When history of India is written, be it ancient, medieval or modern, one really can’t do justice to the importance each region has. Combining a detailed history of the entire subcontinent can result only in a multi-volume encyclopaedia. If one considers the regions of greater India – Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Tibet, Afghanistan, Chinese Yunnan, Philippines – the issue becomes only more complex. It is no wonder that the history books beings churned out in the name of exploring the ancient Indian history haven’t had the dare to venture out and include some non-conventional topics in their narrative, which usually begins with the Sindhu-Saraswathi Civilisation and ends with Harsha’s reign, occasionally coming down south for explaining the exploits of the Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas and the Cholas in passing. The North – East sadly gets only a few sentences as a tribute to their unexplored and mysterious tradition.
Supposing that this fault can be attributed to the curse of geography, another curious lapse many history books suffer is from the ideological agenda that historians, however neutral they claim themselves to be, stuff down in their writings, as if these beliefs’ existence depend solely on how it can be plugged in at every possible crevice of their fairy tales. The historians come across as, for the lack of a better word, snobbish procrusteses, ever so trying to fit in our history into their narrow ideological spectrum. Their tiresome books leave the readers with a sense of shame.
It is in the midst of such unimaginative publications that Mukund’s Merchants of Tamilakam makes a simple but elegant appearance and makes one want for more. Written in a lucid language, the book is less of an exercise in drab chronicling and more of an enthralling introduction to a colourful society that existed from the Sangam Age (1st Century CE) till the end of the Chola Empire (1300s). The book is one among the many in the Penguin Series related to “The Story of Indian Business” which is edited by the prolific Gurcharan Das. As Das himself mentions in his foreword, the book “celebrates the ideal captured in the Sanskrit term artha or ‘material well-being’, which was one of the aims of the classical Indian life.”
The Tamil region extends from the hills of Vishnu [Tirupati] in the north to the oceans at the cape in the south. In this region of cool waters were the four great cities of Madurai with its towers; Uraiyur which was famous; tumultuous Kanchi; and Puhar with the roaring waters [of the Kaveri and the ocean].
In the earliest recorded period, Tamilakam was ruled by three kings, muvendargal, the Pandya, Chola and Chera with capitals at Madurai, Uraiyur (Tiruchi) and Vanji (Karur) respectively. Of the many ports, the one at Puhar or Pumpuhar at the mouths of Kaveri River was the most important. In the west coast, which are far more often mentioned in historical notes from the Mediterranean, ports of Muziris or Muchheri Pattanam (modern Kodungallur) and Tyndy or Tondi (modern Ponnani) stand out. It is interesting to note this, because the geography of the Indian coastlines is such that the western coast is conducive to natural ports while the eastern coast is not, since the Indian plate tilts in a west to east direction. Despite this, the number and importance given to the ports on the eastern coast, Korkai (at Gulf of Mannar), Saliyur (north of Korkai), Tondi (north of Rameswaram), Eyirpattinam, Pattinapakkam, along with the ones mentioned above, shows that the Tamil region was very resourceful and politically significant. Another point to be noted is the number of ports in the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar. Mukund infers that the ancient period ships were able to sail along the west coast of Sri Lanka since they were smaller, whereas even in the 17th century ships were larger and had to sail round the eastern coast of Lanka.
One fact that strikes out is the description of India as a sink of world’s gold, as described by Pliny the Elder. The value of imports compared to what was being exported from India – pepper, textile, pearls, and gemstones – was much lower and it resulted in a trade deficit for the merchants of the yavana (Roman) empire. A map tracing the path the merchants used to travel as explained by the author is given below. This explains the reason why large amount of Roman coins have been excavated in Coimbatore, Erode and Salem.
|Possible paths traversed by Roman traders into the interior of Tamilakam|
But this did not have any adverse effects, since the increase in trade with the South East Asian and Far East Asian empires, was able to offset this ban, about which a longer record has been given by Mukund in The Merchants.
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