Part 3

Trade and Barter in Ancient Bengal Icon

January 27, 2022

The Sanskrit root verb krii means “exchange”.

An exchange may be undertaken through either money or commodities.

“Purchase” happens when:

  • I give someone 1 kilogram of rice and I get 2 kilograms of vegetables in exchange
  • I give someone some cash and get vegetables.

Barter Trade in Ancient Bengal

In ancient Bengal, the exchange of commodities through barter was more popular than exchange through money.

In a village market near Bolpur in Birbhum district, I encountered a carpenter who came to sell yokes and ploughs.

  • He returned home with a brass container in exchange for a yoke.
  • I asked him how much the brass container cost him.
  • He said he got it in exchange for his yoke.

The practice of the mutual exchange of commodities in foreign trade is called “barter trade”.

  • In foreign trade, countries which have a large volume of non-varied commodities to sell but many commodities to buy will find barter trade profitable.
  • Otherwise, their reserves of gold bullion may get exhausted very quickly.

Barter trade is advantageous for countries like:

  • Indonesia
  • Bangladesh
  • Malaysia
  • Cambodia
  • Tibet

Ancient Bengal had many commodities to sell but very few to buy.

  • Yet the Bengali merchants were fond of barter.

In ancient Bengal, much barter was conducted by the Gandhabańic and Suvarńabańic communities.

  • Other merchants also took part.
  • This is because Bengal had a highly developed ship industry.
    • The Bengali carpenters and fishermen were very proficient in marine industries.

The merchants used to take their commodities overseas to sell.

  • Had they carried on their business with money, they would have had to sail their large ships back empty.
  • But as they were engaged in barter, they also returned with commodities.

Regarding the flourishing barter trade of Bengal, it has been said,

[We shall accept cloves in exhange for stag. We will accept paste for pollen. We will accept hot spices in exchange for fruit. We shall accept medicinal fruits in exchange for nuts.]

The poet Mukunda Rám Cakravartii was from Ráŕh in Bengal.

In those days, the people of Ráŕh used to send only the surplus commodities overseas for sale, and import only those commodities which were necessary for the people of Ráŕh, such as cloves, medicinal fruit and betel.

Bengalees exported very fine rice (badsha bhog – rice fit for the consumption of monarchs used for preparing special rice dishes) from Birbhum, Samantabhum, Senbhum, Mallabhum, Manbhum, etc., in western Ráŕh; and muslin from Visnupur.

Large quantities of black woollen blankets, fine sal furniture, Bengal gram, cotton cloth, sugar, raw sugar, copper, copper goods, mustard oil and chillies were exported from different parts of Bengal to Southeast Asia, Egypt and Europe.

In exchange for these commodities, which required a large space in their ships, Bengali merchants used to bring back merchandise from overseas countries.

In exchange for exports which required very little space, Bengali merchants used to bring back gold coins. In Bengal the Sinhalpatan, Tamralipta and Chattagram or Chatigram ports were very famous for trading in imports and exports.

Dhumghat, Berachampa, Mahisadal, Jiivankhali (Genyokhali-Miirjapur), Nalchiti and Jhalkathi were medium-sized ports which were also used for imports and exports. This shows that ancient Bengal conducted extensive trade and barter trade.

The Transition from Barter to Money

During the ancient Rg Vedic period, civilization was very backward.

In that age there was no such thing as buying and selling in the strict sense of the term. The system of exchange that was in vogue in those days can best be called “barter”.

For instance, people used to give some barley to someone (in those days people were not acquainted with wheat or rice). In exchange they would get a container. Again, in exchange for a sieve, someone would get some lentils. (In those days people were not acquainted with cow pea. They were more acquainted with legumes than with Bengal grams.)

This system of exchange continued for a long time.

Later, people began to feel some practical inconvenience because they were often not able to get the items they badly needed, and there was no ready market to sell the commodities that people produced. Under the circumstances, people converted the commodities for exchange into some kind of standard wealth to be used as needed. Thus, they began to think of media of exchange.

In India, the first medium of exchange used was sea shells.

These sea shells were the first coins.

The most ancient root verb for the exchange of commodities was krii, conjugated as kriińiite.

But when sea shells were first introduced as the medium of exchange, people felt the need to distinguish this new type of transaction from ordinary barter transactions.

So when a transaction would be effected through an exchange of commodities, the root verb krii (with the conjugation kriińiite) continued to be used.

But when a transaction used sea shells the root word krii was conjugated as ‘kriińáte’. This means ‘buying’ in English.

  • “Purchase” meant getting something through barter.
  • “Buy” only meant getting something with money.

Thus, towards the end of the Vedic Age the root verb krii became ubhayapadii, conjugated in both the above ways.

Páńini, the first grammarian in the world, recognized the word ubhayapadii.

  • Later grammarians followed his lead.

From the Gupta Age onwards, barter trade between different countries continued. But in towns and cities:

  • barter was greatly reduced, while
  • the money-based buying and selling of commodities with money greatly increased.

Metal coins began to replace sea shells as media in an improved system of exchange.

Much later still, paper notes were introduced in China.

Since the Gupta Age, buying and selling has mostly been undertaken through monetary exchange.

The Sanskrit word mudrá became “token” in English, meaning “something which is represented by a medium”.

The inner meaning of the word “coin” is also token.

22 February 1987, Calcutta