19 July 2009

A Historical Review of the Overland Routes in the Ancient Indian sub-continent

The East has always held an aura of mystery to the Western and Middle Eastern civilisations. India in particular, has lured explorers, traders and pilgrims over the centuries. Its spices, sandalwood and wealth of gold, drew early travellers, traders and invaders in search of lands where they could set up base.


Thus, overland routes and merchant links were established at very early stages, much before the Portuguese gained route by sea in the 15th-16th centuries.


These routes took a general South-Easterly sweep from Turkey through Middle-East to India, which later came to be part of The Silk Route extending upto China. Even today, the route through the Nathula Pass, on the Indo-China border, stands testimony to the routes traversing the ruggest rerrain of Northern India.

Pakistan issues highlighting the Silk Road stretches near Haramosh Peak (East of Gilgit) and alongside Indus river near Chilas, that are a part of Northern Pakistan today, linking with the main Silk Route of Central Asia and China


A historical review of the early postal systems in India reveal an element of anachronism. Well-laid out routes and messenger systems emerged from the trade movements and the dissemination of Buddhism, in the Northern and North-Western frontiers. An efficient communication system with the principal country was spurred by subsequent foreign invasions from the West. In retrograde, we find that the early and subsequent development of mail systems in India were influenced by the Persians, Greeks, Arabs and later, the Mongols.


The Arab and Persian chronicles record movement of nomadic tribes, explorers and invaders who laid the principal routes with Central Asia and the Far East (present China & South-East Asia). Before the Arab conquests, the Persians were the intermediaries with complete monopoly over the silk trade. The centre of trade activity as early as in 4th century A.D. was Asia, chiefly controlled by the silk traffic. Many of the important land routes connecting The Silk Route necessarily linked India, in particular the Southern (Silk) Route and the Ancient Tea Route, which passed though the north-eastern regions.

Postal history of a region being inexorably linked with the study of routes, early routes have been incorporated in this article (see map). However, the overland link quickly lost its importance as trade across the seas developed. Overland routes remained the framework of northern and north-western India. It is interesting to note that even in these times of helicopter access, the Nathula pass coninues to serve as transit and intermediary point of communication between China's Tibet Autonomous Region and India through Sikkim state.


A royal highway connected Taxila with Pataliputra and terminated at Tamralipti, the main port in the Ganges delta. On the western coast the major port of Bhrgukaccha / Barygaza (modern Bharuch) was connected with the Ganges Valley via Ozene (Ujjain). From the Narmada valley, the routes went into northwestern Deccan and continued along rivers flowing eastward to various parts of the peninsula.

Persian influence

Trends in the early periods suggest a predilection for overland routes, chiefly because of the hazards of sea travel and uncharted sea routes. The Persian Royal Road forged with many routes leading to India, also protected by the Achaemenids. The topography determined the course of travel and routes.


In the North-West, the presence of rivers and the numerous Wadis (riverbeds) served as natural roads. Not only did these Wadis aid navigation, but the presence of subsoil moisture and resultant availability of water also made travel easy. The mountain streams were also easy to cross or ford. So land routes followed direction of the Wadis. To the West of Sind, the topography was more conducive to land traffic. However, the presence of many rivers resulted in a high river traffic, evident from the mention of boat-bridges (made of timber and rafts) and rafts in the accounts of early travellers. As travel by water was slow, it was mostly preferred for carriage of heavy goods, the routes being confined to the Cis-Indus region.

The ancient overland routes stretching from Persia to India were mere foot-tracks (which later developed into highways). They were primarily nature-made paths and ruts created by hoofs of animals, and most likely centuries of human traverse. Along these tracks were shacks that served as rest places for the travellers (military personnel, traders and pilgrims). For safety and practical purposes, they travelled in caravans of pack - oxen and doubtless carried letters and messages for fellow tradesmen and private individuals. At the same time the military envoys and Generals conveyed important letters and firmans. Thus two parallel lines of communication operated, though the imperial system was more organised and speedy.


From early accounts we know that travel over long distances was either by foot or horse-back, the envoys using horses to carry urgent missives and other messengers conveying letters on foot. However, organised postal stations and relays existed at regular intervals along the Royal Road for use by royal messengers. It was only with the advent of the Arabs that a stable form of communication was adopted with the Indian territory and the tracks developed into highways.


The entire series is part of an ongoing research project and can be accessed as a work in progress. Readers are requested to comment, share any resources, materials (maps, covers, books) or information that they feel is pertinent to the research. The same will be duly acknowledged as desired by the reader, collector or dealer.

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