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’. Second and final part of the Transcript of the Talk is given below.
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.
To read the first part of Talk CLICK HERE.