A Cultural History of Indian Ocean
दक्षिण पूर्व एशिया,हिंदुस्तान और
East Asia, India and Indian Ocean
एवं नैतिक भूगोल
Cultural History and Moral Geography
WAVES IN PROGRESS
The last wave
in Indian Ocean
He tried ignoring the sea
But it was bigger than death, just as it was bigger than life….
He tried just being in the same world as the sea
But his lungs were not deep enough….
(Crow and the Sea, Ted Hughes)
A search for a proper epithet is always an arduous work, and in my view for this subject, an ideal title could have been Work in Progress. But as the subject is really related to waves in the
Indian Ocean,- the above is more descriptive and basic. In 1978 K. N. Chaudhuri observed “There can be few aspects of Indian studies more neglected than that of historical geography” 4
In my view this still stands true. The idiom, that there are tides in the affairs of nations, is fundamentally true. However, I prefer to call these waves, and from a distance, both of time and perception, one could always count the waves and call them scripts! Scripts, both in the literal sense and in the figurative sense. Scripts, I would like to recount as the scripts related to Devnagiri and its main source language, the Deobhasha, language of Gods, that is Sanskrit (refer Map-1). Staa11l has suggested that Indian Script, Shapes and Symbols have penetrated in regions far more than thought earlier.
The other script is the prosaic reality of power politics -- in this power play nations have been playing against one another. The national affairs are the playground of time and space in the arena of the
Indian Ocean. The littoral states and their people have a lot of commonalities in their lives and culture. There are tides in their affairs. They do not rise and fall together, but definitely in tandem with one another. South East Asian states and the Greater or Further . The destinies have been linked together for at least two millennia. Geology has testified that the continental shelf have risen and lowered. The land has been bored out of the shelf’s and receding and upswelling of waters have played havoc with the lives of ports and port-towns. Many have been lost to the sea, and tell their own stories. Only you have to be attentive and listen to their whispers, and then alone can you perceive the devastation they bring. One has hardly the time to look beyond the ephemerals of life, or realize the dangerous proportions of their effects on mankind. India
It is necessary to define boundaries while writing on a subject where myths, legend and history intertwine. This boundary cannot be a brick wall, but a moving line as the waves itself, and the postures change revealing new forms and perceptions. Can’t I work with a loosely held definition suggesting that whatever is available as folklore is my Indian Ocean? The last half-century has seen an increase in the study of archaeology in
South East Asia. Marine archeology in particular and its maturing has also thrown up new data.
Ocean as Highway
It was calculated by some economists that as on 1 AD the GDP of the world if calculated at 1991 prices stood at $ 105 billions. It is interesting to note that up to 1800AD the GDP of the world was shared largely by
India, and some other countries in the Asian Region. The reason was because of the predominance of the silk route, and the resulting maritime trade. Can it therefore be concluded or debated upon that the history in China Indian Ocean till 1800 is Asian? Though Europeans traders had impinged on the coasts and hinterlands of Indian Ocean, but apart from changing the faces of the traders, the effect is minimal on the items of trade. The Regalities and Kingdoms, the respect and legitimacy of the ruled and one ruler is intact. The Ocean is not yet manipulatable to a large extent without its serious cyclical characteristics.
Pearson6 agrees, so does Felip Ferdinandez-Armesto12. For both till 1800AD, what matters in the maritime history of the Indian Ocean is wind systems, and specially two differences between monsoonal systems in the Indian Ocean and other Oceans with year-long prevailing winds (Atlantic trade winds are year long). The
Indian Ocean monsoon is predictable. “The predictability of a homeward wind made the Indian Ocean the most benign environment in the world for long range voyaging6.” Even before the birth of Jesus, Hippolytus had observed on the cyclical nature of the monsoons, and how it effected the trade cycles.
From the Mozambique Channel to the Straits of Malacca, all aspects of ecology have been touched through geological eons. The Modern historiography has seen a spurt in modern times. Five volumes of Al Hind have been consulted. The new writings of history in all its Mediterranean aspects have been in the background. The current trend of history and archaeology dictating each other in the South East Asian context has been taken due note of; Higham C. , Wink A. and Pearson M.N. are all in background. Their synthesis is right there in an intoxicating mixture. The churning of Indian Ocean Waves does yield to a new Lakme --Lakshmi of olden Puranic traditions. Well, the churning brings out something in prose, but the froth is also in form of poetry. The mixture is a heady one, but quite pleasant an experience. The book uses both prose and poetic forms, some borrowed as well.
The waves are Economy, Geography and Religion. Cotton trade has seen its highs and lows .Instead of telling the story of many tradable items we have chosen , which was liked by one and all, Gandhi included . He could see the potential of KHADI in 1909 Hind Swaraj testifies that. And all through these centuries the story is worth a long tale with a tail.
Silver shine of Indian Ocean bullion exchanges can be favored thus1:
“Prior to seventh century, the movement of gold had been a linear one from west to east, from Western Europe to
and hence to Sassanid Empire and Indian Ocean Countries. Byzantium
Europe was gradually drained of its gold due to its unfavorable balance of trades with Levant and now relied on its indigenous silver currency of inferior quality….Without gold, its trade of
origin was suspended. Europe was reorganized along feudal lines… Byzantium as yet maintained the single gold standard of their time, the Nomisma but also ran into monetary difficulties. Byzantium
Monetary position of Byzantium was also adversely affected by a massive drain of gold to Central Asia and Indian Ocean in payment of precious merchandise which the empire needed for its industries, and in payment of money to Sassanid, Persian.and Byzantium trade to Eastern Mediterranean: The position of Byzantium gold into Indian Ocean and Southern Russia was taken over by silver Dirham….Before Muslim conquests, volume of gold in circulation diminished, while that of silver increased over a wider domain.
It was this imbalance which the Muslim conquests redressed: By fusing Byzantium gold and Sassanid silver in a new bimetallic system by detheaurizing Byzantium and Persian gold stocks by bringing in new gold from new sources (such as Africa), and hence by transforming a linear movement of precious metals into circular movement, sustaining commerce along three continents.”
Two other quotes shall wait. But let us first explain raison d`etre of these endeavors. The cultural history of Indian Ocean, the modern tug of war between ecological process and madness of capitalism; patent-grant-subsumption type – one Main example shall suffice – is also in the background; the turmoil of other seas , their problems, which shall proliferate to Indian Ocean is also within reach. Let us see how.
But before that a river and its commission. The floods and dams. Those rivers who are leading to Indian Ocean-- take case of Mekong, rise in Tibet but unwinds in terms of countries, China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, North and South Vietnam (now one?). What are the other rivers in the region? To quote:
“The most powerful countries in the region took shape in more hospitable river basins:
China in Yang Tse and yellow rivers, Thailand on the Chao Phraya, Vietnam on the Red, and Burma ( Myanmar) on the Irrawady, leaving the lower Mekong to much diminished Cambodian Kingdoms. North of Cambodia the Mekong flows through the periphery, not the centre, of all of these countries.”
Now about one small country consisting of more than a thousand coral island streams across the
Indian Ocean. No, I do not mean Laksha-Dvipa, as that is part of only. I mean Muslim country Maladives and its capital Male. What shall happen in case of global warming?. Ecology has been our concern. India
Most of the Maldives coral is less than a metre above sea level. So a sea-level rise of three quarters of a meter this century, which many who study climate think it reasonable to expect, would wipe the country out. Even a less fearsome 20-centimetre rise, combined with bigger waves, could wreak havoc.
The abstract of a paper by Andre Wink1reads:The aim of this essay was to re-introduce a geographic dimension in the history of the Indian Ocean area—one that is not overly deterministic and helps to account not only for continuities but also for changes in social and economic organization over an extended period of time. It is widely acknowledged that Orientalist notions of political economy were marred by geographic determinism. From Marx to Wittfogel, generic concepts such as the “Asiatic mode of production,” the “hydraulic state” or “Oriental despotism” involved simplistic observations relating to climate and, particularly, the presence of large rivers and alluvial plains which were invoked to explain essential and persistent differences with the West2. Considering its overwhelmingly important role in this earlier literature, it is remarkable that the historical geography of the rivers and riverplains of the
Indian Ocean has not yet been explored in any depth. It is perhaps to avoid being stung by charges of determinism that historians of India and the Indian Ocean area in recent decades have, if anything, downplayed the importance of geography. And, as W. A. McDougall has recently argued, it appears as if current thinking in general has become “suspicious of a subject [geography] that emphasizes distinctions among regions, invites unflattering comparisons and hierarchy among nations and cultures, and has been used in the past as an intellectual tool of empire” 3.
Geography as the new Arbiter
The modern trend of Afro-Eurasia being one region has been taken as a genuine concern. We could have called ‘Asiafric-euro’ instead. Their new dimensions in geographical research have also been incorporated in the book. Monsoon sciences bring unity to the historical geography in a connected way.
Here we cover period from prehistoric times to modern age. A run of 100 years time- interval population studies of archaeological sites is available since 7000BC to 100BC. “The Ecological History of India” by Irfan Habib5 is an eye opener. The theme, though not woven directly in the text, has its warp and woof intact. From
Madagascar (Markat Marjar Katha – story of marsupials in Mozambique Channel) to Austronesian shores (Nautilus) has been scraped. The ecological aspect is completely immersed all over the book.
Now we bring out the salient underlying currents in the conception and crystallization of the book.
Plan, Policy and Periods
Concentrate where data is scarce. Build areasonable model. The sources could be diverse. The travels of Huen Tsang and other Chinese scholars could give an idea of traffic during those times – the varieties of people and pilgrims, puppeteers and priests who travelled by sea.
Writing about periods where data & sources are immense, through not fully mined yet, is beneficial, but that is not my goal. VOC, EIC and other colonial data sources, libraries and records of OttomanEmpire are immense date source in various languages. It could be ignorance of languages like Persian, French, and Spanish which hinders a meaningful interpretation. I desist because already there are true scholars who have delved deeper into it and given valuable regional aspects of modern history.
Some periods are more in focus because of new developments in recent years. The curiosity has been aroused because of these periods: 17th and 18th centuries and the richness of available data from then. And they shall be found to be quite interesting to everybody. They bring a wholesome depth to the whole scene. The coastal history of
may not be complete one, but both coasts - east and west, have been given due importance. Erstwhile documentation, be it India Indus or Periplus, Muziris or Konark/Chilka, has been updated in this latest publication.
A basic history of India before Christ is on the cards. The ports – lost, deserted, abandoned, shifted because of change of course of rivers and thus history— have a lot to tell. And very interestingly, they illuminate people's history as the ports and port towns have a live relationship with the hinterland. The ocean trails the continents. A run through the period before Christ, as history is studied today, is merely about the northern Indian mainland. During this period, southern parts and ports have seen their ascendency through Greco-Roman times.
Monsoon binds the region of Indian Ocean rim countries. The science and art of it has been presented. Prediction techniques used in last 150 years throw a wonderful light on the interconnectedness of the whole region. The logic of prediction methodology adopted adds a new dimension to this history of the whole region. Traders and port keepers must be using divining methods for the rains, with implications for monsoon prediction and repercussions on trade in the region, while processing and predicting the patterns in commerce and trade.
Map 1: See Reference 11
The Indian system together with its shapes was adopted by almost all the scripts of South, South East and Central Asia. The South and South East Asian scripts include Kharosthi, Brahmi, Gupta, Khotanese, Nepali, Nagri, Bengali, Gujarati, Oriya, Pallav, Grantha, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Javanese and Balinese. The Central Asian Scripts include again Kharosthi, Khotanese in addition to Tibetan and hPhags-pa.
Reference 11: 1. Map courtesy Frits Staal, Artificial Languages Across Sciences and Civilizations, Journal of Indian Philosophy (2006) 34 : 87-139