The Ocean of Churn
Viking: Penguin Random House India. 2016
Pp. iii + 297 | HB ? 599
Revisiting the Indian Ocean
History has forever been perceived as a series of linear struggles between warring dynasties on land, or (to allude to a much recent phenomenon) in terms of colonization and establishment of the supremacy of one country over another. However this power struggle between the geographical binaries of land and sea, receives a completely new perspective in Sanjeev Sanyal’s recent historical endeavour, The Ocean of Churn (2016). He states: “History looks different when witnessed from the coastlines rather than from an inland point of view.” This echoes the strategic thinker K.K. Panniker’s similar argument in his essay on the maritime heritage and its effect on Indian history in 1945: “The peninsular character of the country and the essential dependence of its trade on maritime traffic give the sea a preponderant influence on its destiny [...]. The economic life of India will be completely at the mercy of the power which controls the seas”. Thus, Sanjeev Sanyal in his book traces the course of the rise and fall of dynasties, (Indian, Arabic, South Asian and Western), charted by the ebb and flow of the Indian Ocean, with a special nautical gaze of a maritime historian. This book is a continuation of the journey into the history of the maritime geography that begins with Sanyal’s earlier book, Land of the Seven Rivers (2012).
The title of the book reminisces the mythical churning of the ocean (Samudra Manthan in the Vishnu Purana), by the gods and demons whereby the ocean released both the elixir for life (amrita) as well as a deadly poison (halahal) which could destroy the world. This churning of the ocean is symbolic of the metaphorical and the present ecological context of the ocean being both the source of life and death to the human civilization, a view which contradicts the common perception of the land being the source of sustenance of the civilization.
In the author’s note at the beginning of the book, Sanyal distinguishes between the two prominent trends in the existing books on the Indian Ocean. He remarks, “[t]he first category which still accounts for the bulk, comprises histories of the region written from a Western perspective”. Whereas, “[t]he second category comprises of books written by indigenous scholars who have begun to explore the past of their respective countries.” In his opinion, none of these categories do proper justice, individually, to the proper expatiation of the history of the ocean. So, throughout the subsequent eleven chapters of the book, the author not only tries to bridge the gap between these two categories, but also builds a rare evolutionary approach of his own by sailing into the uncharted waters of archaeological and scientific evidences, historical documents, and popular myths about the various countries along the coastline of the Indian Ocean; thereby weaving an intricate narrative of sea trade and commerce, war, human migration, technology and religion. The narrative interspersed with his personal ideas as a traveler, makes his account even more engaging.
The book commences with determining the geographical location of the Indian Ocean, and the population surrounding the rim of the Indian Ocean. The geographical position of India makes it a pivotal region of the Indian Ocean. In the first part of the book, the author probes into the history of trade and commerce of India, which flourished right from the Harappan times by the banks of the Saraswati-Ghaggar basin, as early as 7000BC. Sanyal also traces the rich maritime traditions of the grand Vijaynagara Kingdom, the Cholas, the Pallavas, the Guptas, the Palas of Bengal (beginning right from 731 AD), all of whom are marginalized in history. At the same time, Sanyal foregrounds the history of Indonesia, Angoria, Ethiopia. He draws an interesting parallel between the skill of navigation of the Indonesian sailors in the fifth century AD in their outrigger boats, and that of the efforts of the Polynesians. Much of the culture of the Indian subcontinent is a result of the assimilation and inculcation of various foreign influences that had found their way into the Indian social and cultural milieu. As such, The Mongols’ (1221-1327 AD), the Turks’ (1000-1025 AD) invasions played a very significant part in shaping the maritime lineage of India across Indian Ocean.
The second part of the book deals mostly with the advent of foreign powers via sea into the Indian Peninsula, including the Waqwaq dynasty in 800AD, which comprised of only thirty women. The naval wars that began during the sixteenth century, for gaining monopoly over trade along the coastline of the Indian Ocean, (between the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the British), ultimately ended with the victory of the English East India Company. From the accounts of the Indian courts by Marco Polo and the account of the voyages of the Chinese scholar Fa Xian, to the arrival of Vasco Da Gama at Calicut, the maritime history of the Indian Ocean resonates with episodes of display of multiple naval encounters on its coast. The coast itself becomes a confluence of the land and sea, where trade, commerce, and human migration results in the interaction of ideas and influence and dissemination of knowledge. The migration of the native soldiers to fight for the British troops and the deportation of indentured labourers from Calcutta and Mumbai to various colonies like the African sugar and cotton plantations of the British (via ships), add to the multifaceted role of the Indian Ocean.
Sanyal draws our attention to many obscure aspects and events of history. One, he sheds light on the existence of matrilineal communities in the south-western coast and in the north-eastern part of India. Also, the legend of Kaundinya’s marriage to the pirate princess Soma in the Mekong Delta in the first century BC, sheds light on one the most debated aspects of maritime literature: the absence of women at the helm. The voice of women has forever been ignored in maritime community, for several superstitions. By delving into their role and impact upon maritime history in this book, Sanyal has broached new vistas in maritime research and gender studies. Sanyal boldly attempts to deconstruct the myth of Ashoka as a great emissary of Buddhist ideals of peace and non-violence. He argues (with proper evidence) that Ashoka’s Buddhist propaganda was actually a political stance to camouflage his ruthlessness as a ruler. At the same time, Sanyal illustrates how Kanhoji Angre, (the Maratha naval commander or ‘Surkhail’) who is dismissed as a ‘pirate’ by popular historians, contributed to the rise of the Marathas as a formidable naval power along the Konkan Coast in 1756 and posed a potential threat to the Portuguese and English navies for several years.
Sanyal creates a fine balance between myth and reality as he draws a connection between Herodotus’ tale about the Arabs acquiring cinnamon and Sindbad the Sailor’s second adventure (a fictitious character from the tales of the Arabian Nights). Sanyal gives maritime history a wider perspective with explorers, merchants, and pirates rather than confining it to merely to the exploits of kings on ocean. Sanyal draws his research right up to both the world wars, (1914-1918 World War I and 1939-1945 World War II). One of the mysteries of naval history is that why India withdrew from the naval forefront despite having such a varied and rich maritime heritage. The author, though intrigued by this question, leaves it unanswered. China repeated the same mistake and isolated itself from the maritime world right after its ships reached the shores of India under Admiral Zheng He.
Indian nauticalia leaves much to be discovered and brought to the notice of the masses. In an age of sonar and submarines, when the sea is increasingly losing its former significance as a body which sustained civilizations, Sanyal’s book precisely contributes to nautical research and the rekindling of scholarly interest in the sea. Though this is exclusively a work of history, it will also prove immensely beneficial to scholars of nautical literature, for this book gives a much detailed and comprehensive insight into the forgotten Indian nauticalia. He concludes his book with the supposition that the present calm of Indian Ocean might again be disturbed by the “geopolitical rivalry” between India and China. On the whole, in Sanyal’s book the Indian Ocean is not merely a channel for human exploitation, it is the ultimate source and resource for the fostering of a world-wide lineage of the human race, who have their very origin in the sea (as the ‘Aquatic Ape Theory’ argues). On the whole, The Ocean of Churn is an interesting take upon the contribution of the oceans to human life and history, in the form of livelihood, adventure and knowledge.