Words travel with people and reach different shores and often strangely enter into world lexicons, as a result of their common usage in daily activities by concerned class of people. Travelogues and trade communications spread their usage. A layman may fail to understand their meaning and importance. Sometimes, their meanings – once traceable in their origins – are mixed up to such an extent that they are far moved away from their source. Confusion leads to a lot of discussions for finding out what that expression really means.
Sayer(a) or Sayir(a)
We have discussed some antiquarian words, say Al, Amara, Bhandashale or Bankshal (in European corrupted parlance), Bankarakatte, Chakan, Gadang, Jambal, Jangar or Jangal, Kāle, etc.
Sayer(a) or Sayir(a) is one more addition to the array of such antiquarian words. It was a word, pestering Europeans in land and marine trade during pre-colonial and colonial era. Advent of this word in European languages created confusion to young European officers serving in India on their new postings. It has been found to be a common surname world over with highest incidence in Turkey.
Note the situation, described in Para one: it is aptly applicable to the word: ‘Sayer’ (ಸಾಯರ್), Sayira (ಸಾಯಿರ) or syre (ಸೈರ್). It is supposed to have originated from the Arabic word saa’ir : but it has the primary meaning of ‘remainder’ in Arabic. By and large, we have reason to believe that it is an Indian word since it was widely used in India during ancient marine trade as well as inland trade. We infer that the word has bearing on the origin of related words like savari, sarthavaha, sanchara, pravasa; saraku, saramjambu and sarabarayi.
This was a commercial term, known in the trade world of yore. It means a tax or customs imposed on imports and exports by competent authority at territorial borders.
Saysira & Sayira in Tulu:
The phrase ‘Aruve Saysira’ during the history used to mean marine department and sea customs. ‘Aruve Sayira Katte’ stands for ‘Customs House’ (Tulu Lexicon, p.162; Post-334: Secret of Ambagilu). In Tulu, it is also known as ‘Sunkada Katte’. Katte is a place at regional borders or market area to collect passage tax or toll (sunka= seema shulka, akin to present day ‘octroi duty’) for goods and services. ‘Sukka’ means Customs in Pali/Prakrit. We presume, Place names ‘Saukuru’ near Basrur in Kundapura (Udupi District) and Sukkur in Sindh (now in Pakistan) suggest existence of custom houses there in ancient time.
We know, ‘ira’ means ‘water or river’. Naturally, such tax collection centres are found at river estuaries or sea ports (pattanas), hinter-land cities (Nagire>Nagara and Puras). Mark the word element ‘Naga’, which means both boat and ornaments of precious metals and gems, besides ‘high place like mountain’.
Mark the behavioral pattern (barring exceptions) of yester year-tax/duty collectors! There is a wise saying in Tulu about such Kattes. ‘ಸುಂಕದಾಯ ಕೈತಲ್ ಸುಖ-ದುಃಖದಾನೆ? (Sunkadaaya kaital sukha dukkha daane?. It means: What is the use of discussing about our weal or woe before a tax collector?). He goes by the rules and may not bend it after hearing the plight of goods-carrier or passenger. Forget not, this saying was coined when people were generally truthful and faithful!
Sair (सैर) in Hindi:
It means: Outing, trip or pleasure trip, excursion, tour, jaunt, spin, run, ramble, sortie. So ‘Sair Karna’ (सैर करना) means visiting. (Source: Pustak.org or dict.hinkhoj).
Sairandhri (सैरंध्रि) = Visiting Maid servant.
It also means voyager or traveler. Sairgaha(सैरगहा) means a resort.
It has many shades of meaning, viz.: (1) A group of pilgrims on pilgrimages. (2) A group of merchants or traders moving together with their valuable produce or goods (Sarth) to deal in far-away markets. The journey is undertaken with protection of a leader or conductor, who is called as ‘Sarthavaha’, being himself a merchant in a particular trade or profession. He is assisted by well-coordinated team of specialists, as described elsewhere in this article.
Meanings in European Vocabulary
Quoting several sources, Hobson-Jobson Dictionary offers explanations. The word Sayer/Syre, is used for taxation and imposts except land revenue on several items of taxation. It is a Hindi word derived from Arabic word saa’ir. With the help of Sir H. Waterfield of India Office, the authors tried to find out ‘transitions’ of meaning in Arabic words. They say, “The obscurity attached to the word ‘sayer’ in this sense was especially great.”
It quotes again Wislon s.v.: “In its original purport the word signifies moving, waking, or the whole, the remainder; from the latter it came to denote the remaining, or all other, sources of revenue accruing to the Government in addition to the land-tax”.
Sir C. Trevelyan says in one passage of his book (not reproduced by us) that the Arabic word has “the same meaning as ‘miscellaneous’. During rule of East India Company, this was an Accounting Head, signifying revenue collection by means of duties, license fees, services, etc. other than Excise, Land Revenue.
Both the explanations for ‘remainder’ and ‘miscellaneous’ were not considered correct by the compilers.
The term Sayer in the 18th Century was applied to a variety of inland imposts, but especially to local and arbitrary charges levied by zamindars and other individuals, with a show of authority, on all goods passing through their estates by land or water, or sold at markets (Bazar, haut, gunge) established by them, charges which formed in the aggregate an enormous burden upon the trade of the country.
The Dictionary brings home the fact that in “saa’ir two old semitic terms have coalesced in sound though coming from different roots, viz. (in Arabic) sair, producing sa’ir, walking, current’, and saa’r, producing saa’ir, ‘remainder’, the latter being a form of the same word that we have in the Biblical Shear-jashub, ‘the remnant shall remain’ (Isaiah, vii.3). The authors conceived that the true sense of the Indian term was ‘current or customary charges’; an idea that lies at the root of sundry terms of the same kind in various languages, including our own (British) customs, as well as the ‘dustoory’ which is so familiar in India”.
The Indian Vocabulary (1788) describes: Sairjat as “All kinds of taxation besides the land-rent” and Sair as “any place or office appointed for the collection of duties or customs.” Such Sayer or Sayir centres were functioning in Presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay under the British before superseding the East India Company by Queen of England Victoria. After the 1857 rising of Indian natives, India came under the yoke of British Empire and present day custom houses came into being.
Marine trade in India has a hoary past, say from Sindhu Civilization or earlier, in which Sarthavahas played an important part. There is some mention of it in Vedas. Later on, we find mention of it in Jain and Buddhist literature. Examples of contacts with Western and Eastern coasts are available in Indian Classics. Researched materials are documented in modern books on subjects like social, geographical, political, religious and trade and travel. Foreign travelers and geographers’ books also throw light on contacts with continents. We have proof of earliest explorers and travelers as cited in Bible and Rigveda. King Soloman (c. 900 BC) got built boats with the help of his friend Hiran, King of Phoenix, who loaned his seamen to run the fleet of Soloman. There were marine trades between Red Sea Ports and Port at Mediterranean. He also traded with Tharsish (South Eastern Spain) and Ophr at western coast of Africa. Carthage was a sea power in the Western mediterrean upto its downfall after the disastrous war with Rome.
Pharoah Necho II of Egypt (around c. 700 BC) was the initiator of cutting a navigable canal from Nile to Red Sea, which was intended to facilitate trade between Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. He stopped work on the fear of attack from Babylonians and other nations around Mediterranean sea.
Navigable rivers helped international trade. Internal trade was by road and through rivers. Nau or yanapatra (boat/ship) patha (route) is known as nadi patha (river route), kulya patha (artificial waterway or canal route) and vari patha (sea route). Sea route, in turn, is known as coastal route (kula patha) and overseas route (samyana patha).
Nishkas (necklace of coins, not necessarily a numistic money), hiranya pindas (buttons of gold, i.e. bullion beaten, roundish) and manas were considered weight and value but not gold coins. Panis were boat people, hated by Vedic people for their miserliness. They used to steal cattle of Aryans. Cattle or cattle horn were considered as wealth (dhan). It was a means of exchange on a barter system of that age when symbol of money, i.e. currency coin (Roopa), was not in vogue.
The Rigveda mentions ninety navigable rivers. Important routes are: (1) Ganges-Mahodhadhi (Bay of Bengal), (2) Brahmaputra-Bay of Bengal), (3) Mahanadi-Bay of Bengal, (4) Godavari-Bay of Bengal, (5) Krishnā-Bay of Bengal, (6) Kaveri-Bay of Bengal, (7) Indus (Sindhu)-Ratnakara (Arabian Sea), (8) Narmada-Ratnakara (Arabian Sea), (9) Euphrates-Persian Gulf river route, (10) Nile-Mediterrean river route, and (11) Huang Ho-Pacific Ocean route. River and sea routes provided facilities to people of Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa and other important commercial cities of the region in circa 3000 BC.
Traditional routes paved way to well-laid out roads, connecting Uttarapatha (Northern India) to Dakshinapatha (Southern India) and Poorvanta (Eastern end) to Aparanta (Western end) and came to be known as silk route. These roads have lanes catering to pedestrians, bullock carts, horse, camel or elephant riders and horse-driven cars (Raths).
System of Sarthavahas:
Caravan of merchants or the leader of caravan traders, is guided by a sthalaniyamaka (land guide/pilot). Head merchant or transit corporation head (Sarthavaha) has had to provide for food supplies required more than sufficient for the long journey. He engages ‘Bharavahas’, i.e. menial labourers for manual loading and unloading and traffic section staff. These labourers, mostly slaves as is vogue in those days, settled down at various places with their masters. Head traffic staff is called ‘Odariya’. They work under the supervision of Sthalaniyamaka, who lies on mattress on the open wagon on the vanguard of the caravan and keeps watchful eye on the direction, without batting his eyelids. If he sleeps and if animals turn back, the journey would take longer time before correcting course, resulting in depletion of food supplies (Such eventualities were narrated in Jataka stories). Next, he is assisted by vehicle engineering staff, headed by a ‘Bhandi (Nayak)’, who is the supervisor-in-charge of carts and wagons, pack of animals, litters, horses, elephants, buffaloes, bullocks, etc. Security branch of Sartha had a roadways engineering department which ensured road safety by sending engineering staff in advance to checkup road conditions and to have knowledge of other dangers from men and beast while crossing the forest areas.
‘Shreni’ is the general term for guild of traders. It is customary to form guilds for each professionalized trades in those days. Epigraphic-evidence shows that guilds not only minted and issued coins and seals but also maintained their own militia, which was known as ‘Shrenibala’ according to Kalachurya inscription.
Indus valley civilization (of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa people) was ruled by cosmopolitan merchant class of Meluha – both Avaidik and Vaidik. They had trade with Mesopotamia, Egypt, Byzantine/Rome empire, Persia, Africa, China, etc.
Scripts in Indus seals and tablets have remained a challenge to Indologists to decipher. Though many have professed decoding them, it is not fully deciphered satisfactorily still. In Post-316 (: Jangal…Jangad) we have quoted Dr. S. Kalyanaraman of Saraswati Centre on Indus script corpora & business transactions. German Indologist Egbert Richter Ushanas claimed to have decoded 1000-odd seals ( Indian Express, 16th February, 2007). His path-breaking decoding is based on the Sumerian and Brahmi script. He quotes Sanskrit from Rigveda. Similar claims were made by a several other scholars.
Custom laws and procedure were crystallized during the Mauryan rule and hence the system prevailed then is considered as the basis for the present day customs. Arthashastra of Kautilya (c. 300 BC) imposed strict adherence of rules and regulations. It recommended harsh punishments for false declaration of goods, quantity, weight, etc. General rate was 20% for all goods except sea customs and land customs. Foreign traders were treated well. Gupta rule was considered as golden era with their encouragement for international marine trade. Besides land rent, they imposed duty on agricultural produce and other services. Vijayanagara Empire held sway over ports on western and eastern coasts, then followed by Ikkeri Nayaks and Mysore Sultans. Moguls followed the same rule.
Prior to colonization, sayer or sunkadakattes (collection chowkeys) collected transit duties. Incoming and outgoing goods used to bear seal of authorities for ensuring legitimacy and preventing threat from pilferage or substitution. Modern type of custom houses established at Fort Williams during the rule of Nawaz of Bengal. Military and Naval force from Madras was requisitioned by him against the threat of Burdwan landlord. After Battle of Plassey, Robbert Clive,Governor of Fort Williams, built a new Fort in 1781. British established themselves in Bengal, Madras, Delhi, Mumbai, Mysore and slowly whole of India, barring some pockets of Dutch, French and Portuguese trading posts.
Guilds were at liberty to act in whatever manner but at times kings could interfere, as we see during the era of Gupta Empire. A mention of this is made in Kautilya’s Arthashastra too. There was no fixed price and measurement and hence varied from place to place, even during Gupta period when marine trade was in its peak.
We have come across persons with surname ‘Shreni’ in Mangalore-Kasaragod region of Tulu Nadu (For example, Gopala Krishna Shreni was a well-known Yakshagana artist). This indicates how erstwhile Tulu Nadu was well-entrenched in sea and inland trade.
It would be interesting to note that Shetties were addressed at Nemas (annual festivals) of Divine Spirits as ‘Bāle or Bāler’ by Bootha impersonators at some places of Tulu Nadu. From this, it could be concluded that those Shrenibalas, accompanying the Sarthavahas, settled down in Tulu Nadu.
Note the saying, “Bele daanti achari baleda pukuli or pinkanu kettiye” (Idling carpenter, without work, chiseled the buttock of a child). Artisans, like carpenters (Acharis), were part of the caravans. Here ‘bāle’ has more than one meaning: child, keel of a boat or a Shetty. As against the popular meaning as said above, the correct meaning of the saying, most probably, is “The jobless carpenter passed his time by chiseling the keel of a boat, thereby putting lives and properties of voyagers at risk of drowning”.
Tamralipta was an important port at Bengal Delta. Karachapa (Karachi) in Sindh, Bharuch (during Mauryan era), and small and big river estuaries were important sea ports along the West coast. Basrur (near Kundapura), Bhatkal, Barkur and Kalyanpura (at the estuary of Seeta and Suvarna rivers) Pangara(>Hangara) Katte (port with boat building facilities), Udyavara, Mulki, Mangaluru, Manjeshwara, Bekal and Kasaragod were important sea ports of yester year Tulu Nadu.
Goods traded: Rice, coconuts, sugarcane, spices, tamarind, timber, betel leaves, silk, cotton, wool, sea products (pearls, cowries, conches (shank), sea shells, fish, etc.),precious gems, like lapis lazuli, gold and silver ornaments, base metals, camphor, pottery and so on.
Apanika: shop-keeper, retailer
Naigama: A trader belonging to a professional body of merchants.
Pānis were important merchant class when cattle were traded or they are treated as units of money in barter trade system. Mark the evolution of Panis: Panis>Panikas>Vanikas>Vaishyas. Later on Vaishyas were considered as third rung of society in class system.
Panya: General commodities
Shreshti/Setti/Chetti: Immensely rich merchant, often as financier and investor in business and usurer.
Vaidehakas: Petty traders, mostly peddlers.
Hatta: Market place (Mark the place name ‘Hattiangadi’ in Tulu Nadu).
Large market centres: Pura, Pattana and Nagara/Nakhara (Nakre) and Velakula (port). It should be understood that they are riverine places.
Amil : Land revenue. (Amaldar used to mean assistant revenue collector or Assistant Commissioner). Amil is also a popular surname in Gujarat and among Muslim.
Amaram: Territory allocated to the military chiefs .
Banjara: Banjara merchant, specializing in carrying (caravan) trade, particularly in grains, salt, cattle . (The surnames Banjan, Bunnu or Bunnan among Billavas might be a reflection of 'Banjara')
Mark the evolution of Pan to Ban, Van, Banija>Vanija. Settlement of marine traders were known by place names in Tulu Nadu, such as Pangarakatte > Hangarakatte, Padu Panambur (Near Haleyangadi), Panambur (on the northern bank of River Phalguni, Pandeshwar in Mangalore and Kundapur.
Gods of Ocean
Presence of Lord Pashupati (Mahadeva) and Lord Krishna as Protectors is legendary in western coastline. We can also visualize overlord-ship of Bhrigu and his clan, known as Bhargavas. Legend of Bhargava Rama, i.e Lord Parashurama, is still remembered in Dwaraka-Konkan-Canara-Malabar Coast. He is worshipped in temples in Gujarat, Tulu Nadu and Kerala.
“Ocean, from whom the Gods are sprung”. This is a quotation from the ‘Iliad’ by Homer, an 8th Century BC Greek Epic Poet. It is story of war between Spartan and Trojans in Mediterrean region. The Sparta was a powerful military city in ancient Greece. The king having a formidable marine power is considered as a God of the Sea. Such Titles were assumed by Indian Kings of yore, Eg. Skanda Gupta, Samudra Gupta, etc. of Gupta Dynasty. Darious-I [Daayav(h)us in old Persian], the Great, was the 3rd King of Persian Achaemenid Empire (c.550-486 BCE. During his rule, the empire included much of West Asia, the Caucasus, parts of Balkan. Dominance over sea, as we notice, played a great role in marine navigation and trade in ancient world.
Turkish Ottoman Empire (Post-348: Rumi), ruled the sea trade for 600 years, controlling South East Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa and Horn of Africa, and the major land and marine trade routes between Europe and Asia were controlled by the Turks till the middle of 20th Century.
We presume that our penchant for unraveling the original meanings of certain words (as opposed to the meanings understood in course of time) may be of certain interest to curious readers in search of obscure trails in our history.
Sayer, syre or sair is a duty or tax for goods in transit. It means a customary charge or duty imposed on imports and exports at destinations. Marine trade made people wealthy and brought riches to kings then and now to Governments – democratic or dictatorial.
In Tulunadu when a person sits gloomily with face downcast, relatives and friends used ask him rather comically: “Daane ninna kappal murkuduna? (=Why you are sitting disappointed? Whether your ship sunk?)
Old generation people, still living, may remember the jingling bells of bullocks moving in a line, traversing dusty roads from highlands to ports of Tulu Nadu. Those were the bullock caravan with produce from hinterland. They can even hear singing by and see jovial faces of cart drivers.
-Hosabettu Vishwanath, Pune
( along with suggested readings)
Post Nos. in this blog: 158: Pandyas & Cargo boats, 296/01.03.2012: Ancient Port of Basarur, 297: Weavers of civilization, 316: Jangal, Jangar or Jangad- A classic usage in Trade and Travel, 334: Secret of Ambagilu, 348/29.07.2015: Rumi, etc
Hobson-Jobson Dictionary, pp.798-801
Pages in the internet:
Indian History, Krishna Reddy, Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co. Ltd.
Foreign Trade & Commerce in Ancient India, Prakash Charan Prasad
A Social History of Early India, Brajadulal Chattopadhya