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Updated: January 4, 2014 15:45 IST

Afloat on the waves

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The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine
Special Arrangement The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine

A meticulous and systematic reconstruction of the maritime history of the world.

“I want to change the way you see the world,” declares Lincoln Paine in his magnum opus The Sea and Civilization. My interest in this “formidable” work is largely due to my interest in Tamil language and literature, in global maritime history and those of the erstwhile Tamil Kingdoms — the Chola, Chera and Pandyan nations — as well as my work related to climate, energy exchanges and such. The globalising influence of the Coromandel and Malabar coasts during the early millennia up through the middle-ages and beyond finds much space in Paine’s descriptions. It became clear to me that I must bring this great source book to the world of India.

We need a narrative of this sort in India where the parochial and regional descriptions of history often have overlooked some of the most important indigenous naval and commercial developments and voyages across the Indian Ocean to China and westward to the African, European and Mediterranean enclaves from the Coromandel and the Malabar Coasts.

H.G. Wells bemoaned the fact that the history of the world as written by the Europeans stood unconnected to happenings elsewhere. The art of selectively ascribing credit and glory to a few chosen civilisations is not peculiar to Europe. In India, much remains to be done in integrating knowledge, discoveries and achievements of the South into its national tapestry.

The Sea and Civilization meticulously and systematically reconstructs the maritime history of the world from diverse historic records, archaeology, contemporary travelogues, languages, literature, religious texts and folklore. In effect, Paine has catalogued and showcased the primacy of India’s coastal civilisations, as well as those of Southeast Asia, in shaping world history in significant measures. This includes the massive cultural impacts from the spread of languages, religions, art (visual and performance), fauna and flora, and, of course, commerce. The transmission of our modern number systems, various mathematical postulates and symbols such as the zero, infinity and pi among others to the Middle East and then on to Europe are known, prompting Einstein to comment, “India taught us to count”. The author describes the spread of Islam and the establishment of Muslim settlements in southern India and Southeast Asia including Rajendra Chola’s endowment for residences and mosques. The support and concessions offered by the Chola kings and the rulers of Srivijaya (the Malay state) to the Arab traders paved the way for all religions — disparate, fundamental, non-believing and secular — to co-exist in harmony.

Paine describes the robust trade routes with ships plying different sea routes from China to Baghdad where neither race nor religion seemed to have been an issue. Basra, for example, had every ethnicity represented in its groups of merchants, scholars, mendicants, pilgrims, labour, entertainers and plain folk from everywhere united by commerce and trade undertaken primarily by seafaring. The Baghdad geographer Al Yaqub believed that there was no obstacle to travel or trade between China and Tigris. Others considered the Persian Gulf and the islands of Socotra as the frontiers of the Indian Ocean. The schisms and inter-Arab/Muslim rivalries drove merchants to take a second and more reliable silk road by sea, from the southern coasts of India via Malaya, Sumatra, Java and then on to Ayuttathaya (Thailand) and China.

We learn from the chronicles of missionaries, church records and literature of the proselytising early Christians and Jesuits on all coastal areas of India. Buddhism under the seals of kings propagated the messages of the Buddha by land and by sea from Sri Lanka to China, Korea, Japan and in between. The Chera Prince Bodhi Dharman known as the Patriarch of the Chi’an [CHECK] (Zen of the Japanese) proceeded from Woriyur toward Kaviripoom Pattinam, the fabled Chola port to China, in the year 523 CE. Thus began the great Zen Buddhist traditions, the spread of Indian art and architecture and the martial arts originating from Kalaripayatthu of Cheralam, modern day Kerala.

Many ocean historians and those specialising in naval histories are revisiting and revising history in the light of new research and archaeological evidence from Mesopotamia, Mohenjo-daro, Indus Valley, from the East and from the ancient settlements of the Americas. These sources chronicle, confirm and remind us of the great and influential movements of peoples, flora and fauna across the world. Much remains to be explored, however, such as the Polynesian migration, the continuity of native cultures across the ice straits from Russia to Alaska and beyond and, in more recent times, the peopling of the Caribbean.

The art and science of sea travels and transportation of peoples, live fauna, flora and goods tells us the story of globalisation eons before it was a subject of business education. Indian products ranging from food and plantation crops to luxury goods, such as gold, silver, gemstones, silk, spices and incense; tiles, wood and indigo were the stuff of commerce and trade since before the Christian Century. The enormity of Roman gold expenditure for Indian luxury goods is said to have caused much dismay to Roman leaders of the time including Marcus Aurelius. Further references to the trade between India and the West are found in Periplus of the Erytherean Sea, Ptolemy’s Geography and in early Tamil literature among other records. The book makes considerable references to the Vedas, Puranas and Samhitas, to the Tamil epic Silappadikaram and works like Pattinapalai and Mathuraikaanci. We also know of various communities arriving by ships from Egypt, Greece, Rome and elsewhere loading and unloading goods, and living in well-appointed quarters in Poompuhar subject to justly laid-out customs, immigration and quarantine regulations and protocols.

In this book we get to see some of the beautiful and interesting plates without traversing the museums and libraries of the world. The book offers fascinating illustrations of a merchant ship in the Ajanta Caves dated to the first Century BCE, a gold Broighter boat of Northern Ireland, a Papyrus boat on the Nile, the vessel used by the Duke of Normandy in his campaign to take the English throne in 1066, passenger ships in China around 1125 and Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek and Roman ships of yesteryear. Also included is an interesting miniature painting of Noah’s Ark — by the Mughal illustrator Miskin — that includes pairs of animals except for humans; all male and no females! The extensive maps will take a complete course discipline to study them in their entirety.

The more we know about seas and civilisations, the more we know about ourselves and our environment. The ships that changed history such as the Santa Maria, the ships that transported slaves from Africa and bonded labour from India and China to the Americas and to the Indian Ocean Islands, the May Flower, the Queen Mary, the gunboats and war ships, the Black Ship of St. Francis Xavier, the Spanish Armada, and many other vessels as well as the modern aircraft ships, research vessels, cargo ships, cruise ships and explorers’ ships continue to shape our worlds. Then, there are those infamous pirate ships of the past and the present, the activist ships of Greenpeace, the human trafficking boats among others, which impact lives on Earth.

I had the opportunity to study, while advising Harvard University's Committee on the Environment, the work of the multidisciplinary research vessels such as the Sagar Kanya, from Goa on the 'aerosol, cloud and pollutant transport' over the Indian Ocean created by large-scale mineral extraction, manufacturing and transportation activities in India and China and in between, thousands of miles away from any coast.

The ocean waves’ relentless embrace of the shores only to retreat into the open waters where energy exchanges constantly renew the dynamics of waves and wind is an all-encompassing study of life on this planet. We have the volcanic ashes of Mount St. Helen travelling to the Orient while Japanese tsunami debris are washed ashore on the coasts of the U.S. We are left to ponder the words of poet Mahakavi Bharathi who warned us against attempting to fence the oceans around us and cordon the skies above. Whether it is the Indian creation myth and metaphor of the Gods and demons churning the ocean for nectar or Hokusai’s ‘waves’ or Debussy’s La Mer, the oceans are the stuff of dreams and fantasy deeply inlaid in the human psyche. That oceans teach us, above all, about the unity of human existence on this planet seems to be the take away from The Sea and Civilization.

The Sea and Civilization; Lincoln Paine, Knopf Doubleday, Rs.2600.

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