Camel caravan

Locating Sindh in the Trading World of Asia


Camel caravanThe research paper provides an overview of the trading world of Asia, describing its products, patterns and cycles, and explains what gave Sindh the specific advantages which allowed it to participate in trade of both land and sea routes.

Radhika Seshan

India’s geography is such that it is a center of trade both by land and by sea and this gives it a pivotal role in Asian trade.

Three sections of India’s west coast are particularly well located to be part of both: the stretch from Karachi—the old ports of Thatta and Lahiri Bandar – up to Cambay; Rann of Kachch down till about Surat; and Goa down to the Malabar Coast. The Sindh-Cambay area has the double advantage of access to the sea while going inland, the Bolan and the Khyber lead into Central Asia and the Silk Route. The land world is also linked to the entire hinterland of north India and to the products of the Deccan because the route from Cambay through Gujarat gives access to the Deccan also. Mesopotamia had products from the Deccan region, and they were sent via the Indus. In the early period the routes would have hugged the coast. By the medieval period, it was familiar territory and there would have no longer been a need to do so.

On the route of caravan trade, one side would lead from Karachi—Thatta, Lahiri Bandar—to Multan, Lahore, Kabul, Kandahar, Samarkand, Damascus. On the other side you could sail out from Lahiri Bandar to Bahrain, Muscat, Aden, Sofala, Malindi and around the Arabian Sea and back.

Sind Economic
Map of ancient trade routes of Sindh

The Asian trading world of land and the sea is dominated by the wind, water and tides which influence trade.  Before the age of steam, sailing was controlled by the wind. Depending on where you started, you knew where you would reach and how long it would take. There were sailing seasons and they depended on the monsoon winds. To cross the Arabian Sea, it was possible to sail hugging the coast and this was slower but could be done at any time of the year. The more productive method was to sail back and forth on the monsoon winds.

Besides the wind, there were also the currents. These could take you from Gujarat to Aden and back, despite or with the winds. A ship would leave Aden at Navroze and get to Surat 21 days later. If it did not reach in twenty-one days, it would be known that pirates had struck.

Arabian_Sea_MapThe tides were another factor: long-distance currents that brought the boat to the mouth of a river. With riverine navigation linking to ocean navigation, Sindh had an advantage. People living along the Indus would have had access to both and they would have had knowledge of both. They would have understood the problems of the Indus and how to navigate. From the mouth of the river they would know how to get into the sea, which too they would know how to navigate. Some Indus ports lay on the delta and they would have had the knowledge of delta navigation as well.

In terms of land, Sindh occupied a geographical space on the route from Central Asia into India and was always a part of the cross-cultural connections. The knowledge would have existed among the people of the region. They would have been a community, and there was a corpus of knowledge which they would have shared. They were at a central point of a manoeuvrable world and had the knowledge of how to navigate through it.

The two routes were comprehensive but they were also complementary. When there was snow in the mountains the passes were impassable so the caravans would not operate between say late October and March. But that happened to be the peak time for sea trade. And between say June and September, when the sea routes on the Arabian Sea close for the monsoon, the land routes worked best.

Sind Political 1595
Sindh Political Map of 1595

And the trade would be linked to the entire production range of India. India has cotton; one important product is textiles, and every Indian trade community has dealt in textiles in some form. Different areas become noted for certain kinds of textiles, and the English factory records indicate that the Sindh region had the not-quite-coarse, not-quite-fine cotton, what they called ‘patterned’ cloth which would have been the traditional block-printed cloth of Sindh. Cloth from other areas of India would have passed through Sindh: while Sindhi textiles probably went by the land route and the caravans into Damascus and beyond, Gujarat textiles probably took the sea route into Egypt and Malindi-Sofala-Ethiopia.

Prior to industrialization, cloth was both a domestic and a market-oriented industry. Weavers would often be part-time peasants. In parts of the country where land is marginal, income from both is essential. This was a community which had access to merchants. Cash exchanges would be at the market rates determined at the time of settlement. So they had money in circulation and they knew its value.

Besides weaving, there were other artisanal skills. The area was known for its bricks. This meant that they understood mud and this led to skill in pottery which would lead to tiles, ceramics and curios. There would have been an influence from the Chinese knowledge of ceramics, and the tile heritage of Iran and Central Asia, and all these filtered into Sindh.

Arabian_Periplous_Of_The_Erythraean_SeaIn that vast network there was also a vast range of products. The most prevalent were Arabian horses, Indian cotton and South East Asian spices. To these were added Chinese silk. There was also Damascene steel, the first steel, the material and the method of production, coming out of India. It is said that every major war across the known world was fought with swords of Indian steel. Besides these were all kinds of goods: there are references to the coral trade, bringing coral from the Armenian merchants in the Persian Gulf, who have brought the corals from Italy. In India, they exchange it in Delhi and Burhundpur for rubies from Burma, jade from Thailand, cornelians and agates from Cambay. And when pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger come across the  Spice Islands, they are often coming to the east coast of India, transported to the west coast, taken by land up to maybe Surat and then sent off from there. Part of these networks comprised groups of ethnic or geographically located people.

From about the 14th century onward, probably earlier, there were the Banjaras, who did what was probably a year-wide circuit of India. They are small scale and long distance. They are small value but with lots of goods and therefore high value. There are descriptions of their caravans, of a thousand oxen travelling across the land. And they’re carrying wheat and rice; basically food. They start from Rajasthan and do a circuit of all of India and come back. And in the 13th century, they are taken out of Rajasthan and moved to the bank of the Yamuna by Alauddin Khilji to supply grain to the army.

Sindh is an important component of the Banjara trade, having trade networks across land and sea. This means having the knowledge of where to go with what; the knowledge of what will sell where; a sense of the fluctuation of markets and the understanding that tastes do not remain constant. That is possibly why diversification is a common feature of Sindhi businesses and in fact of most merchants on the west coast of India, arising from the need for variety, essential to retain a certain niche in their markets.

Much of the Asian trade is conducted through communities. The Hadrami merchants are from the Hadramout, south of Arabia. The Karimi merchants are probably from Turkey and beyond. The Armenians come. By the time we get to the Mughals, there is a group of Turkish merchants who are referred to as ‘Roomi’, because they are Byzantine, from the Eastern Roman Empire. And the Sindh region becomes a conduit in many ways. When the sea routes are unusable, still trade continues. Through the Khyber, the Bolan, you come to Multan and then go south into the core heartland of the Sindh region. These people, whether or not they were called Sindhis, would have been used to dealing with multiple groups. They would have established networks of connection at a subtle level. There may not be information about who the people were, but they were obviously people who were known, who had contacts and who were able to retain those contacts year after year after year. Sindh is the passage into India from Central Asia. It is the passage into India coming along the coast. From any direction, Sindh is a hub. And this has made the Sindhi community as the spokes of a wheel, that hub in its circuit of commerce gives Sindh the ability to move in multiple directions.

This ability became honed when Sindh was integrated into the British Empire in 1843 and subsequently included in the Bombay Presidency. Sindh was crucial to the British operations in Central Asia with the Afghan wars and beyond, as part of the network into Egypt. As part of Bombay Presidency and with the roads and railroad, it was better connected to the rest of India. So Sindh acquired a centrality which perhaps was not so obvious earlier. While the Sindhis now have freer access to other parts of India and within the construct of the British Empire, they carved a niche for themselves. The Parsis dominated trade in the Bombay area and similarly there were areas controlled and monopolized by the British. Starting with small-scale and long-distance, the distances can become longer as they go within the empire. The opening of the Suez is perhaps the crucial point at which the Sindhi diaspora can go beyond the confines of Asia into the Straits, West Africa and beyond. While the diaspora may be facilitated by the British Empire, it is rooted in their previously developed ability to navigate through multiple areas of trade and this skill allows them to manoeuver and making profit even within the monopolistic empire controlled by the British.

It’s also interesting that the Sindhis remained invisible. In the early days they contributed silent but crucial components to the networks of commerce; like the region itself they facilitated the movement of goods and were part of it but remained unnoticed.


Dr. Radhika Seshan is an Associate Professor at the Department of History, University of Pune, where she has been working since 1996. Her area of specialization is medieval Indian history, within which she has concentrated on economic history, especially maritime history.

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