“India and the Silk Roads: The History of a Trading World” by Jagjeet Lally


Among the most colorful and characteristic participants in the caravan trade between India and Central Asia were the Afghan horse dealers, pictured here in the Fraser Album at the V&A. They brought horses from Bukhara across the Hindu Kush to livestock fairs in the Punjab. Their caravans carried Indian cloths for the return trip. Jagjeet Lally’s India and the Silk Roads describes the sophistication and persistence of this trade,  which has frequently been underestimated by both historians of India and of the early modern commerce.

We often read that the Silk Road was superseded by maritime trade in the 17th century, or that India’s trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia declined with the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, or that British manufactures crushed Indian crafts in the 19th century. Lally brings to bear his own original scholarship along with a number of recent scholarly studies to show us that this caravan trade did not decline in absolute terms until very late in the 19th century.

War was good for trade.

India and the Silk Roads: The History of a Trading World, Jagjeet Lally Hurst, January 2021)
India and the Silk Roads: The History of a Trading World, Jagjeet Lally (Hurst, January 2021)

Commerce makes for a necessarily messy narrative. Then as now, an item like a bolt of silk may be exported from Bokhara to Multan, woven and dyed, and then resold back to Bokhara. As we discovered with the COVID pandemic, supply chains can be reconfigured quickly, and old rivals can become current suppliers, or vice-versa. Financial flows in faraway Beijing could affect the price of horses offered for sale in Kabul. Climatic changes like the course changes of the Jhelum River and the Oxus led to the rise and fall of marketplaces like Lahore or Khiva.

The British in India underestimated the dynamism of the caravan trade because the means of transport appeared to them so archaic, moving as it did with the atavistic panoply of horses, camels, mules, and men with jezails. Lally shows that these caravans were at the same time merchant convoys, marketable livestock, nomadic migrations, and opportunistically, offensive military formations. The presence of Sufi saints accompanying these caravans also gave them the allure of pilgrimages. The caravans arrived in India from Central Asia in the winter, which allowed some of the attendants to hire themselves out at mercenaries for the short wars that punctuated India’s dry season. Not for nothing many Indian rulers (the Ghurids, the Lodis, the Khaljis) started off life as horse traders.

In the 19th century, a tight connection existed between trade and warfare. The Afghan sack of Delhi in 1748 transformed the hoarded wealth of the Mughals into high velocity money for trading and investment. Khatri bankers from Shikarpur financed the Afghans by advancing supplies in lieu of a share of the loot. War was good for trade.

The caravan trade was highly profitable for its participants reflecting the risks and hardships that the trade entailed. Traders benefited from their deep knowledge of the markets, their partners, and of bandits and dangers. Information asymmetry worked for them. No European merchant dared to trade directly across Afghanistan. In Central Asia, Muslim Tatars from Russian cities like Kazan or Astrakhan would trade with the caravans, furthering Russian commercial interests. The flexibility and agency of these market participants made them much more agile than the colonial trading houses of Calcutta or Bombay. The fact that the Amir of Afghanistan forbade the extension of the telegraph network across his country helped keep trade prices high and left traditional insiders advantaged.

Despite all the uncertainty that commerce entailed, Lally highlights the plucky resilience of participants in these trade networks, and tallies some unsung success stories. The resilience of craftsmen and industrialists who did not have the capital and the technology of Manchester behind them, shows that commercial rivalry is not a predestined story of world domination, nor is technology inevitably profitable. Manchester’s cloth mills, the integrated circuits of the age, put Bengali weavers out of business. But weavers in the Punjab managed to hold on to and even increase their market share in Central Asia.  Likewise the Russians managed, with careful attention to fashions and design, to beat the English at their own game exporting cloth to Persia and Central Asia. Smaller runs of their  colorful printed cottons suited local tastes, while the British producers were locked in to large runs of standard products by the logic of mass production.

Lally emphasizes that new opportunities for traders opened up because of the dynamic impact of fashion, influenced by the desires of Sikhs, Muslims, Jats and other groups to distinguish themselves or mark their social ascension.

Air transport and trucks have replaced the camel, but the same capillary-like movement of people and goods flows where detailed, local knowledge provides opportunities for profits.

In the end the caravan trade declined for larger geopolitical reasons. Russia annexed Central Asia in the 2nd half of the 19th century, and then banned British-Indian goods. The Amir of Afghanistan experimented with protectionism and self-sufficiency. The establishment of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, the Partition of India and the frontier disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan reduced to a trickle the once arterial connection between India and Inner Asia.

Although this book is replete with insights, I found Lally’s narrative flow difficult to follow. It reminded me of visiting a great bazar like Kasghar or Lahore and being constantly distracted by stalls offering different and enticing goods, here jade, there sandalwood, silk carpets, astrakhan wools—you never know what you are about to see next.  A more tightly organized book, like a Japanese Seven-Eleven, would have been easier to read.

When the Soviet Union split up in 1989 and the Central Asian republicans began to trade with their historical partners again, I remember the executive of a western country returning from a prospecting trip to the region and confessing: “there’s a lot of business there but it isn’t business we can do.” Afghan traders jumped into these new markets selling everything from laptop computers to shampoo.  Air transport and trucks have replaced the camel, but the same capillary-like movement of people and goods flows where detailed, local knowledge provides opportunities for profits. Lally’s India and the Silk Roads provides extensive evidence of the vital importance of these routes, actors and products for our complete understanding of Indian and Central Asian history.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.