From the dawn of human history, rivers have been lifelines, especially here in India. The Indus gave birth to one of the earliest and most expansive Bronze age civilizations of the World - the Harappan Civilization. Grand cities and empires rose on the banks of rivers from the Ganga to the Kaveri and while bards and pilgrims thronged to their ghats, these rivers also acted as highways for trade.
Look at the map of India, through history and you will find that most great cities and capitals rose on the banks of rivers . The Harappan civilization flourished on the banks of River Indus between 2500 BCE and 1500 BCE. In fact, most of the major Harappan sites were found in close proximity to the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra, considered to be the Saraswati River.
Mohen-jo-Daro in Sindh lies 5 km away from the Indus and in ancient times; the river may have flowed much closer to the site. Kalibangan lies on the banks of the dry bed of the Ghaggar River, in the Hamungarh district of Rajasthan. Banawali in Hisar district (Haryana) is a small fortified Harappan centre close to the dry bed of the Rangoi River. Lothal is located between the Sabarmati River and its tributary, the Bhogavo, in Saurashtra in Gujarat.
Trade and commerce thrived along the river banks. The produce grown along the Indus valley was transported to great cities like Harappa and Mohen-jo-Daro on river boats. The city of Mohen-jo-Daro lay as an intersection of the water route of the Indus and the east-west land route. Seals and tablets found in Harappa, show images of boats with cabins, ladders to the roof and high seated platforms on the stern for navigation. The thriving Harappan trade and commerce can be gauged from the fact that Harappan seals were found as far away as Mesopotamia.
Even with the decline of the Harappan civilization around 1500 BCE, trade continued along the Indus river, through the centuries. Since the boats were small and mostly traveled along the coasts, most of the ports of ancient as well as medieval India were slightly inland, by the estuaries of rivers. This can be seen from ancient ports such as Sopara and Tamralipti right up to the founding of Calcutta port, by the Hooghly River. These slightly inland ports offered protection to the small trading ships, from the rough seas.
A degree of continuity can be seen in Sindh through the town of Thatta around 104 kms from Karachi on the east bank of the Indus River. Thatta is said to have been a thriving port called Patala, referred to by Roman chroniclers like Pliny the Elder and Strabo in the 1st century CE. Later known as Debal , when Arab armies conquered it in 711 CE, it remained one of the most important ports in India during the Sultanate times. Interestingly, it was here in Thatta that Muhammad Bin Tughlaq died during a campaign to capture the city in 1351 CE. The 16th century CE Portuguese historian Diogo do Couto described Thatta as one of the richest cities of the Orient.
However, in the second half of the 1600s, the silting up and the changing course of the Indus river led to the decline of the port. The river Indus remained a highway for trade for long afterwards. During the annexation of Sindh by the British East India Company in 1843 CE, one of the reasons the company gave for the take over of Sindh was to ‘protect the Indus river trade’’ from the Russians who were threatening to make their way in from Afghanistan. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries CE when Karachi became the premier port of Sindh, that the Indus river trade lost its importance.
Similarly in the East, the rivers of the Gangetic delta played an important role in trade and commerce. Due to the width and depth of the Ganges, trade boats came as far upstream as Varanasi. This is why Varanasi emerged as one of the most important trading centers of India. It was the wealthy merchants and traders of Varanasi, who patronized the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain establishments in the city, giving it its unique religious character.
The importance of the Ganga as a trade route continued right till the colonial period. Patna and Munger were two of the most important river ports till the 18th century CE. It was from here that mica, indigo and textiles were shipped further down the river to various colonial factories. Interestingly, while the Yamuna Doab was a hub for trade, the river was never actually used to ferry goods, perhaps due to the fact that it was difficult to navigate.
The importance of rivers for trade in Bengal can be gauged by the fact that the important cities of the Bengal Sultanate like Lakhnauti, Sonargaon and Pandua, Mughal era cities like Dhaka and Murshidabad and then important colonial settlements like Chandernagore, Chinsurah, Bandel, Serampur and finally Calcutta were all located on banks of rivers.
Trade on Brahmaputra River thrived right from the days of the Kamarupa Kingdom (350 CE to 1140 CE) with its capital, the great riverine port of Pragjyotishpura (present day Guwahati). An important source of revenue of the Kamarupa kingdom was the toll collected from the boats passing on the Bramhaputra River. This trade increased during the reign of the Ahom kings from the 12th to 19th century CE. Today, it is hard to imagine that right up to mid-19th century, the River Brahmaputra was like a busy highway cluttered with boats waiting to pay toll, at different toll booths.
Following the annexation of Assam by the British in the 1820s, trade on the Brahmaputra continued. It was the most important route for transporting tea and other goods from Assam to Calcutta. In the 1880s, trade on the River Brahmaputra was valued at 3 million pound sterling. In the 1870s, Sir Richard Temple, the Governor of Bengal described in his memoirs , a scene on the River Brahmaputra:
‘Boats in all sizes are moored and lashed together, thus constituting stages, almost roadways along which people can move to and fro. Tens of thousands of workmen, boatmen and traders are congregated. This concourse induces villages and tradesmen to bring supplies on board the boats. Thus, a floating city is actually formed on the river for several months in a year’
Trade on Brahmaputra thrived even after India’s independence in 1947 despite the many connecting waterways going to East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh). Nearly 60% of all tea was sent from Assam to Calcutta on this route. The containers would be sealed at the borders with East Pakistan and opened, as they entered India. However, after the Indo-Pak war of 1965, these routes were closed by East Pakistan. The trade on Brahmaputra soon lost its importance.
Krishna & Godavari
The greatest rivers in peninsular India, from a trade perspective were the Krishna and the Godavari. The Godavari river played an important role during the Satavahana era, from 1st century BCE to 2nd century CE. The Satavahana capital of Paithan was a major trading hub on the Dakshinapatha or the North-South trade route. It is from Paithan, that the goods moved towards Andhra and the east coast along the Godavari. Today, Naag Ghat at Paithan, is the only reminder of Paithan’s Satavahana past.
When the later Satavahanas shifted their capital from Paithan down south, they chose the town of Dhanyakakata in present day Amaravati in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, a thriving trading hub on the banks of the Krishna River. The prosperity of the town can be gauged from the name ‘Dhanyakakata’ which meant the city of grains. We know of the thriving trade from the fact that the largest number of donors to the Karle caves in Lonavala near Mumbai, were from Dhanyakakata.
The Krishna-Godavari delta contained some of the richest cotton growing lands in India. For centuries, small boats laden with raw cotton, textiles and muslin brought their goods and wares to the European factories at ports such as Pulicat and Masulipatnam , from where they were shipped to Europe. In the 19th century CE, the British even built a canal on the Krishna river known as the Buckingham canal, which transported cotton from Vijayawada to the textile mills of Madras (now Chennai).
The Kaveri River was known for its great ports, from where Tamil merchants sailed to South East Asia. It formed the cultural and political base of the Chola Dynasty which ruled most of South India, parts of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia between the 9th and 13th century CE. One of the prominent cities and trading centers, Poompuhar also known as Kaveripattinam was an important port-city of the Early Chola Kings. There are descriptions in Tamil literature, especially classics such as Manimekhalai of the wealth of the port. It is believed to have been destroyed by a tsunami around 300 CE. However, because of the frequent cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, the ancient riverine ports on the east coast kept undergoing cycles of destruction and reconstruction. It is important to remember, that even the city of Chennai was built near the Cooum river once used for trade by Roman merchants visiting Mylapore.
History bears testimony to the importance of rivers that gave life and livelihood. Sadly most of the great old cities are poor shadows of what they were and this is not surprising given that the state of our rivers, is even worse.
It is heartbreaking to see what they have become.
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