Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakalatha Mukund – A Review – Part 1

Seldom can people read a non-fiction and come out of it as entranced as if they have been living in a fictionalised world of the Amar Chithra Kathas. The Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakalatha Mukund is multi-faceted in so many ways that this relatively small book of 190 pages can be shown as an answer to many of the short-comings, that books on Indian history simply can’t seem to wish away.

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.”
To appreciate the importance of India as a focal point of world trade, one just needs to look at the world map covering the European and Asian continents. India is right in the middle of the paths – land and sea – connecting the West and the East and became, by default, a transhipment port, for the goods from both sides of the world. As the author mentions, ships from the west rarely sailed further east of Bay of Bengal and the Chinese ships did not bother to venture post the Kerala coast. It is in this context that Mukund has analysed the importance of the Tamil region. Tamilakam, by itself, doesn’t denote a single political formation; instead, it represents a cultural and linguistic continuum. As Silappadikaram, one of the oldest Tamil epics mentions, and translated by the author,

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
Later on, after the death of Nero, Emperor Vespasian had to pass a series of laws against the luxurious lifestyle of the upper classes and imports from India began to be largely confined to pepper and textiles, both comparatively low-value commodities. It is interesting to note that nearly 1600 years after, when Europe had rediscovered India and started trading again, the Great Britain faced a similar problem and had to ban the import of cotton from India using the Calico Act. History, indeed, repeats.

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.
Quick Links to Other Parts –

  1. Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakaltha Mukund – A Review – Part 2
  2. Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakaltha Mukund – A Review – Part 3
  3. Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakaltha Mukund – A Review – Part 4

One thought on “Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakalatha Mukund – A Review – Part 1

  1. The book by Ms.Kanakalatha Mukund essentially gives a good account of international trade with native rulers of a part of South India. I agree completely with the reviewer on his opinion that this book, inspite being a small one of around 90 pages, paints a beautiful picture of ancient trade in India. As he points out, there is little or no personal agenda of the author portrayed in this book. What the book ignores in 'more' detail and in what would have made it more interesting is the trade with the Western Coast of India and how the interaction happened with the rulers of the eastern side of the ghats. I wonder on the reason of taking Tamilagam as the hotbed of her book, when It is known that there was no perpetual cohesiveness among the Tamil rulers or so among others in South India. Cinnamon trade with Israel or the trade of Arabians with the Chinese, meeting at Jawadweep, passing through the Indian Peninsula and the decline of them needs more indepth studies. Ofcourse, one can opine that this is not a research material and the author has successfully given a lucid and simple account of the happenings in mercantile India, a task which very few has doen in India appealing to “lesser” minds. Hats off to her and for long, readers like me expect more such accounts of historical happenings and governance with no hidden agenda and that can trigger more interest towards this subject

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