Indian trading stations were dotted throughout the islands of South-East Asia, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Thailand. The gradual acceptance of many features of Indian culture in these areas must doubtless have been facilitated by activities such as commerce.
Indian merchants carried spices from Java to Socotra or were busy participating in the trade between China and the Mediterranean lands via the Central Asian ‘Silk Route’, not to mention the increasing trade within the subcontinent itself.
Goods were transported by pack animals and ox-drawn carts and by water when rivers were navigable. The literature of the period is replete with descriptions of the marvels and wonders witnessed by sailors and merchants in distant lands. There are frequent references to rich financiers and wealthy guilds.
The textile guilds had a vast market, both domestic and foreign. Ivory-workers, stone-workers, metal-workers, and jewelers all prospered in the economic boom. Spices, pepper, sandalwood, pearls, precious stones, perfume, indigo, herbs, and textiles were exported in large quantities. Amongst the more lucrative imports were silk from China and horses from Central Asia and Arabia.
Some of the wealth of merchants and princes was donated to religious causes. Large endowments had made the Buddhist Church extremely powerful, and provided comfortable if not luxurious living for many Buddhist monks in the more important monasteries. These endowments enabled the monasteries to own land and to employ labour to work it.
The surplus income from such sources was invested in commercial enterprises which at times were so successful that monasteries could even act as bankers. Monastic establishments built in splendid isolation, like the one at Ajanta, were embellished with some of the most magnificent murals known to the ancient world.
The growth of centres of Buddhist teaching led to devoted scholars spending many hours on theology and philosophical speculation, thus sharpening the intellectual challenge which the Buddhists presented to the Brahmans.
Hindu institutions and personalities were also the recipients of enviably lavish patronage. There are references to donations of land or revenue from villages to learned Brahmans afraid renowned priests, enabling them and their families to live in comfort for many generations.
This was the age which saw attempts at building small stone temples to Hindu deities, temples which within half a millennium were to become the dominant focuses of society in many parts of the subcontinent. Together with the temples came the carving of images and the depiction of popular legends in stone.