The Silk Road-Part 1 of a four part series

This is the first part of a four series document based on the research that learners at The Integral School, Hyderabad carried out about the ancient Silk Road. The team consisted of Aravind Bandreddi, Zoya Kadeer, Aatmesh and Qutub Khan Vajihuddin.

This document, an introduction to the silk road, was prepared by Aravind Bandreddi.


In this document, we aim to explore how the main countries along the silk road, China, Mongolia, India, and Rome were related to the silk road. We will start by giving a brief introduction about the silk road.

Silk Road

The Silk Road is not a single long road but a collection of routes.It was a trade route where a lot of exchange of culture,ideas and other things happened.The route was later named as the Silk Road as the product traded the most through this route was silk. The route was christened as the Silk Road by Ferdinand von Richthofen.

History with a focus on China

From the time the Eurasians started using stone tools for farming, they got divided into two different societies.To the fertile south, they became farmers and to the steppes, they herded livestock. The farmers were settled on their lands while the people on the steppes were nomads. The nomads were dependent, in part, on the agricultural produce of the farmers and often invaded the farmlands to loot food. Sometime around the 600 BCE, the nomads learnt horse riding and around 400 BCE the nomads learned to combine archery with horsemanship.In northern China, three states were fighting each other for supremacy.These three states also had to bear with the frequent incursions of the nomads.The states were Zhao,Qin and Yan. The nomads would take millets and wheat from China which was considered common in China but rare on the steppe.

The Zhao state started emulating the nomads in their warfare since it worked better. The nomads had superior horses, fast and fluid war strategies and superior archery skills. All the people in the court of Zhao said that the nomads were not worthy of any emulation. However, they soon realized the superior skills of the nomads in warfare and realized that emulating them in this aspect was actually good for them. This worked very well so even other states started following the Zhao state.

As more states started following a pattern of horsemanship with archery, the need for good quality horses increased. The other societies did not have knowledge about how to grow horses.There was a powerful confederacy called the Yuezhi which lived near China and maintained friendly relationship with agricultural China.They were middlemen between China and nearby regions.

During the warring states period, when northern China needed horses it naturally turned to the Yuezhi. To the east of Yuezhi on the Mongolian grassland there was a powerful confederacy called the Xiongnu who were in constant conflict with agricultural China. Just then Shihuangdi united all the warring states and established his empire.The Xiongnu were the foremost threat to the Qin dynasty.

So the Qin (later Han) dynasty would send large quantities of silk to the Xiongnu to appease them or to trade for horses.Only exotic goods from foreign lands would mark the difference between the ruling elites and their followers. Then a chief of the Yuezhi came and traded for silk with a very good breed of horses and gave the silk to the steppe.Then the people on the steppe paid him ten times his investment with his livestock.This not only made him rich but also made him a very good friend of the Qin emperor.The Qin emperor showed his appreciation by giving him the highest ministers of his court.He supplied them with military horses in a very crucial time.

The Qin emperor exhausted his people by giving them big projects such as the Great Wall.Then the decline of the Qin empire took place because of a devastating civil war.The Qin empire was later replaced by the Han empire.

The Han empire was in a very defensive position.The Xiongnu once surrounded the emperor of the Han dynasty and almost took him prisoner because of which many lands were laid waste and the Han dynasty were short of horses. Even the king was going on bull carts.

Then the Han dynasty started sending princesses to the Xiongnu’s court hoping to better the attitude of the nomads towards the Chinese.The Han princesses gave them huge dowries mostly silk and grains and the Xiongnu would give them horses in return to their new father in laws.This exchange ensured peace around the gates of the great wall.

After the Han dynasty gained power it stopped sending princesses.A century later the Xiongnu split into two northern and southern.The ruler of the southern asked for the hand of the Han princess hoping to make an alliance with the Han against north Xiongnu.The king took his chance and ordered his courtiers to search for a beautiful girl from the outer harem.

The princesses of Han court mostly spent their lives by not seeing the emperor.A princess named Wang Zhaojun volunteered for the harsh life on the steppe because she felt a life on the steppe might be much better than a life in isolation without possibly even meeting the emperor. She was the princess who was chosen to give to the king of southern Xiongnu.

Yuandi [the emperor of Han] on seeing Wang Zhaojun for the first time on the ceremony was amazed by her beauty and wanted to keep her in his court.But the marriage would be beneficial for both sides and he gave up on his idea of keeping her back with him.  Wang Zhajoun gave birth to many princes and princesses. Peaceful relationship lasted between both of them for many decades.

An emperor called Wudi started fighting against the Xiongnu.He sent military expeditions to the steppe and capture many horses and pushed the Xiongnu out of China.Even then the Xiongnu were looting Chinese villages. He heard news of conflict between the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu. Wudi was planning to send an envoy to the Yuezhi hoping to make an alliance with them against the Xiongnu.But no one was willing to undertake this dangerous journey.But a person called Zhang Qian answered his call and went with someone called Ganfu who knew a lot about the steppe.But while he was going he and his men were captured by the Xiongnu.He managed to escape after 10 years. He learnt about the styles of his captors during this period. Meanwhile the Xiongnu had defeated the Yuezhi and the made the skull of the Yuezhi’s leader a drinking vessel.

By the time Zhang Qian reached Yuezhi, the chief of Yuezhi had no interest in a military alliance with the Han.Though he stayed there for an year he could not convince the king to fight.Again while he was coming back he was captured by the Xiongnu.But anyways this time he managed to escape much earlier.

When he went back to the court of the Han he told them everything about the Xiongnu.During his stay in Bactria he saw  that south western Chinese goods (bamboo and cloth) were selling well and when he asked them where they got them from they said India.Then Zhang Qian thought if the goods had reached Bactria from India there had to be another route to the the west that circumvented the Xiongnu.

So Zhang Qian suggested that he send expeditions to explore other routes.But there were no other routes.The only route passed through the mountains of Yunnan.The people there did not see any benefit for them by letting people go through that place so they would resist or kill them. The only route passed through the steppe.

Meanwhile the Han campaign against the Xiongnu was going on.After several military expeditions sent to the steppe the Xiongnu were no longer a direct threat to the farmers.Then the interest of both the sides shifted to trade and trade routes.

Then Wudi started protecting the long corridor between the Tibetan plateau and Mongolian desert. He extended the great wall and put garrisons all along the great wall and put headquarters in a town called Anxi.

The trade in silk spread the fame of Chinese beyond the steppe.Zhang Qian later served as the ambassador to the Wusun, a nomadic group roaming to the west of the Xiongnu.Since most of the societies knew how to make textiles through animal fur or plants the idea of making silk through silk worms was new.With the migration of the Yuezhi to the west this unique art also went to the west.

Though military conflicts between Yuezhi,Xiongnu and the Han empire disrupted transportation it would again be normal after they settled down. They contributed to certain demand for goods.This trade route together in modern times is known as the Silk Road which is a very important trade route.

Many countries wanted silk because China kept the production of silk a secret.Which means China was the only country which knew how to make silk.China first started trading with its neighboring countries and then with countries far away because of which other countries got to know about the silk. When people went to trade with other countries they would see the culture ideas etc over there.  If they liked it they would go and spread it in their country.This is how exchange of culture and ideas happened along the silk road.Countries traded with each other because each country was looking to get things they needed from other countries who had them and other countries would give them things which these countries did not have.

Now i will talk about what each country traded since my topic is how Mongolia, China, Rome and India were related to the silk road. India was famous for its dye, ivory, fabrics, spices and semi precious stones so it traded for all these and would get something back in return.China was famous for its silk so it would trade for silk. Rome was famous for its bathing oils and other artefacts. Mongolia was not famous for anything but they were very good fighters and would invade and take things for other countries.



In the wastes of the Mongolian steppe in Northern China, the Xiongnu tribes were gathering under a ruler named Ghengis Khan. At that time China split into two – the south was ruled by the Sung dynasty and the north was already ruled by the mongols and it was called the Manchurian dynasty. In the West, the muslims were divided into regional powers so there was no one who could fight the Mongolians.Then the Mongols started expanding their kingdom.Anyone who resisted would be killed.Then they attacked a city on the silk road and killed all the people and the cats and dogs in the city. But they would spare healthy people,craftsmen etc and send them elsewhere where they could put their minds to good use.The cities which were destroyed by the Mongolians were built by them again.For the first time the silk road was under the control of one power. The Mongolians needed some routes through which they could communicate so they used the silk road for this.

Whenever a Mongolian leader died they would not go to attack till a new leader was appointed. When the son of Ghengis Khan died, people from far afield came for the election of the new Mongolian leader. Meanwhile the Europeans wanted to extend their influence further eastwards and the newly elected pope in Rome wanted to spread Christianity and wanted the Mongols to convert to Christianity so that they won’t invade Europe. The Pope sent an emissary to Mongolia to spread Christianity. The Mongolian leader was very disappointed because all the other emissaries got him lavish gifts except the emissary from Rome.When all the emissaries prostrated in front of the Mongolian leader only this person did not and said he only prostrated in front of god.

After this there was no way that the Mongolians would convert to Christians. But this emissary was a very good observer so during his stay in Mongolia he had observed some internal conflicts in Mongolia.So after he went back to Rome and told his observations to the pope.It had turned out to be right so they were safe from Mongolian invasion.

Most of Asia was under Mongolian rule.It was around this time when the most famous travelers went to east. Marco Polo went along with his uncle and father to China and they were well received and they went to China in search of trade.So they said that they would return and left China.They returned after three years and the Mongolian leader (Kublai Khan) gave them high posts in his court.They were happy in the starting but realized that they could not go back home and had to stay there.But after 16 years he let them go.

This is how Mongolia was related to the Silk Road.Now i would like to move on to the next country which is ‘Rome’.


Around 2000 years ago there were two empires at either sides of Eurasia, the Roman empire in the east and the Han dynasty in the west .The Roman empire had full control over the trade happening in the Mediterranean Sea.The Han dynasty had conquered much of what is modern day China.

Both the empires were very far away from each other so they did not have any sort of conflict.But both the empires had a lot to trade with each other.The Romans valued China’s silk and the Chinese valued Roman metalwork and glass.Since they needed a route to trade they used the Silk Road to trade.This route connected Rome and China.But Rome and China never met directly because they were very far away from each other.

This is how Rome was related to the Silk Road.Now i would like to talk about the last country which is India.


I would even like to talk about the Gupta and the Kushan dynasty.First, India (as related to the silk road) was ruled by the Gupta dynasty and during the decline of the Gupta dynasty, the Kushan dynasty took over India.

I would like to start with the Gupta dynasty.

The Gupta dynasty traded with many countries.They used many routes out of which even Silk Road was one.Since they traded with many countries they could spread the Gupta’s culture and beliefs.They traded goods like precious stones,spices etc.They would trade fruits and other food for silk and other goods.They had certain laws for trade and for the profit of the country.An empire called the Hepthalite empire broke through their defenses this was the cause for the decline of the Gupta empire.

Kushan Empire

After the chief of the Yuezhi confederacy was killed they moved to a place near the Hindu Kush mountains.Then they changed their name to the Kushan and formed their empire which was known as the Kushan empire and the Kushans later became Indians.

The Kushans were patrons of Buddhism.They had many Buddhist monasteries in India and when people came to trade with the Kushans they would see Buddhism and when people went to trade with other countries they would pass through India and see Buddhism. Then even other countries started building Buddhist monasteries in their country. The Kushans started learning other languages to communicate well with the people who came to trade. Many people started coming to India to trade and to look at the Buddhist monasteries in India.

They started building buildings with good quality bricks and cement in villages also and roads to link cities to the ports so that they could benefit from maritime trade also.

How did the Kushans transform from nomadic conqueror’s to an empire?

The Kushans were originally middlemen and from there they transformed themselves to an empire.They unified some groups that had similar religious beliefs and established their empire. After the Kushans established their empire, they again started following the cultural patterns they followed when they were on the steppe.The Kushans encouraged the religions that were already there in India.



While i was doing this project my aims were-

  1. Improving my research skills
  2. Explaining what i learnt to others and seeing whether they understand or not what i aim to communicate.

I would like to do a quick recap of what i learnt about the silk road.In this project i learnt about how India, Rome, China and Mongolia were related to the Silk Road, how did they influence the trade happening on the Silk Road,and how and what did each country do to benefit from the trade happening on the Silk Road.



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