Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Third Series)

Research Article

Hindus Beyond the Hindu Kush: Indians in the Central Asian Slave Trade*

Scott C. Levi


Historical analyses of slavery in India generally emphasize the escalation of this social institution during the era of Muslim domination in north India. The present study is not an exception to this rule. However, while historical records make it clear that the Delhi Sultans and Mughal emperors retained slavery in order to suit their political and economic needs, it should be emphasized that Muslim rulers did not introduce slavery to the subcontinent. Sources such as the Arthaśāstra, the Manu-smrti and the Mahābhārata demonstrate that institutionalized slavery was well established in India by the beginning of the common era. Earlier sources suggest that it was likely to have been equally widespread by the lifetime of the Buddha (sixth century BC), and perhaps even as far back as the Vedic period. Furthermore, just as slavery was common in India long before the eighth-century Islamic conquests in Sind, recent work demonstrates that the institution continued, in various manifestations, well after the decentralization of the Mughal Empire in the early eighteenth century. Still, it is argued here that the expansion of slavery in Muslim India is an important component of the medieval and early modern history of the region and, at least in terms of its role in the commercial and cultural relations of India and Central Asia, it is a subject that would benefit from further historical analysis.