Ancient Indian ports, revisited

A sea of information, gleaned from early archives and recent excavations

The Red Sea was a trade funnel from the 3rd century B.C. to about 6th century C.E. and the ancient ports of this zone provide evidence of not only trade but other exchanges between the East and the West. The Periplus says, “Of the designated ports on the Erythraean Sea, and the market-towns around it, the first is the Egyptian port of Mussel Harbor. To those sailing down from that place, on the right hand, after 1,800 stadia, there is Berenice. The harbours of both are at the boundary of Egypt, and are bays opening from the Erythraean Sea.”

Rightly, the first chapter of the book deals with the recent discoveries made during excavations at some of the Red Sea ports that add further knowledge to what is already well-known. The present site of Mersa Gawsis “revealed exceptional information about Pharaonic Era,” says the author of the article. Thus, the first chapter assumes importance and sets the pace for revealing newly-found information in the following chapters.

Information on storage facilities, essentially a trade requirement, and about ship-related equipment (like old oar blades) found in latest excavations belonging to the period under study is elaborated upon in the second chapter. It is of interest to note that recent geological investigations confirmed that a stable navigable lagoon existed at Gawasis in ancient times. ‘Living in the Egyptian Ports’ is another chapter of importance; as mentioned in the Periplus , Berenike and Myos Hormos were two important ports of the early Roman period and life in those ports during the period is discussed in this chapter. The University of Southampton conducted investigations at these ports in 1999-2003 and found interesting evidence to show the limits of Roman and Islamic harbours, which are further confirmed in this chapter.

The Indian reader will find the portion dealing with inscriptions from the Hoq cave in Socotra interesting. In 2001, a group of Belgian speleologists from the Socotra Karst Project made a spectacular discovery on Socotra island. Ingo Strauch, professor of Sanskrit and Buddhist studies at Universite de Lausanne, in the article, details his findings which add to the earlier knowledge. According to the author, the estimated number of Indian inscriptions is more than 100, written in charcoal, chalk or mud, or scratched with a sharp instrument on the surfaces of rocks. Written in Brahmi, the script can be compared to those from the 2nd to 4th centuries C.E., of West India. This is confirmed by some newly discovered inscriptions, which mention the city of Bharukaccha, one of the most important West Indian ports then. As Strauch says, “As far as palaeological analysis allows, all Indian epigraphs can be bracketed between the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E.” It is well known that during this time, Indian sea trade was at its peak and continents were connected commercially and culturally.

Another interesting chapter is Emmanuelle Vagnon’s Latin Cartographic sources of 1200-1500 C.E. Considering the history of cartography has undergone significant changes since 1990s, the author offers new perspective. Her commentary on medieval nautical charts is highly informative, especially on Fra Mauro’s mappaemundi and Ptolemy’s Geography . The plates used in this chapter add to the understanding of her reasoning.

In dealing with ancient technology of jetties and anchorage system on the Saurashtra Coast, S. Gaur and Sundaresh add to already known information. Satyabhama Badreenath, having worked on the site in Mamallapuram as the superintending archaeologist of Chennai, talks about the new revelations on the site after the 2004 tsunami. She elaborates on the findings that show the structure of an ancient temple. However, not much is said about any port structure or evidence thereof in the new revelations. Selvakumar’s article on routes of trade in Tamil country is already known well.

The reader will find interesting material in the French records on colonies, especially those that deal with India between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Maurie-Paul Blasini describes the cartographic collections deposited in the National Centre of Overseas Archives, and their origin and usefulness in studies on the subject. As the head of Map Library and India Archives at the National Centre, she ably brings out the centre’s contribution to research.

This highly informative book, elegantly produced with ample images, will be an asset to any library, especially those of universities and research centres.

K.R.A. Narasiah is a writer

and historian.

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