In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Merchant Castes

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Caste, Castes, and Casteism
  • Changing Views of Caste
  • Merchant Castes
  • Descent and Territory: Mercantile versus Non-mercantile “Dominant Castes”
  • Marriage Alliance and Minimization
  • Families and Family Firms
  • Merchant-Banking Elites
  • Philanthropy, Elitehood, and Caste Identity in Tournaments of Value
  • Merchants and Public Culture
  • Religious and Regional Variations in Mercantile Public Identity: Hindu and Jain Origin Myths
  • Merchant Castes Today

Hinduism Merchant Castes
David Rudner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0151


The South Asian trading world that gave birth to merchant castes extends back in time to the Indus Valley Civilization and is made up of a constantly changing and growing network of commercial exchanges. Stretching from Africa and the Middle East to Southeast Asia and China, and from Europe to the Americas, it has witnessed more than three thousand years of mighty kingdoms, the birth of religions, and a segmented Indian trading diaspora that spans the globe. Despite this, the precolonial trading world of South Asia is often treated as an unchanging and undifferentiated past in which merchants—organized in part by principles of caste—specialized in purely local trade of agrarian goods and handcrafts until European trading companies created a world system of trade. Against such an ahistorical view of precolonial, localized commerce, works such as Abu-Lughod 1989 and Curtin 1984 argue that South Asian and other non-Western merchants engaged in large-scale business, crossing and tying together regional and national markets in ways that counter any notion that Eurocentric capitalism is unique in its world-spanning reach, or that the role of non-Western merchants in creating world systems was static and unchanging until contact with Europeans. For South Asia specifically, some scholars argue that prior to the colonial era, 17th-century India constituted a discrete, non-Eurocentric world system (Dale 1994, cited under Merchant Castes); a view that coincides with work that has uncovered a coeval explosion of indigenous internal commerce and monetization fueled by international trade of Indian textiles for new world silver. Others argue that South Asia was home to not one, but multiple circuits of trade operated by merchants belonging to multiple merchant castes and trading diasporas (Markovits 2000, cited under Merchant Castes). None of this takes into account evidence of trade with Southeast and Southwest Asia extending back hundreds and perhaps thousands of years before that. Constraints of space preclude considering the South Asia trading world before the early modern period. But even in the recent period, most South Asia specialists envision a precolonial, non-Eurocentric world system or systems of trade that have their center (or centers) in South Asia and that extends into the present day. It is a world in which merchant castes play a significant role. The following discussion explores key institutions in the internal social organization of merchant castes and various aspects of merchant caste culture. The sections of this article explore mercantile adaptations of four key institutions in the internal social organization of merchant castes, including lineage organization and territory, marriage alliance, family firms, and mercantile elites.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    Anti-Eurocentric, historical study arguing that the modern world economy had its roots in the close of the 13th century. Using the city as the working unit of analysis, Abu-Lughod describes the rise of a commercial system that ultimately extended from northwestern Europe to China before succumbing to European hegemony.

  • Curtin, Philip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511661198

    A non-Eurocentric study of trade and traders, the book begins with a review of trade in Africa and then moves to consider the ancient world, Mediterranean trade with China, Asian trade in the East, the beginnings of European trade with Asia, 17th-century Armenian traders, and the North American fur trade.

  • Das Gupta, Ashin. “Indian Merchants and the Trade in the Indian Ocean, c. 1500–1750.” In The Cambridge Economic History of India. Vol. I, c. 1200–c. 1750. Edited by Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib, 407–433. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521226929

    Superb summary of South Asian trade and merchants in the face of scant documentary evidence; provides account of commodities, trade routes, and kinds of trade (local and foreign), along with description of trading network nodes between merchants, producers, consumers, and states. No information on merchant castes.

  • Parthasarathy, Prasannan. The Transition to a Colonial Economy: Weavers, Merchants and Kings in South India, 1720–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511497414

    Before the late 18th century, South Indian weavers received incomes well above subsistence. Their wealth and status declined with the rise of colonial rule, when they were subordinated to powerful moneylenders who served as a comprador class between producers and the European trading companies.

  • Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System. 4 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

    Influenced by Marx and Braudel, Wallerstein argues that a single, politically and economically integrated, capitalist world-system emerged from mercantilist states of 16th-century Europe to encompass the entire world. The “core” exemplifies a high level of technological development and complex manufactured products. The periphery exemplifies production of raw materials, agricultural products, and cheap labor, which are exploited by the core.


Although Markovits 2000 and Rudner 1994 (both cited under Merchant Castes) provide useful reviews of the available literature on merchant castes, there exists no general overview of the institution. There are, however, many excellent case studies of individual merchant castes that collectively map out dimensions of variation reflected in a huge diversity of business practice and social organization. In general, merchant castes are distinguished by location, geographic scope, and type of commodities traded. Their geographic distribution, internal organization, standards for behavior, and resource opportunities vary accordingly. Some castes specialize in small-scale wholesale and retail trade in groceries, edible oils, jewelry, and other commodities. These groups tend to operate their businesses within a small radius around their native town or village. Such “shop-keeping” castes shade into localized artisan and producing castes who often rely on merchant-banking castes for finance and distribution of their goods, but who also take on some of these mercantile functions in their own right. Regardless of the mix of production, finance, and distribution in which they engage, all such localized castes differ in the business practices, institutions, and scale of operations from merchant castes engaged in production of agricultural commodities or textiles, who combine capital investments in land or looms with long-distance trade. These grain and textile merchants differ again from major merchant-banking castes that, especially before the 19th century, tended to carry out their commercial activities over a much larger territory than even castes specializing in production and trade of regionally distributed commodities. In addition, until the 1930s, and unlike large-scale commodity traders, castes that specialized in banking performed all the functions of a modern, commercial bank, extending financial credit, discounting bills of exchange, and receiving deposits. Some, indeed, went beyond the activities of a commercial bank and, until the 1920s, performed a variety of roles carried out by modern national central banks. In other words, unlike either artisanal or agricultural traders, merchant-banking castes kept themselves relatively free from the requirements of commodity production or processing to tie up resources in relatively fixed capital investments. The following anthologies provide thumbnail sketches of the tremendous variety exemplified by different kinds of merchant castes.

  • Cadene, Phillippe, and Denis Vedal, eds. Webs of Trade: Dynamics of Business Communities in Western India. New Delhi: Manohar, 1997.

    Case studies of the spatial organization of localized kinship and credit networks in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. Covers castes specializing in trade, ranging from groceries to textile-printing to moneylending.

  • Das, Keshab, ed. Indian Industrial Clusters. Farnham, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

    Institutional analyses of small-scale “industrial clusters” as rational responses to imperfect markets. Case studies include artisanal production of footwear, knitware, bricks, handloom and conch shell products, saddlery, bamboo and rattan products, silver filigree, and block printed textiles. Membership from these clusters is drawn from local artisan castes from Gujarat to Bengal to Tamil Nadu.

  • Fox, Richard, ed. Urban India: Society, Space, and Image. Papers presented at a symposium held at Duke University. Monograph and Occasional Papers Series 10. Durham, NC: Duke University, Program in Comparative Studies on Southern Asia, 1970.

    Papers from the 1960s and 1970s focus on urbanization in South Asian “modernization” before the term became problematized by historians and anthropologists in the 1980s. Includes, among others, case studies for Saraswat Brahmans in Bombay, Nadars in Tamil Nadu, and contrasts between business/professional and menial castes in Lucknow.

  • Leach, Edmund, and S. N. Mukherjee, eds. Elites in South Asia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

    Studies of colonial and postcolonial elites from different castes in different localities show that political influence derives from many sources, including scholarship, mercantile skill, caste status, or property in land. While most of the studies contain information about urban markets, shops, artisans, or industrialists, they tend to look at individuals and discount any significant role for caste.

  • Lombard, D., and J. Aubin, eds. Asian Merchants and Businessmen in the Indian Ocean and China Sea. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Essays explore the wide variety of merchants and merchant networks, diasporas, and castes (South Asian and others) that traded under Islamic and European domination in the ports of the Indian Ocean and the China Sea from the 13th to the 20th centuries.

  • Singer, Milton, ed. Entrepreneurship and Modernization of Occupational Cultures in South Asia. Monagraph and Occasional Papers Series 12. Durham, NC: Duke University, Program in Comparative Studies on Southern Asia, 1973.

    1970s essays that critique rigid, unchanging views of caste in village jajmani relationships. Studies of mercantile and other urban castes, including Banias in an Uttar Pradesh market town, Muslim merchants in Tamil Nadu, Memons in Pakistan, and industrialists from “traditional” agricultural castes in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

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