Trade can be understood as a form of exchange of commodities with fluctuating values conditioned by a wide range of economic, environmental, geographical, social, cultural and religious factors. In contrast, a trade route is a network identified as a series of pathways and stoppages used for commercial transportation.
The transport system is the key to the unlocking of a country’s wealth. The growth of cities, towns and trade centres, ports, domestic and foreign trade all are influenced by transport. Roads as a means of communications assume critical importance in the entire process of growth. Trade routes were known from early India. Vanikapatha (trade routes) have been mentioned in the Arthasastra as trade routes proper. Rgveda also indirectly says about the trade route.
A variety of trading and non-trading activities utilised and created land-based routes during the early historic period. Movements of merchants and merchandise appear to have been facilitated by several arterial roads. Faxian (Fa-Hien) was impressed by the adequate facilities and security of overland journeys in the then North India.
Some idea of the communication between north and south India by overland route may be formed by studying the campaigns of Samudragupta, who must have followed well-established paths to reach south Indian territories from his base in the middle Ganga valley.
The Uttarapatha (northern route) was the main artery of commercial and cultural exchange between the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia and the Ganga Yamuna doabs in Northern India. It was a network of continually shifting itineraries consisting of multiple feeder routes intertwined with the central axis.
Uttarapatha commonly designates the North Country or northern Region encompassing territories from the Gangetic Basin in Northern India to Mathura, Taxila and Bactria north of Afghanistan and Western Central Asia. The Indo-Gangetic plain mainly drained by the Indus, the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the Brahmaputra along with their tributaries played an imperative role in the headway of Indian commerce.
It macadamizes not only the land route but also water routes to have access directly into the seas. It was within the valleys of the rivers chief kingdoms, the important trade centres, the industrial belt, which helped the progress of internal trade, was founded. The region of Uttarapatha may be supposed to have initially covered right from Manipura (Assam) to Taxila in Gandhara. Different trade routes covered the entire area.
All the critical cities marts, trade routes were associated with trade markets. Some of the vital trade routes of Uttarapatha in earlier times were Gauda-Tamralipti, Pataliputra-Vaishali, Pataliputra-Rajagrha-Gaya, Pataliputra-Campa (Bhagalpur)-Kajangala, Varanasi-Vaishali, Kampilya-Kanauj-Padmavat and others.
The broad northern route, called Uttarapatha had such an important place in commercial traffic that Megasthenes has given us a very detailed account of it. He mentions that during the rule of the Mauryas, Uttarapatha was considered as the main commercial route or vanikapatha.
He has distinguished eight stages on this route and has given a detailed account of those stages and the distances lying between them. The account of Megasthenes may be briefly given as follows:
As trade developed, the tempo of transport also required to be accelerated. For this to happen, to discover new routes becomes essential to carry out the economical transactions smoothly. The Gupta emperors directly or indirectly found many new routes while travelling to different areas for political purposes.
Let us take the example of Samudragupta, who was a conqueror and travelled a vast area of land to conquer. Still, at the same time, he directly or indirectly discovered various trade routes for commercial transactions which become the lifeline for expanding trade between multiple states later on.
In great contrast to the northern trade routes, the routes of south India called Dakshinapatha were challenging to trade where caravans could hardly pass on with ease.
The Periplus records about the rugged terrain of the southern part of India. Faxian also notes that the roads in Dakshinapatha are dangerous and hard to travel.
The Mahabharata also speaks of caravan routes through forests, full of beasts and robbers. Kalidasa refers to the difficulties which the merchants had to experience while going from Berar towards Vidisa through the woods.
In some scenes of ‘Malavikagnimitra’ also, it was shown that a group of merchants was attacked by a group of robbers and looted their belongings even though the guards were appointed for the safety of caravan traders. Pliny also noted the different routes from Kanauj to Prayag from to Pataliputra and thence to the mouth of the Ganges.
The region of Dakshinapatha lay to the south of the Ganges. This region mostly covered Vidisha, Utakala, Avanti, Mahismati, Andhaka (Andhra), Sabara, Damila (Tamil), Kolaka (Chola), Pandeya, Kerala, Satipur. All the trade routes of a certain Janapada in the region of Dakshinapatha were known after the name of that Janapada.
The trade routes of Avanti were known as Avanti-Dakshinapatha, for instance. Some of the vital trade routes of Dakshinapatha were Vidisa-Trpuri, Ujjain-Bharukaccha, Mahismati-Sopara, Mahismati-Vatsagulma and Poona-Bejwada.
One famous trade relation India ever had in the past with any Country was with China. The International contact between these two Countries during the ancient period was not only spiritual owing to the Buddhist faith, but also commercial on account of the trade, especially in silks from the earlier times.
There were several overland routes connected India with China. It is fascinating to know the trade routes through which this trade had flowed for three centuries. From Chinese travellers like Faxian and Yuan Change, who visited India during the fourth and seventh centuries, it may be concluded that in this period, people come from China to India westwards along the caravans routes Oxus until they went to the Balk region. Then they took again to the land route till they reached Peshawar.
From the itineraries of Faxian and Zuanxang (Hyun Tsang), we learn that a great North Western route was a by way of Central Asia and Bactria to the passes of the Sulaiman range and consequently to the interior of India. A more strenuous route connected China with India directly across the Karakoram Range and Kashmir. In the north-east, a route ran from Tonkin through Kamarupa across Pundravardhana (North-Bengal) to Magadha and the regions further beyond.