The Silk Route: A quick guide for the beginners

The Silk Route can be described as a gigantic trade network that existed from the second century B.C. till 14th century A.D. It extended from Asia to the Mediterranean, traversing through China, India, Persia, Arabia, Greece and Italy. It was titled as “Silk Route” because of the heavy silk, which was a highly valued commodity being moved by merchants along these trade networks. Apart from Silk, the route was also used to facilitate the trade of other entities including fabrics, grains, spices, fruits and vegetables, wood and metal work, precious stones and some other valuable items.


The Silk Route originated in Xi’an, the 4,000-mile road, which was actually a caravan tract, followed by The Great Wall of China to the northwest, circumvented the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went out on the Levant; from where the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Few people travelled the entire route, and goods were handled in a staggered progression by middlemen. With the gradual loss of Roman territory in Asia and the escalation of Arabian power in the Levant, the Silk Road became highly unsafe and untraveled.

Over time, with the advancement in technologies and the growth of imperial power, there was an increase in trade. The resulting factor of the opening of new trade routes was that the travellers had to exchange many things like animals, spices, ideas and diseases as well.

The Silk Route was particularly a means to exchange goods and cultures. It also served in the development of science, technology, literature, arts and other fields of study. The Silk Route network linked China and the Far East with countries in Europe and Middle East. The route encompassed a group of trading posts and markets which were used for storage, transport and exchange of goods. It also helped in the missions by Buddhists and European Monks and was instrumental in spreading Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other religions throughout the regions served by the route. The travellers used horse or camel caravans to travel and stayed in guest houses or inns that were typically adjusted one day’s travel apart. The archaeologists and the geographers pursuing the research of ancient sites can be categorised as the most modern travellers of Silk Route.

The traders had to find certain ways to transport their goods efficiently. Camel was considered to be the best mode of transportation because they, along with other pack animals made the transportation of goods over land on the Silk Route viable. The sailors and merchants also made use of the ocean transport goods. There was a need of a strong understanding of wind patterns and storm systems to successfully navigate the oceans.

An obvious, as well as a noticeable impact of trade along the Silk Route, was more goods were available in more places. Owing to its soft texture and appealing shimmer, Silk became so ardently desired that it was used as currency in Central Asia. Nevertheless, the process of raising silkworms and fabric creation from their cocoons remained a Chinese Secret for a longer period of time. The fact that China remained the only source of silk meant that the trade goods continued to travel across Asia. Several locations and people were involved in the Silk Route trade networks. Other traversed entities on the Silk Routes were the spices from East Indies, glass beads from Rome, silk, ginger and lacquer-ware from China, furs from animals of the Caucasian steppe and slaves from many locations.

There were certain effects that were cultural. Also, the ideas and diseases exchanged along the sea routes as well as the camel routes had profound effects along the locations travelled by them. With respect to the exchange of ideas, Buddhism came to China through trade with India. The Sogdians of Central Asia often acted as traders between India and China, they translated Sanskrit Sutras into Chinese and spread the Buddhist faith as they traded. Other beliefs, like Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity also travelled along sea and land routes. These faiths and religions developed and altered to fit the new regions they travelled to.

In the 13th and 14th centuries the route was revived under the Mongols, and at that time the Venetian Marco Polo used it to travel to China. It is now widely thought that the route was one of the foremost ways that plague bacteria responsible for the Black Death pandemic in Europe in the mid-14th century moved westward from Asia. A part of the Silk Route still exists, in the form of paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur which is the autonomous region of Xinjiang, China. The old road has been the thrust behind a United Nations plan for a trans-Asian highway. A railway counterpart of the road has been proposed by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). The road-inspired cellist Yo-Yo Ma to find the Silk Road Project in 1999, which explored cultural traditions along its route and beyond as a means for connecting arts worldwide across cultures.

Talking about India, there were four corridors that linked India with ancient Silk Route. These were: the roads through high Tibetan plateau and down to the Ganges (to Sravasti), the Road through valleys and mountains of western Nepal to the fertile valleys of the  Ganges, the Silk Route through the Karakoram via Srinagar, Leh and Sangju Pass covering the Western Himalayas and the road down the Ganges – Delhi to Chandraketugarh in West Bengal.

The trade links of India with ancient Silk Route through Karakoram Pass in the western Himalayas had a twofold objective, first was to understand the cultural geography and traditional society of the western Himalayas which has been changed beyond anticipation, the second was the documentation of common archaeological sites and monuments along the silk trade route which covered the vast geographical area from the adjacent areas in the  Trans- Pamir, Xinjiang, Ladakh, Kashmir and Swat and covers a vast span of time and provide cultural continuity from prehistoric to the historic period. The Western Himalayan region which extends from Chitral in the extreme west to the Uttarakhand Himalaya in the east involves series of great mountain ranges i.e. Hind Kush, the Pamirthe Karakoram, the Great Himalayas and behind it lies the Great tableland of Tibet. Ladakh, which is situated on the upper Indus is the chief centre of vital trade networks of both long-distance trade and local trade. Certainly, it was a meeting place of numerous trade roads coming from Yarkant, Punjab and Kashmir. The six passes from Uttarakhand Himalaya and passes from Lahul and Spiti, meet the Leh-Lahasa road at Gangtok. The physical condition of the western Himalayas evidently shows that the Himalayan economy was dependent upon its trade with Central Asia and China.

At the subsistence level, the food grains grown in the lower parts of Indus valley, of the Indus River were swapped with wool and salt from the Chang Thang region of Ladakh and western Tibet. Even though no seals were noticed in the region to witness the trade agreement between the trading partner of Tibet and Ladakh, as per local tradition the primeval form of trade agreement was known as Singchyad, which was usually a piece of wood or stone broken into two pieces marked with their identity reserved by each party in order to be agreed to ensure the trade contract. This was followed by some rituals to strengthen the relationship and also to gain confidence as a mark of a reputation for honesty. Later, when the arrangement of trade items increased and also within the event of the development of long-distance trade, it was recorded on paper as a promissory note by giving details of transaction of trade.

The present situation of the Himalayas scripts an unparalleled departure from anything known in the past. However, in the past, the economic and spiritual circumstances were very often interrelated with commerce, art and much of this depicted a happy combination by which monuments possessing great intensity flourished.



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Ritika Karan

A frequent commentator on issues of contemporary importance, Ritika studies Economics at the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, Jammu