The oceans are at the centre of much global attention, while on the cusp of a tectonic shift in geo-economic balances, which are slowly tilting in favour of the eastern hemisphere. In the growing significance of the narrative of Indo-Pacific, the focus is inherently maritime. Unlike some others, India has re-emerged from long self-induced sea blindness to leading the existing world order and displaces economic hegemony of a few on the sea lanes. On World Environment Day 2021, it is timely to curate our collective thoughts not just on geopolitical foci but on the vital call to a sustained, equitable, and unhampered blue economy.
Manthan: A Maritime Workshop by IMU & MHS.Team Manthan of MHS at NDA.
INDIA AWAKENS TO A NEW MARITIME PERSPECTIVE
The Oceans are 71% of the planet’s surface and the maritime environment forms 95% of our biosphere. The seascape forms a strategically important zone as also the nerve centre of intensive geo-economic activity. Maritime trade concentrated in the Indo-Pacific region constitutes nearly 40% of global trade and 62% of the world’s GDP. Nearly 90% of the maritime trade happens through the blue waters of the world. The nation of the global south has a great potential for enhancing its blue economy by tapping into the unexplored resources of the ocean in a regulated and environmentally sensitive fashion. Blue economy driven policy has the potential to alleviate many families from destitution and abject poverty. Potential areas to enhance the blue economy include fishery, shipping, tourism etc. From this fine assortment of human pursuits Shipping has been historically at the forefront of a booming economy.
In this article, we, of the Maritime History Society research team called “Manthan”, seek to flag the significance of the oceans to the world of contemporary attention at large and focus amongst the Academia. In the past few months, Maritime History Society and its young cohort of researchers conducted two very significant Workshops. The first workshop was a single day lecture series at the National Defence Academy held on the 5 March at the NDA premises Khadakwasla and the second was a two-day online lecture series in collaboration with Indian Maritime University Visakhapatnam dated 21 and 22 April. The research team consisted of Amruta Talawadekar, Aishwarya Devasthali, Dennard H D’Souza, Janhavi Lokegaonkar and was headed by Director Maritime History Society Cmde Odakkal Johnson. The topics covered at this forum were Tangible and Intangible Maritime Heritage, Maritime development through the ages and Maritime Hero, who were stalwarts of the maritime realm.
THE DUAL SPECTRUM OF MARITIME HERITAGE: TANGIBLE AND INTANGIBLE
The Maritime History Society researchers Aishwarya and Amruta presented their lecture on Tangible and Intangible Maritime heritage. The mainstay of this lecture was shipbuilding at Mandvi, Gujarat, a case study on Intangible Maritime heritage and Coastal forts of Maharashtra as a classic specimen of Tangible Maritime Heritage.
Heritage is both tangible and intangible. It is a combination of inheritance of physical property and intangible qualities that are retained by previous generations and should be bestowed upon future generations. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) convention described intangible cultural heritage as a legacy of the physical property and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from the past generation, maintained by the future and bestowed for the benefit of the future generation.
Maritime heritage and culture is an integral part of the Indian socio-cultural tapestry. Traditional craftsmanship is perhaps the most tangible manifestation of intangible cultural heritage. Ships have often been the catalysts for establishing trade links, following which cultural exchange and human migration became commonplace.
From reed boats to massive vessels, shipbuilding in India has seen its highs and lows with aggressive growth and sharp decline through time. The craft of shipbuilding has historically been rich in terms of its knowledge and practices. The inhabitants across civilisations and ruling periods have understood and adopted various sea tactics and designed and redesigned the vessels and their amenities based on their experiences. This form of intangible cultural heritage is under threat, endangered by globalisation and cultural homogenisation. Today even though this craft lies in an inconspicuous corner of few towns in the country, the rich value of this craft has been an integral part of the past and needs to be conserved for the future.
TRADE, SHIP-BUILDING AND URBANISATION: A CASCADE OF MARITIME DEVELOPMENTS
The Tangible and Intangible Maritime Heritage was soon followed by an interactive lecture on Maritime developments through the ages. This lecture was presented by Dennard H D’Souza and Janhavi Lokegaonkar Researchers Maritime History Society. This lecture recounted the developments on the western sea coast starting with the geographical phenomenon called the Monsoon while gradually narrowing down on the City of Mumbai, which is the epitome of this maritime development.
The monsoons created an Ideal ecosystem for the evolution of Shipbuilding and the eventual Urbanisation of the coastal fronts, which is very well encapsulated in the rise of the city of Bombay, now Mumbai
Seafarers have used the monsoon winds to sail across the ocean since ancient times. In the Indian Subcontinent, the Harappans were the earliest in recorded history to have sailed using wind. The Harappans established mercantile relationships with Mesopotamia and the Arab Peninsula, especially the ancient settlement of Magan and Dilmun. Some early Indians have also been noted to establish an expat township in these alien lands. For Example, some Harappans built a large enclave in southern Sumerian called Guabba. This township was a Harappan Transregional settlement which was probably a mercantile township of some sort. Its inhabitants were closely associated with the God Ningirsu, for whose temple they maintained a steady supply of grains from their granary.
Then we come to the early centuries of the Common Era. This is the period when the Indo-Roman trade was at its peak, and the centre of this activity was the Indian Ocean Region. The Roman were very fond of the black peppercorn which they used for flavouring their sauce and meats. Romans also used it to make medications for ailments and diseases. Many of these medical recipes required the infusion of pepper. Thus the pepper was a priced commodity and was worth its price in gold. The author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, which is a sailor’s digest, maintains that the economic imbalance caused by the pepper trade drained the Roman economy of its gold.
The Romans did not reach India on the back of their knowledge and innovation. Rather they were helped by an Indian to find the sea route to India which was here before a guarded secret known only to the Arabs and the Indians. We know from a Greek navigator Eudoxus of Cyzicus account that it was an Indian who leaked the secret maritime route of the northern Indian Ocean region.
At the same time when the Romans were trading with the western seaboard of India, the Eastern coast was also an active maritime zone in the early history of the Indian Subcontinent. We see a lot of roman coins and amphorae as far as the coast of Bengal. There were port towns on the eastern seaboard like those of Tamralipti, Palur and Kaveri Poompattinam which in many ways were an active trading hub. These port towns connected the markets of the hinterlands to the transoceanic maritime centres. Emperor Ashoka sent his daughter Theri Sangamitra to Tamraparni (Sri Lanka) from Tamralipti. Most importantly the Kalingans were navigating the water of the Eastern front.
It was a long-held belief among the British that the English Oak was the best wood to build ships. This long-held belief was shattered when the Brits encountered the Malabar teak. The British on entering India they first established themselves at Surat. Here they managed to build a dock and commissioned English Ships on Indian soil. We are also told that while the English oak reserves in Britain were running dry the Warships that were commissioned in India and made of Indian teak saved England from the threats of Napoleon. This was the period when Europe was under the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars.
Although Surat had been a major commercial port and centre of trade during the medieval period, due to an increase in the silting of the port, the British who had established themselves at Surat were now planning to shift their headquarters to a new location. The British found a favourable spot close to their headquarters in Surat which lay on the maritime trade route. This spot was the marshy archipelago of Bombay. A collection of seven islands, Bombay was an Ideal location for the constantly silting Surat basin. The Geomorphology of Bombay was as such that although open to the sea the Islands provided an enclosure from the tumultuous sea. Also, the constant problem of siltation which was characteristic of Surat was very unlikely on a site like Bombay which was situated on the open seas. With this potential to harbour Ships, the British shifted their commercial capital to Bombay as it has characteristics of a good natural harbour.
The foundation of a modern metropolis on the west coast of India was laid by Gerald Aungier, a good four centuries ago. In his short tenure spanning from 1669 to 1677, he managed to transform a sleepy fishing hamlet into a bustling port town throbbing with activity.
The dry-docking facilities in Mumbai that were made during the colonial era helped flourish the Indian shipbuilding industry. Most of the trade and economy that happened then and what happens today is due to the flourishing shipping industry. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Bombay is a by-product of the maritime economy.
The team was given a grand tour at the overwhelmingly large campus of the National Defence Academy (NDA) on the day after the one-day symposium. The NDA campus is placed in a verdant environment where the wilderness was in total harmony with Human civilisation. The experience at the NDA campus was exhilarating; the calibrated cycling of the young cadets was commendable; they almost all steered their bikes at the precise angle, with paddle geared to clockwork precision.
The NDA campus is endowed with many water bodies, the largest of which is the Khadakwasla Lake. The team was given a sumptuous boat ride upon the lake. It almost felt as if it was a slice of sea encrusted within the lofty Pune Mountains. Following the boat ride, the team drove to the equestrian unit, where we were stunned to see the noblest of steeds being treated like royalty. The NDA has some fine horses each having a streak of idiosyncrasy. Overall the NDA looked like a world unto itself. Everything was placed in an Apple pie order, something very novel to the civilian eye.
The two-day lecture series with the Indian Maritime University (IMU) Vishakhapatnam was conducted in the wake of the second wave of the Covid pandemic. It was a memorable event that got the MHS closer to the world of Academia, especially that field of academia that is dedicated to the service of the oceans. The IMU is an institute of excellence in the field of maritime studies in India. It has the privilege of owning six sprawling campuses throughout the length and breadth of India.
The seminars conducted by the MHS took the message of the ocean to the Cradle of Leadership — NDA and the home of future mariners — IMU. We feel delighted to highlight the unsung maritime history of this great nation on every forum.
It is very noteworthy that the oceanic space is fast emerging as the arena of attention among scholars, state leaders and select strategists. While the pandemic has reined in obvious travel and connectivity, the digital space has enabled an intellectual transcending of territorial confines. In principle that is the core of the maritime medium — the Global Commons. Restrictions on human activity including the tragic economic slowdown have had an alternative positivity. Many have acknowledged that cities breathe easier, pollution levels have declined and even the sea coasts and beaches are cleaner! Is there a subtle message that nature is trying to convey?
In a logical voyage of Indian maritime heritage and nautical practices that have been at the focus of academic enquiry at MHS, there is an awakening to sustainable ocean economic activity. Maritime-related production is an integral part of the Indian economy. While it is crucial for the Indian economy that this sector is promoted further in future, the Indian government has effectively recognised the importance of preserving oceans’ sensitive ecosystems and contributing as well as committing to sustainable use of maritime resources. This is why India is envisaging its way to become one of the largest contributors to the “Blue Growth “ as a part of the long term strategy to support sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors as a whole.
In March 2015 Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “To me, the Blue chakra or wheel in India’s national flag represents the potential of the Blue Revolution or the Ocean Economy. That is how central the ocean economy is to us.” He endorsed Blue Economy as a new pillar of economic activity in the coastal areas and linked hinterlands through sustainable tapping of oceanic resources and a year later announced his vision for the seas through “Security And Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR). On World Environment Day 2021, it is time to actually see a “Neel Kranti” or Blue Revolution in our collective mindset. Do reach out and stay engaged with the work of Maritime History Society on our website www.mhsindia.org and our various media handles. Let heritage awaken our maritime consciousness.
The author is a Research Associate at Maritime History Society and part of Team Manthan – A Group of Young Maritime Scholars.
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