Kapil Kumar Gupta
Research Scholar, Anc. History, Cult. & Arch. Dept.,
University of Alld.
It is always given a great Priority to agriculture and trade and commerce in ancient India. It was very essential to develop the industries and pursuits for trade and commerce. There was a heavy demand of Indian products in different parts of the world. In fact, this necessity has not only affected to Indian capacity and skill but also well contributed in the rise of economic system. India had a well established trade-relation to foreign countries from very ancient times. Before the Vedic age, the people of Indus valley had done the trade and commercial activities to inner and outer countries of India. This article deals with the history of trade and commerce of cotton and its products in ancient India. It is pertinent to point out that the topic is very comprehensive and relevant.
Cotton was cultivated by Neolithic people by 4000 B.C. &continued to cultivated by the Harappans at Lothal, Rangpur & Alamagirpur.1 Seeds of cotton (gossypium) in Mehrgarh period-II (5000 B.C.) are found in association with seeds of Indus coins, it signs out that the Indian traders were lived in Mesopotamia and their chief trade item was cotton which is always been the most prominent one among the main export articles of India and which is famous for its use in later period Bebilonia.3 The activity of trade between India and mesopotamia, was to be done through sea-routes with the help of boats.4 Recent archaeological evidence indicate that trade between Indian and Mesopotamian civilization was through land route also (through Afghanistan).5
It is supposed that Indus valley inhabitants had started the cotton farming earliest. In the historical period, the word ‘sindhu’ was to be applied for cotton in Mesopotamia and the Greeks called it ‘sindon’. The use of cotton in manufacturing clothes was known in the period of the Indus valley culture. ‘Shawl’ and ‘Dhoti’ were the main clothes of the Harappans. There were broad trade contacts of Harappans with different countries through land and sea routes. These countries are Afghanistan, Egypt, Sumera, Asia-minor, Persia, Crete, Beharin, Meluha etc.6 For the import of cotton, various metals, precious stones etc., the Indus Valley had connections with southern and eastern India, Kashmir, Mysore and the Nilgiri Hills, as also with the countries immediately to the west and central Asia.7 Evidence as to relations with Sumer is overwhelming, and trade contacts were maintained with Egypt and Crete. Dr. Mackay thinks that the Indus Valley was in touch with Sumer and Elam by the sea route also. Mohenjo-Daro thus appears to have been a great inland port carrying on trade with Ur and Kish, probably also with Egypt.8
From the discovery of many spindles and spindles whorls in the houses of the Indus Valley, it is evident that spinning of cotton and wool was very common. A close and exhaustive examination, in the technological laboratory, of the pieces of cotton which were found attached to silver vase, shows the specimen to be a variety of the coarser Indian cotton, cultivated in upper India today, and not of the wild species.9 Some more specimens of wove material adhering to various copper objects have also been found to mostly cotton, but some were bast fibres.10 The purple dye on a piece of cotton has been taken to have been produced from the madder plant.11 Dyers’ vats found on the site indicate the dyeing was practiced.
The early Greek notices on Indian agricultural products and industries occur mainly in the writings of Herodotus and Ktesias. We may firstly mention the cotton plant which was cultivated in India since the days of Harappans. It was described by Herodotus as the wild tree that bove wool instead of fruit.12 The cotton fabrics from India appear to be in great demand in the Achaemenian empire. The area of Sindh was the home of cotton, long before the Greeks knew of that area. The discovery of several spindle whorls from Indus sites bear testimony of the practice of spinning as well as the existence of the textile industry.13
In the Vedic age, clothes were manufactured by the cotton. Spinning &Weaving were done by both men ad women. Weaving was a common industry among the Rgvedic Aryans. In this period, the trade of cotton was with western countries and Bay of persia. The land and sea routes were to be used for trade and commerce. The word “samudra” is mentioned for many times in the Rgveda.14 In later samhitas of this period “samudra” is also used in the definite sense of the “sea”.15 there is no evedence of cotton in the Atharvaveda. It is found in the meaning of ‘sana’ for many times. Sacks, Mats etc. were prepared by the cotton in the vedic age.
The people of epic age were familiar to the cotton clothes. Ayodhya, Hastinapur, Vidarbha, Kuruksetra etc. were the important trade centers during this period. We get also some information about the India-China trade relations in the epics.16 The chief imported articles from Chine were silk-cotton, silken cloths and raw silk etc. These objects were supplied from china in a large quantity to the Ganga Valley. The textile industry was much developed in the Buddhist period. Cotton clothes were manufactured prominently. ‘Shivi” country was famous for cotton items.17 It was weared by ordinary people during this period. The Buddhist period is known as the period of expansion of industry and commerce because it was the age of second urbanization.18 Rgvedic Aryans were familiar to the sea or not, but till the Buddhist period some sailors had rounded to the shores of subcontinent through sea routes and probably established first contact to the islands of Burma, Malaya and Indonesia.19 According to Herodotus, there was a trade contact between India and Bebilonia during this period. Chakravarti has mentioned the two routes, coming from the west in Uttarapatha – first, Bactria → Kabul→ Taxila and second, Heart →Kandhar → Kabul.20 Herodotus wrotes that the cotton, finding from the trees in India is much better than from the sheeps. Infact, the whole country along with its big and small mercantile certres was connected by river or road transport.21
A reference to voyages by merchants is found in the Supparaka Jataka22 which mentions the sea-port town of Bharukaccha from where a number of merchants sailed in a ship which tossed about on the primeval ocean, ultimately arriving at the Khuramala sea (Persian Gulf).23 In the Buddhist period, there were forests of pithless silk-cotton trees.24 Besides these natural forests, cotton was cultivated also. The Maha-ummagga Jataka25 describes how a woman used to watch her cotton-fields and spin fine thread. It appears that cotton-carding was specially done by women and ‘a woman’s bow for carding cotton’26 was a common metaphor. It appears that this industry was very much governed by soil and climate and we will later see that certain parts and cities became famous for silk and cotton produced Garments of silk, cotton and wool were used and a glimpse into the highly developed textile industry can be obtained from a study of contemporary literature.
The cotton industry was well established in the Mauryan period. Mathura, Saurastra Kasi, Kalinga, Vanga etc. were the important centres of cotton clothes traders. There was a great demand of Indian cotton cloths in Roman empire during this period. There was broad trade contact in this age with different countries, such as – Seria, Egypt and other western countries. Concerning to the people of India, Megasthenes says that most people wore a white cotton dress which contrasted with their dark complexion. The under garment was some what like a ‘Dhoti’. The upper covering was thrown over the shoulders and some times covered the head. According to Motichandra,27 Vanga, Kasi, Suvarnakanda, Mathura, Aparanta, Kalinga, Kausambi, Mahishmati were the ain centres of cloth industry where the best quality of cotton fabrics was obtained. Further south was the port of Barygaza which exported cotton of all sorts, silk, mallaw coloured cottons, silk thread etc. supplied from neighbouting ports.28 From Tagara ordinary cotton in abundance, many sorts of muslins, Mallow colured cotton and other articles of local production were brought to barygaza from the parts along the coast.29
Trade was both foreign and inland, sea-borne &river-borne, export&import. The eastern sea-borne trade was extended as far as China, and led to an extensive colonization.30 The earlier centuries of the Christian era witnessed the growth of brisk foreign trade between India and west, with the roman empire as tits chief customer. There was a great demand in the west for Indian manufacturers and articles of luxury, such as – silks, cotton cloths, Muslins, pearls, perfumes etc. Roman dames, decked in seven folds of Indian muslin, paraded the streets &become such a menace to the cities morals that the senate intervened and laid an embargo upon the import of that fine stuff from India.31 The state spinning house turned out yarns of cotton, silk, wool and jute and manufactured clothing of all kinds.32 It employed helpless and poor woman who were given orders through its women-staff for spinning yarn.
In the Kusana period, cotton trade flourished on the silk route from Roman empire to China through certral Asia. The conquests of the Kadphises Kings opened up the path of commerce between China and the Roman empire and India.33 Roman gold began to pour into this country in payment for silk, cotton, spice and gems. Through out this period silk was imported ito India from China.34 Traders and merchants used to come to these mercantile centres from various parts of the country and slo from foreign lands.35 In the Kusana period India’s trade was highly prosperous. The inland trade was wide-spreaded, as-between Taksasila and Varanasi.36 The Chinese vessels, silken cloths, cotton cloths, spices were exported to Roman empire through the paths, under the Kusanas.37 Barbaricum and Bharukaccha of south India, were the chief port centre of export and import.38 The existence of international trade has been fully established by archaeological excavations and explorations. India’s commercial relations with Rome have been proved beyond doubt by the archaeological finds from Arikamedu and a few other South-Indian sites.39
In the period Gupta kings, we know from the texts of Kalidasa and Bana about the cotton farming and cotton clothes. Hiuen-Tsang praised Mathura as a manufacturing centre of cotton clothes.40 In the inscription of Mandasore, we get imformation about the ‘pattavaya’ guild (a committee of the weavers of silk cotton). Beginning with the very ancient textile industry in the classical age, we have to mention that the literary works mention a large variety of our clothing materials. These consisted of cotton, silk, wool and linen as well as of barks of trees. In Bana’s Harsacharita we are told that there were displayed on the occasion of princes rajyasri’s marriage garments of Kshauma (linen), Badara (cotton), dukula (bark-silk), amsuka (muslin) and netra (shot silk).41 In his general account of India Hiuen Tsang classifies the clothing materials of Indians under the heads silk, cotton, linen and wool.42 A slight reference in the Harsacharita proves that the kshauma cloth of the pundra country was sufficiently well-known to find its way into the authors village home.43 More specifically we are told by Hiuen-Tsang that Mathura produced a fine striped variety of cotton cloth in his time.
As regards textiles, cosmas tells us that clothe for making dresses was exported from Kalyana. A variety of fabrics called ‘po-tie’ (‘cotton brocade’ or cotton stuffs’) is mentioned in the authoritative Chinese works as an Indian product which was exported to China from Ho-Lo-Tan or Java.44 The merchants of Gupta age must have travelled more or less along the well-known land and water-routs. The Amarakosa has synonyms not only for market and shops but also for merchants travelling by boats.45 Pataliputa, Tamralipti, Kasi, Mathura, Vaisali, Dasapur etc. were the main trade centres. The foreign trade in Gupta period was belong to different countries, such as- Egypt, Rome, Persia, Seria, Lanka and in south east Asian countries – Champa, java, Sumatra, Bali, Malaya and china.
India’s trade was highly enhanced by cotton industry which rose to its highest pitch in the shape of Indian muslins sold for high prices in Roman markets. The cotton cloth was imported to all countries of the ancient world. Indian cloth was known as ‘Sindhaw’. Even the mummy of ancient Egypt was wrapped with Indian cloth. Kautilya46 mentions cotton fabrics of Mathura of Aranta, of Kalinga, of Kasi, of Vanga and of vatsa as the best. The Indica of Arrian records that cotton of India was whiter and brighter than that of any other country. The Periplus47 says that Indian cotton cloth was called “Monache’ and a few muslins were exported from Africa to East Africa. It48 speaks of the country Ariaca as being reputed for cotton and cotton clothes of the coarser, sorts, with Barygaza as an outlet for exportation to the west. Barygaza was fed with muslins and ordinary clothes from ozen and from Tagara. The Periplus mentions muslins of Ceylon, of Masalia and also of the first sort, called Gangetic which was definitely the product of Kasi or North Bengal and exported through the mart called Ganges49 (may be Tamralipti). Trade in cloth is also referred to in the Brahata Jataka.50 The Tamil literature speaks of cotton fabrics found in Kaveripaddinam and Madura. The Silappadhikaram describes the streets of Madhra as being peopled with cloth merchants where different kinds of bundles were piled up, each of a hundred clothes woven of cotton thread, hair or silk thread.51 The same epic refers to Puhar whose streets were seen with weavers dealing in fine fabrics, made of silk, fur and cotton.52 ‘Uraiyur’ the capital of Chola Kingdon, as famous for cotton clothes. Foreign countries, such as – Egypt, Arab, Greece, China, Malaya islands etc. took part in the trade with India in the Sangam age.
Cotton was an important product of Bengal, Gujarat and also of India in early medieval period. In the ninth century the Arab merchant Sulaiman praised highly the excellent quality of Bengal fabrics : “So fine and delicate is the material that a dress made of it may be passed through a signet-ring.”53 The merchant further adds that it was made of cotton and he himself had seen a piece of it. Cotton with other products was included in gifts of villages, as learnt from inscriptional documents mostly belonging to chandella dynasty. In an inscription of vijaysena of Bengal it is stated that the ordinary rural folk were familiar with seeds of cotton.”54 Marco Polo states,55 “ Bengalees grow cotton, in which they derive a great trade.” We get information from an inscription56 that red silk cotton tree grew in Assam. It may also noted that cotton was used as an item of trade as recorded in the Arthuna inscription of Paramara Chamundaraja.57 Marco Polo who visited India in the 13th century found the textile industry in a fair4ly developed state, and Bengal still plied a rich trade in cotton goods. The cotton goods produced were both coarse and fine, but the latter must have been in high demand among the aristocracy. The important production areas of cotton clothes, such as- Gujarat (Anhilavada), Multan, Kalinga, Vanga, Malawa are mentioned in the Manasollasa. Al Idrisi mentions that the town of Multan made cotton clothes and sold them in the country around. Ibn Haukal reports that the people “from Cambay to Saimur used fine muslin garments.” It may be inferred that during the period of Solankis and Vaghelas in Gujarat, ‘Shalmli’ cotton was used for making mattresses, quilts and pillows. Besides, cotton was also used for wearing cloth. As regards the trade routes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they were same as in the ancient period. The Arab traveller Alberuni mentions about 15 routes which started from Kannauj, mathura, Anhilvada, Dhara, Badi and Bayana. India was linked to foreign countries through land and sea routes during this period. These countries are – China, Sumatra, Java, malaya, Burma, Ceylon, etc. The North-East India had trade links with Tibet and Burma through land routes. R.M.Nath has written about the trade of the Goros with Bangladesh. The Garos living in the areas bordering Goalpara, mymensing and Rangpur districts as also the Garos of the interior came down to the plains to sell their cotton and chillies and purchase paddy, cloth and other necessities, and rulers of the states exacted taxes from them.
Thus, from the above account, it may be supposed that cotton contributes significantly to the agricultural and industrial economies of India. Cotton fabrics are in demand in domestic and international market owing to its eco-friendliness and comfort-in-use. Cotton generates employment for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labourers in both rural and urban areas and provides livelihood to a large number of people. The trade of cotton in ancient India has provided an important place to India both the national and international level.
1. S.R. Rao, “Agriculture in the Indus Civilization”, History of Agricuture in Ancient India ed. L.Gopal & V.C. Srivastava, Vol.-V, Part-I, PHISPC-2008, New Delhi, p.191.
3. A.L. Basham, The wonder that was India, London, 1953. p.13.
4. Balaram Srivastava, Trade & Commerce in Ancient India, Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series office, Varanasi, 1968, pp.136 ff.
5. See for details, V.C. Srivastava, The Proto Historic Afghanistan, Tara Publisher, Varanasi, 1995.
6. Shiv Swaroop Sahay, Prachina Bharat Ka Samajika Arthika Itihas, otilal Benarasidas, New Delhi, 2000, p. 394.
7. R.C. Majumdar, History and Culture of the Indian People : The Vedic Age, Bhartiya Vedya Bhawan Series, Bombay, 1954, p.182.
9. R.C. Majumdar, op.cit., p. 185.
12. Udai Praksh Arora, “The Graceo-Roman Accounts on Ancient Indian Agriculture and Agricultural Products”, History of Agriculture in Ancient India, ed. L. Gopal V.C.Srivastava, Vol.-V, Part-I, PHISPC-2008, New Delhi, p.423.
14. N.C.Bandopadhyaya, Economic Life and Progress in Ancient India, Calcutta, 1945,p.169.
15. R.C.Majumdar, op.cit., p.465.
16. Mahabharata, 32-17, Ramayana, 43-12.
17. Mahabharata, 8/1.
18. U.N.Ghosal, History of Indian Public Life, Vol.II, Calcutta, 1945, p.88.
19. A.L.Basham, op.cit.,p.161.
20. H.P. Chakravarti, ?T?rade & Commerce in Ancient India, Calcutta, 1966, p. 26.
21. For the various trade routes followed by the traders and merchants in Ancient India, see, Dr. Motichandra’s Sarthavaha, ch.I, Dr. Haripada Chakraborti’s Trade and Commerce in Ancient India, ch.I, Dr. Balaram Srivastava’s Trade and commerce in Ancient India, ch.IV.
22. Vol.IV, No.463.
23. Motichandra, Sarthavaha, Patna, 1953, p.59.
24. Chaddanta Jataka, Vol.II, No.21.
25. Vol.IV, No.546,P.162.
26. Vol.IV, No.539,P.26.
27. Motichandra, op.cit.,p.78.
28. R.C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India, Calcutta, 1960, p. 304.
30. R.C. Majumdar, The Age of Imperial Unity, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan Series, Bombay, 1954, p.602.
32. Ibid, p.605.
33. Jaimal Rai, The Rural-Urban Economy and Social Changes in Ancient India, Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan, Varanasi, 1974, p.217.
36. B.N.Puri, India Under the Susanas, Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan, Bombay, 1965, p.107.
37. Motichandra, op.cit., p.97.
38. B.N.Puri, op.cit., p.117.
39. Mortimer Wheeler, Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers, Penguine Books, Great Britain, London, 1955, ch.12.
40. Shiv Swaroop Sahay, op. cit.,p.388.
41. R.C. Majumdar, History and Culture of the Indian People : The Classical Age, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan Series, Bombay, 1954, p.593.
46. Prakash Charan Prasad, foreign Trade & Commerce in Ancient India, Abhinav Publishers, New Delhi, 1977, P. 216.
47. W.H. Schoff, The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, 6, London, 1912.
48. Ibid, 41.
49. Prakash Charan Prasad, op.cit., p.216 f.
50. Brhata Jataka, 14.2, 18.1.
51. Prakash Charan Prasad, op.cit., p.217
53. B.N.S. Yadava, Society and Culture in Northern India in the 12th Century, Central Book Depot, Allahabad, 1973, p. 263.
54. Puspa Niyogi, Contributions to the Economic History of Northern India,Progressive Publishers, Calcutta, 1962, p.28.
55. Puspa Neyogi, op.cit., p.28.
56. Puspa Neyogi, op.cit., p.28f.