Millennium Post

Maritime Trade

The Indian expatriate community of traders settled in coastal towns across Southeast Asia, south coast of China and the Gulf region led to export of Indian cultural and religious objects, underlining India’s role in a very old world system that connected South Asia with the populated coastal area of the entire Indian Ocean, said eminent Art Historian Frederick M Asher, who teaches Art History at University of Minnesota. He was speaking on the topic India and the World: The Visual Culture of Indian Ocean Trade to 1600 at the 13th National Museum Lecture on January 9  at the National Museum in the Capital.

“India served as a fulcrum in the trade from the South China Sea and Southeast Asia on one hand and trade with Greece, Rome, North Africa and Arabian ports on the other in pre-modern times,” he pointed out. India’s visual products - textiles, architecture, sculptures as well as religions such as Buddhism, Saivism and Vaishanavism – came to be enormously coveted in the polycentric world. At the same time, India also absorbed visual products from other centers of the world.  

There are Harappan representations of a boat and the great dock at Lothal (Gujarat) as well as of Harappan seals at Ur and at two sites in Bahrain and Mesopotamian cylindrical seals at Harappa.
India’s engagement with the Roman Empire, shared motifs and even the export of luxury goods beautifully fashioned from ivory document the engagement of two of the most important civilisations of the time.  

Among other Indian export items found in Egypt are a considerable number of textile fragments discovered both at Quesir al-Qadim and at the river port of Berenike. Much later, large numbers of textile fragments were found at Fustat (ancient Cairo) as also in Indonesia, indicating the huge geographic area over which Indian textiles were exported.

Begram, now the site of a US airbase in Afghanistan, also yielded a considerable cache of objects from India and from the world with which India traded: first-century BCE ivories from India, and glass from Syria. A few Malay inscriptions in Brahmi and Arabic scripts have also been found.Architecture was another important import from India by the contemporary civilizations.

“The remains of a stone temple erected in 1281 by an Indian merchant guild in Quanzhou, in coastal China, provide a definitive clue to the spread of temple architecture. Some of these features are built into the Kaiyuan temple, which resembles Chola-style architecture. It also points to the existence of an Indian trade diaspora in Quanzhou, a dispaora that must have included priests and artists,” he said.

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