Since antiquity merchants have used both caravan and maritime routes to transport commodities between India and Persia. During the early modern era, as European companies became an important presence in the arena of Indian Ocean trade, an increased percentage of the total trade between the regions was conducted via the Indian ports of Surat, Thatta, and Lahori Bandar and the Persian ports of Hormuz, Bandar-e ʿAbbās (Gombroon), and, from the beginning of the 19th century, Bušehr (qq.v.). During this period, however, the caravan trade, largely directed through Kandahar, still maintained an important role in Indo-Persian commercial relations. This suggests that the relationship between these modes of transport may be more accurately characterized as complementary than as competitive. In 1615, the Englishmen Richard Steel and John Crowther noted that the war over Hormuz between the Safavids and the Portuguese had driven that portion of India’s trade with Persia which had previously been carried out through maritime routes to the caravan routes. This resulted in an increase in the size of the caravans passing through Kandahar from 3,000 to 12-14,000 camels (Steel, pp. 260, 272). Adding to the importance of the caravan routes during the early modern era was the increasing dominance of the Europeans over maritime routes, which correspondingly motivated indigenous merchants to turn to the caravan routes for their transportation needs. This encouraged the Mughal and Safavid rulers to intensify their efforts to promote, protect, and tax the trade caravans (Alam, pp. 212-15). Kandahar’s strategic location on the Indo-Persian frontier, together with its value as a commercial entrepôt, made it a highly coveted city for the competing Mughals and Safavids. The rulers of both dynasties took every opportunity to capture Kandahar, which changed hands between the two on a dozen occasions (Islam, p. 14). While maritime disturbances were known to have driven merchants to use the caravan routes, during the periods of Mughal-Safavid rivalry over Kandahar, merchants would temporarily favor the more predictable maritime routes (Islam, pp. 172-73).

Indo-Persian commercial relations were mediated by merchants originating from India, Persia, Afghanistan, and, from the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europe. Ethnic minority groups living in Persia, such as Armenians and Jews, also played an important role in Persia’s international commercial relations. During the early modern era, however, the most important participants in Indo-Persian commercial relations were communities of Indian merchant-moneylenders. They were agents of a number of heavily capitalized family firms centered in Multan, an important commercial center in northwestern India (Dale, chaps. 3, 5; Levi, chaps. 2-4). Indian merchant diaspora communities were present in Persia from the mid-16th to the 19th century, a period characterized by a general growth in the volume of Persia’s international trade (see Floor, 1992, p. 68; for Indian diaspora communities in mid-16th-century Persia see Jenkinson, I, p. 149, II, pp. 428-29). In 1623, the Russian merchant F. A. Kotov recorded the presence of a Multani diaspora community in Isfahan, and in 1637 Adam Olearius reported that this community consisted of some 12,000 merchants (Kemp, pp. 36-37; Olearius, p. 299). In the 1660s, Jean de Thévenot estimated the number of Indian merchants in Isfahan to have grown to 15,000 (Thévenot, p. 111). In the 1680s, Englebert Kaempfer suggested that the population was lower, though still remarkable, at 10,000 (Kaempfer, p. 204). In the 1660s, Jean Chardin reported that the total number of “Multani Indians” in Safavid territory exceeded 20,000 (Chardin, 1686, p. 100). In addition to Isfahan, Indian communities established themselves in the Persian Gulf port cities of Bandar-e ʿAbbās and Bušehr, a number of Caspian Sea ports in the provinces of Širvān, Gilān, and Māzandarān, as well as in virtually all of Persia’s important inland commercial centers. The economic activities of these merchants focused on moneylending and large-scale, trans-regional trade between India and Persia and also between Persia and Russia (Thévenot, p. 111; Tavernier, II, p. 62; Olearius, p. 299; Dale, chap. 4; Levi, chaps. 3 and 4).

Although there are no reliable figures to quantify pre-modern Indo-Persian commercial relations, information presented in the accounts of early modern travelers, especially European merchants, enables us to draw several important conclusions about their general nature. Silk, largely produced in the provinces of Gilān and Māzandarān, was the most important manufactured item in early modern Persia and an important export commodity (Steel, p. 277; Chardin, 1811, IV, pp. 162-65; Lambton, p. 116; Matthee, chap. 1). For many years under the Safavid administration, Armenian merchants dominated the transport of Persian silk to foreign markets, including those in India (Ferrier, passim; McCabe, chaps. 4 and 9; Steensgaard, p. 381). Horses were another Persian export in great demand in India. Largely for reasons of climate, high-quality, indigenous horses could not be bred locally, a deficiency which left the Indian military establishment dependent upon external supplies (Gommans, chap. 3; Richards, p. 64). At the beginning of the 16th century, Bābor noted that 7-10,000 horses were transported annually to India via Kabul (Bābor, p. 202). Indian demand for horses increased dramatically over the early modern period; and during the 17th and 18th centuries annual imports from Persia and Central Asia numbered in the tens of thousands, with late 17th-century estimates reaching as high as 100,000 (Manucci, II, pp. 390-91). Although the majority of the horses imported into the Indian market appear to have originated in the Inner Asian Qipchaq (qepčaq) steppe and to have been transported via trade routes traversing Afghanistan, a significant number were of Persian origin. Persian horses originated in the vicinity of Daštestān, Kāzarun, and Shiraz and, even into the 19th century, were transported to India both via the caravan routes through Kandahar and the maritime routes through Surat (Gommans, pp. 74-91; Waring, pp. 76-77). From the early 19th century, as the indigenous political factions throughout the subcontinent were increasingly pacified under British domination, the demand for horses decreased markedly in India. Other Persian commodities, however, remained popular. These included animal products, especially wool, leather, tobacco, nuts, fruit and fruit products (including wine, especially from Shiraz), pearls, and the medicinal resin asafoetida (anḡuza; see Floor, 1992, p. 69; Lambton, pp. 111-16). Gold and silver were also important exports from Persia to India. Whereas Persia generally enjoyed a positive balance of trade with neighboring Russia and Ottoman Turkey, it was not the case with India. This is demonstrated by the Safavid shahs’ repeated prohibition of exporting gold and silver from Persia to India, the penalty for which was death, and by references to the efforts of the Indian and European merchants to circumvent these restrictions (Steel, p. 274; du Mans, p. 193; Keyvani, p. 230; see Floor, 1992, p. 70).

Until the Industrial Revolution changed the nature of European textile production in the 19th century, textiles were the most important Indian commodity imported into Persian markets, especially those made of cotton, such as calico and muslin of various qualities, as well as linen. The importance of the Multani merchants in supplying Persian markets with Indian textiles is underlined by Raphaël du Mans’ collective identification of them as bazzaze (“cloth merchant”) in his late 17th-century account (du Mans, pp. 180-81). Furthermore, according to Chardin, the Persians produced some cotton cloth; but they had no incentive to improve their own textile industry, as they received better quality textiles from India at a lower price (Chardin, 1811, IV, pp. 155-56). In the 17th century, John Fryer also noted that cloth was the most important commodity in Indo-Persian commercial relations, adding that next in importance was the spice trade, which by that time had surpassed sugar and copper (Fryer, p. 233). Persia imported a considerable variety of spices from India and Indonesia, both for domestic use and for transport to further markets, the most important of which were pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, mace, and turmeric. Other Indian imports included dyes, especially indigo; precious and semi-precious stones, such as diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and topaz; minerals unavailable in Persia, especially sulfuric acid, mercury, tin, iron, and other metals; as well as large quantities of sugar.

Although it cannot be claimed that there was steady, uninterrupted growth in Indo-Persian commercial relations in any period, in general these relations underwent a process of intensification during the Safavid era. Following the disintegration of the Mughal and Safavid empires in the early 18th century, however, Indo-Persian commercial relations suffered a significant, although temporary, period of decline. This can be attributed to the Ḡilzi Afghan invasions led by Maḥmud Afḡān (1135/1722) and the short-sighted, authoritarian policies of Nāder Shah, which resulted in the disruption of the Persian manufacturing industry, damage to the economy of the region, and the depopulation of many of the Indian diaspora communities in Persia.

During the half-century following Nāder Shah’s assassination in 1160/1747, the Persian economy, and Persia’s commercial relations with India, normalized. The revival of Indo-Persian trade began under the founder of the short-lived Zand dynasty, Moḥammad-Kārim Khān (r. 1751–79), who effectively seized power in southern Persia and reinstated a policy of tolerance towards foreign merchant communities. This is especially notable in British commercial activity in the Persian Gulf port of Bu-šehr from 1783 and in the return to Persian markets of significant numbers of Hindu merchants, and later Sikhs. The subsequent Qājār dynasty (1193–1344/1779–1925) maintained these policies, and a comfortable social environment was fully restored for Indian merchants in Persia by 1802, when Edward Waring observed that, in Bušehr, “the Hindoos live unmolested by the Persians, and are neither insulted nor oppressed by the government” (Waring, pp. 3–4). The addition of Sikh merchant communities to the Indian diaspora in 19th-century Persia should be understood in the context of the growing number of individuals and families in northwestern India who had abandoned the Hindu Khatri caste for the similarly commercial Sikh Khalsa (Alam, pp. 216–17, 221; Grewal, p. 216; Markovits, pp. 225, 255–56; Levi, pp. 110–12, 120). Considering that a significant proportion of the many thousands of “Multani” merchants in Safavid Persia were Khatris, it is probable that many, if not most, of the Sikh merchant families that established communities in Persia during the 19th and 20th centuries had antecedents who were fully engaged in the same commercial activities as Hindu Multanis.

Indian merchants were among the most active groups mediating Indo-Persian commerce in this period, but they were not the only participants in this trade. In Persia, minority groups such as the Parsis and New Julfa Armenians continued to play an active role in Indo-Persian transregional trade through their own commercial networks. Additionally, from the middle of the 18th century, British merchants enjoyed trading privileges in Persia and began to take an increasingly active role in the mediation of Indo-Persian trade. British merchants benefited from their state’s mercantilistic policies in India and southern Persia, and they increasingly coerced Asian merchants—Indians, Armenians, and Parsis—to utilize British ships to transport cargo between the two countries. By the end of the 19th century, the ancient caravan trade through Afghanistan had given way to the maritime trade, fully under European dominance (Curzon, II, pp. 555, 570).

In the 19th century, Indian exports to Persia included an array of cotton textiles, Kashmiri shawls, dyes (especially indigo), spices, sugar, non-precious metals, precious stones, and a variety of goods that had been imported from other regions, including porcelain and tea from China, and coffee and spices from Southeast Asia. Persian exports to India included wheat, dried fruit, wine, carpets, silk, wool, tobacco, and large amounts of gold and silver (cf. Jaubert, p. 286; Tancoigne, pp. 152–53; Lambton, pp. 116, 129–31). In accordance with Persia’s long-established transit trade in Indian goods, Persian merchants re-exported a considerable portion of the Indian commodities listed above to markets to the north and west; in general, Persia’s trade deficit with India was offset by a favorable balance of trade with the Ottoman and Russian empires, both of which suffered a steady effluence of specie to Persia. The balance of Indo-Persian commerce continued to be in India’s favor, and the value of India’s annual exports to Persia at the beginning of the 19th century was estimated to have been more than three times greater than Persia’s corresponding export trade to India (Milburn, I, p. 122).

The Industrial Revolution in Europe had profound ramifications that were felt worldwide by the 1820s. Over the next few decades, British manufactured textiles progressively supplanted both the Indian and the Persian textile industries, and Great Britain had replaced India as the primary exporter of cotton textiles to Persia. The development of British colonial manufactures in India makes it difficult to quantify Persia’s trade with India separately from its trade with Great Britain. In Curzon’s estimation, “the fairest calculations are those which reckon the Persian trade with Great Britain and India combined.” His figures, presented in rupees in the chart below, calculate the total annual value of Indo-Persian trade at the end of the 19th century to be a rather modest 2 million pounds sterling (Curzon, II, p. 580):

Table 1. Imports into Persia from India.

Table 2. Exports from Persia to India.

Over the course of the 19th century, the total value of Persia’s foreign trade had increased by some 800 percent (a figure adjusted for inflation), and the relative importance of trade with India decreased proportionately (Seyf, p. 117). In the 20th century, Indo-Persian trade became an even less important component of Persia’s total foreign trade, especially following the introduction of Persian oil to Western markets in 1914 and the dramatic increase in market demand for oil in subsequent decades. By the late 20th century, in comparative terms if not in real figures, the Indo-Persian commercial relationship had diminished from a fundamental component of the Persian economy to near insignificance (see Floor, 1992, p. 72).



Muzaffar Alam, “Trade, State Policy and Regional Change: Aspects of Mughal-Uzbek Commercial Relations, c. 1550-1750,” JESHO 37/3, 1994, pp. 202-27.

Ẓahir-al-Din Moḥammad Bābor, Bābor-nāma, ed. and tr. A. S. Beveridge as Memoirs of Bābur, repr., Delhi, 1989.

Jean Chardin, The Coronation of this Present King of Persia, Solyman the Third, appended to The Travels of Sir John Chardin into Persia and the East-Indies, London, 1686.

Idem, Voyages du chevalier Chardin en Perse …, ed. L. Langlès, 10 vols., Paris, 1811.

G. N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, 2 vols., London, 1892.

Stephen F. Dale, Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 1600-1750, Cambridge, 1994.

C. Dobbin, Asian Entrepreneurial Minorities: Conjoint Communities in the Making of the World-Economy, 1570–1940, Richmond, Surrey, 1996.

Ronald W. Ferrier, “The Armenians and the East India Company in Persia in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” The Economic History Review, 2nd series, 26, 1973, pp. 38-62.

W. Floor, “Commerce vi. From the Safavid through the Qajar Period,” in EIr. VI/1, 1992, pp. 67-75.

Idem, The Economy of Safavid Persia, Wiesbaden, 2000.

J. S. Grewal, “Business Communities of the Punjab,” in D. Tripathi, ed., Business Communities of India: A Historical Perspective, New Delhi, 1984.

John Fryer, A New Account of East India and Persia, London, 1698.

Jos J. L. Gommans, The Rise of the Indo-Afghan Empire, c. 1710-1780, Leiden and New York, 1995.

A. Guha, “More about the Parsi Seths: Their Roots, Entrepreneurship, and Comprador Role, 1650-1918,” in D. Tripathi, ed., Business Communities of India: A Historical Perspective, New Delhi, 1984.

Riazul Islam, Indo-Persian Relations: A Study of the Political and Diplomatic Relations between the Mughal Empire and Iran, Tehran, 1970.

Idem, A Calendar of Documents on Indo-Persian Relations (1500-1750), 2 vols., Tehran, 1982.

C. Issawi, ed., The Economic History of Iran, 1800–1914, Chicago, 1971.

P. Amédée Jaubert, Voyage en Armenie et en Perse fait dans les années 1805 et 1806, Paris, 1821.

Anthony Jenkinson, Early Voyages and Travels to Russia and Persia …, ed. E. D. Morgan and C. H. Coote, 2 vols., London, 1886.

Engelbert Kaempfer, Am Hofe des persischen Grosskönigs 1684-1685, ed. Walter Hinz, repr., Tübingen and Basel, 1977.

P. M. Kemp, tr., Russian Travellers to India and Persia [1624-1798]: Kotov, Yefremov, Danibegov, Delhi, 1959.

Mehdi Keyvani, Artisans and Guild Life in the Later Safavid Period: Contributions to the Social-Economic History of Persia, Berlin, 1982.

Ann K. S. Lambton, Qājār Persia, Austin, 1988.

Scott C. Levi, The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and its Trade, 1550-1900, Leiden, 2002.

Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, The Shah’s Silk for Europe’s Silver: The Eurasian Trade of the Julfa Armenians in Safavid Iran and India (1530-1750), Atlanta, 1999.

Raphael du Mans, Estat de la Perse in 1660, ed. Charles Schefer, Paris, 1890.

Niccolao Manucci, Storia do Mogor; or Mogul India, 1653-1708, tr. W. Irvine, 4 vols., London, 1907-08.

C. Markovits, The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750–1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama, Cambridge, 2000.

Rudolph P. Matthee, The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver 1600-1730, Cambridge, 1999.

W. Milburn, Oriental Commerce; containing a Geographical Description of the principal places in the East Indies, China and Japan, etc., 2 vols., London, 1813.

Adam Olearius, Vermehrte Newe Beschreibung Der Muscowitischen und Persischen Reyse, Tübingen, 1971; tr. John Davies as The Voyages and Travells of the Ambassadors Sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia . . . , London, 1667.

John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire, The New Cambridge History of India Series, I/v, Cambridge, 1993.

A. Seyf, “Foreign Trade and the Economy of Iran in the Nineteenth Century,” Iran 34, 1996, pp. 117–28.

Richard Steel and John Crowther, “A Journall of the Journey of Richard Steel, and John Crowther, from Azmere in India … to Spahaŋin the affaires of the East-Indian Societie. Ann. 1615. 1616.,” in Samuel Purchas, ed., Hakluytus Posthumus, or, Purchas, His Pilgrimes, Glasgow, 1905, IV, pp. 266-80.

Niels Steensgaard, The Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century: the East India Companies and the Decline of the Caravan Trade, Chicago, 1974.

M. Tancoigne, A Narrative of a Journey into Persia, London, 1820.

Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Les six voyages de Jean Baptiste Tavernier, ecuyer baron d’Aubonne …, 2 vols., Utrecht, 1712.

Jean de Thévenot, Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, 3 vols., London, 1686.

E. Scott Waring, A Tour to Sheeraz, London, 1807.

(Scott C. Levi)

Originally Published: December 15, 2004

Last Updated: March 27, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XIII, Fasc. 1, pp. 44-47