Towns, Traders, Craftspersons

Learning Goals:

A medieval town may be a Temple town, Administrative centre, Commercial town or Port town. Many towns had combined characteristics of all the above types of towns. For example, many towns were administrative centres, commercial and craft production centres as well as temple towns – all at the same time.


Administrative Centres: Thanjavur was the capital of the Cholas. It was an administrative town. This is situated on the banks of Kaveri. Rajarajeshvara temple (built by Rajaraja Chola) is in this town. Kunjaramallam Rajaraja was the architect of this temple. Apart from the temple; palaces with mandapas (pavilions) are present in this town. The kings held court in these mandapas. Barracks for the army were also present in the town.

Important aspects of the town

Temple Towns

Thanjavur was also a temple town. Temples used to be the hub of economy and society.

Sources of Money for Temples: Rulers used to build temples to demonstrate their devotion. Additionally; they also endowed the temples with grants of land and money for rituals, feeding pilgrims and priests, and festivities. Donations were also made by pilgrims.

Use of Money by Temples: Temples used their money to finance trade and banking. Gradually many priests, artisans, workers, traders, Etc. settled near the temple to cater to the needs of the temple as well as pilgrims. This is how temple towns grew.

Some of the important temple towns which developed in this period are; Bhillasvamin (Bhisla or Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh), Somnath (Gujarat), Kanchipuram and Madurai (Tamil Nadu) and Tirupati (Andhra Pradesh). Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh are examples of pilgrimage centres which developed as a town.

The city of Ajmer

It was a city in Rajasthan and the capital of the Chauhan kings in the 12th century. It later became the suba headquarters of the Mughals. It was a perfect example of religious harmony and coexistence. Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti who was a celebrated Sufi saint attracted devotees from all creeds. He settled in Ajmer in the 12th century. The Pushkar lake near Ajmer has attracted pilgrims since ancient times.


Network of Small Towns: There were several small towns in the subcontinent from the 8th century. Probably large villages got transformed into small towns. Their market was called mandapika (called mandi in later times) where people came to sell their produce. Market streets called hatta also existed during the period; which had lines of shops. Different kinds of artisans such as potters, oil pressers, sugar makers, toddy makers, smiths, stonemasons, etc. had different streets.

Some traders lived in towns but some of them travelled from one town to another. Many people came from faraway places to buy local articles and sell products of distant places like salt, camphor, horses, saffron, betel nut and spices like pepper.

Role of zamindars in towns: Fortified palaces were built by a samanta or a zamindar in or near these towns. They also levied taxes on traders, artisans and articles of trade. They sometimes delegated the right to collect taxes (claimed by them as ‘donation of right to temples’) to local temples which were built by them or rich merchants. Even today there are inscriptions that have these ‘rights’ recorded.

Big and small traders: Many types of traders were present during the period. Many traders, especially horse traders, formed associations with headmen who negotiated their horse sale with warriors who bought horses. Traders who had to travel long distances, passing through many kingdoms and forests, travelled in caravans and formed guilds to protect their interests. From the eighth century onwards, there were many guilds in south India. The most famous among these were Manigramam and Nandesi. These guilds traded extensively within the peninsula and also with Southeast Asia and China. The Banjaras were also included in traders.

Other trading communities were Chettiars, Marwari Oswal and Gujarati traders. The Marwari Oswal became the principal trading group of India in due course of time. The Gujarati traders included the communities of Hindu Baniyas and Muslim Bohras. The Gujarati traders traded extensively with the ports of the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, China, East Africa and Southeast Asia. They sold textiles and spice in the above ports and bought gold and ivory from Africa; and spices, tin, Chinese blue pottery and silver from Southeast Asia and China.

The Arab, Persian, Chinese, Jewish and Syrian Christians were settled in the towns in the west coast. Indian spices and cloth sold in the Red Sea ports and purchased by Italian traders eventually reached European markets. These fetched very high profits. European cuisine included spices grown in tropical climates as their integral part. The cotton cloth was also very attractive. The acceptance and extensive use of spices and cotton cloth by the people of that place drew European traders to India.

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