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Connectivity Between India and Europe in the Ancient Times

In the history of trade routes between India and Europe, the most romanticised study has been done on the Silk Route, from historical research papers to textbook poems. It has been on the highlights for decades and shadows other routes that carried much importance during the classical period.


An Illustration on Trade Routes between India and Europe

Illustration by The Geostrata


In his recent studies, William Dalrymple, a prominent historian, brought into light the arguably fact that 'Silk Road is a very modern concept'. He also highlighted that the concept of the Silk Route has been militarised'  by the President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping. 


The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a highly ambitious project by President Xi Jinping to revive the ancient Silk Route, was coined by a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in the 19th century and gained popularity in the last 20–25 years.


EVIDENCES FROM THE PAST


The Periplus Maris Erythraei is a unique handbook, written in Greek for traders involved in mercantile activity between Egypt, East Africa, Southern Arabia, and India. The Erythraean Sea mentioned in this book is a term used by ancient Greek and Roman geographers referring to the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.


The Periplus describes trade conducted along two main routes starting from the Sea ports of Egypt. One route went along the African coast and another one to India. 

There is evidence that from the time of the Roman emperor Augustus (31 BCE – 14 CE), there was a tendency for traders to avoid the section of the Silk Route that passed through Parthia in central Asia, due to the turbulent conditions there. Trade was diverted overland to India and onwards from the Indian ports to the Roman Empire via sea route.


The Periplus also provides a list of goods exported from the Indian ports on the Indus Delta and Gujarat coast to the Roman Empire. Roman geographer and economist Pliny and Dio Chrysostom have written that the balance of trade was favourable for India and the volume of trade was huge enough that it drained Roman gold into India.


According to the historian Pliny, there was a huge demand for Indian silk among women in the Roman Empire. They had an inclination towards gems and exotic goods from India.

Most of the finds of Roman coins are concentrated in the Coimbatore area of Tamil Nadu and Krishna Valley of Andhra Pradesh. A majority of them belonged to the reign of emperors Augustus (31 BCE - 14 CE) and Tiberius (14 CE - 37 CE). Only a handful of coins are found at some sites of western India and some at Northern India.


Valuable evidence of India's maritime trade links comes from the site of Arikamedu on the Coromandel coast. Mortimer Wheeler has concluded that Arikamedu was Poduke, one of the Yavana emporia (trading stations) mentioned in the classical accounts.


Recent excavations have indicated that trade did decline in Arikamedu during the reign of Marcus Aurelius but it did not come to an end and seems to have continued till the seventh century. There has been a clear indication that Indo-Roman trade was not a direct trade between Indians and Romans, but involved the participation of middlemen from many regions, including the Arabs and Greeks of Egypt. 


A prominent contemporary historian, Al Baruni in his book named 'India', has also documented the the activities of Arab and Persian traders who ventured into the Indian Ocean to conduct trade with India.

Apart from Arikamedu, Mediterranean amphorae have been found at other southern sites such as Uraiyur, Kanchipuram, and Vasavasamudram. Excavations at Berenike on the Egyptian coast, have yielded archaeological evidence of black pepper and beads of South Indian and Sri Lankan manufacture in the context of 4th century CE. This clearly reflects the flourishing trade between East and West.


According to latest studies and excavations, it is estimated that custom taxes on the Red Sea trade may have generated as much as one-third of the income of the Roman exchequer. The principal source found in the recent excavations at Muziri, Kerala is the Muziris Papyrus — a historical shipping invoice excavated in Egypt. 


It was a contract between a ship owner in Alexandria and a supplier in far off land in Muziri, Kerala. It gives precise details of the cargo similar to the modern day documents of shipping including insured and legal procedures. The amount mentioned is a hefty sum enough to buy acres of land in Egypt.

With such rich evidence and references from the past, India is, perhaps, the world's oldest melting point for traders. The country's wealth always attracted traders to the subcontinent for active trade connections. These ancient trade routes led Portuguese, Greek, Egyptians and many more traders reaching India leading to a cultural diversity in the region.


IGNORANCE LEADING TO MISINFORMATION


The idea of the Silk Route captured the minds of individuals that even the assumptions became concrete. The writings of contemporary historians, passing references and the hard data by archaeologists only remained in the history textbooks of higher studies and not on the general portal. 


There has been no revision of Indian scholarly writings after new discoveries in Egypt and even if there are some, they have not made it into mainstream ideas yet.


Indian scholarly writings are always made secondary to the imperial and foreign works about India. These circumstances have led to many important ideas and discoveries under the coffin without any influence.


Conclusion


Long-distance trade routes play a major role in the cultural exchanges between civilizations. Even after thousands of years, these artistic and religious exchanges are reflected in the foreign policies and relations between the regions or countries. In the globalised world, these routes strengthen relationships between the regions.


An appropriate example from recent affairs is the launch of the new India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), connecting India with the Gulf and Europe. It is kind of a revival of the old route of East-West trade through the Red Sea, which was more significant than that of the Silk Route. 

The External Affairs Minister of India has also validated that the corridor would bring with it "enormous consequences" for the global economy in a positive light. Apart from building strong relations with the Middle East, the corridor would also help in India's energy transition along with the Gulf region. This route would be a collective path towards the regional and global growth of India.


 

BY NIDHI SONI

TEAM GEOSTRATA

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