Indian Ocean Trade in the Post-Sangam Period: A Historical Backdrop

March 5, 2015

South Indian Kingdoms of Post Sangam Period 

Indian Ocean that borders Mediterranean in the West and South China Sea in the East provided, for centuries, a route for east-west maritime trade. Most Indian Ocean studies highlight either the trade with Mediterranean nations in the classical period or that under the European dominance in the Indian Ocean in the early modern period. The long period between the fourth through the sixteenth century, when Asian trade flourished, remains much less explored. As the German historian and Indologist, Professor Hermann Kulke, remarked, “strangely enough Indian Ocean studies remain oddly bipartite.” 

By the early fourth century ancient South India accomplished a high level of economic activity. From the fourth through the ninth century the Pallava dynasty ruled a major part of South India with Kanchipuram, 45 miles southwest of the Chennai (Madras), as the capital. They developed Mamallapuram (also known Mahabalipuram) forty miles south of Chennai into a major port. Though they were Hindus, the Pallavas also extended their patronage to the Buddhists. By the end of their rule, South India had developed extensive maritime commerce, especially with the countries Southeast Asia, China and the Arabia.

The early Chola dynasty that had lost their power for several centuries finally defeated the Pallavas in the ninth century. With Kanchipuram as capital they became the dominant power – Imperial Cholas - in South India. Nagapattinam, about 200 miles south of Chennai, was the major port of the Chola Empire. It became a hub for maritime trade between Malay Archipelago and China to the east and Mediterranean nations in the west. During the post-Sangam period (330 A.D. onwards) South Indian economy developed much beyond a subsistence economy and the economic and cultural life of the region was strongly centered in maritime activities.

Temples and Merchant Guilds 
With the revival of Hinduism by the sixth century, Hindu temples emerged as the central institutions in South India. Besides being places of worship, local administration and resource management revolved around temples and they provided an institutional base for capital and its circulation across the society. Donations of land, gold and money received from kings, merchants and guilds and people were lent on interest to village assemblies for the development of agriculture and to traders and merchants for expansion of local and international trade. Temples were pivotal in energizing the interaction of local authorities with merchant organizations. 

Prosperous, well-organized Tamil merchant guilds that emerged during this period controlled and nurtured long-distance trade. Unlike European guilds, these guilds were not governed by charter or strict constitution. Names of several guilds appear in epigraphic records. The dominant guilds operating in Southeast Asia were five hundred or Aihole dating to 800 AD and Manigramam started in the eighth or ninth century A.D. There was no strict division of spheres of trade between these guilds. The merchants had their own settlements at home and abroad and they were also under the control of the royal officers. The great guilds financed development and temple construction and made generous donations to temples. The rulers of the South Indian kingdoms were aware of the need to promote and protect the commercial interests of the Tamil merchant groups, especially their overseas trade in the Indian Ocean.

Early Kingdoms of Southeast Asia
Trading partners on the other side of Bay of Bengal and in adjoining islands to the south were kingdoms with strong Indian influence. The three kingdoms of note during the first millennium were Funan, Champa and Khmer. Funan, a strong maritime state centered on the Mekong Delta, is believed to have trade links with the Pallava Kingdom. Funan was an ideal half way point on the journey from India to China. Information from Chinese sources trace the growing complexity of Funan as its rulers selected linguistic, cultural and administrative elements from India. Another vibrant Indianized kingdom Champa was established in the 4th century AD. Its rulers presided over a small territory between high mountains and the sea in Vietnam. The dominant religion in Champa was Saivite Hinduism, brought from South India. Towards the end of first millennium, the Indianized Khmer Empire of Cambodia, home of Angkor Wat, was the foremost power in mainland Southeast Asia between the first and the thirteenth centuries.

Another organized Indianized state to achieve fame was the kingdom of Sri Vijaya which rose to power in the seventh century, with its capital in southern Sumatra. Its commercial superiority was based on command over the sea route from India to China between Sumatra and the Straits of Malacca. By the seventh century a powerful Indianized Buddhist Kingdom Sailendra rose to power in Java challenging the sovereignty the Sri Vijaya Kingdom.

South Indian Trade with Southeast Asia
Trade with Rome declined in the third and fourth century AD, and India, especially south India, turned to Southeast Asia. The minerals and metals wealth of Southeast Asia was a huge attraction for Indian traders. The early Indian traders would stopover at Southeast Asian ports during the monsoons until favorable weather returned for their journey back to India. First the Thai peninsula and Mekong Delta and later Indonesian Islands became important way stations. The success of their commercial venture and the personal safety of traders depended entirely on the goodwill of the inhabitants. In later years ocean trade brought priests, monks, and professional craftsmen from India.

By the time Indian inspired temples and inscriptions appeared in Southeast Asia by the fourth century AD, the relationship between these societies had already come a long way. The presence of metallic vessels, stone and glass ornaments, and technologies adapted to regional style, found at excavation sites in peninsular Thailand strongly suggest that the Southeast Asian societies had sustained relationships with South India as early as the fourth through the second centuries BC.

Diplomatic and commercial contacts with China and the kingdoms of Southeast Asia dominated the foreign policy of the Tamil kingdom from the fourth century onwards and is substantiated by various artifacts and inscriptions excavated in India, China and Southeast Asia. China was a formidable power of the region. Both Pallava and Chola kings accepted the centrality of China for maintaining the political and economic power balance in the region and exchanged emissaries with the Chinese emperors. For the use of foreign traders, these kingdoms either built Buddhist viharas or donated generously for their upkeep.

Trade relations between Cholas and Sri Vijaya were not always peaceful. By early eleventh century commercial activities in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea became more complex because of the changes in Chinese trade policies and the new tributary system of Song government. This attracted many foreign traders to China.  Sri Vijaya perceived the entry of Cholas into South China Sea as a threat and began to dominate commercial exchanges through the straits of Malacca. The coastal regions under the control of Cholas also emerged as important centers of transshipment. The interest in controlling trade became a source of tension between Cholas and Sri Vijayas and Cholas attacked Sri Vijaya two or three times in early eleventh century. But there was no permanent territorial gain and both kingdoms continued to trade with China. 

When Indian commerce expanded into Southeast Asia, in spite of its mostly peaceful nature, it resulted in radical changes in the life and culture of the region. From early in the first millennium elite groups in many parts of Southeast Asia adopted Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, political ideologies and ritual language. The influence of South India was predominant in the early centuries; in later centuries influence came from the Buddhist scholars, monks and traders from East and West India. New ideas and traditions brought by Indians had affinity with indigenous ideas and art, and the natives welcomed and accepted them. The Indian influence in Southeast Asia was termed by historians as "Indianization". Indianization was not an imposition of control or colonization; it was the result of a series of choices made by local elites when they encountered Indian culture, through trade with Indian traders, administrators and priests or in India as students and pilgrims. The Indianized states and empires of Southeast Asia in the medieval period maintained diplomatic contacts with India and remained politically independent of the Indian kingdoms. 

Culinary Connections

Along with trade and commerce there was also the exchange of food ingredients and culinary techniques between Southeast Asia and India. Local ingredients and techniques got incorporated, and recipes evolved over time.

Click here to read more about these intriguing dishes.

 


Resources:


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Map of ancient Tamil Country -By Lotlil [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Map of Southeast Asian Countries By Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons





AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN