Foreign Trade in Ancient India with Roman Empire - Prominent Centres & Ports for Trade and Commerce

Trade Network of India with Roman Empire

This early Indian trade which began like a trickle grew into a substantial volume by the first three centuries of the Christian era during which was developed a profitable seaborne trade between India and the West represented mainly by the Roman empire which became her best customer. This Roman trade is testified to both by literary texts and the more concrete and convincing evidence of abundant finds of Roman coins as the tangible results of that trade at several places in the South, specially at Coimbatore and Madurai,as the chief centres of this export trade.

It was Southern India which had the monopoly of the products which were in great demand in the West. There was a demand in the West for its botanical products like Pepper, Betel, Spices, and Scents; for the precious stones of her mines like Beryl, Gem, Diamond, Ruby and Amethyst; the pearls of her seas; the ivory from the tusks of her elephants; and the silks and muslins turned out by her handicrafts. "Roman beauties, decked in even seven folds of Muslin,and parading themselves on the highways of Rome, became a menace to its morals," till its import was banned by Roman Parliament. The test of this Indian muslin was that 20 Yds. of it could be passed through a finger-ring.

Drain of Roman gold

The result of this foreign trade to India was the drain of Roman gold into India to pay for her imports which far exceeded her exports. Pliny (Natural History) estimates this drain at 100 million sesterces (=£1,000,000) per annum. It gave to India a favorable balance of trade, and a stable gold currency for the Kushan empire of those days. Roman Settlements There were also other consequences of this Roman trade to India's economy and politics. A Tamil work refers to settlements of Yavana (Roman) traders importing from Rome "wine, brass, lead, lamps and vases. A Tamil poem describes how a Tamil King “daily drank of his golden cups fragrant wine brought by the Yavanas in their good ships."

A Tamil poet describes the thriving port of Muchiris at the mouth of the Periyar, "with the beautiful large ships of the Yavanas bringing gold and returning laden with Pepper. The gold was received from the ships in exchange for the articles sold and brought to shore in barges."

Employment of Roman Soldiers

Roman soldiers described as "powerful Yavanas of terrifying looks, and wearing long coats" were employed by the Tamil Kings to "guard their tents on battle-field." They are also described as "dumb Mlechchhas," because they could not speak with the people in their language but could only speak to them by gestures. Under a Pandya King, these foreign Roman soldiers were employed to guard the gates of Madura. Roman cohorts were also posted in garrisons set up at the port-towns like Muziris (Cranganore).

Kaveripattinam - A Centre of foreign trade in Ancient India

At Kaveripattinam on the beach were constructed raised platforms. godowns, and warehouses for storing up goods landed from ships. The goods were first stamped with the Chola Tiger emblem after payments of customs duty, and then passed on to merchants' warehouses(Pattinappalai). Close by were "settlements of Yavana merchants, and quarters of foreign traders speaking various tongues."

They were served by a big bazar where were available all things needed. There were vendors of fragrant pastes and powders, of flowers and incense; tailors who worked on silk, wool or cotton; traders in sandal, coral, pearl, gold and precious stones;grain merchants; washer men; dealers in fish and salts; butchers; blacksmiths, braziers, carpenters, copper smiths, goldsmiths; painters, sculptors, cobblers, and toy-makers. There were also horses brought to the market from distant lands beyond the seas." Most of these goods were gathered for export.

According to Pliny, India's exports included pepper and ginger which fetched a price of 100 times their original value. There was also a demand for the incenses, spice sand aromatics of India. It was due to the lavish consumption of these commodities at Rome at religious and funeral ceremonies. Nero burnt at a funeral. a year's produce of cinnamon and cassia. At the funeral of Scylla, 210 loads of spices were strewn upon the pyre. The interests of these foreign colonies were protected by diplomatic agreements negotiated by embassies. A Pandya king sent an embassy tọ the Roman Emperor Augustus of the 1st Century B.C. Embassies were also sent to Trojan after 99 A.D.

Major Ports in Ancient India for Trade and Commerce

This brisk trade flowed through ports located on both the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts. These are described in Roman works like those of Pliny and Ptolemy and especially in the Greek work, Periplus, of 1st Century A.D. On the West Coast sprang up ports like "Sopara (Sopara), Barygaza (Broach),Kalliena (Kalyana) and Muziris (Cranganore), while the Coromandel coast had also its string of ports through which was carried on the trade with "Golden Chersonese (Suvarnabhumi) and Golden Chyrse (Suvarnadvipa).

"The ports under the Cholas were equipped with "lighthouses, exhibiting blazing lights at night to guide ships to ports," as stated in the Tamil text. A very interesting piece of evidence has been unearthed at a site called Arikamedu near Pondicherry in specimens of the famous Italian pottery known as Arretine, with the Italian potter's stamps imprinted on them, such as Vibie (off first century B.C.) and Gaius (of the Claudian period, 41-54 A.D.).

Along with this foreign pottery was also found the fragment of a Roman lamp. There is some evidence of foreign trade in the Andhra empire of the times. Some of its ports and inland towns took part in this trade. Thus the town of Paithana (Pratishthana)shipped abroad its onyx stones, and Tagara, its cottons, muslins and other textiles. The Andhra king Yajnasri issued a rare type of coins figuring the ship as the symbol of the State's sea-borne trade.

Pr Rai

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