A long coastline gave Gujarat opportunities to establish cultural linkages internationally. Indians in the port cities were engaged in manufacturing vessels, studying stars and winds, erecting light houses and building ports at a time when many countries were living in darkness. Merchant ships ferried not only traders but also kings, monks and teachers disseminating ideas and ideals, technology and spirituality, arts and culture. Thus marine trade not only brought effulgence to the country but also became instrumental in spreading Indian culture beyond its boundaries.
THE EARLIEST KNOWN PORT OF THE WORLD Gujarat ruled the world of navigators. One of its coastal cities- Lothal is the earliest known port of the world equipped with berth and service ships. Its history goes back to 3000 BC as one of the cities of the ancient Indus valley civilization. Sophisticated technique and tools for cutting gems, making beads and metallurgy were pioneered in Lothal. It reigned the oceanic waves up to 11th century AC. Modern oceanographers accept that Harappans possessed great knowledge relating to tides, hydrography and maritime engineering to build a dock on ever changing course of the Sabarmati.
VOYAGES TO INDONESIA Merchants of Gujarat must have traveled to Indonesia in large numbers and for long durations of time as there is a saying to this day that one who goes to Java never returns. It is a tiny chunk of memories from past but important to trace the history of travels abroad. It says that one who goes to Java never comes back but who returns brings so much affluence that it lasts from generation to generation:
जे जाए जावे तो कदी न पाछो आवे/
जो आवे तो पर्यानापर्या चावे एतलू लावे//
Regular sailing from India to Indonesia gave way to Indian kings going to the islands. Javanese chronicle state that in about 603 AC a king of Gujarat sailed for Java with his son, five thousand cultivators, artisans, warriors, physicians and scholars in six large ships and a hundred small vessels. These were the people who laid foundation of the culture of Indonesia and built sanctuaries dedicated to Lord Shiva like Prambanan and the sacred Buddhist monument of world fame- Borobudur. There is another temple- Chandi Plaosan from where an inscription from 8th century talks about Gujaratis who had built that- satata-gurjara-desa-samagataih.
SOMNATH TO THE ISLAND COUNTRIES IN SEA Somanath temple, the glory of Bharata, is dedicated to Bhagavan Shiva as the Lord of Moon. Its waxing and waning has fatal effects on the waves of the oceans tossing the ships in deadly turbulence. Lord Shiva controlled the turbulence of the ocean by holding the Moon in his jata-mukuta as he did to handle the flow of river Ganga by receiving it first in his jatas. He became the guardian of transoceanic merchants. Lord Shiva was taken to Indonesia as their supreme deity. Since eighth century Shiva has been alluded to in inscriptions, texts, temples and literature. The earliest Shaiva inscription is from 732 AC when almighty monarch King Sanjaya established a Shiva-linga. Shaiva temple Prambanan relates the crowning glory of Indonesian. The most important text on Shaiva philosophy written in Sanskrit followed by commentary in Old Javanese, is Bhuavankosha. The legend of burning of Kama with the cosmic fire emanating from his third eye is one of the gems of Javanese literature.
Ocean goers were described as dvipantara gamaniyah, meaning ‘those who go to Indonesia’. Poet Tagore wrote that Nataraja Shiva, the ‘King of Dance’ came to Indonesia and was gratified with the worship of the people the boon that he gave to them was his dance.
The colossal statue of Shiva at Elephanta caves, a small island of Gharapuri, captured by the Portuguese from the King of Gujarat must have blessed the navigators over the centuries. The coastline of Champa (in modern Vietnam) is decked with shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva who endowed the merchants with life, like Somnath.
SRILANKA Srilanka was in close connection with Gujarat. The Sinhalese language has a long history going back to the days of Ashoka and falls in line with north Indian languages- Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and others in the matter of words derived from Sanskrit which permeates in every walk of life.
The Buddhist text Mahavansha states that the king of Srilanka Vijaya sailed from Suparaka to Srilanka. Fragments of the 8th rock edict of Emperor Ashoka found from Sopara in Maharashtra, a city close to modern Gujarat, emphasize the beneficial nature of the Dharma-yatras replacing vihara-yatras meaning pleasure trips. A stupa at Sopara enshrined fragments of the begging bowl of the Buddha.
FROM GUJARAT TO MALAYSIA The Pancha-danda-chhatra-prabandha from Vikrama-vanshavali refers to voyages from Shuparaka to Kedah in Malaysia. The Katha-sarit-sagara relates the shipwreck of Princess Gunavati on the coast of Suvarnadvipa on her way from Kataha (Kedah in Malaysia) to India. Indian sailors were visiting the shores of SE Asia in very remote times and Indonesian traders, seafarers par excellence, frequented Indian coasts.
Ship building Kutch has preserved 200-250 years old log books of mariners. There a family has the name Wadia which comes from Sanskrit vardhaki meaning ‘a ship builder’. The Wadia family of Surat that became famous for ship building has even its logo as a ship honoring their family legacy. The national anthem of the United States was written in 1812 on a Wadia built British Navy ship, the HMS Minden. Suparaka was the dwelling place of Parashuram, a major commercial and an important port town from 3rd to 9th century. References to it can be traced in Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina sources. The 4th century Sanskrit text of the Jatakamala of Aryashura recounts the voyages of seasoned steersman Suparaga and sums up the navigational knowhow of this famous pilot who knew the courses of the stars and could always readily orient himself. He also had a good knowledge of the signs of good and bad weather. He distinguished the regions of the ocean by the fish, by the color of the water, by the birds, the mountains, and other indications.
CANALS AND WATER RESERVOIRES With the spread of Indian culture beyond its boundaries Indians built canal systems. Dholavira in Kutch, the grandest of its time of the five Harappan sites is known for a unique feature that is sophisticated water conservation system of channels and reservoirs, the earliest found anywhere in the world. This speaks eloquently about their advanced hydraulic engineering, given the state of technology in the third millennium BCE. A coastal route must have linked it to Lothal.
BABYLONIA The Buddhist story Baberu Jataka narrates Indian merchants, having taken voyages to the land of Babylon (Balylonis). The western coats had seen great commercial activities developing contacts with the Arabs who gradually became a link between India and Europe. The exports included birds, especially peacocks, beasts, horses, ivory, cotton goods, spices, cereals and jewelry.
PERSIA/ IRAN India’s connections with Persia are well known. Frescos at Ajanta depict Persian ambassador being brought to the court of Pulakesin II, just before 628 AC. Thirteen centuries have rolled down when the Persians who could not bear the brunt of Islam fled from their mighty empire and settled in Sanjan in Gujarat. They were allowed to prosper peacefully. They built the first fire temple in AD 721 to install the holy fire called the Iranshah, the King of Iran. They have saved their religion and customs after being driven out of their own motherland, setting an example that protecting identity is more important than living in the land of their fore-fathers. Today Zoroastrianism enjoys every freedom in India.
DISSEMINATION OF CULTURE VIA MARINE ROUTES Dissemination of culture via marine routes has been acknowledged by paintings of large sailing boats at Dun-huang caves in China and Borobudur in Indonesia when ferry-boats carried Buddhist images, relics and wisdom texts. The world-famous Ajanta caves too furnish paintings of a sea-going vessel with high stem and stern, with three oblong sails attached to as many upright masts. Bhoja has summed up available information on ship-building in his Yukti-kalpataru which is a sort of treatise on this art. Indian shipping ever continued to develop and as late as 1799 AC. F. Baltazar Solvyns speaks of it in admiration: In ancient times the Indians excelled in the art of constructing vessels, and the present Hindus can in this respect still offer models to Europe so much so that the English, attentive to everything that relates to naval architecture, have borrowed from the Hindus many improvements which they have adopted with success to their own shipping.
About Author: is a Research Professor, International Academy of Indian Culture, Joint Secretary, ARSP.