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The Story of India

Spice Routes & Silk Roads

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200 BCE 0 CE 300 CE

500 BCE–200 BCE

Scale: 1 column = 100 years

300 CE–1000 CE

Judaism

Spices
Spices

Although a tiny minority in modern India, Jews have a long history on the subcontinent, and in fact, it is home to several distinct Jewish communities.

The first to arrive, possibly in the last centuries BCE, were the Jews who settled in Cochin (now called Kochi), in south India. They remain a small but important presence in Kochi, a trading hub on the Kerala coast since ancient times. Also existent are the Bene Israel, believed to have arrived some 2,100 years ago; they settled in and around Mumbai and in present day Pakistan. More recent arrivals were the Baghdadi Jews, so called because they are chiefly descended from Iraqi Jews who migrated to India during the British Raj, between 150 - 250 years ago.

India's most prominent Jewish community—considered one of the oldest in the world east of Iran—remains the one in Kochi. Although very few members of the community remain, most having long since emigrated to Israel, the Kochin Jews were and are an important part of the Kerala coast's spice trade, with huge warehouses containing mountains of turmeric, chillies, and pepper located directly below their family living quarters.

India's largest Jewish community, however, is the Bene Israel in Mumbai. Although their arrival in India is something of a mystery (some claim to have arrived in India in the 2nd century BCE), members of this community adopted the occupation of oil pressing and became known as "shanwar telis" or "Sabbath-observing oilmen" because they didn't work on the Sabbath. They were physically and linguistically indistinguishable to outsiders from the local population but had their own traditions, observed the Sabbath, circumcised their sons, and performed other rituals associated with Judaism.

Without exception, all Jewish communities have been accepted and assimilated into Indian society. In fact, Indians tend to take pride in the fact that Jews in India have rarely had to deal with anti-Semitism from either Hindus or Muslims. When anti-Semitism did raise its head, it was perpetrated by Dutch colonialists. The recent attack (November 2008) on the Mumbai Chabad House Jewish Centre is believed to have been perpetrated by Islamic extremists from outside India. India is also the only place in the world where Jews are comfortable with using Swastikas in their signs—because it's an ancient Hindu symbol and has none of the negative connotations that is found in the West.

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Tamil

Tamil family
Tamil Family

An official language of India belonging to the Dravidian family, Tamil is not related to the Indo-Aryan family of languages. Tamil, spoken by more than 60 million people, is the official language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and an official language of Sri Lanka. Malaysia, Singapore, and certain African nations that have sizeable Tamil-speaking populations. One of Ashoka the Great's edicts identifies his southern neighbors as the Cholas and Pandyas, both Tamil-speaking peoples.

Tamil literature is over 2,000 years old, and Tamil poetry and grammar reveal much about southern India around the time of Christ. Tamil poetry recited by both men and women at marathon arts festivals, called sangam, describes a caste society and extensive foreign trade with the Roman Empire that extended into southern India from Egypt, which had come under Roman rule in 30 BCE. Dialects within Tamil are numerous, and the language is characterized by a sharp division between a literary or classical style and a colloquial variant.

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Monsoon

monsoon
Bicycling in the monsoon rains

India's climate is particularly affected by monsoons, strong winds that change direction with the seasons due to differences in land and ocean temperature and can trigger dramatic changes in weather. Derived from the Arabic for season (mausim), monsoons in India blow from the sea toward land in a southwest direction from June to September. From October through December, winds blow over land toward the sea from a northeast direction, sweeping from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean. The rains during the summer or "wet" monsoon come down when air that has absorbed heat from the Indian landmass rises and is replaced by cooler air from over the Indian Ocean.

Since temperatures during India's summer can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the "wet" monsoon brings much-needed relief. The country's agricultural industry and economy rely on the summer monsoon, which supplies as much as 80% of India's rainfall. However, heavy monsoon seasons, which can bring many feet of rain in a matter of months, have led to landslides and have destroyed crops and villages. Conversely, monsoon failure can cause years of drought, and scientists theorize that a weakened monsoon may have contributed to the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization.

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Silk Road

Video: The Silk Road brought trade and prosperity to Northern India
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Video: The Silk Road brought trade and prosperity to Northern India

From about 200 BCE to 1500 CE, eastern and western traders traveled along the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that linked Rome in the West and Chang'an (today Xian) in the East. Silk, valued for its texture, was a major import of the Mediterranean region, and the Chinese intensely guarded their silk-making technique. However, silk was not the only commodity transported over the route—gems, metals, horses, apricots, raisins, and manufactured goods were also traded. Crossing the route was not without danger, and travelers would often hire guards or rely on local guides to shepherd them on their way. In addition, the road facilitated commerce in technology, art, and medicine—even disease spread across cultures via the route. The network is largely credited with the spread of Buddhism to China, as Buddhist monks accompanied traders traveling east. Later, Chinese pilgrims, such as Fa Hsien, traveled to India to gain access to Buddhist writings and teachings. After the 13th century, the rise of the Mongol empires and regionalism along the route led to decreased use and its eventual disintegration.

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Muziris

Video: Muziris, an ancient trading port on the Kerala Coast
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Video: Muziris, an ancient trading port on the Kerala Coast

The Periplus, a Greek merchant's guide to the Indian trade from the 1st century CE notes twenty major ports on India's west coast. Muziris, the Graeco-Roman pronounciation of Muchiripattanam, was apparently the most important. It is mentioned in papyrus contracts dating back to the 2nd century CE in the West, and is recorded in Tamil poetry of that time. It was the first stop for ships on the direct route from the Red Sea and became a home away from home for many traders. Muziris is where trade began and flourished between India and the Mediterranean, primarily in spices. The trade lasted until the 4th century when it was taken over first by the Persians, and then by Arabs and Arabic-speaking Jews in the 7th century.

However, despite all written evidence, the exact location of Muziris remained unclear until recently, because rivers alter courses over time, and in Kerala the coastline is particularly changeable. In 2005, an archaeologist from Cochin University, Dr.Shajan and his team found Muziris exactly where it was supposed to be—4 miles inland, behind a double line of backwaters near the modern town of Cranganore (Kodungallar). Coins of Roman emperors Nero and Tiberius have been found, along with Roman amphorae and Mediterranean glass ornaments. In fact, Roman coins have long been a common sight at local antique dealers' shops. And even today it is the custom in southern Indian weddings to give the bride a necklace of small coins.

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Spices

Video: The spice warehouses of Cochin
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Video: The spice warehouses of Cochin

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.

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Kushan Empire

Kushan ruins, Peshawar, Pakistan
Ruins dating back to Kushans and beyond at Ghor Khuttree, Peshawar, Pakistan

After the death of Ashoka the Great in 232 BCE, his successors slowly lost their grip on the territories of the Mauryan Empire, and northern India broke up into a number of smaller states ruled by local dynasties. In central India though, a major power continued for over four hundred years: the Satavahana Empire (c. 230BCE-220CE). In the north after a period of internecine warfare, and further incursions and invasions from Central Asia the next great Indian power was created by the Yueh-chi, or Kushans. One of the groups who migrated from what is now Chinese Central Asia into what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, the Kushans formed one of the great empires of the classical epoch, ruling at their height from the Aral Sea to the Bay of Bengal.

The Kushans built an empire supported by trade on the Silk Road, and lavished their wealth on the arts and on Buddhist monasteries, importing Greek artisans to carve elaborate sculptures depicting the life of the Buddha. This synthesis of western artisans carving eastern subjects became known as Gandharan art. During this era, the first Buddhist missionaries travelled to China, with two Indian monks founding the first Chinese monastery and spreading the teachings of Buddhism by translating its sacred texts into the local languages.

The Kushans practiced an ecumenical rule, supporting many deities of different religions in their multi-racial empire. The greatest Kushan ruler, King Kanishka, closely affiliated himself to Buddhism, choosing the Mahayana tradition, and thereby influencing the direction of Buddhism in China and Tibet. His enormous stupa, erected in Peshawar was regarded as one of the greatest wonders of the Asian world: it was still standing 500 years later, as described by a Chinese pilgrim in the 7th century CE, though only its foundations survived into modern times.

The Kushans also developed a highly ornate and sophisticated system of coinage, with beautiful gold coins depicting rulers and gods in superb detail. Along with new inscriptional finds the coinage has allowed modern scholars to date the Kushan ulers more precisely, and is providing new insight into the events of the era which the great 18th century historian Edward Gibbon called "the happiest time in the history of humanity".

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Gandharan Art

Gandharan art
Gandharan sculptural frieze

Gandhara (the region of the North-West Frontier in Pakistan and the city of Peshawar) is where the Greek world met Buddhism. After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, Greek-affiliated states were established in what is now Pakistan and northwest India. Gandhara's golden period started about 75 CE with the rise of the Kushan Empire, and flourished under its strongest leader, Kanishka, who ruled between 120 and 150 CE. During the Kushan period, Gandharan art flowered by combining Buddhist and Greek artistic forms. What remains today is the Gandharan style of Buddhist art and sculpture, which shows evidence of Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian artistic influences, mainly from the great Kushan capital of Mathura. Some of the earliest representations of the Buddha in human form came from this period, and Gandharan artists created a lasting model for the depiction of Buddha throughout Asia, wearing a Greek toga. This creative epoch under the Kushans also strongly influenced art and sculpture during the Gupta Empire.

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Buddhism

Video: The essential teachings of Buddhism
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Video: The essential teachings of Buddhism

Buddhism is a religion or philosophy founded in the 5th century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, born a prince of the Shakya clan in northern India. Much controversy surrounds the Buddha's birth and death, or parinirvana (the reaching of nirvana); the traditional date of his death is 486 BCE but some believe he was born sometime in the mid-fifth century BCE and died at Kushinagar between 400 and 350 BCE. The Buddha, the Buddhist community, and dharma (or religious law), are considered the Three Jewels of Buddhism.

The first of Four Noble Truths that Buddhism teaches is that all life is suffering (dhukka). Siddhartha arrived at this truth by observing disease, illness, suffering, and death in the forms of an old man, a blind man, a dying man, and a corpse. On a quest to find a way to break free from this suffering, Siddhartha left his wife and child to become an ascetic, traveling across the Magadha kingdom in northeast India and studying under a number of teachers. How to liberate the self from a constant cycle of birth and rebirth, or samsara, was his principle question. After six years of wandering, he found his answer and attained enlightenment while meditating under a tree in Boghgaya.

The Buddha's insights are crystallized in the remaining noble truth—that suffering is caused by desire (trishna); that suffering can be overcome; that by following the Eightfold Path (imagined as a cyclic Wheel of Dharma), individuals can become free of attachment and reach nirvana. The Eightfold Path includes living with right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. He also advocated living according to the "Middle Way," a path between severe asceticism and heady indulgence. The Buddha lived the remaining 45 years of his life after enlightenment as a wandering ascetic, delivering discourses and gaining followers, among them Magadha's king Bimbisara, who became a patron and provided generous donations including a monastery at his capital, Rajagaha (found in what is now the Indian state of Bihar).

Buddhists currently number around 400 million worldwide, and the philosophy's two major traditions are Theraveda—practiced primarily in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos—and Mahayana—practiced chiefly in China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. Wesak, the celebration that marks the Buddha's birth in May, is the most important Buddhist festival.

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Kanishka

King Kanishka's stupa was one of the wonders of the world
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King Kanishka's stupa was one of the wonders of the world

King Kanishka (reigned c. 127 -147 CE) was the most powerful ruler of the Kushan Empire. An important new inscription found at Robotak in Afghanistan has provided much more information about his family and ancestors, the dates of his rule, and the extent of his vast Indian empire. Having adopted Buddhism, he influenced the direction of the development of the religion by supporting the Mahayana tradition, and sending missionaries to China, where Buddhism then began to flourish. He also built a great stupa in Peshawar that signaled his support of Buddhism. Kanishka continued his campaigns of conquest to enlarge the Kushan Empire, expanding its boundaries from Afghanistan and Central Asia in the northwest, and Kashmir in the north, to Ujain in central India, Mathura, Kosambi and Benares in the Ganges plain, and Bhagalpur in Bihar, only three hundred miles from the Bay of Bengal. According to later legend, Kanishka was ultimately killed by his own soldiers, who suffocated him in his tent.

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Anicut Dam

Video: The Anicut Dam, a thouand year old structure to aid irrigation
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Video: The Anicut Dam, a thousand year old structure to aid irrigation

The Grand Anicut Dam, or Kallanai, was first built in the second century CE where the Cavery River divides at Srirangam Island in south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Chola king Karikala, who developed building projects and vast irrigation systems during his reign, commissioned the structure in the first or second century. Kallanai, built of earth and stone, is 1,079 feet long and 66 feet wide and one of the oldest irrigation systems in use today. Kallanai diverts the Cavery, a river sacred to Hindus, into six canals that irrigate thousands of acres and form a rich delta in the Tamil Nadu region.

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