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India - The Roaring Trade Partner of Yore
By Padma Mohan Kumar
Right from ancient times till the
establishment of the British Empire, India was famed for her fabulous
wealth. Even during the medieval period, i.e. roughly from the 12th
to the 16th centuries, the country was prosperous despite the
frequent political upheavals. A notable feature of this period was the
growth of towns in various parts of the country. This development was the
result of the political and economic policies followed by the Muslim rulers.
These towns grew into trade and industrial centres which in turn led to the
During the Sultanate period, which lasted
from the early 13th to the early 16th centuries, the
economy of the towns flourished. This was due to the establishment of a
sound currency system based on the silver tanka and the copper dirham. Ibn
Batuta the 14th century Moorish traveller had visited India
during the Sultanate period. He had described the teeming markets of the big
cities in the Gangetic plains, Malwa, Gujarat and Southern India. The
important centres of trade and industry were Delhi, Lahore, Bombay,
Ahmedabad, Sonargaon and Jaunpur. Coastal towns also developed into booming
industrial centres with large populations.
During the two hundred years of Mughal
rule i.e. from the 16th to the 18th centuries the
urbanisation of India received a further impetus. The Mughal era witnessed
the establishment of a stable centre and a uniform provincial government.
During this age of relative peace and security, trade and commerce
flourished. The burgeoning foreign trade led to the development of market
places not only in the towns but also in the villages. The production of
handicrafts increased in order to keep up with the demand for them in
The prime urban centres during the Mughal
era were Agra, Delhi, Lahore, Multan, Thatta and Srinagar in the north. The
important cities in the west included Ahmedabad, Bombay (then known as
Khambat), Surat, Ujjain and Patan (in Gujarat). The flourishing trade
centres in the eastern part of the country were Dacca, Hoogli, Patna,
Chitgaon and Murshidabad. Most of these cities boasted of sizeable
The accounts of foreign
travellers contain descriptions of the wide variety of exquisite goods sold
in the markets of those days. India was famous for its textiles, which
formed one of the chief items of export. Duarte Barbosa a Portuguese
official in Cochin in the early 16th century described Gujarat,
in the western region as a leading cotton trade centre. Textiles from
Gujarat were exported to the Arab countries and to South-east Asia. Patola,
which is a kind of silk dyed in natural colours, was highly popular in
South-east Asia. It was very much in demand among the wealthy classes in
Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Phillipines.
In the east Bengal was another important
region for a wide variety of textiles. Ibn Batuta the 14th
century Moorish traveller saw many cotton trade centres during his sojourn
in Bengal. Silks were also manufactured there. The textile products included
quilts of embroidered tussar, or munga on a cotton or jute, silk and brocade
edged handkerchiefs. Dhaka muslin was renowned for its fineness. Kasimbazaar
in Bengal was an important trade centre for cotton and silk goods. Sirbund,
a type of cloth used for tying turbans was manufactured in Bengal. It was
highly popular in Europe.
Similarly, Malabar in Kerala was also
famous for its coloured and printed cloth material. The other important
textiles producing centres in the south were Golconda, Shaliat and Pulicat.
The last two were major trading centres for a wide variety of cottons.
Golconda was famous for its Kalamkaaris. These were finely painted cotton
fabrics with motifs from Hindu mythology. They were exported through the
port city of Masulipatnam. Palampores, which were another variety of painted
fabrics, were popular in the Mughal and Deccan courts. These were bedspreads
made of Calico cloth. The borders of these pieces were block printed while
the centre depicted deoicted the ‘Tree of Life’ motif made by hand. Indian
textiles whether from Bengal, Gujarat or the South were highly appreciated
abroad for their fine texture, elaborate design and brilliant colours.
Hardwood furniture, embellished with inlay
work was a very popular item. The furniture was modelled on the European
design but the expensive carvings and inlays were inspired by the ornate
Mughal style. The production centres were in Sindh, Gujarat and the Deccan.
Mother-of pearl inlay against a black lac background was a traditional
design in Gujarat.
Carpets were used both in
ancient and medieval India but it was in the 16th century during
the Mughal era that the skill of carpet weaving touched new heights. It had
become an important profession by then and all the major courts of the
country encouraged it. The carpets produced during the Mughal era depicted
either animals in combat or flowers. The flowers were woven so meticulously
that they could be easily identified. The affinity of the Great Mughals with
nature is evident from the designs of the carpets made during their times.
Many varieties of ornamental work in cut
stones, ivory, pearl and tortoise shells were produced in South India. Pearl
fishing was a major industry here. Diamonds were procured from the Deccan
while sapphires and rubies were imported from Pegu and Ceylon. Major centres
were established at Pulicat, Calicut and Vijaynagar for cutting and
polishing these stones.
Indian arts and crafts were patronised by
Indian rulers. They were unmatched for their beauty and skill and were
popular in the European countries. During the Mughal era the European
traders used to employ local artisans at the manufacturing centres set up by
them at various places in India.
Foreign travellers gave
extensive accounts about domestic trade in medieval India. Ibn Batuta had
described Delhi as a major trade centre. The most superior quality rice and
sugar from Kannauj, wheat from Punjab and betel leaves from Dhar in Madhya
Pradesh found their way to the markets of Delhi.
Well-maintained roads linking
various parts of the country facilitated domestic trade. The threat from
bandits did not in any way affect the flow of goods as merchants travelled
in well-armed groups to ensure their security. According to Barbosa’s
account, trade between Gujarat and Malwa was possible owing to the routes
established in this area. The roads facilitated the exchange of goods
between the different parts of the country. Limbodar in Gujarat and Dabhol
in Maharashtra were major trade centres, which linked the northern and
southern halves of the country. Accounts of foreign travellers give
instances of the trade between Vijaynagar and Bhatkal in Goa with 5000-6000
bulls carrying goods between the two places. Vijaynagar traded in diamonds
with other southern cities.
River routes also facilitated
trade between different parts of the country. Boats carrying goods used to
ply on the Indus and the Ganges. Some of the merchants had their own large
dominated trade in various parts of the country. Multani and Punjabi
merchants handled the business in the north, while in Gujarat and Rajasthan
it was in the hands of the Bhats. Foreign traders from Central Asia, known
as Khorasanis engaged in this profession all over India. Members of the
nobility and the royalty took an interest in trading activities. They set up
their own manufacturing centres wherein local artisans were employed.
Internal trade flourished due
to the organised system set up by the government. The 14th
century Sultan Alauddin Khilji for instance, used to strictly supervise the
market places. Shopkeepers, who were caught violating the rules, were
severely punished. However, the trading community used to face unfair
treatment from the government officials. Sometimes they were forced by these
officials to sell their products at reduced rates or on credit, thus
incurring heavy losses in the process. The price list fixed by the
government brought in low returns for the traders.
During the period of the later
Mughals in the 18th century, the royalty and the nobility either
purchased luxury goods at very low prices or did not pay at all. Such
circumstances forced the trader to hoard his wealth and lead a frugal
India’s exports far exceeded her imports
both in the number of items as well as in volume. The chief articles of
import were horses, from Kabul and Arabia, dry fruits and precious stones.
India also imported glassware from Europe, high grade textiles like satin
from West Asia, while China supplied raw silk and porcelain. Foreign luxury
goods were highly popular among the royalty and the nobility. These included
wines, dry fruits, precious stones, corals, scented oils, perfumes and
During the Sultanate period articles of
everyday use as well as luxury articles were exported to Syria, Arabia and
Persia from Bengal and Cambay. These included silks, gold-embroidered cloth
caps, exquisitely designed clay pots and pans, guns, knives and scissors.
The other prime articles of export were sugar, indigo, oils, ivory
sandalwood, spices, diamonds and other precious gems and coconuts.
Arab traders shipped Indian goods to
European countries through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean ports. Indian
products were also sent to East Africa, Malaya, China and the Far East. In
China, Indian textiles were valued more than silk. Trade was also conducted
through overland routes with Afghanistan, Central Asia and Persia. The route
lay through Kashmir, Quetta and the Khyber Pass. Iraq and Bukhara were the
other countries with which India conducted trade via the land route.
Foreign trade was in the hands of both
local and foreign merchants. Many European travellers had settled in the
coastal regions. Limbodar in Gujarat was a major exporting centre. Horses
imported from Arabia were sent from the port of Bhatkal in Goa to the
southern kingdoms. Imports like bronze, iron, wax, gold and wool were
brought in through Goa, Calicut, Cochin and Quilon. The traders of Malabar,
Gujarat and foreign settlers controlled business in the port cities of
Calicut, Khambat, and Mangalore. Chinese ships docked at Quilon and Calicut
while in Khambat the volume of trade was such that 3000 ships visited this
port annually. This fact gives an idea of the magnitude of India’s foreign
trade during the medieval period.
Trade with China and Southeast Asia was
mainly carried on through the port of Sonargaon now known as Dacca.
Vijaynagar, which was the richest and most extensive state in the 15th and
16th centuries, enjoyed the most voluminous maritime trade with diverse
countries such as Persia, Arabia, Africa, the Malayan Archipelago, Burma,
China and the numerous islands in the Indian Ocean. The magnitude of trade
can be surmised from the fact that there were 300 ports to facilitate the
movement of goods. The shipbuilding industry flourished in the coastal
The city of Vijaynagar was a teeming
marketplace for both exports and imports. The fabulous wealth of the Empire
left the foreigners dumbfounded. The people, irrespective of which strata of
society they belonged to, possessed vast quantities of gold, diamonds and
material wealth. Domingo Paes described the citizens as being heavily
bejewelled. Abdur Razzak, the Khurasani ambassador to the court of
Vijaynagar, refers to the treasury which had chambers filled with molten
The merchant community in the other parts
of the country was a prosperous lot. The Gujarati and Marwari businessmen
who controlled the trade between the coastal towns and North India were
extremely wealthy and spent large sums for the construction of temples. The
Multanis who were Hindus and the Khurasanis who were Muslim foreigners
controlled the trade with Central and West Asia. Many of these Multanis and
Khurasanis settled in Delhi where they lived luxurious lives. Cambay was
also home to an affluent mercantile community.
Thus India had always enjoyed a favourable
balance in her trade relations with other countries. Her earnings from the
export of textiles, sugar, spices and indigo alone went up to crores of
rupees. The state coffers were amply stocked with gold and silver.
The Decline in Prosperity
However the political
conditions in India in the 18th century brought about a sea
change in the situation. This period was marked by decline of the Mughal
government and the rise of the Maratha power. After Aurangzeb, who was the
last of the great Mughal Emperors, the state crumbled and it could not
protect the mercantile community as before. Though the regional powers did
extend patronage to the artisans and manufacturers, they did not have the
economic and military means to sustain it. Consequently trade dwindled. The
Maratha invasions in northern India also adversely affected trade and
The rise of the British East
India Company in the mid 18th century dealt a fatal blow to the
prosperity of the country. The victory of the English over the Nawab of
Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 marked a turning point in the
fortunes of the country. In order to disrupt the trade relations between the
Indian mercantile community and the foreigners, the Company imposed heavy
duties on both imports and exports. After the Company had established its
supremacy in Bengal, it prevented merchants from Asian countries from coming
to the eastern provinces for trading purposes. The export of Indian textiles
to England was totally banned.
The Company increasingly
monopolised the foreign trade in India thereby reducing the mercantile
community to bankruptcy. Not only did it cripple the indigenous
manufactures, but also it started importing various items such as cloth,
utensils, horses, etc. from England. This so adversely affected the Indian
traders that they turned to other professions for their livelihood. The
great trading community, which had flourished during the Mughal rule, had
dwindled to non-existence by the end of the eighteenth century. Thus the
once glorious arts and crafts of India died a natural death.