Insights from inscriptions

Tracing back the origins of trade in India, researchers have found valuable information in the temple inscriptions of the south. Although mainly religious in their content, an analysis of key phrases and extracts indicates political and economic activities, report Jignesh Shah and Biswajeet Rath in ‘Roots of Commodity Trade in India’ (

They find from the references in Tamil inscriptions that at least one assembly of regional commercial centres, or nagaram, was present within each political unit (nadu), and this assembly played an important role in institutionalising trading practices in the region. The nagarams played a vital function in the flow of commodities such as areca nuts, spices, pearls, and cotton products.

Interestingly, the inscriptions describe a bustling market in which there were clearly designated areas for permanent shops (angadi) and bazaars (kadai). “Various groups of commodities were laid out on the bazaar streets and sold by weight, by measure, and by baskets according to the nature of the commodities.”

What one finds in the inscriptions are not only long lists of commodities that came to the market but also the reciprocal prices of commodities, the authors note. “They furnish a virtual price index, where we can infer the exchange value of commodity A for commodity B. In most epigraphic records, however, the prices are mentioned in terms of other commodities, and very rarely in terms of cash or coins.”

Citing Kenneth Hall’s ‘Price Making and Market Hierarchy in Early Medieval South India,’ the book speaks of paddy as a common medium of exchange for other commodities, particularly for the smaller transactions and at the local level. “But high-value commodities and those meant for long-distance trade were expressed in terms of gold. Some commodities, like ghee, are expressed in terms of both paddy and gold.”

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 9:04:54 AM |

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