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Trade and Commerce in Early Medieval India: Part I

Trade and Commerce in Early Medieval India: Part I

  • The nature and extent of the use of money, the functioning of market the role of agriculture production and stages in the conditions of urban settlements are interrelated development. All these are also related to system of land grant.
  • The overall picture of trade and commerce during the six centuries (700- 1300) under discussion is that of feudalisation. Below are indicators of the process of feudalisation.
    • The way in which money transactions took place,
    • The manipulations of landed interests including those of state officials and ruling chiefs,
    • Functioning of the ruling elite in the interests of big traders and merchants and
    • Putting restrictions on artisans and craftsmen
  • The historical features of trade during the early medieval times can be best understood if we divide this period into two broad phases:
    • 700-900 A.D : Relative decline of trade, metallic currency, urban centres and a somewhat closed village economy.
    • 900-1300 A.D : Trade picked up momentum both within and outside of country. Number of metal coins in use also increased. But still monetary economy was not deeply penetrated (as it was during 5 centuries post mauryan period).
The First Phase (c.A.D. 700-900):
  • The period from A.D. 750-1000 witnessed wide-spread practice of granting land not only to priests and temples but also to warrior chiefs and state officials. There emergence of a hierarchy of landlords. Even graded state officials such as maha-mandaleshvara, mandalika, samanta,mahasamanta, thakkura etc. developed interests in land.
  • They lived on the surplus extracted from the peasants who were hardly left with anything to trade.
  • It resulted in the growth of rural economy where local needs were being satisfied locally through the imposition of numerous restrictions on the mobility of actual producers. The relative dearth of medium of exchange, viz.. metal coins only strengthened this trend.
  • Media of Exchange:
    • The paucity of actual coins and the absence of coin-moulds in archaeological finds lead us to believe in the shrinkage of trade during the period under survey.
    • Though first suggested by D.D. Kosambi, it was the work of R.S. Sharma’s in 1965 that brought to focus the paucity of coinage in the post-Gupta times, its link with trade and commerce and consequent emergence of feudal social formation. The subject has been keenly debated and there had been following types of responses:
      • A cast study of Orissa substantiates complete absence of coins between c.A.D. 600 and 1200 but argues for-trade with Southeast Asia and emphasizes the role of barter in foreign trade.
      • Kashmir, on the other hand, shows emergence of copper coinage from about the eighth century A.D. Extremely poor quality of this coinage has been explained in terms of the decline of trade based economy and rise of agricultural pursuits in the valley.
      • Finally, a point of view questions not only the idea of paucity of coins but also the decline in trade. This is based on the evidence from what is described as the mid-Eastern India comprising Bihar, West Bengal and the present Bangladesh during A.D. 750-1200.
        • While it is conceded that there was no coined money and that the Palas and Senas themselves did not strike coins, it is also argued that there was no dearth of media of exchange. To illustrate, it is emphasized that there was not only a long series of Harikela silver coinage (Harikela was a kingdom in ancient Bengal encompassing much of the eastern regions of the Indian Subcontinent. )but also cowries and more importantly churni (money in the form of gold/silver dust) also functioned as media of exchange.
        • But even in these areas:
          • The relevant sources are silent about the participation of indigenous people in the maritime trade of the area.
          • Even the limited trading activities were confined to the ruling elite.
          • The miserable conditions of the common man are reflected in the meaning of the word vangali (literally, a resident of Bengal) which denoted somebody “very poor and miserable”.
    • Thus, there may have been some regional exceptions but the all-India perspective fits in the general hypothesis of Professor R.S.Sharma.
    • Similar was the case with south-east Asia :
      • Detailed study of Cambodia, for example, shows that during the two centuries of post-Gupta times (A.D. 600-800) Southeast Asia failed to evolve any system of coinage and barter (largely based on paddy and only marginally on cloth) provided essentials of the Khmer (Khmer Empire officially the Angkor Empire ) economy.
    • Even when, few early medieval coin types as the Indo-Sassanian. Shri Vigraha, Shri Adivaraha, Bull and Horseman, Gadhaiya, etc. emerged in Western and North western India and to some extent in the Ganga valley, they could not make much dent in the overall economy.
      • Apart from the doubts about the period of emergence of these coins, their extremely poor quality and purchasing power also indicate the shrinkage of their actual role.
    • Further, in relation to the rising population and expanding area of settlement, the overall volume of money circulation was negligible.
    • Hence, we can say that the case for the relative decline of metallic money during the first phase is based on convincing empirical evidence. This was bound to have an impact on India’s trading activities.
  • Relative Decline of Trade:
    • Internally, the fragmentation of political authority and the dispersal of power to local chiefs, religious grantees, etc. seem to have had an adverse effect, at least in the initial centuries of the land grant economy.
    • Enthusiasm of traders and merchants declined,Reason:
      • Many of the intermediary landlords, particularly of less productive areas, resorted to loot and plunder or excessive taxes on goods passing through their territories.
      • The frequent war amongst potential ruling chiefs.
      • Though two Jain texts of the eighth century, Samaraicchakaha of Haribhadra Suri and the Kuvalayamala of Uddyotana Suri, refer to brisk trade and busy towns, it is rightly argued that these texts heavily draw their material from the sources of earlier centuries and therefore, do not necessarily reflect the true economic condition of the eight century.
    • Why foreign trade declined:
      • India lost important market in the west which fetched considerable amount of gold in the early centuries of the Christian era:
        • 4TH century: fall of the great Roman Empire.
        • Mid 6th century: the people of Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) learnt the art of making silk.
      • The expansion of Arabs on the North-west frontiers of India (in 7th and 8th century):
        • A story in the Kathasaritsagara tells us that a group of merchants going from Ujjain to Peshawar were captured by an Arab and sold.
        • Arabs raided Broach and Thana (7th century) and destroyed Valabhi (8th century) an important port on the Saurashtra coast. Thus, Western coast of lndia suffered dislocation and disruption of sea trade.
        • Though later, the Arabs played an important part in the growth of Indian maritime trade after the tenth century; initially their sea raids had an adverse effect on the Indian commercial activity.
      • The fights amongst the Tibetans and Chinese during these centuries also affected the flow of goods along the routes in central Asia.
    • There are some references in the contemporary literature to India’s contact with Southeast Asia, but it is doubtful whether it could make up for the loss suffered on account of the decline of trade in the west.
  • Urban Settlements: Decay
    • The first phase was also marked by-the decay and desertion of many towns. It is an important symptom of commercial decline because the towns are primarily the settlements of people engaged in crafts and commerce.
    • As trade declined and the demand for craft-goods slumped, the traders and craftsmen living in towns had to disperse to rural areas for alternative means of livelihood. Thus towns decayed and townsfolk became a part of village economy.
      • Beside the accounts of Hiuen Tsang, the Pauranic records too, while referring to Kali age indicate depopulation of important cities. This seems to have been the continuation of the trend already indicated by Varahamihira (5th cen).
      • The decay of important towns such as Vaishali, Pataliputra, Varanasi, etc. is evident from the archaeological excavations which reveal poverty of structure and antiquities.
    • Between 3rd -8th century : The pan-Indian scene is marked by desertion of urban centres or their state of decays. Even those settlements (e.g Ropar (in Punjab), Atranjikhera and Bhita (in Uttar Pradesh), Eran (in Madhya Pradesh)) which continued upto the eighth century,were deserted thereafter.
      • Even the medieval greatness of Kanauj has still to be testified by the excavator’s spade.
    • But commercial activity though declined, it did not disappear completely:
      • Trade in costly and luxury goods meant for the use of kings, feudal chiefs and heads of temples and monasteries continued to exist.
      • The articles such as precious and semi-precious stones, ivory, harses, etc. formed an important part of the long distance trade.
      • But the evidence for transactions in the goods of daily use is quite meagre in the sources belonging to this period.
        • The only important article mentioned in the inscriptions are salt and oil which could not be produced by every village, and thus had to be brought from outside.
        • If the economy had not been self-sufficient, the references to trade in grains, sugar, textile, handicrafts, etc. would have been more numerous.
    • In short the nature of commercial activity during A.D. 750-1000 was such which catered more to the landed intermediaries and feudal lords rather than the masses. Though there were some pockets of trade and commerce such as Pehoa (near Karnal in Haryana) and Ahar (near Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh) where merchants from far and wide met to transact business, they could not make any significant dent in the closed economy of the country as a whole.
The Second Phase (c.A.D.900 – 1300):
  • This phase is marked by the revival of trade and commerce. It was also the period of agrarian expansion, increased use of money and the reemergence of market economy in which goods were produced for exchange rather than for local consumption.
  • These centuries also witnessed a substantial growth of urban settlements in different parts of the sub-continent.
  • It is not easy to quantify this development and there had been noticeable regional variations and disparities. However, between 9th -13th century, greater production of both cereals and pulses as well as of commercial crops was seen. And thus favourable climate was created for widening the scope of both internal and external trade.
  • Crafts and Industry:
    • The growth of agricultural production was supplemented by increased craft production. Increased craft production stimulated the process of both regional and inter-regional exchange.
    • Textile Industry, which had been well established since ancient times, developed as a major economic activity. Coarse as well as fine cotton goods were now being produced.
      • Marco Polo (A.D. 1293) and Arab writers praise the excellent quality of cotton fabrics from Bangal and Gujarat. The availability of madder in Bengal and indigo in Gujarat might have acted as important aides to the growth of textile industry in these regions.
      • Manasollasa (a text of the twelfth century) also mentions Paithan (in Maharashtra), Negapatinam, Kalinga and Multan as important centres of textile industry.
      • The silk weavers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu also constituted a very important and influential section of the society.
    • Oil industry acquired great importance during this period. From the tenth century onwards, we get more references to the cultivation of oilseeds as well as to ghanaka or oil mills.
      • An inscription from Karnataka refers to different types of oil mills operated both by men and bullocks.
      • We also notice the affluence of oilmen (tellikas) because some of them undertook the construction of temples and other public works.
    • References Sugarcane cultivation and cane crushers in this period also indicate large scale production of jaggery and other forms of sugar.
    • The craftsmanship in metal and leather goods too reached a high level of excellence. The literary sources refer to craftsmen connected with different types of metals such as copper, brass, iron, gold, silver, etc.
      • Iron:
        • A number of large beams at Puri and Konarka temples in Orissa indicate the proficiency of the iron smiths of India in the twelfth century.
        • Iron was also used to manufacture swords, spearheads, and other arms and weapons of high quality. Magadha, Benaras,  Kalinga and Saurashtra were known for the manufacture of good quality swords.
      • Embroidery: Gujarat was known for gold and silver embroidery.
      • Brass industry:
        • The Ginza records of the Jewish merchants belonging to the twelfth century reveal that Indian brass industry was so well known that the customers in Aden sent broken vessels and utensils to India to refashion them according to their own specifications.
      • The existing specimens of Cola bronzes and those from Nalanda, Nepal and Kashmir display the excellence of the Indian metal workers.
      • Leather industry : Gujarat occupied an enviable position in leather inductry.
        • Marco Polo mentions that the people of Gujarat made beautiful leather mats in red and blue which were skilfully embroidered with figures of birds and animals. These were in great demand in the Arab World.
  • Coins and Other Media of Exchange:
    • There were re-emergence of metal money in this period.
    • Literary references: Thus texts such as Prabandhachintamani, Lilavati, Dravyapariksha, Lekhapaddjati, etc. mention bhagaka, rupaka, vimshatika, karshapana, dinar, dramma, nishka, gadhaiyamudra, gadyanaka, tanka, and many other coins with their multiples.
    • There are prolific inscriptional references. For example
      • The Siyadoni inscription alone refers to varieties of drammas in the mid-tenth century.
      • The Paramara Chalukya, Chahmana, Pratihara, Pala, Candella and Cola inscriptions corroborate most of the terms found in contemporary literature.
    • As far as the actual specimens of coins are concerned :
      • The practice of minting gold coins was revived by Gangeyadera (A.D. 1019;1040); the Kalacuri King of Tripuri (in Madhya Pradesh) after a gap of more than four centuries.
      • Govindachandra the Gahadavala King near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, The Chandella rulers kirttivarman and Madanavarman in Central India, King Harsha of Kashmir and some Cola Kings in Tamil Nadu also issued gold coins.
      • According to one estimate, about nine mints were founded in different parts of Karnataka during the twelfth and thirteenth century. An important mint functioned at Shrimol (near Jodhpur) in Rajasthan.
    • Limited role of metal money:
      • As far as the actual role of metal money is concerned, the little work that has been done on a regional basis, does not help us to prove deep penetration of money.
      • Despite the plethora of references to coins, the evidence of overall volume of money in circulation is almost negligible.
      • Purchasing power of early medieval coins was also poor, irrespective of the metal used. All coins of the period were highly debased and reduced in weight.
      • Also, in terms of the rising population and expanding area of settlement, the use of money seems to have been highly restricted.
        • The case study of early medieval Rajasthan shows that the revival of trade, multiplication of exchange centres and markets and prosperity of merchant families took place only with the help of “partial monetization“.
        • Similar was the case on the Western coast (Konkan area) under the Shilaharas (The Shilahara Dynasty was a royal clan that established itself in northern and southern Konkan, present-day Mumbai and southern Maharashtra during the Rashtrakuta period, A.D. 850-1250) where economy was marked by limited use of money.
      • The types and denominations of coins remained not only extremely localised but could not penetrate deep into the economic ethos. Masses were far away from handling of coins.
      • The currency system of South India during A.D. 950-1300 also shows that transactions at all levels of the society were not equally affected by coined money.
        • For example, the fabulous expenses reported to have been incurred by the Pandyas as regular buyers of imported horses cannot be thought in terms of what we know as very poor Pandyan currency.
      • Barter was still an important means of exchange in local inter-regional and perhaps even in inter-national commerce.
        • There are references which indicate that carvanas of merchants exchanged their commodities with those of other regions.
        • According to one account, horses imported from abroad were paid for not in cash but in Indian goods which may have been silk, spices or ivory. These Indian goods enjoyed constant demand in the markets all over the world.
    • Parallel development of credit instrument by which debits and credits could be transferred without the handling of cash money.
      • In the texts of the period we find references to a device called hundika or the bill of exchange which might have been used by merchants for commercial transactions. Through this device credit could be extended by one merchant to another and, thus. the obstacle to commerce due to shortage of coined money could be overcome.
      • The Lakhapaddhati, (a text which throws light on the life of Gujarat in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries), refers to various means of raising loan for consumption as well as commercial ventures through the mortgage of land, house and cattle.

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