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Trade and Commerce
Bengal enjoyed prosperity through trade and commerce from time immemorial. The multitude of rivers afforded easy communication for internal trade and Bengal's location on the
bay of bengal offered her the opportunity of participating in sea-borne trade and commerce, the tradition of which seems to have been built up from as early as the second millennium BC. The account of Bengal's trade and commerce is given below in two sections.
Ancient period 'Bengal' as a territory in the early period of its history embraced the present areas of Bangladesh and West Bengal, parts of Bihar and Orissa in India, and actually denoted an aggregate of four major subregions: pundravardhana, radha, vanga and samatata-harikela. The term Bengal therefore is taken to mean here the areas lying in Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. Geography and human activities in this deltaic area of the Ganga, the largest delta in the world, were largely shaped by the hydrography of this region. This is the only true asamudrahimachala (stretching from the Himalayas to the sea) region in the entire Indian subcontinent. Its location between the middle Ganga plains and the Brahmaputra valley provides regular access to the Ganga basin in the west and the northeastern part of India. The Ganga delta opening out to the
Bay of Bengal makes the region under review the only outlet of the landlocked Ganga valley to the sea. These geographical features considerably influenced movements of men and merchandise in early Bengal.
The four sub-regions mentioned above never experienced political unification under a single power and witnessed uneven political developments. The developments in social, economic and cultural history in these units were neither uniform nor unilinear. In other words, political, socio-economic and cultural developments, which are to be taken into consideration in an examination of commercial activities, show regional features in different subregions of early Bengal.
A perusal of trade in early Bengal has to be placed in the broader context of commerce in the subcontinent. In India, as in early Bengal, the mainstay of economic life must have been agriculture. In the Brahmanical theoretical treatises, for instance the Arthashastra, however, vartta (the science related to occupations or vrtti), includes krsi (agriculture) and vanijya (trade) as well. The Pali canonical literature in fact clearly underlines the greater economic advantages in trade than in agricultural pursuits (Majjhima Nikaya); there is also the clear recognition in the Anguttara Nikaya that out of trade could be derived enormous profit. It is no wonder that the great grammarian Panini (c 5th century BC) was aware of kraya-vikraya (purchase and sale) as the principal aspect of vyavahara or trade. The principal sources of our information regarding trade in early Bengal are indigenous literature (both normative and creative), impressions of foreigners (Classical, Chinese, Arabic, Persian and European), inscriptions, coins and field archaeological evidence from explored and excavated sites. These sources, though diverse, rarely throw any light on transactional activities in Bengal prior to c 6th century BC; our survey also, therefore, begins from that period. The evidence is scattered and far from adequate, providing virtually no statistical data and offering what is termed as 'qualitative data'.
It should also be pointed out that the socio-economic and political situation in Bengal did not always conform to an all Indian or even north Indian pattern. When for instance the northern and northwestern part of the subcontinent experienced mature urbanisation in the period from c 2500 to 1750 BC, there was no such similar development in eastern India. Similarly, Bengal was outside the scope of urban development and emergence of mahajanapadas (territorial polities) in and around the sixth century BC when the Ganga valley witnessed such significant changes. It is important to note that complex economic life in Bengal, including sedentary agriculture, diversified crafts and trade, did not emerge prior to c 4th century BC, or before the emergence of the Maurya empire. It is likely that the material culture of the Ganga valley, characterised by flourishing agriculture, different crafts, growing trade and urban centres, reached the area of Bengal with the gradual spread of the political power of Magadha under the Mauryas.
Products A discussion on this topic may begin with the enlisting of agricultural products. Pundra was already well known for the cultivation of dhanya (paddy) and tila (sesame) which figure in the Mahasthan stone inscription, palaeographically assignable to c 3rd century BC. The important point here is that these two types of crops were kept in the storehouse (kosthagara) at pundranagara or present mahasthan in Bogra district, Bangladesh, the earliest urban centre of Bengal, and the said crops were meant for distribution among certain people afflicted by some emergencies (atyayika). In short, the grains stored in the granary at Pundranagara were used for relief measures. The Arthashastra too recommends the Panyadhyaksa (officer in charge of trade) to build up similar buffer stocks of grains and other essential commodities to be released during emergencies. Seen in this light, north Bengal seems to have experienced surplus crop production, a part of which was stored in a state granary located in an urban centre. This implies some kind of transactions in grain, especially paddy, probably under administrative supervision. Subsequent sources however do not suggest similar state initiatives in the buying and distribution of grains in Bengal.
The recent discovery of many terracotta seals and sealings principally from archaeological sites in the South 24 Parganas and Medinipur districts, West Bengal-notably from chandraketugarh and tamralipti/Tamralipta-has significantly enriched knowledge in this regard. Some of these inscribed terracotta seals and sealings, inscribed in Kharosti and the mixed Kharosti-Brahmi scripts and assignable to c late 1st century BC to 4th century AD, depict sailing crafts of different types carrying either a box with stylised stalks of grain or a stylised stock of grain shown on the seal. There is also a reference to a merchant who became wealthy by selling food (possibly rice). That Bengal was known both for profusion of crops and their export to overseas destinations cannot be lost sight of. A further continuity in the trade in paddy of Bengal is clearly visible in the accounts of ibn
batuta (14th century) and ma huan (15th century), both referring to the overseas export of paddy of Bengal to Maldives in exchange of cowry shells.
Besides this important cereal, Pundravardhana became so famous for the plantation of sugarcane that the very term paundraka stood for sugarcane (iksu) grown in north Bengal. There is a strong likelihood that sugarcane of Bengal was in considerable demand and was transacted as the raw material for the sugar making industry in early India.
The 'Gange' country (lower part of the Ganga delta) in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c second half of the 1st century AD), an invaluable source for the study of India's long distance trade network, prominently figures for the availability of malabathrum (Sanskrit Tamalapatra, Bangla Tejpata) and nard (Sanskrit nalada, narada, probably Nardostachys grandiflora), a particular type of fragrant oil. The Periplus clearly suggests that these exotic items were in considerable demand among the rich in the Roman Empire. A significant corroboration of this comes from a recently discovered loan contract document written on a mid-second century AD papyrus. According to this document, Gangetic nard of considerable quantity was loaded at the famous Malabari port of Muziris (near Cranganore in Kerala) and exported to Alexandria on board the ship Hermopollon. Though the Periplus considered malabathrum and nard as Gangetic, these were not locally grown in coastal Bengal region, but were plant products of the northeast from where these reached the Bengal coast. These exotic items were sent to Malabar, obviously by a coastal route (see later), for their final shipping to the eastern Mediterranean region. Bengal was thus involved in the transit trade of malabathrum and nard.
The same 'Gange' looms large in the Periplus for the availability of the best variety of muslins, which was a major item of export from the Bengal coast. This text further refers to of the trade in Thinae (Chinese) silk floss, yarn and cloth, which went to Limyrike or Damirica (the Dravida country in far south India) via the Ganges. While the muslin was a locally manufactured item of Bengal, the transaction in Chinese silk, an extremely costly product, belonged to the category of re-export trade. The fame of the textile products of Bengal, however, goes back to the days of the Arthashastra, the earliest stratum of which dates back to c 3rd century BC. That Bengal continued to be famous for its textile products during the subsequent centuries is amply evident in the eloquent praise of the textiles of Bengal in the accounts of Arab and Persian authors (c 9th to 14th centuries), Chinese writers and Marco Polo (late 13th centuries). As many of them did not actually visit Bengal, their estimation of the excellence of the textiles of Bengal is based on their ideas/information of the quality and quantity of textiles of this region. Significantly enough, Chau ju Kua (1225 AD), a Chinese official speaks of the availability of fine cotton (tou-lo) in Pong-kielo or vangala.
Inscriptions of the period from 8th century onwards occasionally record the plantation of both betel nuts (guvaka) and betel leaves (cf the term barajika, ie the grower/seller of betel leaves), both of which must have been transacted. Coconut (narikela) plantations also figure in inscriptions of the same period, particularly in those coming from coastal tracts. Salt as an indispensable daily necessity product also appears in the copper plates of the period from c 9th to 13th centuries, especially from areas close to the coast.
Bengal was also associated with the availability of excellent aloes wood, according to Arab accounts (c 9th to 13th centuries). Arab authors labelled it as Qamaruni aloes wood, available at the port of 'Samandar' or 'Sudkawan' (located near modern Chittagong). The Qamaruni aloes wood, rated second only to the aloes wood of Multan, was a forest product from Qamarun or kamarupa and brought to Samandar for export through the river Meghna. Arabic and Persian texts also refers to the export of rhinoceros horns, an exotic and costly item, from Samandar. This forest product is likely to have reached Samandar also from Kamarupa, which is traditionally noted for rhinoceros.
The importance of Bengal in the trade of another animal has been underlined in recent decades. This is the transaction in the horse, especially the war-horse, in early Bengal. The best quality of war-horses were however generally not indigenous to India and were brought from Central Asia to north India through the northwestern frontier region. According to the account of Kang tai (3rd century AD), Yueh-chih (ie Kusana) merchants regularly brought horses to the Koying country by sea. Koying is located in the Malay Peninsula. A copper drum, found from the Sangean Island in Southeast Asia, depicts two men in typical Yueh chih dresses standing beside a horse.
The most likely point of maritime contacts between the Malay Peninsula and north India seems to have been the Bengal littorals. To this must be added the evidence of a terracotta sealing from Chandraketugarh, with a legend in the mixed Kharosti-Brahmi script (assigned to c 3rd century AD), which shows the figure of a single masted ship on which stands the figure of a horse. The accompanying legend describes the vessel as a trapyaka, which is the same as trappaga of the Periplus and the trapyaga of the Jaina text Angavijja. This seal provides the earliest known evidence of the shipment of horses from the Bengal coast. A perusal of the Tamil Sangam texts may suggest that horses reached the ports on the Tamilnadu coast from the north, which could imply in this context the Bengal coast.
One may therefore logically see Bengal's participation in the maritime transportation of horses to Southeast Asia and/or Tamilnadu coast in and around the 3rd century AD. The need for the horse as major war machinery in Bengal could have increased as a result of the rise of Bengal as a formidable regional power in north India under the Palas and the Senas (c 750-1205 AD). An impression of this can be seen in the epigraphic account of the gift of countless cavalry to the Palas by rulers from the northern quarter (udichinananeka-narapati-prabhritkrta-prameyahayavahini). Though it is stereotypical and eulogistic in nature, the account suggests that the Palas perceived the northern quarter (Udichi or Uttarapatha) as the principal supply zone of war-horses for their cavalry. This suggestion gains ground in the light of the annual horse-fair (ghotakayatra) at Prthudaka (modern Pehoa in Haryana), figuring in an inscription of 848 AD. The tabaqat-i-nasiri of Minhajuddin (13th century) leaves little room for doubt that excellent Arab horses were brought to Nudiah (probably nadia near modern Navadwip in the Nadia district, West Bengal) during the Sena period. In fact, the arrival of the Arabian horse-dealers at Nudiah was so regular that when some of bakhtiyar khalji's soldiers reached Nudiah, they were mistaken as horse merchants and they hardly raised any suspicion. Apart
from this centre of horse trade in the Radha region, Lakhnawti or Laksmanavati, the capital of laksmanasena (1179-1206) also received the supply of horses from Karambattan or Karampattan, which is identified either with Kera Gompa in southwest Bhutan or an area in the northern fringe of Tibet. Horses were thus imported to Bengal both from the northwest and also the northeast. A recent study of 15th century Chinese annals points to the possibility of the overseas shipping of horses from the Bengal coast to China under the Ming rulers. It is likely that Bengal exported to China some of the horses, which were brought to Bengal from the northwest and/or the northeast.
Among other imported items to Bengal mention may be made of cowries, which were profusely used as a medium of exchange in Bengal, particularly during the 750-1300 AD phase. Best quality cowries were, however, not native of Bengal. These were in fact brought from the Maldives, obviously across the sea, as informed by Ibn Batuta and Ma Huan. The cowry must have been transported in bulk, almost in the nature of ballast. It logically follows that cowries were integrally integrated to the overseas trade network in the Indian Ocean. Among precious metals gold and silver, used for minting coins, appear to have been brought to Bengal from elsewhere. One of the possible sources of silver could have been the area around Arakan and Pegu.
The rapid overview of the exchangeable products in early Bengal highlights their impressive diversities, ranging from cereals, cash crops, agro-based products and other daily necessity objects to precious and exotic commodities catering to the needs of the moneyed communities and the ruling groups.
Market centres and merchants An understanding of trade centres and traders is closely related to the study of exchangeable commodities in early Bengal. Available evidences suggest that there were specific types of market places and merchants.
Major urban centres in early Bengal like Pundranagara, kotivarsa,
Mangalkot, karnasuvarna, Ramavati and vikramapura appear to have combined the functions of politico-administrative centres and commercial centres. These seem to have occupied the top position in the hierarchy of market places in early Bengal. Closely connected with the markets at principal urban centres were ports, generally called pattanas and velakulas. The foremost port of Bengal from the late centuries BC to the eighth century AD was certainly Tamralipti, the major outlet for the landlocked Ganga valley. Located on the Rupnarayan and generally identified with Tamluk in Midnapur in West Bengal, Tamralipti is noted in early literature as a velakula. Archaeological remains, though not matching the profusion of literary references to it, point to its flourishing conditions. Ptolemy called it Tamalites while Pliny named the same as Taluctae. The importance of Tamralipti (cf Tan-mo-li-ti of hiuen-tsang) as a port of international trade, especially in the Bay of Bengal maritime network, is clearly highlighted by fa hsien (travel in India 399-414 AD) and
Hiuen-Tsang (travel in India 629-45 AD).
The Periplus of the Erythraen Sea and Ptolemy's Geography (c 150 AD) mention a port called Gange located on the river Ganga close to the confluence of the Ganga with the sea. This port is generally, but not unanimously, identified with the well-known archaeological site of Chandraketugarh in South 24 Pargana district, West Bengal. That Chandraketugarh, located on the river Vidyadhari, was a flourishing port is unmistakable on the basis of a number of visual representations of water crafts of various types on inscribed terracotta seals and sealings discovered from Chandraketugarh and datable to the first three centuries of the Christian era. These unique materials from Chandraketugarh yield depictions of ordinary boats, trapyaka type of coastal vessels and ocean going (larger?) ships (jaladhisakra, literally Indra of the ocean) fit for distant journeys (trideshayatra). While Tamralipti was undoubtedly the port par excellence in ancient Bengal, Gange/ Chandraketugarh is likely to have played the role of an important feeder port to Tamralipti.
It appears that the last known definite epigraphic reference to Tamralipti does not go beyond the eighth century AD, after which the port seems to have declined mainly because of the siltation in the Rupnarayan. The gradual fading away of this premier port may have adversely affected the commercial activities of ancient Bengal, which according to some scholars experienced as its consequence a closed and self-sufficient rural economy in sharp contrast to the erstwhile trade based urbanism in Bengal. However, the southeastern most part of Bangladesh or Samatata-Harikela region was coming to recognition for long-distance overseas communications to southeast Asia, as is evident from
Hiuen-Tsang's accounts of early seventh century. The combined evidence of several Arab (Sulaiman, Ibn Khordadbeh, Al Masudi, Al Idrisi, Al Marvazi and Ibn Battuta to mention the outstanding writers), Persian (Hudud al Alam) and Chinese (Chau ju Kua and the accounts of the voyages of Cheng ho) texts indicate the remarkable rise of a port, variously called Samandar, Sudkawan and Sattigaon, probably located near present Chittagong. The loss of Tamralipti seems to have been considerably compensated by the emergence of Samandar/Sudkawan as the premier harbour in the Bengal coast, to be ultimately given the status of porto grande by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.
Like Tamralipti of the earlier centuries, Samandar too had a few feeder ports in the form of inland riverine ports. Two such prominent ports were devaparvata and Vangasagarasambhandariyaka. Devaparvata, located in Mainamati, figures in a few inscriptions of 7th-10th centuries as being encircled by river Ksiroda, on which plied many boats and described as sarvatobhadra (approachable from all sides). Apart from being a riverine port it also served as a jayaskandhavara or a politico-administrative centre of the Khadga and Deva rulers of Samatata. That there was another riverine port near Savar (Sabhar) has been suggested on the basis of the reference to Vangasagarasambhandariyaka in a Chandra inscription of 971 AD. The place was so named because it offered warehousing facilities (sambhandara) and also provided a linkage with the Bay of Bengal (Vangasagara). The very name Savar is probably a survival of the ancient name sambhara or collection of merchandise.
In 1196, according to the Sundarbans copper plate of Srimaddomanapala, there existed close to the Ganga's confluence with the sea, a place named Dvarahataka. It was obviously a small riverine market centre (hataka, ie hattaka) functioning as a dvara or gateway to the sea. These inland riverine market centres/ports, whether in Vanga-Samatata area or in the lower regions of Radha, were less prominent than Tamralipta or Samandar, but provided the crucial linkages between the littorals and the interior in a nadimatrka region like Bengal. The navigability of the many rivers, including the Ganga, in the Bengal delta is unmistakably evident from the epigraphic account of fleets of boats on the Bhagirathi (sa khalu Bhagirathipathapravartamana nauvata) and the description of Vikramapura in Vanga as a navigable tract (Vange Vikramapurabhage navye).
In the interior must have existed a number of market places, generally designated as hattas or hattikas, which first appeared in the copper plates of the 5th century but actually proliferated in the landgrants from the 8th century onwards. The term hatta, corresponding to the present hat generally stands for a rural level market centre where transactions usually take place once or twice in the week. As periodic or weekly market places in rural areas hattas can be placed at the base of the hierarchy of market centres in early Bengal. However, the term hattavara may suggest a centre of trade larger than an ordinary hatta. Devapaladevahatta was located close to Nalanda and being named after the Pala ruler, must have been more important and perhaps larger also than an ordinary hatta.
An occasional mention of shops (apana) figures in the Khalimpur copperplate of dharmapala. Copper plates belonging to the last phase of the Sena rule refer to the chaturaka, not known before twelfth century. The term chaturaka may denote a place situated at the junction of four roads or quarters. The location of chaturakas at the crossroads probably implies that they served as nodal points in locality level and regional trade. One such chaturaka was Betaddachaturaka (with the Ganga as its eastern boundary - purvve Jahnavisima), identified with modern Batore in Howrah district, West Bengal. One may logically infer that larger hattas and chaturakas could have provided significant linkages between the large urban centres and major ports on the one hand and rural-level periodic market places on the other. Similar commercial linkages were provided also in more or less contemporary north India, the Deccan and the far south by the middle-tier trade centres like mandapika (mod. mandi), pentha (mod. peth) and nagaram.
At these market places and ports thrived merchants, who like the centres of trade, were not an undifferentiated category. Terracotta seals and sealings from Chandraketugarh and other sites in deltaic West Bengal speak of merchants dealing in paddy. The Sanskrit generic terms vanik and vaidehaka refer to the trader in general and also possibly to a petty merchant. In many Jataka stories leaders of caravans (satthavaha or sarthavaha) appear as undertaking distant journeys (puvvanta-aparanta) between Puskalavati (Charsadda in Pakistan) and Tamralipta. Caravan traders and nagarashresthis prominently appear in Kotivarsa according to the five Damodarpur copper plates, dated in c 444-544 AD. The term nagarashresthi literally means a very rich merchant in the nagara or town of Kotivarsa. The shresthi, lauded in early Indian texts as possessing fabulous wealth, was also a financier who invested a part of his wealth in various commercial ventures. It will be difficult to miss from these records that the sarthavaha and the nagarashresthi were members of the district board (visayadhisthanadhikarana) for at least a century, though they were by no means government functionaries. One may therefore logically infer that the sarthavaha and the nagarashresthi were representatives of their respective professional groups and enjoyed considerable social pre-eminence. Individual merchants became a rarity in inscriptions of subsequent centuries. Jambhalamitra, a vrddhasartha, is known to have donated an image of Ganesha in Samatata in the late 10th century.
The term vrddhasartha may be taken to mean an old caravan trader, or on the basis of the analogy of the term vadduvyavahari in more or less contemporary Tamil inscriptions may be considered as a senior caravan merchant. The lack of references to merchants in the records of 8th-13th centuries have led some scholars to perceive a decline of trade and traders in Bengal during the period from 600 to 1300 AD. The image of languishing trade, a marker of the emergence and consolidation of feudal formation, has however been effectively countered by several historians who do not view a slump in trade in Bengal during this phase.
Trade routes It has already been stressed that Bengal's geography and physical features endow the region with considerable facilities of communications, overland, riverine and maritime. Pundravardhana offers the major connections with the middle Ganga valley through the Rajmahal corridor. It is therefore no wonder that Pundravardhana was the first area in early Bengal to have witnessed the advent of the Northern Black Polished Ware and urbanism in c 4th-3rd centuries BC, both being major features of the material life of the middle Ganga plains.
An eloquent testimony to Bengal's overland communications with the Ganga valley and the northwestern extremities of the subcontinent is available from the discovery of Kharoshti and Kharosti-Brahmi documents. The principal zone of the use of Kharosti being the north-western part of the subcontinent, the presence of Kharosti-using people in West Bengal during the early centuries of the Christian era amply illustrate the linkages between the northwest and the Ganga delta. That this communication must have been maintained through the Ganga valley, especially the middle Ganga plains, is well driven home by the discovery of Kharosti inscriptions at Chunar near Banaras in UP and also the finding of a terracotta plaque with a Kharosti inscription from the Kumrahar excavations. The inclusion of Srichampa (Bhagalpur in eastern Bihar) in Kaniska I's realm, as evident from his Rabatak inscription, may indicate that the eastward spread of the Kusana empire from its base in the northwestern borderlands to the middle Ganga plains could have facilitated the advent of Kharosti in Bengal. Such cultural contacts were usually not bereft of commercial significance and may explain the regular availability of horses in Bengal, imported possibly from the northwest.
The contacts between the Ganga delta and the Ganga basin continued in subsequent centuries. Fahsien's overland journey from Magadha to Tamralipta is a clear pointer to that.
Hiuen-Tsang's itinerary in Bengal may also throw interesting lights on this subject.
Hiuen-Tsang started from Nalanda and reached Kajangala near the Rajmahal hills. From there he proceeded eastwards to Pundravardhana and continued further east to Kamarupa. From Kamarupa in the Brahmaputra valley he came down southeast to reach Samatata from where he travelled westwards to Tamralipta. From Tamralipta he journeyed northwards and arrived at Karnasuvarna, the capital of
The pilgrim finally left Bengal for Odra or Orissa; the final leg of his overland journey from Karnasuvarna in Radha region to Orissa must have been undertaken through ancient Dandabhukti (mod. Danton in the Medinipur dist, West Bengal). His travels in Bengal demonstrate that existing routes of communication connected different areas within early Bengal. Bengal's overland connections with the neighbouring regions of Magadha, Kamarupa and Odra have also to be taken into consideration. In the eighth century three merchant brothers undertook an overland journey from Ayodhya to Tamralipta. The Dudhpani inscription, recording their activities, suggests that they planned their return trip from Tamralipta to the middle Ganga valley through the present Hazaribagh region. The Ghoshrawan inscription of the time of devapala indicates the very long overland journey by Viradharadeva from Nagarahara (mod. Jalalabad) to Mahabodhi (Bodhgaya).
The interesting point here is that Viradharadeva is said to have been happy as he saw many of his countrymen at Nalanda. This cannot but underline the regularity of communications between southern Bihar and the northwestern extremities during the 9th century. The regular arrival of horses and their dealers from the northern quarter to Bengal during the Pala-Sena period also strongly suggests the continuity of commercial linkages between the two areas. That coastal Bengal could be reached from Coromandel coast is clearly illustrated by the descriptions of Chola Rajendra's celebrated Gangetic campaign (c 1022-23AD) in Tandabutti (Dandabhukti), Takkanaladham (Daksinaradha), Uttiraladham (Uttararadha) and Vangaladesa (southern and coastal areas of Vanga). Rajendra's forces arrived from Coromandel Coast through coastal Andhra, Orissa and entered Bengal through the Medinipur region in West Bengal. One may see here the continuity of the overland connections between Bengal and the Coromandel Coast, previously undertaken by
Hiuen-Tsang in the 7th century. The frequent mentions of the gamagamika (officer in charge of arrival and departures) and shaulkika (officer in charge of the collection of tolls and customs) in the records of the Pala-Sena period further highlight the possibilities of commercial contacts both within Bengal and beyond.
Above survey of ports has already driven home the importance of the Bengal coast as an outlet to the landlocked Ganga valley and also its significant position in the overseas trade network, particularly in the Bay of Bengal. The frequent use of terms like nau-khata, nauyoga, nau-yogakhata, nau-dandaka, nau-bandhaka, nausthiravega, nauprthvi in copper plates ranging from 6th-13th centuries demonstrates that inland water transports regularly plied on numerous rivers, including of course the Ganga. A sure index of Bengal's growing participation in the trade along the entire length of the East Coast is furnished by the distribution of Rouletted Ware sites. The Rouletted Ware, now datable to 2nd century BC - 200 AD period, has been found from many coastal sites in the eastern sea-board, such as Alaganakulam, Kaveripattinam, Arikamedu, Vasavasamudram, Kanchipuram (Tamilnadu), Amaravati, Salihundam, Kalingapatnam (Andhrapradesh), Sisupalgarh (Orissa), Tamluk and Chandraketugarh (West Bengal).
In 414 AD Fahsien began his voyage to China from Tamralipta. He boarded a merchant vessel and reached Sri Lanka from where he sailed to Java and finally to China. His accounts leave little room for doubt about the direct overseas route between the Bengal
coast and Sri Lanka with further connections to Southeast Asia. Hiuen-Tsang explicitly mentions that Samatata maintained maritime contacts with several areas in Southeast Asia: eg Pegu, Sriksetra, Dvaravarti and Yamanadvipa. This is clearly corroborated by Itsing's arrival at Harikela in 675 AD by a maritime voyage from Southeast Asia. On such maritime routes must have plied the master mariner (mahanavika) Buddhagupta, a resident of Raktamrttika (near Karnasuvarna), who figures in a sixth century inscription from the Malay peninsula. Another instance of maritime contacts of Bengal with Southeast Asia is seen in the request of the king of Yavadvipa, Balaputradeva, to Devapala to grant some lands to the Nalanda monastery. Such cultural exchanges speak of intimate commercial linkages too. According to the Arab accounts of the period from 9th-13th centuries, there were regular sea voyages between Samandar on one hand and Silandib (Sri Lanka), Kanja (Kancipuram) and Uranshin (Orissa) on the other. From the second half of the 12th century, a new sea-borne network connected Bengal with the Maldives. Ibn Batuta used this route to come to Bengal. For his return journey from the Bengal
coast to Java (Sumatra) he boarded a Chinese junk from sonargaon and from Java he finally reached China. Ma Huan's celebrated accounts of the voyages of the Ming admiral Cheng ho leave little room for doubt that the Chinese fleet visited Sattigaon (ie Chittagong) no less than four times during the period from 1404 to 1433 AD. All these bring to limelight the maritime network between the Bengal coast (especially the littorals of Samatata-Harikela) and Southeast Asia in which the Strait of Malacca seems to have played a crucial role.
Media of exchange Prior to the advent of minted metallic pieces as a medium of exchange in
c 3rd century BC, it is likely that exchanges in ancient Bengal probably took the form of barter. From the 3rd century BC onwards punch-marked coins, in regular circulation in north India since c 600 BC, began to appear in many of the excavated urban centres of early Bengal, like Mahasthan, Bangarh, Chandraketugarh, Mangalkot, Tamralipta etc. The recent discovery of punch-marked coins from wari-bateswar in Bangladesh highlights the possibilities of the spread of money economy and therefore, trade, in the eastern part of the delta. These silver species were struck on the karsapana standard of 32 ratis or 57.6 grains.
The introduction of coinage in Bengal since the 3rd century BC certainly suggests burgeoning trade in the region. The epigraphic reference to the filling up of the kosa or treasury at Pundranagara with ganda and kakini may imply, according to some scholars, the circulation of gandaka and kakini types of coins. An alternative interpretation of the same account, however, points to the possibility of the use of cowries counted in the unit of four (ganda). The latter interpretation implies that cowries could have been used as a medium of exchange right from the 3rd century BC. In addition to the silver punch-marked coins copper and bullion punch-marked coins were introduced to Bengal in c 2nd century BC. There are not only full-unit coins, but half unit and quarter unit pieces too. These uninscribed cast copper coins were based on the silver karsapana standard. Die-struck coins were introduced to Bengal during the Kusana age. In lower parts of Radha and Vanga a new series of cast copper coins merged in the 2nd century AD. These were developed on the basis of the Kusana devices and they followed karsapana weight standard. As a medium of exchange, these copper coins, labelled as Kusana-Radha/ Kusana-Vanga coinage, have some correspondence to the so-called Puri-Kusana coinage of Kalinga. This indicates the likelihood of a trade network in the Vanga-Kalinga zone.
The political presence of the imperial Guptas in several regions of early Bengal during the 5th and first half of the 6th centuries AD paved the way for the circulation of the Gupta gold coins, known for their superb execution. Several Gupta copper plates from north Bengal refer to coin-terms dinara and rupaka. The two terms respectively denote gold and silver coins of the Guptas. A Gupta inscription from north Bengal suggests that the Gupta dinara could be exchanged with 15 or 16 rupakas or silver coins. The Gupta gold coin was issued on the weight standard of 124 grains; Skandagupta introduced a heavier weight standard of 144 grains, but the heavier suvarna coins became increasingly debased after the reign of Narasimha Gupta Baladitya. Gold coins struck on the suvarna standard were issued by rulers of Vanga before the emergence of
Shashanka in c 600 AD and also by Shashanka (c 600-37? AD) himself. The suvarna standard continued to be based in gold coins of rulers of Samatata of the seventh and early eighth centuries. In most of these species, struck on suvarna standard, metallic purity of the gold coin is appreciably low. After this gold coins faded out from the monetary scenario of Bengal for at least four or five centuries.
The period from
c 750 to 1200 probably witnessed a complex monetary system in Bengal. One has to note here the curious position that while the Palas and Senas did not strike any coin, the Samatata-Harikela region experienced the uninterrupted minting and circulation of high quality silver coins (the issuing authorities
of these coins are unknown) for six centuries -from the 7th to the 13th centuries. The steady maintenance of the weight standard and metallic purity of these silver coins certainly implies the active role of an effective authority ensuring the quality of the silver coins. These silver pieces corresponded to the well-known purana or dramma standard of 57.6 grains. Coin terms like purana and dramma do appear in the copper plates of the Palas and the Senas. It has also been observed that the Harikela silver coins after the 10th century became lighter in weight and broader in its flab with legends and motifs only on one side. The changes in the Harikela issues are suggested to have had some conformity with the reformed Arab currency system. This would once again speak of intimate linkages between the Bengal Coast and the trading world of the Arabs. The overseas contacts of the Bengal Coast with the Arab world are further demonstrated by the discovery of coins of the Abbasid Caliphs Harun-or-Rashid (8th century) and Mustasim Billah (12th century) from the excavated sites respectively of Paharpur and Mainamati.
The lively scenario of trade in early Bengal, including long distance overseas trade from and to the Bengal littorals, does not uphold the image of a languishing trade and 'monetary anaemia', projected in the construction of Indian feudalism. Landgrants and minted currency system were not mutually incompatible, but they could coexist in a given region. Possibilities of the easy convertibility of one silver coin of purana or dramma variety with 1280 cowries have been stressed, on the basis of a medieval Bengali arithmetic table. Attention has been drawn to the use of a term churnni, which began to appear in the Bengal records since the Sena times, hyphenated with kapardaka or cowry-shell. This implies that the term churnni and/or kapardaka-churnni are to be associated with a medium of exchange.
The term churnni has been rightly interpreted as dust of pure silver or gold. In other words, the records offer the image of the introduction of dust currency, of equal weight to the purana (silver) standard and suvarna (gold) standard. Such a dust currency would be preferable to merchants when gold or silver coins were either relatively rare or of uncertain weight standard and metallic purity. The gold or silver dust currency could be logically exchanged with a gold or silver coin struck on dinara/suvarna or dramma/karsapana standard; the dust currency of equivalent weight as a purana or suvarna coin could also be converted to kapardakas or cowrie shells. The above discussions suggest the gradual development of a complex monetary system in early medieval Bengal. A three tier monetary system has been perceived, consisting of the cowry shell (kapardaka) at the base, the minted metallic pieces (especially in precious metals) at the top and the newly introduced dust currency in between the two. [Ranabir Chakravarti]
Barrie M Morrison, Political Centres and Cultural Regions in Early
Bengal, Jaipur, 1980; BN Mukherjee, 'Kharoshti and Kharoshti-Brahmi
Inscriptions from West Bengal (India)', Indian Museum Bulletin,
25, 1990; External Trade of North-Eastern India, New Delhi, 1992;
Vimala Begley, 'Ceramic Evidence of Pre-Periplus Trade on the Indian Coast',
in Vimala Begley & Richard Daniel de Puma, ed, Rome and India, the
Ancient Sea Trade, Delhi, 1992; Ranabir Chakravarti, 'Maritime Trade
and Voyages in Ancient Bengal', Journal of Ancient Indian History,
Calcutta, 1996, 145-71; BN Mukherjee, Coins and Currency Systems of
Early Bengal, Calcutta, 2000; Niharranjan Ray, Bangalir Itihas
(in Bangla) Calcutta, 1404 BS.
Medieval Period Bengal had a flourishing trade and commerce in the Medieval period. With the establishment of Muslim rule in Bengal, substantial quantities of treasure were imported in exchange for locally manufactured goods. There is evidence that as early as 1415, Chinese missions imported gold and silver into the region, in addition to satins, silks and porcelain. Another Chinese visitor observed a decade later that long-distance traders in Bengal settled their accounts with silver tankas.
The pattern continued throughout the next century. The Venetian traveller Caesar de Fredericki wrote in 1569 that the merchants from Pegu (Burma) brought to Bengal only 'silver and gold, and no other merchandise'. In fact, the monetisation of Bengal economy and its integration with markets throughout the Indian Ocean gave a strong stimulus to the delta's export-manufacturing sectors. Though at the dawn of the Muslim encounter in the tenth century, textiles were already prominent among locally manufactured goods, the volume and variety of textiles produced and exported increased dramatically after the conquest. In the late 13th century Marco Polo noted the commercial importance of Bengali cotton and in 1345 Ibn Batuta admired the fine Muslins of Bengal.
Cotton textiles and rice were Bengal's chief export commodities in the medieval period. In the late 16th century rice was exported from two principal seaports, Chittagong in the east and Satgaon in the west, throughout the Indian Ocean rim, to points as far west as Goa and as far east as the Moluccas in Southeast Asia. Ralph Fitch wrote in the 1580s that 'great store of cotton' was exported from Bengal as also rice 'wherewith they serve all India, Ceylon, Pegu, Malacca, Sumatra and many other places'. But the most impressive evidence in this regard comes from Pyrard de Laval, who, after visiting Chittagong around 1607, wrote that there is such a quantity of rice that, besides supplying the whole country, it is exported to all parts of India, as well as to Goa and Malabar, as to Sumatra, Moluccas, and all the islands of Sunda, to all of which lands Bengal is a nursing mother. The export of surplus rice continued under the Mughals and actually it increased. Manrique noted in 1629 that every year over a hundred vessels laden with rice and other foodstuff left Bengal ports for overseas export. However, the eastward export of rice declined from around the 1670s.
The production of cash crops, especially cotton and silk, flourished throughout the delta in the Mughal period. The most important centres of cotton production were located around Dhaka and along a corridor in western Bengal extending from Malda in the north through
Kasimbazar to Hughli and Midnapur in the south. In 1586 ralph fitch remarked that in Sonargaon the best and the finest cloth was made of cotton which was the best in the whole of India. The Mughal connection also made Bengal a major producer for the imperial court's voracious appetite for luxury goods. This was especially so in the case of raw silk, the major centre of production of which was located in and around
Bengal's agricultural and manufacturing boom coincided not only with the consolidation of Mughal power in the province but also with the growth in overland and maritime trade that linked Bengal even more closely to the world economy. Earlier in the twilight years of the Sultanate, Portuguese merchants came into the Bay of Bengal and established trading stations in both Chittagong and Satgaon in the mid-1530s. In the last two decades of the sixteenth century during the Mughal push into the heart of the delta, the Portuguese established the major port of Hughli, built up their community in Chittagong, and established mercantile colonies in and around Dhaka. Although the Portuguese never replaced Asian merchants in Bengal's maritime trade as is often supposed, the appearance of European merchants in the 16th century certainly stimulated demand for Bengali manufactures, which served to accelerate local production of those goods.
Till the middle of the 16th century, Satgaon was the most important port. According to poet Mukundaram, it used to attract so much foreign trade that the merchants of Satgaon did not have to leave their town and could earn fortune just staying home as 'the outside world came to them' for trade. As the chief mart of Bengal, Satgaon attracted merchants from different parts of India and diverse other countries. It was the chief emporium of Portuguese trade since 1537, known as 'porto piqueno'. Even in 1569 Caesar de Fredericki found Satgaon 'a remarkable faire citie' from where every year thirty or thirty-five big and small ships, laden with diverse commodities, went to various places.
But the historic port of Satgaon began to decline mainly due to the silting of the river Saraswati that made navigation extremely difficult. Hence not only the Portuguese but the local traders too left Satgaon and settled in Hughli, which took the place of Satgaon as the principal port of Bengal and remained so till the middle of the 18th century. Even the inland trade was mostly diverted to Hughli, though Satgaon remained the royal port and the seat of the governor and the imperial customs house till 1632, when Hughli took its place officially as the royal port.
The Hughli port flourished with amazing rapidity under the portuguese. It soon rose to the position of the 'richest, the most flourishing and the most populous' of the various 'bandels' or trading ports in Bengal. It became the common emporium of trade where, as Fr John Cabral wrote in 1533, the vessels of India (Portuguese India), China, Malacca and Manila repaired in great numbers. He also mentioned that not only the 'natives of the country, but also Hindustanis, the Mogols, the Persians and the armenians came there to fetch goods'. Van Linschoten and Ralph Fitch noted Hughli's flourishing trade in the 1580s. The ain-i-akbari, completed in 1596-97, states that Hughli was a more important port than Satgaon.
A good idea of the extent, composition and direction of the Portuguese trade in Bengal can be gathered from Manrique, who was in Bengal during the hey-days of the Portuguese. The articles imported by them from 'southern India' (ie Sumatra, Borneo, Moluccas, etc) were a large amount of 'worked silks, such as brocades, brocatelles, cloth, velvets, damasks, satins, taffetas,
muslins', etc. They also brought cloves, nutmegs and mace from Moluccas and Banda, and highly precious camphor from the Isles of Borneo. From the Maldive islands they imported cowris (sea shells) which were then current in Bengal as small currency, 'chanquo' or bigger shells from Tuticorin and the coast of Tinnevelley, pepper from Malabar and cinnamon from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). They also brought from China great quantities of porcelain, valuable pearls and jewels, many kinds of gift articles such as bedsteads, tables, boxes, chests, writing desks, etc. From the kingdom of 'Salor' and 'Timor' they imported great quantities of sandalwood, both red and white varieties, which in Bengal was a precious commodity.
The Potuguese exported from Bengal a wide variety of
merchandise such as cotton goods, gingham made of grass, and silks of
various shades as well as sugar, ghee, rice, indigo, long pepper,
saltpetre, wax, lac and other articles which were abundant in Bengal.
Rice formed one of the chief articles of Portuguese export to other parts
of India and the East Indies. Pyrard de Laval observes that when the Bengal
ships were behind their time or were lost in the sea, rice 'was fabulously
dear and there is cry of famine' in Sumatra, Moluccas, etc.
A rough idea of the value of the Portuguese trade in Bengal could be formed from the fact that they paid over Rs 100,000 yearly as customs duties to the Mughals at the rate of 2.5 per cent on the value of goods exported and imported. In other words, the annual value of their trade in Bengal was around Rs 40 lakhs. So no doubt the Portuguese carried on a very lucrative trade in Bengal and almost monopolised the external as well as coastal trade, while in inland trade they were formidable competitors of the country merchants and other foreigners. But the golden days of the Portuguese trade in Bengal came to an end in 1632 when Shahjahan's governor Qasim Khan captured Hughli after inflicting a crushing defeat on them.
The english and the dutch East India Companies began their Bengal trade from around the middle of the 17th century with the establishment of their factories in Hughli. The french East India Company was founded later and began its operations only in the 1680s. Among other Europeans, the ostend
company and the Danish Companies came to Bengal only in the early 18th century and their trade was on a very modest scale. In the early period the European attention focussed mainly on the spice trade and both the Dutch and English wanted to procure spice from the so-called Spice Islands in the eastern archipelago. The companies went to these islands to buy spices with silver obtained from the 'New World'. But to their utter astonishment, they found that it was not silver but cheap and coarse Indian calico that was in demand there. So they turned to India for textiles to exchange for spices in the Indonesian archipelago. First, their attention was drawn to the Coromandel Coast which produced large quantities of cheap and coarse textiles greatly in demand in the Spice Islands. But soon war, famine and political instability rendered the Coromandel trade risky, uncertain and expensive. So the companies eventually turned their attention to Bengal.
Bengal offered particular advantages to the companies. It was the largest producer of coarse and cheap calicoes - much cheaper and of better quality than others. Secondly, Bengal silk was a highly lucrative and profitable commodity for the companies as there was a growing demand for it in Europe, replacing Italian and Persian silk, because of its comparative cheapness and good quality. Moreover a third lucrative item for trade was saltpetre, highly in demand in Europe and which could also be profitably used as ballast for Europe-bound ships. So the Companies began their Bengal trade in right earnest.
It was from around the 1670s that the trade of the companies in Bengal became significant with a boost in the export of raw silk from Bengal. But it was actually the big boom in the export of Bengal textiles from around the early 1680s that revolutionised the pattern of the Asiatic trade of the companies. This was in fact in response to a revolution in the consumer taste in England and Europe where suddenly Indian textiles, especially the textiles from Bengal, had become the irresistible fashion and consequently there followed an unprecedented demand for Bengal textiles. As a result, Bengal became the most dominant partner in the Asiatic trade of the companies and from around the 1680s until the mid-eighteenth century, the Dutch and the English East India Companies played a significant role in Bengal's maritime and international trade. The French company played an important role only in the 1730s when
Dupleix was in charge of the company in Bengal. The trade of other European companies was not at all significant compared to that of the Dutch and the English. It was, however, a different story after the battle of palashi (1757). The English company and its servants by virtue of their political and economic control over Bengal began to wipe out all other European and Asian rivals in the Bengal trade and tried to monopolise it for themselves.
The importance of Bengal in the Asiatic trade of the companies can be seen from the fact that Bengal's share in the average annual value of Asian commodities exported to Holland by the Dutch company was around 40 percent in the early eighteenth century. Again, more than 50 percent of the total value of Dutch textile exports from Asia was in the form of Bengal textiles. Thus Bengal became the most important theatre of the activities of the Dutch company not only in India but the whole of Asia. No different was the case with the English company. The English factors regarded Bengal as 'the flower of the Company's garden' and the 'choicest jewel'.
Between 1650 and 1720, the Dutch were much ahead of the English but thereafter the English trade in Bengal picked up and almost equalled the value of the Dutch exports, although the Dutch trade including the trade to their other Asian factories was still higher than that of the English. The English company's exports to Europe increased substantially from the early 1730s and picked up in the period 1740-45. However it declined marginally in the late 1740s and early 1750s, even though the decline was not very marked compared to the average annual value of the English exports from Bengal in the period from 1730 to 1755, which was around 440,000 Sterling Pounds or a little over Rs 3.5 million. It may be pointed out here that the decline in the English exports in the early 1750s was compensated by the increase in Dutch export in the same period, and as such, so far as Bengal's export trade to Europe as a whole is concerned, there was little noticeable change in the period 1750-55.
In the case of the Dutch, even though their exports to Europe began to decline in the 1720s, it picked up in the early 1730s. In fact the average annual value of Dutch exports to Europe increased steadily through the period from 1730 to 1755. The growth of the Dutch export to Europe was more remarkable in the early 1750s when the English trade declined marginally. The interesting point is that the Dutch trade that was much behind the English trading in the early 1730s nearly equalled the latter in the early 1750. However in this computation Dutch exports include the value of their exports to their settlements, which was on a steady decline from the 1730s. The average annual value of the Dutch export to Europe was around Rs 2.3 million, while the average annual value inclusive of exports to Asian markets stood around Rs 3 million in the first five years of the 1750s.
Here it should be noted that the export of Asian merchants from Bengal in the mid-18th century was much higher than that of the Europeans. The textile export by Asian merchants can be computed at around Rs 9 to 10 million a year while the total export of Bengal textiles by the Europeans did hardly exceed Rs 5 or
6 million. The Asian lead in silk exports is much more spectacular. While the total value of raw silk exported by Asian merchants is estimated at around Rs 5.5 million on an average from 1749 to 1753, and Rs 4.1 million from 1754 to 1758, the average annual value of the total European export of raw silk was only around Rs 0.98 million over the same period. In other words, the Asian share of silk exports from Bengal was 4 to 5 times more than the European share in the pre-Palashi period.
A significant fact in this connection is that all traders and merchants, European or Asian, had to bring in silver or cash to procure export commodities in Bengal. There is evidence that even as early as 1516 Bengali ships carrying local textiles to Burma brought mainly silver back to the delta. In the 1550s the Portuguese found themselves shipping so much treasure to Bengal that the value of the silver currency in Goa actually fluctuated with their sailing seasons to Malacca. Though the companies imported items like broadcloth and woollens as also metals like lead, iron and tin, the volume or value of these was extremely limited. The amount of treasure brought in by the companies can be gauged from the fact that the proportion of precious metals to the total value imported by the Dutch between 1650 and 1720 works out to be 87.5 percent. In the case of the English company this proportion was between 90 and 94 percent in the first two decades of the 18th century. The situation does not seem to have changed to any appreciable extent till Palashi. All the while, the overland import of silver by Asian merchants continued till the British conquest of Bengal.
However, the influx of bullion and specie stopped completely after Palashi when the English investments were financed by the resources of Bengal and the money acquired by the company and its servants through presents, gifts and perquisites. The trade of most of the other European companies shrank considerably after Palashi as the British pursued a policy of wiping out European and Asian rivals. Private British individuals who received bills of exchange in Europe now financed whatever of their trade was left. It should be emphasised here that, contrary to conventional knowledge, the Europeans were not the only importers of bullion, and for that matter, not the largest at that. The Asians whose exports from Bengal were much higher than those of the Europeans also had to bring in silver or cash to pay for their purchases. Hence it was they, and not the Europeans, who were the major importers of bullion to Bengal even in the mid-18th century. [Sushil Chaudhury]
S Chaudhury, Trade and Commercial Organisation in Bengal, 1650-1720,
Calcutta, 1975; Om Prakash, The Dutch East India Company and the Economy
of Bengal, 1620-1750, Princeton, 1985; S Chaudhury, From Prosperity
to Decline - Bengal in the mid-Eighteenth Century, New Delhi, 1995;
Om Prakash, European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India,
Cambridge, 1998; S Chaudhury & M Morineau (ed), Merchants, Companies
and Trade - Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era, Cambridge, 1999.
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