Coastal Ports and Commercial Towns of Ancient India

Dr. Rofiqul Hassan

Ports play vital role in the financial sector from ancient India. Till today port serves not only as a medium of trasportation but also as a huge collector of revenue. Ports are the indicators of ancient civilization. As India is surrounded by sea, ocean, etc., it is easily acceptable to reach India throughout the world. As a result, a huge number of ports exists in India from the time of East India Company, we see that the company established some ports for business purpose along with their own benefits. As now more than ten states of India are touching the sea and coastal areas, these places become famous for trade and commerce. Tourists are also attached with these ports. As result, a huge number of benefits is collected by the government in financial sector. In this paper attempt has been made to describe the ports and commercial towns of early India which have contributed to Indian economic sector.

Ports play a vital role for economic growth and development of an economy. In ancient India the majority of the people were depended on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihood. In ancient India trade and commerce depend on coastal ports and other commercial towns which acted significant role for exports and imports of the goods. Some of them are identified as below.

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Arikamedu: Located about 3 km. south of Pondicherry, Arikamedu was an important centre of trade and commerce with the western world and an Indo-Roman coastal trading station, during the early centuries of the Christian era. After the second century A.D., it ceased to be an active commercial centre. Numerous Italian, Greek pottery pieces and Roman coins have been found here.

Barbaricum: Located at the middle mouth of the Indus, Barbaricum has been mentioned by numerous foreign sources and was a great port and a market town. Barbaricum imported a great deal of fine clothing, linen, precious stones, silver, gold plates, and wine from different parts of the world. On the other hand, it exported various commodities, particularly cotton cloth, silk yarn and indigo produced in different parts of India.

Bharukachchha or Broach: Located on the banks of the Narmada, Bharukachchha, which is modern Broach in Gujarat , was the most famous port and commercial centre of Gujarat in ancient India. It has been frequently mentioned in several Buddhist and Sanskrit works. From the early centuries of the Christian era till the close of the thirteenth century, Bharukachchha remained a prosperous town and a thriving port under the successive dynasties which ruled Gujarat.

Champa: Situated in Bhagalpur district of Bihar, Champa was the capital of ancient Anga in the sixth century B.C. It was a great commercial centre, and also a place of pilgrimage for the Buddhists and the Jains alike . In the sixth century B.C. Champa was one of the six great cities of Northern India. From here seafaring merchants went distant lands.

Chaul: Situated on the Arabian coast, about 48 km. from Bombay in Thane district of Maharashtra, Chaul was a very ancient port which had been mentioned by Ptolemy in about 150 A.D. and in the Arab accounts of the tenth to twelfth centuries ; but the port of Chaul came into prominence in the medieval period.

Kaveripattanam or Purhar: Situated on the estuary of the river Kaveri in Siyali taluka of Tamil Nadu, Kaveripattanam is also known as Kaveripaddinam and Kaveripumpattinam. It was the capital of the early Chola kings of the Sangam Age, which had been described in numerous Sangam works and also by Ptolemy and the periplus. During the first three centuries of the Christian era, Kaveripattanam was a prosperous city inhabited by the rich merchants, traders, craftsmen and sailors and had a spacious harbour.

Kausambi: Situated on the northern bank of Yamuna about 48 km. to the south-west of Al-lahabad in U.P., Kausambi was the capital of Vatsa Kigdom in the sixth century B.C. when Udayan was its ruler.

The Nandas merged the kingdom of Vatsa with the Magadhan empire. From the later Vedic period to about the twelfth century A.D, Kasusambi continued to be a prosperous town and was also a great centre of Buddhism.

Madurai: Situated on the banks of river Vaigai in Tamil Nadu, it was one of the greatest commercial centres of penisular India, which had been mentioned by Ptolemy as Modoura. During the period of the early Pandyas, it was their capital and also the famous centre of the poets of the Sangam Age. In the classical accounts it has been described as ” the Mediterranean emporium in the south”. To promote trade with the Roman world, the Pandyan king sent an embassy to the Roman king Caeser Augustus. The Roman coins found here point to the close commercial links between Madurai and the Roman world.

Mouziris or Muziris: The identification of Mouziris, which finds frequent references in the periplus , Ptolemy and other Greek accounts as ancient India’s great centre of foreign trade, is a matter of dispute, but most of the scholars have identified it with Moyirikotta on the Malabar coast opposite the site at Cranganore near Alwaye in Kerala. Some scholars have identified Mouziris with cranganore, In the second century A.D., it was the greatest port on the Malabar coast, and at this port the Roman and the Arab ships exchanged their quantities of spices, precious stones, and peepal leaves, to the Eastern and Western world alike.
Negapatam : Situated about 341 km. from Madras in Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, Negapatam was a very ancient port on the Cormandel coast, and of all the ports on the Cormandel coast, Negapatam has the longest history. From Ptolemy’s references, it appears that it was one of the centres of Roman trade.

Pratishthana or Paithan: Situated on northern bank of the Godavari in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, it was a flourishing centre of trade and commerce during the Satavahana period, which had been corroborated by the author of the periplus. It lay on the main trade route from the north to the south and was particularly famous for its textiles.

Suparaka or Sopara: Situated about 60 km. north of Bombay in Maharashtra, Suparaka was a very famous ancient port. Ptolemy, Megasthenes, Arrian, and other early Greek writers, the early Buddhist texts, the Mahabharata, etc, describe it as a great seacoast emporium. At least, from the fourth century B.C. to the tenth century A.D., it was an important centre of trade and commerce where merchants from various parts of India used to flock with their merchandise. Suparaka was also the great centre of Buddhism.

Tamralipti: Identified with Tamluk in the Mid-napur district of West Bengal, Tamralipti was a very ancient port. It was famous as a maritime port and an emporium of commerce from the fourth century B.C. to the twelfth century A.D. At the close of the twelfth century, this port was declined and its place was taken by Satgaon.

Vidisha, Bhilsa or Besanagar: Situated on the western bank of the river Betwa in Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh, Vidisha or Besanagar finds frequent mention in ancient Indian literature and foreign accounts. Its economic prosperity was due to its advantageous location on the cross roads of two important trade routes one of which ran from Pratishthan to Mahismati, Ujjain and Kosambi, while the other connected Bharukachahha and Suparaka on the Arabian Sea to Mathura via Ujjain . Substantial merchandise used to be carried over on these routes, which gradually made Vidisha one of the richest cities of ancient India. The economic prosperity of Vidisha was retained till the days of the imperial Guptas because Kalidasa in his Meghadoot referred to Vidisha as a place where everybody got wealth to his heart’s content.

Suktagendor: Situated at a distance of 56.32 km from the shore of the Arbian sea and some 500 km to the west of Karachi, on the bank of Dasht River near the border with Iran, Suktagendor was an important centre of the Indus civilization discovered by Sir Aurel Stein in 1931. Accoding to Dales, Suktagendor was originally a port later cut off from the sea due to coastal uplift. Some other scholars, however , think that it was a riverside trading post situated in a separate cultural region for the uplands of Baluchistan appear to have been outside the Harappan zone. R. H. Dyson thinks that it was a military outpost. According to Shashi Asthana, Suktagendor was connected with the distribution of trade items. It was established to send consignments in various directions, particularly, to West Asia.

Balakot: Among the coastal sites, Balakot, situated near the middle of the Khurkera alluvial plain on the south eastern side of the Las Bela valley (on the old shoreline, about 20 km from Las Bela town) and Somany Bay about 98 km. north-west of Karachi, has proved to be an important settlement yielding the relics of the pre-Indus and the Indus civilization. Dyson thinks that it was a colonial site where Mature Harappan control was superimposed over a local indegenous, non -harappan culture.

Excavations have also revealed that Balakot and other coastal sites of Lothal, Nageshwar and Kuntasi were what may be called ‘resource centres’, obtaining shells and other raw materials, either locally or from further afield and having local workshops to produce bangles and other items of adornment, (Allchins 1997) . It was a major centre of shell industry.

Allahdino: Allahdino is situated approximately 16 km east-north-east of the confluence of the Indus and the Arabian sea and some 40 km east of Karachi in Pakistan. In short, excavations demonstrated the presence of almost every major artifact category of the Mature Harappan culture, including silver, gold and semiprecious stones. At the same time, there is no evidence to indicate that any of these objects, including ceramics, were manufactured locally. Quite obviously, these objects were brought by its residents who participated in an inland Harappan trading network. Shashi Asthana calls it “a distribution centre” as opposed to “production centres.”

Lothal: Situated near Saragwala village about 80 km. south-west of Ahmedabad in Dholka taluka in Gujarat in a level plain between the Bhogave and Sabarmati rivers at some 12 km away from the Gulf of Cambay, Lothal was an important trading and manufacturing centre of the Indus civilization.

According to S. R. Rao, it is a “certainty that the Harappans came to Lothal for trade or colonizing in 2450 BC” The discovery of the persian gulf seal and the Reserved Slip Ware suggests that Lothal was engaged in maritime activities of the Indus civilization. The river which flowed past on the northern side of Lothal was linked by a drain or a naliah.

Kuntasi: Situated in western Saurashtra on the right bank of Phulki river, Kuntasi have revealed a small Mature Harappan port settlement. The site was earlier reported as Hajnali but later found to have been in Kuntasi in Maliya Taluka of district Rajkot. It was first reported by late P. P. Pandya and later thorougly explored by Y. M. Chitalwala. The mound was locally known as Bibi-no-Timbo. It was nothing more than a small village. Evidence shows that the total number of people occupying the site must have been very small and engaged in occupation other than agriculture. The discovery of an anchor stone helps it to be identified as a port. M. K. Dhavalikar has indentified this site as a craft centre. The craft activity included bead-making, among them long-barrel carnelian beads, beads of faience, and steatite. Nageshwar in western Maharashtra was another site where a shell working industry was discovered. The discovery of a cache of lapiz beads at Kuntasi led Dhavalikar to suggest that they were destined for export to the cities of Mesopotamia rather than for the home market.

Chanhudaro: The ruined township of Chanhudaro, situated at 130 km south of Mohenjodaro near Sarkand in Sind, consists of single mound divided into several parts of erosion. It is situated in the left plains of the Indus which flows some 20 km away. The site was discovered by N. G. Majumdar in 1931 and excavated on a large scale by E. J. H.Mackay in 1935-36.
The available evidence clearly shows that it was the major centre of production for the beautiful scals gathered from a dozen or more Harappan sites. Large number of metallic implements which were used for cutting the seals has also been found. The hoards of copper and bronze tools, castings, evidence of the crafts like bead-making, bone-items, bangles and other items of conch shell and kalmaking, finished and unfinished both, suggest that Chanhudaro was mostly inhabited by artisans and was an industrial town. Two other important findings are a terracotta model of a dullock cart and a bronze toy cart.

Kot Diji: 50 Kilometres east of Mohenjodaro, on the left bank of the Indus, today some 32 km from the river, but still near one of its ancient flood channels and thus close to the agriculturally productive land, lies the site of Kot Diji. It is located on the solid ground below a small rocky outcrop, a part of the limestone hills of the Rohri range. It was excavated by F. A. Khan between 1955 and 1957.

The Mature Kot Diji comprised a citadel and outer town and other typical features a well regulated town-plan with lanes, houses with stone fundations and mud-brick walls. The houses were spacious. The roofs were covered with reed mats as revealed by plastered mud impression. Storage jars, built on the mud floors, and large unbaked cooking brick-lined ovens were also found.

Surkotada: Situated some 160 km, north-east of Bhuj in Kutch, Surkotada has proved to be an important fortified Indus settlement in the sense that here three stages of Harappan occupation are in evidence. The site was excavated by J. P. Joshi in 1972.

Desalpur: Situated near Gunthali in Nakhatrana taluka of Bhuj district (Gujarat) on the Bhadar river, Desalpur, excavated first by P. P. Pandya and M. A. Dhakey and later on by K.V. Soundarrajan has yielded the remains of the Indus civilization.
Rojdi (Rojidi, Rojaidi): The site lies about 2 km west of the present village and 50 km south of Rajkot on the left bank of the Bahadar or Bhadar river.

Manda: Situated at a distance of about 28 km north-west of Jammu on the right bank of the River Chenab, a tributary of the Indus, on the foothills of Pir Panjal Range this site is the northernmost centre of Harppan civilization.

Kalibangan: The site of Kalibangan (literally, black bangles) is situated on the southern bank of the now dry Ghaggar river about 200 km south-east of Harappa, and 480 km east-north-east of Kot Diji. It is situated in the Ganganagar district of Rajasthan.
Banawali: The mound of Banawali (15.5 hectares) which covers over 400 sq m area and having a height about 10 m. is situated on the stone-water drain, Rangoi, identified with the ancient bed of Saraswati river in Hissar district, Haryana.

The material remains at Banawali are quite rich, which include classical Indus ceramics, several steatite seals and a few terracotta sealings with typical Indus script . Other remains include goldplated terracotta beads, beads of lapis lazuli, etched carnelian, shell, bone, faience, steatite and clay, beads, pipal leaf-shaped ear-rings of faience, bangles of clay etc.

Kunal: Situated in tehsil Ratia of Hissar district in Haryana, located on the banks of now dried up River Saraswati , this 3 acres settlement with a total occupation deposite of 3.10 m is excavated by J. S. Kharti and M. Acharya since 1986 onwards.
In conclusion, it is found that in early India ports were, not only backbone of economic growth and development but also play a pivotal role in Indias social and cultural segment. Ports have contributed significantly to the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) which created opportunities for employment and investment and achieving the goals of making digital India.

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The writer is the Asstt. Professor, Dr. Rofiqul Hassan, Deptt. of Economics, Luitparia College, Alopati Majarchar