ICWA Webinar on
Roads, Winds, Spices in the Western Indian Ocean: The Memory and Geopolitics of Maritime Heritage
6-7 July 2020
Keynote Address by Shri Raghvendra Singh
Secretary/CEO, Development of Museum & Cultural Spaces
Ministry of Culture, Government of India
Ambassador Raghavan, Professor Himanshu Prabha Ray, Professor Madhu Bhalla and distinguished participants. This two-day symposium on geopolitics of maritime heritage, in my mind, I think is most timely if you take notice of this whole region both across time and space. In fact, go further east along the Chinese coast and then come down around Indonesia, along the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka and then upto Makran coast, you will find that the political temperatures are gradually going up in this region and they are set to also perhaps rise. There is no doubting that. The reason largely is maritime geopolitics. That is the reality of the current situation and it is in this context that I shall be talking to you all today.
Just something, which is more on a personal level, is that the Government has recently created a position called the Chief Executive Officer, Development of Museum and Cultural Spaces and I am the first incumbent in that job. Now this is a very new position keeping in mind the requirements specially in terms of museums and developing cultural spaces. What usually happens is that various State Governments or even Central Ministries or various arms of the Public Sector, they go ahead and create museums, they get funding but really they don’t have that kind of expertise to do it. So, what the Government is attempting to do is to create expertise on museums and the Government actually has great plans for it. In fact, the Government plans to create a new National Museum which actually will be divided into two sections and will be housed in a very, very…how should I put it, in a very grand building or grand buildings and the area given to it would be exponentially large than what the National Museum currently occupies. So, therefore, we are to raise our levels and bars of what the museums are over here in India, we have to develop in house expertise and specially create skilled personnel in areas like curation, conservation, visitor experience and so on and so forth.
Now coming back to the talk, you know a vital feature of the Indian Ocean is the Indian subcontinent that juts out for about a 1000 miles and it tapers off at Kanyakumari. India and Indian Ocean have been inextricably linked by geography and history, the sphere of this ocean extends from East Africa and Tasmania and from Asia to Antarctica, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and several islands are all part of this extension. This region has been a cradle of several civilizations, major religions and faiths of the world, be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Jainism or Islam are all represented in the littoral and island nations of the Indian Ocean.
Geography exerts great influence on politics and security particularly in matters maritime. It is in this context that the geography of Indian Ocean has acquired importance. On its waters are carried, Dr. Raghavan also just reiterated, how the world’s container shipment, one-third of the bulk, cargo traffic and about two-thirds of oil shipments.
Among its geographical features are the Cape of Good Hope, the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, then the entrance of Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca and the Strait between Sumatra and Java. About one-third of word’s population inhabits the littoral States and islands of the Indian Ocean. Four of these countries have population in excess of 140 million - India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
A millennium before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, Indian Ocean was an active thoroughfare of cultural and commercial traffic. It was around 45 A.D., that discovery was made on how to use the monsoon winds to directly cross the Arabian Sea instead of hugging the coast. The Indian navigators of course had already sailed and discovered Socotra long before, in first century AD. In fact they had navigated the Red Sea using the magnetic needle which we call the Matsya Yantra.
The existence of prosperous Hindu colonies in Malaya, Sumatra, Java, Cambodia and modern day Vietnam clearly indicate that the Bay of Bengal was mastered long before first century AD That peninsular India was maritime in its tradition is borne out by the writings of Fa-Hien who visited India in 400 or 410 AD. He was transported through sea from Srilanka to Sri Vijaya along with 200 merchants. There are numerous other references to the Mauryas and the Andhras with regard to the eastern seas. Chinese had actually an extensive sea trade along the Malabar Coast. This trade was there during the Tang Dynasty period with Calicut. Hiuen Tsang who visited India in the 7th century describes the vast overseas trade during the Gupta period. There are numerous mentions of the Chola emperors and their powerful sea faring capacity.
Using bi-annual monsoons, the east bound shipping from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf regularly visited South India. During summer months, the prevailing wind system of Indian Ocean blows from south-west, as a result sailing used to be suspended from May until September along the west coast of India as well as the South Arabian coast. A reversal would take place around October. North-East Monsoon dominated between November and April. Red Sea had its own pattern of wind system which did not coincide with the monsoon.
The ancient vessels that left the Red Sea port in July must have attempted to reach the Indian ports before September. The return was to take between November and April with the beginning of North-East Monsoon. The Roman ships of course made passages to India during the monsoons when all other shipping was closed; perhaps because they were Roman crafts which were sturdily constructed.
Then, of course, as Professor Himanshu Prabha Ray mentioned about another aspect which is the aspect of the spice route which is the name given to the sea routes that link the east with the west, which stretches from the west coast of Japan to islands of Indonesia, India and the land of Middle East and from there across the Mediterranean to the Europe. The links were formed by traders through buying and selling from port to port. Since they traded majorly in spices, the route was named as spice route.
The use of monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean was a boon to sailing ships. It helped them in their travels to and from India. Artifacts of Indus Valley civilization have been found in Middle East and Egypt, dating back to almost 5000 years ago. Large colonies of Romans lived in the port cities of India especially at the east coast i.e. Tamilnadu in the first millennium. In fact I had just recently been to Arikamedu which is near Pondicherry and it has a huge amount of archeological remains present and if one takes up excavation there again we can come up with some fantastic artifacts. Some of the earlier sea faring ships flying between the coast of Kerala and Middle East, the second oldest mosque in fact in the world was constructed in Pandalur in Kerala.
Buddhism spread to all corners of Asia through sea and land routes. Centers like Supathai, Ayodhya, Angkor Wat in the east or Savad, Bamyan or Dongwang, western side of India are manifestations of the vibrant cultural links of India with the regions around the Indian Ocean region. Ramayana was perhaps the most popular story told in this region. The Hindu and Buddhist tradition provides all the finest paintings, sculptures and relief across Asia. The historians and archaeologists in this region are focused largely on land based concerns. Consequently, the cultural heritage that drove maritime connectivity and which related to the large rubric of geopolitics have been ignored. There is a need therefore to create a universally accepted and understood historical narrative of maritime connectivity, the kind of mandate that perhaps Project Mausam has.
The answer lies in utilizing UNESCO’s world heritage platform. A large number of world heritage sites are located on the coasts across the western Indian Ocean. How does one then bring them into dialogue which each other and build partnerships on the basis of shared maritime heritage?
Some examples of commonality could be based on the culture ethos of the Indian Ocean, the research and analysis of the sea stories circulating in the western Indian Ocean in different languages or the great body of literature, cultivation of major crops, archaeological remains which suggest contacts across the western Indian ocean and the transport of food on account of shortage, trade and spices, the language sea farers have communicated in…in fact they could all be…they could all result ,in fact, in building major partnerships.
Archaeological exploration in Socotra, at the mouth of the Red Sea led to the discovery of more than 200 drawings, in fact dating from the second to fourth century AD. Of these, 192 to be precise, are in Brahmi script, one in Kharoshti, one in Bactrian, three in Greek and one in Aramaic. So Socotra has been of course inscribed on the world heritage list as a natural site in 2008.
But the building of trans-national maritime network, in fact since 2014 when it got announced has received little attention from academics or policy makers. In fact Socotra hardly finds any mention, as also several other coastal world heritage sites across the Western Indian Ocean, that show evidence of maritime activity. In fact in Ajanta Caves the narrative of Simhala, a sea faring merchant is prominently depicted. He was, as we all know, the incarnation of Shakyamuni Gautama and he along with 500 merchants had landed in Tamradweep which is current Srilanka.
There is an interesting story with the great Srilanka connect. There is also a great scope of collaboration among maritime museums. Several countries in the Indian Ocean have already established collaboration with the maritime museum being setup at Lothal in India which would in fact prove very useful. India’s focus towards the east and the south resulted in not highlighting historical connections, perhaps it has been at that expense across Africa, Middle East and Southern Europe.
India should aim to revive its maritime connectivity among Indian Ocean ports of Kerala and Gujarat with Srilanka, the Gulf ports, towns in countries such as Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. While inaugurating the Kochi metro in 2017, in fact, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi had called Kochi the queen of the Arabian Sea. An important spice trading center, Kerala should find a specific role in Project Mausam. Major goal should be to revive the historical spice routes in a large geopolitical and geo-economic context.
We had launched the Project Mausam to sustain cross national connectivity with East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, Srilanka and the South East Asian Archipelagoes but how does one translate? That is the main challenge. How does one translate Project Mausam into feasible projects like what the Maritime Silk Road or One Belt One Road projects have actually come to be.
More than three dozen countries have been identified as partners in the new Winds Project, Project Mausam. Trade should be a major concern and even the fact that Gulf Cooperation Countries are India’s biggest trading partners. India’s trade diversification as well as free trade arrangements have affected the export potential of spices from Kerala. The international market of spice has also witnessed new players. Project Mausam may be used to revive Kerala’s spice trade route. In fact, it should seek to re-establish Kerala’s maritime connectivity with countries it had exchanges with.
India has a vast human resource already in existence in many Gulf countries. It is the major source of soft power which India should make use of. India is a signatory, as we all know, to various UNESCO Conventions. Project Mausam was to provide a platform across the Indian Ocean world through cross-cultural, trans-national narrative. It was to seek a trans-national nomination under world heritage by highlighting links of the Indian Ocean maritime route. This will provide visibility to connectivity, encourage research, encourage tourism, also develop heritage.
The project will navigate through coastal architecture through maritime heritage and artifacts, through maritime museums, underwater cultural heritage, industrial heritage, ship building, intangible cultural heritage, trade routes, cultural products, pilgrimage, religious travel, oral traditions and literary writings. There are so many aspects actually that one has the opportunity of dealing with on the Project Mausam platform.
Against this backdrop in fact this two day conference which we are having on maritime heritage should be used to draft a chart, a timeline for this project. The idea is to formalize subjects based upon which Project Mausam may be executed. A possible way forward would be to begin collecting data on historical exchanges in the field of both tangible and intangible maritime cultural heritage. This may include pathways related to art, philosophy, mathematics, geography and sciences. No project of this kind actually exists at this moment.
Scholars and experts across the region should jointly work….Indian Council of World Affairs should actually collaborate with the Ministry of Culture and other partners to assist them. This research then should feed in to proposing to UNESCO for a world heritage nomination of the outcome of this initiative and also to place maritime cultural heritage of the Indian Ocean on a firm and independent footing. They should be done actually separately.
The project should also have both cultural and serious strategic dimensions to my mind. India should consider including Andaman and Nicobar Islands also within this ambit, given the islands’ location close to the Straits of Malacca and Thailand. The purpose behind Project Mausam should be to remind the region as to why the ocean is called the Indian Ocean. The project should be made more meaningful, so that it does not lack teeth.
The Maritime Silk Route (MSR), ladies and gentlemen, is an initiative which is already impacting the strategic balance in the Indian Ocean region. It is known to everyone that the Maritime Silk Route strives to further influence the Indian Ocean. The new geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region is defined by America’s declining influence. The old age geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region characterized by US hegemony as a leading force from the Middle East to the Pacific is now giving way to a new geo-politics as America’s focus shifts gradually from the Indian Ocean. India and Austalia’s maritime presence in the Indian Ocean along with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan but in this region the geo-politics, the geo-political competition is now shifting from land to sea. Maritime rivalry in this region may intensify. If United States continues to diminish its influence in the Indian Ocean which country is supposed to replace it? The power vacuum left by America’s retreat needs to be compensated by concerted efforts by various other countries to maintain a strategic balance in the Indian Ocean region.
Though India’s economy is the biggest in this region, China is the biggest user of its sea lanes. The MSR initiative is an indication of increasing realization of the growing salience of the Indian Ocean. MSR is aimed at allowing China’s maritime military power to break free from the geographical constraints of the Western Pacific Island chains. Over 60% of China’s oil imports transit via the Indian Ocean. Even as China builds pipelines through Myanmar and Pakistan, they would be quite inadequate to mitigate its energy and security.
Maritime Silk Route is China’s crucial element of grand strategy to carve out a Chinese sphere of influence in an area where the American presence is ebbing. Many countries in the Indian Ocean region endorse the MSR idea because it comes with economic incentives thus softening China’s maritime rise. The MSR tends to negate the anxiety caused on the count of rapid expansion of the Chinese Navy and also negates the string of pearls theory.
Not all of India’s merchandise trade transit via the sea. Land based trade routes are unlikely to come up in near future. India would necessarily have to rely on international shipping lanes. Security and safety of shipping would remain a paramount concern for many years to come. The critical question is whether the Maritime Silk Route shall impair this safety? In what way would MSR harm India’s freedom of navigation in this region? The ultimate goal of China is to acquire maritime hegemony in the Indian Ocean thus raising its global image and ensuring energy security.
The MSR belongs only to China. MSR has the potential of turning into a battlefield for maritime hegemony as China possesses the power to claim it. China uses debt diplomacy to expand its global footprint. India has been apprehensive of China’s role in building out posts around its periphery. MSR highlights Srilanka’s position on the east-west sea route where China’s economic and military interest including Gwadar, Hambantota, and Chittagong validate this argument.
The Belt Road initiative and the MSR have on-boarded approximately more than 65 countries. For Project Mausam about 39 countries have been identified for trans-national nomination of heritage but no partnership still been entered into. There are no major or minor research project yet that deal with Project Mausam. The initiatives of China were first converted into strategy and thereafter put into action.
China has used its full diplomatic abilities to bring together the academia, media, museums and Governmental apparatus to ensure the successful implementation of Belt Road and MSR initiatives. In comparison, Project Mausam is still in the phase of just being an initiative, limited currently to research, conferences, seminars on cultural linkages between India and other countries. The Chinese initiative is a comprehensive one whereas Project Mausam just deals with cultural dimensions.
Belt Road and MSR, ladies and gentlemen, offer thousands of scholarships, hold art and film festivals, book fairs, make it convenient for people to apply for tourist visas, cooperate on epidemic information, agreement on treatment technologies, public health emergencies, technology transfer, maritime cooperation, cooperation among cities and among non-governmental organizations.
Project Mausam on the other hand is yet to promote understanding on common heritage and multiple identities. Project Mausam is yet to seek, to revive lost linkages, provide cross-cultural, trans-national narrative and evolve a relationship between natural and cultural heritage. The Chinese initiative is a national initiative whereas Project Mausam at best can be regarded as an Indian Culture Ministry’s research project. Even this research project is limited to an assigned group only.
Project Mausam is yet to broaden its reach and scope even within India through inter-disciplinary approach to be implemented by various institutes, universities, departments and interested academicians. It is in fact challenging for India to convince the world about the seriousness of our own project. The Chinese initiative is quite popular among academicians both inside and outside China, but for researchers interested in Project Mausam it is a challenge to get funding from the government or universities.
We should build a well thought out and coherent strategy to execute Project Mausam. This requires a background study for better implementation and success of the strategy. How can Project Mausam help to rejuvenate and reclaim India’s status on the global scale? How can Project Mausam result in better economic integration along the Indian Ocean region? That my dear friends is actually a challenge we should overcome immediately.