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Aug 18, 2002

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Second International Conference on Marine Archaeology - Dr.Vijay V. Bedekar

Kindly accept my greetings for the New Year and Makara Sankranti. I also take this opportunity to welcome
you all to the city of Thane and I am sure your stay here and the proceedings of the seminar would be
pleasurable and informative.

The Institute for Oriental Study, Thane is a voluntary organization working for the promotion of Indian
culture and Sanskrit language. To achieve this objective, we conduct various lectures, exhibitions, tours and
seminars. This is the 23rd Seminar in the series which started in 1982, two years prior to the official
launching of the Institute in 1984. We have covered a wide range of subjects from Science and Technology
in Ancient India, Paninian Grammar, Tantra, Varnashrama Institution, Ecology, Agriculture and Education in
Ancient India and Mythology. More than 500 scholars - Indian and Western - have participated in these
seminars over the past 16 years.

The frontiers of Technology and Research are widening with inconceivable speed. With the new insights
provided by the recent developments for probing the outer space above, living cells within and the seabeds
deep down have pushed back the history of mankind by millennia. This change in perception is not only the
summation of mere newer archaeological findings but is also a paradigm shift in the philosophy of science
and its epistemology. The Copernican revelations were precursors of the scientific / industrial revolution in
the west. Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes. Newton, Darwin,Freud and Marx carried this legacy and
shaped the western philosophy, science and culture based on that. In the beginning of the twentieth century
inadequacies in the understanding of the inner structure of the atom were realized. This gave birth to one
more revolution in the field of scientific philosophy of which the torch bearers were Max Planck, Einstein,
Neils Bohr, Schrodinger and Heisenberg. The earlier scientific revolution is popularly known as
"Newtonian" science and the latter was known as "Quantum" science. The Newtonian view was more
deterministic, reductionistic, linear and objective. The success of this in physical sciences dealing with
inanimate, measurable, quantifiable data led to the belief that this is the only scientific model to be followed
in toto by humanities and social sciences. Branches of knowledge like sociology, anthropology, linguistics,
psychology etc. dealing with non-measurable, non-quantifiable sentient beings attempted to proceed in the
footsteps of that philosophy and methodology of the Newtonian model. The idea of an organic, living and
spiritual universe was not only replaced but branded as unscientific and was rejected totally. The world as
machine became dominant metaphor of the Newtonian model. Biological phenomena which cannot be
explained in reductionist terms became unworthy of scientific investigation. The biggest casualty of this
model of scientific inquiry was the civilizations of the past, their achievements, social institutions, way of life
and religion .The earlier period became a period of infancy, the primitive period, inconceivable of any
material progress or achievement.

Marine Archaeology is relatively a modern branch of archaeology. It deals mainly with what is found on the
beds of Seas. The branch is modern, but it deals with the things belonging to the past and the culture which
flourish on land and not at the bottom of the sea. When the remains of a shipwreck are found, we not only
study the material of which the shop was made, its dimensions, its contents, its mechanisms, but also try to
fathom the mysteries of who built it, for what purpose it was built, the tools that were used, from where they
had set sail, where they were proceeding, what was the merchandise they were carrying, where they were
destined to go etc. All this needs probes in the industry commerce, culture, way of life of these builders and
seafarers not as isolated facts but as a cultural whole flourishing on land and not at the bottom of the sea.
The ships were used by these people as a means of communication, conveyance and commerce with
distant civilizations.

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So, to reconstruct the culture of those people we need to know the language they spoke, their morals
and values, their belief systems, their technological and commercial practices. All this is reflected in their
literature, customs, art, architecture and Oral traditions. However, we must realize that most of the Indologist
in particular and archaeologists in general, of the 18th and 19th Centuries and even the 20th Century were
not only the product of the Newtonian model of science but also belonged to a very different culture and
religion. It was very difficult for them to appreciate a totally different non European civilization. In the case of
India and African countries, the colonial component also cannot be ignored. Many of these Indologist of the
earlier period were avowed missionaries. Another most important factor in the 20 Century historiography
was the dialectical method of Marxism. This gave a Eurocentric, religious, colonial and ideological bias to
their understanding and interpretation of Indian History. It is a good sign that many western Orientalists,
Indologist and anthropologists have shaken off these shackles now. Another welcome development is the
emergence of the concept of "Cognitive Archaeology", which requires the `reconstruction' of belief systems
and processes of thought of people concerned and not just the interpretation of artifacts, bones, pits, etc.

Once we come out of this bias we begin to appreciate the human skills transmitted from generation to
generation without looking down upon them as 'primitive'. Then their sea-faring activity does not remain
'primitive' navigation. It comes out as a well developed skill. Divining the depth of the ocean by the colour of
sea water or by observing sea life, by the touch of wind on the skin, by the smell, in the short, by heightening
the powers of our senses becomes a possible phenomena Development and transmission of such skills is
not a 'primitive' activity. They even train birds like crows, named them disha-kaka and employed them to
point to the nearest land by releasing them in the sky. They had used for centuries the magnetic compass
called Matsya yantra. Without entering into controversy as to who borrowed from whom it is interesting to
note that the Rigvedic 'nau' appears as nautical, navigation etc. and the Lithuanian ir-ti 'to row' derives from
the same root as the Rigvedic 'aritra' - oar.. Ship-wreck is known to all, but its synonym nau-frage in
English, harking back most definitely again to the Rigvedic nau is not known to many.

India has a coastline of about 6300 kms. Extensive new archaeological, epigraphical, sculptural and literary
material has been added to our knowledge since the early decades of this century. Radha Kumud
Mookerji's Book Indian Shipping - A History of the Sea-Borne Trade and Marine Activity of The Indians
From The Earliest Times published in 1912 (Oreint Longmans) is the most comprehensive study of Indian
Navigation up to that period. We now know that many ports on both Eastern and Western Coast had
navigational and trade links with almost all Continents of the world. There are many natural and
technological reasons for this. Apart from Mathematics and Astronomy India had excellent manufacturing
skills in textile, metal works and paints. India had abundant supply of Timber. Indian - built ships were
superior as they were built of Teak which resists the effect of salt water and weather for a very long time.
Lieut. Col. A Walker's paper "Considerations of the affairs of India" written in 1811 had excellent remarks
on Bombay-built ships. He notes,

situated as she is between the forests of Malabar and Gujarat, she receives supplies of timber
with every wind that blows.

Further he says,

it is calculated that every ship in the Navy of Great Britain is renewed every twelve years. It is
well known that teakwood built ships last fifty years and upwards. Many ships Bombay built after
running fourteen or fifteen years have been brought into the Navy and were considered as
stronger as ever. The Sir Edward Hughes performed, I believe, eight voyages as an Indiaman
before she was purchased for the Navy. No Europe-built Indiaman is capable of going more
than six voyages with safety.

He has also further noted that Bombay built ships are at least one fourth cheaper than those built in the
docks of England. F.Balazar Solvyns, a Frenchman, wrote a book titled "Les Hindous" in 1811 . His
remarks are,

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In ancient times, the Indians excelled in the art of constructing vessels, and the present Hindus
can in this respect still offer models to Europe-so much so that the English, attentive to
everything which relates to naval architecture, have borrowed from the Hindus many
improvement which they have adopted with success to their own shipping ..... The Indian
vessels unite elegance and utility and are models of patience and fine workmanship.

Surprisingly, many earlier western traders and travellers have expressed the same views. Madapollum was
a flourishing shipping centre. Thomas Bowrey, an English traveller who visited India during 1669-79,
observes,

many English merchants and others have their ships and vessels yearly built (at Madapollum).
Here is the best and well grown timber in sufficient plenty, the best iron upon the coast, any sort
of ironwork is ingeniously performed by the natives, as spikes, bolts, anchors, and the like. Very
expert master-builders there are several here, they build very well, and launch with as much
discretion as I have seen in any part of the world. They have an excellent way of making
shrouds, stays, or any other rigging for ships.

A Venetian traveller of 16th Century Cesare de Fedrici, while commenting on the East Coast of India has
noted that there is an abundance of material for ship building in this area and many Sultans of
Constantinople found it cheaper to have their vessels built in India than at Alexandria. Nicol Conti who
visited India in 15th century was impressed by the quality Indians had achieved in ship building. He
observes,

The nations of India build Some ships larger than ours, capable of containing 2,000 butts, and
with five sails and as many masts. The lower part is constructed with triple planks, in order to
withstand the force of the tempests to which they are much exposed. But some ships are so
built in compartments that should one part be shattered, the other portion remaining entire may
accomplish the voyage.

Friar Odoric, an Italian Monk who visited India in 14th Century, in his account of his voyage across the
Indian Ocean, a mention is made of ships which can carry 700 people. Marco Polo, a famous Venetian
traveller who visited India in 13th Century also visited Thane Port. The first chapter of his book which deals
with India is almost devoted to shipbuilding industry in India. The story of Indian Teak goes back to at least
3000 years BC A piece of Indian teak is found in the ruins of Mugheir, and we know that ancient Ur of the
Chaldeas ruled not less than 3000 years BC.

We have hard evidence now that India had satisfactory shipbuilding and sea trade activity
in inland waters and with the outer world. This was possible because of her natural resources
and technological skills. Indians travelled in large numbers to different continents for trade and
commerce and many settled there. There is no evidence of any kind to suggest that their
religious beliefs came in the way of their shipbuilding or travelling and settling to distant lands or
trade with other civilizations. The story of Manu prohibiting sea travel is obviously exaggerated.
If Manu has verses related to this prohibiting sea travel, he also has verses commenting on
navigational activities. And one must remember that these stories are told again and again by
Indologist and Sanskritists having a missionary background. If Indian ship industry is destroyed
it is not by Manu but by our colonial masters, the Britishers. Upto 17th Century India practically
had more exports to Europe than what she was receiving from Europe. lndian goods were more
competitive and good in quality. In the late 18th Century there was a strong demand in England
to put restrictions on Indian goods and especially goods which were carried by Indian ships.
The famous Act of navigation of 1651, speaks volumes in this regards. It says,

no goods whatever of the growth, produce or manufacture of Asia, Africa or


America should be imported into England or Ireland or any of the plantations, except
directly in ships belonging to English subjects, of which the Master and the greater
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number of the crew were Englishmen.

As if these earlier measures were not enough more drastic measures to discourage shipbuilding in India
were undertaken. Calcutta Gazette (Supplementary) of 29th January 1789 carried the following notification :

Fort William, Revenue Department, January 14, 1789.

Notice is hereby given that all persons whosoever (the Magistrates of the Districts excepted)
are prohibited from making use of , or constructing boats of following denominations and
dimensions after 1st March next :

Luekhas 40 to 90 covids length 2 '/2 to 4 covids breadth Jelkias 30 to 70 covids


length 3'/2 to 5 covids breadth. Paunchways of Chandpore carrying more than 10
oars.

That the Magistrates of Jessore, Dacca, Jahalpore, Mymensingh, Chittagong, the 24


parganas, Higelee, Tumlook, Burdwan and Nuddea have been directed to seize and confiscate
all boats of the above descriptions which may be found within the limits of their respective
jurisdiction after the period above mentioned.

That any Zamindar allowing any boats of the foregoing descriptions to be built or repaired
within the limits of his Zamindary (unless by a written order of the Magistrate of the District) shall
forfeit to Government the village in which such boats shall be proved to have been so built or
repaired.

That any carpenter, blacksmith or other artificer engaging for or employed in the building or
repairing of boats of the descriptions above specified (unless by the express permission of the
Magistrate of the District) shall be committed to close imprisonment in the 'foujdari' jail for any
period not above one month, or suffer corporal punishment not exceeding 20 strokes with a
rattan.

" Published by Order of the Governor-General in Council."

Last but not the least the American National Anthem was composed on the decks of the ship MINDEN. This
ship was built in Bombay.

We have scholars today here who are exclusively working on this branch of history. I am sure the
deliberations of this conference would throw light on many dark corners of Indian History and we will be
richer in our knowledge by the end of the day.

Thank you,
V.V. Bedekar
vbedekar@bom3.vsnl.net.in

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