India’s West Coast & Roman World

India’s West coast and the Greco-Roman world trade are in the Periplus of the Erythraean. It’s manual script by an Egyptian-Greek merchant in AD first century. The Periplus tells us that there were two routes from the Mediterranean to the red sea. One of the routes started from the ports of what is now Israel & Lebanon and made its way overland via Petra to the Gulf of Aqaba.  The alternative route for Roman merchants to red sea ran through the great port of Alexandria in Egypt.

Socotra to India

The traditional coastal route to India from Socotra was to head north to Oman. This coast was controlled by Persians at that time & only fish eaters lived here. Past the mouth of Persian Gulf sailors would hit the Makran coast  ( west coast ). From here, the ships would sail more directly east towards the Indus delta. The Periplus confirms that Sindh & parts of Gujarat were controlled by the Sakas & Parthians at that time. Beyond the Indus, the text says that there was a large gulf that ran inland but was too shallow to be navigable. This is the Rann of Kutchh, by AD first century; it was no longer possible to sail across it as in Harappan times.

Next along the coast was the town of Baraca (probably Dwarka) after which the land becomes more fertile and yielded a variety of crops – wheat, rice, sesame and most importantly cotton. Having sailed past Saurashtra and the Gulf of Khambhat, the tired merchant ships would finally reach the Narmada that led the great port of Barygaza (Bharuch). The most important exports from here were different kinds of cotton textiles, iron & steel products. In exchange, one of the most important products ancient Indians imported was wine.

Port of Muzeris

From Barygaza, India’s western coast ran south in almost a straight line. The text lists a number of ports down the coast but arguably the most important was Muzeris (or Mucheripatnam as the Indians called it) which was the source of black pepper. Many kind of important artifacts have been found here during excavations but some of the most common are wine and olive oil amphora from as far away as France, Spain Egypt & Turkey.

The reason that the port of Muzeris was going through such a boom in international trade during the period the Periplus was written is that mariners had worked out in the previous century that they could use monsoon winds to sail directly between Socotra & the southern India without hugging the coast. But, the author of the Periplus credits this discovery to a Greek pilot Hippalus. It is curious that it took a Greek to work out how to harness the monsoon winds in the Arabian Sea when the Indians had been using them for generations in the Bay of Bengal to visit South East Asia. Perhaps ancient mariners would have disputed Hippalus’s claim.

Jews, Christians, Muslims at Muzeris

The second temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. After this, many Jewish refugees came to settle around Muzeris. Thus, India became home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Their numbers have dwindled in recent decades. This is because of emigration to Israel but their synagogues can still be visited in the Kochi-Kodungallur area.

We know that a group of Christians fleeing persecution in the Persian Empire came to India under the leadership of Thomas of Cana in AD 345. Seventy-two families settled near Muzeris and were given special trading privileges by the Local Hindu King. A few centuries later, early Muslims would build the Cheraman masjid. The world second oldest mosque, in the same general area.

It is a testimony to the importance of ancient Muzeris that these early Jewish, Christian & Islamic sites are all located within very short distance to each other.

Indo Roman Trade

Indo-Roman trade boomed in AD first & second centuries. About 120 ships made a round trip between India and Red Sea ports every year. Roman Empire ran a persistent trade deficit with India. This deficit had to be paid in Gold & silver coins.  Roman writer Pliny (AD 23-79) complained bitterly that – “Not a year passed in which India did not take fifty million sesterces away from Rome”.

Note that merchants were not the only people who traveled between Roman Empire & India. We know, for instance, that it was fashionable for wealthy Roman women to consult Indian astrologers. The shipping lines provided the infrastructure for all kinds of people to move back and forth across the seas.

The Periplus gets increasingly garbled as one goes further up the east coast. It shows an awareness of Gangetic delta and mentions Oriental tribes but the details are quite blurred. The inland city of Thinae is mentioned as the source of silk.  So, it is fair to say that this was the limit of what the Romans knew about the Indian Ocean in AD first century.

(The article is based on the book “The ocean of churn” by Sanjeev Sanyal.)

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