The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 13, 2010

Maritime Jātaka

In the Bāveru-Jātaka1 is a tantalising story of trade between India and the land of Bāveru. Indian merchants took birds with them to Bāveru. Showing off a crow to the Bāveru natives, who had never seen a bird before and clamoured for it, they negotiated a price of a hundred pieces of money for it. On their next trip to Bāveru, the Indians showed off a peacock. The natives of Bāveru, staggered by its beauty, offered a thousand pieces for it. They then abandoned the crow, which went and settled on a dung-hill.

The Master used this story to illustrate some moral or the other, which I shall not bore you with. More interesting are three questions: 1) Where was this Bāveru, and 2) How did the Indians get there, and 3) Is there any supporting evidence to this sort of trade?

Various scholars have identified Bāveru as Babylon2 (although I find it hard to believe the Babylonians had never seen a bird before. Perhaps they hadn't seen a bird as shiny as a crow, or as graceful as a peacock?). There is some speculation that when the Indians called the crow 'useful', they may have meant they could use it for navigation: release it mid-sea, and if it returned, then there was no land nearby, and if it didn't, then there was land around (In fact, the Kevaddhasutta of the Digha-nikaya, a section of the Sutta-Pitaka dated to the 5th century BC, states exactly this navigational claim3.)

Now, of course, these birds could have been brought overland from India - across Sindh and Iran. Or, the merchants could have coast-hopped along the shores of the Arabian Sea. Another possibility is of blue-water journeys, and indeed there are stories in many Jātakas about long sea crossings, implying that such trips were not uncommon.

What evidence, if any, exists for such trades 2500 years ago? Well, it appears that the Tamil words for Indian commodities were used west of India as early as the 5th century BC: the Tamil togai (for 'peacock') became the Hebrew tukki, and the Tamil arisi (for 'rice') became the Greek ορυζα. Still, there appears to be little physical evidence for such maritime commerce in the period prior to Alexander.4


1. (tr.) H.T. Francis, R.A. Neil, 1897. Bāveru-Jātaka, The Jataka, Vol. III.

2. J. Kennedy, The Early Commerce of Babylon with India, JRAS (1898), pp 246-47.

3. (tr.) Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 'Conversations with the Gods', Kevatta Sutta: To Kevatta, Digha Nikaya.

4. M.A. Smith, 1995, The Development of Maritime Trade Between India and the West from c. 1000 to c. 120 B.C., Master of Arts Thesis, Texas A&M University.


Varali said...

Togai refers to a peacock's tail feathers, not to the bird itself.

Fëanor said...

Varali: Thanks for the clarif. My Tamil, as you may have gathered, is less than rusty.

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