21 July 2009

A Philatelic Overview of the Ancient Maritime Trade

Logistics dictate that overland communications precede the development of maritime communications. The indeterminate lag between ports of call and unpredictability of seafaring are some chief reasons for the late evolution of an organised maritime postal system. As narrated in various religious and ancient literatures, India had a well-documented maritime trade, dating back to 4500 years ago to the period of Indus Valley civilisation. What is amazing is the scale and scope of the trade – with South Africa, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Assyria in the West and as far as the islands of Indonesia and Japan in the East.

Ancient period was the Golden Age of Shipping and Ship-building activity for India, which continued till about 13th century A.D. A little known fact is that this was one of the key industries in ancient India, for she excelled in the art of constructing vessels. Ship building technology adapted ancient Tamil methods to make catamarans

Sir William Jones is of opinion that the Hindus "must have been navigators in the age of Manu, because bottomry (the lender of money for marine insurance) is mentioned in it. In the Ramayana, the practice of bottomry is distinctly noticed. "

A vast repository of ancient literary works has random references to a brisk seafaring trade. The Rig Veda, represents Varuna having full knowledge of sea routes. The Ramayana refers to Yavan Dvipa and Suvarna Dvipa (Java and Sumatra) and Lohta Sayara (Red Sea Indians), who were masters of the sea borne trade with Europe, Asia and Africa. The Brahmanda Purana describes the world map drawn on a flat surface. Manu Smriti, the oldest law book in the world, lays down laws to govern commercial disputes with respect to sea borne traffic. Padma Purana says that world maps were prepared and maintained in book form. The Bible refers to Phoenician sailors who sailed to Ophir (Abhira in Gujarat) and brought back treasures. Harivamsa informs that the first geographical survey of the world was performed during the period of Vaivasvata (seventh Manu). Surya Siddhanta speaks about construction of wooden globe, complete with grids.

In Artha Shastra, Kautilya writes about the Board of Shipping and the Commissioner of Port who supervised sea traffic. Arthashastra devotes a full chapter on the state department of waterways under “navadhyaksha”. In fact the word navigation is derived from the Sanskrit word "Navgath". The Kathasagara, Sangam literature and Buddhist Jataka stories also describe the naval supremacy that enabled Indians to colonize islands in the Indian Archipelago.

India is also the country with written legacies in Aryabhatta’s indomitable Arya-Siddhanta, Varahamihira’s Brihat-Samhita and Pancha-Siddhantika. Kautilya’s legendary Arthashastra and the much-hyped Kama Sutra. So, it is indeed inconceivable that no testaments of an ancient maritime communication system prevailed.

The answer eluding me probably lies in the allusion contained in Surya Siddhanta, which mentions how the art of cartography is the secret of gods. This being the general belief in the ancient epoch, records were preserved in secrecy. Conclusively, they must have been purged or become casualties to vagaries of nature or marauders.

The Greek Periplus of the Erythraean Sea contains many detailed references to the Indian seaports. Muziris²(Kodungallur or Cranganore, Kerala), Poduke (Ariyankuppam), Barbaricum (modern Karachi), Barygaza (Bharuch, Gujarat) with the Tamil dynasties of Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras as trading partners. It is well established that the world's first tidal dock was built in Lothal around 2500 BC during the Harappan civilisation, near Mangrol harbour (Gujarat). Other ports were Balakot and Dwarka (1500-1400 B.C.), connecting to an ancient route along the Sabarmati river, Supara and Calliena (near Bombay), Kalyan, Chaul and Cambay in Western India, Puhar and Korkai; then Tamralipti in Bengal, Kadura and Ghantasala, Kaveripattanam (Puhar) and Tondail of the Pandyas in Andhra, Paralia and Balita near Kanya Kumari; Elceynda and Kottayam in Kerala

Indian maritime philately has been weaned in the traditional repertoire of European philatelic literature. The same has been well documented, with rates, routes and regulations. We know the overland - Red Sea route was established by Lt. Thomas Waghorn of the British Royal Navy between India and Great Britain via Suez and Alexandria. The route was across the Indian Ocean to Aden, up Red Sea to the Isthmus of Suez, and overland by camel to Cairo, thence by boats down river Nile to Atfeh, and along Mahmoudieh canal to Alexandria.

However, there also existed another overland-Red Sea route some 3000 years ago³, where Berenike (23° N, 38° E approx.) served as "transfer port"ยช, accepting cargo from India. Goods were carried by camels or donkeys some 240 miles northwest to the Nile River, where smaller boats transported the cargo north to Alexandria, thence across Mediterranean to a dozen major Roman ports.

Maritime philatelic records pertaining to India are mainly post 18th century. So studies on the preceding medieval period and ancient postal structure are required.

It must be borne in mind that historical studies in postal system are incomplete without maritime communications. Regional literature and inscriptions, documents, maps, etc, maybe available that throw light on ancient maritime communications. “There is extensive archival material on the Indian Ocean trade in Greek, Roman, and Southeast Asian sources." Any input or know-how of such resources would be welcome by the author, as this a subject of ongoing research.

1. This ancient Indian ship-building technology has even been used by the U.S. while building the 110 ft. catamaran ships to ferry tanks and ammunition from Qatar to Kuwait during the Iraq war.
2. major port which was key to trade between ancient India and the Roman Empire
3. as in the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a marine guidebook of 1st century A.D., edited by W.H.
4. supported by recent and ongoing archaeological evidences

Sources :
Ancient India – R.C. Mazumdar
Ancient Indians knew Atlantic Ocean – Dr. V. Siva Prasad
Indian Shipping: A History of the Sea-Borne Trade and Maritime Activity of the Indians From the Earliest Times - R. K. Mookerjee
History of the Indian Ocean - Auguste Toussaint

The entire series is part of an ongoing research project and can be accessed as a work in progress. Readers are requested to comment, share any resources, materials (maps, covers, books) or information that they feel is pertinent to the research. The same will be duly acknowledged as desired by the reader, collector or dealer.

1 comment:

  1. As narrated in various religious and ancient literatures, India had a well-documented maritime trade, dating back to 4500 years ago to the period of Indus Valley civilisation. www.performqanceautocarrier.com