Importance of the global


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THE North-South Road on either side of the Charminar, we know, ran from the banks of the Musi to the hill on which the Falak Numa Palace was later built. The West-East road began at the majestic fort of Golconda but ran all the way to the prosperous port of Machilipatnam. The significance of this road in the history of Golconda cannot be underestimated.

Golconda, and later Hyderabad, is one of the few landlocked urban centres of this subcontinent that reached great heights of prosperity without a major river system or a port next to it. But that is strictly not correct, for Golconda and Hyderabad had the port of Machilipatnam linking them to the world outside. The road connecting the two was the umbilical cord that linked Hyderabad to the Andhra coastline and from there to global markets, contributing to the region’s prosperity for several centuries.

In his impassioned narration of a love story centering around a Hyderabadi princess and a British official, novelist and historian William Dalrymple (2002) draws from archival material to tell us that: ‘The road from Hyderabad to the port of Masulipatam was one of the most beautiful in the Deccan.’ Of course, it had to be a beautiful road for on it had travelled for centuries bullock carts and horse carts laden with precious stones and highly valued commodities.

Historians are familiar with the vital strategic role of the Machilipatnam port, also known as ‘Bandar’, the Persian word for port. But long before the Persians and the Europeans arrived at Bandar, the Hindu kings of the Satavahana dynasty set forth across the waters from the port of Masalia, later Masulipatnam. In his little known but well-researched account of India’s maritime history, Rear Admiral K. Sridharan (1982) records the maritime prowess of the Andhras during Satavahana rule from as early as 1st century AD.

According to Sridharan: ‘That the Andhras maintained a fleet is proved by incontrovertible numismatic evidence. The coins minted during the reigns of Pulamayi and Yagnasri (and King Yajna Satakarani around 200 AD) show, on the obverse, representation of sailing ships with two masts.’ A ship-building industry developed at Masulipatnam and the Satavahanas forayed deep into East Asia, leaving their cultural imprint as far as Vietnam.

Historians tell us that peninsular India was very much a part of the active maritime trade across Asia, from China to the Persian Gulf, from times immemorial. According to Ken McPherson (2004), along with various ports on the western coast of the Indian subcontinent, Masalia on the east cost (identified as Masulipatnam) was listed in The Periplus, the writings of an unknown Greek visitor to India in 1st Century AD, as a port visited by ships from Egypt and the Persian Gulf crewed by Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs and Persians.


Among the goods exported from here to the West were grain, timber, metals, gold, silver and copper coinage. According to McPherson: ‘From this early period one of the most unique characteristics of South Asian trade until the eighteenth century AD is evident. Put most simply, South Asia exported a greater value of goods than it imported, with the result that huge quantities of gold and silver flowed into the subcontinent.’

In his masterly survey of maritime India in the 17th century, historian Sinnapah Arasaratnam says: ‘A new element in the trade of Coromandel, and what gave Masulipatnam a special place among Coromandel ports, was the forging of trade links with the West – with Gujarat, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. This Persian connection was strengthened by the adherence to the Shiite sect of Islam by the Golconda rulers and nobility. This gave them favoured treatment in Persian ports and brought in a substantial Persian merchant migration to settle in the port and the country.

‘At the beginning of the century Golconda had emerged as an Indian Ocean port, looking eastwards and westwards. Golconda rulers, anxious to develop their trading ambitions, fostered friendly relations with the Portuguese. With the rise of Masulipatnam, Golconda Muslims and domiciled Persians became another of the Bay of Bengal’s itinerant merchant communities.’ (p. 50) Textiles, rice, iron and steel, tobacco, indigo and diamonds were the major export items, while imports included Persian silk, horses, coffee, dried fruits, almonds, rose water and coined specie.


Masulipatnam, later called Machilipatnam, developed further as a maritime gateway to the Deccan under Sultan Quli Qutub Shah-I. Golconda in the centre of the peninsula and Machilipatnam along the East Coast became the two most important urban centres of the Deccan in his time. What is interesting about the growing maritime activity of the Golconda kingdom was that it was not just local resources that fed this activity, but the fact that the state’s institutional and infrastructure support enabled it to emerge as a maritime state.

There appears to have been a certain entrepot character to Machilipatnam’s role in the region’s mercantile activity. This was almost entirely because of the enlightened outward-looking nature of the Golconda rulers, and the security they offered to trade and enterprise.

The global was, without doubt, an essential part of Golconda’s prominence in its heyday as the seat of power in the heart of India. The arrival of the Europeans in the waters around India, however, disrupted the indigenous links of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean waters. Trade from and to India passed increasingly into the hands of European traders – the Portuguese on the West Coast and the Dutch on the East, to begin with. Golconda’s prosperity was also linked to the West Coast with the Portuguese reaching deep across the peninsula to Golconda. On the Coromandel Coast the Dutch were first challenged by the French and then by the British, who finally held sway.

Nayan Chanda (2007) tells us, in his masterly tour d’horizon of globalization how European merchants bought and sold diamonds from the Golconda mines and the bed of the Krishna River through their ports on the West Coast. Chanda tells us, from correspondence of European traders available in archives, the story of Isaac Ergas who would take customers’ orders, much like any shop keeper today, in his offices in the Italian port of Livorno for the sale of Golconda diamonds. These orders were sent by hand over sea from Livorno to Lisbon and from Lisbon to Goa, and by road from Goa to Golconda. And, as he tells us, ‘If everything went well – and the ship did not sink in a storm – customers receive the diamonds a year or two later!’ Hindu traders along the Konkan Coast then bartered the diamonds for corals or other valuables.


These popular accounts remind us that the land-locked fort of Golconda, and its successor urban centre of Hyderabad, was actively linked to the maritime trade of both the East and the West Coast. It required not just the availability of diamonds along the Krishna River and the rocks of the Deccan but the administrative acumen of the Golconda rulers to build a centre of great wealth and prosperity based on trade with distant lands.

Historians are familiar with the great European battles for control over Machilipatnam. First came the Portuguese, and then came the Dutch. They were followed by the French and finally came the British. By the late 18th century the British established full control over the Bay of Bengal after annexing Machilipatnam from the French. By the 19th century when Hyderabad was connected by rail with the presidency towns of Bombay and Madras, the importance of Machilipatnam declined.

However, the growth of modern education and industrialization from the end of the 19th century and through the early part of the 20th century ensured that Hyderabad was one of the few non-British centres of development before independence. The local and the global in the long history of Hyderabad’s evolution worked together to ensure the city’s prosperity and growth over the centuries.

The control of European interests over the Coromandel trade and the establishment of British imperial control over peninsular India meant that the presidency towns of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay became more important to India’s maritime trade. This contributed to the decline and collapse of Machilipatnam and cut its highly productive links with Hyderabad. Not only did maritime trade shift to the presidency port towns but also the rail links between Hyderabad and Madras and Bombay ended Machilipatnam’s maritime importance.

More importantly, the division of India into British India and Princely India may have also weakened Hyderabad’s links with the outside world. During the era of the last Nizam, Hyderabad did see some industrial activity with the growth of textiles and other industries, but much of this was either based on public investment or investment by expatriate capital, especially Marwari enterprise. Hyderabad’s pearl trade was one of the few remnants of its glorious maritime past, and it remains a reminder of the city’s links with Asia to our East.