Retail on wheels, a 1000 year old story

Since mankind started to organise itself into tribes and started co-dwelling, we started what could be called the first retail format or bartering. The first retail shops were probably in people’s homes, imagine the convenience of stepping out and the entire store is there?

Hungry Wheels aims to bring the same unimaginable convenience to you, by bringing restaurants and retail experiences to your doorstep. 

But before that, we would like to share with you the story of … Trade and Commerce in Ancient India.

The Seleucid and the Ptolemaic dynasties controlled trade networks to India before the establishment of Roman Egypt. Kingdom of Ptolemy (purple) Kingdom of Seleucus (yellow)  (Map)

During ancient times Hindus were the masters of the seaborne trade of Europe, Asia and Africa. Till about the beginning of the 18th century almost every nation on earth obtained to a large extent its supplies of fine cotton and silk fabric, spices, indigo, sugar, drugs, precious stones and many curious works of art from India in exchange of gold and silver. This traditional prosperity of India began to vanish only at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the west.

In industrial production ancient India was far ahead in comparison with other countries of those times. According to Prof. Weber the skill of the Indians in the production of delicate woven fabrics, in the mixing of colours, the working of metals and precious stones, the preparation of essences and in all manner of technical art, has from early times enjoyed a world-wide celebrity. For instance surgical instruments of great delicacy and accuracy were manufactured in India and it was from Indians that the art of tempering steel was learnt by other people. Factors favouring India to emerge as the number one country in trade, commerce and manufacturing activities were-

  • The Hindu mercantile community was very enterprising and known for their entrepreneurship, trustworthiness and resilience.
  • Indian goods were known for its excellence. The skilled artisans of India manufactured varieties of goods which people in other parts of the world could not find elsewhere.
  • In the art of building ocean going huge ships ancient Hindus were far ahead of others. With the knowledge of sea routes, monsoon winds and other navigational aspects they were able to sail to distant corners of the earth with their goods.
  • Fairs were an important means for commercial activities and were held in every part of the country. Huge number of people assembled at these fairs for the purpose of exchanging merchandise as well as discussing religious and national topic.
  • The peace and prosperity that prevailed in the country gave a great impetus to inter-provincial and inter-state trade.

To facilitate trade and commerce royal roads were constructed all over the country from east to west and from north to south. These roads were provided with mile stones (a British word) and planted with trees. The river Ganga and its tributary were used for carrying goods. During the Mauryan times the Great Royal Highway more than 1600 kilometers in length connected the capital Patliputra with Taxila and the North-West Frontier. Another long road of great commercial importance ran through Kasi and Ujjain and linked the capital with the great sea-ports of Western India. Yet another road linked the capital with the port of Tamralipti. It was through this principal port in Bengal that India carried extensive trade with China, Ceylon, Java and Sumatra. Some of the important towns of trade were Arikamedu, Kaveripattanam, Madurai, Cranganore, Nagapattanam, Mahabalipuram, Calicut, Cochin, Mangalore, Tamralipti, Pataliputra, Vidisha, Ujjaini, Kausambi, Mathura, Taxila, Aihole, Paithan, Surat, Lothal, Sopara, Broach, Kalyan, etc.

Currency in Vogue
During the early period (Vedic age) the currency in circulation was a gold coin called Nishka. Its weight was 32 ratis, i.e. one third of a tola. Later we have reference to another gold coin, Suvarna equal to 80 ratis. There was also a silver Purana of 32 ratis. Karshapana mentioned by Panini was the name of a coin which was minted in gold, silver and copper and weighed 80 ratis. During the Mauryan period we come across punch marked coins. These coins were small pieces of flat silver and copper which were punched with symbols. The superintendent of the mint was known as Laksanadhyaksha and an officer known as Rupadarsaka used to check the coins so minted for purity and weight. In South India we come across gold coins like Varaha circulated during the Badami Chalukyan period, Kasu circulated during the Chola rule and Pagoda of the Vijayanagar period. The weights of the coins were based on the system laid down in Manu Samhita and its unit was the rati or gunja berry weighing approximately 1.83 grains or .118 grams.

Then, as communities grew and human settlements became large and across continents demand and supply increased. By then ships started taking products across seas, wheels took them to the last mile customers, and customers took a short walk to the ancient markets.

Mobility has been an integral part of convenience, retail and consumerism.

Trade during the Vedic times
In vedic times this was fuelled by the Makers Of India. When urban culture flourished in cities like Harappa and Mohenjodaro, India had established trade and commercial relations with Sumer, Egypt and Crete. Lothal in Gujarat was one of the biggest port towns of that period with a huge dockyard constructed out of brick. In the Old Testaments, we have reference to trade between India and Syrian coast dating back to 1400 B.C. According to the chronicles of the Jews, during the reign of King Solomon (c.800.B.C.), a navy equipped by Hiram, King of Tyre, undertook a triennial voyage to the eastern countries and brought back with it gold, silver, ivory, apes, peacocks, Almug trees, jewels and precious stones. Ophir was the port at which they loaded these goods in the ships and this Ophir have been identified with the port Abhir or Sopara on the western coast of India by scholars.

From 1st century A.D. commodities greatly in demand in Roman world from India were spices and perfumes, precious stones such beryl and silks, muslins and cotton. All these commodities were paid for in gold and silver by the Roman traders. Pliny in 77 A.D. lamented the wasteful expenditure on perfumes and personal ornaments which drained the Roman Empire, hundred million Sesterce a year. From Rome came gold, wine and perhaps Roman soldiers and women whose services were needed in the courts of South Indian kings. Indian items were sold 100 times their original price. After the accession of Augustus four embassies from India visited him. Roman coins of Augustus and Tiberius era are found in the Hazara district of Punjab and Coimbatore and Madura district of Tamilnadu. To guide ships to ports lighthouses were built. One such light house existed at the mouth of river Kaveri, built either of brick and mortar or a big Palmyra trunk carrying on the top of it a huge oil lamp.

Retail in the Mauryan age
During the Mauryan reign manufacturing activity was abuzz and Greek writers refer to the manufacture of chariots, wagons, arms and agricultural implements and building of ships. Strabo mentions richly embroidered dresses in gold duly adorned with precious stones and also flowered robes made of fine muslin. The fact that one committee of the municipal board of Patliputra was entrusted with the supervision of manufactured articles in the metropolis indicates the existence of good manufacturing industries in the Mauryan period.

There were considerable number of foreign residents in Patliputra and they were in all probability were traders. Sweet fine wines, pigments, glass-vessels, costly vessels of silver, singing boys and beautiful maidens for the harem and choicest ointment were some of the articles imported in India while India exported fine silks, muslin, spices, perfumes, medicinal herbs, indigo, sandalwood, pearls, ivory, iron, steel, etc.

Gupta and later period retail
While the Mauryans carried on their trade mainly with the east through the Kalinga ports, the Guptas not only increased their eastern trade effectively but opened up the western sea-borne trade and this led to unprecedented economic prosperity. In Bengal, Tamralipti was the principal port, while in Tamilnadu, Kaveripattanam and Tondai were the principal ports. In the Malbar coast Kottayam and Muziris (modern Crangnore) were the main ports through which brisk trade was carried with the Eastern Archipelago and China. The acquisition of the maritime province of Saurashtra by Chandragupta II opened up the western trade and the wealth of the Roman Empire began to pour in India through the ports of western coast like Broach, Sopara, Cambay and Kalyan. The Arabs used to visit the west coast to purchase goods like teak, drugs, perfumes, shoes, black salt, spices, indigo, textiles, muslin, etc., and Indian commodities were very popular in Arabian countries. Many of these Arabs settled in the west coast and the Hindu rulers allowed them to practice their religion and even proselytize. Ships from China, Sindh and the Persian Gulf used to anchor at Broach and merchandise from every country was found there and was sent from there to other countries.

In the 15th century Calicut became one of the busiest ports in the west coast and merchants from South Africa, Abyssinia, and Arabia brought their merchandise to this port for distribution in India. Many ships from Pegu and Malacca on their way to Red Sea halted at Calicut and carried Indian goods for distribution to various directions. The Arabs who till then had monopolized India’s overseas trade had to make way for the Portuguese. Some of the items exported were cloths, rice, iron, saltpeter, sugar and spices while pearls, copper, coral, mercury, vermilion, elephants and horses were imported.

Source: Ithihas

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