TODAY -

Pre-colonial trade of Manipur
- Part 2 -

Budha Kamei *

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The land route is a link connecting between different villages within the state. It was during the reign of Khagemba, routes were constructed and maintained. He constructed Makak road and provided riverine network of transportation by boats. During the reign of King Paikhomba (1668-98), a road from Chinga to Mongsagei was improved in 1672 and succeeding rulers must have built several other routes by utilizing Lallup service. (Kabui 1991: 220)

E. W Dun wrote, the traditional routes in the valley that roads here were also like that of the roads found in Assam and Burma, rice growing countries. The roads were wide enough for one cart, but not sufficiently broad enough for two carts passing one another, when rain comes, the roads become slippery and traffic becomes difficult, no trees were planted on either side of the road, and bridges over rivers were built with wood and bamboo. (1981:9) In the hills, roads were paths connecting villages. But, it may be pointed out that all the routes leading to Indian states and Burma are all passing through the hilly tracts inhabited by the hill tribes.

External land route is a connecting line between Manipur and other neigbhouring countries. Some of the immediate neighbours which are connected by the ancient land routes are Cachar, Assam, Sylhet, Burma, China etc. The main routes are Western routes (Acquee Route, Kala Naga Route, Khongjai Route), Southern routes (Heirok Route and Imole Route) and Northern routes. (Pemberton 1979: 51) The above routes were used by the people of Manipur and other kingdoms since ancient time. Pilgrims, immigrants, and traders travelled these routes. Laden animals and ponies were the main means of transportation.

Besides the internal trade, Manipur had trade links with other states since ancient time. It happens to be the trade routes between South Asia, South East Asia and Central Asia.(Kabui 1988: 11) The Neolithic culture of Eastern India reveals that Manipur has close relations with Burma, China and other Indian states. The discovery of blue porcelain bowls, bell metal coins and guns, etc. in the excavation of the Kameng village and the palace of Maharaja Jai Singh also gave enough evidence of having relations between Manipur and other Indian provinces at various periods.(Annual Administrative Report of Manipur 1940-41). As native coin was circulated within the state only, foreign trade was done through barter system.

Burma is one of the neighboring countries, which Manipur has commercial contact since early time. Though there had been a number of military aggressions on each other from either side, off and on trade link continued to be maintained between the two countries. Trade was done mainly through three land routes. (Pemberton 1979:51) During the reign of Maharaja Labanyachandra (1798-1801), there was brick trade and commerce between the two states.

It was during the reign of Marjit Singh (who ruled for 6 years peacefully) that commercial ties was brought closer and developed further. This friendly relationship with Burma felicitated external trade. During this, silk was exported to Burma (Dun 1981: 61) This relationship could not last due to misunderstanding developed between the two kings. Marjit Singh permitted his people to cut teak timber in Kabaw valley which naturally offended the friend. Bagyidaw invited him to attend at the ceremony of his accession to the throne of Burma, but Marjit Singh did not attend on some excuse. King Bagyidaw ordered an expedition to Manipur with one hundred thousand armies under the command of Maha Bandula (Kamei 2015: 5-6) and the trade was suspended between the two states.

The important item of export of Manipur was raw silk. Moreover, finished clothes, the leaves which cover the cob of maize which was used in making cigarette were also exported to Burma. In return, Manipur imported the bell metal from Burma. Other goods imported from Burma, but again exported to other Indian states included bullocks, ponies and tea seeds. (Annual Administrative Report of Manipur 1875) The hill tribes used to take salt, iron, ornaments, cotton, etc to Burma to exchange with cane and bamboo products at Yazagyo, an important market in the Chin Hills of Burma. (Roy 1973: 59-60)

Trade between China and Manipur was conducted by the merchants of Yunan, a province of China. They reached Manipur through Burma and brought the goods viz. raw silk, paper tea, and various kinds of fruits. They took away wax, ivories, clothes, cotton and ponies. (Gazetteer of Burma 1983: 453) The royal chronicle records that in 1630 the Chinese merchants of Yunan province visited the kingdom, and from them was learnt the art of manufacturing gun powder. The trade continued as late as 1813. (Kabui 1991: 13-14) However, the trade between the two states could not be developed due to certain factors: trade with China depends on the attitude of Burma, because Manipur traders had to pass through Burma and China had shifted her interest of trade towards the western countries since the beginning of 19th century. (Ashraf Ali 1988:174)

The development of trade with Dutch, Portuguese and English by sea was reduced the volume China export to Manipur through the hilly routes. (L. L. Ahmed 1981: 178-181) It is fact that China's trade with Manipur has brought about certain economic innovations like the introduction of silk and silk worm and gun powder. This is the influence of Chinese commercial contact with Manipur.

Manipur was self-sufficient in her traditional economy, but she had commercial contact with the other Indian states. "In spite of the relative self-sufficiency of Indian villages, some amount of trade has always taken place between different parts of this vast country."(Bhattacharya 1977: 303) The neigbhouring Indian states with which Manipur exchanged goods are Assam, Cachar, the Naga Hills, the Lushai Hills, Tripura and Bengal.

However, the traders of Manipur had closer contact with Cachar, because the Manipuris used to exchange goods for the products of other states mostly through Cachar. The important commodities exported by Manipur before the British occupation were like cotton, chillies, tea seed, buffalo, silk, clothes, wax etc. While, the main import goods were betel nuts, coconuts, iron, brass goods, bell metal, etc. (Annual Administrative Report of Manipur 1873 to 1877-78; Hunter 1975: 175 and 428)

The people of villages inhabiting in the western border of Manipur took the advantage of exchanging their products for salt with Cacharis. The trade with Lushai Hills was mostly carried on by the Khongjai tribes of Manipur. They took iron from the valley and bartered it for guns and clothes with the people of Lushai Hills.( Hunter 1975: 428)

The villagers of the state near the Naga Hills used to exchange salt for brass vessel with the Nagas. In the cold season, Maharaja Gambhir Singh (1832-33) conquered different Naga villages of the Naga Hills including Kohima; this gave opportunity to the Manipuri traders to visit Naga Hills safely.( Roy 1973: 73) There was trade with Tripura and Manipur. During the reign of Khagemba, there was trade with the people of Tripura whose influence was extended over Cachar and northern Mizoram. (Kabui 1991:215)

The contact between Manipur and Bengal was important in more than one way. Transplantating technique of paddy cultivation was first introduced in Manipur by the Muslim peasants of Bengal who were prisoners. They introduced the plough drawn by the bullock and buffaloes. (Kabui 1991: 219)

To conclude, Manipur had export and import trade of different commodities. However, external trade was conducted through the hilly routes and therefore, the volume of trade was limited. Another difficulty was that external trade of Manipur disturbed during the period when Manipur was at war with other countries. But, since the product of Manipur itself served almost all the necessities of the state, the people suffered very little even when the state discontinued its foreign trade. Thus, Manipur had self-sufficient economy in the pre-colonial period.

Concluded ..


* Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on October 26 2015.


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