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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
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.