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Flower market in Kolkata (Calcutta) in the India state of West Bengal.
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Markets, such as this flower market in Kolkata, have enticed traders to India for millennia. By the 1st century BCE, a series of sea and land routes throughout India supported trade among regions of the subcontinent and with the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia. Rome's conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE consolidated a maritime route to India that remained active into the 7th century. Pepper, spices, and textiles were the primary items traded with the West in exchange for wine, olive oil, and Roman coins. From roughly 200 BCE to 1500 CE, eastern and western traders traveled through northern India along a network of land routes that linked Rome in the west and Chang'an (today's Xian), China in the east. Ideas, culture, and religion were exchanged along with goods, and the route is credited with the spread of Buddhism from India to China.
Trade flourished under the Kushan Empire (1st century CE – 3rd century CE) and the Gupta Empire (5th and 6th centuries CE) as rulers acquired more lands and access to important maritime ports in northwest India. By the end of the 10th century, the Cholan Empire controlled trade along both eastern and western coasts in the south and would extend their empire to Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands. The arrival of Vasco da Gama from Portugal in 1498 established a sea route from Europe to India. Among the rival trading companies that did business along this route, the British East India Company eventually gained a monopoly on trade with India, and eventually took over governance of the region until the second half of the 19th century.
Flower garlands in India are worn or given to show respect to an individual or deity, mark an occasion such as the beginning of a journey, and celebrate anniversaries and weddings. Red roses, spider lilies, frangipani, jasmine, and marigolds (used in wedding garlands) are the most popular flowers used in garlands. Hinduism attaches religious significance to some types of flowers; for example, jasmine symbolizes divine hope. Floral decorations are mentioned in Indian texts as early as the Ramayana, which describes their use in garlands to decorate houses, palaces, and cities. Tamil literature of South India mentions the giving of flowers in courtship and offering flowers as sacrifices to Hindu and Buddhist gods: one ancient poetic tour de force mentions 96 varieties of flowers!
In the first century CE, India's spices—especially black pepper and malabathrum (a type of cinnamon)—became an important commodity in trade with the eastern Mediterranean. Demand for spices used in seasoning and preservation in the West spurred trade with India for cardamom, ginger, turmeric, saffron, nutmeg, and clove. In 1498, Vasco da Gama's sea route to India opened the spice trade to Europe, and for the next 200 years the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English would vie for control of the spice trade. By the 19th century, the spread of spice plants to other areas of the world and the development of artificial refrigeration led to a decline in the overall need for India spices.
Although preceded by two Guptan rulers, Chandragupta I (reign 320-335 CE) is credited with establishing the Gupta Empire in the Ganges River valley in about 320 CE, when he assumed the name of the founder of the Mauryan Empire. The period of Gupta rule between 300 and 600 CE has been called the Golden Age of India for its advances in science and emphasis on classical Indian art and literature. Gupta rulers acquired much of the land previously held by the Mauryan Empire, and peace and trade flourished under their rule.
Sanskrit became the official court language, and the dramatist and poet Kalidasa wrote celebrated Sanskrit plays and poems under the presumed patronage of Chandragupta II. The Kama Sutra, a treatise on romantic love, is also dated to the Gupta era. In 499 CE, the mathematician Aryabhata published his landmark treatise on Indian astronomy and mathematics, Aryabhatiya, which described the earth as a sphere moving around the sun.
Detailed gold coins featuring portraits of the Gupta kings stand out as unique art pieces from this period and celebrate their accomplishments. Chandragupta's son Samudragupta (r. 350 to 375 CE) further expanded the empire, and a detailed account of his exploits was inscribed on an Ashokan pillar in Allahabad toward the end of his reign. Unlike the Mauryan Empire's centralized bureaucracy, the Gupta Empire allowed defeated rulers to retain their kingdoms in return for a service, such as tribute or military assistance. Samudragupta's son Chandragupta II (r. 375–415 CE) waged a long campaign against the Shaka Satraps in western India, which gave the Guptas access to Gujarat's ports, in northwest India, and international maritime trade. Kumaragupta (r. 415–454 CE) and Skandagupta (r. c. 454–467 CE), Chandragupta II's son and grandson respectively, defended against attacks from the Central Asian Huna tribe (a branch of the Huns) that greatly weakened the empire. By 550 CE, the original Gupta line had no successor and the empire disintegrated into smaller kingdoms with independent rulers.
The Cholas, a people living in southern India, first appear in the written record in a 3rd century BCE rock inscription of Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great. A Tamil–speaking people, the Cholas held the east coast of modern Tamil Nadu and the Cauvery delta region. They eventually gained supremacy over other southern tribes in the area, the Pandyas of Madurai and the Pallavas of Kanchi. The empire's earliest king Karikala (r. about 100 CE) is celebrated in Tamil literature, but the empire reached its height under Rajaraja (r. 985–1014 CE), who conquered Kerala, northern Sri Lanka, and in 1014 CE acquired the Maldive Islands.
To commemorate his rule and the god Shiva, Rajaraja built a magnificent temple, Rajarajeshvara or Brihadeesvarar Temple at Tanjore, which was completed in 1009 CE. The temple, the tallest building in India at the time, includes inscriptions describing Rajaraja's victories and was a massive ceremonial space, with a central shrine measuring 216 feet high. Fresco murals that depict military conquests, the royal family, Rajaraja, and Shiva decorate the temple. Villages in the empire and from as far away as Sri Lanka sent tributes that would be redistributed and used in support of the vast retinue of dancers, servants, singers, carpenters, goldsmiths, and others living in the temple's court.
Rajaraja's son, Rajendra I (r. 1014–1044 CE), would continue to increase Cholan power by defeating rivals in southern India and expanding Cholan territory north. In 1023 CE, Rajendra sent his army north toward the Ganges River and defeated the Bengal kingdom of the Pala ruler. A few years later he sent overseas expeditions to the Malay Peninsula, occupying parts of Java, perhaps to protect a sea route to China. Rivalries with other southern tribes would lead to the dynasty's fall when in 1257 CE, the Pandyas defeated the Cholas. The dynasty ended in 1279 CE with the last Chola ruler, Rajendra IV (r. 1246–1279 CE).
Vasco da Gama
In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, on the southwest coast of India, and became the first person to navigate a sea route from Europe to India, forever changing the world economy. Neither da Gama's proffered gifts nor his behavior (the Portuguese mistook the Hindus for Christians) impressed Calicut's leader, Saamoothirippadu (or Zamorin), and he refused to sign a trade treaty with the explorer. However, da Gama's successful voyage established Lisbon as the center of Europe's spice trade, a position Portugal would dominate for almost a century. In 1510, the Portuguese gained control of Goa, 400 miles north of Cochin on India’s west coast, and made it the hub of their maritime activities in the region.
Da Gama would return to India two more times—in 1502 to violently avenge the deaths of Portuguese traders by bombarding Calicut, and as viceroy in 1524 to correct corruption among Portuguese authorities. On his last trip, da Gama died in Goa, where a town, Vasco, was named for him in 1543. In 1600, the British East India Company was chartered, and throughout the 17th century English, Dutch, and French traders traveled this sea route and established posts in India's port cities.
British East India Company
On December 31, 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to a group of 25 adventurers, giving them a monopoly on trade between England and the countries in the East Indies. The Company established settlements in Bombay, on India's west coast, and on India's east coast, in Calcutta and Madras. They became centers for Indian textiles that were in high demand in Europe, including cotton cloth, chintz, and calico.
The company's two primary competitors in the region were the Dutch East India Company and the French Compagnie des Indes Orientales. Armies of Indians hired as soldiers and supplied with European weaponry increased the Company's might against its western competitors and were even used to control the courts of Indian princes.
The decline and fall of the Mughal Empire in the mid-18th century contributed to the East India Company's accumulation of power in the region. In 1757, the Company defeated and killed the Mughal governor of Bengal, Sirajud-Dawla, after he captured Calcutta in an attempt to hinder the Company from depriving merchants and the government of revenue. By 1765, the Company had acquired control of the revenue systems of Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar, on India's east coast, and became the largest territorial power in India. The India Act of 1784 gave Parliament control of the company's affairs in London, but the heads of the Company oversaw the governance of India. Parliament transferred the Company's power over administration of the Indian territories to the Crown in 1858 after the Great Rebellion of 1857, an uprising of Indian soldiers (sepoys) that was largely blamed on the Company's mismanagement of the territory.
- Why has India been an important center of trade?
- What importance did spices play in the development of trade? What eventually ended the European demand for Indian spices?
- What was the significance of Vasco da Gama's arrival in Calicut?
- Who did the British East India Company employ to assist the company in its domination of India?
- How might people of the United States react to a corporation being given the authority to govern another country?