LAfter eating in the winter of 1557, Anthony Jenkinson arrived at the gates of Bukhara in Uzbekistan at the end of an epic journey through the Caspian Sea, the Kazan deserts and the Tartar lands of the Nogai hordes – determined to exploit the riches of the legendary city on behalf of London. Muscovy Company. Instead, the legendary explorer discovered he had been beaten by Indian merchants. From as far away as Bengal, he recorded the merchants “bring fine whites which are used for clothing in cotton and crasko [rough linen].”
Two centuries later, when the Prussian zoologist Peter Simon Pallas visited Astrakhan in Russia, he “witnessed with pleasure the idolatrous worship of the Indian merchants who reside together in the Indian court called the Indeiskoy Dvor.” The temple, he wroteincluded idols of Rama, Lakshmi and Hanuman, as well as three black stones “brought from the Ganges and considered by the Indians to be sacred”.
From documents excavated by the historian Stephen Dale, we got to know the names of some of the pre-colonial tycoons who traded through the Hindu Kush: the Punjabi Banda Kapur Chand, Marwar Baraev of Rajasthan, Narayan Chanchamalova, Vishnat Narmaldasov, Talaram Alimchandov and Ramdas Dzhasuev. Then two new empires, Britain and Russia, transformed the region. The Central Asian Indians disappeared into the sands.
As India struggles for influence in oil and gas-rich Central Asia, a region increasingly dominated by geopolitical rival China, the stories of these great merchant-adventurers should guide New Delhi’s actions.
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India’s ambitions in Central Asia
Vast ambitions to reshape the course of history underpinned India’s decision to become a full-time member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In a speech, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it would work to create “a vast network of physical and digital connectivity that stretches from the northern corner of Eurasia to the southern shores of Asia”. However, events conspired against Modi. The rise of the Taliban, sanctions against Iran and the Ukrainian crisis have upended India’s Central Asian dreams.
This week, as Prime Minister Modi arrived at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, India’s hopes of expanding its presence in Central Asia hit a geopolitical brick wall. . As the war in Ukraine continues, global isolation is pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin to embrace Chinese President Xi Jinping more harshly. This will give China more ability to expand its presence in Central Asia, where it has invested over $40 billionlaying the groundwork for what researchers Rafaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen call “an inadvertent empire.”
Enthusiastic talks about building railways through Iran to Afghanistan, revive the roads to Central Asia and through Russia to Europe now seems fanciful. India simply cannot compete with China’s multi-billion investments, but history teaches us that it is not short of options.
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Emperor Zahiruddin Babur, first of the Mughal rulers of India, acquires a kingdom criss-crossed by major trade routes linking Hindustan to Central Asia, Anatolia and northern China. from the plain, he wrote in his memoirs, caravans set out for Kandahar and Kabul, then for Ferghana, “bringing slaves, white cloth, candy sugar, refined and common sugars, and aromatic roots”. Additionally, textiles, indigo, and spices were traded for Turkish horses, the most valuable assets of medieval Indian armies.
Trade, modern historians agree, brought India a large surplus. Edward Pettus, East India Company agent in Isfahan, Iran, noted that “the Banyans, in exchange for their linens, carry most of the silver and gold out of the country.” Small Mughal coins have been found in Central Asia, suggesting that the flow of precious metals was one-way.
Four different imperial states born out of Mongol nomadic empires – Mughal India, Safavid Iran, Uzbek-ruled Turan, and Moscow – controlled the vast territories over which these traders operated. The application of central authority was, however, limited. The Jenkinson expedition to Bukhara went to the city as part of an armed convoy, repeatedly repelling raids by bandits, and then deemed further passage too dangerous. The dangers, however, did not deter Indian traders.
The accounts of contemporary chroniclers, writes Stephen Dale, show that traders from the city of Multan, Punjab, perched on the Chenab River, constituted the bulk of the expatriate Indian business community in Central Asia. FA Kotov, a Russian merchant, saw Hindu and Muslim merchants from Multan in Isfahan when he visited the city in 1623. Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician, recorded about 10,000 merchants of Multan origin living in the city between 1684 and 1685.
A sufficient number of Indian men married Turkish women to create an Indo-Turkish community in the Astrakhan suburb of Agrizhan. There were some like Bujak Lachiram, who lived with his Turkish family in a steppe yurt. There were others, such as a man identified by the name of Dzhukki, who adopted Orthodox Christianity.
Not everyone was happy with the power and influence of the Indian merchants. Historian Scott Levi has checked in that one 18eThe chronicler of the century, Mir Muhammad Amin Bukhari, complained bitterly that “Indians were masters above Muslims”. “In business dealings, spot upon spot, they unlawfully subject Muslims to one inconvenience after another.” In disputes, he continues, “a protector would defend the Hindu and decide the matter not according to the law, but simply according to the order of the would be [inn]”
Local entrepreneurs resented the arrival of Indian traders and pawnbrokers, repeatedly pressuring the rulers to prevent their entry. These efforts, however, were generally not successful. The tsars, like all rulers, needed income.
Whole families ended up settling in Central Asia. A 17eA trader of the last century, whose name is registered as Sutur, wrote to the authorities saying that he had received such favorable treatment in Russia that he had encouraged his brothers and 25 other Indian merchants to settle in Astrakhan. Two other brothers set up businesses in Persia.
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The trade of lives
The trade that fueled India’s surpluses in Central Asia was not for the faint-hearted: like modern human traffickers, India’s great merchant convoys transported tens of thousands of human beings each year for sell them into slavery. The slave trade was ancient – and India had provided many lives for sale. Following Thanesar’s dismissal in 1011, the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni captured some 200,000 slaves. The warlord’s twelfth expedition to India brought back so many slaves that their price fell to two dirhams.
“Iraq and Khurasan were full of them, the beautiful and the black, the rich and the poor, mingled in a common slavery,” the Iranian courtier Abu Nasr al-‘Utbi reported in his 11th century. the Chroniclethe Kitab al-Yamani.
“Every Wealthy Household”, Levi writing“included several slaves to tend to his business and maintain the garden, and a large number of slaves were used to cultivate the land”.
The slave trade was lucrative, but the risks of ending up as such were not negligible. In some cases, traders were captured by bandits as they crossed the Hindu Kush and sold in slave markets. There were cases where unpaid loans were settled by the creditor selling the debtor.
Few stories of Indian slaves in Central Asia have survived the centuries. However, the work from historian Shadab Bano recovered some cores. Minhaj Siraj, who traveled from Delhi to Multan in 1269, took slaves as gifts for his sister. Hindu Khan, originally from Mathura, was purchased by the Persian merchant Fakhr-ud-Din Safahani. A 14eThe Princess of Constantinople (now Istanbul) of the last century owned ten pages of Indian slaves. Thomas Coryat, an English traveler in Multan, even discovered a former slave familiar with Italian.
From 18e century, as the Mughal Empire consolidated its territorial authority, the rulers acted to end the export of useful labor. The void in the market was filled with slaves from Iran.
Arthur Conolly – the British Imperial spy who coined the term ‘The Great Game’ reported visiting a slave market in Khulam near Balkh in Afghanistan, where he saw men bidding to buy “a very beautiful Persian girl, so beautiful that, please say, I have not seen her like her.” A neck a cubit long, eyes as big as a cup, her tears fell like spring rain, and she was so lost in grief that she seemed deprived of her senses.
Flax, indigo, sugar, spices, slaves – Indian traders found ways to transport their goods through lawless territory, negotiate difficult cultural and legal terrain, and mitigate serious personal risk. They gained political influence without armies. The fortunes that Indians made in Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent were built on one simple thing: selling everything Central Asian consumers needed.
To fight the Chinese empire in Central Asia, India will need its companies to take its place at the forefront, not the government.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Editing by Zoya Bhatti)