Saturday, February 10, 2018

Project Mausam: Cultural Routes and Maritime Landscapes

In January 2014, I was asked by a senior functionary of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India if I would be interested in working on a transnational World Heritage nomination involving Maritime History of the Indian Ocean (Figure 1). This was a tremendous opportunity as I had researched, taught and published extensively on Maritime History and Archaeology of the Indian Ocean since 1994. It was also an opening to enter the haloed world of World Heritage matters in the Ministry. Two years ago I had made a shift from academia and teaching at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University to take charge as the Chairperson of the National Monuments Authority under the Ministry of Culture. Getting involved with World Heritage and Maritime History provided the perfect route to combine my research interests with policy on and preservation of India’s maritime heritage. One thing led to another and I was asked to edit a book on the historical and archaeological dimensions of the theme of Mausam or Mawsim, as the proposed project for transnational World Heritage nomination was named. My name was included in the official Indian delegation to the 38th World Heritage Committee meeting at Doha in Qatar held in June 2014 and I was asked to make a presentation to the delegates including the officials of the World Heritage Committee.     

Figure 1: Proposal for World Heritage nomination

Why Mausam?

The term Mausam or Arabic Mawsim refers to the season when ships could sail safely. Greek texts of the early centuries of the Common Era credit the ship-captain Hippalus with the ‘discovery’ of the etesian or annual winds, though Indian and Arab sailors are known to have used the monsoons earlier (Figure 2). The English term monsoon came from Portuguese monção, ultimately from mawsim in Arabic, perhaps partly via early modern Dutch monsoon.

This distinctive wind-system of the Indian Ocean region follows a regular pattern: south west from May to September; and north-east from November to March. Until the nineteenth century, when steam-powered cargo carriers reduced the reliance on sailing ships, this regular wind-system linked the communities of the Indian Ocean (Ray and Salles 1996). These linkages not only resulted in exchange of commodities, but more importantly of ideas and a shared cultural milieu.
Figure 2:  The predictability of a homeward wind made the Indian Ocean the most benign environment in the world for long-range voyaging.

Thus the project is positioned at two levels: at the macro level it aims to re-connect and re-establish communications between countries of the Indian Ocean world, which would lead to an enhanced understanding of cultural values and concerns (Figure 3); while at the micro level the focus will be on understanding national cultures in their regional maritime milieu. This two-fold emphasis is important if issues related to local communities, regional governance and the management of heritage sites are to be included in the discussion.

Figure 3:  Claudius Ptolemy’s (circa 90-168 CE) map of 2nd century CE drawn in 15th century showing twelve wind heads that ring the earth.
Objectives of Project Mausam

The Ministry of Culture, Government of India website describes Project Mausam as a ‘Transnational Mixed Route’ including both natural and cultural heritage, with a focus on monsoon patterns, cultural routes and maritime landscapes. The aims of the Project are to collaborate with several countries of the Indian Ocean region in order to understand the knowledge and manipulation of the monsoon winds in the pre-modern period and the extent to which these interactions across well-defined navigation corridors led to the spread of shared knowledge systems, traditions, technologies and ideas. Thus while it was clearly seen as a possible transnational nomination for World Heritage status, it also had a strong research component that needed to be further developed in partnership with other countries (Figure 4).
Figure 4: The edited volume was published in 2014 and included papers that ranged from the prehistoric landscapes of Arabia to the temples of Vietnam that continued into the 16th century
UNESCO and the World Heritage Convention

The General Conference of UNESCO in 1972 adopted a Convention concerning Protection of World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage. The Convention has been ratified by 193 States Parties as of 31st January 2017, and continues to provide an important global platform for the protection and preservation of heritage. It is based on the five Cs: Credibility, Conservation, Capacity-Building, Communication and Communities, though often it is ‘Conservation’ that tends to dominate the discourse. To date, 1073 properties, both cultural and natural, have been inscribed under the 1972 Convention by 167 countries.

India ratified the World Heritage Convention in November 1977, and the first Indian sites to be inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1983 were monuments such as the 17th century Taj Mahal and the 16th century Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh, along with the 2nd century BCE to 6th century CE Buddhist caves at Ajanta and the 600 to 1000 CE rock-cut Ellora caves near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. In 1984, the first two coastal sites were inscribed, i.e. Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram on the Tamil coast dated to the 7th and 8th century and the 13th century Sun Temple at Konarak on the Odisha coast (Figure 5). The Outstanding Universal Value of the temples at Mahabalipuram, as accepted by the World Heritage Committee, included the suppleness and modelling of the stone sculptures that subsequently spread to parts of Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia, Champa and Java. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Ministry of Culture, functions as a nodal agency for nomination of World Heritage Sites to the UNESCO, though the Permanent Representative of India to UNESCO headquarters in Paris is generally an official from the Ministry of External Affairs, thereby combining culture and diplomacy.

Figure 5:  Map showing distribution of World Heritage sites in India
Defining Transnational World Heritage status

Transnational heritage ties in with UNESCO’s agenda of shifting attention from national histories to globalisation and to maritime spaces. It also offers an opportunity to underscore cultural diversity both in a local context as also in the global arena, though the process is far more complex because of the large number of stakeholders involved. Of the more than thousand World Heritage sites, only thirty-seven have been categorized as ‘trans-boundary’; they include ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’, inscribed by UK and Germany in 1987, and ‘Qapaq Ñan’, the Road System constructed by the Incas across several countries of South America, which was inscribed in 2014. These sites underscore the inter-connectedness of cultural heritage zones across political frontiers, on the one hand, but also the uphill tasks that preparation of a nomination dossier involves, since it has to contend with a multiplicity of categorizations and legislations adopted by different countries (Figure 6).
Figure 6:  As shown in the map, many of the World Heritage sites are located in coastal regions. What is missing is any dialogue between these sites across the seas.
Indian Coastal Sites and Monuments
The coastal orientation of Buddhist monastic sites in Kachchh, Maharashtra and the Andhra coast is striking in the period from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th-6th century CE. Along the Orissa coast major expansion of Buddhist sites took place from the 6th to 12th century CE. Nor is Buddhism the only religion represented along the Indian coasts. Perhaps one of the earliest shrines in Gujarat was excavated at the site of Padri in the Talaja tahsil of Bhavnagar district hardly 2 kilometers from the Gulf of Khambat and was dedicated to a fertility deity termed lajja-gauri. During the 6th-8th century, a large number of temples were constructed in Saurashtra mainly along the coastline, as also in other parts of the country. A distinctive aspect of the temples of western and central India at this time was their dedication to Surya or Sun worship (Figure 7).
Figure 7:  Temple sites along the Gujarat coast
Forts were other important structures that played a major role in the demarcation of the visual topography in the Indian Ocean from the ninth to tenth centuries onwards. Unfortunately, there is very little that remains of these earlier fortified settlements and a majority of the present forts date from the 13th century onwards. Coastal sites span a large period of Indian history starting from the third millennium BCE Harappan sites in Kachchha and the Gujarat coastal areas to the lighthouses which emerged as an aid to navigation at the turn of the 18th century. It was able to beam light over great distances cheaply through use of Fresnel lenses. India has 185 lighthouses, some of which are centuries old, most of them automated, and all regulated by the Lighthouse Act of 1927. Most were built during British rule and are a motley collection, but what stands out is that they are often located in proximity to coastal temples as at Mahabalipuram.

Research Issues
The project aims to focus on the following issues in order to initiate a meaningful appreciation of the shared cultural past and the importance of preservation of this heritage for future generations: 
  • Ideas about religious and ethnic identities often draw from prevailing notions of the past and it is here that the present and the past are inextricably linked not only to individual destinies, but more significantly to the larger meta-narratives of the nation states or as in recent years, the globalising world. A leading historian of Southeast Asia, Oliver Wolters succinctly stated that the purpose of history and the study of the past could well be an enhancement of self-awareness and a better understanding of the present (Wolters 1994). 
  • How does an understanding of the maritime heritage of countries around the Indian Ocean littoral provide a viable model to deepen the knowledge of their own cultural legacy, while at the same time engaging with trans-oceanic networks? Legislation and measures for preservation require identification and documentation of the maritime heritage in local and regional contexts. More importantly its protection draws on national agendas. Can a balance be achieved between national interests and trans-national research collaboration?  
  • Heritage in this context includes both cultural and natural heritage. Research in several parts of the Indian Ocean has shown a loss of bio-diversity, as well as coastal degradation (Ribeiro 2014; Seetah 2014). Unplanned urban expansion along the coasts has meant marginalization of local communities, including those involved in fishing and utilization of marine resources (Chou 2013).
  • By focusing on nautical histories, architecture and archaeology, on the central experience of trans- locality of maritime communities and the mapping and remapping of maritime conceptions of space across two millennia the project reorients the audience from the conventional linear imperial construct of maritime history as domination, conflict and control to looking at the reality of constant cultural transfer and transmission within the domain of the Indian Ocean world (Ray 2013).
  • Linked to this movement across the waters, are the narratives of trans-locality inherent in memories of communities that dot the littoral of the Indian Ocean. These narratives of travel and pilgrimage across the seas lost their centrality with the development of ‘scientific’ disciplines such as archaeology and the search of national histories, but are important markers of long-distance pilgrimage and devotional networks that have been an enduring feature of cultural life across the Indian Ocean.
  • Maritime networks may be identified in the archaeological record by specimens of writing on pottery, seals and sealings and by inscriptions on stone and copper plates showing diversity in the use of scripts, as also languages used by communities who traversed the Ocean. A case in point is the evidence from Socotra, an archipelago of four islands at the mouth of the Red Sea. The inhabitants are generally said to be of south Arabian ancestry and traditional occupations are fishing, animal husbandry and date cultivation. A surprise discovery inside a huge cave on the main island was a large number of inscriptions dated from first century BCE to the sixth century CE. The majority of the texts are written in the Indian Brahmi script, but there are also inscriptions in South-Arabian, Ethiopian, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian scripts and languages. 
  • Biological exchanges and transfer of plants, animals and diseases across the Indian Ocean can provide information on agents that helped make these transfers. Second, the data seems to suggest that social and symbolic factors may have been important, rather than economic (Boivin 2014). For example, pepper has been found at several sites on the Red Sea coast, but perhaps the most remarkable find was that of two large terracotta jars made in India and recovered from the courtyard floor of the first century CE temple of the Graeco-Egyptian god, Serapis. While one of them was empty, the other contained 7.55 kilograms of black pepper-corns. Clearly we need to examine ritual aspects and ceremonial uses of many of the plant remains. 
Figure 8: A Recent volume that highlights the multi-layered meaning of maritime cultural landscapes.

Works Cited

  • Boivin, Nicole. 2014. "Perspectives on Indian Ocean and Botanical Exchange". Paper presented at Conference on ‘Connecting Continents: Setting an Agenda for A Historical Archaeology of the Indian Ocean World’, Stanford Archaeology Center, 6-7 March.  
  • Chou, Cynthia. 2013. "Space, Movement and Place: The Sea Nomads". The Sea, Identity and History: From the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea, edited by Satish Chandra and Himanshu Prabha Ray, 41-66. New Delhi: Manohar.
  • Ray, Himanshu Prabha. 2013. "Introduction: Beyond National Histories". In The Sea, Identity and History: From the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea, edited by  Satish Chandra and Himanshu Prabha Ray, 13-40. New Delhi: Manohar.
  • Ray, Himanshu Prabha and J.-F. Salles, eds. 1996 (updated 2012). Tradition and Archaeology: Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers.
  • Ribeiro, Edgar E. 2014 (forthcoming). "Legalized Mapping of Heritage of India: Can it be applied to Old Goa?". In Himanshu Prabha Ray and Manoj Kumar edited, Indian World Heritage Sites in Context. National Monuments Authority and Aryan Books International.
  • Seetah, Krish. 2014. "Environmental Archaeology in Mauritius". Paper presented at Conference on ‘Connecting Continents: Setting an Agenda for A Historical Archaeology of the Indian Ocean World’, Stanford Archaeology Center, 6-7 March.
  • Wolters, O. W. 1994. "Southeast Asia as a Southeast Asian Field of Study'. Indonesia, 58: 1-17.  

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