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Trade between Rome and India, excavations have proved Karnataka was a major gemstone trading centre

One thing in history which every historian would agree on, is the fact that India was the centre of spice trade. The Romans, Greeks, ancient American civilizations and even east India company came to India with the intention of spice trade. Indian maritime history reveals that, there were dock yards in the Indus valley civilization.

India was famous in the west for its precious stones and pearls too. With the spice trade somehow Indian gems and stones traveled to the west and it is said that Romans were ready to suffer weakened economy, rather they would have pearls for their wives.

Satirical Roman writer Martial, remarking upon imperial Rome’s captivation with pearls, writes about a woman named Gellia who “swears, not by our gods or goddesses, but by her pearls. These she embraces; these she covers with kisses; these she calls her brothers and sisters; these she loves more ardently than her two children. If she should chance to lose these, she declares she could not live even an hour”

The Romans referred to pearls by the Greek name margarita, and differentiated between various kinds. The largest and most beautiful were called unios; pear-shaped pearls were called elenchi(sounds like elaichi doesn’t it?) ; and when clustered together so that they gently jingled with movement—attracting attention with the noise—they were called crotalia, or castanets.

It is said that, one thousand and nine hundred years ago, there was a great sale of precious stones at Rome and beautiful women of Rome were in competition with one another to buy those. Those gems and pearls had come from South Indian states including karnataka.

A story goes as, emperor tiberius was passing by the market and women were so captivated by these gems they did not even realise emperor passing by.

The poets Tibullus and Propertius have recorded these events. In the year 22 AD, emperor called upon urgent meeting of cabinet, as he was worried that rave for these gems are draining the wealth of Roman empire. It is recorded that nearly half a million sterling had flown from Rome to South India.

If look at this story from historical point if view, since the time of Hippocrates, father of Greek medicine, pepper was believed to be a potent medicine against malaria, which was rampant in Europe. And the European countries depended upon karnataka and South India for the supply of Pepper, cardamom, sandalwood, clove, ivory etc.. The sailors from Karnataka, where pepper is grown in abundance had traded it to European countries. The colored pre is stones and pearls were obtained from Mysore, Kolar, Coimbatore, sandalwood from mysore and malnad regions of Karnataka were taken to far west for trade.

By the first century AD, Hippalus discovered existence of monsoon winds, which enabled Romans to reach South India through sea in just six weeks.

European and Roman merchants began to arrive in karnataka in large numbers and established temporary camps at place of their convenience. Arikamedu, Bengaluru, Akki Alur, Karwar etc have evidences of these settlements. Most of these places have yielded Roman wine storage jars, pottery and coins.

Indian merchants used to accept the coins made of gold and silver for the spices and other commodities. This was the reason that Roman wealth being drained out.

At yashwanthpura, bengaluru a pot containing silver coins of king Augustus and tiberius were found. The Chandavalli exacavation too yielded Roman coins.

The site of HAL airport was another Roman camp site. In 1977, Roman coins from Akki Alur, Dharwad were found. In addition to these Roman antiquities are reported from Banavasi and talakad.

Majority of the gold and silver coins belongs to the periods of emperor Augustus and Tiberius (BC 31-AD 37)and this proves that trade was at peak during this period. When Roman empire fell, Roman trade declined. And some people began to mint Roman gold coin counterfeits in karnataka itself. The molds found at Banavasi are proof of counterfeiting.

Karnataka had rich trade relation with Europe, after few centuries karnataka again became a hot spot of trade during Vijayanagara Empire. When glorious Hampi was plundered the legacy of gemstone trade also ended up in those ruins.

Dr Sindhu Prashanth

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