Follow Us:
Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Ajanta’s Roman connection: How trade with the Empire made India rich

For World Heritage Week, heritage preservation organisations Pradaya and Pathil organised lectures on ‘trade in ancient Maharashtra’ on November 21 and invited Anand Kanitkar to speak about ancient Indo-Roman Trade and trade routes, at 90 One Art Gallery in the city.

Pune |
November 25, 2019 5:55:39 am
Anand Kanitkar

By Audita Bhattacharya

From the Persian Empire conquered by Alexander III of Macedon to Egypt being ruled by the Ptolemies for 300 years till the last Ptolemaic pharaoh, Cleopatra VII Philopator, Anand Kanitkar had an audience of thirty glued to their notebooks, scribbling away fanatically.

For World Heritage Week, heritage preservation organisations Pradaya and Pathil organised lectures on ‘trade in ancient Maharashtra’ on November 21 and invited Anand Kanitkar to speak about ancient Indo-Roman Trade and trade routes, at 90 One Art Gallery in the city.

Speaking about the origin of the Indo-Roman trade route from Egypt to India, Kanitkar narrated the discovery of the monsoon winds around 20 BC by a sailor called Hippalus. “The ships could now come all the way from Yemen and Ethiopia to the western coast of India. We have records from 20 BC, which say that only 20 ships from Egypt came per year to India. But after the discovery of the monsoon winds, 120 ships were coming from Egypt every year. An almost 100 per cent increase in goods such as essence, spices, stones and semi-precious stones, which were wanted by the Romans. This was the beginning of the Satavahana empire in Maharashtra around 100 BC. A clay seal belonging to the rule of Sri Satakarni and his wife Naganika, mentioned in the Junnar inscription, the Naneghat famous inscription, provides a record for the first time of his regnal year. The tablet tells of the toll collected on cotton harvest of Dronamukha named Sarvatobhadra (name of village), since this seal was found in Chandrapur in Vidarbha. Dronamukha is a village where the sea and land trade routes meet and the toll is collected, according to Chanakya’s Arthshashtra. It is here where black cotton soil is found. During the Satavahana period, trade flourished as toll collected by these kings generated enormous revenue and so, they wanted to continue to control Junnar and this was the cause of the tussle between Satavahanas and Kshatrapas.”

Subscriber Only Stories
Nitish-BJP break-up in Bihar: Why Modi’s BJP is right to be nervous...Premium
UPSC Key-August 9, 2022: Why you should read ‘Eggs and faith’ or ‘Transge...Premium
Streetwise Kolkata – Beckbagan: Named after an emissary from Awadh ...Premium
As PM Modi again refers to Rajya Sabha ‘hurdle’, some House truthsPremium

Beyond Egypt and the Mediterranean sea lay Italy, the heart of the Roman Empire, which could be accessed via the Red Sea or the caravan land routes, Kanitkar said. Certain ports are mentioned in ancient sources, like Barygaza (Bharuch) in India, which Nahapana ruled, all along Rajasthan, the ancient Gandhara area along the Indus river, Gujarat and parts of Madhya Pradesh as well as Sindh, Kanitkar said. When Nahapana lost Barbarikon (Karachi), he moved towards southwest India because he needed ports and so began to control northern Maharashtra, he added.

“The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a sailor’s guidebook written by an unknown Greek-Egyptian sailor, mentions ports and cities all along this route along with the kings ruling the area…Then there are details about how to reach Chaul, Sopara and Kalyan, which were the three most important ports in Maharashtra for goods from Ter or Paithan. Sopara started silting around 2nd century AD and so wasn’t used as a port but as a pilgrimage centre for Buddhism, listed in the Shurparaka-Jataka. But Kalyan was in the interiors and a very popular port town. Chaul remained popular till the 18th century…” By 78 AD, the Satavahanas had started ruling southern states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

A tiny bronze image of Poseidon has been found in Brahmapuri, Kolhapur in 1st century AD in the house of a trader, he said. A coin of the last king of the Satavahanas’ also depicts ships, signifying the importance of sea trade at the time, he added. These shipments going back and forth by 70 AD were proposed to be stopped by the Roman Senate as the Empire was losing 50 lakh Roman Drachmas every year due to luxury goods like peacock feathers, cotton and silk clothes, which were only used by Roman women and weren’t benefiting the Roman society, Kanitkar said.


The wealth made by Indian traders is reflected in the architecture of the time. Junnar and Nasik flourish with rock-cut architecture, which were built from donations made by traders. One pillar or the entire Chaityagraha, the silk route and the maritime trade route, together made it possible for these traders to benefit off them. Around 40 per cent of Indo-Roman trade was controlled by Arabs as they were the middlemen, he said. Elephants and tigers formed a huge chunk of shipments from India to Rome.

The Muziris Papyrus mentions a contract in 150 AD between an Indian and Egyptian trader consisting of a shipment to Arabia, which will then go on to Alexandria. The imposed octroi led to a 200-300 per cent price hike in the good’s original price when it reached Rome, Kanitkar said. 3.5 tonnes of black pepper, 1.5 tonnes of ivory and 0.5 tonnes of ivory goods were sent in this one particular shipment, which cost 60 lakh drachmas, which was more than seven times the income of a Roman senator. 120 such shipments every year for more than 300 years — and this is when we see extensive cave architecture in Maharashtra, followed by a decline till Ajanta in the Vakataka period, Kanitkar said. The traders would donate to these cave temples to achieve punya and moksha.

The Pompeii Lakshmi is an ivory image of the goddess Lakshmi found in Pompeii in Italy in the house of a merchant. The carvings and her attire is very similar to the Bhaje Cave (number 19 and 20) architecture, where the dwarapalas wear a similar kind of headdress, Kanitkar said. There are two figures on her side holding flowers, this is extremely similar to an identified Lakshmi figure in the Sanchi sculptures. The port of Puzzuoli, next to Naples, is where the goods from India used to reach and maybe further went on to Pompeii, where this figurine was found. Indian merchants had colonies even in Azerbaijan and eastern Europe.

📣 Join our Telegram channel (The Indian Express) for the latest news and updates

For all the latest Research News, download Indian Express App.

  • Newsguard
  • The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.
  • Newsguard
First published on: 25-11-2019 at 05:55:39 am

Featured Stories