The Indian ‘Lords of Trade’

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    Historians trace the starting point of the ‘Age of Discovery’ that led to colonialism, to the early 15th century CE when European ships travelled across the oceans in search of new markets and trading routes. But long before this, between the 9th and the 13th centuries CE, powerful Indian trading guilds were scouring the oceans and trading with lucrative markets across South East Asia. Sadly while you have heard of the famous British and Dutch East India Companies you wouldn't have heard of the Indian guilds. Take for example the ‘The Five Hundred Lords of Ayyavole’.

    Powerful Indian trading guilds were scouring the oceans and trading with lucrative markets across South East Asia

    Inscriptions found across Sumatra, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and across South India dating back to the 9th century CE onwards, refer to this very peculiar group of men who called themselves Nanadesa-Tisaiyayirattu-Ainnurruvar or ‘Five Hundred of a Thousand Directions’. This was a very powerful Indian merchant guild that dominated the trade from the Red Sea to Java, Sumatra and all the way to the South China Sea, from the 9th century CE to 13th centuries CE.

    This powerful guild of Indian merchants was based in the town of Aihole in Northern Karnataka, which had originally served as the capital of the Chalukyas of Badami (544-707 CE). Hence they were also known as the Ayyavole guild. They later moved to different places in the country. The oldest reference to the guild is in inscriptions at Aihole dating to 800 CE, followed by one in Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu dating to 927 CE. There was also one found at Barus, in Sumatra, in Indonesia dating to 1088 CE. The inscriptions refer to donations made by the merchants and their trading activity. The spread of the inscriptions indicates just how far reaching the economic influence of this guild was.

    American Historian, Burton Stein in his book ‘History of India’ reproduces an inscription dated 1055 CE -

    By land routes and water routes penetrating into the regions of the six continents, with superior elephants, well-bred horses, large sapphires, moonstones, pearls, rubies, diamonds, cardamoms, cloves, sandal, camphor, musk, saffron and other perfumes and drugs, by selling which wholesale or hawking about on their shoulders, preventing the loss by customs duties, they fill up the emperor's treasury of gold, his treasury of jewels, and his armoury of weapons; and from the rest they daily bestow gifts on pundits and munis; white umbrellas as their canopy, the mighty ocean as their moat, Indra as the hand-guard of their swords, Varuna as the standard bearer, Kubera as the treasurer,...

    The Ainnurruvar (The Five Hundred) drew their members from merchants of different regions and sects. There were subgroups within them like Desis (who traded within India) and Pardeshis (who traded overseas). Unlike the European guilds, the south Indian guilds were not governed by a charter, strict constitutions or rules. Nor was their membership restricted with stringent conditions. The advantage of the guild membership was that it provided security to the merchant, from political and financial turmoil. Over time, the guild gave themselves the even grandiose title of ‘Vira-Balanja’ or ‘Valiant Merchants’.

    Despite the power they wielded, it is important to note that the the ‘Five Hundred Lords of Ayyavole’ were not the only guild in South India. There were others like the Anjuvannam guild comprising of Syrian Christian, Jewish and Arab merchants that traded from Malabar and the Nakara guild of Vishnava merchants from Andhra Pradesh. But the Ainnurruvar were the most powerful and flamboyant of the South Indian merchant guilds.

    ‘The Five Hundred Lords of Ayyavole’ were the most powerful and flamboyant of the South Indian merchant guilds

    The Ainnurruvar became powerful after the emergence of the Cholas dynasty in south India. The overseas conquests of Raja Raja Chola I (907 CE – 1041 CE) and Rajendra I (1014 – 44 CE) in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, gave these merchants great influence in South East Asian trade. Under the charter from the Chola kings, these guilds also financed local development projects like the building of water tanks, financing temples and lending money to the Chola kingdom.

    The Ainnurruvar traded extensively with China, Java, Sumatra, Malaya peninsula, Myanmar and other regions in Southeast Asia. The traded goods comprised of elephants, well-bred horses, large sapphires, pearls, rubies, diamonds; spices like cardamoms, cloves, sandal, Camphor musk, saffron; perfumes and drugs. They procured pepper from Sumatra and Java and sold it to China.

    Unlike European guilds, the south Indian guilds were not governed by a charter, strict constitutions or rules

    This powerful guild, which had dominated the mercantile trade and influenced fortunes of small kingdoms, saw a decline after the 13th century CE. Very few studies have been conducted into the history of these guilds and why they declined.

    Ronald M Davidson, Professor of History at Fairfield university, who studied the decline of the North Indian guilds believes that emergence of small kingdoms meant that merchants were very easy pickings for any local king who wanted money. Also, the fragmentation of large empires into smaller kingdoms meant that long distance trade was difficult due to political uncertainties. The local kings preferred their kingdoms to be economic self-reliant rather than depend on overseas trade. This led to the collapse of guilds of North India. We can only infer that something similar must have happened in South India as well.

    Interestingly, around this time in Europe, the traditional medieval European guilds were also declining in power. Initially thriving on networks and monopoly, their power was broken by emergent nation-states which saw them as a threat. These European guilds would later take the form of commercial companies like the East India Companies of English, French and the Dutch. Sadly, the political and economic conditions in India, did not allow this to happen.

    Historians believe that as kingdoms crunched, guilds like the Ainnurruvar, which had been open to members from all castes, sects and religions, declined, collapsing into a loose mercantile caste. This fit well into a Hindu society that was getting more and more orthodox and closed.

    It was only a matter of time before the Europeans sailed in… taking over!

    Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons

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