India’s Foreign Trade

Throughout the first millennium of the Christian era, India’s trade was widespread and Indian merchants controlled many foreign markets. It was dominant in the eastern seas and it reached out also to the Mediterranean. Pepper and other spices went from India or via India to the west, often on Indian and Chinese bottoms, and it is said that Alaric the Goth took away 3,000 pounds of pepper from Rome. Roman writers bemoaned the fact that gold flowed from Rome to India and the east in exchange for various luxury articles.

This trade was largely, in India as elsewhere at the time, one of give and take of materials found and developed locally. India was a fertile land and rich in some of the materials that other countries lacked, and the seas being open to her she sent these materials abroad. She also obtained them from the eastern islands and profited as a merchant carrier. But she had further advantages. She had been manufacturing cloth from the earliest ages, long before other countries did so, and a textile industry had developed. Indian textiles went to far countries. Silk was also made from very early times though probably it was not nearly as good as Chinese silk, which began to be imported as early as the fourth century B.C. The Indian silk industry may have developed subsequently, though it does not seem to have gone far. An important advance was made in the dyeing of cloth and special methods were discovered for the preparation of fast dyes. Among these was indigo, a word derived from India through Greece. It was probably this knowledge of dyeing that gave a great impetus to India’s trade with foreign countries.

Chemistry in India in the early centuries A.C. was probably more advanced than in other countries. I do not know much about it but there is a ‘History of Hindu Chemistry’ written by the doyen of Indian chemists and scientists, Sir P. C. Ray, who trained several generations of Indian scientists. Chemistry then was closely allied to alchemy and metallurgy. A famous Indian chemist and metallurgist was named Nagarjuna, and the similarity of the names has led some people to suggest that he was the same person as the great philosopher of the first century A.C. But this is very doubtful.

The tempering of steel was known early in India, and Indian steel and iron were valued abroad, especially for warlike purposes. Many other metals were known and use.d and preparations of metallic compounds were made for medicinal purposes. Distillation and calcination were well-known. The science of medicine was fairly well-developed. Though based mainly on the old text books, considerable experimental progress was made right up to the medieval period. Anatomy and physiology were studied and the circulation of the blood was suggested long before Harvey.

Astronomy, oldest of sciences, was a regular subject of the university curriculum and with it was mixed up astrology. A very accurate calendar was worked out and this calendar is still in popular use. It is a solar calendar having lunar months, which leads to periodical adjustments. As elsewhere, the priests, or Brahmins, were especially concerned with this calendar and they fixed the seasonal festivals as well as indicated the exact time of the eclipses of the sun and moon, which were also in the nature of festivals. They took advantage of this knowledge to encourage among the masses beliefs and observances, which they must have known to be superstitious, and thus added to their own prestige. A knowledge of astronomy, in its practical aspects, was of great help to the people who went on the seas. The ancient Indians were rather proud of the advances they had made in astronomical knowledge. They had contacts with Arab astronomy, which was largely based on Alexandria.

It is difficult to say how far mechanical appliances had developed then, but shipbuilding was a flourishing industry and there is frequent reference to various kinds of ‘machines,’ especially for purposes of war. This has led some enthusiastic and rather credulous Indians to imagine all kinds of complicated machines. It does seem, however, that India at that time was not behind any country in the making and use of tools and in the knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy. It was this that gave her an advantage in trade and enabled her for several centuries to control a number of foreign markets.

Possibly she had one other advantage also—the absence of slave-labour, which handicapped Greek and other early civilizations and came in the way of their progress. The caste system, with all its evils, which progressively increased, was infinitely better than slavery even for those lowest in the scale. Within each caste there was equality and a measure of freedom; each caste was occupational and applied itself to its own particular work. This led to a high degree of specialization and skill in handicrafts and craftsmanship.



The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru



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