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Ancient Tamil trade guilds were so powerful that they founded cities, executed irrigation projects, triggered town planning and influenced the foreign policy of kings. For instance, Srivijaya’s king Sang Rama Vijaya Tungga Varman would have never imagined Tamil traders could cause so much damage to his rule. He had found the Far Eastern trade, especially with China, more lucrative but he made a grave mistake. The Chola navy ravaged his ports one after another in 1025 AD. The otherwise friendly relations between Chola and Srivijaya – present day Indonesia and Malaysia – quickly eroded and Srivijaya could never regain its glory after the Chola invasion.

Warehouses guarded by armed forces, private military, state-of-the-art infrastructure, ability to influence the government and foreign policy; meet the ancient trade guilds of South India and Tamil Nadu. They were quite similar to the guilds that had been existing in Europe and which eventually led to the formation of trading companies and capitalist development in that continent.

Though the guilds did not intervene in the administration just like their European counterparts in later centuries, the traders greatly influenced the foreign policy of the ancient Tamil kings. They could convince Rajendra Chola I to wage war against Srivajaya kingdom.

Archeologist and former professor at Tamil University, Rajavelu says that Tamil Nadu or India had finer trade guilds than European companies of later centuries. “If you look at the history from the colonial perspective, Indians were portrayed as uncivilized and snake charmers. But the country controlled one third of the then world economy, the precise reason that made Europeans to look for alternate trade routes once Turks captured Constantinople in the 15th century,” he said.

Professor Y Subbarayalu from French Institute of Pondicherry in his research paper ‘Trade Guilds of South India up to the Tenth century’ discusses the emergence of trade guilds like Anjuvannam and Manigramam active on Kerala coast. They are mentioned in the copper plates of Chera kings with the earliest being dated 849 AD. Anjuvannam was the body of foreign traders namely Jews, Syrian Christians, Muslims and Parsis. They find a mention in inscriptions found on the Konkan coast as well as ninth century Indonesian inscriptions, he says.

Manigramam was indigenous traders and was not confined only to the coast like Anjuvannam. They operated in the interiors. Subbarayalu says that Manigramam was an association of traders related by common interest operating through a particular centre. The paper says that Jain Prakrit works namely Kuvalayamala talk about big congregations of merchants at port towns like Supara and the ventures to Suvarnadipa (Indonesia) and China. A ninth century Tamil inscription at Takua Pa in southern Thailand also mentions Manigramam guild.

The Anjuvannam and Manigramam collaborated with each other over time. Early in the 10th century, a more advanced guild came into existence and it was called Ayyavole Five Hundred or Ainuruvar in Tamil. It absorbed Anjuvannam and Manigramam and operated across South India. They claimed to be the children of Goddess Durga but patronized all religions including Islam and Christianity. Historians conjecture it was Ainuruvar that influenced the Srivijaya invasion.

Archeologist and former professor at Tamil University, Rajavelu says that Tamil Nadu or India had finer trade guilds than European companies of later centuries. “If you look at the history from the colonial perspective, Indians were portrayed as uncivilized and snake charmers. But the country controlled one third of the then world economy, the precise reason that made Europeans to look for alternate trade routes once Turks captured Constantinople in the 15th century,” he said.

Rajavelu says that the trade guilds were very influential but never meddled in the local governance or in the administration of countries they traded, a trait different from the European companies. They were satisfied with trade rights and influenced the rulers to have cordial ties so that trade not affected.

Besides, the trade guilds were big patrons of temples and supported irrigation projects. The term ‘Koolavanigan’ appears in Tamil literature many times. Koolavanigam was nothing but trading of foodgrains. Big farmers ventured into trade. “So, the trade guilds patronized agriculture projects as well,” says Rajavelu.

Archeologist Santhalingam says that trade guilds played a pivotal role in town planning. The terms Nagaram, Pettai and Pattanam evolved because of their commercial activities. Highways were laid to facilitate their trade and inns were constructed along the highways to provide the traders a shelter. The guilds maintained private armies and navies to protect their cargo during the journey on land and sea. Warehouses with armed guards were established and such centres evolved to become towns and cities over time. “They were the corporates of ancient times. Like present day corporates, they influenced geo-politics to ensure smooth trade,” he says.

The trade guilds of ancient Tamilagam exercised undisputed control over the trade till the 13th century. The references to the guilds start declining after that, according to the research paper by Prof Subbarayalu.

And, this international trade brought prosperity. The traders were able to fill the coffers of the rulers. Santhalingam says there were more than 20 kind of taxes and tolls the traders paid to the government, based on the commodity and quantity. Export was Erusathu and import, Iranthusathu in Tamil. The toll was called Ulgu. There were even tolled highways known as Ulgudaiperuvazhi just like today’s highways where users pay toll, says Santhalingam.

The trade guilds of ancient Tamilagam exercised undisputed control over the trade till the 13th century. The references to the guilds start declining after that, according to the research paper by Prof Subbarayalu. Rajavelu says that there are references to Chinese ships anchoring at Palaverkadu during Vijayanagara rule. The ships were practically rust buckets and locally termed derogatorily as Thongu Kappal.

The European companies and traders started coming to the country by 17th century. The trade guilds started losing their sheen gradually. “British East India Company taking firm control of the country was the final blow to whatever was left of the trade guilds. The trade went into the hands of Europeans completely,” adds Santhalingam.

 


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