Silk Route: Traversing the trade and cultural route of ancient times

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By Monidioa Dey

Despite the barriers of great mountains and inhospitable terrains there has been constant trade connections between India, China, Tibet, and Central Asia from the ancient times via various land routes. These ancient roads that moved through the western Himalaya (that include the area between Chitral to Uttarakhand) consist of many high-altitude ranges, namely the Pamir, HindKush, Karakoram, the Greater Himalaya, and the Great Plateau of Tibet. There are many such trade routes that enter India via the NE Himalaya too, but the focus here will be on the western Himalayan side.

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The cross-national trade routes, which were continuously maintained and used until the 1947 partition and the 1962 Indo-China war, had played a strong role in influencing cultural, social, and economic developments in the regions through which the routes passed. The traders who came with their long line of caravans became a medium through which exchanges in cultural ideas and thoughts, religious ideologies, and technologies took place, thereby helping in setting up many urbanised trade centres on the route. Thus, we find specific places developed and grew into prominence as important trading centres for specific products, such as, Bukhara was known for its magnificent carpets, Tibet for fine pashmina and musk, Khotan was a centre for buying jade and silk fabrics, Kashmir was known for its embroidered shawls and fine quality saffron, and Ladakh was a trading centre for pashmina.

The term Silk Road was first used by a 19 th century German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, which was attributed for a specific trade route that started from the east European borders, went through north India, entered the Taklamakan Desert, and ended in the desert areas of western China. Silk Road is however now loosely used for all the ancient trade routes that pass through the Himalaya. Besides silk, the commercial exchanges between India, China, Tibet, and Central Asia comprised of muslin/cotton, spices, tea, indigo, herbs for medicinal purposes, brocades, shawls, books, precious and semi-precious stones, food grains, borax, dry fruits, gunny bags, salt, gold, utensils, and animals.

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Kashmir was a major trading junction in the Indo-Central Asian commerce, and was considered as an important transit point for the passing of Indian goods via the Leh-Yarkand route. This trade route, which remained the primary commercial way until the 15th century (after which sea routes took precedence), was also the path through which an early form of Buddhism entered China from India. Another major centre for the silk routes was Ladakh, situated on the upper Indus, and which formed a hub for both cross-border and local traders coming in from Kashmir, Punjab, and Yarkand.

Uttarakhand trade routes were through six Himalayan passes, and moved via Lahul and Spiti, finally joining the Leh-Lhasa road at Gartok. The pashmina wool trade was an important part of the connect between Ladakh, Kashmir, and Tibet; and various festivals, local fairs, and markets became the main centres of commerce for buying and selling this much coveted wool. The pashmina wool and salt from the higher altitudes of Ladakh and Tibet were exchanged for food grains grown in the lower parts of the Indus valley at these trade centres. The abundance of these trade routes shows that from the ancient times Himalayan economy to a large extent was dependent on the trade links that connected India with China and Central Asia.

There are four main corridor routes that connected India with the ancient Silk Roads. Most of these corridor roads met the main road Uttarapatha (the Grand Trunk Road) that connected the northern and eastern parts of ancient India, running roughly 2400 km and connecting Kabul (now in Afghanistan) to Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), via Lahore (now in Pakistan), Amritsar, Delhi, Varanasi, Prayagraj, Delhi, and Kolkata. The four main corridor routes comprised of:

1. The roads that pass through the Hindu Kush and Karakoram via Srinagar, Leh, and Sangju Pass (Western Himalaya).

2. The roads via the high-altitude plateaus of Tibet that enter India and come down to the ancient site of Sravasti (Ganga belt)

3. The trade routes through Nepal, entering India via Uttarakhand, and coming down to the Ganga valley belt, to areas like Ahichchhatra, Kaushambi, Vaishali, etc.

4. The trade road that moves further down the Ganga and goes via Delhi (Indraprastha) to the ancient site of Chandraketugarh in West Bengal.

Interestingly, while the trade agreements of the silk routes lack any evidences of the typical trade seals, it is known that a primitive form of trade agreement was followed by these traders, known as Singchyad. When trading was done, a piece of wood or stone were split into two parts and marked with identifying signs of the two trading partners.

These parts were then kept by both the traders as a proof of the commercial contact made. With time, as trade increased, and with increasing long-distance commercial exchanges, trade agreements were later recorded in logbooks with details of the transactions made. These ancient trading routes were not only of great commercial importance, but they were also the roads through which varying religious, social, and cultural ideas travelled, often influencing and changing societies as they passed.

(The author is a well-known travel writer. All images provided by the author. Views expressed are personal.)