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Ancient South Indian Commerce

South Indian commerce, in ancient days, as it does today, looked chiefly to agriculture. Animal, mineral, and vegetable products were the only objects of her early commerce, although, in course of time, speculation of trade started even on simple goods of industrial nature, like muslins. Commodities of South India were sent in simple ships on the high seas to far-off countries, in return for goods of other countries. Such a kind of trade produced "capital accession of plenty and satisfaction," if not that of wealth as we commonly understand; and, through ages, it flourished by congenial circumstances, free from political authorities and the commercial barriers of the modern world. Says a great writer: "Trade of ancient South India, dating from the fourth millennium B.C., was based upon the simple system of barter and mutual goodwill. It gave South India and allied countries considerable satisfaction and pleasure, as it implied the exchange of valuable productions of various progressive countries."

There are ample sources of information, supplying authentic material for the construction of a short history of South Indian International commerce in ancient times; and they may be arranged under the usual following heads: (1) archaeological evidences, which include monuments, buildings and works of art; (2) inscriptional or epigraphic evidences; (3) linguistic or evidence of words, adduced by the similarity in origin and of sounds; (4) religious treatises; (5) purely literary works, containing hidden historical allusions and references; (6) coins or numismatic evidence; (7) traditions, as recorded in literature and in verbal circulation; (8) the recent ethnological researches of great value and importance; and (9) ancient and modern historical writings, consisting of almost all the accounts, left by foreigners and native historians.

All these original authorities for the early history of South India and her international commercial enterprises need a careful examination.

Let us take the archaeological evidence for scrutiny. A scientific examination of buildings, monuments and works of art throw much light upon the South Indian early commerce and her civilisation. The Obelisks of Shalmeneser III, bearing figures of Indian elephants and apes, proved ancient trade connections between India and Babylonia in or about 860 B.C. The temple of the moon at Mugheir (the "Ur of the Chaldees") and the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, belonging to the sixth century B.C. contain a number of pillars and beams, made of teak wood, a native product of India, and confirm that the trade in teak wood flourished between India and Barygaza and Euphrates, in the early days; and the tombs of Egypt reveal the presence of indigo, tamarind wood and such other products, and they un- mistakably speak of the earliest trace of South India’s commercial intercourse with Egypt.

As regards the inscriptional evidences, we should say that they form the most important and reliable source of our knowledge of the early commercial history of South India. In fact, the earliest trade relations between Assyria and India are revealed by the Cuneiform Inscriptions of the Hittite Kings of Mitani, in Cappadocia, belonging to the fifteenth or fourteenth century B.C. The Nimrud Inscriptions of the Assyrian King, Tiglath Pileser III, referring to the Indian exports of the day, like spices and clothing, as having been received in Assyria as tributes from a King, by name Yakim; and the Egyptian Inscriptions of the Queen Hatshepsust, recording the monarch’s expedition to Punt and the booty of cinnamon wood are very important evidence relating to South Indian international connections with the rest of the world.

Next, we proceed to the linguistic source of information. Similarity or resemblance between various words, the names of commercial products, prevalent in different countries, to some extent, adduce proof of their ancient commercial relations–for example, the Hebrew word "shen habbin" for ivory, a literal translation of the Sanskrit "ibha danta"; the Egyptian word "kafu" for ape, from the Sanskrit word "kapi"; the Balylonian word "sindu" for muslin, from the Dravidian word "sindhi"; the Indian word "sini" for sugar given to it, as it was imported from China.

While examining the next important species of evidence, religious treatises, we should divide and study them under three heads: Hindu, Buddhist and Christian sacred works. Taking first the Hindu treatises into consideration, we find that the ‘Vedic Mantras’ contain many allusions to sea-voyages undertaken by Indians–perhaps chiefly by South Indians. "Mahabharata" mentions Yudishtara of the Pancha Pandavas having received Chinese silk, as tribute, from China, in the second millennium B.C.; while the Buddhist "Jataka Stories" (e.g. Baberu Jataka) narrate Indian merchants, presumably South Indian merchants, having taken periodical voyages to the land of Babylon (Balylonis). Lastly, comes the Christian sacred literature: a reference to ebony, an Indian article of trade is found in "Ezekiel" XXVII. 13, having been a commodity in the trade of Tyre; a similar reference to cinnamon having become one of the ingredients of the sacred anointing oil of the Hebrew priests, in "Exodus" XXX and a specific mention in the Book of Genesis relating to the Indian merchants going to Egypt to trade doubtless establish South Indian commercial relations with Palestine and Egypt in the ancient times.

Proceeding to the ancient Indian literature, containing many historical facts and truths, as a significant source of information, we find that the classical ‘Puranic’ literature of India, like "Tholkapyam," contain several allusions to the Roman settlements and their occupations under various Tamil kings. We have also numerous Egyptian records of the receipt of several articles like ivory in commerce and as tribute under the seventh dynasty–1580-1350 B.C.

Next, we may examine tradition as a very valuable source of information. Traditions, as recorded in Literature and as they are current in mere "verbal circulation" constitute, indeed, a chief supplier of some important historical information. The Queen Hatshepsust’s expedition and Queen Sheba’s meeting with King Solomon and the fabulous tributes that the former gave the latter indicate an extensive trade between Egypt and India even in the tenth century B.C., and also the kinds of articles that Egypt and India exchanged in commerce.

As regards the ethnological sources from the face-type of the average Indian of today and a strong resemblance which exists between the ethnic type of the Sumerians–marked strongly in their statues–and to the Dravidian ethnic type of the average Indian, H. R. Hall concludes that a South Indian tribe should have migrated and settled in Sumeria. Likewise, there are other ethnological facts which throw much light upon ancient South Indian commerce with the rest of the progressive countries.

Lastly, we should examine the historical accounts left behind by several of the ancient and modern writers of history. The accounts of the ancient Greek writers like Herodotus, Homer. Aristophanes, and Sophocles, the great and valuable Chinese Annals, the diary of the German scholar, Buhler, the interesting writings of the Roman historians, Strabo and Pliny, and, last but not least, the modern historical; treatises of the celebrated English historians. H. R. Hall, Mommsen, Warmington, Sewell and Smith and a host of others–all these give us practically true and valuable information regarding the ancient maritime and international relations that existed between ancient South India and the rest of the known and progressive world, as well as an account of the flourishing ports of South India.

It is a geographical fact that the coastal line of South India is not even, and so there must have been the possibility of the formation and establishment of many ports in the peninsular South India in ancient times. The great author of the ‘Periplus’ of the Erythrean Sea, in his Guide-book to the Indian Ocean, writes about these South Indian ports. Among others, he mentions India, Musiri, and Comari (Cape Comorin). He also speaks of Colchi (Korkai), Camara, Poduka, Sopatma, Kodikkaraim, Negapatam, Nelkynda and Kaviri Paddinam. All these ports were in excellent and flourishing condition. Either they played the role of important stations of imports and exports or they served merely as calling stations. These ports were owned by one or other of three important Tamil Kings, Colchi or Korkai, whose pearl fisheries were carried on on a large scale, belonged to the Pandyan Kingdom. Camara, Poduka and Sopatma were "Sola" ports; Kodikkarai, Negapatam and Kavari Paddinam also belonged to the Cholas, while Musiri and Nelkynda were the ports of Chera Kings. These various South Indian ports, favourably situated as they were, facilitated South Indian trade with the rest of the world, in the pre-historic and later ages.

It must be remembered that as far back as in the fourth milliennium B. C., when the most civilised countries of today were steeped in darkness, South India was a flourishing country in civilisation and commerce. In fact, trade began in South India as a matter of necessity. "Her geographical features helped her to become a commercial country." Says a historian, that as a large part of the Tamil peninsular India is near the sea, the knowledge of easy sea-travels and the comparatively rich commercial animal, mineral and agricultural products of the same naturally tempted the inhabitants of the coastal districts, called "Baradavar" or sailors, to take to sea-travels and to contract commercial relations with other countries. We have reasons to believe that South Indian sailors sailed along, hugging the shores, up to Afghanistan and Persia, from very early times. Excessive travels, both by land and sea, in the very ancient times, could have made possible the colonisation of the Mesopotamian Valley by the South Indians–by the Tamils–which, according to a recent theory, gave birth to the ancient Sumerian civilisation of that region. 

H. R. Hall says: "The ethnic type of Sumerians, so strongly marked in their statues and reliefs, was as different from those of the races which surrounded them as was their language from those of the Semites, Aryans or others; they were decidedly Indian in type." The face type of the average Indian today is just the same as that of his Dravidian ancestors, years ago. And, according to H. R. Hall, "it is to this ethnic type of India that the ancient Sumerian bears most resemblance, so far as we can judge from his monuments."……"He was very much like a Southern Hindu of the Deccan." It is quite improbable that the Sumerians were an Indian tribe which migrated to the valley of the two rivers, through Persia, by land and perhaps by sea, as well. 

It recently was proved that in Baluchistan there exists a Dravidian population, "the Brahuis"; the Dravidian type is noted in Southern Persia; and perhaps, the non-Aryan people of ancient Persia were of the Dravidian race, who formed connection between Babylonia and India. The legends of Oanne’s-Man-fish swimming up the Persian Gulf to the earliest Sumerian cities, like Eridu, denote an early maritime relationship between Sumeria and India which was by then a civilised land. It would not be too much to presume that the Sumerian culture was developed in the Indian home. It was their writing that, later on, was adapted by Babylonia and it was the seeds of their culture that were afterwards left in Elam. Till the writings of Mohenjo Daro are definitely deciphered, nothing positive or more could be said about the South Indian trade with Sumeria.

If there was commercial intercourse between South India and Sumeria, there must have been greater intercourse between South India and Babylonia. By means of evidence. Sarce mentions two instances: in the first place, there were found in the ruins of Ur (Mugheir), pillars of Indian teak, probably South Indian teak; and it was a well-known fact that, in the fourth millennium B.C., Mugheir or Ur was the capital of the Sumerian Kings. Secondly, the word ‘Sindhu’ or muslin shows a distinctly South Indian product that was to be found in an ancient Babylonian list of clothing. Mr. P. T. Sreenivasa Chary thinks that muslin should have been taken from the Tamil coast to Babylonia by sea. Passing on, we again hear of the South Indian trade with " Balyloni" in 606 B.C. during the period of the Babylonian Empire. After the fall of the Assyrian Empire, the great city of Babylon took the place of Nineveh as the centre of commerce and trade with Western India. In the crowded market of Babylonia met all the races of the world, including South Indians who went there to sell their wares. In the Baberu Jataka, Indian merchants, perhaps both South and North Indian merchants, took periodical voyages to the land of Babylon. The classical literature of South India is full of references to ships, shipping and distant voyages. There was soon established in that great town a colony of South Indian merchants, which continued to thrive till the seventh century A.D.

There is ample evidence that the trade of South India extended not only to the Mesopotamian valley, but also to Egypt in the third millennium B.C. "Thousands of years before the emergence of the Greeks from savagery…..Egypt and the nations of Ancient India came into being, and a commercial system was developed for the interchange of products within those limits, having its centre of exchange near the head of the Persian Gulf…..The growth of civilisation in India created an active merchant marine and trading to the Euphrates and Africa….." (W. H. Schoff). The Arabs, who played the intermediaries, carried muslins and Indian spices from South Indian "Baradavars," who took those articles in their boats to Aden and the East African Coast, and carried them, in turn, to Thebes or Memphis, by sea or land. In the Book of Genesis there is mention of a company of traders with spicery and myrrh going to Egypt. In the abundant booty, loading the vessel of the Pharaoh for conveyance to the land of Egypt, appeared many South Indian animals and products not indigenous to Egypt-elephant’s teeth, precious stones, sandalwood and monkeys. Further, the presence of indigo, tamarind-wood and other Indian products have been detected in the tombs of Egypt; and, it is also said that the Egyptians dyed cloth with indigo and wrapped their mummies in South Indian muslin.

But, the Egyptians were poor sailors, and South Indian articles found their way to Egypt through Arab and Phoenician ships. There are certain words that betray the Indian origin of articles: ‘The Egyptian word "Ebu" like the Italian word "Ebur" may be the Sanskrit "Ibhu"; the Egyptian word "Kafu" like the Hebrew "Koph" may have come from the Sanskrit "Kapi," meaning ape.’ The presence of the African Baobab in the Tinnevelly District has been traced to early traders from Africa. In the Inscriptions of Harkhuf, under the Egyptian King, Memere, of the sixth Dynasty, 2,600 B.C.; there are references to several South Indian articles that found their way to Egypt: incense, ebony, grain, ivory, panthers, etc. The ebony referred to, doubtless, was South Indian ebony, which was, according to Theophrastus, "peculiar only to India." In the sixth Dynasty, under Pepi II, in the twenty sixth century B.C., references were made to South Indian cotton cloth, by an Egyptian Royal officer, Sebni. Besides, ivory was in great demand in Egypt: and considering the fact that it was easier to kill elephants in Indian forests, than in African forests, Indian ivory alone could have been largely imported to Egypt.

Further, it was asserted that the Egyptian Kings used axes and swords and other iron implements, manufactured only in South India in those early times. In exchange for these articles, Egypt sent to South India incense, sweet-smelling gums, etc. The Vedic Mantras are burdened with allusions to the "interchange" of merchandise: South Indian traders must have sent their ships to sea and sailed to distant lands for sale and barter, long before North Indians took to maritime commerce. In the second millennium B.C., when the old land-route was destroyed, the tide of trade bent southward and led to a great development in the sea trade of South India. Under the seventeenth Egyptian dynasty (1580-1530 B.C.), there were several records of the receipt of ivory in trade and as tribute, which fact indicates that in the early times, ivory and ivory-articles, like chairs, tables, statues and whips, went from the west coast of India to the Nile Valley. Under the eighteenth Dynasty, great Egyptain ships fetched, from the Arab intermediaries, South Indian ebony, precious stones, ivory, gold, cinnamon, incense, apes, monkeys, dogs and panther skins. In the days of the twentieth Dynasty, under Rameses III (1198-1167 B.C.), Egypt continued to get ebony and precious stones from South India.

During the hey-day of Egytian prosperity, under the twenty-eighth Dynasty, the garments of royal linen used in Egypt were considered to be of South Indian muslin. The cinnamon, which Egypt largely imported, was not an article of Punt, as it was believed, but it grew in Malabar and Cochin; and South India traded in it with the Arab intermediaries, who sold it in their turn to Egypt. Among the eastern treasures, mentioned as supplied from Punt to Egypt, were grain and gingelly oil, which, according to the ‘Periplus,’ were largely exported to far off countries only from South India. The Egyptian priests underwent the "anointment" ceremony. with the "South Indian gingelly oil," and the Egytian Queen Hatshepsust got her excellent ebony only from the Malabar coast and not from Punt, as she believed!" So, trade between South India and Egypt flourished from very early times to the second millennium B.C.

A little before the end of the second millennium B.C., the Hebrews ended their servitude in Egypt and migrated to Palestine. Sweet spices were considered very holy among the Hebrews in Palestine. After Israel’s rise to prosperity, the Palestine trade with South India and other countries grew by leaps and bounds. South India not only imported cinnamon and sapphires to Palestine, but also all the other articles which she had been sending Egypt through the Arab intermediaries. In the tenth century B.C., we hear of Queen Sheba’s lavishing presents upon King Solomon: spices and precious stones, which were undoubtedly South Indian articles. "The almug trees, which are identified with sandalwood, native to South India, especially Mysore, Coimbatore and Salem Districts, and a large quantity of gold should have gone to Palestine from South India." South Indian ivory and peacocks were, among several other articles imported to Palestine. ‘The Hebrew word for ivory" Shen habbin" resembles "Ibha danta" in Sanskrit, and the Hebrew word "Thakki" for peacock bears semblance to the Tamil word "Thogai." In Ezekiel, XXVII, 13, in the Old Testament, South Indian trade with Palestine in ebony is mentioned; it was prior to the seventh century.

It is fairly certain that there was commercial intercourse between South India and China also, in the second millennium B.C. The reference to Chinese silk having been sent to Yudhishtra of the Pancha Pandavas by the Chinese King in "Mahabharatha" and referenecs in the Chinese Annals to several voyages made to Malacca and farther by the Chinese, indicate that South India must have had some commercial dealings with China. Her chief trade was in sugar and silk, originally made in China and then imported to India. Sugar was called "Sini," a product of China: and silk was called "Sinan," foldable cloth of China. In exchange for these, China got from South India incense, red coral, costus and pepper. Recently, it has been discovered that South Indians also acted as intermediaries between China and Western Asia; and the Tamil ports served as the meeting points of the trade between the West and the East of Asia. 

For a long time, down to 500 B.C., we may suppose, the trade of the Malabar and Coromandel coasts with China did not languish: Chinese cardamom, for instance, continued to find its way to Western Asia and Eastern Africa by South Indian ships. Even passing on to the first century A.D., we find South Indian trade extending to China and Japan in the farthest east, beyond the small colonies of Java and Sumatra. Throughout the first and second centuries A.D., during the reigns of the Chinese Emperors, Hoti (85-105 A.D.) and Hiwanti (158-159 A.D.), there arrived in China, according to the Chinese Annals, many South Indian Embassies, with merchandise, in the name of tributes. In the sixth century A.D., there was a continued development of the maritime intercourse between China and South India. The North Indian religious missions to China, in the early times, facilitated the inter-commercial relations of China and South India, to a very great extent.

There is some evidence that there were commercial relations between South India and Arabia in the second millennium. The Arabs were good sailors and merchants. They acted as intermediaries between South Indian merchants and Western purchasers of Egypt and Palestine, in the olden days. Tactful and artful as they were, they would not reveal the Indian origin of several articles of trade to their Customers. They wished to monopolise the privilege of being intermediaries and also to keep South Indian trade in their hands. South India sent cinnamon, ivory and precious stones, pepper, ebony and sandal wood, besides her native birds and animals to Arabia, which passed them on to Egypt and Palestine in the course of trade.

The earliest trace of South Indian intercourse with Assyria can be found in the Cuneiform Inscriptions of the Hittite Kings of Mitani in Cappadocia, belonging to the fifteenth or fourteenth century B.C. These kings bore Indian names and worshipped the Vedic gods. "Assurbanipal, a great cultivator, seemed to have got South Indian plants including wool-bearing trees (cotton)." The Ninrud Inscriptions of the great Assyrian monarch, Tiglath Pileser III, mentions several articles of tribute paid by Yakim, a king of the Sea-country to "Ashur," among which many were the articles of South Indian exports of the day: pearls, spices, gold, precious stones. On the Obelisks of Shalmeneser III (860 B.C.) are the figures of apes and Indian elephants, indicating early South Indian trade with Assyria. In the markets of Tyrus, South Indian iron and steel were sold. Sennacherib (704-681 B. C.) enlarged the city of Nineveh and built a palace and a garden, where he introduced the "wool-bearing trees." Fine skins of lions, tigers and leopards, aromatics and spices and ghee and gingelly oil, in later times were also sent to Assyria by South India. South Indian teak was also in great demand is Assyria: the remnants of teak wood are found in the ruins of the temple of the Moon at Mugheir, "the Ur of the Chaldees" as well as in the ruined palace of Nebuchednazzar. Thus, South Indian trade with Assyria was both profitable and beneficial.

In 606 B,C., the Assyrian Empire was overthrown; and soon after, Babylon became the headquarters of trade in Asia. In 538 B.C., even the last of the great Semitic Empires of Western Asia came to an end with the storming of Babylon by Cyrus, the great monarch of Persia. His son, Darius helped sea trade between Persia and South India. South India might have sent, either directly or indirectly, her native commercial goods to Persia, either by land or by sea. Details of their trade relations are not available. With the break-up of the Persian Empire by Greece, South Indian trade with Persia came to an end.

Just as in the early days the Arabs served as the intermediaries between South India and the Asiatic and Semitic Empires, Greece was the greatest intermediary between South India and Europe, in the half millennium prior to the birth of Christ. As a result of this international commercial intercourse, the Hellenes borrowed several South Indian names of articles: e.g., "Oryza" for "Arisi" (price); "Karpion" for "Karova" (cinnamon); "Peperi" for "pippali"; "beryllos" for "vaidurya" (a precious stone). "In the processions of Ptolemy Philadelphus were to be found South Indian women, hunting-dogs, crows and spices! Homer referred to the black people of the Deccan and their sea-faring nature."


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