Foreign Trade and Commerce in Ancient India


The Foreign Trade and Commerce in Ancient India saw the sign of prosperity during the period beginning with the decline and full of the Mauryas till the advent of the Gupta Empire in India.

Foreign Trade in India was initiated by the Indo-Greek rulers. This strengthened the contact with western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean which had started in the Mauryan period. The Shakas, Parthians and Kushanas brought Central Asia into the orbit of Indian merchant, which in turn encouraged commerce with China. The Roman demand for spices, textiles, semi-precious stones and other luxuries led Yavana traders from the Eastern Mediterranean to southern and western India. Indian traders in turn were motivated likewise to visit south-east Asia as entrepreneurs. The entire activities really helped the Indian traders and they became the chief beneficiary. Thus prosperity of the merchant community is evident from their donations to religious institutions and from descriptions of the wealthy merchants in contemporary literature.


Merchants of Ancient India began Commerce with the Foreign Countries. In this connection it is quite interesting to note that the Indian merchants had to hire foreign ships for their overseas trade. Hence they had to seek the transport facilities of the foreign trading communities. But the Cholas of South India were an exception. They had their own ships for transporting goods to foreign countries. This helped them to secure predominant position in Indian Ocean. They had several small ships and so many large ships built by them. In the opinion of Pliny the biggest ship built by them had been 75 tons. This has been corroborated in other documents. The noted historian Basam did not agree with this Indian contention. He said that this is simply an exaggeration that the Indian ships in those days could carry one thousand passengers. He however agreed that Pliny was really an authority regarding the overseas trade in the Indian Ocean in those days.

During the second and third centuries B.C. some goods of Chinese origin were in use in India with names derived from Chinese. During the Kushana rule Silk Route was used for trading purposes. This route covered an area that spread from Central Asia and Afghanistan via Iran and ultimately reached the frontiers of the Roman empire. As a result Central Asian oases at Yarkhand, Khotan, Kashgar, Tashkend, Turfan, Miran, Kacha, Qarashahr and Dunhuang became useful staggering points when they developed into staggering points when they developed into towns. The embellishment of these required semiprecious stones from India and banners of silk from China, all of which enhanced commerce. During the Kushana regime the balance of India’s overseas trade with Rome was in favour of India. During the rule of the imperial Gupta’s India’s trading relations with Rome gradually declined at last came to a sudden end. This was caused by the coming of the Huns. But India’s overseas trade with the countries of the Far East took a new turn.

During the seventh centuries commercial activities in various ports of India gave an impetus to overseas trade. Among these sea ports the most prominent were Tamralipta in Bengal, Sind in north-west India, Kalayan in western sea-shore, and Kuberipattam in the south. The two coastal areas to the west and the east of the peninsula were also beginning to actively participate in trade with the Mediterranean and south-eastern Asia.

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