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Early Indian trade

TRADE IN EARLY INDIA: Edited by Ranabir Chakravarti; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, First Floor, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 650.

THE ECONOMIC history of the Indian sub-continent was initially focused on the study of agrarian conditions, land ownership and revenue.

The importance of trade and exchange was not fully recognised. But in recent decades, thanks to the significant archaeological discoveries (of ports, coins and trade artefacts) and mercantile activities found in the inscriptions, interesting evidence has emerged on the aspects relating to trading activities and their impact on the economy.

This volume is a collection of 15 essays by scholars, specialising in the studies relating to significance of trade in the social, political, economic and cultural development of the sub-continent from the third millennium B.C. to about 1300 A.D.

In his introduction, the editor provides an insightful overview of the historiography of early Indian trade. He examines the existence of different levels of exchange-related activities, trade being one of them. He discusses the social attitude to trade and traders in early India.

He does not argue for the liner development of economic life, which supposedly moved from simple exchange to complex market place trade. He places the long and well-established tradition of India's maritime trade in the broader context of the Indian Ocean network.

The essays span a long period of time starting with the Harappan period. There are two papers on the Harappan trade and its world context and "Harappan civilization, beyond the Indian sub-continent".

Both the papers discuss the importance of the artefactual exchanges discovered in the excavations in the West Asian countries like, for example, the Harappan wares in Oman. The significance of "Dana" and "Dakshina" as forms of exchange during the Vedic and the post-Vedic times forms the theme of another interesting paper.

The importance of the Buddhist Jatakas as a valuable source for the early commercial activities is the theme of another paper. Particular attention is drawn to the role of "Setthis", the merchant class in the field of commerce.

Related to this theme is another informative paper on the role of merchant guilds of South India in trade and urbanisation. The importance of the coastal sites or the port towns in eastern India (Vanga and Kalinga), the overseas trade in pre-Gupta times receive adequate attention in another essay. The trade contacts with the South-East Asian countries are brought out well in the essay.

The linkages and interdependence among rulers, merchants and religious establishments with special reference to the Northern Konkan forms the theme of another essay. The distinct stages in the commercial history of medieval Rajasthan are outlined in another detailed survey paper with the focus on the markets and merchants.

Related to this theme is another essay on "Trading community and merchant corporations".

The author observes "the brisk commercial activity in the Western India during the post-tenth centuries led to the emergence of a prosperous and powerful class of merchants who dominated the political, social and economic fabric of the region".

The volume contains papers on many more interesting topics like "Maritime loans", "Indian trade charters" "Geographical considerations in the localisation of ancient sea ports of India", "Usury in early medieval times", "Coins and monetary system under the Gurjara-Pratiharas" and "From Aden to India — specimens of the correspondence of Indian traders of the twelfth century".

The last mentioned paper gives the English translation of Arabic letters, sent by a Jewish merchant and Superintendent of the port of Aden, who acted as a middleman between the Jews of the Mediterranean area and the merchants in India. The letters give us an idea of the articles of trade and exchange during the 12th century.

The relevance of some articles in this collection to trade as such is only marginal and the omission of papers pertaining to the commerce-related and the recent numismatic discoveries on the Tamil coast in the early centuries of the Christian era is rather glaring. But the author has provided a detailed, annotated bibliography on various topics, which is indeed admirable.


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