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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 35, New Delhi, August 14, 2021

When Indians Traded Along Silk Route | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 13 August 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy



India and the Silk Roads: The History of a Trading World

by Jagjeet Lally

HarperCollins India

Pages: 415

ISBN-13: 978-0197581070
ISBN-10: 0197581072

Available here

It was probably because of Chinese influence that they came to be known as the Silk Roads. But this was misleading because a number of commodities moved in a number of directions in the bygone era, not just silk, playing a major role in the Asian economy. London-based academic Jagjeet Lally paints a comprehensive history of the world of caravan trade that linked the sprawling northern India of Mughal/British times with Afghanistan as well as Central Asia, from the start of the 18th century till early 20th century. The book is a scholarly masterpiece, dripping with a wealth of detail.

The caravan trade included exotic elephant ivory, rhino horn, luxury textiles of silk and other threads, precious manuscripts, foodstuffs, pack animals, animal products, raw cotton, cotton clothes, horses, woolen fleece, skins, paper, gunpowder, indigo, Kashmiri shawls, ironware, brassware, drugs, spices, opium, sugar, fruits, nuts and more. Besides goods and money, the trade also brought into the societies it connected news, ideas, weapons and mercenaries, playing an organic role in the exercise of political power. The expansion of both the British and Russian empires was also linked to the intra-continental trade.

The book shows that Indo-Central Asian caravan trade survived and expanded not in spite of but because of the growth of intra-Asian and Euro-Asian maritime trade. Till the second quarter of the 19th century, the growing demand for Indian and Chinese goods resulted in the influx of bullion from the Atlantic world into Asia. The core of the Indo-Central Asian trading world covered a region touched at its southern end by the boundaries of Punjab and Rajasthan in modern India and at its northern end by present day Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The book under review is rooted in South Asia.

The routes taken by the caravans depended on both weather and politics. To avoid the unbearable summer and monsoon, merchants concluded purchases in north India before April or May. Once the snow melted in spring, the traders turned towards Afghanistan, reaching the high pastures in June and July. The start of autumn and winter again kicked off the trade and campaign season. Changes in political and economic circumstances influenced the choice of particular routes. But the goods were not picked up only in northern India; they also came from places such as Bengal, going all the way to Russia, China and Central Asia via Kashmir and Afghanistan.

India was a major market for central Eurasian horses brought through overland routes, thanks to a cavalry revolution during Mughal rule. One estimate placed India’s annual needs at tens of thousands of horses. Horses came even from Australia. It was only in the 18th century that this trade declined as Anglo-French confrontations in south India proved the advantages of European-equipped and European-trained infantry.
After cotton cloth, indigo and silk emerged by the later 18th century as the most important articles of caravan trade in both volumes and export value. There was a time when India was responsible for clothing the world. But this eventually provoked protectionism, imitation and industrial revolution in Europe, enabling Britain to usurp India’s status in the 19th century. The East India Company also took intrusive measures in the 1750s-60s to restrict the export of silk from Bengal.

Private security played a major role in protecting the caravan trade. If corrupt officials or bandits robbed the caravans of cash, commodities, persons and livestock, the immediate financial loss was likely to be supplemented by increased transportation charges and insurance premiums. Armed Jat peasants (when they were not farming) or horsemen from Pashtun tribes escorted the caravans. What they were paid was protection money. Banditry was at its worst along the Indo-Afghan frontier.

Russia was ahead of Britain in the textile trade with Central Asia and Afghanistan. Cotton textiles became the chief object of Anglo-Russian commercial rivalry in the region. Britain’s technological advantages, says the author, were eroded by Russia’s territorial foothold and first mover advantages in Central Eurasia. The most active arenas of contestation leading to the ‘Great Game’ covered the bazaars of Central Asia and Afghanistan. Well into the 19th century, Indo-Central Asian trade remained integral to the material cultures of diverse social groups who tapped into these exchange networks including kings, gentry, peasants, soldiers and lay people. Even Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, followed the caravans over the Hindu Kush to the shrines and tombs of Shia saints in Iran, continuing onwards to the holy city of Mecca in Arabia.

Technological changes had their impact on the trading world. The introduction of telegraph kept everyone informed of the prices in other places. Trains speeded up movement of freight across the Indian landmass. Train services from Calcutta (via Delhi) and from Karachi and Bombay helped English cotton to reach Punjab from the 1860s, some for redistribution within the province and around three-quarters for re-export to markets in the Sikh states, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Turkestan. The railways, the book explains, deepened the integration of Punjab into the economy of British India and the British Empire and of Central Asia into the economy of the Russian Empire.

A number of factors came together to change the character, significance, scope and scale of Indo-Central Asian trade more specifically from the early part of the 20th century. Automobile traffic – especially British, American or Russian trucks – over newly built roads steadily displaced a large part of the animal trains and altered the seasonal rhythms and temporality of long-distance circulation. The Indo-Afghan trade one sees today in fresh and dried fruit as well as asafoetida is a continuation of the ancient caravan trade. China is trying to revive the Silk routes in a major way in the form of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Even before BRI became known in 2013, India announced an International North-South Trade Corridor to cut transport times between the western Indian Ocean via the Suez to St Petersburg by using sea-rail-road routes from western Indian ports, through Iran, and onward to Russia.

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