Beneath the Blue: Underwater Archaeology in India
By Tiya Chatterji
Underwater Archaeology and maritime studies in India are underrated and have the potential to unleash untapped potential in terms of heritage studies and the policy formation around them
Archaeology often reminds us of great ancient civilizations. It is the supporting arm of history and in the absence of written records fills the gaps in the timeline that reveals our past. India has a long timeline of historical events and an abundance of archaeological sites, monumental ruins, historical records and submerged shipwrecks and sites that help reconstruct the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago.
A sub-discipline of Archaeology is Maritime or Marine Archaeology, which deals with the maritime history of any country. It includes underwater research as well as the discovery and study of shipwrecks, sites along the coast, and trade routes that led the once thriving sea trade in India. Proficient seafarers, ancient Indians were known to utilize the potential of a vast coastline of 7500 km.
“Indian maritime history began during the 3rd millennium BCE when inhabitants of the Indus Valley initiated maritime trading contact with Mesopotamia.”
Indian maritime history began during the 3rd millennium BCE when inhabitants of the Indus Valley initiated maritime trading contact with Mesopotamia. As trade between India and the Greco-Roman world increased spices became the main exports from India to the Western world, bypassing silk and other commodities. Maritime trade involving spices and other commodities along the Sriwijaya kingdom’s route from the 7th century to around the 12th century turned out to be fertile ground for cross-cultural exchange among its traders. In the classical era, major empires involved in the Indian Ocean trade included the Mauryan Empire in India, the Han Dynasty in China, the Achaemenid Empire in Persia, and the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Silk from China graced Roman aristocrats, Roman coins mingled in Indian treasuries, and Persian jewels gleamed in Mauryan settings. Religious thought also reached other countries through the classical Indian Ocean trade routes. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism spread from India to Southeast Asia, through merchants rather than missionaries. Islam would later spread the same way from the 700s CE onwards. Maritime trade can be credited to cultural amalgamation, which can be traced even today in various parts of the world in terms of food, apparel, traditions, beliefs and practices.
“While the era of maritime trade in India was a blessing, it was soon doomed by superstitions.”
While the era of maritime trade in India was a blessing, it was soon to be doomed by superstitions. ‘Kala Pani’ (Black Ocean) or the proscription against crossing the ocean in the Hindu culture (primarily among the upper castes) originated in ancient India, giving birth to the decline of the seafaring culture. The Muslim elite followed suit and like Hindus, they considered seafaring as an offence. The Tuhfat al Mujahadin, a book of the period, reveals that Allah was upset with them for undervaluing Him and therefore, He had “set on them the people of Purtkal” [Portugal] who were Christians. The offense of crossing the sea is also known as ‘Samudrolanghana’ or ‘Sagarollanghana’ . The Dharma Sutra of Baudhayana lists sea voyages as first of the offences that cause the loss of varna or caste.
While religious fervour and the associated penalties and taxation and loss of cultural ethnicity were major deterrents to maritime trade, the growing tension between sea traders and Brahmins or other groups was another reason for the decline. The fallacy of Kala Pani spread among the Hindus and consequently the maritime trade and amalgamation of cultures started to decline except among certain communities in Kerala and Gujarat that insisted on travelling, converting to Islam and forging marital relations with Arabs. It is also interesting to note that the fishermen communities and the other lower castes went about their seafaring business and paid no heed to the Kala Pani hoax. Hinduism failed to flourish as the Hindu priesthood was based on bloodline and castes, and since people could not travel across the sea or take their brides across the sea, the Hindu tradition gradually waned.
“The decline in the maritime culture was the beginning of an era when India’s economic growth and cultural riches were overtaken by European powers and subsequently the country was subjugated by the British for close to two centuries.”
The Mughals saw the sea as a benign force and did not deem it worthy of royal attention. It was the Marathas who first built a navy. The decline in the maritime culture was the beginning of an era when India’s economic growth and cultural riches were overtaken by European powers and subsequently the country was subjugated by the British for close to two centuries. This period was very crucial for India; the country missed the Industrial Revolution and the modern era of steel ships never took off in the Indian subcontinent.
The inability to learn our lessons from history will remain the biggest curse in our nation’s evolution post-Independence. We remained sea blind and continued to ignore the maritime capability and capacity building in our strategic vision till as late as the beginning of the 21st century. The notion of ‘Black Ocean’ has to be replaced by viewing the ocean as blue and shifting our focus to the blue economy. We need to consider the oceans as storehouses of opportunities and finite resources.
The aim of both archaeology and history is research of the past. The difference between these two disciplines derives from the source materials: historians use written sources while archaeologists concentrate on material remains. Underwater archaeology is archaeology practiced underwater. As with all other branches of archaeology, it evolved from its roots in pre-history and in the classical era to include sites from the historical and industrial eras. Its acceptance has been a relatively late development due to the difficulties of accessing and working underwater sites, and because the application of archaeology to underwater sites initially emerged from the skills and tools developed by shipwreck salvagers. As a result, underwater archaeology initially struggled to establish itself as bona fide archaeological research. The situation changed when universities began teaching the subject and when a theoretical and practical base for the sub-discipline was firmly established. Marine archaeology now has a number of branches. After it became broadly accepted in the late 1980s, maritime archaeology is described as the scientifically based study of past human life, behaviours and cultures and their activities in, on, around and (lately) under the sea, estuaries and rivers.
“In India, Marine Archaeology, and more specifically Underwater Archaeology, is yet to take shape in a comprehensive manner. There is complete lack of understanding of the subject, its constituent sub-disciplines and the tools required.”
In India, Marine Archaeology, and more specifically Underwater Archaeology, is yet to take shape in a comprehensive manner. There is complete lack of understanding of the subject, its constituent sub-disciplines and the tools required. Acoustics and sonar technology would probably be the most critical component to undertake effective underwater surveys. Underwater vehicles that can carry sensors to the sites for detailed survey are yet to become available, both to the researchers and the scientists involved in the study. Human divers with limited endurance are still substituting for such critical tools. The scale of study is highly limited due to the absence of more modern tools. The tropical littorals waters in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) present sub-optimal sonar performance of the order of close to 70%, thereby drastically limiting the efficiency and effectiveness of any attempt to undertake underwater surveys.
Lack of involvement of academia in field experiment based R&D has always been a major limitation in the Indian system. Archaeology has been a well-developed subject with significant contribution on land based sites by the Department of Archaeology at the Deccan College based in Pune; however, Underwater Archaeology is yet to take off both as a subject of classroom lectures and in the form of field surveys at actual sites, such as Dwarka, Somnath, and Mahabalipuram. For the discipline to take concrete shape, participation is required from all the stakeholders in a structured framework. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) Goa have undertaken underwater explorations to identify certain sites of high relevance. However, there is a lack of enthusiastic students and domain experts to steer the wheels of the discipline in India. What is needed is a national programme that is backed by academia, and sustained research on developing the capacity and capability to undertake systematic and structured study. We need to evolve an organizational structure that has the mandate and capacity to undertake all the three aspects for a truly national programme – policy advocacy, technology & innovation, and human resource development.
Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is a framework formulated by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune to address the specific challenges of Underwater Archaeology in the Indian subcontinent going forward. It will cover the requirements of all the four stakeholders – the national security apparatus, blue economic entities, environmental & disaster management authorities, and science & technology providers. . The UDA framework will focus on technology requirements, regulatory framework, HR requirement, entrepreneurial opportunities and more to be able to provide a template for such studies in the future.
History has many lessons, as we plan our glorious future for an aspirational young generation given the so called demographic advantage. Underwater Archaeology has significant potential to contribute to our learning from the past and help formulate our strategic vision for sustainable national growth in the future.
About The Authors
Ms Tiya Chatterji
Dr Cdr Arnab Das
Director, Maritime Research Center, Pune