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Understanding Ancient India’s Village Economy Through ‘Hattas’

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The prosperity of a nation and the thriving of a civilisation depend, to a great extent, on the economic condition of a country. Like the current economy of India, even the ancient economy of the Indian subcontinent applied this maxim in their decision-making. Both foreign trade and internal trade were undergoing in earlier ages (even though one could sense the downfall of foreign trade after the Kushana period). However, internal trade was thriving in full swing in different parts of the country. Various commodities were bought and sold to parts of the subcontinent where these commodities were lacking. Fairs and markets proved to be important centres of commercial activities.

Hattas were a kind of rural economic organisation where exchange or mutual transfer of goods and articles took place. Such markets were often held near temples. We have come across references to such marketplaces in various sources. In these Hattas, different articles of daily use were traded. These articles would include vegetables, salt, pepper, curd, perfumes, jewellery, woollen clothes, linen, leather, terracotta items, pottery and many other such beneficial goods. Such settings can even be seen in the subcontinent’s present day trading activities. Hattas later came to be known as ‘Hats‘. What we know as Hats in the present were Hattas in ancient times.

Hattas often meant weekly fairs that presumed to have served the needs of the people in villages. They were the nuclei of rural trade. Hattas were not held in all villages, but only in the big villages that were centrally located. People of surrounding neighbouring villages assembled at Hattas with their articles and commodities, where the purchase and sale of these articles were carried out. Besides, as rural trade was mainly carried out in Hattas, they may be also presumed to have acted as a direct link among cultivators, craftsmen and artisans.

Indian village market scene. Image credit: Heritage of India blog

In the later period of ancient India, the mention of Hattas can be identified from the Hamsesvara temple inscription (c. 7th-8th century CE) of the Bhaumaka period, which speaks of a Hattah (Hatta or a market or a fair) that seems to have been organised in the vicinity of the temple called Madhavesvara. Possibly, the income of the Hatta was assigned to this temple. An inscription of Mahabhagupta Balarjuna (c. 750-800 CE), found in the Gandhesvara temple at Sripura, refers to the malakaras (gardeners) of navahatta (new market). The Puri Copperplate inscription of Bhanudeva II (c. 1312 CE) refers to as many as five Hattas, including Dolatanga Hatta, Tarapur Hatta, Khadionga Hatta, Mahantapadi Hatta and Adhanca Okhala Hatta. The Alalpur Plates of Narasimhadeva (c. 1294 CE) refers to Uchabhapada Hatta, Vyayalakshmipura Hatta and Varanga Hatta.

Besides, many Ganga inscriptions also refer to various Hattas. These are Jayanagara Hatta, Kivalevaleo Hatta, Vattakesvara Hatta, Painnapada Hatta, Golaoda Hatta, Salhogramanava Hatta, Jankhera Jayapura Hatta, Purushottamapura Hatta, Sidranga Hatta, Kantopadi Hatta, Vadanaga Hatta and Saragadanava Hatta. DR Bhandarkar in History of Coinage in Ancient India and DC Sircar in one of his edited journals also gave the reference of the flourishing of Hattas in the ancient period.

The Hattas were probably good business centres in ancient times. However, the inscriptions are silent about the composition, functions and genesis of the Hattas as well as their specific geographical locations. However, the fact that the above-cited Hattas acted as a direct link among the cultivators, craftsmen and artisans cannot be denied. The Nagari inscription of Anangabhima III (C. 1230 CE) refers to various merchants and artisans. The list consisted of gandhika (perfumer), sankhika (workers/dealers in conch shell), patakara (splitters of wood), suvarnakara (goldsmiths), kamsyikah (braziers), tambulika (cultivators/sellers of betel leaf), gudika (manufacturers of molasses and sugar), tantuvayas (weavers), kumbhakara (potter) and the kaivartta (fisherman).

A traditional Indian street market (Edwin Lord weeks, 1887).

The Hattas have long been vital to the culture and economy of the rural population, not only in ancient times, but also in the present scenario. The rural economy was the backbone of the Indian economy in the past and still continues to hold the same position in the present. Without agricultural products, some of the country’s industries might have long gone. They still serve an important function in the lives of these communities. However, in the present set up, it is essential to understand the problems and manage the consequences of permanent rural markets becoming more diverse and being able to provide similar products and goods as the Hattas. Permanent laws should be created, rules and regulations should be followed both by street vendors and shop owners to avoid clashes among their businesses.

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