Back to the Future: Roots of Commodity Trade in India
Author: Jignesh Shah & Biswajeet Rath
Takshashila Academia of Economic Research, Mumbai, 2009
Pages: 144; with over 160 color illustrations
Cover: Hard cover with dust jacket
Price: US$50; Rs999
Commodity trade is one of the oldest trades and its history can be traced back to the roots of ancient civilizations. In the 1400s, India was a nation blessed with wealth. Commodities such as wheat and rice, and cotton for cloth were grown in India, as in other parts of Asia and Europe. Around the same time, Vasco da Gama in his search for new trade routes discovered India with its rich abundance in spices and other commodities, and introduced an important trading nation to the rest of the world.
In the first millennium, India enjoyed around 33% of the world GDP and was also the world’s largest economy. We were also the world’s foremost exporter of goods such as textiles, steel and iron products, and spices until the 11th century. At the onset of the 17th century, more than half of the world’s exports were from India and China. Being the largest trading nation, ports and markets abounded all over the country.
Back to the Future: Roots of Commodity Trade in India by Jignesh Shah and Biswajeet Rath provide a fascinating insight on the antiquity of commodity trade in India. It utilizes cartographic tools for plotting the spread of commodities and their trade in various parts of ancient and medieval India.
India was once the wealthiest nation on earth and contributed to 50 per cent of the world’s exports. The journey of commodity trade that began in India way back in the Indus Valley civilization has been long and winding. The book is presented in a chronological sequence of six chapters explores ancient Indian history and the information it provides on commodity trade, contemporary prices, market places, traders and trade routes, measurement systems, and state regulation of such trade. The study takes into account ancient Indian literature, archaeological evidence, and inscriptions that record commodity trade and price regulation for the entire period of Indian history, particularly from the 6th century BCE onwards. This book also refers to numerous secondary sources on trade practices in ancient and early medieval India, and utilizes cartographic tools for plotting the spread of commodities and their trade in various parts of ancient and medieval India.
On reading the book one realizes the relevance of delving into history or past to understand the future. Commodity trade of today has been shaped by the influences of the past. The authors’ standpoint that expansion of markets is irrevocably connected with the development of political and social institutions is well illustrated. The book also depicts that development of a place is invariably linked to its markets and trading culture. The book refers to the regulatory practices sketched out in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. It is interesting to note that the need for proper regulation of market by trade bodies was not overlooked even during the earlier eras.
The lucid presentation of facts substantiated with images convinces the reader that one cannot dispel the learnings of the past since it serves as the guide for the uncertain future. Perhaps the most useful aspect of the book is its ability to link the past with the present. This is particularly helpful as the world is trying its best to minimize the effects of the challenges of 2008. The well researched work—probably for the first time—makes history interesting.
The book will definitely serve as a reference for those who want to understand the dynamics of Indian commodity markets. Indeed, as aptly said, “...even while we are caught in an irreversible march towards the future…commerce will always go “back to the future …the objectives of a profitable commodity trade will remain the same in times to come.”
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