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BW Businessworld

Windows On The Sea

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Darshak Itihas Nidhi is a foundation created in Baroda for historical studies. Its first publication was a biography of Bhagwanlal Indraji, a Gujarati archaeologist who in 1885 made a definitive decipherment of a 157 BC inscription in a cave in Orissa describing the victory of Kharavela over Satakarni. This second publication consists of papers presented at a symposium in Mandvi, Kutch, in October 2010. It contains 34 papers grouped under hydrography and archaeology, technology, shipping, trade, East and Southeast Asia, memory as validation, and mercantile communities.

Quite a few archaeological sites in Gujarat are now under the sea, including those near Dwarka. Conversely, inland sites like Lothal and Dholaveera have features that suggest that they were seaports. The first four papers investigate the likely changes in sea level. Apparently, the sea level was 2 metre higher than now 6,000 years ago. It fell to 0.8 metre 4,700 years ago; then after a brief rise, fell to below the present level around 4,200 years ago. It then rose again to 0.9 metre above the present level 3,000 years ago, and then fell again to below what it is now 2,500 years ago. Submerged archaeological sites in Pindara and Dwarka suggest that the sea level has risen again in the past 1,000 years. If the sea was higher than now at any time, it would leave a record in the form of erosion, shells, etc; if it was lower than now, whatever evidence it left would now be under the sea. So we cannot say how much lower it was.

In this study, archaeologists have tried to date their finds on the basis of artifacts and objects of trade; on those bases, they have found many sites of the Harappan period (2000-1500 BC) and of Roman times (500 BC-500 AD). Honor Frost was invited but died before the conference; her work shows that stone anchors found on Gujarat coast are like those in the Levant and the Mediterranean of 3,000-3,600 years ago. That does not prove, however, that the Gujarat anchors are that old. For some reason, scholars writing in this volume have avoided carbon 14 dating.

There are two papers on shipbuilding. One is on Chinese innovations in the technology of sailing ships, especially the rudder. Another is on Indian technology over the ages, especially the stitching of planks with rope, which has been found being done still by a boat builder in Navsari district. Gum is used to make these boats, but there are no nails and screws, presumably because these were prone to rusting before the coming of stainless steel.

The ships were, of course, used for long-distance trading. Mesopotamian (Iraqi) text from the 3rd millennium BC mention wares from Meluhha, which broadly meant India; there were no specific names for Sind or Gujarat. But while walking in the fields of Nani Rayan, a village near Mandvi , Pulin Vasa found beads from Mesopotamia before Sargon (2100-2200 BC), Roman wine jars (500 BC-500 AD), and coins of Byzantium (Turkey) (600-700 AD).

When Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian explorer, came to Maluku in Indonesia in 1521, he found people wearing clothes of beaten wood bark; this sort of fabric is still made on Pacific islands and used ceremonially. But they were also importing cloth from Gujarat. It was ornate, like today's patolas, and expensive; the people endowed magical properties to it, and clothed their gods in it. The Gujaratis wove patolas, but did not produce the silk for it; it probably came from Bengal or China. In exchange, they sold pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace, camphor, etc.

When the Portuguese came to the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century, they could find no space there. People were trading actively across the Indian Ocean, but they had everything; there was no product they wanted to buy from the Portuguese. The Portuguese solved their problem by robbing ships. That involved fighting, where the Portuguese found their comparative advantage. Their ships were taller, slimmer and faster. They had more cannons and guns. Still, they had to overcome the local navies. The sanguine story of these hostilities between the Portuguese and the Gujaratis is told by Luis Filipe E. R. Thomas.

There is much more in this rich volume — for instance, about Parsis, Bhatias and Khojas, about the language of fishermen in Diu, about Sufi Gujarati settlers in the Philippines, and so on. I am inclined to say there is too much. The book is big and heavy; it is not a book one can hold in one hand and read in bed. And the material is extremely diverse. Varadarajan should bring out a second edition in three parts.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 04-06-2012)