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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 general prosperity.

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 foreign countries.

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 populations.

 Products and Manufactures

            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.

Domestic Trade

          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 boats.

            Different communities 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 existence.

Foreign Trade

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 velvets.

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 towns.

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 gold.

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 commerce.

            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.