6. Indian Ocean Traders

AD 200–1650

The Indian Ocean links people and places, bringing them together as a community connected by the sea. Traders and travellers throughout history have taken advantage of the monsoon winds. They blow in one direction for one-half of the year and the reverse for the other, meaning ships could sail long distances knowing that they would be able to return home.

Indian Ocean trade increased around two thousand years ago at the time of the Satvahana dynasty in India and the Roman Empire and saw the movement of both raw materials and manufactured goods. Trade led to the spread of different languages, religions, cultures and people across the region. Merchants and sailors from different places lived together in port cities. Many crossed the ocean on pilgrimage, including travelling for the Hajj to Mecca.  But not everyone crossed the ocean willingly, some were sold as slaves, transported as prisoners, or sold themselves to work in new countries.

In conversation: The Mediterranean meets the Indian Ocean

Over a thousand years before the arrival of the Portuguese or the British, Indian and European merchants were in contact through trade. This Roman pepper pot was last used to sprinkle Indian pepper on food at a banquet in Britain. Pepper, along with a wide range of other spices, was an expensive luxury in Europe, and traders sailed from India to meet this demand. The bronze figure of Poseidon made in the eastern Mediterranean and found in Maharashtra, travelled across the ocean in the other direction, a fitting journey for the Greek god of the sea.  



100 BC – AD 90
Brahmapuri, Maharashtra, India
Town Hall Museum, Kolhapur

This image of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, was discovered mixed with a group of Indian and Romano-Egyptian objects in a hoard at the excavations at Brahmapuri in Maharashtra. Not all the objects are of the same date and this was obviously a valuable item that had been collected and held on to for centuries. This small image of the sea god could well have been a personal treasure of a seafaring trader and his family.

Roman pepper pot

Silver and gold
AD 300–400
Hoxne, United Kingdom
British Museum

This pepper pot was found in a hoard in Britain. It depicts the Greek hero Hercules grappling with the giant Antaeus. The pepper would have been stored in the hollow base. Spices from Asia have captivated Europeans for thousands of years. Indian pepper was transported, along with other spices like cloves from Indonesia and cinnamon from Sri Lanka, over the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. From there the spices were distributed across Europe.

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Coin with the portrait of the Emperor Theodosius

About AD 385–395
Ajanta, Maharashtra, India
Archaeological Survey of India, Aurangabad Circle


This Roman coin comes from the reign of Emperor Theodosius (reigned AD 379–395) and was found at Ajanta, the site of the famous painted caves in Maharashtra. The two pierced holes indicate that this coin would have been worn as a pendant. Older gold coins were preserved for their value, and the date of the reign of Theodosius is no guarantee of the date at which it would have come to India.

Roman necklace

Emerald, sapphire, pearl and gold
AD 300–400
British Museum


Gemstones from South Asia were highly valued and widely traded in the ancient world. The gems on this necklace are likely to have originated in India or Sri Lanka, before journeying across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea and then onwards to the wider Roman world. The Roman Emperor Leo (AD 457–474) later restricted the wearing of emeralds, pearls and sapphires to imperial use, demonstrating the high esteem in which they were held.

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Boat-shaped lamp

AD 700–900
British Museum


This is an oil lamp carved from stone in the shape of a ship from Yemen – an important centre for ocean trade. The ships that sailed across the Indian Ocean were traditionally made by sewing the ship’s planks together with rope, and not by using iron nails. The pattern on the side of this boat-shaped lamp mimics the pattern the ropes made.

Royal barge

About AD 1000–1050
Odisha, India       
Indian Museum, Kolkata


This sculpture shows a barge from Orissa (now Odisha). The ship bears royal insignia, including a parasol and elephant, indicating that the archer seated in the cabin was probably Orissan royalty. A near contemporary Sanskrit text called the Yukti-kalpataru details ideals for rulership, and its trappings, which include the king’s vehicles – chariots, elephants, ships and barges. The text classifies such a barge as a madhyamandira – one with a cabin in the centre, which was used as a pleasure boat.


Painting on paper
About AD 1600–1700
Probably Surat, Gujarat, India
Karl and Meherbai Khandalavala Collection


Vijnaptipatra were letters of invitation from Jain communities requesting saints to reside in their commune during the holy period of chaturmasa (four months). The text of these invitations was almost always preceded by illustrations that depicted sights such as marketplaces along the route, which the delegation of Jains carrying the invitation crossed. This particular vijnaptipatra shows European galleys indicating that the authors could have been residents of a port.Vijnaptipatra

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Futuh al-Haramayn

Gouache with gold on paper
AD 1548
Probably Gujarat, India
National Museum, New Delhi


This is one of the earliest known examples of a Futuh al-Haramayn – a guide for Muslim pilgrims embarking on Hajj. It contains the complete sequence of the Hajj rituals and includes stylised illustrations of the holy sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina. The book is written in Persian and contains a dedication to Muzaffar ibn al-Din Mahmud Shah of Gujarat, under whose jurisdiction lay the west coast ports of India from where most pilgrims would have travelled to Arabia.

Cooking pot

AD 600–900
Siraf, Iran
British Museum


This pot was used in the busy international port of Siraf, on the south coast of Iran. It is not a local Iranian cooking pot, however, but one made in India or Pakistan. Traders from South Asia stayed at Siraf waiting for the monsoon winds to change to sail home, some choosing to settle there for years. They brought with them the cultural traditions of their home region, including their familiar cuisine and utensils. 

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textiles excavated from Fustat in Egypt

AD 1250–1350
Made in Gujarat, India; found in Fustat, Egypt
CSMVS, Mumbai


Indian textiles were exported to Egypt in Roman times, although the trade may be much older. Hundreds of fragments of textiles have been discovered in Fustat, near Cairo. Research revealed that they were made in Gujarat, in western India. Close study of similar fabric fragments suggests that they were used both for furnishing as well as clothing. The motifs can be related to patterns in Jain manuscript paintings as well as the decoration of Islamic buildings in Gujarat.


AD 1200–1400
Made in India, found in Qasr Ibrim, Egypt
British Museum


Textiles were at the heart of the Indian Ocean economy and Indian craftsmen were renowned for their skill in textile manufacture, producing both every-day and high-end goods which were in demand in the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia.

This cloth, printed in undyed woven cotton, was made in India. It was discovered in a medieval grave in Egypt, wrapped around the body of a foetus. Preserved by the dry climate, this piece is a remarkable survivor.

Kalamkari textile

Cotton, drawn and painted with resist and mordant
AD 1640–50
Golconda, India
National Museum, New Delhi


This textile reveals the multicultural nature of Indian Ocean trade – a prince is seen in a garden pavilion in Persian attire. He exchanges a flower for wine held by a woman in a European-style hat. On the top right, we encounter a Persian in conversation with a Chinese man. An Indian ascetic on a deerskin wears a yoga-patta and is shown contemplating a pineapple, a new import into India on account of the Indo-Portuguese trade from South America.

Islamic gravestone

AD 1400-99
Probably made in Cambay, India; found in Aden, Yemen
British Museum, donated by Messrs Newman, Hunt & Christopher


This gravestone in the shape of a prayer niche was found 3,000 kilometres away from where it was made. It was initially carved in the port city of Cambay in Gujarat and possibly personalised later in Yemen with the name of the deceased: Abu’l-Hassan. Indian-produced tombstones were desirable to Muslims from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and Indonesia. Long journeys across the Indian Ocean meant gravestones could take months or even years to arrive.

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Tombstone of Francisco Barbosa de Magalhães

Approximately AD 1550
Chaul, Maharashtra, India
CSMVS, Mumbai


Although we do not yet know anything about the person whose grave this tombstone marked, it mentions the names of three aristocratic families who were influential in Portuguese trade in India: the Magalhães, Siqueira and Barbosa. In the centre is the crest of the Magalhães family (Magellan in English), famed in history because of the great explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

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Heirloom textile

Cotton, mordant and resist-dyed
About AD 1500
Made in Gujarat, India; found in Sulawesi, Indonesia
TAPI Collection of Praful and Shilpa Shah, Surat


Most Gujarati textiles for the Indonesian market were block-printed, however, some were highly valued heirlooms. This hand-painted textile shows a shahi king with five nayikas or surasundaris (celestial beauties). Behind him are six female musicians and dancers. The costumes are also varied – the ladies wear a ghagra skirt and dhoti, while the king is in tailored salwar-style trousers. Interestingly, he is wearing boots that are Central Asian in origin.

Pelican altarpiece

Silver on wood and glass
AD 1600s
From Sé Cathedral, Goa, India
Museum of Christian Art, Goa

This altarpiece with feet made of Indian teak is an exquisite example of 17th-century Indo-Portuguese workmanship. It was used to contain the consecrated bread and wine used during mass and also to transport holy relics in massive public processions. This altarpiece is in the form of a pelican – a potent symbol of Christ’s self-sacrifice. It was believed that the mother bird would open her chest with her beak to feed her young with her blood.

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Chinese dish

AD 1325–1375
Made in Jingdezhen, China; found in Delhi, India
Central Antiquity Collection, Purana Qila
Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi


Many of the Chinese dishes excavated in Delhi have a Persian inscription on the base that indicates they belonged to the imperial Tughlaq kitchen. These dishes are important not just for the history of trade from China, but because they are amongst the oldest blue-and-white ceramics in the world. Such dishes were highly prized by the Tughlaq sultans who ruled Delhi from 1320 to 1413, as well by other Muslim courts, including the Safavids in Iran and the Ottomans in Turkey.


Ceramics, such as these bowls, plates and jars, were a common commodity traded around the Indian Ocean. They were also given as gifts. Chinese porcelain was admired across Asia and parts of Africa. Makers in China often made particular types of porcelain vessels to sell in particular regions to meet local desires and needs. Ceramics break easily, so often broken sherds of pottery survive as evidence of past trade and connections. Complete vessels, like these from India and Africa, are rare survivors.

Celadon bowl

AD 1280–1368
Made in Longquan, China and found in Khartoum, Sudan
British Museum


Celadon is the European name given to Chinese jade-green glazed pottery. They started to be made in the AD 900s and were popular in both China and other parts of Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. This porcelain bowl found in Sudan was made in one of the most Chinese famous kilns, Longquan in Eastern China. Celadon wares were originally favoured by the Chinese imperial court, probably because of the resemblance with jade, the most valued material in China.

Ceramic bowl rim sherd

AD 1000–1200
Siraf, Iran
British Museum

Large blue and white dish showing swimming carp

Blue and white dish
AD 1440–1460
British Museum

Lusterware bowl

AD 800–900
Basra, Iraq
British Museum

Chinese blue-and-white jar

Porcelain with underglaze blue
Ming, AD 1573–1620
Probably made in Guangdong, China; found in Indonesia
British Museum, donated by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks from the Field collection of A.H. Everett in 1887


This jar was produced in China for the Southeast Asian market at a time when the Asia-European trade routes were dominated by the Dutch. Traders would acquire goods in East Asia and the ports of Southeast Asia, and take them back to Europe.

Blue-and-white ceramics were initially made as a commodity of the Mongol empire in the 1300s. After Portuguese sailors established direct sea trade with China in 1514, demand for blue-and-white ceramics grew significantly in Europe.

Rhinoceros, after Dürer

Engraving on paper
AD 1548
British Museum


This is an image of a rhino that went by ship from India to Europe. Given by the Sultan of Gujarat as a gift to the Portuguese, it was the first rhinoceros to be seen in Europe since the end of the Roman Empire. Dürer created a print of the rhinoceros, on which this later copy is based, despite not having seen it. The animal was later sent as a gift to the Pope, but perished on its way.


Rock-crystal and silver
AD 1225–1250
Oignies-en-Thiérache, Belgium
British Museum


This cup is an example of the trade in gemstones from Asia to Medieval Europe. It is formed of a central rock crystal bowl which has been mounted in gilded silver to create a larger goblet. The metal plate was possibly made in the early 1200s, but the crystal bowl may be earlier in date. Rock crystal was often reused in the Middle Ages and was imported from the Islamic world and elsewhere in Asia.


Brass, silver and copper
AD 1236
Cairo, Egypt
British Museum


Astrolabes are models of the night sky rendered flat onto a piece of metal. They could be used to help find out where you were, what the time was, and where the stars or moon was in the sky. Originally invented by the ancient Greeks, astrolabes were further developed by Muslim scientists and astronomers. The spread of scientific knowledge and complex instruments like astrolabes were one of the results of regular traffic across the sea.