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Reclaiming Our Maritime Heritage


We, the Government

By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

We are a Maritime Nation shackled by our land-lubber mindset.
Our oldest, and most advanced, civilisation was an export-oriented seafaring one. In Gujarat’s Dholavira and Lothal, we have seen evidence of sophisticated manufacturing industries whose products were found in distant Mesopotamia. Their water-conservation, sanitation and civic planning rivalled those we have in our cities, today. Lothal had the world’s first dry dock which would still work if its rivers flowed. Though their waters were protected by Lothal’s Goddess of Navigators, tidal erosion could have blighted their irrigated fields into saline wetlands.

But while no one is certain why this incredible civilisation collapsed, it is curious how successive Indian governments down-played the great achievements of the industrialised Lothalese-Dholavirans, while emphasising the role of the pastoral Aryans.

According to the iconic Freedom Ideologue, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the Aryans originated in the North Pole when that area was a sub-tropical, greener, warmer land. Climate-change triggered the Aryans’ exodus which, eventually, led them to India. Consequently, many of their traditions were influenced by their centuries of trekking through the flat, horizon-stretching, steppes of Eurasia. Oceans would have been alien to them, evoking the fear of the unknown. This would explain the anathema attributed to Crossing the Kala Pani.
Below Bharath’s northern region, however, the sea was the Great Provider.

Here, we found the legend of a Mother Continent from which sea-borne refugees escaped to coastal India, bringing their sacred knowledge and books with them. The island-continent then sank, devastated by a mysterious catastrophe.

In Bengal we heard the legend of the disgraced, pregnant, Rajput princess, exiled with her loyal retinue of guards, and captured by the fearsome dacoit called Simha, the Lion. He fell in love with his captive, married her, and recognised her son as his heir. But when their own son was born and claimed his inheritance, Simha gave his adopted son an army and ships, and asked him to carve out his own kingdom. He sailed south, conquered Sri Lanka, and his followers became the Sinhala people. This Rajput-Kshatriya tradition could account for the preponderance of Sena and Naik/Nayak in Sinhala names.

Historically, the Sinhala capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were ravaged by repeated attacks from the sea-borne armies of Dravidian princes. Eventually, the Sinhala kings established their capitals in inaccessible places like Kandy and the towering rock of Sigiriya.

Our seafaring tradition continued from the ancient lighthouse-centred port of Mamallapuram. We visited the ruins of an ancient Tamil settlement in Malaysia reputedly established by voyagers from Mamallapuram. Later, voyagers from neighbouring Kerala carried spices to Arabia en route to the merchants of Venice.

This assertive, maritime tradition is because of our geo-physical location. India’s triangular peninsula thrusts out through the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal into our Indian Ocean. The Andaman Archipelago and the Lakshadweep Islands extend our sphere of influence far beyond our mainland and into the most historic and busiest trade-lane in the world. Most of the world’s traded goods between Asia, Africa and Europe flow through this busy sea route.

China envies this and the Dragon wants to control it. Xi has already established a firm claw-hold in some strategic ports along this sea-lane. His activities in our arid north are little more than a testing of our resolve. His real threat lies not in the heights of our mountains but in the depths of our waters. If his lurking submarines can control these oceanic arteries, he can bleed our industries.

In this looming conflict we have one major advantage: it lies in Dehradun. Our National Hydrographic Office has surveyed this deep area. Under international agreements it is required to make its nautical maps, called charts, available to the world for international trade and commerce. Such trade, however, moves only on the surface of the oceans. The stealthy movements of submarines, under the surface, are presumed to be offensive unless proved otherwise. Consequently, our NHO can keep all the knowledge it has acquired about the great mountains, valleys, plains and powerful submarine rivers, called Streams and Currents, in the oceans’ depths, exclusively For Our Eyes Only!

But such knowledge, by itself, is no good unless we get rid of our illogical land-lubber mindset, ASAP.

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 half-hour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34
other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who is a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)