The tapestry of Indian history and indeed any history from around the world comprises an infinite number of threads, each strand representing historical and cultural events that define the collective human experience. The experience of these events contributes towards the building up of identities and constitutes another chapter in the history of a particular culture or community. Contact, either through migrations or dispersals results in cultural diffusion and renders a dynamic tone to the formation and development of socio-cultural spaces. Often, trade and commerce—the key agencies of contact, result in the interaction of indigenous and exogenous entities. The inception of cultural traits into the existing socio-cultural milieu leads to an adoption and incorporation of certain practices while preserving older ones. The resultant amalgamate is an excellent testimony not just to the cultural history of certain communities, but that culture itself should be viewed as dynamic or the becoming of rather than in stasis—or as existing.
Trade along the Silk Route and Spice Route resulted in a form of quasi-globalisation with a certain amount of synergy being established across these trade sites. However, the pace at which trade and exchange takes place in the maritime medium and the cross-cultural interactions thereof has made melting pots of the port-sites, port-cities and by extension, the entirety of the coast. Evidence of over-seas trade in India has been well established since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization—sometime during the 2nd millennium BCE. This trade and influence continued right up to and beyond what has been commonly called the Classical Period with evidence of Greco-Roman contact observed all along the west and east coast of India where ports and ports-of-call were established. In fact, the cultural interplay during this time influenced Roman food and clothing to a large extent with India exporting spices and silks/cotton to the Mediterranean World. On that note, Indian influence from the early-medieval period can be observed in the Southeast Asian archipelago, while Buddhism travelled to lands in the Far East. During the medieval period, Arab merchant settlers along the west coast of India had a huge role in influencing architecture, food, language and other socio-cultural practices of a number of communities on the Malabar and Konkan coast lines. The communities along the coast have been silent observers but active recipients of varied cultural traits and practices that serve as an excellent record of their histories. It is therefore unfortunate that the narratives of these communities are often relegated to the side lines in the overall telling of our country’s history. Their traditions and practices, especially with regard to nautical practices were considered a skill set not worthy of being documented along with the rest of the country’s traditional knowledge. Unable to find feature in mainstream literature, these practices have by and large passed down the generations through oral traditions. With rapid urbanisation and development, these coastal communities are doing what they have always done throughout history—adapt and amalgamate. But in the present urban scenario, there seems to be little to no space for these traditional skill sets that are now starting to escape living memory. Moreover, initiatives like the Blue Economy that aim to revitalise and rejuvenate subsistence strategies related to the sea as well as develop ports to boost economies pose a potential threat to these coastal communities. An overhaul of infrastructure along the coast could result in the dispersal of these communities – condemning their socio-cultural histories by pushing them into obscurity.
Speaking of being pushed into obscurity, the present state of built and cultural heritage along the coast in this regard is another issue of concern. Preservation and conservation of this heritage is more challenging due to environmental nature of the coast. In addition, the fact that coastal heritage and even more so underwater cultural heritage is the recipient of poor guidelines for cultural resource management doesn’t facilitate its cause. It must be noted that members of coastal communities have developed certain sensibilities regarding built heritage as it forms part of the environmental backdrop against which much of their identities have been established. Given this attachment and with a little bit of education, they make the ideal custodians of this build and underwater cultural heritage—at least in the interim while stake holders of this heritage come up with better infrastructure for its protection.
It is important that work, involving simple documentation and surveys be conducted and the overall historical discourse is realigned to incorporate the ‘sub-altern’ voice of coastal communities—their story and historical narrative. It is only when this is addressed that a holistic picture of the development of socio-cultural spaces within our country be produced. The resultant multi-layered and multi-dimensional characteristic of cultural history will bolster the vibrant and pluralistic nature of India.
It is in this spirit that today, the Maritime History Society (MHS) of the Western Naval Command inaugurates its annual seminar—a 41-year-old tradition that has nurtured discourse in the field of maritime studies. This year the ‘National Maritime Heritage Conclave (NMHC)’ will take place over two days online, and will be open to all interested and enthused members of the public. In collaboration with the Gujarat Maritime University, Gandhinagar, the All India Marine Pilots’ Association (AIMPA) and The Daily Guardian, the conclave has incorporated sessions that address some of the lesser known and often overlooked aspects of our country’s maritime journey. This concept has been captured in the conclave’s theme—‘Exploring Unsung Frames of Indian Maritime History’ and includes discussions and presentations by notable scholars. The topics of coastal communities, gender and the sea, and trans-national connectivity in the Indian Ocean Region—all of which are intrinsically woven into our maritime tradition and reflect the depth of our nautical knowledge.
The conclave sets sail today with an inaugural session that includes stalwarts from the navy and the field of maritime studies who will set the tone for the proceedings. Cmde Odakkal Johnson, Director (MHS) will welcome resource scholars and participants by sharing the journey of Maritime History Society and the pivotal role it’ll play in establishing maritime consciousness through the medium of heritage. Vice Admiral RB Pandit, Chief of Staff, Western Naval Command and Chairman MHS, will deliver the Inaugural Address to officially open the conclave. His address is expected to highlight the richness of India’s maritime past and talk about a need for sustained interest in the field. Some light on the theme and sub-themes of the conclave will be then shed by Prof S Shantakumar, Director-in-charge of the Gujarat Maritime University, Gandhinagar. Prof Vasant Shinde, an eminent archaeologist with over 41 years of scholastic experience and presently the Director General of the National Maritime Heritage Complex at Gandhinagar is slated to deliver the key note address. Drawing from his many years of experience in the field, Prof Shinde will be highlighting ideas of maritime traditions that are rooted in Indian culture through examples from excavations at Harappan Sites. After the Inaugural Session, the conclave will launch into its first sub-theme—‘Coastal Communities’. The purpose of this plenary session is to initiate discourse on the coastal communities in India by observing their outlook towards and their connection with all things continental or terrestrial in origin. Prof Radhika Seshan former Head, Department of History, Savitribai Phule Pune University will join Prof Ranabir Chakravarty, Cdr Kalesh Mohana, Ms Leora Pezarkar along with scholars from MHS to discuss historical overview of coastal communities – who have been largely overlooked in the overall historical narrative. The panel will draw attention to the connections that these communities share across both—land and sea, often times serving as key cultural conduits.
The deliberations will include pre-modern coastal communities of Bengal, the socio-cultural and socio-economic practices of some of the lesser known communities of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and one of the smallest diasporas in India – the Bene Israelis.
To conclude proceedings on the first day of the conclave a Special Session has been organised. This session includes the much-awaited musical tribute to the Malams, Boatmen of Kutch-Konkan region. In addition, winners of the Admiral JG Nadkarni Memorial Essay Competition will be announced. The competition drew much interest given the theme—‘Reflections in Indian Nautical Knowledge: Past, Present and Future’.
A number of maritime enthusiasts have registered to be a part of the NMHC 2020. You could join the conclave by visiting https://mhsindia.zohobackstage.in/NationalMaritimeHeritageConclave2020. It is time to catch a rising wave of awakening in the maritime sector with collaborative efforts from academics, practitioners and policy makers to strengthen contemporary Maritime India. Let Heritage Awaken our Maritime Consciousness.
Andre Baptista, an archaeologist, is a Research Consultant with Maritime History Society