The shipping news

The shipping news

Penguin has brought out a series of books on the history of Indian business, each edited and with a prologue by Gurcharan Das, author and former CEO of Procter & Gamble India. The first three books in the series, The Arthashastra, Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade, and The East India Company, roughly represent the ancient, medieval and modern periods. Of these three, I was most intrigued by Kanakalatha Mukund’s Merchants of Tamilakam.

On the other hand, I know almost nothing about the merchants of medieval Tamil Nadu except that they existed. And as a Chennai resident, there is even more incentive to understand this aspect of history, completely untouched in the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks of my day.

As the book reveals, there’s a reason the merchants of Tamilakam (that is, the Tamil region) haven’t really been discussed in history—the absence of sources. Poems from the Sangam era may mention the presence of merchants, but will never discuss their business model (to be fair, that would probably make for terrible poetry). Temple inscriptions keep records of donations and deposits, but take for granted, and thus never mention, details that we in the 20th century have no idea about. This is not just a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are scattered—it’s one where most of the pieces don’t exist at all, and the historian has to make them herself before she can fit them in.

We do have these hints and suggestions, though, and Merchants of Tamilakam uses them to construct a restrained, but still very tantalizing, narrative. It starts in the ancient era, where the sources are literary—Sangam poetry, and Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, an anonymous mariner’s account of Indian ports—and archaeological—pottery and Roman coins. From these, we know that south Indian ports had markets for certain commodities (grain, spices and metals), and that the ancient world’s trade network went up to the Roman empire. We also know that there were many vibrant ports catering to trade from both Bengal and the Mediterranean world, which will surely cause envy for the glorious past in anyone who has to deal with the week-long delays at Chennai Port these days.

It is the penultimate chapter of the book which provides the most detail, and the details I found most fascinating. Mukund writes about the nexus between the state, temples, towns and merchant associations. The state would build temples. The temple generated public goods—a judicial system, a credit system (by lending out the money or grain deposited with it), and a registry of land records—on which towns (often dedicated to a particular industry) sprang up. Finally, merchant associations would affiliate themselves to a particular temple.

Once again, we get to know just enough about the merchant associations to ensure that what we don’t know becomes even more intriguing and frustrating. We know that there were multiple such associations; the Five Hundred of the Thousand Directions, and the Manigramam and Anjuvannam guilds. What we don’t know is how closely bound the guilds were, or how membership was obtained. The impression the book gives is that the guild functioned like a brand name, and merchants from all over south India would affiliate themselves to a guild to reassure their customers of their bona fides. But there is no evidence discussed of membership fees or requirements, or if the guild had either profit sharing or collective liability.

Delightful as the book is, its failure to explore these questions—even if to only explain that they can’t be answered with the current archaeological evidence—left me mildly frustrated and hungry for more. I was left frustrated not only by the book, but also Das’ foreword. Das talks about how the discovery of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple’s hoard of gold underscores the trading history of south India, but never bothers to examine, or even allude to the questions of why this capital never sparked an industrial revolution in south India, and whether the gold pouring into Sree Padmanabhaswamy’s vaults is analogous to the dollar reserves China is building up today.

I had to remind myself that this is unfair criticism. The book is meant to be an introduction, and if it left me wanting to know more, it works well as an introduction. Mukund’s The Trading World of the Tamil Merchants addresses this topic in much greater detail, and I will read that as soon as possible. Merchants of Tamilakam should be appreciated for what it is—a well-written popular history, in a market where such books have been rare until now.

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