Late in the winter of 1557, Anthony Jenkinson arrived at the gates of Uzbekistan’s Bukhara at the end of an epic journey across the Caspian Sea, the deserts of Kazan and the Tartar lands of the Nogai hordes—determined to mine the fabled city’s riches for London’s Muscovy Company. Instead, the legendary explorer discovered he’d been beaten by Indian merchants. From as far away as Bengal, he recorded the merchants “doe bring fine whites which serve for apparel being made of cotton wooll and crasko [rough linen].”
Two centuries later, when the Prussian zoologist Peter Simon Pallas visited Astrakhan in Russia, he “attended with pleasure at the idolatrous worship of the Indian merchants who reside together in the Indian court called the Indeiskoi Dvor.” The temple, he wrote, included idols of Rama, Lakshmi and Hanuman, as well as three black stones “brought from the Ganges and regarded by the Indians as sacred.”
From records excavated by historian StephenDale, we have come to know the names of some of the pre-colonial magnates who traded across the Hindu Kush: The Punjabi Banda Kapur Chand, Marwar Baraev from Rajasthan, Narayan Chanchamalova, Vishnat Narmaldasov, Talaram Alimchandov and Ramdas Dzhasuev. Then two new empires, Britain and Russia, transformed the region. The Indians of Central Asia vanished into the sands.
As India struggles for influence in the oil and gas-rich Central Asia—a region increasingly dominated by geopolitical rival China—the stories of those great merchant-adventurers should guide New Delhi’s actions.
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India’s Central Asia ambitions
Expansive ambitions to reshape the course of history underpinned India’s decision to become a full-time member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). In a speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he would work to create “create a vast network of physical and digital connectivity that extends from Eurasia’s northern corner to Asia’s southern shores.” Events conspired against Modi, though. The Taliban’s rise, sanctions against Iran, and the Ukraine crisis disrupted India’s Central Asian dreams.
This week, as Prime Minister Modi arrived at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, India’s hopes of expanding its presence in Central Asia have run into a geopolitical brick wall. As the Ukraine war grinds on, global isolation is pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin to embrace Chinese President Xi Jinping harder. That will give China more ability to expand its presence in Central Asia, where it has invested over $40 billion, laying the foundations for what scholars Rafaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen call “an inadvertent empire.”
Excited talk of building railroads through Iran into Afghanistan, reviving roads to Central Asia and on through Russia into Europe now seems fanciful. India just can’t match China’s multi-billion investments—but history teaches us it is not out of options.
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Empires of trade
Emperor Zahiruddin Babur, first of the Mughal rulers of India, acquired a kingdom crisscrossed by great trade routes linking Hindustan to Central Asia, Anatolia and Northern China. From the plains, he wrote in his memoirs, caravans set out to Kandahar and Kabul, and on to Ferghana, “bringing slaves, white cloth, sugar-candy, refined and common sugars and aromatic roots.” In addition, textiles, indigo and spices were traded for Turkic horses, the most valuable assets of medieval Indian armies.
The trade, modern historians agree, yielded India a significant surplus. Edward Pettus, an East India Company agent in Isfahan, Iran, noted that “the Banians, in return for their linens, carry most of the silver and gold out of the country.” Little Mughal coinage has been found in Central Asia—suggesting the flow of precious metal was one way.
Four different imperial States born of the Mongol nomadic empires—Mughal India, Safavid Iran, Uzbek-ruled Turan and Moscow—controlled the vast territories these traders operated across. Enforcement of central authority was, however, limited. The Jenkinson expedition to Bukhara made its way to the city as part of an armed convoy, repeatedly fighting off bandit raids—and then deemed further passage too dangerous. The dangers, though, didn’t deter the Indian merchants.
The accounts of contemporary chroniclers, Stephen Dale writes, show that traders from the Punjab city of Multan—perched on the Chenab river—made up the bulk of the expatriate Indian business community in Central Asia. FA Kotov, a Russian merchant, saw both Hindu and Muslim merchants from Multan in Isfahan when he visited the city in 1623. Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician, recorded about 10,000 Multan-origin merchants living in the city between 1684-1685.
Large-enough numbers of Indian men married Turkic women to create an Indo-Turkic community in Astrakhan’s Agrizhan suburb. There were some like Bujak Lachiram, who lived with his Turkic family in a yurt on the steppe. There were others, like a man identified by the name Dzhukki, who adopted Orthodox Christianity.
Everyone wasn’t pleased with the power and influence of the Indian merchants. The historian Scott Levi has recorded that one 18th-century chronicler, Mir Muhammad Amin Bukhari, bitterly complained that “Indian people were masters above Muslims.” “In trade relations they, stain upon stain, lawlessly put Muslims through one unpleasantry after another.” In disputes, he went on, “a protector would defend the Hindu and decide the affair not according to the law, but simply according to the order of the serai [inn]”
Local entrepreneurs bitterly resented the arrival of Indian traders and moneylenders, repeatedly lobbying rulers to prevent their entry. These efforts, though, were not generally successful. The Tsars, like all rulers, needed revenues.
Entire families thus ended up moving to Central Asia. A 17th-century trader, whose name is recorded as Sutur, wrote to authorities saying that he received such favourable treatment in Russia that he encouraged his brothers and 25 other Indian merchants to move to Astrakhan. Two other brothers set up businesses in Persia.
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The trade in lives
The trade that powered India’s surpluses from Central Asia wasn’t for the faint-hearted: Like modern human traffickers, the great merchant convoys from India carried tens of thousands of human beings each year to be sold into slavery. The slave trade was an old one—and India had supplied many of the lives put up for sale. Following the sacking of Thanesar in 1011, the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni captured some 200,000 slaves. The warlord’s twelfth expedition to India yielded so many slaves that their price crashed to two dirhams.
“Iraq and Khurasan were filled with them, the fair and the dark, the rich and the poor, mingled in one common slavery,” Iranian courtier Abu Nasr al-‘Utbi recorded in his eleventh-century chronicle, the Kitab al-Yamani.
“Every affluent household,” Levi writes, “included several slaves to look after its affairs and maintain the garden, and large numbers of slaves were used to cultivate the land”.
Trading in slaves was lucrative—but the risks of ending up as one were not insignificant. In some cases, merchants were captured by bandits as they traversed the Hindu Kush and sold in the slave markets. There were cases where unpaid loans were settled by the creditor selling the debtor.
Little of the stories of the Indian slaves in Central Asia have survived the centuries. However, the work of historian Shadab Bano has recovered some kernels. Minhaj Siraj, who travelled from Delhi to Multan in 1269, took slaves as presents for his sister. Hindu Khan, a Mathura native, was purchased by the Persian merchant Fakhr-ud-Din Safahani. A 14th-century princess of Constantinople (now Istanbul) owned ten Indian slave pages. Thomas Coryat, an English traveller to Multan, even discovered a former slave familiar with Italian.
From the 18th century, as the Mughal empire consolidated its territorial authority, rulers acted to end the export of useful labour. The vacuum in the market was filled with slaves from Iran.
Arthur Conolly—the British imperial spy who coined the term ‘The Great Game’ reported visiting a slave market at Khulam near Balkh in Afghanistan, where he saw men bid to buy “a very beautiful Persian girl, so beautiful that, I beg to state, I have not seen the like of her. A neck a cubit long, eyes as large as a cup, her tears fell like the rain in spring, and she was altogether so lost in grief that she seemed bereft of her senses.”
Linen, indigo, sugar, spices, slaves—traders from India found ways to transport their goods across lawless territory, negotiate fraught cultural and legal terrain, and mitigate grave personal risks. They won political influence without armies. The fortunes Indians built in Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent were built on a single, simple thing: Selling all that Central Asian consumers needed.
To fight China’s empire in Central Asia, India will need its businesses to take its place at the vanguard—not the government.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)