Essay on the account of Trade of India with Western Asia & Africa


The ex­treme antiquity of India’s trade with the Western world is an established fact. The wise policy of friendship with the Hellenic powers begun by Chandragupta Maurya after his repulse of Seleucus, and followed by his son and grandson, must have favoured the expansion of Indian trade with the West.

The continuance of these favourable conditions was censured by the establishment of Greek dominion in India in the second and first centuries B.C. The trade between India and the Seleucid Empire was conducted both by land and sea.

The northern and more important land route led from Taxila by way of Kapisa, Bactria, Hekatompylos and Ecbatana to Seleucia, while the southern route connected the lower Indus Valley through Seistan and Car mania with the same terminus. The sea route connected West Indian ports with Seleucia through the Per­sian Gulf, and with Egypt through the ports of South Arabia.


The list of India’s exports to Egypt comprised ivory, tortoise-shell, pearls, unguents and dyes (especially indigo), nard, cost us, mala- bathrum, iron, and wood. This trade suffered a setback when Ptolemy II poured enough African ivory into the market to secure the traffic in this important commodity for himself.

But this loss was more than made up by the increase of trade with Seleuceia. Indian ivory and spices were ex­hibited in phenomenal quantities by Antiochus IV in his triumph at Daphne in 166 B.C.

In the closing years of the Greek rule and the opening phase of the Saka-Pahlava dominion oc­curred an event which was destined to revolutionise India’s trade with the West. Greek mariners from Egypt, making progressive use of their momentous discovery of the monsoons, un­dertook direct voyages successively to the Indus delta, the Gujarat coast and the Malabar ports, (c. 100/80 B.C.-A.D.40/50 or more probably (A.D.30).

When Pliny wrote his work (c. A.D. 77), Western merchants sailing from the Egyptian coast with a favourable wind could reach Muziris (Cranganore) in forty days, and complete the journey both ways in one year.


Accompanied as it was with a large increase in the Roman demand for Indian luxuries, this shortening of the voyage was immediately attended with an immense ex­pansion of maritime trade between India and the Roman Empire. This trade reached its peak in the century following the accession of Emperor

Augustus (29 B.C.) and suffered a gradual decline in the course of the following centuries. Meanwhile, the old overland route across Western Asia was in use under Parthian rule. In his work Parthian Stations (beginning of the Chris­tian era), Isadora of Charaxgave an itinerary of the caravan route from Antioch in the west to the valley of the Helmund river on India’s border, and recounted.

In order, the supply-stations main­tained along that route by the Parthian govern­ment for the convenience of merchants. From other sources we learn that a separate outlet from the Helmund valley through Carmania and Persia to the head of the Persian Gulf, whence merchandise was sent by ships sailing round Arabia to the Levant.

Of the active part played by Roman merchants in the maritime trade with India in the early cen­turies A.D., we have ample evidence. Large ships from Egypt are said by the author of the Periplus and by Strabo to have visited India in their times. The Tamil works of the Sangam Age mention colonies of Yavana merchants in the coastal cities.


Recent excavations at Arikamedu (near Pon- dicherry) have revealed the remains of a Roman trading station (the first of its kind discovered in India) with numerous fragments of Roman pot­tery of the first two centuries A.D. Hoards of Roman imperial coins have been found on other Indian sites, especially in the South.

In the first century A.D., moreover, Arab merchants are directly mentioned in the Periplus as making voyages in their own ships to Indian ports. That Indians also took part in this trade is seen clearly from the Periplus. In the first century A.D. Indian ships sailed regularly with cargoes from Ariaca (its chief port Barygaza) to the Persian Gulf, the south coast of Arabia and the Red Sea coast of Africa.

Beyond Ocelis at the mouth of the Red Sea, Indians were prevented from proceeding by the selfish policy of Arab merchants who main­tained their ancient trade monopoly. But Indian traders had already settled in the large island of Dioscordia (Socotra). This island was occasional­ly visited by Indian ships starting from Barygaza and the Malabar ports for East Africa.

Literary references as well as surviving remains enable us to make out a list of the objects of trade between India and the Roman world in the first century A.D. The exports were of a varied charac­ter comprising agricultural, animal, manufactur­ing and mineral products. Among agricultural products, rice and wheat (in spite of their bulk), clarified butter (notwithstanding the climate and the distance), sesame oil and sugar (honey from the reed called saccliari) were carried from Ariaca in Indian ships to the market-towns of East Africa.


Rice and wheat were also sold at Socotra by mer­chants carrying cargoes from Barygaza and Malabar and occasionally calling at that island. Indian sandalwood, teakwood, timbers and logs of black wood (sisam) and ebony were regularly shipped from Barygaza to the Persian Gulf ports. Among Indian animals, lions and tigers, apes and monkeys, and especially parrots, found a ready market among Roman subjects.

For obvious reasons they must have been carried largely along land routes. The testimony of Roman writers and of extant mosaics and gems show knowledge of at least three species of Indian parrots. Indian ivory, which was exported to Western Asia and Egypt in Hellenic times, was in great demand in Rome during the first century A.D.

At the time of the Periplus, ivory was shipped from Barygaza, Muziris and Nelcynda. Tortoise-shell, obtained from the Hawk’s Bill turtles of Indian waters, came into general use in the Roman world in the first century A.D. It was used especially for decorating bedsteads made of ivory.

According to the Periplus the best variety was brought from Chryse (Malay Peninsula?) and this, along with the supplies obtained nearer home from Sri Lanka and the smaller islands, was sent to the Malabar ports for export to the West. Skincoats and coloured lack were exported from Arabia to the Somali coast. Pearls came into general use in Rome, according to Pliny, after the capture of Alexandria by Augustus.


The same writer assigns to pearls the first rank among valuables, and tells us how Roman ladies not only wore them as finger, and ear-ornaments, but also put them on their shoes. In the time of the Periplus, pearl, were worked off the coasts of the Pandya Chola kingdoms. These pearls with others’ Sri Lanka found their way into the Malabar where they were found by Greek merchant was at first woven by the Romans into line woollen fabrics, but afterwards the use of garments became common.

Pliny included sit his list of the most valuable commodities, Emperor Aurelian declared it to be would weight in gold. Indians acted as the Chinese silk trade with the West. Silk sent China was diverted (partially at least) from Great West Asian route southwards to the m of the Indus and the Gulf of Cambay for the West.

The traffic in Indian aromatics spices other plant products increased enormously in first century A.D. to meet the heavy Ro demand. Among these products pepper held chief place. It was used very much in Rome expensive cookery, and as a medicine. An Tamil poem called it “the passion of the Yavaiv In the time of the Periplus, black and white from the district of Cottonara was brought to the ports of Muziris and Nelcynda, when was transported by Greek merchants in very la” vessels. We hear also, in ancient Tamil work Yavanas carrying away large sacks of pepper?

Exchange for gold. Long pepper, which was and expensive variety, was shipped from BarygL among other spices, cinnamon was in hi demand among Romans “as a perfume, as incense, as a condiment, and as a medicine”. namon-leaf, which was called malabathrum by Greeks and Romans, was found by them in India at the time of the Periplus great quantities malabathrum were carried away from Malab ports by the foreign merchants in ships charter for the purpose.

Supplies were brought do (from the trans-Gangetic countries) by way of Ganga River, and these were supplemented by t local product. Cardamom, another Indi product found in Malabar and Travancore, commanded a ready market in the Roman world its use as a medicine and a funerary perfume, was sent almost wholly by the land routes, for while Periplus is silent about it, other writers signify by various epithets indicating the routes along, which it was carried or the places where they were prepared.

Costus was used by the omans in unguents and perfumes, in medicines, seasoning of food and wine, and in sacrifices, produced an oil which was used by the as a perfume and ointment, while leaf- d (spikenard), according to Pliny, held the first among unguent the costly spikenard oil (as in high demand among the Romans as an in cookery and drugs, and rich ladies of used to anoint guests at banquets with it.

In the time of the Periplus and nard were from Barbaricum, while the spikenard as brought down partly by way of Poclais (Push- avati) to Barygaza, and partly by way of the to the Malabar ports. A variety of Indian m-rcsin, called bedllium by the Greeks and omans, was exported from Barygaza and Bar- icum, but this was merely supplementary to the from South Arabia and East Africa which oduced the famous frankincense and myrrh.

Non-resinous products much in demand ong the Romans was indigo, valued both for lousing and for medicine. A similar product called lycium provided a yellow dye, an astringent for the eyes, a face cosmetic, a dressing for sores and wounds, and a cure for diseases of the throat.

It was exported from Barygaza and, together with ‘ digo, from Barbaricum. The gum or resin called Indian copal was used by the Romans mainly for aking varnishes, and the bark called macir as a cific for dysentery. Both were exported from the Somali entrepots after being brought from India, their place of origin.

As to textiles, cotton cloth of very fine quality (monache), as well as ccarser varieties (sagmag- togene and molochine) from the great centres of the industry in the Deccan, together with other coarser cloth of local origin, were exported from Ariaca to Arabia, East Africa and Egypt.

From the Malabar ports were exported muslins of Sri Lanka, the Chola country and the Krishna- Godavari delta and the finest of all, the muslins of the lower Ganga. As regards metalware, Indian iron and steel were exported from Ariaca to the Somali coast, no doubt en route to Egypt. Indian steel is included in a list of dutiable articles at Alexandria in a Digest of Roman law.

As regards semi-precious and precious stones, murrhine vases and other articles, according to Pliny, were highly prized in Rome from the lime of Pompey’s Asiatic con­quests. The stone (agate and carnelian) was found by Roman merchants at Barygaza, where it was brought down in large quantities from various sources in the Deccan trap, in the Rajmahal traps of Bihar and in Jabalpur by way of the marts of Pratishthana and Ujjaini. A great export trade in precious stones of all kinds, including diamonds, sapphires and beryl, was carried on from the Malabar ports, the supplies being obtained probably from the interior and from Sri Lanka.

We now come to India’s imports from the West. Because of the comparatively small Indian demand for the products of the Roman Empire, the latter suffered a perpetually adverse balance of trade, so that Roman gold and silver coins in large quantities were transferred to India to make up the deficit.

Writing to the Senate in A.D. 22, the emperor Tiberious complained that the em­pire was being drained of its treasure which was being sent to foreign lands in exchange for baubles. At the time of the Periplus, Barygaza and, still more, the Malabar ports, imported Roman gold and silver coins.

Pliny complained a little later of the drain amounting to no less than 550 million sesterces every year to India to pay for Indian products, which were sold at fully one hundred times their original cost. Roman gold coins in North India were re-struck by the Kushana emperors with the same weight and fine­ness as their originals.

In the South, where hoards of them have been found, they probably circulated as currency. As regards other imports, slaves, ac­cording to the Periplus, were exported from the Persian Gulf to Barygaza. Singing boys and good- looking virgins for the king’s harem are, men­tioned by the same authority, among regular imports brought to Barygaza.

Among animal products of Western origin, coral held the chief place. It occurs repeatedly in Indian lists of gems, and its high value in the eyes of Indians is referred to by Pliny who says, that it was no less appreciated by the men of India than Indian pearls by Roman women.

In the first cen­tury A.D., coral was brought to the great ports of Barbaricum and Barygaza. It was probably the red variety of the western Mediterranean and not the black, which is abundant in the Red Sea and along the Arabian coast. Pearls of inferior quality were brought from the Persian Gulf to Barygaza.

Other articles in this category are purple dye shipped from the Persian Gulf, and tortoise-shell brought from Chryse to the Malabar ports, for re-export to the West. Part of this purple dye probably came from Tyre, which produced the best variety in Asia, according to Pliny. The tortoise-shell from Chryse, according to Periplus, was the best variety obtainable from the Indian Ocean.

As to agricultural products, large quantities of dates were exported to Barygaza from the Persian Gulf, still the principal source of their supply. Italian, Laodicaean and Arabian wines came to Barygaza, the first being the most prized. Much wine came to the Malabar ports, and a little wine to Barbaricum.

We learn from Strabo that Italian wine produced in Campania was the most highly prized by the Romans, while the Laodicaean wine produced on the Syrian coast mostly supplied the needs of the Alexandrines.

Arabian wine, it has been held, was probably in part the grape wine of Yemen, but mostly date wine from the Persian Gulf. Among aromatic, medicinal, and other plant products, Barbaricum imported storax and frankincense, and Barygaza storax and sweet clover. Storax, which was probably derived from the sap of a tree native to Asia Minor, was used for medicinal purposes.

Under the head manufactures, imports con­sisted mainly of varieties of cloth and glass. The embroidered fabrics (figured linens) which came to Barbaricum have been identified with the stuffs of that kind manufactured, according to Pliny, in Babylon and Alexandria. Clothing after the local fashion was sent from the Persian Gulf to Barygaza, which also imported some thin clothing of which the source is unknown. Glass vessels came to Barbaricum, flint glass to Barygaza, and crude glass to Malabar.

As regards minerals, railcar and orpiment (the red and yellow sulphuric arsenic) were imported into the Malabar and raglan into Barygaza. These were ship from the Persian Gulf where mines of arsenic worked in Carmania, according to Pliny, timony (sulphide ore) came to Barygaza pr from East Arabia and Carmania. While re and orpiment was principally used as mi; paints, antimony was made into ointments eye-tinctures.

As for metals, copper, tin, and were imported into Barygaza and the M ports, copper being obtained probably from mania, and tin from Spain by way of Egypt, copper, which was exported from Barygaza to Persian Gulf, was probably Western copper tained from Arabian ports and reshipped for port.

Gold and silver plate (of unknown sour were imported into Barbaricum, while Bary; obtained gold bullion from the Persian G (probably from mines in East Arabia). Veryc silver-ware was imported into Barygaza for king’s use.

As for precious stones, topaz was came to Barbaricum was the true variety found’ the Red Sea islands, according to Pliny Strabo, the latter stating that it was a transparent stone that sparkled with a golden lustre. Emer was exported to India from Berenice, the Egyptian port on the Red Sea, although Periplus itself is silent about it.

Trade with Sri Lanka and South-east Asia: References in the Mahabharata suggest that Sri its time was renowned for its production of and pearls. Pearls and “transparent stones”, and tortoise-shells are definitely mentioned as products of the island, in the Periplus. For Pliny we learn that rice and ginger, beryl and hyacinth were included among its products, it had mines of gold, silver and other minerals.

It is reasonable to hold that some of the pearls and “transparent stones of all kinds”, including sap­phire exported from the Malabar ports in the Periplus were derived from Sri Lankans included, by the writer the Mahaniddesa commentary, as one of the places across the mighty ocean that were visited by merchants in their ships.

The beginnings of India’s commercial relation with the south east Asia go back to times long before Christ. While, in the West, Indians had to meet the powerful competition of Arab and Roman mer­chants, the field lay practically open to them in the East.

In the latter half of the first century A.D., very large ships arc mentioned as sailing from the Chola ports not only to the Ganga but also to Chryse (the exact equivalent of the Indian Suvar- nabhumi or Suvarnadvipa, a generic designation for Burma, the Malay peninsula and the neigh­bouring islands).

These ships were probably of the two-masted type represented on some coins of King Yajnasri Satakarni, which are chiefly found along the Coromandel coast betv een Madras and Cuddalore.

In the second century A.D., a regular sea route was in operation from the seaboard of Eastern India to the opposite coast. Ships, accord­ing to Ptolemy’s account, sailed from a point of departure (apheterion) near modern Chicacole, and striking right across the sea, called at Sada and Tamale in the Silver Country (Aracan?) on the way to the Chryse Chersonese (Malay Peninsula).

Another route connected the upper Ganga region with Suvarnabhumi or Suvarnadvipa (evidently by way of the great ports Ganga and Tamalities at the mouth of the river). Direct voyages even from Bharukachchha were not unknown.

References to these last-named routes are contained in the stories of the voyages of daring Indian merchants to Suvarnabhumi and Suvarnadvipa in theJatakas, as well as in the great collections of folklore (Briliatkathamanjari, Brihatkatha-sloka-samgraha and the Kathasaritsagara) going back to the lost work of Gunadhya.

Voyages of Indian merchants to the Malay Peninsula and Kampuchea in the third century A.D. are recorded by the Chinese writers. The names given in the Indian works, and after them in the Greek and Arab writings, prove that it was the quest for gold that first, and mainly, drew the Indian merchants across the seas to Indo-China and Indonesia.

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