It’s all very modern and could be any part of the world, except India (the excellence of the road gives the game away). Driving along the turnoff from the North-South Highway you barely notice that you just passed history while crossing the bridge across the Merbok River. It’s a small river in Kedah, Malaysia, as these things go, perhaps a kilometre across even near the mouth, but running high because of all the rain in the last few days. All you see gazing seawards is the tall mangrove thickets that flank the river, a green tide holding the narrow ribbon of heaving grey in the centre. There’s not a boat to be seen, no indication that this is the highway for perhaps the earliest overseas community to make landfall in Peninsular Malaysia.
Sungai Merbok, as it is called in Malay, was the road to the Bujang Valley (Lembah Bujang in Malay) complex, an archaeological site of extraordinary richness and potential spread across some 224 sq. km. in the north of the peninsula, bordering Thailand. The name is ostensibly derived from the Sanskrit bhujanga, meaning serpent, hence valley of the serpent.
The founder-inhabitants of Bujang were from India, and the site was probably established before the first century CE as the earliest baked brick monument dates to 110 CE. This makes it the oldest Indian settlement in Southeast Asia, older than Cambodia, Vietnam, or even Sumatra, Java and Bali in Indonesia. The site is an eye-opener to Indians in general because the subcontinent’s maritime heritage is relatively unknown. Most history books have only fleeting references to this Indian radiation of trade, culture, technology and imperial lineages. It is an odd sort of amnesia because Chrysḗ Chersónēsos (Greek) or Chersonesus Aurea (Latin), otherwise known as the Golden Chersonese, is actually a word-for-word rendering of Suvarnadvipa, first used in Ptolemy’s famous 2nd century Geography. He was referring to the Malay Peninsula but it came to be associated with Sumatra in the eighth century by Arab geographers.
Confronting the living reality can be weird. For instance, if you go to the island of Bali, outside Denpasar airport is a massive installation from the Gita, Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot. It’s familiar but different as the lines are more sinuous, and the icons have Malay features. Temple architecture is different, too, as is the attitude towards the deities (sometimes it’s more of a relic for tourists). Formal greetings among locals are still in Sanskrit though the national language is Bahasa Indonesia.
There is not a single Indian in sight unless it’s a tourist but the majority of people on the streets would call themselves Hindu. Without exception they are Malay but Bali is the only solidly Hindu enclave in a country that is 95 per cent Muslim. Bali confronts the average Indian with his ignorance of his own history and heritage. Perhaps it is understandable, this ignorance, because this adventure was not continental but transcontinental, and involved humble traders and humbler sailors rather than kings and emperors and their vast hordes of infantry, cavalry and elephants.
They made no conquests beyond wind and water, no proud boasts of being chakravartin, no monuments that stood a thousand years but their legacy is still in some sense alive. A small example is the namaskar with which commoners greet royalty in Malaysia. The days of Indian influence are long over—it is energetically disavowed in many instances— and the rulers are all Muslim but the greeting survives to this day.
Sanjeev Sanyal’s The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History is a timely reminder of this heritage and the ways in which it waxed, waned and endures. The coronation of the late Thai monarch King Bhumibol in 1950, for instance, would have struck a chord with any watching Indian.
According to the Wikipedia description: “The ceremony included Buddhist and Brahmanic rites, including the presentation of a nine-tiered umbrella (symbol of royal authority) and other items of the royal regalia. Without this, no Thai king can assume the title of ‘Phrabat’ or use the umbrella.
“Bhumibol’s coronation began with a ceremonial bath, following which the new king put on the white robes of a Brahmin monk, and had sacred water poured over his shoulders while a “gong of victory” was struck by the court astrologer. Afterwards, he received nine pitchers filled with sacred water, drawn from eighteen different sites in Thailand. The nine-tiered umbrella was then presented, followed by five other items of the royal regalia: the Great Crown of Victory, the Sword of Victory, the Royal Staff, the Whisk of the Tail Hairs of a White Elephant, a Small Flat Fan, and a pair of Golden Slippers.”
The old royal capital of Siam (Thailand) is Ayutthya (inspired by Ayodhya), some 80 km south of Bangkok. Tourist guides in the capital will tell you the only reason they never mention their Hindu cultural heritage is because they take it so much for granted that it never occurs to them.
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Sanyal’s book is different from most historical accounts because he is focused on the coasts, east and west and southerly, and their connections with the lands along the ocean’s rim, or across it. As an amateur historian he moves perhaps a little too easily between established fact and speculation, so some of his conclusions may be far-fetched. One example is his acceptance that the Indus Valley civilisation is better named the Saraswati civilisation.
It seems like a small change but the implications are profound. The first is that there is or was a real river called the Saraswati (the legend says it vanished) and that ancient Indian life centred on it. In the Rig Veda it is the sacred river of the old society. So the land of the Seven Rivers or “Sapta Sindhu” may be quite different from what we take it to mean.
In The Lost River, Michel Danino makes an impressive case for the Ghaggar, a monsoonal river that flows through Haryana, Rajasthan, and as the Hakra-Nara across the Cholistan desert of Sind, through Gujarat, to lose itself in the marshes of Kutch. His argument rests on two pillars, the size of the old stream bed indicating that it was once an immense river, and the fact that the course of the Ghaggar-Hakra is dotted with hundreds of Harappa era sites, a concentration whose denseness is unique. One of the reasons for the Ghaggar/Saraswati’s vastly greater volume of water in ancient times is claimed to be its possession of two large glacier-fed tributaries, the Sutlej and the Yamuna or, more properly, a major Yamuna tributary, the Tons River. The other is that the monsoon was far more intense in the third millennium BCE. That is a proposition with wide acceptance.
Danino backs up his claim with a plethora of evidence, including the first British surveys of the route for an invasion of Sind in the 19th century as well as satellite pictures of the restless wanderings of the Sutlej (or Shatadru in ancient literature, “hundred braids”) across the plains of Haryana and Punjab, test results on ancient waters drawn from the river bed and geological studies of the hills surrounding its present source. It is a strong argument but not a definitive one as yet. There are some missing pieces to this puzzle.
But Sanyal accepts that the Ghaggar is indeed the Saraswati and so shifts the theatre of action eastwards of the original estimate. The Land of the Seven Rivers now is the Ghaggar and its tributaries, the cradle of Vedic civilisation and also the scene of the Mahabharata before and during the war. Thus, Haryana is already twice blessed, the land where India was born and will be reborn, obviously a real source of inspiration to its RSS pracharak-led government.
This, of course, leads us to wonder if the “Sapta Sindhu” must also move east or whether there are two Lands of Seven Rivers. Did the Persians stop at the more westerly Seven Rivers or did they come in further? Were they unaware that there was a second Land of Seven Rivers, the real one of the Rig Veda? Are the Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro the original ones or are these sites later than Ghaggar settlements? In what ways does that change things?
These are questions that need answers and, until that happens, it would be better to hedge our bets. These unresolved points present historians with a peculiar problem as there is little direct documentary evidence other than interpretations of texts like the Rig Veda. The evidence from archaeology and hard science, while extensive, still does not enable an unequivocal declaration that the Ghaggar is the Saraswati. If mainstream historians are reluctant to commit themselves the reasons are likely to be technical rather than ideological, as is so often alleged. For this reason Sanyal’s blithe construction of his thesis on the Indus/Saraswati world should be approached with caution.
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“In CE 731, the prosperous Pallava kingdom in southern India faced an existential crisis.” Thus begins the tale of a dense web of networks, cultural, commercial, military and imperial between the lands of Southeast Asia and the subcontinent. The lands around the Bay of Bengal and south of it seem to have been the scene of an astonishing and continuous exchange of trade, technology and culture for over 2,000 years. The Indian cultural imprint can be found in a vast area from Myanmar to Bali, thousands of miles away, from outposts like Bujang to flourishing kingdoms like the Sinhala, Khmer, Cham, Sri Vijaya and Majpahit, the last two in the Indonesian archipelago.
Mahabalipuram, some 60 km south of Chennai, is celebrated for its rock cut shore temples. It’s a puzzle for the tourist for there’s little to show why such a distinctive if quirky architectural project was ever initiated in this remote coastal habitation. Even the name seems unnecessarily grandiose. Sanyal’s reconstruction of how the Pallavas solved their existential problem clears up the mystery.
The main port of the Pallavas “at Mahabalipuram (also called Mamallapuram) was busy with merchant fleets from across India and South East Asia, and even as far as China and Arabia.” It was the starting point of a journey by “a delegation of Brahmin scholars” across perilous waters and deep jungle to a country several thousand miles east. The quest for an heir to their throne took them all the way to the land of the Nagas, which Sanyal identifies with modern Cambodia, then possibly the empire of Kamboja, with its heart at Angkor Wat.
It is true that neither he nor anyone else can be certain that it is what happened. Sanyal is using the existing evidence for maritime and cultural links to tell us a story about the way in which these connections might have worked. As an amateur historian he gives himself some creative licence though he takes the trouble to indicate that what he is saying has at best a reasonable chance of being true. It is one way of bridging the information gap. The wealth of artefacts scattered across the entire region is not always matched by documentary evidence.
Sanyal’s creative interpretation serves two purposes. First, it shows the intimate connections between south and east India to distant lands eastwards in the Indian Ocean. Secondly, it states clearly that the relation was mutually reinforcing. “The impact that South East Asia had on cultural and historical events in India is less appreciated. The evidence, however, suggests that the influence flowed both ways. There are many examples, including the famed university of Nalanda in Bihar that attracted students from China and Central Asia. Few people realise that the university was partly funded by the Sri Vijaya kings of Sumatra.”
The story of ikat is a perfect example. The word is of Indonesian origin, meaning cord, thread, knot, the fabric itself, as well as “to bind”. It is a yarn dyeing technique that Malays claim they invented, and the fabric is produced in Okinawa, Japan, Kalimantan, Indonesia, Gujarat, Odisha and Telangana. But it is also widespread across Africa, Central Asia and Central and South America. No one is certain of its origins but the common claim is for multiple sites. So it could have come here from Southeast Asia, though why it should be found in interior lands rather than the coast is not clear. It is just one of a hundred little mysteries that surround the story of India’s maritime adventures.
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On the west coast, commercial activity was, if anything, even more vigorous and it too lasted thousands of years, until the European incursions. Imperial Rome’s laments about the drain of gold to India are well known but there’s evidence of extensive maritime trade with the Middle East, north and east Africa and Greece as well. Again, the exchange was two-way as “Indian ports welcomed Arab, Persian, Roman, Greek, and Jewish merchants even as Indian merchants found their way across the Middle East and down the African coast.” As for the timeline, Sanyal’s surmise is that it encompassed Harappan times as well, with the ancient, now extinct port of Dholavira in the Rann of Kutch as the central point.
Strictly speaking, his descriptions of activities at ancient Dholavira should be called sketches rather than historical notes but they are based on what is known about the ancient world and could be correct. That trade occurred cannot be doubted. That Dholavira was a port cannot be doubted. Exactly what happened is unknown for lack of any contemporary account. A work like Sanyal’s provides a window into the ancient world of the subcontinent that professional historians cannot without breaching the terms of their contract.
One of the joys of this book is the nuggets of information that seem to have escaped common notice. For instance, it devotes considerable space to the tradition of soldiery. “The Roman-era historian Arrian mentions a contingent of Indian cavalry that fought for the Persian cause” at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE). This was the pivotal event that opened the way for Greek expansion into the world beyond Persia under Alexander (Sikandar Zulkarnain). And it was apparently not Alexander’s only encounter with Indian mercenaries. They seem to have fought his armies in the kingdom of Massaga, probably in eastern Afghanistan (327-26), which had 7,000 Indian mercenaries.
He even speaks of an oral tradition that Indian mercenaries took part in the Battle of Karbala (680 CE) and “why the Mohyal Brahmins of Punjab still join Shia Muslims in the annual ritual mourning of Muharram.” Indian mercenary soldiers, according to this account, were to be found in a massive arc from north Africa through the Middle East and the various kingdoms of the subcontinent, all the way to the Indonesian archipelago. This could, then, be the background for the reason why soldiering is still considered a respectable profession in north India. It is a perfect field for subaltern history and an untapped field for geneticists who could provide hard evidence for the claim.
Another of the unknown places of history is what Sanyal calls the “Jiroft civilisation” in south-eastern Iran. The story begins around 2000 when flash floods along the Halil River uncovered thousands of previously unknown tombs. “Although we know little of it for sure, archaeologists have found seals like those of the Harappans and signs of close cultural links.” In other words, it could have been an extension of the old Harappan world through Gujarat, Baluchistan and further west. The evidence is scanty but the possibility exists. There is further speculation about the connections of these people with the Persians but it seems a bit far-fetched though it makes interesting reading. It is worth noting that Iranian archaeologists are working on the sites and what they turn up in future could be of significance for the history of ancient India.
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One of the most interesting parts of Sanyal’s book is what it doesn’t say. It says, for one, that the Indian maritime tradition is ancient, that people from the subcontinent have been traversing the oceans for millennia and carrying on an extensive trade both east and west. This obviously implies an entire ecosystem of sailors, boat builders who made ocean-worthy craft for thousands of years, carpenters, rope makers, an entire nation (literally) of people on both coasts who did nothing else for dozens of generations. But they seem to have vanished from history, much like the Saraswati. There is little information about them, at any rate, in Ocean of Churn, yet these people would have been indispensable to any maritime adventure.
In a way it echoes the hollowness of Bujang in Kedah because though the site is well preserved and new finds, including the remains of an ancient jetty, are being pursued at nearby digs it tells you next to nothing about the people who settled it, or the later inhabitants. The fragments preserved in the museum provide a frustratingly incomplete glimpse of the lives of these pioneers.
Likewise, in India, perhaps some of the mariners’ villages are still there, perhaps the descendants of the old sailors are still around, but we don’t hear their voices, even at a remove. There are a few scraps from Sangam literature but little that speaks of the life of a simple sailor, his wife and family, the perils and uncertainties of his livelihood. It is one shortcoming that is immediately noticeable.
The other is that with so much wealth coming over the sea and so many people making a living from the voyages travel across the water must have been common. Maybe the proscriptions on travel across the oceans are a recent edict, for what reason is not entirely clear. And that means that a number of other traditions rest upon equally shaky ground. The only reason for their persistence is that no one has thought to question them or that there is no profit from breaking the taboo.
One of the clearest implications of this history is that caste rules either did not exist or did so only on paper, at least as far as boats and blue waters were concerned. How likely is it that caste divisions would be maintained on a ship hundreds of miles from land? It should be remembered that the crew on any vessel traditionally perform a number of tasks and to consult the Book of Prohibited Labour for each and every case would take forever, besides being impossible for illiteracy was the norm in the ancient world.
And in case of a storm at sea, would a Brahmin crewman or merchant have preferred to drown rather than share a boat’s spar with a Shudra? What about when you landed on a remote island and you were the only high caste person, or if you had to live there for years without a compatible female companion? Would you maintain the barrier and abstain from sex or take one of the local mlechha women to wife? These are not idle questions but practical considerations and caste rules would seem like an infernal nuisance. Sanyal says as much in his own take on the subject.
He finds a telling comment on one of our great modern obsessions, being fair and lovely. In mediaeval India, apparently, the mark of beauty among Indians was dark skin. “For I assure you that the darkest man is here the most highly esteemed and considered better than others who are not so dark. Let me add that in very truth these people portray and depict their gods and their idols black and their devils white as snow.” That is Marco Polo speaking in his account of his travels across Asia. We know that both Rama and Krishna were dark but that doesn’t stop us from yearning for whiteness. Once again, it shows the mutability of taste and tradition. Imagine what they would have said about blonde, fair-skinned westerners. It is quite possible that dark-skinned Africans got more respect than the Gora Sahib.
Ocean of Churn is not a work of history in the usual sense but it provides an interesting perspective on ancient India that makes the reader think and re-assess both our origins and our present status in a way that could provide new insights into where we are headed.
 
Sanjeev Sanyal
Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean
Shaped Human History
Penguin Viking, 297 pages, ₹599.