Three thousand and five hundred years ago, the Aryans are said to have passed through the Khyber Pass of Hindu Kush mountains to enter India. Fascinated by the vastness of the country, its greenery and beauty, they settled down in the new land. Being nomads with herds of animals, they roamed across the plains of Punjab, searching for grazing land. As they mingled and socialised with the locals and integrated into the social system, they shifted to agriculture and settled in villages. It was the beginning of two epoch-making institutions that changed the face of the earth--private property and family owned business.
The idea of private property emerged when people began to settle down into farming communities as they now could construct a permanent dwelling and collect small items for permanent use, or even larger things like furniture, as they no longer had to pack and move frequently. They built houses and developed farms, and erected fences to indicate their ownership. The fast growing agriculture needed domestication of animals like cows, bullocks and dogs. With the passage of time, Aryans improved the art of cultivation and developed varied activities like dairy farming and sheep breeding. It gave rise to a complex society and polity that caused quarrel, disputes and fights. With the development of society, stealing of domesticated animals and harvested crop also increased. It gave rise to law and order problems and external raiders. The settlers realised that they were helpless and powerless to face and settle these problems. This led to the concept of kingship and governance.
Settled life and agriculture gave a new orientation to life as people began to think of better and enriched life. They developed improved farming practices and tools to improve the productivity of land, enabling people to produce surplus food. It gave birth to trading that required more organised business activity. Produced goods had to be stored, secured and moved to other places where they were in greater demand and fetched better price. The producers were unable to organise trade and with this a new profession of merchants grew.
Merchants were individual entrepreneurs who realised the potential of trade that created much more wealth than agriculture. They would buy goods from the points of production and move them to places where they would fetch more prices. Merchants went from village to village to collect agriculture produce to sell it in villages and cities where it was in demand. They earned a profit through supplying the goods acquired. Soon trade or exchange of goods in the country expanded fast. Trade became much easier by the invention of money. With the use of money trade was not limited to a small area and merchants extended trading to new regions. Goods purchased in the Indo-Gangetic Plain were sent across the Punjab to Takshasila (Taxila) or even across the Vindhyas mountains to the port of Bharuch in Gujarat. From there ships took them to western Asia or South India.
Though moving goods from one region to another gave more wealth to merchants, they faced two major problems—absence of roads and plundering by robbers. They needed armed guards to fight the looters that necessitated king’s support. They approached him and offered a share in profit as compensation. The kings were quick to learn the significance and value of merchants as they not only enriched them but gave them more power. Kings not only provided them armed guard, but also constructed roads to facilitate trade and commerce. Mauryan kings were first to understand it and constructed royal roads all over the country from east to west and from north to south. These roads were provided with mile stones and planted with trees. During the Mauryan times the Great Royal Highway more than 1600 kilometres in length connected the capital Patliputra (Patna) with Taxila (Rawalpindi district in Pakistan) and the North-West Frontier. Another long road of great commercial importance ran through Kasi (Varanasi) and Ujjain and linked Patliputra with the major sea-ports of Western India. Yet another road linked Patliputra with the port of Tamralipti (ancient city on the Bay of Bengal in Midnapore district. It was the exit point of the Mauryan trade route for the south and south-east). It was through Tamralipti that merchants carried extensive trade with China, Ceylon, Java and Sumatra.
During the Mauryan period, particularly Ashok’s regime, merchants began to focus on foreign trade and commerce. This strengthened the contact with western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean which had started in the Mauryan period. The Shakas, Parthians and Kushanas brought Central Asia into the orbit of Indian merchant, which in turn encouraged commerce with China. The Roman demand for spices, textiles, semi-precious stones and other luxuries led Yavana (in Sanskrit for the Greek) traders from the Eastern Mediterranean to southern and western India. Indian merchants in turn were motivated likewise to visit south-east Asia as entrepreneurs. These range of activities really helped the Indian traders and they became the chief beneficiary. This prosperity of the merchant community was evident from the donations they gave to religious institutions and the way wealthy merchants were described in contemporary literature.
It can be said that the coming of Aryans around 1500 BC and the prosperity of agriculture and emergence of crafts in the following years was responsible for the arrival of family merchants in India. They were the forerunners of family owned business in the modern world. It was when other civilizations in Europe, Africa, and Asia were not developed. And the countries to the west of Europe and east of Asia (America, Australia and New Zealand) were not known to the world.
Dr. Y. C. Halan, is the former Resident Editor of The Financial Express and Editor of HT Investor and Business & Management Chronicle.