‘The Forgotten History of India’s Maritime Past’ — A Talk by Sanjeev Sanyal
The Srijan Foundation organized a talk by Sanjeev Sanyal at the Jawahar Lal Nehru University. The topic of the talk was ‘The forgotten history of India’s Maritime Past’.
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.
You have similar stuffs going on in the Western Indian Ocean as Indians begins to trade with the Roman Empire as well and the roots of this Roman Empire and what was going on has been left to us in a manual called “The Periplus Of The Erythraean Sea” this is a manual is fascinating, it’s Greek, Greek Egyptian manual and it clearly tells us the route it was taken by merchants coming from the Roman Empire, to trade with India.
So where did the start off? There were two starting parts, you could start either in Alexandria or you could start off in Tyre or Sidon. If you started off in Alexandria, you could go down the Nile a little bit and then there was actually a canal which connected the Nile, across from what is now Cairo across (to the) somewhere near where the Suez is. So, the Suez Canal you see today is not the first version of this Suez Canal, even thousands of years ago there was a canal. The problem was of course it was a sandy area, so every time it was a real problem keeping it clean, but there were several attempts to keep it going, there was another route you could go furthered up down the thing, to the first cataract and then also there was another path to a place called Bernica, you could ,you have to cross by camel from the Nile to the coast, there was another route and then there was another route which I mentioned which was from Lebanon and what is now Israel area, across through the desert, through the ruins, now Petra, that was why Petra was so rich because it was a caravan route and then it reached a place called Aqaba.
Anyway, whichever way you came, you ended up in the Red Sea and then you basically made your way down the Red Sea trading on either side of the thin narrow sea. You traded your way down it. Incidentally the word Erythraean Sea, in Greek Erythraean literally means red and that’s what it really means. Anyway having made that they then came up to Yemen and from Yemen they made a short hop across to a small island called Socotra. Now why is it called Socotra? Its origins are incidentally Dweepa Sukhadara -the island of bliss and it was full of Indians and Arabs and it was a major trading point, there even today all kind of graffiti left by Indians sailors, in some of the caves there. and from there you had a choice, now the old route was then to go North to Yemen along the Baloch coast and then you went across to Gujarat and so on and then made your way down south.
Now somewhere in the 1st century AD, some smart guy called Hippalus, discovered that you didn’t have to do this rather circuitous route, you could again use the monsoon winds and sail, right across to Kerala and very quickly a major port appeared in Kerala called Muchiri or Muziris, which is just a little north of modern-day Cochin in and around actually a village called Pattnam, found a lot of archaeological stuff from there from that period. So this was suddenly, by certainly, the early Roman period or even before the empire was still a republic, major trading routes were being set up.
This was a period after the destruction of the Great temple of the Jews, significant Jewish population also came and began to settle along this coast and so on. So what were these guys trading with each other? Now the Periplus tells us that the Indians were exporting among other things, Cotton, which was very highly prized, especially from the Gujarat area cotton, Iron and Steel goods, because, as I mentioned even while iron was an Indian invention, even in much later times Indian metallurgy was considered a very high quality, so there was all kind of steel and iron products and if you were coming from the Muchiri area, they were trading spices, black pepper was particularly important but also large number of spices that were brought in from Southeast Asia, were then made its way too Muchiri and then the Indians then, so these Indonesian spices made it to Indians, which was then passed on to the Romans and so and so forth.
So this was what the Indians were exporting. So what were the Indians importing? Now among other things Indians were importing Italian wines and very importantly it turns out they were importing women for the royal harems. So this leads us to one of the most important conclusion that we can draw from learning ancient Maritime history which is, that even in ancient times page-three parties used to involve foreign liquor and foreign escorts.
Now this period, so such a lot of trade that had caused a major problem, which was this, although the Indians were importing lots of women and wine, they were still running a large current-account surplus. Now how do you in an ancient world pay for a current account surplus? You’ll pay for it essentially in gold and the Romans were handing out so many millions of gold coins, that became a real problem because if you are pushing out lot of gold to some other country, then you don’t have enough gold in your own country to print coins and the Roman Empire by the 2ndcentury AD had a serious crisis and you have in the Senate, you know people like Pliny and others really arguing, you know they have a real problem, don’t have enough to gold print our own coin, you need to do something about these Indian chaps, so emperor Vespasian decided that he was going to introduce some sort of a ban on trade with India and he tried very hard initially, the problem was of course both the Indians and the Jews, very quickly figured out various smuggling routes and that whole thing failed.
So after a while they opened up trade again, but the Romans now decided that the way they were now going to deal with it was to reduce the amount of gold in their coins. So they began to debase their currencies. Now what did the Indians do in response? The Indians kept accepting these coins, so if you go to archaeological sites across India along the coast, you have lots of coins and depending on which period you go to, the amount of gold keeps diminishing. Of course it goes up and down depending on the time, but by and large the amount (of coin) the gold content keeps declining.
Now look at how this exactly looks like the world today. The Chinese keep running a surplus and Americans keep running a deficit. How do the Americans pay for it? It’s by printing dollars. We keep complaining that this is going to lead to bad things, but the Chinese keep accepting them, and Americans keep printing them. In fact they can’t print enough, because they’re not printing enough because the dollar is still appreciating.
So this unfortunately is the way the world works it was true of Roman times, its true of today. So this is another discussion, but one of the reasons I keep saying that, you know equilibrium as a basis for economics is complete bunkum, there’s never been an equilibrium and never will be.
Anyway, all this good stuff was going on, then around about the 6th , 7th century, the balance of power began to shift and of course it culminates suddenly, of course it starts out initially with the Arabs becoming more involved but of course, with the sudden rise of Islam, the Arabs become very very powerful and so the entire western part of the Indian Ocean suddenly comes in the control of the Islam, Islamic Khilafat and they impose them for the next thousand years or so a little less than thousand years, and almost total information blackout towards Europe and this is the reason that, the likes of the Vasco da Gama and Columbus would have so much trouble ,trying to find out information about India, because although in ancient times the Europeans knew a lot about India, they were blacked out for a significant period of time, but that does not mean that, the Arabs themselves didn’t take advantage of the situation, they were heavily trading with India.
Not many people realize that the second oldest mosque in the world is in India. In fact not very far from the site of Muchiri or Muziris, it’s called the Cheraman mosque, it was built while the prophet was still alive, in fact before he had even conquered Mecca, he was still in Medina and very likely (the people) the merchants who have built it, may have personally known the Prophet. So it’s quite amazing that India actually has, one of the oldest Mosques in the world, the second oldest mosque in the world. It is also as I said, has the oldest continuous Jewish Community world which are also roughly from the same area. It also has one of the oldest Christian population in the world which is also incidentally in and around the Muziris area. There is some controversy over whether or not St. Thomas actually came to India or not, but it’s fair to say that early Christians did come to India and settle in India very very early on. Much of their literature was written in Syriac which is similar to Aramaic, which was the language which Jesus himself would have used, so this community and I’m telling you, this is just one small couple of districts in Kerala, similar stories can be told all the way along the coast up north, various communities, various points in time came.
Of course the other famous community that would come and settle here would be the Zoroastrians or the Parsis and so on. So this is why because there was such a lot of trade going back and forth, these ancient communities had a footprint in India and when many of these communities got wiped out in their homeland, India somehow managed to carry on a memory of it and with the destruction of the Syrian Christian Community, just the in the last 2 or 3 years in Syria, it is fair now to say that, the Syrian Christian Community in India, is now officially the oldest continuous Christian Community in the world. So that’s quite an amazing history to have.
Now meanwhile a lot of trade was happening on the Eastern side as well. Now very often the ideas that Indians have is that, the influence of India always goes out towards Southeast Asia, that is not the case, it was not as if the Southeast Asian was sitting around and saying aaah!! The Indians have arrived and let’s take some “Gyan” from them (and). Not at all .They were doing their own thing too, so the Indonesian for example in the 8th, 9th, 10th centuries began to do their own explorations. In fact the first human beings to colonize Madagascar, just off the coast of Africa were actually Indonesian. It’s quite surprising because Madagascar is it’s actually right next to the origin of the human species, but somehow the Africans did not colonize Southeast Asia, it was the Indonesians who did so. But they were also interacting with India and there was lots of give n take. Nalanda University, of which we are very proud was partly funded by the Sumatran Kings, the Shri Vijayan Kings of Sumatra. So foreign funded universities is not a new thing in India. But even some of the most famous Kings of India may in fact have been of Southeast Asian origin and of course there’s a huge influence in the Northeast, which I’m not even getting into, because it’s not a matter of time Maritime influence but it can be a subject of another session, but even in Southern India, one of the greatest Kings of India, was a guy called, the Pallava king called Nandivarman II. Now the story of Nandivarman II is quite fascinating, because Nandivarman II has left us the story on the panels of the Vaikunda Perumal temple in Kanchi, where it says that, somewhere in the beginning of the 8th century, the king of the Pallavas died out, and there was real panic because he died early and dint have children and the Chalukyas were going to turn up and take over the place. There was basically chaos, so a grand assembly was called, of all the Chieftains and scholars etc. and they decided that they were going to go and hunt for another line of the Pallavas that had many many years ago gone o off to a distant land. So there was a (king ), a younger brother of a Pallava king a century earlier, who had gone off to a foreign land, married the local princess and had become the king and his lineage evidently was still alive somewhere, so very hurriedly (you know they )a group of learned Brahmins were put together and they were put on a boat from Mahabalipuram and was send off to someplace to get this king and they turned up at this court of this king (or) and they asked for one of his sons, he had four sons, this descendant of Bheema, and the first three refused to come, but the youngest one who was only 12 years at that time agreed and that young boy then got in and made his way back to Kanchi and he was anointed as Nandivarman II and (he became the), became a great king and many of the temples of the Pallava period (are from) because of Nandivarman’s contribution. Now who was this Nandivarman and where did he come from? Now if you go to this temple and you wander around, you find something very odd about all the faces that are there, carved on the walls. A very significant proportion of them are clearly oriental, there are even Chinese faces there. Yes, Vaikunda Perumal temple in Kanchi (answering the audience). Now my guess, he doesn’t mention it, but there are many signs that the Pallavas brided themselves, of being of having their female lineage, of that of the Nagas. In fact it’s there in some of their inscriptions. So while we do not know where the Pallavas themselves came from. The fact that they had this great pride in this female Naga lineage, suggest that they had, at least from the female side a Southeast Asian origin and this is interesting because, of course the Pallavas have enormous influence on Southeast Asia. You know their scripts of many countries even today are derived from Pallava script like Thai and so on. So clearly they had a lot of influence and there is, in fact even an inscription on Nandivarman II, in Malaysia and it’s very interesting where it is, it’s in the Bujang Valley, the valley of the snakes. So my guess is that he was possibly from Cambodia, Malaysia area and he came in the 8th century and took over this Kingdom and it’s quite amazing that today you know we would not imagine that one off the great Kings of Southern India was actually from that part of the world. Now history, of course kept going and there a somewhat better-known episode happens, which is the rise of the Chola Empire and the great raids that the Cholas did, in Southeast Asia, in the 11th century. Now why did the Cholas, were the Cholas doing raids on the Southeast Asia, in the 11th century? We don’t know for sure, but one of the reasons, very likely reasons and there is some circumstantial evidence to back it up is, that it is very likely that, the Cholas and the Song Empire of China were trading heavily with each other. There are in fact lots of remains of Hindu temples along the coast of China from roughly that period and it seems like the Sree Vijaya, may have been kind of getting in the way and asking for too much toll. Now like all Indians, when faced with high tolls, they go berserk. You see that every day on Indian highways. So not surprisingly they got up and said we must do something, so they got all their friends together at Nagapattinam, sailed across and beat those chaps up and it clearly says at Kadaram, there was the , you know the king of Kadaram was defeated, his elephants and all his various treasures were taken away and they were brought back. But this does not seem to have caused too much problems, because a little bit later, the Chola seem to have built a fairly strong alliance with Shree Vijaya and the kingdoms of that area and this is an interesting thing that is going on here. In the context of understanding the geopolitics of that area, you see the way we think about the history of Sri Lanka and southern tip of India is that there was a Sinhalese Tamil conflict. Now we tend to be colored in this because of much more recent episodes off separatist movement in Northern Sri Lanka. What actually was happening for almost all of history, except this recent episode was in fact the Pandyas of Madurai and the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka were in a pact against the Cholas who were from the, further up the Cauvery basin and the Cholas seem to have had allies who are in Southeast Asia. So basically this was the geopolitics of the time. The Pandya-Sinhalese alliance against the Chola-Southeast Asian Alliance and you can see that it goes back and forth quite a lot, but it’s quite fascinating that the geopolitics of that area, was driven by these very complex alliances. Now the question is, what was the basis, what was the (the) (structures) economic structure that was allowing all these trade to go back and forth? Now you may get the impression that it was all heroic traders and merchants who were putting their money on, life on (on) line and were trading with, making these great voyages. But in fact it was a lot more sophisticated than that. Many of these voyages actually happened, not by individuals going back and forth but through corporatized guilds. they are almost like companies, and many of them were caste based companies, most of them there in fact not caste based companies, some of them had names like the 500 and so on and said they all were most likely corporates multinational corporates and many of them lasted hundreds of years, who were doing this trade going back and forth. Some of them hired mercenaries to back up and protect their trade routes and they were very powerful and there were several of them in Southern India and what is even more fascinating is that much of the financing of this, was done by the temples. Now the general impression is that the temples were rich because the Rajas were all handing over large amounts of money to these temples, but have been the seed money, but one of the reasons many of these temples have such a lot of gold was that in fact, they functioned as Banks and we have copper plate, lots of copper plate remains of contract between the guilds. So there were merchant guilds, there were artisan guilds and they had contracts. Then there were contracts between the merchant guilds and the financiers, which were the temples and that was the kind of structure in which much of this was going on.
But then around about the starting with the 11th century but really taking off in the (12th century) 13th century really. This whole structure suddenly came undone, in India, of course there was the Turkish conquest and that completely threw the whole, it was not just political control, but one of the things that seem to have happened was that the destruction of temples, really messed up the financing of this whole network. So I have for many many years have wondered why after the Turkish conquest there is a dramatic decline of Indian, particularly Hindu merchants who are selling back and forth. The historical explanation is oh! you know it was because of caste restrictions and you know because of these Brahmins are bad chaps, didn’t allow any way to cross the seas and all that but that of course makes no sense, for the simplest reason, that the upper castes were some of the biggest beneficiaries of this trade, there were the merchant class of course, but the ruling classes, the Kshatriya classes at various points in time benefited from the revenues, but the biggest beneficiaries of course were the Brahmins themselves, because they were enormously (high) highly regarded in Southeast Asian courts and many of them sailed across, I mentioned, in fact one of the pioneers Kaundinya himself was a Brahmin. So there was no real reason for them to perhaps suddenly stop and I think a large part of this perhaps had to do a collapse in the network of financing that was holding the whole thing together.
There is also a similar collapse, just a few years later in the Middle East, and this happens interestingly just like when the Turks were invading India and conquering it, about the same time Islam itself was in enormous crisis because just 20-25 years after Muhammad Ghori came to India, you had the Mongols, who were sacking large parts of Iran and then ultimately sack Baghdad and so on.
So the whole network, the whole set up suddenly just was in complete crisis and it was just about recovering from this, a century later, when suddenly very large ships turned up, this is in the early 1400 led by a eunuch Chinese General called Zheng He and he brought these massive ships, these ships were really enormous, I mean they’re modern, they’re modern scales. This huge series of treasure ships, that came in the early 1400, have made voyages across through Southeast Asia to India making its way to Africa and there was a series of them, led by this General Zheng He, who was a eunuch incidentally and it was not incidentally a voyage of discovery, because many of these routes that that I was talking about was very well-established as I mentioned earlier.
What they were trying to do, was really showing who was the boss and so the Chinese came to this part of the world and they were going around essentially one by sheer scale overawing the locals. But very quickly they also begin to meddle with the politics of this area, so they captured one of the claimants to the throne off Sri Lanka and took him back and brought him back and then tried to place him on the throne, they have or may have changed the Zamorin or Samuthiri of (of) in Kerala, (they may have) of Calicut, Kozhikode is the correct word or maybe I think not the correct pronunciation anyway. So they may have interfered there, so they were messing around with the politics of various places using their muscle, (but one) possibly the biggest influence of that, however was in Southeast Asia and the Islamization of Southeast Asia, which as I will show you was really a Chinese project.
Now remember after the 12th,13th century the Hindus of India became less much important in the trading networks outside of India, but the Southeast Asian Hindus particularly of Java were very very active. In fact it was really in the 13th, 14th century where you have this massive expansion of the Majapahit Empire based out of Java and basically took over fair section of what is now Indonesia, even parts of now what is Malaysia and they were the guys, who when Zheng He was making these great voyages were looking on all of this very very suspiciously and in fact, in couple of occasions, they captured some of the Chinese envoyers and decapitated them, just to send the signal. It didn’t go down very well with the Chinese, who then began to encourage an alternative Center of power, in a place called Malacca which is in Malaysia, just north of Singapore. They had a king called Parameswara, who they encouraged to convert to Islam, they in fact, Parameswara also visited the Chinese Emperor and they give him a lot of money and then as consequence of, with Chinese backing, the kingdom of Malacca became increasingly more powerful and the Majapahit began to withdraw.
The next two centuries, there was a dramatic shift in the religious composition of Southeast Asia, but the Chinese themselves didn’t hang around to benefits from this, because while they may have been very successful with these great voyages, with these big ships, as always what really gets you not meant military power but politics back at home. Now what happened is that, the Emperor who was backing Zheng He died and the next Emperor was essentially under the influence of the Confucians Lobby in the court and they were very suspicious of the Eunuch Lobby, who were mostly, they were particularly in the trading business. So the Confucians essentially came up with the idea that the rest of the world had been, you know had been engaged with and nothing of great value had really come back from these great voyages, rest of the world was clearly too backward, to be engaged with. So the great treasure fleet was essentially left to rot and the records of Zheng He’s great exploits were actually suppressed.
It’s only really in the 20th century that we began to rediscover them and so that was essentially the end of Chinese Naval power in the 15th century, which opened up the space for Vasco da Gama, who turned up at the end of the 1400. Now much of this is well-known and I’m running out of time, so I’m going to skip through a bit here.
As you all know Vasco da Gama came to Calicut and very quickly, within a decade or little more than a decade, the Portuguese created a bunch of these, what should I say, staging points, outpost all along Southeast Asia. They also established a reputation for extreme cruelty. Now this is not a time where people got easily scared of cruelty, I mean these are the people who have just gone through the Turks and Mongols, but even in that context the Portuguese were thought to be way off the charts. Now just to give an example, Vasco da Gama would routinely and other Portuguese, Vasco da Gama himself did this, would take ships taking Muslims for the Hajj (across, to) from the Indian coast to Arabia and they would simply set the ship alight, in mid ocean with all the people on them, just to create terror in the minds of the people who were not listening to them. So very very quickly they began to establish these outposts and using Maritime power and cannons which they had, they established this network and for about the first, I would say hundred, 1300 and 1400 years or so, the Portuguese were the great maritime power in the Indian Ocean. This does not mean that they didn’t get any resistance at all, they did, there was the Sultans of Gujarat, who tried to get the Turks to send in ships, to try and fight them, to fight the Portuguese. There was a great battle just off Diu, in which the Portuguese essentially destroyed the Turkish fleet but there were other indigenous attempts as well and one of the most the successful of them is almost entirely forgotten today, was actually a warrior Queen called Abbakka, she and her daughter and granddaughter for almost 80 years resisted the Portuguese, from their kingdom, in an outpost called Ullal, which is very very close to Mangalore and this Warrior Queen, she was a queen, of course remember this coast has a very strong matrilineal, and occasionally matriarchal tradition and she using Coastal ships, she used to essentially trap Portuguese ships, occasionally sinking them, capturing them on several occasions defeating the Portuguese, the first queen Abbakka was herself captured and killed but her daughter and then her granddaughter kept up the war. Now the oral histories of that coast line have lots of stories about Abbakka, in fact there are dance drama and Yakshagana and other performances done in the name of Abbakka, but there are almost no histories written about her, certainly not in English, I believe there are some in Tulu, which is the language off that area, but it is quite shocking that, we Indians do not remember these stories of resistance, we were much rather, actually know a lot about the European side of the story, oddly enough the European themselves do mention occasionally Abbakka. But we very rarely talk about it. So I think one of the things that I want to do to through this attempt to at least document some part of our maritime histories to bring out some of the stories.
Now the Portuguese control on the Indian Ocean however did not last much into the 1600 because the Dutch, and many other people forget the Dutch East India Company arrived in the scene and through the 17th century, they became the dominant power, maritime power in the Indian Ocean. The Dutch East India Company was so powerful that it could essentially dictate terms to everybody else including the English East India Company and on several occasions, you know defeated them, sank their fleets and did other bad things to them. By the late 1600, 1700, they had basically taken over what is now Indonesia, they have taken over Sri Lanka and they were beginning to eye India, particularly the Kerala Coast, which was the source of black pepper. When they came up against a very tiny kingdom ruled by a chap called, Marthanda Varma, Martha Varma again unless you happen to be from Southern Kerala you probably have never heard of him, but Marthanda Varma decided that he was going to take on these guys and he trained his soldiers to take on European fighting tactics and he defeated the Dutch in a major battle in a place called Colachel, which is very close to Kanyakumari, just north of Kanyakumari and he completely decimated them and if it hadn’t been for Marthanda Varma, I would have been given this lecture to you in Dutch.
Now following this defeat, he somehow also managed to convince the Dutch Commander to switch sides to him and he then began to train his army, using European tactics and European guns. So using this Dutch De Lannoy, was his name and he basically got very tiny kingdom, but very quickly uprooted the Dutch from all along that coastline and the shock of that was so large that essentially from this point onwards the Dutch East India Company went into decline and opened up the space for the French and then ultimately the English East India Company. Now I’m going to stop here because A) I think it might be fun to have a conversation and secondly my throat is beginning to hurt.
Thank you sir for the wonderful talk we can have a small question answer session.