Trade in Ancient Bengal

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.

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.

Geography and human activities in this deltaic area of the Ganga, 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 principal sources of 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; the interpretation, 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’.

The 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.

Pundra was already well known for the surplus cultivation of dhanya (paddy) and tila (sesame) which figure in the Mahasthan stone inscription, palaeographically assignable to the third century BC. In fact, these two types of crops were kept in the storehouse (kosthagara) at PUNDRANAGARA, and were meant for distribution among certain people afflicted by some emergencies (atyayika).

Recent discovery of many terracotta seals and sealings from archaeological sites at TAMRALIPTI and CHANDRAKETUGARH, inscribed in Kharosti and the mixed Kharosti-Brahmi scripts and assignable to the late 1st century BC to fourth 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.

Trade in paddy of Bengal is also 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.

Pundravardhana was also very 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 (the second half of the 1st century AD), 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. These exotic items were in considerable demand among the rich in the Roman Empire. 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. Fine quality MUSLINS, was a major item of export from the Bengal coast. The Periplus further refers to of the trade in Thinae (Chinese) silk floss, yarn and cloth from Bengal. 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. 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). Significantly enough, Chau ju Kua (1225 AD), a Chinese official speaks of the availability of fine cotton (tou-lo) in Pong-kielo or VANGALA.

From the 8th century onwards, inscriptions occasionally record the plantation of both betel nuts (guvaka) and 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 (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 horses has been underlined in recent decades. 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. The evidence of a terracotta sealing from Chandraketugarh, with a legend in the mixed Kharosti-Brahmi script (assigned to the 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. Tthe 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.

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. Ptolemy called it Tamalites while Pliny named the same as Taluctae.

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. 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. 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, Persian and Chinese texts indicate the remarkable rise of a port, variously called Samandar, Sudkawan and Sattigaon, probably located near present Chittagong. 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). 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).

In the interior 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.

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, 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.

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.

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.

A 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 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 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.

Bengal’s overland connections with the neighbouring regions of Magadha, Kamarupa and Odra have also to be taken into consideration. The Ghoshrawan inscription of the time of DEVAPALA indicates the very long overland journey by Viradharadeva from Nagarahara (Jalalabad) to Mahabodhi (Bodhgaya). Interestingly, Viradharadeva is said to have been happy as he saw many of his countrymen at Nalanda. This underlines 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 the 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.

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.

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.

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 the 2nd century BC.

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.

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.

Src : Excerpts from Banglapedia

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