Sarath Ramakrishnan
Book Review: Merchants of Tamilakam
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of


Seldom can people read a non-fiction and come out of it as entranced as if they have been living in a fictionalised world of the Amar Chithra Kathas. The Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakalatha Mukund is multi-faceted in so many ways that this relatively small book of 190 pages can be shown as an answer to many of the short-comings, that books on Indian history simply can’t seem to wish away.

When history of India is written, be it ancient, medieval or modern, one really can’t do justice to the importance each region has. Combining a detailed history of the entire subcontinent can result only in a multi-volume encyclopaedia. If one considers the regions of greater India – Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Tibet, Afghanistan, Chinese Yunnan, Philippines – the issue becomes only more complex. It is no wonder that the history books beings churned out in the name of exploring the ancient Indian history haven’t had the dare to venture out and include some non-conventional topics in their narrative, which usually begins with the Sindhu-Saraswathi Civilisation and ends with Harsha’s reign, occasionally coming down south for explaining the exploits of the Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas and the Cholas in passing. The North – East sadly gets only a few sentences as a tribute to their unexplored and mysterious tradition.

Supposing that this fault can be attributed to the curse of geography, another curious lapse many history books suffer is from the ideological agenda that historians, however neutral they claim themselves to be, stuff in to their writing, as if these beliefs’ existence depends solely on how it can be plugged in at every possible crevice of their fairy tales. The historians come across as, for the lack of a better word, snobbish procrusteses, ever so trying to fit in our history into their narrow ideological spectrum. Their tiresome books leave the readers with a sense of shame.

It is in the midst of such unimaginative publications that Mukund’s Merchants of Tamilakam makes a simple but elegant appearance and makes one want for more. Written in a lucid language, the book is less of an exercise in drab chronicling and more of an enthralling introduction to a colourful society that existed from the Sangam Age (1st Century CE) till the end of the Chola Empire (1300s). The book is one among the many in the Penguin Series related to “The Story of Indian Business” which is edited by the prolific Gurcharan Das. As Das himself mentions in his foreword, the book “celebrates the ideal captured in the Sanskrit term artha or ‘material well-being’, which was one of the aims of the classical Indian life.”


To appreciate the importance of India as a focal point of world trade, one just needs to look at the world map covering the European and Asian continents. India is right in the middle of the paths – land and sea – connecting the West and the East and became, by default, a transhipment port, for the goods from both sides of the world. As the author mentions, ships from the west rarely sailed further east of Bay of Bengal and the Chinese ships did not bother to venture post the Kerala coast. It is in this context that Mukund has analysed the importance of the Tamil region. Tamilakam, by itself, doesn’t denote a single political formation; instead, it represents a cultural and linguistic continuum. As Silappadikaram, one of the oldest Tamil epics mentions, and translated by the author,

The Tamil region extends from the hills of Vishnu [Tirupati] in the north to the oceans at the cape in the south. In this region of cool waters were the four great cities of Madurai with its towers; Uraiyur which was famous; tumultuous Kanchi; and Puhar with the roaring waters [of the Kaveri and the ocean.

In the earliest recorded period, Tamilakam was ruled by three kings, muvendargal, the Pandya, Chola and Chera with capitals at Madurai, Uraiyur (Tiruchi) and Vanji (Karur) respectively. Of the many ports, the one at Puhar or Pumpuhar at the mouths of Kaveri River was the most important. In the west coast, which are far more often mentioned in historical notes from the Mediterranean, ports of Muziris or Muchheri Pattanam (modern Kodungallur) and Tyndy or Tondi (modern Ponnani) stand out. It is interesting to note this, because the geography of the Indian coastlines is such that the western coast is conducive to natural ports while the eastern coast is not, since the Indian plate tilts in a west to east direction. Despite this, the number and importance given to the ports on the eastern coast, Korkai (at Gulf of Mannar), Saliyur (north of Korkai), Tondi (north of Rameswaram), Eyirpattinam, Pattinapakkam, along with the ones mentioned above, shows that the Tamil region was very resourceful and politically significant. Another point to be noted is the number of ports in the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar. Mukund infers that the ancient period ships were able to sail along the west coast of Sri Lanka since they were smaller, whereas even in the 17th century ships were larger and had to sail round the eastern coast of Lanka.

One fact that strikes out is the description of India as a sink of world’s gold, as described by Pliny the Elder. The value of imports compared to what was being exported from India – pepper, textile, pearls, and gemstones – was much lower and it resulted in a trade deficit for the merchants of the yavana (Roman) empire. A map tracing the path the merchants used to travel as explained by the author is given below. This explains the reason why large amount of Roman coins have been excavated in Coimbatore, Erode and Salem.

Possible paths traversed by Roman traders into the interior of Tamilakam

Later on, after the death of Nero, Emperor Vespasian had to pass a series of laws against the luxurious lifestyle of the upper classes and imports from India began to be largely confined to pepper and textiles, both comparatively low-value commodities. It is interesting to note that nearly 1600 years after, when Europe had rediscovered India and started trading again, the Great Britain faced a similar problem and had to ban the import of cotton from India using the Calico Act. History, indeed, repeats.

But this did not have any adverse effects, since the increase in trade with the South East Asian and Far East Asian empires, was able to offset this ban, about which a longer record has been given by Mukund in The Merchants.

Merchants and Merchant Guilds

Breaking the myth propagated by “NCERT” Historians, that the business communities were given no respect by the Indian society, Mukund cites various examples to show that the opposite was the case. Not only where the merchants highly esteemed; they were among the most prominent members of the Tamil society in contrast to the medieval Japan and the ancient Greece, where gains via plunder was considered noble. Even the central characters of the famous Silappadikaram – Kannagi and Kovalan – are shown to be from mercantile families. The following text from Pattinapalai one of the poems from Pattupattu (literally Ten Poems) throws light on the attitude towards the Merchants.

    The merchants of Puhar are as straight forward as the crosspiece of yoke. They always speak the truth and are fair-minded, and fear ignominy. They value their goods and the goods of others by the same standard; they neither take too high a price for their goods, nor do they shortchange on what they sell. They openly state their profits on various goods they handle. Such merchants have lived in Puhar for many years.

Though this might be the idealised version of the reality, it cannot be denied that an over-all attitude of positivity remained towards the merchants. There were many reasons behind it. The fact that they enabled the society to have a higher level of sophistication by selling goods not available locally is surely one among them. Another facet of this is the initiatives taken by the Merchant class to gain acceptance and good will of the society. This was accomplished through the generous donations they made to the temples and supporting local festivals and cultural activities. This gave them not only religious merit, punniyam, but also gave an impression of somebody who respected the sentiments of the people. This in turn gave him the patronage of the temple authorities and the royal family.

Not just domestic merchants, even merchants from outside used to do the same to gain the trust of local people. This negated any antagonism and ill-will and established their credentials in an alien land. Says Mukund,

    Inscriptions are replete with references to itinerant merchants who made donations to temples in towns which were far from their homes. This indicates a high volume of overland trade which was being carried on by individual merchants. A significant proportion of itinerant merchants came from malaimandalam, the western hills of Kerala, participating in inter-regional overland trade of pepper and areca nut. Traders known as kudirai chetti from the west also came to sell horses which had evidently been imported from Arabia to the ports of the west coast. There are also occasional references to merchants from other regions, like Kaivaranadu in Karnataka and even Kashmiradesam.

Mukund also gives us a glimpse of the lives of the ancient capitalists when she describes their lavish lifestyles and tall multi-storeyed houses with its latticed windows that let in breeze. She writes “even the kites flying past would have liked to rest” in those houses!

Merchants were not only good in commerce but were also regarded as brave warriors and learned men. Manimekalai, the second great Tamil epic, was written by Sattanar, a grain merchant. Mullaipattu, one of the ten poems of Pattuppaattu was written by Nampudanar, a gold merchant. Famous poet Nakkirar was from a conch-cutting family. Several poems have been written by members of professions as varied as medical practitioners and goldsmiths. This shows the high level of literacy prevalent Tamilakam.

These merchants also had to double up as warriors because of the threat they faced on a regular basis from group of bandits ready to loot them. They were respected for their bravery and martial qualities, which were much admired in the local culture. Mukund has beautifully translated a portion of Perumpanarruppatai, one of the ten poems of Pattupattu.

    “They are hardworking; they were footwear and body cover; because of their skill they were able to evade the arrows of highway robbers and have no scars of wounds on their chests; at their side thye have shining swords with handles of ivory; they carry daggers on their waists which look like snakes; they are brave warriors who will not turn their backs but will attack robbers with spears which they carry like Murugan.

This is one among the many examples which show that despite it being the duty of the state to protect the merchants from the robbers, the traders felt it pertinent to have a personal army. This must have been one of the reasons for the formation of merchant guilds. Mukund makes it clear that these guilds are not similar to European merchant guilds which were “governed by charters, strict constitutions, or rules. Nor was their membership restricted with stringent conditions.” Guilds presented many advantages which included lessened risk of physical danger during long-distance travel and the drawback of trading as a single merchant, especially in distant markets. Mukund also proposes that the guild formation would have become sources of capital for individual members to meet short-term requirements. Finally, the group identity created greater trust in all societies. Though there were many guilds, two among them stand out prominently – Manigramam, based in Pudukkottai and Disai-ayirattu-ainnurruvar or simply Ainnuruvar (Five Hundred) based in Ayyavole or Aihole.

Manigramam seems to have become prominent by early 10th century AD. The location of Pudukkottai is strategically important because it connects the trading route from the Northern Tamilakam to the Southern Tamilakam ports. Thus it would have become an ideal spot for various merchants to come together and a form a base for overland trade. Later on records of smaller local level franchisee-like Manigramams could be found in many regions and they stopped over-seas trade.

Ainnurruvar group, which eclipsed the Manigramam, is first mentioned in an inscription in Aihole in 800 AD. Ainnuruvar believed in a charter called panchasata virasasanam, or five-hundred charters which enlisted the dharma of traders. There objective was “aram valara kali meliya” – “to promote religion and weaken the ill effects of Kali”. Close relationship between Chola Imperial expansion and mercantile interests of Ainnuruvar is hinted by Mukund. She suggests that

“The Chola campaign to conquer Mysore itself is attributed to the perceived need for controlling the main trade route from Tamilakam to the north and west and facilitating the movement of Ainnuruvar”

Position of Pudukkottai with respect to important commercial centres of Tamilakam

Similarly she attributes the reasons for annexation of Sri Lanka, by the Chola emporers Rajaraja I and his son Rajendra I, partly to the demands by Ainnuruvar to have a better trading environment. It must be noted that Ainnuruvar had a thriving presence in Sri Lanka, and South East Asian kingdoms, even before any hostilities between them and the Cholas had begun. Thus we can see how commercial interests played a factor in the foreign policy of Cholas. It enthrals an ardent student of history, that such a merchant – ruler coalition existed in the 1100s and that they successfully carried forward their interests. Mukund narrates with such sincerity that one would feel that the reader is in the middle of a serious discussion between the Chola Monarch and an assembly of Ainnuruvar merchants.

As has been mentioned earlier, Ainnuruvar too validated their position in the society through their association with the temples. As we draw towards the last stages of a weak Chola empire, Ainnuruvar had become powerful enough to have a few important temples and certain administrative positions under their control. The assembly of the guild used to meet up regularly and fix taxes and tolls on commodities imported to and exported from various town and also goods on transit. This shows how political power shifted to individual guild, when the Monarch wasn’t powerful. The main conclusion that one could infer, and which is repeatedly mentioned by Mukund at various intervals throughout her narrative, is “how a strong state was not a prerequisite for mercantile activities to flourish as long as latter were allowed to function freely without extortionate taxation, controls or other state intervention.” Interestingly, this is in line with the beliefs of the series editor Gurcharan Das, who has, through his various books – India Unbound, and India Grows at Night: A liberal case for a strong state – stresses how India grows despite its government. He writes in the foreword of this book:

“The truth is that India never allowed state power to be as concentrated as in China, so that it could reach deeply and change its basic social institutions. The type of despotic governments emerged in China, which were able to divest the whole society of property and personal rights, have never existed in south Asia. Not surprisingly, India’s history is by and large one of competing political kingdoms, while China’s is one of strong empires.”

I would add to this, that India still remains a region of competing regional political fiefdoms and China still remains a region of a strong single-party rule. History repeats and how!

Role of State and Polity

From 3rd to 6th century the history of Tamilakam is not known much except for the fact that a group called Kalabhras or Kalapparargal, who are described as an evil-race in Tamil works, ruled. It was during this time that Buddhism and Jainism spread in the Tamil region. Many historians note that it was during the Kalabhra rule that Silappadikaram, Manimekali, and Patinenkilkanakku were written. R S Sharma, in his Early Medieval Indian Society, rather foolishly compares the Kalabhra reign to a revolution of landless against the landed aristocracy. One can only guffaw at the extent to which the Marxist historians will go ahead to affix their personal world view into a reading of general history.

Kalabhra interregnum was followed by four centuries of Pallava rule and this imparted to the Tamil society its distinct characteristics that are present till today including local institutions; temple based urban centres, and a strong relation with the south-east Asian nations through military, commercial and cultural exchanges. It is amusing to know that one of the last of the great Pallavas, Nandivarman II, whose rule lasted for 65 years, was a prince of the collateral branch of the family which had been ruling in Champa (present day southern Vietnam). He was selected by a college of senior officials of the Pallava capital when the direct Pallava line had died out.

Chola dynasty dominated Tamilakam from about mid-tenth century, after the Pallava and Pandya dynasties had faded away. Chola region was called as the Cholamandalam, fancifully altered in the present as Coromandel. We still call the east coast of India as Coromandel Coast.

These two dynasties actively promoted the local-governance, whose existence in turn pre-date any of the mentioned powers. For centuries Tamilakam had been a region of fragmented and unstable polity and because of that the local assemblies had done the job of administering the local inhabitants. It had persisted even during the Pallava- Chola rule and continued to exist post 13th century. There was a hierarchy of administrative units beginning from ur or village, nadu or sub-region, kottam or district/region, and finally nagaram or city. While the affairs of the ur, nadu and kottam were handled by local assemblies, nagaram was handled by an assembly of local merchants, since nagarams were mainly urban clusters with prime commercial importance. Mukund repeatedly invokes the scenes of various nagarams, their cosmopolitan population having not just the Tamil people, but also families of the merchants from far away land, the different languages one could hear in the market places of nagaram. Number of nagarams increased during the Chola empire.

There is a delicious portion of the book that explains how the markets in the nagarams were divided into kadai (shop), angaadi (markets), and perangadi (wholesale market). She explains:

“The shops and markets were located on streets in the market zone which were referred to as perunteru,
big or main streets.
The nagaram was always associated with the big street and always referred to as ‘the nagaram of such and such big street’. To this day one can find a ‘big street’ in the central zone of most old cities in Tamil Nadu. This pattern of markets and trading can be seen even today in all major temple towns where the roads leading to the temple are lined with shops buzzing with traders and buyers.”

I was momentarily transported to the busy Avani Moolai and Masi streets circling the Madurai Meenkshi temple while simultaneously being reminded of the Big Street in Tiruvallikeni (Triplicane), Chennai which houses the fabled Parthasarathy Temple. Books can indeed enable you to be at two places together.

The main duty of nagaram was to govern local trade. It was a link in a hierarchy of markets, linking the villages to market town, which was linked to higher order centres like the managaram and porttowns. It collected taxes, gave police protection, performed street cleaning and so on. In addition to its role as a marketing institution, the nagaram was actively involved in the administration of temples. In specific, they managed the accounts of deposits and donations made to the temple and their utilization. They also arranged various cultural programmes, much like a modern day temple committee.

Mukund lists some curious anecdotes from her key reference material South Indian Inscriptions. She writes:

“A fine was imposed on the management when it was demmed fit, as happened when three nagarattar (administrators of a nagaram) of the Thillaisthanam Temple in Tanjavur district were found guilty of mismanagement of temple funds.”

Towards the end of Chola period, nagaram assembly began associating themselves with various merchant guilds, which in turn collected taxes from them. Mukund contends that Nagarams survived well into the 16th century because of such association even as ur, sabha and nadu disappeared under Vijaynagar rule.

Overseas Relations

The author divides the foreign policy of Cholas and Pallavas into two – Hindu Kingdom and Buddhist Kingdoms.

The Hindu kingdoms cover from Thailand to Vietnam and Indonesian islands forming a region of greater India. The author explains one crucial feature of the imperial expansion adopted by the Monarchies of Tamilakam – “This overseas expansion did not come about as a result of military conquest. The expansion based on commercial and cultural interactions was long-lasting, while those made via naval attacks – such as in Sri Lanka and Sailendra Empire of Sri Vijaya proved that colonization based on military initiatives was not sustainable.”

Not just the famous Angkor in Cambodia, built by Kambuja king Suryavarman II in 12th century, the many other lesser monuments, all-over SE Asia support the above opinion. For nearly 1000 years, these countries had close relation with empires of Tamilakam. But the Chinese supremacy over the region was given its due by sending embassies. Here too, the guild members of Ainnuruvar and Manigramam play a significant role. Inscriptions which show the public-works that had been completed by the two guilds, such as constructions of roads or water tanks, have been found in Thailand and Vietnam.

Buddhist Kingdoms consist of China, Sailendra Empire of Sri Vijaya in Sumatra, and Sri Lanka. These have been the most important countries as far as foreign policy of the Cholas was concerned. An interesting anecdote about a Hindu temple in China honouring the Khan of China is mentioned by Mukund:

“This 13th century inscription was discovered in Quanzhou, a famous medieval port of China, and refers to construction of a Siva temple in the port. The temple was called Tirukkanichhuram, meaning the temple of the Khan after the Khan of China, one more instance of Tamil custom of naming public places after rulers. Hindu artefacts found in the temple area indicate a sizeable Tamil population living in Quanzhou at that time.”

The Cholas had, in general, a normal relationship with Sri Vijaya. While Rajaraja administration was cordial to the Sri Vijaya, Rajendra I sent a naval force to attack Kadaram (present-day Kedah, a Malaysian province) and captured it along with vast amount of valuables. It earned Rajendra the title of Kadaram-konda. Historians suggest that the naval expedition was undertaken to protect the commercial interest of the merchants of Tamilakam; perhaps as a counter to the efforts of Sailendra kings to monopolize the trade to the east. Inscriptions found in the region, about the presence of Ainnurruvar only add to the above reasoning.

By far the most tumultuous relationship was between the Tamilakam and the Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka used to be referred to as ‘Ilam‘. Both Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola had invaded Sri Lanka. While Rajaraja destroyed Anuradhapura, and made Polonnoruwa the new capital, Rajendra completed the conquest and annexed the entire Lanka by 1018. But this did not last long. By 1030 Vikkamabahu got back the Southern part and his successor Vijayabahu completely freed Lanka of the Cholas during Kulottunga I. There is an interesting part of the conquest which Mukund narrates:

“Tamil mercenary soldiers known as velaikkara forces revolted against Vijayabahu; who put down the rebellion with brutal effectiveness. The mercenaries gave an undertaking to serve the king loyally and the Buddhist shrine of Polonnuruwa was placed under their protection. According to Mahavamsa, the uprising was instigated by Kulottunga I who made a last-ditch attempt to restore the Chola rule in Sri Lank by exploiting the loyalty and sentiments of the very large Tamil population still living in the island.”

The economic history of Tamilakam and Sri Lanka is equally fascinating. In fact, these expeditions were not just to satisfy the imperial ambition, but also to allow the merchants and the merchant guilds to perform their trade without hassle. Aromatic woods, camphor, silk, porcelain, and fine goods from South East Asia and China was the main trade items between the two kingdoms. The Ainnuruvar appear to have played a large role in controlling the business in Sri Lanka. The guild survived despite the victory of Vijayabahu. The author attributes this to the social activities done by the guild such as supporting the Buddhist temples. Yet they themselves were Hindus and continued to remain so.

The Importance of Temples

The temple had always been and continues to be a distinctive feature of Tamil society. Building supporting temples gave legitimacy to the ruling elite. Also, the temple construction and maintenance had many economic activities associated with them. Not just the fact that temple construction itself employed many artisans and craftsmen, the temples themselves juggled between various economically important roles – as employers, land owners, consumers of a variety of goods etc. Besides, temples were nodes of urban centres. Vaishnavite saint, Thirumangai Alvar describes the development of a town around the temple in Tiruvallikkeni.

“Tiruvallikeni has towers and groves with honey bees; it has been laid out by the Tondaiman (Pallava king), with wells, outer walls, towering monuments and many structures.”

The temples no longer remained a religious institution and instead had become a cultural, educational and social hub. To gain legitimacy, honour and religious merit, rich and poor alike donated money and goods to temples. As a result the administration of temple affairs became a coveted and prestigious posts and the importance of nagaram assemblies went higher. In short, temples became “the focal point of social interaction and an outlet for the concerns of the community”. It is no wonder that maximum information about this period is obtained from the inscriptions from the temple. The stone inscriptions throw light on the existing social mores. The following anecdote by the author is interesting:

“A tenth century inscription from Tanjavur district states that a Brahmin had gifted land to his second wife, which raises many conjectures as to why a purely private, intra-household disposal of assets needed to be recorded in a public institution.”

  • Temples and the Economy

It is surprising to note that the presiding deity of the temple was deemed to be a person in a legal sense and all transactions were carried out in the name of the deity. In India, even today, the temple deity is a legal entity. Temple was a major consumer of oil since it had lamps that burned day and night continuously called nonda vilakku and lamps lit during morning and dusk called – sandhya deepam. Similarly, it also consumed flowers, fruits, rice, imported aromatic substances etc. For this, temples needed sizable funds, which were mainly raised through donations. Donations were not just made through food and flowers. Land grants to temples were an important feature. Land donations had a lateral monetary intent of bringing more land under cultivation. This was a prominent feature of the Tirupati temple.

Another feature of temple is that it acted like a bank. The nagarams, which are corporate assemblies, borrowed money from the temple, and agreed to supply the required amount of ghee or oil as interest on money. Temples thus enabled circulation of resources across a wide section of society. Mukund gives the following example to study how temples led to redistribution of resources

“The Rajarajesvaram temple built by Rajaraja I in Tanjavur becomes a special case for studying the redistributive aspects of the temple. Donations to the temple were of two categories – livestock and money. Most of the livestock was donated by the king and nobility. Military officers were the main donors of money, accounting for 79.3% of all donations. Livestock was better redistributed since cattle or sheep rearing was done only by shepherds as an occupation group. Money, however, was borrowed almost exclusively by village assemblies (95.4%). Presumably this money was circulated in the local rural economy and used for the development of agriculture.”

This reminds one of the fabulous treasures discovered at Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. This explains how Temples thus acted the soul of the Tamil society since time immemorial.


Usually when books on such specific topics are written, it is done so with cognoscenti of history in mind. The remarkable feature of Kanakalatha Mukund’s Merchants of Tamilakam is that it doesn’t try to be intellectual. She explains the matters of history with lucidity and brevity; quite unlike the writer of this article. Most importantly, she touches on those aspects of history that are rarely mentioned, explored, let alone be shown in a positive light. In the midst of a tired group of historians and their anaemic books, Mukund shines. The book makes you proud of your history. The book makes you awe at the sophistication of our ancestors. The book allows you to reconnect with our oft-neglected cosmopolitan urban past. The book allows you to rewire your brain to an inspiring, agenda-free history. The book leaves you wanting for more.

I end this review with a passage from the book, translates from Silappadikaram and Maduraikkanchi about my favourite city:

“Madurai was encircled by a fearsome fortress wall surrounded by a moat and a strong hedge. There was an underground passage beneath the moat which was wide enough for an elephant to cross to reach the fort gate. Guarded by yavana carrying large swords, Madurai looked as grand as the opened jewellery casket of Indira himself. Madurai was so large and populous that, ‘like the ocean, which does not overflow or dry up, Madurai with its towers did not diminish when people took goods away nor did it become over crowded when more and more people came in … Madurai is as immeasurable as the Ganga flowing into the sea, with ships bringing tribute and many goods each day.”