Ancient Trade Routes silk road, sea roads before European colonialism

By pjain      Published Oct. 11, 2019, 9:07 p.m. in blog Humanities-History-Blog   

Part of Geo-Politics Series - Guide to Geo-Economic-Politics

History from point of Trade Routes

Humans have been trading for a very long time

Silk Roads of Euro-Asia

It was a collection of roads through local kingdoms Silk Road was not a road per se, but a collection of routes through central, south, south east and west Asia. It includes the Ancient tea route (between Sichuan, Yunnan, Burma and Bengal), Incense Route, Spice route, maritime silk road through the Indian ocean and the land route through Kashgar in central Asia. Other than the land route through the central Asia, India was a part of other routes.


5 Power Empires trading on multiple silk and Spice roads Spread over Euro-Asia

What fostered trade was that right around the 1st centuries (BC, CE) you had the entire span of Eurasia, all the way from Spain in the West to all the way to Xian in the East was under the realms of just 4 Empires. This meant that all of a sudden someone in Italy wanting to do business with a Vaishya in Pataliputra could actually do so with considerable ease! This led to intense trade between the regions and fostered contact with previously unknown set of people. Think about it for a second, someone from Mathura (which had come to be the capital of the Kushan as it expanded into the North Indian plain, lived in Rome way back in the times of Kushan. And not only these, as trade increased due to the unique positioning of the 4 Empires, all the people within the Kushan realms could have traveled to anywhere: meaning that if you were from Punjab, you could have just as well gone to Ashgabat, Balkh, and took a dip in the Aral or the Caspian and engaged in business with the expanding trade.

1 Roman Empire

2 Parthian Empire

3 Kushan Empire of Central Asia

4 Han Chinese Empire - the "Silk" and more

5 Indian Trade was the richest destination of the Silk road far more than Chinese Silk

One key commonality with most of the silk routes is the spread of Buddhism. While the silk road is a little older than Buddhism, trade was at its peak at the height of Buddhism. In all the key routes, India was able to spread its culture through the route. In fact, some historians believe the key contribution of Silk Road was not silk, but the cultural connections. Silk Road transmission of Buddhism

5.2 Roman relationships

As mentioned earlier, the distance & geography meant that China and Rome never was in direct contact. However, India maintained a strong relationship with both. With Rome, there was a variety of trade links [ Indo-Roman trade relations] and with China there was a deep cultural link in the Buddhist golden age. Thus, India was able to understand the consumer tastes of both.

Under the Kushan empire of Kanishkaand the Parthians who ruled some parts of northwest India, north India and many parts of central Asia were under a common union as the Kushans rode into the post-Mauryan India. Kushans played a key connector in the ancient silk route.

Fragmented Routes not one magic

There was no such thing as Silk Road but a myth and romanticized version of the past created for the regions Germans had no idea about in the late 18th century. Nobody called them as "Silk Roads" or the land/sea routes with India as the "spice roads". They were just trade routes, plain and simple. And as India always had been a resource rich region and something to sell to outsiders, goods always have trickling out the country in search for gold/silver/dollars and whatnot. This is absolutely nothing unusual. However what led to the expansion of trade in the 1st century is the unique position in history where you had just 4 Empires controlling all of the lands that lay between Spain and Dhaka. And to give you another example, a similar situation arose in the 16th century when the Austro-Habsburg Empire, Ottoman Empire, Safavid dynasty in Iran and Mughal dynasty controlled all the lands that lay between Spain and Bengal.

Key direct contacts failed due to the great distances

Rome knew China only through its products and China abstractly knew Rome as a major power rivaling China in size. India, Persia and central Asian empires all played key intermediaries in the Silk Road as China and Rome didn't have a direct relationship during the Classical age

Trading Tribes, Clans and Extended families Played a Huge Role in Keeping Trade alive

India has been mainly a land of traders: traders that used to ply along the trade routes in the Subcontinent, or the ones that used to ply across the seas and lands of the East, West, South and North (the idea that most Indians used to be prohibited to ply overseas for fear of polluting their "caste" is a convenient incorrect narrative).

India Trade Sea routes

Scholars, Monks Pathway Makers

The earliest sources we have for India's role in the trade and polity are from the Han dynasty era scholars, and explorers, 班超 (Ban Chao), 张骞 (Zhang Qian), and 范曄 (Fan Ye). Ban Chao lived in the first century in the Common Era and led the influence of Han dynasty towards the "Western Regions" (modern day Central Asia and India). He authored 汉书 (Book of Han) which was an account of the Western Han dynasty. Zhang Qian was the explorer who was appointed by the Han court, in 200s BC to explore and give an account to the Han Emperor Wu of peoples living east. And Fan Ye was the historian who compiled 后汉书 (Book of the Later Han). Each of their work contains within it several description of the peoples of the lands beyond the realms of the Han, their customs, religions and many other aspects. One of them includes the Subcontinent.

Sea Routes - vital for India NAVs

Spread of Buddhism

India Overland Trade Routes

Recurrent Migrations of Tribes Long Major Routes

Indo-Greeks post 320bc

NW India region had come to be controlled by Indo-Greeks that had been created after Alexander's conquests in the region and their hybridization of Greek influences, Indian influences and Afghan influences had created a very diverse polity.


  • Xian Tarim Basin tribes & Horse Traders - Formed Kushan Empire 0-100ad Around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Yuezhi, a federation of tribes from the Tarim Basin region (in the modern day Chinese province of Xinjiang) had begun attaining control of the lands in modern day Afghanistan.

The Yuezhi had come to gain the upper hand and overtime had come to replace the Indo-Greeks as the rulers. They metamorphosed from the nomad tribes of the Yuezhi to become the Kushan. After establishing their kingdom, they began constructing their Empire, and conquered the entire North Indian plains from Bengal, stretching to the Indus in modern day upper Pakistan. And on the East this Empire extended beyond Afghanistan to Aral Sea.

One thing to note about the Yuezhi, who were the Kushan now, is that they were known to the Chinese to be traders of fine horses. They were primarily engaged in trade with the Chinese under the Han period. And as established their Empire in Northern India, and Southwest Asia, they began controlling the trade routes between the East and the West, and India and the West.

The Kushans had their diplomats in Rome, Persia (during the Parthian and Sasanian dynasties), and in China during the time of the Han dynasty as well.

Uttarapatha (later became the Highway of Grand Trunk Road).

Pataliputra, the present day Patna was well connected by the road. It was the same road that connected the South Asia to the Central Asia. Historical evidences prove that this road existed during the Mauryan era and the Mauryans used it extensively for various purposes.


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