Caravans – Indian merchants on the silk road is a part of ‘The Story of Indian Business’ series. The editor of the book is Gurcharan Das. I quite enjoyed his earlier books from the series on Arthashatra, Tamil Temples, and East India Company. Thus, was very keen to read the rest of the series. Silk route has a lot of romantic notions attached to it. For the earliest travelers were supposed to have used it to trade across the east & the west. Any insight into Indian merchants role would make us understand the way Indians did business. Which is very important in the context that we are learning all rules of business from the west currently.
The book turned out to be an overgrown essay, repeating the same point multiple points and grossly missing a narrative. The few things that I managed to gather from the book:
- Kings made sure that trade existed between their empires and they provided all the facilities and security to traders.
- Indians were not just dealing with Central Asians, but through them, they were reaching the west too.
- There were many caravanserais in many cities of Central Asia. Caravanserais were trader’s towns. And many Indian merchants would park themselves there for years together.
- Multanis who later moved to Shikharpur, due to political changes were the key merchants dealing with central Asia.
- India exported textile, spices, indigo, sugar, rice, precious stones and later tea and surprisingly a lot of slaves.
- India imported a lot of horses from Central Asia. But most of its payments came in the form of precious metals – gold and silver.
So far so good…
My problem with the book is that it gave me no insight into who these traders were? At places, the author says it was Arora Khatris from Multan who took the caravans. At times he says Baniyas. Baniyas, I know, are closely knit family firms. but I wanted more insights into Aroras. I think the author confuses between the two and has at many places used them interchangeably.
When it comes to the chapter on slave trades, Levi mentions a reference to the slave trade in Vedas, Mahabharata and other literature – without giving any reference and I would read it as a stray comment. He never specifies who the traders were? Who were trading these slaves? Some of his descriptions of slaves appear like the army of workers a merchant may take with him. He may use these workers for multiple purposes as required by the business. Honestly, all the work he mentioned like working on the farms or in marketplaces does not sound to me like slave work. By his definition, all employed people of today would be counted as slaves of this generation. Again, I do not think Baniyas ever participated in the slave trade – I could be wrong for I have no data to support, but this aspect needs exploration.
I wanted more insight into the items that were traded. I am sure the items did not come from Multan only. They probably came from across India – especially the silk and the cotton.
Ironically, the author begins the book by dispelling the notion of silk route and then you see it as a tagline of the title…
Take your call.