March / April  2006




March/April Contents 

 Real Issues
 Malnourishment in
 South Asia


 South Asian issues
 Getting to know the
 past better



 News from elsewhere
 New animal species
 found in Indonesia

 Veggie chemical
 repairs DNA damage


 Bhera - the town that
 time forgot
- Part II

 World Bank in
 South Asia
 Grant to Afghanistan

Land management in

Urban services in


 Tollinton Market



 South Asian










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Page  5  of  7

Getting to know the past better

By Romila Thapar


Historian Romila Thapar

This has led to historians looking at the subcontinent not from the perspective only of the mountains of the north but from the perspective of the Indian Ocean. The world from the latter perspective, shows that the subcontinent lay at the heart of a huge trading circuit; and the circuit extended from Tunis and Morocco in the West, all the way across the Indian Ocean to South China in the east. What does this actually mean in terms of trade and culture? We have, for example, the early evidence of traders from the Roman Empire, from Alexandria and Egypt coming down the Red Sea, across the Arabian Sea, and trading with Indians along the west coast but particularly in Kerala, in South India.

Kerala was the land where the pepper grew and this was a major item sent to the West. The traders from the west brought high value currency in silver and gold, coins from the imperial treasury. They exchanged them for pepper and textiles. The pepper trade all across the Mediterranean and Europe was based on this linkage of the trade across the Arabian Sea. Incidentally, they also brought quantities of excellent Mediterranean wine, much appreciated it would seem from the enthusiasm of the early Tamil poems. This trade dates to the early centuries of the Christian era from about 50 BC to AD 200. Later in the 8th century, the Arab traders came across the Arabian Sea, and unlike their predecessors they settled in India. They settled along the west coast, married into existing communities and this gave rise to a number of local communities such as the Khojas, the Bohras, the Navayats, the Mapillas, with an intersection of Islamic and local custom resulting in some of the most interesting cultural articulations.

Indian intervention both in trade and the formation of new cultures was marked in South-east Asia and extended to south China. The Indian Ocean was a bustling, booming, trading area. The initial period of the coming of the Portuguese is better viewed as their following the existing circuit. Later when these circuits were brought into the European trade the relationship between the European traders and Indian traders began to change.

From the historical perspective this trade also advanced other kinds of exchange which was not restricted to maritime connections but possibly heightened by these. There was an exchange of knowledge, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy - from about the 7th century AD to the 14th century AD. The Chinese were very impressed with Indian alchemy but also complained that the Indian alchemists were so successful that they could even convert pebbles into precious stones, with disastrous economic consequences!

This is wild exaggeration but is nevertheless an interesting comment. The Indians took their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to the Arab world, especially to Baghdad, and the Arabs added it to their own knowledge and took it to Europe. There was a continuous going back and forth; and knowledge shifted from one area to the other, enriching each as it travelled. This makes for a tremendous need to understand not just the history of isolated segments - China, India, the Arab world, Europe - but to see these interconnections as absolutely essential.

The second aspect is that intensive trade often brings about bilingualism. Traders have to use a language as they have to communicate. This can encourage bilingualism. Indian traders were using Sanskrit and Prakrit in dialogue with Greek-speaking Mediterranean traders and later with Arab traders. Those who were going beyond trade to forms of knowledge had to be familiar with both Sanskrit and Arabic texts. There was also bilingualism with Javanese in South-east Asia and with Chinese. Some essential Buddhist texts that we have access to today are texts that were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese, and which happened to have been preserved in China although they are now lost in India.

Trade, in a visible sense, broke the boundaries of the supposed self-contained civilizations. Contrary to what we have been led to believe about the rigid demarcation of each civilization, what this reveals is that no civilization is an island unto itself. Civilizations as single units have been virtually non-existent because they have been constantly impinged upon by other civilizations. Culture is porous. There are always features being introduced which contribute to the making of the subsequent culture.


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