terror in delhi 10/29
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
  A Brief History of Indic Thalassocracy - 2/3

thal·as·soc·ra·cy - n., Naval or commercial supremacy on the seas.

Greek thalassokratiā : thalassa, sea + -kratiā, -cracy.

Part I here.

Indian Thalassocracy Part II - From the 4th century B.C. to the 5th century A.D.:

The Mauryas and the Greeks:

The first known Greek book devoted entirely to India is from the late fifth century B.C., written by a Greek doctor named Ctesias, who served the Persian king Artaxerxes. Everything in it is hearsay, filtered through Persian sources. It would not be until the arrival of Alexander on the banks of Indus in 326 B.C. that we start getting a better picture.

According to the Greek ambassador Megasthenes appointed to the Mauryan court shortly after Alexander’s death, Chandragupta’s war-office was divided into six boards, of which the first was associated with the “Chief Naval Superintendent”. Kautilya's Arthasastra agrees with Megasthenes, in describing an official called Navadhyaksa or the “Superintendent of Ships”. Of the duties described in the Arthasastra, the Navadhyaksa had to see through that pirate ships were pursued and destroyed whenever they were found. The same regulation applied to ships and boats of an enemy's country when they violated their territorial limits.

After Chandragupta, his grandson Emperor Asoka maintained diplomatic relations not only with Sri Lanka but also with the Hellenistic monarchies of Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Epirus which presupposes the existence of a “sea going fleet as well as an army”.

Greek trade with the peoples of the Red Sea coast and eventually with India strengthened under the Ptolemies, the dynasty that derived its name and foundation from one of Alexander's generals, who took power in 320 B.C. At Berenik, archeologists have discovered fragments of documents in 12 different languages, including Tamil and Prakrit, evidence that this Red Sea port was in touch with both southern and northern India.

The Andhras:

The decline of the Mauryas resulted in the ascent of the Andhra Satavahanas in the South. This Buddhist dynasty who ruled large portions of the Deccan between 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. The Satavahanas maintained a large fleet to rule over the Coromandel coast and fend off the pirates. A Ptolemic account mentions several important ports on the Andhra Coast between the mouth of the Ganges and the Godavari from where ships sailed to the East. Podouke (Pulicat, north of Chennai), Masulipatnam (in Andhra) and Melange (Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu) were a few of the important ports which exported spices, sandal, pearls, camphor and silk that was imported from the farther East. Chinese merchants had their warehouses at the mouth of river Krishna. After the Satavahanas, the Pallavas, who were originally from Andhra continued the seafaring tradition. It appears from a study of the Buddhist stupa found at Prome (in Myanmar) that Buddhism probably came to that country from Andhra. The cultural influence moved on further to the Malay peninsula with the creation of the Sri Vijaya dynasty (see Part III).

Early Tamils:

According to early Tamil Sangam literature, Poompuhar (or Kaveripoompattinam on the Kaveri river delta region) developed into a great port city of the early Chola kingdom only to be washed out by a tsunami later around 500 A.D. Writing in the 1st century B.C., Ptolemy noted about Poompuhar and another port town of Nagappattinam as the most important towns of the Cholas. These two towns became seats of trade and commerce with Greece, Egypt and the Far East and acted as a cosmopolitan center of learning.

In the first century B.C. 'King Pandiod' or the Tamil dynasty Pandyas is recorded to have sent two embassies to Augustus Caesar, desiring to become his friend and ally. One of these reached Augustus when he was at Terracona in the 18th year after the death of Julius Caesar, and another reached him six years later. The Tamil poet Madalan sang in praise the Chera king Cenkuttuvan who led an expedition to the Gangetic plain via an expedition to Orissa by sea.

The Romans:

We get a more clearer account during the Roman Age thanks to a Greek work by an unknown author written around 70 A.D. called The Periplus of Erythraean Sea. According to the Periplus, trade with India was booming at Barygaza (or Bharuch in present day Gujarat), Greek traders sold or exchanged Italian and Greek wine, copper, tin, lead, coral, cloth, glass, storax and antimony for ivory, bdellium gum, onyx, myrrh, woven and unwoven silk, “mallow cloth” and pepper.

In the 1st century A.D., Roman author Pliny complained that trade with India was threatening their economy “Affnd by the lowest reckoning India, China and the Arabian Peninsula take from our empire 100 million sesterces (about US $10 million now) every year - that is the sum which our luxuries and our women cost us,”

To be continued in Part III.

References: Prithwis Chandra Chakravarti, “Naval Warfare in Ancient India”, The Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1930, pp. 645-664

O.K. Nambiar, “An Illustrated Maritime History of the Indian Ocean”, Excerpts available from the official Indian Navy website

Paul Lunde, “The Indian Ocean and Global Trade”, Saudi Aramco World, July/August 2005

CN: fascinating post. Look forward to the next in the series.
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