Useful notes on Trade with Sri-Lanka & South-East Asia


Ceylon was famous for production of gems and pearls. Pearls, transparent stones, muslin and tortoise shells are mentioned as products of the island in the Periplus. From Pliny we get the information that rice, ginger, beryl and hyacinth were produced and it had mines of gold, silver and other minerals. Some of these items (pearls and sapphires) exported from the Malabar ports were derived from Ceylon.

While the western trade and commerce was dominated by the Arab and Roman merchants, the Indian merchants completely dominated the South- East Asian network. The South-East Asian region had two-fold utility for India.

Apart from providing important halting stations, the region was rich in mineral and agricultural products. That is why this region came to be called Suvarnabhumi or Suvarnadvipa in Indian literature. This roughly comprised lower Burma, the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago.


These regions are known as Chryse (soil of gold) and Argyre (soil of silver) in the classical literature. Malaya is rich in tin and iron as well. Burma was situated on the trade route connecting North-eastern India and Yunnan province of China. But direct trade between India and Burma was very meagre in the post-Mauryan period.

Malaya (Golden Khersonese of Ptolemy) was also situated between Indian and South China Sea. The traders were using the Isthmus of Kra in Malaya as the shortest passage between the Indian ocean Indo- Chinese mainland and the South-China Sea. There are many legends about trade with Indonesian archipelago. Of these, the one relating to the king Aji Shaka is widely known.

The Ramayana refers to sandalwood coming from the Rishabha mountain located in Timor or Celebes in Eastern Indonesia. This region is famous as a spice growing area. Kalidasa refers to lavanga (clove) from Dvipantara identified with Sumatra. The reputation of Indonesia as a pepper producing area is evident from several Chinese texts. Fu-nan and Champa, roughly comprising Cambodia and Vietnam, preserve an old Indian tradition according to which a Brahman called Hun-T’ien (Kaundinya) of Mo-fu (Malaya) reached Fu-nan by chance in a trading vessel. He won over this country and its female ruler Lin-yeh sometime in the first century AD.

We also learn that a diplomatic exchange took place between Fu-nan and the Menluen (Murunda) ruler of north India who was possibly of the later Kushana dynasty. The Indian rulers sent four Yueh- chi horses as present to Fan-chen, the ruler of Fu- nan.


From excavations at the maritime town of Oc- Eo we learn more of the early trading links with India. Large number of semi-precious stones which were exported to the West from India has been found here. Jewellery shows Indian and Roman influence. Scripts on some items also show Indian influence, particularly of the Nasik inscription of Usavadata and Vasisthiputra Pulumavi.

Two Buddhist bronze images in the style of Gandhara and a copper image in the style of Amaravati have been found. In Pong Tuk in Siam a Buddha image in Amaravati style and a Roman lamp have been unearthed. The famous inscription of Vo-canh in Vietnam belonging to 3rd or 4th century AD refers to a dynasty founded by king Sri-Mara. He was a Buddhist and Sanskrit was his court language. Arikamedu, it seems, was an entrepot for trade between Roman empire, Thailand, Champa and China.

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