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

In Al-Hind: the Making of the Indo-Islamic World, André Wink makes the claim that the Rashtrakuta kingdom's rise in the Western Deccan and the Gujarat area was a direct consequence of a sharp rise in trade with the Persian Gulf, following the establishment of the great Arab caliphate of Baghdad and the Arab conquest of Sindh. He adds that the demise of the Rashtrakutas (AD 743-974) coincides with the fall of that trade in the late 10th century, when the Fatimid caliphate gained ascendancy in Egypt.

During the early period of consideration, trade between the Middle-East and India was predominantly between the Persian Gulf and Gujarat, with the great ports of Cambay, Somnath, Asawal and Broach all documented by Arab geographers and merchants. al-Biruni, for instance, writes: 'the reason why in particular Somnath has become so famous is that it was a harbour for seafaring people, and a station for those who went to and fro between Sofala in the country of the Zanj and China.' There was a Jewish trading outpost at Broach, and Parsis thrived along the west coast. The Arabs imported large quantities of teakwood, important for shipbuilding, as well as perfumes, bamboo, ginger, indigo, and cotton cloth of every colour. Much of the trade was conducted by foreigners; the Gujarati Hindus and Muslims were not, at this point, dominant.

Towards the late 10th century, however, the great ports of Gujarat began to decline. According to Wink, the proximate cause was the steady erosion of the Persian Gulf trade as the Red Sea and Egypt became more important. These countries dealt more with Malabar and Coromandel. The resultant decline in wealth and power of the Rashtrakutas was matched by the growing clout of the Cholas in the south of India, with the predictable result.

Still, during the reign of the Rashtrakuta kings, their domain with its capital at Mankir (present-day Malkhed) was considered to be the greatest in al-Hind (as the Arabs called India). 'The kings of al-Hind are not subject to a single king: each of them alone possesses authority in his own country; but the Ballahara is the king of kings (malik al-muluk) of al-Hind.' What is this Ballahara? Well, it's the Arabicised form of the Sanskrit title Vallabharaja, 'beloved lord and husband king'. Both Sanskrit and Arabic sources assert that the Rashtrakuta kings were paramount overlords over India for nearly 200 years. Indeed, the temple of Krishneswara at Rameswaram proclaims the Rashtrakuta advance into the deep south of India; Kanauj was a major conquest in the north. The great art works of Elephanta and Ellora exemplify the high culture and wealth of the Rashtrakutas.

The Arab chronicler Masudi says of this kingdom:
The most powerful king in al-Hind of our time is the Ballahara, king of the city of Mankir ... the greatest centre (of the country). ... This was the name of the first sovereign (of this kingdom), but it has become the dynastic title of his successors on the throne of Mankir and so it remained until the present ... Most of the kings of al-Hind turn their faces towards him whiel they are praying and prostrate (salla) themselves before his ambassadors when they arrive at his court ... He owns horses, numerous elephants and great riches ... He has a large kingdom, and his country has vast stretches of cultivated lands, abundant commerce and plentiful resources. He receives large amounts of revenues and his wealth is enormous ... The Ballahara lives in the city of Mankir. This city is forty parasangs in length, is made of teak, bamboo, and other sorts of wood. It is said that there are a million elephtants to transport the goods of the people. In the king's own stable there are sixty thousand elephants, and one hundred and twenty thousand elephants belong to the cloth-bleachers there. In the idolhouse, there are about twenty thousand idols made of a variety of materials such as gold, silver, iron, copper, brass, and ivory, as also of crushed stones adorned with precoius jewels ... In it there is also an idol made of gold, which is twelve cubits in height. It is on a throne of gold, under the centre of a golden dome, adorned with jewels, pearls and precious stones.
Interestingly, no Rashtrakuta coinage has been found! Indeed, there are no coins from their predecessors in Gujarat, the Chalukyas, either. That's not to say there were no coins at all in Gujarat - there's considerable evidence of large quantities of unminted bullion in the land, much of which served to decorate temples or become idols. Furthermore, the main coinage of the medieval world was the gold dinar and the silver dirham, and the lands of the Indian Ocean were fully integrated in that economy. Wink suggests that the Rashtrakutas were part of this Arab monetary network of dinars and dirhams. While there were also silver pieces circulating in the Rashtrakuta kingdom that were remarked upon by Arab chroniclers: '... the monetary means are constituted by the tatariya dirhams which each weigh 1½ dirham and are minted as the coin of the king', the dominance of the Arab coinage suffices to resolve the paradox of a wealthy kingdom that did not issue its own coin.


Arundhati said...

Hi Maddy - I came here via the history carnival. This is a pretty interesting hypothesis. Does the book also say why the Egyptians did not trade with the Rashtrakutas, preferring the South instead?

Fëanor said...

Hi Arundhati - thanks for stopping by. I'm not Maddy, however! I'm not sure why the Fatimids preferred trade with Malabar - it may have been to undercut existing trade routes from Arabia to show that the balance of power had shifted to Egypt. I don't have the book with me so can't corroborate. If you find some explanations please do let us know.

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