Book Cover

Book Cover

Friday, March 30, 2012

Introduction to the Book "Hind Mahasagar Ka Sanskritic Itihaas"

A Cultural History of Indian Ocean

दक्षिण पूर्व एशिया,हिंदुस्तान और
हिन्द महासागर

South East Asia, India and Indian Ocean

सांस्कृतिक इतिहास 
एवं नैतिक भूगोल
Cultural History and Moral Geography



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 India. 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.
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, China 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 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 Byzantium and hence to Sassanid Empire and Indian Ocean Countries.
            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 Byzantium 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.
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 India only. I mean Muslim country Maladives and its capital Male. What shall happen in case of global warming?. Ecology has been our concern.
           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 India may not be complete one, but both coasts - east and west, have been given due importance. Erstwhile documentation, be it 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.

                 Before the knowledge of  El Nino or La Nina affecting the monsoons arrived, we had useful parameters like trend of pressure in Darwin(Australia) and Zanzibar rain(April-May), Java rain(October-February) and South Rhodesian rain(October-April) dictating the Monsoon prediction9.  The four parameters cited above were used as predictors by IMD for its long range forecast models between 1886 and 1960. The unity of the region remains alive: Indian Oceanic states are not a thing of the past, tsunamis kept reminding us.
                   Brokers in western Indian port cities have their roles glorified in servicing foreign merchants – Turks, Armenians, Persians, Jews, Europeans and Banyans. The horse trading was on in real times. M.N.Pearson6 testifies the same in “The World of the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800, Studies in Economic, Social and Cultural History (2005)”. Oceans and their interconnectedness have also been dealt with. The rim states at the end face the fury of Indian and other oceans as well. The reversal of flows and currents: Mozambique and Mediterranean, Tonle sap and Mekong are all dealt with a light hand. Southern Sea and new findings from it shall have repercussions in climate change arguments. A brief introduction to the new controversy because of new knowledge— the importance of Antarctic is well known as 80% of glaciers and hence the planet’s heat sink is there—can dictate sanity in dialogues and discussion.
                History of Polynesia/ Early Africans is genetic and linguistic. The interconnectedness and the anthropological principles are required to be known when the new settlement in South East Asian region is discussed. The principles of formation of states undergo radical revision when massive archeological findings are taken into account. Modern findings arereflected in the book.
 A detour of the Hinterland
           If we study the history of just one temple state say Angkor its expansion and later abandonment the moral of our story shall be complete. Angkor did see many phases but the religious discourse and temple structure had its imperatives. If texts like Pratima Sastra  and Vishnudharmottara Purana were in the literary and sculptural background, the geography and hydraulic requirements were also the arbiters say the addition of temples in the sequences to the tank/Indra tatak , Yasodhar tatak, Jai tatatak etc. had a functional requirement the new research shows this amply. The morals had a geographical dimension nay, imperative. Fletcher7 and Kummu8  hypothesizes about the topographical necessities and addition of features and temples and complexes of hydraulic networks. Future research from land and sky is likely to prove him right. The largest pre-industrial pre-modern empirical show, that is Angkor, shows what new historiography can achieve. The hinterland and the oceans are connected in a strange way. If a Chinese had to visit the Angkor temples or trade there, he will not come from Yunnan to Angkor via Mekong river to places below, instead  he shall take a sea route, come to Mekong delta and then move up to see the brilliance that was Angkor. What did we do in 19th century? The imperialists could not discover the upper Mekong region as late as 1860’s.
People, Pilgrims and Priests
            The historical Indian Ocean, to borrow Braudel’s phrase “seems to be a concept of infinite expansion….We might compare it to an electric or magnetic field or more simply to a radial centre whose light grows less as one moves away from it, without one’s being able to define the exact boundary between light and shade…We should imagine a hundred frontiers, not one, some political, some economic and some cultural”.
         Littoral and Hinterland interact. But whose history shall we sing, literally? Who are the people in this history? As Pearson writes:“Various merchants, mostly Guajarati’s, both Hindu and Muslim, are somewhat divided: some make most of their transactions by sea, and even travel on it themselves. Others supply goods to exporters, others again engage directly in land commerce. And many fit in all three of these broad categories at different times. This also applies to peasants and fishermen. As Braudel10 and Le Roy Ladurie noted some would derive most of their livelihood from fishing and sailing, but perhaps most would do this and also cultivate a plot of land. Others could cultivate land on the water’s edge yet have nothing to do with the sea. Similarly, most Brahmins in the temples of coastal Gujarat and Saurashtra, although spatially located by the sea, in no sense can be considered to be influenced by masritime matters. Some however accompanied Hindu merchants overseas, to East Africa and the Red sea especially.
            This same point of variability, even among people actually on the coast, can be made with regard to the Orissan pilgrimage center of Puri. Most of the resident Oriya and Bengali pilgrims to the temple of Jaganath regard the ocean as the edge of the land, or a wild fascinating backdrop, as also presumably do the Brahmins and the other residents in this temple complex. For them the beach on which their modest huts are built is virtually alien alignment. The point, most simply, is that it is dangerous to even talk of littoral society of one automatically includes in it all the people near the sea.  Even coastal residents may have very different perceptions and attitudes.
            Religious affiliation provides a clear example of this, and demonstrates very well the influence of landed norms and prescriptions on people at sea. There were normative prohibitions and discouragements to maritime activity from the great traditions of both Islam and Hinduism. As is well known, for caste Hindus sea travel was considered to be ritually impure. From the Muslim side, consider the following two aphorisms reflecting the ethos of the land-oriented elite. “God save the land to the Muslims and the sea to the infidels”. “Merchants who travel by sea are like silly worms clinging to logs”. Yet despite these attitudes, we know very well that both Hindus and Muslims travelled and traded extensively by sea.” Hajj defines the whole Muslim world and unites the trading community of Cotton.
Definition Again
        Can we come back to the problem of definition of the boundaries of the Indian Ocean? The loosely held definition- can it work? Well I have two quotes: “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms” (Voltaire) and “I hate definitions” (Disraeli). M.N.Pearson puts the “Littoral Society: A Case for the Coast” to test. The history of the Indian Ocean is the history of Littoral. Is it true? We can find the answer if we delve deep. “…As regards maritime history, some problems can be avoided if the focus is on littoral, for by definition it includes both land and sea: it is indeed land located on the sea shore, or that part of land that has been influenced by the sea6.
     Littoral Society studies must include appreciation of landed society and so avoid the tendency to see people at sea as sui generis. Continuities in ocean history have new arbiters. 1498CE is not water shed, nor is 327BC or 1526CE. At 1500CE, ‘the nature and quantity of the sources change radically, the history of coastal Western India does not.’ The shackles of largely European derived documentation have been broken. To quote Braudel (and we start with a salute to Braudel’s ‘Sangya to Visheshan’: Noun to Adjective): “the sea is everything it is said to be: it provides unity, transport, and the means of exchange and intercourse, if a man is prepared to make an effort and pay a price. But it has also been a great divider, an obstacle to be overcome.” Ecology of Aquatic system13, 14  has a new emphasis. Estuaries, Rivers, Lakes and Ponds on land, upper Oceans, lakes in open ocean all have a new dynamics Oceans – the new Discovery, Disney serial shows this by many examples.
        Indian Ocean has as many surprises as the southern Ocean (Antarctica) other than the Ozone depletion and the new river like flow near Kerguelen Plateau. We have to deal with these new parameters in the old debate of climate change and global warming. Ecology is the first Science. Shiv Ji bole15 : Ecology First is the new poem (Ecology First: Thus spake Shiva). Cotton is quintessentially ecological and India-logical
      This book condenses many scientific research articles in popular fashion and they enlighten the whole discourse of the Indian Ocean. Verses in vernacular—poetry in Hindi— will not play havoc to understanding. It will be a real nine-course sea-based dinner that connoisseurs shall relish. Others shall see the smile on the face of connoisseurs and vicariouslyjoin the party.  Sky, nay, Sea is the limit.And monsoon muddles them all. Sunshine awaits. And there is a rainbow around. Subhas  Chandra Bose16 had a glimpse .

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

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