Temples, Spice and Everything Nice

Kanakalatha Mukund’s The World of the Tamil Merchant is a lucid introduction to one of ancient India’s most wealthy and powerful trading regions.

If one looks at a world map upside down, it’s obvious that India has a special place. It is a lone promontory that projects into the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean. Each coast was and is a vital stopping point in global trade. It is this geographic uniqueness that has made India home to thriving hubs of commerce over millennia. One of these hubs, Tamilakam, is the focus of Kanakalatha Mukund’s The World of the Tamil Merchant.

This book is about much more than just how ancient merchants participated in global trade: it is a complex, compelling view of the culture and outlook of one of India’s historically most prosperous regions.

Dr Mukund argues that ancient Tamilakam’s wealth was due to a confluence of institutional, cultural, and geographical factors. To substantiate this idea, she draws on an array of sources from Sangam poetry to late Chola temple inscriptions, and traces out their evolution over centuries.

This process kicks off in the early 200s BCE, when South India was divided into small, warring polities. Unlike most contemporary and later states – especially in Europe – the importance of the merchant was recognised by these proto-kingdoms. They were seen not only as taxpayers, but also as contributing to the quality of life of the people by dealing in luxury goods – both for import and export. Most interestingly, Mukund points out that unlike in North India, where urbanisation was driven by agricultural surplus, South India took a different route. Owing to the lack of natural harbours on the Coromandel Coast, city-building was driven by a political will to capitalise on sea trade. Urbanisation, therefore, was due to trade surplus.

The fact that all this is reconstructed using the beautiful poetry of the Sangam era makes the book a thrill to read. The writing is lucid, the assumptions reasonable, the scholarship rigorous and evident.

One of book’s most interesting chapters explores the interplay of local self-government, temples, and merchants under the Chola Empire. Dr Mukund points out that the highly decentralised nature of local administration – which went all the way from state-level to village-level citizen assemblies – was the most efficient way to govern, given the state of technology at the time. These would collect taxes for the central administration, and possessed authority over reinvesting some of the wealth collected. Each assembly was responsible not only for law and order, irrigation, and the stewardship of land under its jurisdiction, but also for running the local temple. All this served to make governance a truly democratic process, beneficial for citizens at every level.

The local temple was much more than merely a religious institution. Financed by the wealth earned by Chola military expansion, they served as headquarters for local assemblies, as cultural and entertainment centres, and as providers of jobs and capital. Everyone from shepherds and gardeners, to sculptors and bronze-workers, to priests and dancing-girls, would find profit here. The construction of a temple, therefore, invariably led to an increased degree of urbanisation.

Local merchants often formed guilds to have more bargaining power and to circulate credit. Guilds contributed to temples to gain social capital. Temples would then reinvest the money with the guild in return for fixed ‘interest’ to be paid in kind – such as ghee for lamps. This allowed money to constantly flow and redistribute, leading to thriving local economies.

Of course, this is a book about merchants, and it is a gold mine of information on trading activity of the time. Dr Mukund traces out Tamilakam’s interaction with Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, pointing out that Tamil merchants seem to have been an integral part of this maritime world for at least a millennium. Sea trade at the time was dependent on prevailing winds, which were not always reliable. Merchants would have had to stay in port for months, and this probably led to the creation of permanent outposts. Just as they patronised temples in Tamilakam for social capital, they patronised monasteries in Sri Lanka, and so on. This led to the gradual development of deep, mutually beneficial cultural ties – which were only temporarily shattered by Chola imperialism. In general, it seems that South India saw itself as tied much more intimately with Southeast Asia than with North India.

The World of the Tamil Merchant is part of a larger series curated by Gurcharan Das on India’s rich and vibrant economic history. It adds layers of depth to our understanding of the deepest South, and develops a time period that is perhaps known primarily for the conquests of Rajendra Chola. Just as the history of the Tamil people is about so much more than the activities of this one ruler, The World of the Tamil Merchant is about so much more than just the merchant.

About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.