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Tamil Inscriptions in China

Tamil Inscriptions in China

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Published by ramesh2008

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Published by: ramesh2008 on Jun 27, 2008
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01/21/2012

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The medieval Tamil-language inscriptions inSoutheast Asia and China
Early inscriptions written in Indian languages and scripts abound in SoutheastAsia. Literacy in the very early states of Southeast Asia -aside from theportion of north Vietnam annexed by China -began with the importing, bylocal rulers, of modified cults of Buddhism or Hinduism, and the attendantadoption of Sanskrit or Pali language for the writing of religious texts. Later, inthe seventh century, a broader range of texts began to appear on permanentmaterials, written in indigenous languages. Given the importance of religion inspearheading the development of indigenous literacy in Southeast Asia, it isnot surprising that the north Indian languages of Sanskrit and Pali have hadconsiderable long-term impact upon the linguistic and intellectual cultures ofSoutheast Asia.The script in which the earliest Southeast Asian inscriptions were written,however, suggests that these religious ideas and texts were transmitted toSoutheast Asians via the southeast coast of India, where religious use ofSanskrit and Pali also sat alongside the more mundane use of very differentindigenous local languages. The fact that southern Indian languages didn'ttravel eastwards along with the script further suggests that the main carriersof ideas from the southeast coast of India to the east -and the main users inSoutheast Asia of religious texts written in Sanskrit and Pali -were SoutheastAsians themselves. The spread of these north Indian sacred languages thusprovides no specific evidence for any movements of South Asian individualsor groups to Southeast Asia.The same is not true, however, of the handful of medieval inscriptions writtenin Tamil language and script that have been found in Southeast Asia andChina, mainly in Sumatra and peninsular Thailand. These texts arose directlyfrom trade links between south India and certain parts of Southeast Asia andChina, which involved the residence in those regions of Tamil-speakingIndians. Several of these overseas Tamil inscriptions mention well-knownmedieval Indian merchant associations. Since they were so intimately linkedto sea trade connections between South and Southeast Asia, these texts -their locations, their contents, timing, and the contexts in which they werewritten - provide an interesting sidelight on an important period in theeconomic history of the region. It is, therefore, worth examining these textsagainst the broader historical background of medieval Southeast Asia - the
 
cycles of trade affecting Asian coasts, the role of south Indian merchantassociations in this trade, and the power politics within maritime SoutheastAsia at different phases in these economic cycles.MERCHANT ASSOCIATIONS AND MEDIEVAL TRADE IN SOUTH INDIAMerchant associations or guilds were features common to many medievaleconomies. The major Asian trade boom of the tenth to thirteenth centuriesappears to have stimulated a significant restructuring of the administration oftrade in most major economies of Asia, North Africa and Europe. The MiddleEastern commenda-type investment contract (qirad, etc.), which had becomesuch an important tool of commercial activity in the Middle East by the tenthcentury, was introduced into Italian seaports by the early eleventh century,thus providing a major impetus for the expansion of trade in medievalEurope.(1) In China, the hang developed from a trading quarter into a nearlyautonomous trade association, and the organization of collective financingand management of overseas shipping ventures became increasinglycomplex.(2) And in southernIndia a series of merchant associationsdeveloped powerful networks and vertical monopolies that included not onlytied manufacturers but also private armies. These associations received agood deal of local political encouragement.Southern India, because its tracts of cultivated land were more dispersed andlimited than those of north India, was never the locus of large agrarian states.For much of the region's history, power was fairly evenly balanced betweenthree or more medium-sized states with different linguistic characters: Tamilon the southeast (Coromandel or Cholamandala) coast; Malayalam along thesouthwest (Malabar) coast; Telegu on the eastern (Andhra) coast north of theTamil heartland; and Kanarese on the western (now Konkan) coast to thenorth of the Malabar region. Many of these states relied upon overseas tradeto enhance their limited agricultural income. The Pallavas were the first Tamilrulers of real consequence. They grew in power from the mid-sixth to the mid-eighth centuries, and their contacts with Southeast Asia are reflected in manyof the early Hindu remains of the maritime region. Pallava power began todecline in the later eighth century, and by the later ninth century they hadbeen replaced as the leading power in the southeast by the Cholas. TheCholas built upon the economic networks developed by the Pallavas, andexpanded their links with merchant associations.Much of southern India's sea trade during the late first and early secondmillennia was controlled by these merchant associations, the most importantof which appear to have first formed in southwest India. During the eighth andninth centuries much of southwest India's trade had been directed towardsthe west, and a number of Muslim, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Christianmerchant groups from western Asia and the Middle East had establishedtrading enclaves on the Malabar coast. It was in this context that at least
 
some of the early Indian merchant associations began to form. TheManigramam, one of the earliest of the south Indian merchant associations toappear in local records, was mentioned in the late ninth century Kottayam(Sthanu Ravi) copper plate inscriptions found near Quilon on the Malabarcoast. These record a contract between the local authority and a group ofresident Christians from the Persian Gulf allowing them access, free ofcertain taxes, to the fort which protected the port market, apparently operatedby the merchant group.(3) This merchant association appears to haveextended its influence to the east coast shortly afterwards, probably withpolitical encouragement, since the Pallava rulers of the southeast hadmaintained close relations with the Chera state of the Malabar coast.During the same period another merchant association had begun to formfurther to the north in the western Deccan, at Aihole (called Ayyavole inKannada and Aryapura in Sanskrit) in the Chalukya heartland behind theKonkan coast.(4) They were known either as the Ayyavole/Aryapuraassociation (after their eighth or ninth century place of origin), or moregenerally as the Ainnurruvar ("The Five Hundred"). This group rapidlybecame the most powerful of the merchant associations. A number of othermerchant groups are known to have affiliated themselves with the Ayyavole,those most prominent in sea trade being the Manigramam and the Nanadesi.In addition, at its height, the Ayyavole appears to have occupied a dominantposition in relation to at least forty-six other professional bodies, includingmajor associations of artisans and mercenaries.(5)The trend in southern India towards merchant domination of certain craftsappears to have accelerated after the turn of the millennium, under Cholarule, with the effective creation of vertical artisan-merchant monopolies.Knock-on effects of the Asian trade boom that were experienced in Indiaincluded such developments in the weaving and dyeing industries as theintroduction - possibly by the eleventh century -of the draw loom, and of thespinning wheel by the thirteenth century.(6) Block-printed textiles, resist-dyedwith indigo or mordant-dyed with madder or morinda, were exported in largequantities to both the Middle East and Southeast Asia by the thirteenthcentury.(7) On the back of this expanding manufacturing and trading base,merchant groups gained a large degree of control over the non-agrarianeconomy in southern India, assuming the role of major patrons of religiousestablishments, and being drawn into the collection of certain tolls and taxeson behalf of the state.(8)Under Chola rule merchant associations appear to have dominated theinternal and external trade of south India and parts of Sri Lanka from the lateninth century to the late thirteenth century. The general Sanskrit term for suchcorporate trading communities was vanigrama("community of merchants"),and more than one association appears to have used this term or a localvariant in their titles: Vanigrama was taken as their title by a group of

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