The Srijan Foundation organized a talk by Sanjeev Sanyal at the Jawahar Lal Nehru University. The topic of his talk was ‘The forgotten history of India’s Maritime Past’. First part of the Transcript of the Talk is given below.


I’m little concerned that I have been asked to bring order to disorder, none of my students through my educational career would have believed, none of my teachers in my educational career would have believed that I would be called on to do something like that.

The theme of my talk today is, the Maritime History of India and the reason I think it may be interesting to many of you is that, India is one of the great maritime countries in the world through history and unfortunately much of the history that we learn in our textbooks is very much continental oriented, so if you aren’t a specialist, you could be forgiven for thinking that Indian History is really about a series of dynasties who ruled Pataliputra, followed by a series of dynasties who ruled Delhi, all the way to the present day.

So my idea is to hopefully give you some flavor of another another history and it’s not just a theoretical sentimental view of History because, it has genuine implications for the way we think about our world today. Because if you take continental sort of Delhi centric view of Indian history you will get the impression that our, our neighbors, our neighborhood is about China and Pakistan, but in fact if you think about a maritime worldview, then our neighbors are Indonesia on one side, Oman on the other side. I’m not just taking into account of Sri Lanka and Maldives, but even further out perhaps as far as Vietnam because that is sort of in a sense the ecosystem of our history and so I’m going to give you a flavor of that.

I don’t have a very long period of time, I don’t want bore you with a long monologue, so I will be necessarily selective in the way I’m going through it, just to keep the story flowing, but hopefully I’ll be able to give you some sense of it. Incidentally what I’m talking about, is to some extend derived from a book I will be publishing later this year on the, it’s called a Brief History of India’s geography. It has a main title but we haven’t decided yet, but it’s a brief history of India’s geography.

Now the landscape of the Indian Ocean that we are going to deal with, one thing to remember about it, that is a living landscape, it is not dead landscape, the coastlines are continuously changing due to tectonic as well as rising and shifting shorelines and this is a very important thing to remember, as we go through much of what I will speak about. If you came to this part of the world, the Indian Ocean rim during the last Ice Age, which is more than eight, nine thousand years ago when it ended, but really I did speak about 14000 years ago. The coastline that you would have seen would have been ready very different. Much of the world’s water was stuffed in these massive ice sheets, that where covering much of the Northern Hemisphere, but also parts of the Southern Hemisphere and the water level was as much as between 100-150 meters below where it is now.

So as a result, for example all of the Persian Gulf was actually a flat plane, what you see now as Gujarat was well inside inland and the coastline kind of was a straight line which kind of went down south. Sri Lanka was a part of Indian mainland and all of the islands of Southeast Asia, almost all of them were part of one large land mass, which we now call Sundaland. In fact the ancestors of the Australian aborigines actually literally walked across all of Southeast Asia and then made a small hop across to Australia, so that was a landscape. Now starting around 12000 years ago, these melting glaciers and ice sheets began to fill out the these coastlines and from around twelve thousand years ago, you have for example, the Persian Gulf getting flooded, the Indian coastline getting flooded, ultimately Sri Lanka getting separated from India and so on and it is possible that the memory of this event, because it’s quite a catastrophic event is remembered in the flood myths of almost all cultures across the world.

So of course there’s a story of Noah, but also there is this Sumerian story of Gilgamesh. The Australian aborigines have a flood myth, the Laotians in Southeast Asia have a flood myth and of course we also have a flood myth the story of Manu and Matsya Avatar, the first of the avatar of Vishnu. So there are all these flood myths, very difficult to tell exact history from it, but it is tempting at least to believe that it may be a memory of these times.

But certainly by about 5000BC or thereabouts the coastline began to sort of resemble the coastline that we would be familiar with, but it would still be somewhat different. I’m going to start with Gujarat, because my story will start with Gujarat and the coastline of Gujarat during Harappan times that are being quite different even from now. People think that sea levels rise in a sort of linear way and then fall in a linear way, that’s actually not how it works. Within those big falls and rises there are lots of variations.

So during Harappan times, sea levels were in fact a little bit higher than they are right now and the Saurashtra peninsula, was in fact an island and you could actually go from the Gulf of Khambhat, (through) past Saurashtra into what was the Rann of Kutch because the Rann of Kutch was actually navigable, in fact not only was it navigable, it had two major rivers flowing into it. There was the Indus, which originally used to flow, in fact till the 19th century, use to flow into the Rann of Kutch and of course there was this massive river, the Saraswati which also flowed into this and satellite photographs clearly show that these two rivers flowed into it. Even today, you can with a little bit of messing around, you can tell that there are these two old channels going into it and of course weather was, climate was also quite different it was significantly wetter than it is now.

So what is now Balochistan was Savannah type area, much of early human migrations actually happened through Baluchistan. This is important remember because today it’s such impassable desert, that we tend to think of that you know people couldn’t simply be going back and forth. If you wanted, in pre-modern times to go from Iran to India you would actually have to go through Afghanistan that is in fact not the case through much of History.

So anyways, so you had this coastline and in that coastline cities began to spring up in the 4th,then 3rd millennium BC where they really begin to sprout out and the largest of this is, that we have so far discovered is called, a city called Dholavira. Dholavira today is well inland in the Rann of Kutch. As I mentioned the Rann of Kutch is now a salt plain, which occasionally has is marshy in the monsoons so otherwise salt plain and Dholavira is sort of like a hillock marooned in the middle of the salt plane. But in Harappan times, it would have been an island and it developed then into a major port, but there were other ports as well and one of the other ports was Lothal, which I’m sure all of you from your history books will remember it had this dried docks and so on. But the map of Gujarat, that I just laid in front of you, such as that in fact it should have been possible to go from Lothal to Dholavira, by boat and similarly there was on the other side, on the Northern side, an entry from what is now Dwaraka, where there was an, still an island there called Bet Dwarka, where also a lot of Harappan artifacts have been found.

So obviously, we are guessing, but it seems like basically what was going on there was this network of ports in Gujrat, where they were sailing back and forth out of it, those coming from the South would probably have probably gone through Lothal, which was possibly a customs post, before you reach Dholavira and there was probably another customs post for those people who coming in from the West at Bet Dwarka and then they made their way to Dholavira, probably did some trading and then perhaps some of these chaps made their way up North, through the Indus and while the Saraswathi was flowing up the Saraswati as well.

Now who were these chaps trading with? Now we have very good evidence that, they were trading at least with the following places, because a lot of seals and Harappan goods have been found all along these areas. one of them is Oman, there are lot of Harappan artifacts found scattered all over Iran, further inland in Bahrain, across the straights in Iran, in eastern Iran there is a newly discovered civilization called Jiroft, we don’t know what they called themselves but the area is called Jiroft, so it’s called the Jiroft civilization. It’s quite possible that given where their location is, it is really far to the east of Iran and it is very very close to several Harappan sites that have been found in Balochistan, that they may have been culturally some links, not only cultural links, but they may even have been probably the same people who were passing back and forth across what would I would call, the Indo-Iranian continuum and then further out towards Mesopotamia, there were all these settlements going all the way up the Sumerian settlements and in many of them seals and  other Harappan artifacts have also been found.

In fact, they have even found the records of people called the Meluha, who the Sumerians claimed to have been trading with, which sounds like they were Indians. There were many indications they were possibly the Harappans and there were even story about some settlements of Harappans living there. So the business of the Indians living in the Middle East is not a new thing, (we have been) we have been going to the Middle East for a long time and settling there. So that is kind of how things were happily trundling along, till something really bad happened.

Around about 2,000 BC and there’s plenty of evidence about this, around about 2000 BC there was a major climatic change worldwide and this is clearly shown not just in pollen records and other scientific things its actually shows through even an Acadian record where they have, tells us  that this really bad droughts was happening and roughly at this time, the Saraswati River which incidentally at this point had already whittled down quite a lot, simply disappears and a large number of settlements in and around that area simply begin to be abandoned.

Incidentally the old kingdom of Egypt also collapses at about this time and we suddenly see a dramatic drop in the number of Harappan artifacts that show up in all these area. Clearly the trade systems in this was breaking down. Now just as an aside we have never found any Middle Eastern artifacts  or even Central Asian artifacts in any Harappan sites. So this is very mysterious because although the Harappans were clearly exporting stuffs, including people, it is entirely unclear what on Earth they were importing.

Anyway, with the collapse of these Harappan cities we have clear signs that there was migration southward, towards the Narmada there was also migration out towards the Gangetic plains. Some of these sites, many of these sites show great amount of cultural continuity into what is called the later Harappan and then it fuses later through to the Gangetic civilizations. But I’m not going to go into that because my interest is maritime. Now what happens, and this is where now it gets more interesting, because you will be probably quite familiar with much of what I have just talked about.

Now what happens is that, suddenly Central and Southern India come alive. Now till this point for some reason (we) to the evidence that we have Southern India doesn’t really go through a Bronze Age, now Harappans and all (these) these civilizations that I mentioned were all Bronze Age civilizations and for some reason there wasn’t much of a Bronze Age in Southern India and you certainly have and about the time of the Harappan civilization was falling apart, the Iron Age suddenly appears on Southern India, they simply skip the Bronze Age and go into the Iron Age and this is very fascinating because the old idea was that, these iron implements and the iron age essentially came to India, along with the so called Aryans coming thundering down from Central Asia and it turns out that the earliest place where iron was actually found and used systematically is, not even in Northern India but in and around what is now Hyderabad. In fact, just a year ago some of the oldest iron implements anywhere in the world, have been found in fact inside Hyderabad University campus and so that was basically what is happening but meanwhile a little further to the east, you have an absolute explosion of maritime time activity that begins to now happen what is now Odisha and West Bengal.

The zone from the westernmost outlet of the Ganga which is, the one that we now call Hugli all down the coast towards Chilika Lake. That coastline, just now bust out with activity ,in fact very very recently like literally a few weeks back, a major new site which is over 1500 years old has been found just outside of Bhubaneswar, small town that has been found, but there are many many smaller ports all along the coast. And the Odiya now begin to do these major voyages. Firstly they begin to go slowly along the coast, so some of  these Odiya sailors and merchants make their way slowly down the coast and certainly by about the 5th,  6th,century BC, they begin to turn up in Sri Lanka and this is quite interesting because you would think that the people who would begin to populate Sri Lanka would be the Tamils and the Keralite who are right next door and they possibly did go to the Northern bits, but the first clear signs of what would we call “civilization” so as to speak, turns up with these people who are clearly coming from significantly further out. There were already some people living there, the Veddas, major group of people suddenly begin to turn up and they’re not just going down south, they’re also going down the other way, along the coast towards Southeast Asia to a place where Isthamus of Kra ,this is basically the thin strip of land from which Malaysia hangs off, now in Thailand and they’re going over there and some of them just hop across and then begin to sail across the Gulf of Thailand towards Vietnam, Southern Vietnam and Cambodia.

We now actually have some records, at least in oral histories and some inscriptions and in old mythologies, of what was possibly going, on in fact the founding myth of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka is in fact the story of Prince Vijaya who claim to be the grandson of a lion and a princess, bit of the story that I have some suspicions about. He basically takes 400 or so of his followers he’s thrown out by his father by the way for behaving particularly badly and he makes his way down the coast and he turns up in Sri Lanka and it is quite interesting that, these people then begin to settle in.

The majority population of Sri Lanka today takes its roots back to this migration of people, of course this must have been many migrations afterwards, but they take their roots back to this migration and they bring with them very interesting cultural motifs, that are still alive. Let’s take for example the idea of lion, now the lion is there in the Sri Lankan flag, but where did it come from?

Now if you go to Odisha and wander around in some of the more older sort of settlement of Odisha, one of the things that it will strike you is that, many of them have got Narasimha temples, this is also true of Andhra by the way. Even in Puri, the older Temple is not that to Jagannath but to Narasimha. And even today when the “Bhog” is first served, it’s not taken directly to Jagannath, but it is actually taken first to Narasimha. So the worship of Narasimha, or some sort of a veneration of the Lion was clearly very important part of the culture of that area, which is all very odd, because that is all tiger territory now. But this also incidentally signs of that in Bengal, which is also tiger territory but again, of course that veneration of Lion continues to this day because, Durga’s vahan is a lion. So I cannot explain why it is that, may be familiarity breeds contempt, so they didn’t think much of the Tiger or maybe the climate was different and there were more Lions there, I do not know, but it is the case that there was plenty of lions in the iconography of this part of the world and that gets transferred and survives to this day in the Sri Lankan flag.

Now similar things begin to happen on the other side, as these guys begin to trade with that Southeast Asia as well and it is quite fascinating, the name they begin to give this and I’ll come back to this they begin to call, in the Indic literature the term Naga is very very commonly used for the people of the snake, the people of the serpent and it seems to be systematically used for the people (of) with oriental features, why because, as you will see, it is a very important part of the iconography of Southeast Asia and how does this, what is the stories that, I remember from this time that tell us about this. So there’s a story which is very common in the inscriptions of Cambodia, Vietnam and so on, much later the Ankor and Charme empires rose but the story goes somewhat like this- There was an Indian Brahmin called Kaundinya who was sailing past the coast of what is now Southern Vietnam and Southern Cambodia, in the Mekong area and he was attacked, he was in the ship, he was sailing past with his bunch of traders and he was attacked by these pirates and he being a hero chap, he fought off the  pirates and drove them away. Unfortunately, what happened is that the ship was leaking as a result of this and he and his crew had to take it onto the shore and in order to try and repair it. So when they were doing this, the local tribe, (which) they were the snake clan, decided that they would they would attack them. So evidently, they were surrounded and yet again Kaundinya, being a brave lad took out his sword and was defending himself.

When the princess of the snake clan saw him and fell in love, her name, there are many names according to different traditions, but one of the names that is often used is-Soma, so Soma- the moon faced one, saw him and fell in love and proposed marriage to him and so Kaundinya I suppose, he didn’t have too much of a choice, but he married her and started a dynasty, which led ultimately to the foundation of these great, much much later, to the great Ankor and the Khmer civilization and of course the Charme civilization in Southern Vietnam.

What is fascinating about it also is, most of these lineages were matrilineal, not matriarchal. They trace their lineage through their female line, which is also reasonable because after all Kaundinya’s rise to, claim to royalty was through his wife and it’s quite interesting, this kind of continues to be remembered (through) for the next thousand years plus, because you can clearly see that many of the kings come to power, both in the Khmer and the Charme through the female line. So this remains embedded and this story then becomes the sort of the key myth on which the much of Southeast Asian culture is built. It is matrilineal, but also the iconography of the snake.

So, and you see that everywhere, so in Northern Malaysia, you have a major site (called) in the  Bujang Valley, in a place what was the kingdom of Kadaram. Now think about this it’s called the Bujang valley, Bujang means snake, snake valley and this term comes up everywhere. Later on, much much later when the Cholas would create ports to trade with Southeast Asia, what would be the port be called? It would be called Nagapattinam. So it is very very important iconography of the snake and the importance of it, which I will show you. Now somewhere down the line Odiya discovered that, this business of sailing along the coast was just too cumbersome and I suppose somebody who went down and that it was much much easier, to in fact rather than try and go along the coast to Southeast Asia, it would be much easier to actually sail down South using the winter monsoon to Sri Lanka and use the currents, the equatorial current, to go across to Sumatra and Java and so on.

So now what happens, it’s quite an interesting change in the orientation of the Indian trade with Southeast Asia, earlier it was through Thailand, Isthamus of Kra to Vietnam, now it’s suddenly reorients going south to Sri Lanka and then swinging across using the current to Java, to Bali, to Sumatra and so on and there also you see this explosion of Indic culture happen at this time. Now what is interesting is  while it is all very obvious (in) if you go to Bali or Java etc. enormous amount of Indian influence clearly suggests, shows you how much cultural flow was going back and forth. But very often (in our) in India we tend to assume that this was due to much much later Tamil influence, that is not the case.

The real great pioneers of the eastern Indian Ocean are really the Odiya and it shows through many other things. The slang word to this day, used for Indians in much of Southeast Asia is the world “Kling”. Of course now it has a slightly derogatory meaning, but the word Kling or Kalinga obviously it derived from Kalinga, is the slang word used or the word used, for Indians. The word for West in all Malay languages is Bharath, so you can see that there is clearly memory on the Indonesian side (of) why they have even named their country after India. So this is clear memory on the Southeast Asian side.

Now what is the memory that we have on our side, of that period? Interestingly, it actually lives very much in many many ways which till very recently, even though it’s right in front of our eyes we didn’t fully appreciate. One of the biggest festivals of Odisha is Karthik Poornima, now what happens in Karthik Poornima? In Karthik Poornima basically when the Poornima happens, you are supposed to get up before sunrise and particularly the women and children are supposed to go to the river or sea or the water body and put a small boat with a Diya into it, into the river or water body.

Now what is the significance of this? The significance of this is the following, you see around about Karthik Poornima what happens, the winds change. They stop flowing from south to North and begin blowing from North to South. So what is going on? So basically this is the point at which the Odiya sailors use to go off on their voyage, so that was basically, what are they doing? The family is saying goodbye to the sailors and the merchants, as they are setting sail and about at the same time in Cuttack, even today there is a fair called Bali Yathra, which literally means the journey to Bali. just think about this, this is real civilization memory right in front of our face and I have witnessed this myself.

Couple of years ago I went and witnessed a fascinating event, on the beach in Konark, they in fact do these plays and there is a story of Tapoi those of you who are Odiya may know the story, but it’s a story about a young girl, who was left behind with her sisters-in-law, when her brothers and father go on this long voyage and how her sisters-in-law mistreat her and then she prays to Goddess Manasa and you know the brothers come back just in time before really bad things happen to her and rescue her.

Anyways it’s a folktale, but it’s quite clear that this linkage with foreign travel with maritime trade is very very alive in day-to-day cultural motifs and it is also shown in Konark Temple, by the way, one of the big panels in Konark Temple is fascinating, there is a giraffe being handed over to the king. So clearly they were not just trading with Southeast Asia, there were also at some point clearly beginning to trade in the western Indian Ocean as well. Of course, this Konark Temple is from much later times than I’m talking about but nonetheless, I’m just point out that, this is not only happening in the eastern Indian Ocean.

To read the second part of talk please CLICK HERE.