Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakalatha Mukund – A Review – Part 2

Merchants and Merchant Guilds

Breaking the myth propagated by “NCERT” Historians, that the business communities were given no respect by the Indian society, Mukund cites various examples to show that the opposite was the case. Not only where the merchants highly esteemed; they were among the most prominent members of the Tamil society in contrast to the medieval Japan and the ancient Greece, where gains via plunder was considered noble. Even the central characters of the famous Silappadikaram – Kannagi and Kovalan – are shown to be from mercantile families. The following text from Pattinapalai one of the poems from Pattupattu (literally Ten Poems) throws light on the attitude towards the Merchants.

    “The merchants of Puhar are as straight forward as the crosspiece of yoke. They always speak the truth and are fair-minded, and fear ignominy. They value their goods and the goods of others by the same standard; they neither take too high a price for their goods, nor do they shortchange on what they sell. They openly state their profits on various goods they handle. Such merchants have lived in Puhar for many years.”

Though this might be the idealised version of the reality, it cannot be denied that an over-all attitude of positivity remained towards the merchants. There were many reasons behind it. The fact that they enabled the society to have a higher level of sophistication by selling goods not available locally is surely one among them. Another facet of this is the initiatives taken by the Merchant class to gain acceptance and good will of the society.  This was accomplished through the generous donations they made to the temples and supporting local festivals and cultural activities. This gave them not only religious merit, punniyam, but also gave an impression of somebody who respected the sentiments of the people. This in turn gave him the patronage of the temple authorities and the royal family.

Not just domestic merchants, even merchants from outside used to do the same to gain the trust of local people. This negated any antagonism and ill-will and established their credentials in an alien land. Says Mukund,

    Inscriptions are replete with references to itinerant merchants who made donations to temples in towns which were far from their homes. This indicates a high volume of overland trade which was being carried on by individual merchants. A significant proportion of itinerant merchants came from malaimandalam, the western hills of Kerala, participating in inter-regional overland trade of pepper and areca nut. Traders known as kudirai chetti from the west also came to sell horses which had evidently been imported from Arabia to the ports of the west coast. There are also occasional references to merchants from other regions, like Kaivaranadu in Karnataka and even Kashmiradesam.

Mukund also gives us a glimpse of the lives of the ancient capitalists when she describes their lavish lifestyles and tall multi-storeyed houses with its latticed windows that let in breeze. She writes “even the kites flying past would have liked to rest” in those houses!

Merchants were not only good in commerce but were also regarded as brave warriors and learned men. Manimekalai, the second great Tamil epic, was written by Sattanar, a grain merchant. Mullaipattu, one of the ten poems of Pattuppaattu was written by Nampudanar, a gold merchant. Famous poet Nakkirar was from a conch-cutting family. Several poems have been written by members of professions as varied as medical practitioners and goldsmiths. This shows the high level of literacy prevalent Tamilakam.

These merchants also had to double up as warriors because of the threat they faced on a regular basis from group of bandits ready to loot them. They were respected for their bravery and martial qualities, which were much admired in the local culture. Mukund has beautifully translated a portion of Perumpanarruppatai, one of the ten poems of Pattupattu.

    “They are hardworking; they were footwear and body cover; because of their skill they were able to evade the arrows of highway robbers and have no scars of wounds on their chests; at their side thye have shining swords with handles of ivory; they carry daggers on their waists which look like snakes; they are brave warriors who will not turn their backs but will attack robbers with spears which they carry like Murugan”.

This is one among the many examples which show that despite it being the duty of the state to protect the merchants from the robbers, the traders felt it pertinent to have a personal army. This must have been one of the reasons for the formation of merchant guilds. Mukund makes it clear that these guilds are not similar to European merchant guilds which were “governed by charters, strict constitutions, or rules. Nor was their membership restricted with stringent conditions.” Guilds presented many advantages which included lessened risk of physical danger during long-distance travel and the drawback of trading as a single merchant, especially in distant markets. Mukund also proposes that the guild formation would have become sources of capital for individual members to meet short-term requirements. Finally, the group identity created greater trust in all societies.  Though there were many guilds, two among them stand out prominently – Manigramam, based in Pudukkottai and Disai-ayirattu-ainnurruvar or simply Ainnuruvar (Five Hundred) based in Ayyavole or Aihole.

Manigramam seems to have become prominent by early 10th century AD. The location of Pudukkottai is strategically important because it connects the trading route from the Northern Tamilakam to the Southern Tamilakam ports. Thus it would have become an ideal spot for various merchants to come together and a form a base for overland trade. Later on records of smaller local level franchisee-like Manigramams could be found in many regions and they stopped over-seas trade.

Ainnurruvar group, which eclipsed the Manigramam, is first mentioned in an inscription in Aihole in 800 AD. Ainnuruvar believed in a charter called panchasata virasasanam, or five-hundred charters which enlisted the dharma of traders. There objective was “aram valara kali meliya” – “to promote religion and weaken the ill effects of Kali”. Close relationship between Chola Imperial expansion and mercantile interests of Ainnuruvar is hinted by Mukund. She suggests that

Position of Pudukkottai with respect to important commercial centres of Tamilakam

“The Chola campaign to conquer Mysore itself is attributed to the perceived need for controlling the main trade route from Tamilakam to the north and west and facilitating the movement of Ainnuruvar”

Similarly she attributes the reasons for annexation of Sri Lanka, by the Chola emporers Rajaraja I and his son Rajendra I, partly to the demands by Ainnuruvar to have a better trading environment. It must be noted that Ainnuruvar had a thriving presence in Sri Lanka, and South East Asian kingdoms, even before any hostilities between them and the Cholas had begun. Thus we can see how commercial interests played a factor in the foreign policy of Cholas. It enthrals an ardent student of history, that such a merchant – ruler coalition existed in the 1100s and that they successfully carried forward their interests. Mukund narrates with such sincerity that one would feel that the reader is in the middle of a serious discussion between the Chola Monarch and an assembly of Ainnuruvar merchants.

As has been mentioned earlier, Ainnuruvar too validated their position in the society through their association with the temples. As we draw towards the last stages of a weak Chola empire, Ainnuruvar had become powerful enough to have a few important temples and certain administrative positions under their control. The assembly of the guild used to meet up regularly and fix taxes and tolls on commodities imported to and exported from various town and also goods on transit. This shows how political power shifted to individual guild, when the Monarch wasn’t powerful. The main conclusion that one could infer, and which is repeatedly mentioned by Mukund at various intervals throughout her narrative, is “how a strong state was not a prerequisite for mercantile activities to flourish as long as latter were allowed to function freely without extortionate taxation, controls or other state intervention.” Interestingly, this is in line with the beliefs of the series editor Gurcharan Das, who has, through his various books – India Unbound, and India Grows at Night: A liberal case for a strong state – stresses how India grows despite its government. He writes in the foreword of this book: “The truth is that India never allowed state power to be as concentrated as in China, so that it could reach deeply and change its basic social institutions. The type of despotic governments emerged in China, which were able to divest the whole society of property and personal rights, have never existed in south Asia. Not surprisingly, India’s history is by and large one of competing political kingdoms, while China’s is one of strong empires.” I would add to this, that India still remains a region of competing regional political fiefdoms and China still remains a region of a strong single-party rule. History repeats and how!
Quick Links to Other Parts –

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

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