Marine archaeology offers new insights on shipwrecks, Ronita Torcato reports
Evidence from ship-wreck archaeology has been used for delving into ship-building and navigational technologies, transactional commodities (both bulk items and precious —particularly ceramics), cultural transactions across the Indian Ocean and adjacent maritime spaces for more than a thousand years notes Dr Ranabir Chakravarti, a specialist in the Indian Ocean maritime history of the pre-1500 period,who recently retired as Professor of Ancient History, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi.
The Indian Ocean, covering about 20% of the total maritime space of the planet, has a very long history of sea-faring that connected diverse communities in north and east Africa, the South Asian subcontinent and Southeast Asia (both mainland and maritime).
Through the Red Sea which is surrounded by Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, a network was established further, though indirect, linkages with the Indian Ocean.
The Malacca Strait, a narrow, long stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, offered conduits to the Java Sea, the Sunda Strait and the South China Sea which belong to the Pacific Ocean zone, thus forming the Indo-Pacific rim.
According to Dr Chakravati, one of the major problems of grasping the millennial history of seafaring in the Indian Ocean is the paucity of historical data prior to 1500 CE. Fortunately, recent advances in marine archaeology in the form of ship-wreck archaeology have offered many new insights on Indian Ocean seafaring and maritime history in general for the period prior to 1500 CE.
Godavaya in southern Sri Lanka, previously Ceylon (1st to 2nd Century CE) is, so far, the earliest known ship-wreck in the Indian Ocean. Dr Chakravarti says that prior to the advent of steam navigation, shipping and movement across this vast oceanic space were largely determined by the more or less predictable alterations of the monsoon winds and the wooden plank vessels, stitched by coconut coir (maritime Southeast Asian ship-building traditions have certain distinct features.)
Godavaya apart, Dr Chakarvarti has researched the following ship-wreck sites: Belitung to the east of Sumatra, Indonesia dated to 830 CE; Intan, a Javanese ship-wreck site dated to 930 CE, Cirebon in northwest Java, dated to 960 CE and Quanzhou, the ancient Chinese port of Zaiton dated to the 13th century CE.
Dr Chakravarti has authored and edited several books including A Sourcebook of Indian Civilization (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2000) Trade in Early India (New Delhi: OUP 2005, Trade and Traders in Early Indian Society (New Delhi, Manohar, 2007), Indo-Judaic Studies in the Twenty-first Century: A View from the Margin (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007) and Exploring Early India (New Delhi: Primus 2016).
He has also annotated the 14th century Latin Crusades text, How to Defeat the Saracens (translated by Giles Constable, Washington DC: Dumberton Oaks, 2012).
Dr Chakravarti was elected President of the Ancient India section by the Indian History Congress, 2011. He has recently edited, jointly with A.M. Chowdhury, A History of Bangladesh: Early Bengal in Regional Perspectives up to 1200 CE (forthcoming, Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh).
Dr Chakravarti was invited by the Maritime History Society (MHS) to deliver its third and concluding Monsoon Maritime Lecture 2018 on maritime navigation and history based on recently studied shipwrecks.
In July, Cmde Odakkal Johnson, MHS Curator had organised the Second Monsoon Maritime Lecture cum Conversation on the role of old IN Ships Delhi and Mysore in the evolving Indian Navy. Conversationalists for the evening were Dr. Prabhakaran Paleri, DGICG (Retd) and Cmde Srikant Kesnur, Director, Maritime Warfare Centre and a Senior Officer from INS Mysore.
The Bombay Dock Explosion-1944 was the focus of the first MHS Monsoon Maritime Lecture which was delivered by communications specialist and the MHS' longest serving Curator, Cdr (Retd) Mohan Narayan.
The chief guest for the evening, Admiral VS Shekhawat (Retd) highlighted the significance of following fire safety precautions and the importance of documentation and recording history for future generations.
In the audience at the inaugural was a galaxy of naval officers including Vice Chairman MHS, Flag Officer Maharashtra Area, Rear Admiral Puneet K Bahl as well as academics,historians and students.
Prior to this event, the MHS celebrated its 41st Founder's Day with a commemorative lecture by Mumbai University's Prof Kurush Dalal on the maritime character and journey of Mumbai. The chief guest was Vice Admiral Ajendra Bahadur Singh, Chief of Staff, Western Naval Command.
The MHS was founded by Vice Admiral MP Awati (Retd) now Patron Emeritus of the Society, to promote the study of India's maritime history and enhance awareness of India's maritime heritage among youth.
The MHS organises seminars, walks and lectures on India’s maritime heritage and related subjects of interest and also sponsors research projects on maritime history.