30 January 2015

Towns, Traders and Craftspersons

NCERT / CBSE NOTES : Chapter Summary

Towns, Traders and Craftspersons

Important Trading Cities of India

The city of Hampi was once the nucleus of the Vijayanagara Empire founded in 1336 and located in the Krishna-Tungabhadra basin. Its walls were constructed using wedging or interlocking rocks while its markets were thronged by the Moors, Chettis and agents of Portuguese traders.

Hampi fell into ruin after the defeat of Vijayanagara in 1565 by the Deccani Sultans like the rulers of Golconda, Bijapur, Ahmednagar, Berar and Bidar.

Surat acted as a gateway for trade with West Asia via the Gulf of Ormuz and was known as the emporium of western trade during the Mughal period. The city was famous for its cotton textiles with gold lace borders, known as zari, which had great demand in West Asia, Africa and Europe.

The Kathiawad seths or mahajans (moneychangers) had huge banking houses at Surat. Their hundis were honoured in the far-off markets of Cairo in Egypt, Basra in Iraq and Antwerp in Belgium. However, the city started declining after the decline of Mughal Empire and when lost control of sea trade to the Portuguese.

Masulipatanam, or Machlipatnam, meaning a fish port town, which lay on the delta of the Krishna River, had a flourishing sea trade with the French, British and Dutch. It boasted of various trading groups such as the Golconda nobles, Persian merchants, Telugu Komati Chettis and European traders, which made the city populous and prosperous.

Mir Jumla, the Governor of Golconda began playing the Dutch and the English against each other, causing the European Companies to look for alternatives. 

Emergence of Trading Towns

Around the 8th century, trading towns began to emerge across the Indian subcontinent.

Trade was conducted in village markets called mandapikas or mandis, in hattas or haats, and also in special streets for various artisans. Traders undertook dangerous journeys across towns to carry out their business. They sold articles such as salt, camphor, saffron and betel nut, and spices like pepper. Some even traded horses.
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Trading towns became wealthy places, therefore, to protect these towns, a samanta or, a zamindar would fortify them by building walls. Along with protecting these towns, the zamindars also levied taxes on traders, artisans and articles of trade.

Traders had to pass through many kingdoms and forests to conduct their trade. They formed guilds in order to protect their interests.

There were several such guilds in South India from the 8th century onwards, the most famous being the Manigramam and the Nanadesi. The Chettiars and the Marwari Oswal went on to become the principal trading groups of the country.

In Gujarat, Hindu Baniyas and Muslim Bohras traded extensively with the ports of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, East Africa, south-east Asia and China. Traders sold textiles and spices to European traders at sea ports. The demand for spices and cotton cloth eventually drew European traders to India.

While the big traders carried out trade across the country or even with foreigners, there were small traders, who continued to trade in their towns. These small traders were quite famous for their crafts and their work was greatly valued.

The craftspersons of Bidar were so famous for their inlay work in copper and silver that the work was named after their town and came to be called Bidri. The Panchala or Vishwakarma community was essential to temple building. These craftspersons consisted of goldsmiths, bronze-smiths, blacksmiths, masons and carpenters. Over time, trade towns came up and shrank throughout India.

European Traders

In the 15th century, European sailors embarked on new sea routes to obtain Indian spices and cotton. Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, discovered the ocean route from Portugal to India and reached Calicut in 1498 after a year.

As the discovery of new sea route increased the demand for spices and cotton the English, Dutch and French businessmen formed their respective East India Companies. The Indian traders thus lost their trading rights as the Europeans were more powerful and had to work as the European agents.

The demand for textiles led to a great expansion of the crafts like spinning, weaving, bleaching and dyeing. However, the high demand resulted in artisans losing the liberty of creating their own patterns, and producing designs that would sell in European markets.

This led to the rise of commercial cities like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The business of the European traders multiplied many fold due to the discovery of sea routes to India.

Towns of Medieval India

Various towns in the medieval India performed several functions like artisans specializing in certain arts - Banarasi sarees and the Gwalior Gharana of Hindustani music. Some were famous for temples like Somnath in Gujarat or Mathura and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh while others were well-known centres of administration like Magadha and Patna.

Towns were categorized on the basis of an administrative town, a temple town and a commercial centre. The town that developed as the capital of a kingdom, and physically encompassed the offices and meeting places of the ruler, was called an administrative town while, a town that developed around a temple, was a temple town.

Thanjavur was a single town to perform all of these functions. Situated in the Kaveri delta, it was surrounded by rivers and paddy fields and became prominent after being conquered by the Chola rulers. The town is famous for the Rajarajeshvara temple, built by King Rajaraja Chola. The walls of buildings are covered with numerous inscriptions recording the conquests and charitable endowments of King Rajaraja.

Thanjavur also boasts of majestic palaces containing mandapas or pavilions, from where the kings issued orders to their subordinates. Its markets always bustled with people, coming to buying and selling grain, spices, jewelry and cloth.

These temples soon became important economic centre, giving opportunity to various artisans and craftsmen, like the saliya weavers for fine and rough cloth, and the sthapatis for bronze idols, lamps, bells and other articles.

Towards the end of medieval period, samantas or zamindars started building fortified areas to protect the common people. They also laid heavy taxes on traders and artisans using the collected money for administrative purposes.

These towns had designated a mandi or mandapika area, where farmers from nearby villages would come to sell their produce. The street market was called hatta or haat and was lined with shops.