Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Textile trade in Ancient India

The Indian subcontinent was recognized as a commercial zone of vital importance in the ancient times as revealed through the evidence of early Indian trade since nearly three and a half millennium years ago. Trade and crafts are the developments of surplus agricultural production which was noticed in India for the first time with the rise of urban centres in the Indus Valley Civilisation (2600-1900 BCE).

From the earliest times, Indian trade flourished in all forms, be it limited internal (domestic) or long distance external trade and be it through land or water. The Harappans have been well recognized as accomplished sea-farers as evidenced by depiction of boats on seals, tablets or amulets.


Representation of a boat on a terracotta amulet from Mohenjodaro. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The dockyard discovered at Lothal in Gujarat is a very sound evidence of maritime trade being practiced during that time. Harappans established contact with Oman, Bahrain and other places in west Asia.


Dockyard at Lothal. Image credits:


Indus Valley traded with Mesopotamia via sea route.Image credits: Wikimedia Commons.

There is evidence that maritime trade continued on a major scale in the Vedic (1500-800 BCE), Mauryan (c. 324-187 BCE), Kushana (circa 30 CE-circa 375) and Gupta periods (3rd century CE-543 CE) and also in the subsequent periods of south Indian dynasties like Pallavas, Chalukyas and Cholas. “May our ship embark to all quarters of the earth” is mentioned as the motto of Rig Vedic seafarers.

Similarly, Buddhist literature, including Jataka stories, are also replete with the accounts of sea voyages, shipwrecks and missionaries going overseas. There were feeder land routes for bringing goods from the point of their production to the points of export i.e. sea ports and vice versa. The feeder land routes acted as supporting collection as well as distribution channels during trade.

Textiles have consistently been one of the key items of Indian trade ever since the Harappan period. Like many other materials of perishable nature, textiles as trade items do not survive as evidence but the few available ones are enough to speak volumes about its commerce. Evidence of textile trade is sometimes implicit in other sources. For instance, the scroll headdress on a clay figurine from Harappa very closely resembles the symbol of a Babylonian goddess which hints at trading relations between the two territories. Babylon was a city in ancient Mesopotamia (present day parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey)

There are references that clothes, along with other items like medicinal plants, incense, fragrance materials, etc. were regularly sent to Mesopotamia  from the eastern countries of Meluhha which was the Sumerian name for Indus civilization.

These items continued to be in trade in subsequent periods also. Atharva Veda indicates that a kind of woollen cloth called dursha formed an article of trade. The Periplus of the Erythrean sea, a manual written in 1st century CE by a Greek for the mariners trading between Red Sea and Bay of Bengal, also refers to trading of clothes from India. This book talks about very fine quality muslins (cotton fabric of plain weave ranging from sheers to coarse sheets) as an item of export of the Ganga or Vanga country. This was probably from Tamluk (ancient Tamralipti) port in Purbi Medinipur district and Chandraketugarh in 24 Pargana district of West Bengal.


Ancient Trade routes as mentioned in the The Periplus of the Erythrean sea. Image credits: Ancient History Encyclopedia

It is believed that this territory's maritime trade relations existed with the peninsular and western India, Sri Lanka and parts of Southeast Asia. There might have been indirect trade of this region with China and the Roman empire. A Chinese work of 1st century CE mentions that on sailing by boat for about two months from Burma one will reach Kanchi ( Kanchipuram in India) and sailing for the next eight months one will reach Malaya peninsula in Southeast Asia. It further informs us that Kanchi produced large and shining pearls and rare stones which were exchanged for gold and silk products. Thus Chinese silk was imported to Kanchipuram and also exported from there to Malaya. Kanchipuram was also a centre of indigenous silk production and as such it can reasonably be inferred that local silk might have been included in the itinerary exported to Malaya. It indicates that silk textiles formed an important part in Indian trade.

Notably, south India is still known for its quality silk clothing one of which is termed as Kanchipuram silk. By about the 10th century CE, diversification in markets and trading patterns at Kanchipuram saw the emergence of specialized trading groups for weaver-traders known as saliya nagaram. The Saliyas (pattasalin) and the Kaikkolas were two weaver communities producing varieties of silk and cotton cloths for inland and overseas markets

The Saliyas gained considerable influence in Kanchipuram as the chosen weavers of royal garments in 10th century CE. The Kaikkolas, the larger of the two communities, were apparently weavers who had no economic influence, being dependent on trades for organizing the marketing of textiles.

With the knowledge of south westerly monsoon winds having an annual cycle of fixed direction and time becoming known in After the in the 1st century CE, India’s trade with the Roman world became brisk and many sea-ports developed on the western coast of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala along with many on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal as well.

These ports, along with their feeder channels, created a network of trade routes at the turn of the Christian era and facilitated the brisk movement of diversified merchandise at a volume never witnessed before in the Inland or the overseas trade. Textile was a significant component of this trade. The ports of Barbaricum (sea-port near the modern day city of Karachi, Pakistan) and Bharukachchha (Bharuch, Gujarat) became trading centres of muslin and other thin or coarse clothing. Wool of both goats and sheep especially from the Kashmir region and woolen shawls were also an important article of trade at that time, as it continues to be today.

In the Mauryan period, we find much elaboration of the trading system including land and sea routes and comparison of the relative importance of the two. Arthashastra of Kautilya refers to the fact that the state had enacted rules and regulations on trade movement including appointment of a superintendent of shipping (naukadhyaksha) to control water borne trade, mudradhyaksha (Superintendent of travel documents) to overseas trade and a Superintendent of trade and customs (panyadhyaksha) for overall regulation of trade including collection of duties on commodities.

The Uttarapath (northern land routes) and Dakshinapath (southern land routes) together constituting “ the Grand route of India,” became the arterial trade routes, along with their feeder channels, for silk trade especially during Kushana period (3 0 CE- 375 CE) which connected China, south east Asia, central Asia and the European countries.

According to ancient Sangam literature (3rd century BCE-3rd century CE), silk from China entered the internal exchange of Tamilakam (Tamil territory) as transit goods to Roman Empire. The Periplus also points out to China as the region from which silk reached the Ganges valley from where it may have reached Tamilakam down the east coast to Tamil ports and then was sent to the west. Silk entered the internal circuit of exchange through gifts by rulers to panar (bards) and as a luxury item of the ruling and urban elite’s attire. The Tamil sources refer to silk as pattu.

The duty chargeable on linen, dakula silk yarn (Muga silk from Assam), silk cloths, cotton and animal products of goats was between 1/25th to 1/10th of their values. The Arthashastra gives the information that many of the woven and embroidered shawls came from Kashmir and Punjab. Nepal supplied woollen goods. Bengal and Suvarnakudya (in present day Assam)were famous for dakula silk and Kasi for linen. Magadha, Paundra and Suvarvabhumi supplied a kind of wild silk textile. The chief centres of the cotton goods were Mathura, Kasi, Aparanta (Konkan), Kalinga (Odisha), Bengal, Vamsa (Kaushambi) and Mahishmati (Mahesar near Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh)

In the Mauryan period, the routes were also classified variously with specified activities. According to Kautilya, Haimavatamarga (the route from Balkh to India via Hindukush) was used only for trade in horses, woollen cloths, hides and furs to the exclusion of all other goods. The Dakshinapath or Deccan route traded in other items like diamond, precious stones, pearls, gold etc.

In the Gupta period (3rd century CE- 543CE) the commercial activities increased resulting in an improved banking system headed by a nagara shreshthi (chief banker). Taxes were collected at a relatively higher rate. Printers and weavers were perhaps forced to pay a tax half of the amount of the price of their goods. The Jambudvipa prajnapti, a text datable to Gupta period, mentions eighteen traditional guilds including that of silk weavers (pattailla), sellers of napkins (ganchhi), calico-printers (chhimpa) and tailors (sivaga).

In the final analysis, it can be reasonably asserted that cotton, woolen and silk textiles have consistently remained popular articles of trade throughout the ancient period. It is equally true for the domestic as well as international trade. India can deservingly claim a place of pride for being an important and integral part of the international silk route which was a historic trade process for a pretty long time stretching from 2nd century BCE to 14th century C.