The Warrior Merchants By Meghna N. Desai


The Indus Valley Civilisation laid the founding stone in establishing organised trade relations with Mesopotamia and Egypt. Archaeologist Prof. J.M. Kenoyer, who spent decades unearthing the trade and crafts technologies of the Indus Valley writes, ‘ single individual or dynasty dominated the cities for very long, and that they may have been controlled by several competing groups of elites, i.e. landowners, merchants, or ritual specialists. Collectively, these communities appear to have established and maintained order and hierarchy among many different social classes and economic groups that would have been present in larger cities.’

Jumping the timeline by a few hundred years, in the first century AD, Pliny the Elder remarked that India was “the sink of the world’s gold!” Rome’s payment to India approximated £800,000. Roman senators complained that their women used too many Indian spices and luxuries, which drained the Roman Empire of precious metal. When Rome closed its doors to trade for a brief period of three centuries, new markets emerged in South-East Asia. Among the many trade guilds that functioned, the guild of warrior merchants came to power in early medieval South Asia.

The trade ports were bustling as the ships full of merchandise were ready to sail to the Islands of Indonesia, to the Mediterranean ports and the Near East. The men unanchored the ships and the gods of sea were summoned; the treasury of the kingdom was filled with gold and gemstones brought by the guild of The Five hundred Lords. Wealth from all directions poured into the bazaars, where the finest silk and spices were sold besides the diamonds and precious stones. With unparalleled prosperity, the fame of the kingdom engaged the courts of Europe, and travellers from Portugal came to see this kingdom of ‘Bisnaga’ as they write it, referring to the kingdom of Vijayanagara; hoping to live out the rumours of untold riches. Their travelogues speak fondly of the kingdom of medieval south India.

“In this street live many merchants, and there you will find all sorts of rubies, and diamonds, and emeralds, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and cloths, and every other sort of thing there is on earth and that you may wish to buy.”- Domingo Paes, 1520

The map showing the trade routes between Europe, Asia and Africa. Image courtesy: ancient-trade-routes.

The map showing the trade routes between Europe, Asia and Africa. Image courtesy: ancient-trade-routes.

A couple of years ago I visited Hampi, the medieval seat of Vijayanagara. The ruins of Hampi exhibits a diorama of temples with distinct architecture from the pre-Vijayanagara and Vijayanagara period. The half broken empty bazaar streets ran perpendicular to the temples filled with echoes of wind as it tunnelled through them. It does bring to my mind the spatial unison of market streets with the centres of worship. The descriptions of the kingdom of Vijayanagara have awed many historians and romantics through the ages.

The questions regarding the foundations of vast empires sometimes take a back seat, or there are simply no answers at all. From my study, I have narrowed down a few possibilities involving the role of trade guilds in erecting the founding stone for such vast empires.

Lotus Mahal Pavilion at Hampi via Wikimedia

Lotus Mahal Pavilion at Hampi via Wikimedia

Backtracking to the beginning of the ninth century, a few inscriptions were discovered in the ancient city of Aihole known to be the cradle of temple architecture. The inscription spoke of a heroic trader’s community–a community that began with The Five Hundred, ‘wise men’ Lords of Ayyavolu’, expanding to establish trade links to various countries. The Five Hundred Lords of Ayyavolu were born to be wandering merchants, imbued with truth, purity, good qualities, noble conduct, policy, and prudence. They were the protectors of the vira-vanaju-dharma, the rules laid down for the righteous way of commercial trade. The inscriptions are suggestive of their affiliations as warlords and their nature of sponsoring mercenaries. The saga of their bravery was immortalised between the ninth to the fourteenth centuries. The Five Hundred Lords of Ayyavolu were more than a merchant guild, they were a guild that fought with honour and valour against all bad practices in trade and kingships.

The translated paragraph from Burton Stein’s book on the ninth century inscription reads:

‘…earth as their sack,…the serpent race as the cords..the horizon as their light;

…by land routes and water routes penetrating into the regions of the six continents, with superior elephants and well bred horses, large sapphires, moonstones, pearls, rubies, diamonds...cardamoms, cloves, sandal, camphor, musk, selling which wholesale, or hawking about on their shoulders, preventing the loss by custom duties, they fill up the emperor’s treasury of gold, his treasury of jewels and his armoury of weapons; from the rest they daily bestow gifts to wise men and sages; white umbrellas as their canopy mighty ocean as their moat… the elephant they attack and kill, like the cow they stand and kill, like the serpent, they kill with poison, like the lion they spring and kill….thunderbolt they catch and exhibit; sun and moon they draw down to earth...’

The passage makes a strong impression and tempts a connection between the precious stones on the bazaars of Hampi and the trade guild of Ayyavolu merchants. Probably their skills of warfare and possession of a huge army made their goods unsafe for unauthorised touching.

There were other guilds present along with the guild of Ayyavolu merchants in medieval South India, but none were mentioned in history as older than the Ayyavolu merchants or as having large network links, political power, and knowledge of warfare. It is quite possible that not all sources of history have been sufficiently explored to make a more concrete statement. Under the network of trade allies and families that were spread out far and wide, the Ayyavolu guild continued trading successfully for a period of seven centuries, based on records from various kingdoms. They patronised temples and pilgrim centres, making huge endowments from their income.

The more one understands their characteristics, the more one is drawn to conclude: their need for money or riches was negligible, they desired power, which gave them a strong standing in matters of politics and monarchy. These lords would often allocate their mercenaries to assist the king in battle, which made them the key players in deciding the fate of the kingdom. Needless to say, the monarch would shower them with gifts of land, and the responsibility of tax to win their loyalties. Whether the Lords accepted these gestures remains unknown. The mighty southern kingdoms of Chalukyas, Cholas and Vijayanagara were said to have been aided by these lords with their army and gold.

It is hard to say if the lords belonged to Aihole, (a possible corruption of the word Ayyavolu) or any one place in particular. One could say they started off as trade nomads, though it’s hard to assume if these lords stayed as nomads forever. The ninth century inscription suggests that the Lords seek their blessings from the wind, water, sun, and god of wealth, hinting at similar worship patterns preached in the ancient Rigvedic dharma or in the Greek and Persian mythologies.

With the introduction of more centralised and regional economies in the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, the trade guilds declined, and with their downfall, the empires that were once built upon their shoulders, toppled. The newer merchants regionalised trade, and international trade became a separate entity of its own. A community in South India goes by the name ‘vira balijas’ which translates to “brave merchants” but whether their lineage traces back to the Lords of Ayyavolu is uncertain.

After the fall of the Lords of Ayyavolu, rubies, emeralds, pearls, silk, and diamonds, were never spoken of along again.


Meghna N. Desai is enthusiast in ancient arts and sciences. She has a Master’s in Ancient Indian Culture and Archaeology, along with post graduate diploma in Comparative Mythology and a diploma in Maritime trade. Meghna enjoys drawing parallels between Europe, Near East, Egypt and South Asia and likes writing about them. She helps with translation of books and articles for scholars who choose to write in their first language in-order to make the literature accessible to wider audience. She is aiming to pursue her doctorate and wishes to continue writing about the ancient way of life and their perception of the world.