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Looking at history through maritime records

Thursday, 25 August 2016

New Delhi: Challenging the existing narratives of Indian history written from an 'inland' and 'western' points of view, a new book attempts to retell the country's past from a maritime perspective by shedding light on how the Indian Ocean shaped human history.

Writer, economist and environmentalist Sanjeev Sanyal in his book titled, 'The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History' seeks to tell the history of the region, which stretches across East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent to South East Asia and Australia.

According to Sanyal, almost all of the existing books on the Indian Ocean comprise of histories of the region written from an inland perspective.

"Much of the Indian history is written from an inland perspective. If you take a completely Delhi centric inland world view, then you will miss the point of India in many many ways. India's history is a very strongly maritime history. One of the biggest Indian ports for hundreds of years in the ancient world was Muziris in Kerala and yet it is not there in our narratives because what we all seem to talk about is this very inland perspective of the world," he says.

The author hopes to show the extent to which the history changes when witnessed from the coastlines rather than from an inland point of view.

The book notes how the continental empires of the Mauryas and the Mughals in India, the Mongols in Central Asia, and the Tang dynasty in China have dominated our history books, mentioning the Cholas, the Majapahit of Indonesia and the Omanis merely as as footnotes.

"It is a limiting way to think about the world. It almost treats the coastal view of history as something peripheral to the real, interesting business of Delhi or Patliputra. The view is distorted because if you do not talk about the Cholas or Pallavas or the Vijaynagar empire, then it is almost like writing European history without speaking about Athens, Venice or the Vikings.

"We have for, some reason, a very strong inland bias. Particularly after Independence, our history book writing and thinking has become very much about how the rest of the country looks sitting from Delhi, as if the rest of the country exists for the purposes of being provinces to Delhi," Sanyal says.

It is rather interesting to see how the flipping the perspective to a maritime one, alters the geopolitics of the region by changing the international neighbours - from China and Pakistan to Indonesia, Oman and South Africa.

"If we take the coastal perspective, our neighbour is Indonesia and we have had greater interaction through thousands of years with Indonesia that we have had with China.

"Our civilisational links with the former have been so strong that after the Indonesians became free, they named their country after ours, their currency 'Rupiah' after our currency, even their national airlines is called Garuda," he says.

It is also the predominantly colonial point of view with which Indian history is written, that the author contests in the book.

He writes, "One would get the impression from these narratives that the history of the Indian Ocean came into being only after the Portuguese arrived on the scene and that it effectively stopped with the withdrawal of the colonial powers."

He says how an occasional chapter in history books would talk about what happened before Vasco da Gama turned up.

"In that they will quickly talk about the spice trade as if the Indians' aim in life was growing spices for western consumption. Sure, we did that too but that was one of the many  things that were going on and we were making our own voyages of discovery across this part of the world," Sanyal says.

The book takes the readers on a journey to explore remote archaeological sites, ancient inscriptions, maritime trading networks and half-forgotten oral histories, while drawing upon existing and new evidences to challenge claims about famous historical characters and the flow of history itself.

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