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Launching a fishing boat, Kerala coast
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When humans first migrated from Africa, 70,000 years ago, some settled on the lush Kerala coast. Waves of migrants from North India added to the mix.
Later Greek and Roman traders made their way to the coast, calling at the port of Muziris, the most important of 20 ports on the west coast of India. Arab and African ships also came to trade along a coast which was rich in spices, then as now, especially pepper. Also to come were some of India's earliest Christian influences, as well as the establishment of one of the world's oldest Jewish communities outside the Middle East. Vasco Da Gama, who had heard about the Indies from traders, arrived in 1498 at the court of Zamorin, in Calicut (now Kozhikode), to find that his gifts of spices were utterly commonplace in the Kerala coast.
Despite Kerala's willingness to embrace foreign cultures, it is also a deeply traditional place, home to some of the oldest human rituals, unbroken 5000-year-old traditions of classical learning ranging from theology to boat building to medicine to the fine arts. Well before Yoga and ayurvedic medicine became popular in the West, a highly developed school of traditional healing remained a mainstay of Kerala culture—it now attracts visitors looking for alternatives to modern western medicine. But Kerala's most distinctive feature is probably its matrilineal society. Unique to South Asia, property in Kerala is passed from mother to daughter.
First Human Migrations
The first human migrations out of Africa are thought to have taken place 70,000 years ago. Migrants gradually made their way down India's coast over a few thousand years. The migration was possible because sea levels were 200 feet lower then they are now, allowing travel via long-since submerged land bridges. The migrants' descendants have been identified by DNA markers as far north as the Pakistani coast and as far south as the Kallar tribe on the Kerala coast in modern India, where entire villages share ancient DNA strains. Along India's west coast there remain pockets of tribal peoples who may have descended from these first human migrations. Until the modern age they have remained largely self-contained, endogamous (marrying within the tribe), physically distinctive in appearance and outside the Hindu caste system. Many retain their own languages, which are distinct from the main Northern and Southern Indian language groups.
The Periplus, a Greek merchant's guide to the Indian trade from the 1st century CE notes twenty major ports on India's west coast. Muziris, the Graeco-Roman pronounciation of Muchiripattanam, was apparently the most important. It is mentioned in papyrus contracts dating back to the 2nd century CE in the West, and is recorded in Tamil poetry of that time. It was the first stop for ships on the direct route from the Red Sea and became a home away from home for many traders. Muziris is where trade began and flourished between India and the Mediterranean, primarily in spices. The trade lasted until the 4th century when it was taken over first by the Persians, and then by Arabs and Arabic-speaking Jews in the 7th century.
However, despite all written evidence, the exact location of Muziris remained unclear until recently, because rivers alter courses over time, and in Kerala the coastline is particularly changeable. In 2005, an archaeologist from Cochin University, Dr.Shajan and his team found Muziris exactly where it was supposed to be—4 miles inland, behind a double line of backwaters near the modern town of Cranganore (Kodungallar). Coins of Roman emperors Nero and Tiberius have been found, along with Roman amphorae and Mediterranean glass ornaments. In fact, Roman coins have long been a common sight at local antique dealers' shops. And even today it is the custom in southern Indian weddings to give the bride a necklace of small coins.
In the first century CE, India's spices—especially black pepper and malabathrum (a type of cinnamon)—became an important commodity in trade with the eastern Mediterranean. Demand for spices used in seasoning and preservation in the West spurred trade with India for cardamom, ginger, turmeric, saffron, nutmeg, and clove. In 1498, Vasco da Gama's sea route to India opened the spice trade to Europe, and for the next 200 years the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English would vie for control of the spice trade. By the 19th century, the spread of spice plants to other areas of the world and the development of artificial refrigeration led to a decline in the overall need for India spices.
Although a tiny minority in modern India, Jews have a long history on the subcontinent, and in fact, it is home to several distinct Jewish communities.
The first to arrive, possibly in the last centuries BCE, were the Jews who settled in Cochin (now called Kochi), in south India. They remain a small but important presence in Kochi, a trading hub on the Kerala coast since ancient times. Also existent are the Bene Israel, believed to have arrived some 2,100 years ago; they settled in and around Mumbai and in present day Pakistan. More recent arrivals were the Baghdadi Jews, so called because they are chiefly descended from Iraqi Jews who migrated to India during the British Raj, between 150 - 250 years ago.
India's most prominent Jewish community—considered one of the oldest in the world east of Iran—remains the one in Kochi. Although very few members of the community remain, most having long since emigrated to Israel, the Kochin Jews were and are an important part of the Kerala coast's spice trade, with huge warehouses containing mountains of turmeric, chillies, and pepper located directly below their family living quarters.
India's largest Jewish community, however, is the Bene Israel in Mumbai. Although their arrival in India is something of a mystery (some claim to have arrived in India in the 2nd century BCE), members of this community adopted the occupation of oil pressing and became known as "shanwar telis" or "Sabbath-observing oilmen" because they didn't work on the Sabbath. They were physically and linguistically indistinguishable to outsiders from the local population but had their own traditions, observed the Sabbath, circumcised their sons, and performed other rituals associated with Judaism.
Without exception, all Jewish communities have been accepted and assimilated into Indian society. In fact, Indians tend to take pride in the fact that Jews in India have rarely had to deal with anti-Semitism from either Hindus or Muslims. When anti-Semitism did raise its head, it was perpetrated by Dutch colonialists. The recent attack (November 2008) on the Mumbai Chabad House Jewish Centre is believed to have been perpetrated by Islamic extremists from outside India. India is also the only place in the world where Jews are comfortable with using Swastikas in their signs—because it's an ancient Hindu symbol and has none of the negative connotations that is found in the West.
Vasco da Gama
In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, on the southwest coast of India, and became the first person to navigate a sea route from Europe to India, forever changing the world economy. Neither da Gama's proffered gifts nor his behavior (the Portuguese mistook the Hindus for Christians) impressed Calicut's leader, Saamoothirippadu (or Zamorin), and he refused to sign a trade treaty with the explorer. However, da Gama's successful voyage established Lisbon as the center of Europe's spice trade, a position Portugal would dominate for almost a century. In 1510, the Portuguese gained control of Goa, 400 miles north of Cochin on India’s west coast, and made it the hub of their maritime activities in the region.
Da Gama would return to India two more times—in 1502 to violently avenge the deaths of Portuguese traders by bombarding Calicut, and as viceroy in 1524 to correct corruption among Portuguese authorities. On his last trip, da Gama died in Goa, where a town, Vasco, was named for him in 1543. In 1600, the British East India Company was chartered, and throughout the 17th century English, Dutch, and French traders traveled this sea route and established posts in India's port cities.
Boat building is a long-established craft in India. The oldest tradition of boat building in the subcontinent, and perhaps the world, dates back to the Bronze Age civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. Lothal, located in the current-day Indian state of Gujarat, may have been the site of one of the world's earliest dockyards.
In South India along Kerala coast, trade with Arabs, Africans, the Roman empire and perhaps the Greeks, were routine in the middle ages. Building large wooden boats became the craft by which one particular community, the Mopilahs—Malayali Muslims—were known. They were descendants of Muslim traders who arrived in India as early as the 8th century CE. Long naturalized, the Malayali Muslims, had their own guilds. Their way of boat building nearly died out in the 1980s with the huge expatriate movement to the Middle East.
But the art of wooden boat building is experiencing a renaissance as the boats, made of teak, are good value for money and last for 40 to 50 years. Called urus, the boats are built by craftsmen who learn the trade from their fathers—there are no plans, nothing is written down, or shared with outsiders. Calculations and the math involved are done between teacher and apprentice, on the job, and worked out as the boat takes shape.
Given this old tradition of ship and boat building in South Asia, it is no small irony that India is also home to Alang, a ship graveyard, the largest ship breaking and recycling center in the world. Ship breaking is a controversial and dangerous salvage operation that has been heavily criticized by human rights advocates, where workers dismantle aging ships with rudimentary tools and almost no protection against hazardous materials and accidents.
- How does the port town of Muziris exemplify an early European obsession with Indian goods?
- How did spices shape the Indian Ocean trade networks? Why were they so important to the Europeans?
- How has the treatment of Jews in India been different from the treatment of Jews in other places in the world? What explains this?
- How did Vasco da Gama's voyage into the Indian Ocean transform the world economy? What long-term effects of da Gama's visit did India experience?
- Why has boat building been such an important part of India's history?