Trade connection of Manipur with Southeast Asia in the Pre-British period
- Part 2 -
Dr Budha Kamei *
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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 has revealed that Manipur had 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 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, external trade was done through barter system.
Trade with China:
Trade between China and Manipur was conducted by the merchants of Yunan 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 secondly China had shifted her interest of trade towards the western countries since the beginning of 19 century.( Ali 1988:174)
The development of trade with Dutch, Portuguese and English by sea was reduced the volume of China export to Manipur through the hilly routes. (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.
Trade with Burma:
Burma is one of the countries, which Manipur has commercial contact since ancient 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.
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 Thadou Kukis 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). 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.
Trade with Assam, Bengal, Naga Hills and Tripura:
Manipur was self-reliant in her traditional economy, but she had commercial contact with the other Indian states. 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 goods exported by Manipur were like cotton, chillies, tea seed, elephant, 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 villagers 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 Kuki 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).
After observing the above facts, one can say that Manipur had extensive trade relations with Southeast Asian countries even before the British occupation. Since the external trade was conducted through the hilly routes, the volume of trade was found to be limited. Another difficulty was that when Manipur was at war with some other countries the external trade of Manipur disturbed during the period.
But, since the product of Manipur itself served almost all the necessities of Manipur, the people suffered scanty even when Manipur stopped its external trade. This clearly indicates that Manipur had self-sufficient economy in the pre-British period.
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.
* Dr Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on March 10, 2017.
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