Although India’s trade relations with central Asia began fairly early, it seems that before the Graeco- Bactrians started to rule over a part of north-western India there was no regular connection between India and central Asian regions.
The trade-routes coming from north-western India and western China met in Bactria, where, possibly for the first time, Indians came in close contact with the people of central Asia and China. India’s better acquaintence with the peoples of central Asia is evident from the epics, which refer to Sulika (Sogdiana), Kusika (Kucha), Charmakhandika (Samarkand), Bahlika (Bactrian) etc.
From north-western India, the main route to the oxus region proceeded along the Kabul valley through Hidda and Nagarahara, from where it passed through the valley of Bamiyan. Bamiyan was a prosperous trading centre and a great centre of Buddhism. Going further north, one reached the Hindukush and beyond it laid Bactria in the Oxus valley.
From here, routes led to the heart of central Asia, either through Sogdiana across the Jaxartes or towards the Tarim basin over the Pamirs. The latter had two branches. One of them went up the valley of Wakhan reaching the Oases of Yarkand and Kashgar (Hiuen Tsang’s and Marco Polo’s route). For trade, the northern route was probably more important, as silk could be taken to Bactria through it as well as via Samarkand to Merv.
Exploration in different places on the Tarim basin, such as Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan, Niya, Endere, Lou-Ian, Miran, Kucha, Quara Shahr and Turfan show that in these places Indian influence was very strong. This Indian influence in the Tarim basin was, it seems, a by-product of Sino-Indian relations which started sometime in the third century BC.
The earliest reference to India’s early trade with China in Indian literature comes from the Arthashastra which mentions chinamsuka literally: cloth made in China. On philological grounds it has been suggested that the Chinese traders introduced vermillion and bamboo (kichaka from ki’chok), though the time of their introduction is difficult to determine. On the other hand, the maritime contact in the 2nd century BC is proved by the evidence of a Chinese coin belonging to 138 BC found at Mysore.
It was the silk trade that added a new dimension to Sino-Indian relations. The Chinese emperor Wu- ti (140-86 BC) started establishing diplomatic relations with the countries through which the silk route passed.
Wu-ti finally established relations with Chi-pin i.e. the Shaka country, which later denoted Kushana region. In the mean time, due to several factors, a large part of the silk trade soon deviated from the traditional route. The Periplus states that from China (Thinae) raw silk, silk thread and silk goods were brought overland through
Bactria to Barygaza and by way of the Ganges to the Coromandel Coast this transit trade passing through the Kushana Empire brought fortune to the Kushanas.
Most of these articles came from India and rest from south-east Asia and Arabia though the Chinese knew them as Persian Products. Persians were basically acting as middlemen. Ptolemy refers to a road from China to India going through Palimbothra (Pataliputra), which suggests that there were two routes between China and India, (1) via Yunnan, Burma and Assam, and (2) via Tibet and Sikkim.
A work of the Chinese historian Pan-ku (1st century AD) mentions the kingdom of Huang-chew beyond Tonkin, to which Chinese traders travelled in foreign ships for buying pearls, glass, and rare stones in exchange for gold and silk. Huang-che has been identified with Kanchi. This suggests that south India had trading relations with China in the latter half of the 1 st century BC.