Seafarers on ancient Konkan

Our story of Konkan starts from the pre-Christian era around 300BCE. Numerous rock-cut caves along the coast point to residential and mercantile activity in the area. And it was not just the land trade that was flourishing, but Konkan was witness, nay, an active participant, in the flourishing sea trade network.

“Periplus of the Erythrean Sea”

The text “Periplus of the Erythrean Seas” written by some unknown Greek sailor records the exploits and details of trade in the Indian Ocean. “Erythrean seas” was an old usage by Greek seafarers to include the water bodies around modern Yemen and Somalia. This area connected the water bodies from the Mediterranean Sea, into the Indian ocean for trade (with intermittent land connections in certain cases). The text “Periplus…” mentions the ports along the western coast of India, and Konkan gets mentioned for its busy ports. In 1800s, when the text of “Periplus…” was first studied, the ports of Mandagora, Melizeigara, Byzantium, Toparon and Turannosboas from the Greek text posed a riddle for identification. The proposed identification for the places is the modern areas of Bankot, Jaigad, Devgad, Achra or Tirekot and Rajapur. Hellenistic ships bringing in wine, cameos, marble and other precious material in exchange of spices, cloth, and animals at the ports of the Arabian sea fills the pages of “Periplus…”. The text also mentions seven islands of Konkan. In the close reading of such exciting travel documents, the narratives on Parshurama and the fantastic beasts of Konkan take a back seat.

Two of the most mentioned ports in the text are Sopara and Cheul in Konkan. The earliest reference to Cheul comes from inscriptions at the caves of Kanheri, where it appears as “Chemula”. But let us come back to “Periplus…”. Periplus, and other Greek texts mention the port by various names such as Timulla

Other works from the Greaco-Roman world

Other works dating to 57-200 CE talk extensively about Konkan, the people, the merchandise… Pliny’s (c. 77 CE) “A passage to India” (translated from Latin) mentions two main ports of Sigerus and Nitrias on the Konkan coast. The ports of Malvan and Nivti are candidates for the identification of these mentions.

Ptolemy (c. 150 CE), an astute geographer, also wrote about the ports along the western coast of India. He divided the western coast in four broad parts: Surastrene, Larike, Araike and Damurike. The part Araike corresponds to Maratha country, or Maharashtra and relevant for the discussion on Konkan. His list of ports in the area of Konkan comprises of Mandagara, Byzantium, Cheronesus, Milizigers, Annagara, and Nitra on the sea, and the inland ports of Olochera and Musopalle. Mandgara was probably modern Bankot, as mentioned earlier, or more specifically, the port town of Bag Mandla-Kol Mandla near Bankot. Milizigeris was probably the island of Janjira, a corrupt form, of Arabic “Jazirah” meaning an island. The inland port of Musopalle may be Mhasla on the Rajapur creek. Armagara may be Harnai, but the Gazetteer of Bombay Presidency suggests the reading Brahmagar, and hence Guhagar. Guhagar is the famed town on which c. 1100 CE text Vyadeshwar Mahatmya is based on. The town of Guhagar was known as the Bay of Brahmans during the Portuguese times. The name Brahmagar hence falls in line of this later history of nomenclature at the site of Guhagar.

Ships in the sea

By no means exhaustive, some details of the ships in the Indian ocean that came to the Konkani ports is mentioned in the texts. Small boats were used for traveling to the port from the big ships anchored at the docks. The small locally made boats carried the men and goods into the river deltas, and sometimes up to inland villages and towns with a wide river basin. The medium-sized vessels were likely used for short sea travel such as to the Persian ports. The ships with relatively larger hull and capacity sailed to Yemen, or even to Greece and Egypt. The ships coming to the Konkani ports from the Arabian Sea transported the material, that was further carried in carts or on horses and donkeys beyond the hills of Sahyadri. The eastern trading centres of Paithan, Tagar, etc were important. The merchandise reached the eastern part of India for further trading.

Trajan’s (c. 110 CE) account on Konkan mentions Hindu and Buddhist merchants on the Konkan coast. And in some accounts on Hinduism, sea-fearing is a taboo for Hindu orthodoxy. Isn’t this an interesting point to further read about? “Periplus…” on the other hand, mentions Greeks and Arabs as leading merchants on the Konakn coast. Roman presence, according to the author of “Periplus…” was limited to archers and military men on Roman ships! Medieval historical records, archaeology and later accounts depict a change in the demography of sailors, residents and merchants along the Konkan coast. The coast becomes famous as the “Pirate coast” in later years. and that discussion awaits us.

Instead of leaving with a lingering thought on the pirates of the western sea, why not look at this interesting entry in the archives at San Francisco that gives a snap-shot of popular knowledge in 1800s about the Konkani trade. This piece talks about Konkan and Goa coast as one entity before the Portuguese occupation in Goa.

The Konkans traded with the Greeks and the Egyptians; the writings of the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy and excavations at Memphis in Egypt confirm the early maritime trade with the Konkans.

Romans visited the Konkans for collecting jewels and articles of luxury and eventually established trade links with the ports of Konkan through the Red Sea route.

Mocha, Aden, Socotra and Ormuz then became the transit-ports of much importance, and of all the ports in the Konkan, Goa became the most important because of its natural harbour embraced by two deep rivers reaching out to the sea and protected by surrounding hills. Spices, fine muslins, cotton, perfumes, pearls and diamonds were shipped through Goa, which has been known by many names throughout history — including Gopakapattana, Gomanta, Goparashtra, Gopakapuri and Gorastra .

The maritime trade in ancient Goa reached its zenith during the rule of the Kadamba Kings. There is a reference to Gopakapattana being the capital of Jaykeshi-I, a Kadamba King, written by the Jain Guru Hemachandra in the 12th century A.D. Inscriptions also indicate that during the rule of the King Jaykeshi-I, his capital Gopakapattana grew very rich and prosperous.

The wealth accumulated there facilitated its overseas trade relations with Simhala (Sri Lanka), Zungavan (Zanzibar), Khyata (Kuwait) and many more. It used to act as a entrepot port, facilitating maritime trade of the landlocked countries beyond the Western Ghat ranges with the outside world. In the post-Kadamba era (latter part of the 14th century), the pendulum of control over Goa oscillated from the Bahmanis to the kings of Vijaynagar and finally, the Adilshahi Kingdom of Bijapur captured Goa and established its second capital and a port of Ela, the present day Old Goa.

Despite the frequent change of rulers, the commercial maritime activities flourished unabated.

Ela was the only city in the west coast which earned a revenue of 10,000 pounds per annum; most of which was from the Customs duty. During the Adilshah rule, the revenue was mostly from Customs duty levied on horses imported from Ormutz and the coast of Arabia. There was a great demand for horses from the battling rulers in Goa’s hinterland. The rate of duty on horses was two Pounds for each animal. Besides, the Government monopolised the trade in the articles of daily consumption like vegetables and betel-nuts. During the Moslem rule before the arrival of the Portugese, i.e. around 1470 to 1510 A.D, a uniform duty of six per cent was levied for the import and export of merchandise, except for horses, pearls, precious and semi-precious stones, silver and gold.

December 16, 1888, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.


5 of 30 in the series “Konkan : May-illuminate”

Of many fishing boats in the Arabian sea. This one captured my fancy. They were waiting for the fish, and I, for stories of the sea.

Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy around the world

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