Did You Know?: The Southern Silk Roads

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We invite you to join us each week for Did you know? articles which adhere to preselected themes.  Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects helps to preserve, diffuse, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.

Now that we have learnt more about the Great Silk Roads, let’s take a look at the Southern Silk Roads…

The “Silk Roads” are often perceived as expansive caravan routes travelled by camels and horses. The routes are thought to have crossed Northern China and Central Asia to the Iranian plateau, India, southern Russia and the Near East.

However, other routes existed, notably, in South East Asia. These routes stretched from the Yunnan region in China to Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Concerning maritime routes, the great “Sea Road” began from the ports of Southern China, spreading throughout the Vietnamese coasts, the Gulf of Thailand and the Strait of Malacca. These routes linked trade with the shipping routes across the Bay of Bengal to India and beyond towards the West. (Please see the map of these routes here)

Research indicates that trade between India and Southeast Asia, across the Bay of Bengal, began during prehistoric times. The influence of an Indian Hindu-Buddhism civilization in Southeast Asia from the middle of the first millennium A.D. is undeniable evidence of interactions and exchanges along the regions that are considered to be the southern Silk Roads. From this point on, there was an increasing adoption of Hindu and Buddhist cults, including numerous religious monuments and icons toward the East. Ultimately, there existed specific use of Indian scripts and languages in political and religious matters.

The expansion of routes throughout Southeast Asia, as well as the Island-Mainland exchanges, is closely connected with Indo-Roman commerce. There was a rising demand for exotic, prestigious and decorative items originating from sophisticated populations of the Mediterranean basin, India, and China. Exotic products typically included spices, and the term, the “Indinization of Southeast Asia”, is rooted in the spice trade. This, in addition to Buddhism, contributed to the spread of Islam.

Furthermore, this Western demand for exotic products transformed the economic political face of Asia. Demand led to the first meetings and interactions between Europeans and South Asians.

An abundance of evidence for this two-way trade reflects the significance of the trade itself. Indeed, Greek amphorae and other wares that were excavated in the South Indian coast, as well as Roman coins that were found throughout South India are evidence of these cultural interactions. Moreover, some Indian ivory figurines were discovered buried under the ash of Pompeii.

In this way, the Southern Silk Roads remain a significant trade route. A network of trade in which goods, culture and religions were disseminated throughout various regions. 

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