Conventional studies have tended to categorize maritime trade in the Indian Ocean in the pre-colonial period into ethnic networks, such as Roman trade, Arab trade, and European trade in the western Indian Ocean, as well as Indian trade across the Bay of Bengal. The basis for these identities was inevitably the nature of sources available. For example, the first century A.D. text, the Periplus Maris Erythraei (Periplus of the Erythraen Sea) provides the most comprehensive account of trade and trading commodities between the Red Sea and the west coast of India. The text itself nowhere refers to “Roman trade,” though it does mention a diverse range of communities involved, including the Ichthyophagoi, or coastal fishing communities, the Nabateans, Sabaeans, Homerites, Arabs, and Indians. Nevertheless, in historical writing, references to Roman trade supplying the markets of the Empire with luxury items such as Indian muslin continue.
Contrary to such assumptions, the archaeological data indicate that the initial stages of the maritime system in South Asia may be traced to around 10,000 B.C., when fishing and sailing communities settled in coastal areas and exploited a diverse range of marine resources. These communities formed the bedrock of maritime travel and often combined fishing with trading ventures, especially in regions such as Gujarat, where fishing grounds are located at some distance from the coast.
By the third millennium B.C., these local and regional fishing and sailing circuits had evolved into trade networks between the Harappan settlements on the Makran and Gujarat coasts of the subcontinent and the Persian Gulf, as evident from finds of Harappan ceramics and seals at sites in the Gulf. A triad of names that figures consistently in Mesopotamian texts of the third to second millennium B.C. includes those of Dilmun (the Bahrain archipelago), Magan (the Oman peninsula) and Melukkha (identified with the Harappan settlements). Around the beginning of the common era, this network had expanded to include large parts of the western Indian Ocean extending from the Red Sea to the east coast of India, as described in the Periplus Maris Erythraei.
A corresponding network extended across the Bay of Bengal to incorporate large parts of island and mainland Southeast Asia. However, the distribution of a range of ceramics such as the rouletted ware, a fine textured pottery with rouletted decoration, at archaeological sites from lower Bengal to Sri Lanka, the north coasts of Java and Bali, and as far as Vietnam indicates several regional and transoceanic circuits.
The Sassanians ruled Iran and adjacent countries from A.D. 226 to 651 and were active participants in the trade of the Indian Ocean, with Siraf, located in the Persian Gulf, an important center of trade. After a break in settlement, Siraf reemerged as a major center around A.D. 700 and, together with Sohar, its location close to the mouth of the Gulf on the coast of Oman enabled it to participate in a regional trade network in the ninth to eleventh centuries A.D. that extended to settlements in the Indus delta, such as Banbhore, several centers along the west coast of India, and Mantai on the north coast of Sri Lanka. One of the characteristic features of maritime trade from the ninth and tenth centuries onward was the location of markets in fortified settlements along the Indian Ocean littoral, as in the interior. Rules governing the payment of taxes and regulating the functioning of the markets were often inscribed on copper plates and provide useful insights into the organization of the trade network.
Trade and Exchange
The commodities involved in maritime trade in the Indian Ocean may be divided into various broad categories, such as aromatics, medicines, dyes and spices; foodstuffs, wood, and textiles; gems and ornaments; metals; and plant and animal products. These categories find mention in a range of textual sources from the first century Periplus Maris Erythraei to the Geniza documents of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, Chinese accounts, and medieval Arab writings.
Textiles were a major commodity involved in the Indian Ocean trade and included a wide range, from coarse cottons to fine silks and from dyed cloth to embroidered material. Furniture in Asia consisted mostly of various types of carpets, cushions, canopies and draperies—all produced by the textile industry. The value attributed to these varied not only temporally but also spatially in the different regions of the Indian Ocean littoral. It is suggested that textiles in Southeast Asia were recognized as a means of storing wealth, whereas in India domestic surplus income was traditionally stored in the form of gold and silver jewelry.
Gold, silver, and copper were the main traded metals, exchanged both as currency and bullion. Though sources of copper and lead are available in the subcontinent, the Periplus refers to the import of copper, tin, and lead to Kane, Barygaza, and Muziris on the west coast. This is repeated in the Geniza documents, which refer to trade in metals from south India and the regular export of iron and steel, brass, and bronze vessels. In return, copper, tin, and bronze vessels were imported into the south, where new ones were created and old ones repaired.
These commodities were exchanged through a complex diversity of transactions including gifts, barter, and trade. There are several references in the Periplus to presents given to the elite—for example, wine and grain in considerable quantity imported into the region of the Barbaroi in east Africa was “not for trade but as an expenditure for the good will of the Barbaroi.” Similarly, in the region of Barygaza, or Bharuch, on the west coast of India, the king imported slave musicians, beautiful girls as concubines, fine wine, expensive clothing with no adornment, and choice unguent.
In addition to these gifts, the elite constantly tried to control trade. The Periplus refers to a customs officer and a centurion being dispatched to the harbor of Leuke Kome on the east coast of the Red Sea. The island of Socotra at the mouth of the Red Sea was under the control of the king of the frankincense-bearing land, who had leased it out; the island was hence under guard. Somewhat later in the text, there is reference to the harbor of Moscha Limen in the region of Omana, where frankincense was guarded by some power of the gods.
Organization of Trade
In the early centuries of the common era, Buddhist texts and inscriptions recording donations at early Buddhist monastic sites provide data on the organization of trading activity into guilds, in addition to the presence of individual merchants. The state no doubt derived revenue from taxing trade transactions at entry points to cities and towns. From the middle of the first millennium A.D. there are several instances of these taxes being transferred to religious establishments. The charter of Visnusena, dated to A.D. 592 from Lohata in the Gujarat-Kathiawar region, provides a detailed list of seventy-two trade regulations or customary laws to be followed by the “community of merchants” (vaniggrama) established in the region. For example, it is specified that merchants staying away for a year were not required to pay an entrance fee on their return. Other clauses specify duties that were to be paid. A boat full of vessels had to pay twelve silver coins, but if the vessels were for a religious purpose, then it was only one and a quarter silver coins. In the case of a boat carrying paddy, it was half this amount. Other commodities mentioned as being carried on boats included dried ginger sticks and bamboo.
From the ninth to the mid-fourteenth centuries, two of the merchant guilds that dominated economic transactions in south India were the Manigramam and the Ayyavole. Associated with these two merchant guilds were associations of craftsmen such as weavers, basket makers, potters, and leather workers. Though these two guilds originated independently, from the mid-thirteenth century onward, the Ayyavole association became so powerful that the Manigramam functioned in a subordinate capacity. Not only did these merchant associations develop powerful economic networks, they also employed private armies.
The range of their operations extended well beyond the boundaries of the Indian subcontinent into Southeast Asia. Several clusters of Tamil inscriptions have been found on the eastern fringes of the Indian Ocean from Burma to Sumatra. In contrast, the major states of Java and Bali reacted somewhat differently to the advent of Indian merchant groups. In the tenth century, local versions of these merchant guilds termed the banigrama appeared in the north coast ports of both the islands. While some foreign merchants may have been included in these groups, these appear largely as indigenous organizations associated with the local economic networks as tax-farmers.
Around the turn of the second millennium, there was increasing evidence of fortified settlements in coastal areas and of attempts by the state and religious institutions to localize the sale and exchange of goods, either within the fortified precincts or in the vicinity of a Hindu temple. The tenth-century Siyadoni inscription from Gujarat records donations made to a temple of the god Vishnu between 903 and 968 by merchants and artisans and the endowment of shops in the textile market, main market, and so on.
Along the Konkan coast, there are references to the fortified market center of Balipattana. The Kharepatan plates of Rattaraja, dated to A.D. 1008, lists gifts to the temple of Avvesvara built by Rattaraja’s father and situated inside the fortifications. Also located within the fortifications were settlements of female attendants, oilmen, gardeners, potters and washermen, and also some land.
Farther south is the Piranmalai inscription of the thirteenth century from the Sokkanatha temple, built like a fortress. The importance of the temple lay in its strategic location astride routes crossing the southern part of the peninsula from the Malabar coast to the east. The record lists a range of commodities on which a tax was levied for the benefit of the temple. These included cotton, yarn, thick cloth, thin cloth, and thread.
Aggression and Sea Battles versus Ritual and Ceremony
The establishment of fortified coastal settlements is matched by references to settlements across the Bay of Bengal. In one of his inscriptions dated A.D. 1025, Rajendra Chola enumerates thirteen port cities of island Southeast Asia and the Nicobar islands, which were raided by the South Indian maritime force. Sastri used this reference to conclude that the Chola navy had conquered parts of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, and this is a trend found in subsequent writings.
These references should, however, be reexamined within the overall developments in peninsular India and the increasing emphasis on the cult of the hero. Elaborately carved memorial stones have been found extensively in peninsular India, dating from the first to the twelfth centuries. These provide abundant information on the cult of the hero and are also significant indicators of sea battles, especially those from the region of Goa dating to the period of the Kadambas (950–1270). From the eleventh century onward, representations on memorial stones depict planked vessels, sharp-ended with a long projecting bow strongly raked, in addition to canoe-shaped craft.
In contrast to this emphasis on sea battles and aggression along the west coast are the iconographic illustrations from Orissa and Bengal. A ceremonial barge is prominently depicted on the eleventh-century Jagannatha temple at Puri on the Orissa coast, stressing the ritual and ceremonial aspects of the boat. It is evident that several networks overlapped in the Indian Ocean in the ancient period and brought together interest groups ranging from boat-building communities to religious functionaries, traders as well as armed groups. As the focus shifts from national histories to maritime history, researchers are only now unraveling the intertwined history of these communities.