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Ancient Sri Lanka was a trading hub, not just a farm: economist

ECONOMYNEXT – A view that is widely propagated that ancient Sri Lanka was simply based on agriculture is false, but the island was trading actively along East West trade routes, which contributed to its prosperity, a top economist has said, a phenomenon that is also supported by accounts of ancient visitors to the island.

"From ancient times, Sri Lanka was a country which had depended on both agriculture and trade for prosperity," W A Wijewardene, wrote in his weekly column in Sri Lanka’s Daily FT newspaper.

Trade in Pre-Indianized time

"Even prior to the colonisation of the island by migrants from India, there is evidence that it was visited by traders who had brought goods from the rest of the world and taken away the produce bought from local residents, the two main functions of trade.

"Hence, the country sustained its prosperity by tapping in to its location advantage of being on a convenient naval route that had connected the East with the West.

"Accordingly, the goods produced in all the countries in the naval route had been brought to Sri Lanka, stored in trading centres and sold at a profit to visiting traders."

During the time of King Parakramabahu who ruled from 1153 to 1186 alcohol had been imported from a land called Arak, according to Senerath Paranavithana, who had quoted Idris, an Egyptian traveller. The King had a monopoly in the product and re-sold it to traders, he said.

Wijewardene’s comments come amid growing concerns that student in state schools are being taught a false cherry-picked nationalist history through a centralized syllabus as had happened in some European nations which ended up with ethnic strife.

Agrarianism was also a sub-set of European rural-nationalism. Analysts say agrarianists railed against industrialization and urban life, glorifying agriculture, just as Trumpist nationalists today glorify an ‘industrial base’ against services.

"Sri Lanka’s future depends not on re-establishing a feudalistic agri-economy but a globally connected high technology involving digital economy," Wijewardene pointed out.





"Even to modernise agriculture, Sri Lanka has to introduce technology to agriculture."

Texts written by other travellers also refer to Sri Lanka’s importance as a trading hub.

A Great Seat of Commerce

In The Christian Topography written in sixth century, Cosmas Indicopleustes (Indian Voyager), who is thought be a merchant/monk from Alexandria of Egypt, had called Sri Lanka (Sieladvipa) ‘a great seat of commerce’ giving extensive descriptions about the island’s entrepot trade

He had travelled and written about various Christian communities in Asia, including one in Sri Lanka who were likely traders as well.

"The island also has Persian Christians, who have settled there, a Presbyter who is appointed from Persia and Deacon and complete ecclesiastical ritual," Cosmas wrote, according to an English translation of the original text.

"In this island they have many temples, and on one, which stands of great eminence there is a hyacinth (a sapphire) as large as a great pine-cone, fiery read, and when seen flashing from a distance, especially if the sun’s rays are playing around it, a matchless sight."

He said there were two kings in the island who fought with each other.

"The one has the hyacinth country (gem or sapphire country), and the other the rest of the country, where the harbor is, and the centre of trade."

A according to Cosmas, Sri Lanka engaged in both long distance and short distance (coastal) trade with India and transshipment.

"The island being as it is in a central position, is much frequented by ships from all parts of India and Persia and Ethiopia (Africa), and it likewise sends out many of its own," Cosmas explained.

"And from the remotest countries, I mean Tzinista (China) and other trading places it receives silk, aloes, cloves and sandalwood and oher products, and these again are passed on to marts on this side such as Male (around present day Kerala), where pepper grows and to Calliana (near present day Bombay) which exports coppe and sesame-log and cloth for making dresses for it also is a great place of business.

"And to Sindu (near present day Karachi) also where musk and castor is procured and androstachys and also to Persia and the Homerite counry and to Adule (near present day Eritrea).

"And the island receives imports from all these marts which we have mentioned and passes them on to the remoter ports, while at the same time, exporting its own produce in both directions.

"This same Sielediba (Ceylon) then, placed as one may say, in the center of the Indies and possessing the hyacinth receives imports from all the seats of commerce and in turn exports to them, and is thus a great seat of commerce."

Shipping Hub

Fa-Hien (Faxian), a Chinese Buddist monk, has also described Sri Lanka’s external trade, and shipping links, after arriving to the island in what was described as a ‘large merchant-vessel’, which also carried passengers.

The monk makes references to earlier merchants who traded with the original tribal populations (spirits and nagas or ancestor and snake worshipers), which may have been part of the folklore at the time.

"When the trafficking was taking place, the spirits did not show themselves," Fa-Hien recounted.

"They simply set forthe the their precious commodities with the labels of the price attached to them; while the merchants made their price attached to them, while the merchants made their purchases according to the price: and took the things away.

After hearing tales of the mild weather and luxuriant vegetation people from the countries of the merchants had ‘flocked in large number till it became a great nation."

In the Mahavamsa, Kuweni, a native princess who married the Indian colonist Vijaya, is described as a spirit (yaksha). Wijewardene points out that Kuweni was described as having cooked a meal from rice grain from Vijaya’s shipwrek, showing that the grain was imported in the early stages.

In his own time when Fa-Hien arrived in Sri Lanka there were foreign traders.

"In the city are many Vaisya elders and Sabean merchants, whose houses are stately and beautiful," he wrote. "The lanes and passages are kept in good order."

Fa-Hien said he eventually left the island also on a "large merchantman, on board which there were more than 200 men, and to which was attached by a rope a smaller vessel, as a provision against damage or injury to the large one from the perils of navigation."

He also described the risks faced by international traders of the time, braving piracy, losing part of their cargo, who had to travel with the goods trade and come back with different items.

The vessel was caught in a storm and sprang a leak.

"The merchants wished to go the smaller vessel; but the men on board it, fearing that too many would come, cut the connecting rope.

"The merchants were greatly alarmed, feeling their risk of instant death. Afraid that the vessel would fill, they took their bulky goods and threw them into the water."

They eventually repaired the vessel and reached Indonesia (Java-dvipa) safely.(Colombo/July16/2019)

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