian inscriptions, which are mostly related to the continental society and land-oriented polities, in this case provide new vistas of the sea. In this way, Karashima, Subbarayalu and their colleagues have established new landmarks in terms of the sources and methodology of studying India's maritime commerce. Though my 'seascape' here does not deal with seamarks, the use of the word 'seascape' may not be unjustified as it provides a new perspective on how people in coastal areas actively create their identities, sense of place and histories.


Preface to the Second Edition3
List of Abbreviations13
2Early Historical India: A Study in its Material Milieu (c. 600 BC_AD 300)35
3Merchants and Other Donors at Ancient Bandhogarh75
4The Putabhedana as a Centre of Trade in Early India92
6Maritime Trade and Voyages in Ancient Bengal113
7Vangasagara-sambhandariyaka: A Riverine Trade Centre of Early Medieval Bengal142
8Seafaring in the Bengal Coast: The Early Medieval Scenario160
9Trade at Mandapikas in Early Medieval North India187
10The Pentha as a Centre of Trade in the Deccan c. AD 600" 1300201
11Nakhuda Nuruddin Firuz at Somanatha: AD 1264220
12Information, Exchange and Administration: Case Studies from Early India243
13An Enchanting Seascape: Through Epigraphic Lens263

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