Chapter 19 Crafts, Commerce, and Urban Growth (200 BC–AD 250)


Crafts and Craftsmen

Although a substantial number of non-producing people concentrated in the cities, the age of the Shakas, Kushans, Satavahanas (200 BC–AD 250) and the first Tamil states was the most flourishing period in the history of crafts and commerce in ancient India. Arts and crafts in particular witnessed remarkable growth. We do not hear of so many kinds of artisans in the earlier texts as are mentioned in the writings of the period. The Digha Nikaya, which relates to pre-Maurya times, mentions nearly two dozen occupations, but the Mahavastu, which relates to this period, catalogues thirty-six kinds of workers living in the town of Rajgir, and the list is not exhaustive. The Milinda Panho or the Questions of Milinda enumerates as many as seventy-five occupations, sixty of which are connected with various crafts. A Tamil text known in English as The Garland of Madurai supplements the information supplied by the two Buddhist texts on crafts and craftsmen. This text does not distinguish between craftsmen and shopkeepers. According to it, many artisans work in their shops, including painters, weavers, clothiers, florists, goldsmiths, and coppersmiths. Such artisan– shopkeepers were found in both urban and rural areas, but in the literary texts, craftsmen are mostly associated with towns. Some excavations indicate that they also inhabited villages. In a village settlement in Karimnagar in Telangana, carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, potters, and the like, lived in separate quarters, and agricultural and other labourers lived at one end.

Eight crafts were associated with the working of gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, brass, iron, and precious stones or jewels. Various types of crafts associated with brass, zinc, antimony, and red arsenic are also mentioned. This indicates great advance and specialization in mining and metallurgy. Technological knowledge about iron work had made great progress, and iron artefacts have been discovered in large numbers in Kushan and Satavahana layers at sundry excavated sites. The Telangana region of Andhra seems to have been the richest in this respect, and in addition to weapons, balance rods, socketed axes and hoes, sickles, ploughshares, razors, and ladles have been discovered in the Karimnagar and Nalgonda districts of this region. Indian iron and steel, including cutlery, were exported to the Abyssinian ports, and they enjoyed great prestige in western Asia.

The techniques of cloth-making, silk-weaving, and the manufacture of arms and luxury articles also developed. Mathura was a great centre for the manufacture of a special type of cloth which was called shataka. Dyeing was a thriving craft in some south Indian towns. A brick-built dyeing vat has been unearthed at Uraiyur, a suburb of Tiruchirapalli town in Tamil Nadu, and similar dyeing vats were excavated at Arikamedu. These structures relate to the first–third centuries when the handloom textile industry in these towns flourished. The manufacture of oil increased because of the use of the oil wheel. The inscriptions of the period mention weavers, goldsmiths, dyers, workers in metal and ivory, jewellers, sculptors, fishermen, smiths, and perfumers as constructors of caves, and also as donors of pillars, tablets, cisterns, etc., to the Buddhist monks. This suggests that their crafts were flourishing.

Of the handicrafts meant for manufacturing luxury articles, ivory work, glass manufacture, and bead-cutting may be mentioned; the shell industry was thriving. Many products of crafts have been found as a result of digging in the Kushan complexes. Indian ivories have been found in Afghanistan and Rome. They are likened to ivory objects found in excavations at Satavahana sites in the Deccan. Roman glass objects are found in Taxila and in Afghanistan, but it was around the beginning of the Christian era that the knowledge of glass-blowing reached India and attained its peak. Similarly, large numbers of beads of semiprecious stones have been found in post-Maurya layers, which show numerous beads and bangles made of shell. Coin-minting was an important craft, and the period is noted for numerous types of coins made of gold, silver, copper, bronze, lead, glass, and potin. The craftsmen also made fake Roman coins. Various coin moulds relating to the period have been found in both north India and in the Deccan. A coin mould from a Satavahana level shows that it could turnout half a dozen coins at a time. The Greeks, Sakas, Satavahanas, and Kushans all contributed to the spread of coins. However, if we go by the coin collections in museums, it appears that the Satavahanas issued the largest number. Even those dynasties which ruled for short periods issued a large number of coins. This is the case with the Indo-Sassanians whose coins are found in half a dozen museums including the British Museum.

Coin moulding and other urban handicrafts were supplemented by the manufacture of beautiful pieces of terracotta, which abound at several places. They have been found at almost all the Kushan and Satavahana sites, but Yelleshwaram in Nalgonda district deserves special mention. There the largest number of terracottas and the moulds in which they were manufactured have been excavated. Terracottas and their moulds are also found at Kondapur, located about 65 km from Hyderabad. Terracottas were used largely by the upper classes in towns. It is significant that with the decline of towns in the Gupta, and especially in the post-Gupta period, such terracottas virtually went out of fashion.

Artisans were organized into guilds which were called shrenis. In the second century AD in Maharashtra, lay devotees of Buddhism deposited money with the guilds of potters, oilmen, and weavers to provide the monks with robes and other necessities. During the same century, money was deposited by a chief with the guild of flour-makers at Mathura so that its monthly income could daily feed a hundred brahmanas. On the basis of different texts we can say that artisans of this period were organized into at least two dozen guilds. Most artisans known from inscriptions were confined to the Mathura region and to western Deccan which lay on the trade routes leading to the ports on the western coast.

Types of Merchants

The Garland of Madurai calls the streets broad rivers of people who buy and sell in the market place. The importance of shopkeepers is indicated by the repetition of the term apana in the description of the city of Sakala. Its shops appear as filled with various types of cloth made in Kashi, Kotumbara, and elsewhere. Many artisans and merchants were organized into guilds called sreni and ayatana, but how these organizations functioned is indicated neither in the Mahavastu nor in the Milinda-Panho. Both merchants and craftsmen were divided into high, low, and middle ranks.

The Buddhist texts mention the sresthi, who was the chief merchant of the nigama, and the sarthavaha, the caravan leader who was the head of the corporation of merchants (vanijgramo). It also speaks of nearly half a dozen petty merchants called vanija. They dealt in fruits, roots, cooked food, sugar, bark cloth, sheaves of corn or grass, and bamboo. We also hear of many shopkeepers in a Tamil text. They sold sweet cakes, scented powder, fetal quids, and flower garlands. These merchants thus met the varied needs of the urban folk including food, clothing, and housing. To them we can add perfumers or all-purpose merchants called gandhika. Various types of oilmen, some of them dealing in perfumed oils, are covered by the term. The term vyavahari, that is, one who transacts business, is also used, but the term vyapari or trader seems to be missing. The term agrivanija seems to be obscure, but these merchants may have been the predecessors of the agrawalas if we allow for some linguistic change. Whatever may be the meaning of this term, there were certainly wholesale merchants who conducted both internal and external trade.

Trade Routes and Centres

The most important economic development of the period was the thriving trade between India and the eastern Roman empire. Initially, a substantial amount of this trade was conducted overland, but the movement of the Shakas, Parthians, and Kushans disrupted overland trade. Although the Parthians of Iran imported iron and steel from India, they presented great obstacles to India’s trade with the lands further west of Iran. However, since the first century AD trade was conducted mainly by sea. It seems that around the beginning of the Christian era, the monsoon was understood, and this enabled sailors to sail in much less time directly from the eastern coast of the Arabian Sea to the western coast, and easily call at the various ports along the route such as Broach and Sopara situated on the western coast of India, and Arikamedu and Tamralipti situated on the eastern coast. Of all these ports, Broach seems to have been the most important and prosperous. To it were brought not only commodities produced in the Satavahana kingdom but also the goods produced in the Shaka and Kushan kingdoms. The Shakas and the Kushans used two routes from the north-western frontier to the western sea coast. Both these routes converged at Taxila, and were connected with the Silk Route passing through Central Asia. The first route directly ran from the north to the south, linking Taxila with the lower Indus basin from where it passed on to Broach. The second route, called the uttarapatha, was in more frequent use. From Taxila it passed through modern Punjab up to the eastern bank of the Yamuna. Following the course of the Yamuna, it went southward to Mathura, from Mathura passing on to Ujjain in Malwa, and again from Ujjain to Broach on the western coast. Ujjain was the meeting point of another route which started from Kaushambi near Allahabad.

Goods in Foreign Trade

Although the volume of trade between India and Rome seems to have been large, it was not conducted in articles of daily use for the common people. There was a brisk commerce in luxury goods, which are sometimes called articles of aristocratic necessities. The Romans first started trade with the southernmost part of India, as their earliest coins are found in the Tamil kingdoms which lay outside the Satavahana dominions. The Romans mainly imported spices for which south India was famous, and also muslin, pearls, jewels, and precious stones from central and south India. Iron goods, especially cutlery, formed an important item of export to the Roman empire. Pearls, ivory, precious stones, and animals were considered luxuries, but plants and plant products served the basic religious, funerary, culinary, and medicinal needs of the people. Kitchenware may have been included in the items of import, and cutlery may have been important for the higher class of people.

In addition to the goods directly supplied by India, certain articles were brought to India from China and Central Asia and then passed on to the eastern part of the Roman empire. Silk was directly sent from China to the Roman empire via the Silk Route passing through north Afghanistan and Iran. However, the establishment of the Parthian rule in Iran and the neighbouring areas created difficulties. Therefore, silk had to be diverted to the western Indian ports through the north-western part of the subcontinent. Sometimes it also found its way from China to the east coast of India, and from there went to the West. Thus there was considerable transit trade in silk between India and the Roman empire.

In return for the articles exported by India to the Roman empire, the Romans exported to India wine, wine-amphorae, and various other types of pottery which were discovered in excavations at Tamluk in West Bengal, Arikamedu near Pondicherry, and at several other sites in south India. Sometimes Roman goods travelled as far as Guwahati. Lead, which was used for making coins by the Satavahanas, seems to have been imported from Rome in the form of coiled strips. The Roman goods do not appear in any substantial quantities in north India, but there is no doubt that under the Kushans, the north-western part of the subcontinent in the second century traded with the eastern part of the Roman empire. This was facilitated by the conquest of Mesopotamia, which was made a Roman province in AD 115. The Roman emperor Trajan not only conquered Muscat but also explored the Persian Gulf. As a result of trade and conquest, the Roman goods reached Afghanistan and north-western India. At Begram, 72 km north of Kabul, large glass jars made in Italy, Egypt, and Syria have been found. Also found there were bowls, bronze stands, steel yards, and weights of Western origin, small Graeco-Roman bronze statues, jugs, and other vessels made of alabaster. Taxila, which is coterminous with the modern Sirkap in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, has yielded fine examples of the Graeco-Roman sculpture in bronze. Silver ornaments, some bronze pots, one jar, and coins of the Roman emperor Tiberius were also found. However, Arretine pottery, which is regularly found in south India, appears neither in central or western India nor in Afghanistan. Evidently these places did not receive popular western articles, which have been found mostly south of the Vindhyas in the Satavahana kingdom and further south. Thus the kingdoms of both the Satavahanas and the Kushans profited from trade with the Roman empire, although the largest profit seems to have accrued to the Satavahanas.

The most significant Roman export to India was the large number of coins, invariably made of gold and silver, though some Roman copper coins are also found. About 150 finds of Roman coins appear in the subcontinent as a whole, and most of them from the south of the Vindhyas. The total number of Roman gold and silver coins that have been found in India does not exceed 6000, but it is difficult to say that only this number of coins came from Rome. The number seems to have been much larger. This justifies the complaint of the Roman writer Pliny, who wrote his account called Natural History in Latin in AD 77. He believed that Rome was being drained of gold on account of its trade with India. This may be an exaggeration, but as early as AD 22, we hear of complaints against excessive expenditure on the purchase of pepper from the East. As Westerners were very fond of Indian pepper, it is called yavanapriya in Sanskrit. There was also a strong reaction against the use of Indian-made steel cutlery for which the Roman nobles paid very high prices. The concept of the balance of trade may not have then been known, but numerous finds of Roman coins and pottery in the peninsula leave no doubt that India was a gainer in its trade with the Roman empire. The loss of Roman money was so deeply felt that eventually steps had to be taken in Rome to ban its trade with India in pepper and steel goods.

It appears that the major role in the Indo-Roman trade and shipping was played by the Romans. Although Roman traders lived in south India, there is little evidence of Indian residents in the Roman empire. Some potsherds with graffiti in Tamil suggest that some Tamil merchants lived in Egypt in Roman times.

Money Economy

How did the Indians use the silver and gold currency which came to India from Rome? The Roman gold coins were naturally valued for their intrinsic worth, but they may also have circulated in major transactions. In the north, the Indo-Greek rulers issued a few gold coins, but the Kushans issued gold coins in considerable numbers. It is wrong to think that all Kushan gold coins were minted out of Roman gold. As early as the fifth century BC, India had paid a tribute of 320 talents of gold to the Iranian empire. This gold may have been extracted from the gold mines in Sindh. The Kushans probably obtained gold from Central Asia, and may also have procured it either from Karnataka or from the gold mines of Dhalbhum in Jharkhand which later came under their sway. On account of the contact with Rome, the Kushans issued the dinar type of gold coins which became abundant under the Gupta rule. Gold coins may not however have been used in day-to-day transactions, which were carried on in coins of lead, potin, or copper. Both lead and copper deposits are found in Andhra, and gold deposits in Karnataka. The Andhras issued a large number of lead or potin coins in the Deccan. Although the Satavahanas did not issue gold coins, the museums show that they seem to have issued the largest number of coins. Some punch-marked and early Sangam age coins have been found at the tip of the peninsula. The Kushans issued the largest number of copper coins in northern and north-western India. The Indo-Sassanians, the successors of the Kushans in lower Sindh, also issued many coins. Copper and bronze coins were used in large quantities by the rulers of some indigenous dynasties such as the Nagas who ruled in central India, the Yaudheyas who ruled in eastern Rajasthan together with the adjacent areas of Haryana, Punjab, and UP, and by the Mitras who ruled in Kaushambi, Mathura, Avanti, and Ahichchhatra (Bareilly district in UP). The period roughly between 200 BC and AD 300 evidences the largest number of coins, and these were issued not only by Indian and Central Asian rulers and but also by many cities and tribes. In ancient times, this phase has the highest number of dies and moulds for the manufacture of coins. Perhaps in no other period had the money economy penetrated so deeply into the lives of the common people of the towns and their suburbs as this. This development fits in well with the growth of arts and crafts and India’s thriving trade with the Roman empire.

Urban Growth

The growing crafts and commerce, and the increasing use of money, promoted the prosperity of numerous towns during this period. Important towns in north India, such as Vaishali, Pataliputra, Varanasi, Kaushambi, Shravasti, Hastinapur, Mathura, and Indraprastha (Purana Qila in New Delhi), are all mentioned in literary texts, and some of them are also described by the Chinese pilgrims. Most of them flourished during the Kushan period in the first and second centuries. Excavations have revealed superior constructions of the Kushan age. Several sites in Bihar such as Chirand, Panr, Sonpur, and Buxar, and others in eastern UP such as Khairadih and Mason saw prosperous Kushan phases. Similarly, in UP, towns such as Sohgaura, Bhita, Kaushambi, Shringaverapur, and Atranjikhera were prosperous. Rangmahal in Rajasthan, and many other sites in the western areas throve in Kushan times. The excavations at Sonkh in Mathura reveal as many as seven levels of the Kushan phase, and only one of the Gupta phase. Current excavation shows Sachnan Kot, 50 km from Lucknow, to be the largest Kushan town in Northern India. It covers 9 sq. km and contains many brick-houses and copper coins. Again, sites in Jalandhar, Ludhiana, and Ropar, all located in Punjab, and several Haryana sites reveal the quality of Kushan constructions.

In many instances, the Gupta period structures were poorly built and made of used Kushan bricks. On the whole, the material remains from the Kushan phase indicate urbanization at its peak. This also applies to towns in the Shaka kingdom of Malwa and western India. The most important town was Ujjain as the nodal point of two routes, one from Kaushambi and the other from Mathura. It was however also important because of its export of agate and carnelian stones. Excavations show that agate, jasper, and carnelian were worked on a large scale for the manufacture of beads after 200 BC. This was possible because the raw material could be obtained in abundance from the trap bedrock in the bed of the Sipra river in Ujjain.

Towns throve in the Satavahana kingdom during the same period as they did under the Shakas and Kushans. Tagar (Ter), Paithan, Dhanyakataka, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Broach, Sopara, Arikamedu, and Kaveripattanam were prosperous towns in western and south India, during the Satavahana period. Several Satavahana settlements, some of which may be coterminous with the thirty walled towns of the Andhras mentioned by Pliny, have been excavated in Telangana. They had originated much earlier than the towns in coastal Andhra although not much later than those in western Maharashtra. The decline of towns in Maharashtra, Andhra, and Tamil Nadu generally started in the mid-third century or later.

Towns prospered in the Kushan and Satavahana empires because they conducted thriving trade with the Roman empire. India then traded with the eastern part of the Roman empire as well as with Central Asia. Towns in Punjab and western UP throve because the centre of Kushan power lay in north-western India. Most Kushan towns in India lay exactly on the northwestern or uttarapatha route passing from Mathura to Taxila. The Kushan empire ensured security along the routes, and its demise in the third century dealt a great blow to these towns. The same thing happened in the Deccan. The end of the Satavahana power together with the ban on trade with India imposed by the Roman empire in the third century impoverished the urban artisans and merchants. Archaeological excavations in the Deccan clearly suggest a decline in urban settlements after the Satavahana phase.




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