Walking through the streets of Jew Town in Kochi, Kerala, you will find yourself comparing it to Janpath in Delhi or Colaba Causeway in Mumbai. Shops here sell everything from Indian textiles to silver accessories and other odds and ends (I'm looking at you — antique-y weighing scales). Steeped in history, Jew Town is also where you will come across the Paradesi Synagogue.
Built in 1568 in this port town, this Jewish Synagogue has Chinese hand-painted tiling that was laid down in 1762, a testament to globalisation. The White Paradesi Jews like their counterparts, the Black Jews, came to India as merchants. They settled down along the West Coast of India from Surat to Mumbai, all the way down to the Malabar Coast.
The existence of the Paradesi Synagogue highlights an important point — that histories of civilisations place an emphasis on land-based coups while not enough attention is paid to those expeditions that surged from the sea. These sometimes calm, sometimes turbulent but always mercurial waters have portended many changes in the course of human history.
The impact of seafaring on Indian civilisation especially, is ignored, even as land-based invasions are denigrated for its fall. This, during the same time period that a certain Chola king (Rajendra Chola I), sent forth his navy to subdue present-day Indonesia. A fuller picture of Indian history might be painted if greater consideration is given to those traders and invaders that traversed the Indian seas (way before Colonialism) and changed the course of history.
Contemporary human civilisation owes much of its evolution to nautical enterprise: This was the subject of a lively discussion organised by Gateway House and Avid Learning in Mumbai this week, between maritime historian, editor and author of The Sea & Civilisation Lincoln Paine, writer-historian Sifra Lentin and noted cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote. The arrival of people on Australia 50,000 years ago could only have been through sea routes; a point of some contention. On the other hand, there is undisputed evidence that people travelled via the seas and oceans around 20,000 years ago, as Paine pointed out. People have been sailing far before animals were first domesticated some 10,000 years ago. That’s a long time for humans to have been indulging in seafaring! While the Internet has accelerated globalisation, people from around the world have been brought together by maritime activity for centuries before technology came on the scene.
For instance, Surat, the first point of contact for Jewish traders arriving in India, still bears the signs of a once-bustling trading port with its Dutch warehouses and shipbuilding on the river Tapi. Bombay or Mumbai, has been built upon, layer by layer, through the influence of traders that came through naval routes. They’ve left their marks in the British architecture that is the signature of South Mumbai and the institutions that are odes to David Sassoon’s Jewish influence.
Maritime travel didn't just influence the locations where these seafarers landed. The travellers themselves were affected by the places they travelled to. So, while the Vikings might have changed the course of trading in the Western world, they themselves were not left unchanged. Originating in Scandinavia, their influence spread far and wide from North America to Eastern Europe. Despite little success in America, Iceland and Greenland they managed to infiltrate England, Scotland, Ireland all through to Central and Eastern Europe. The Norse migration opened up river networks that succeeded in establishing trade routes between the Baltic and Black Seas. They brought back with them a centralised system of ruling, leading to the founding of the kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Scandinavia also inherited Christianity from Southern Europe. These nautical encounters, whether they be Jewish or Norse, resulted in transcultural exchanges, a sort of trading that extended beyond the purely material, and impacted both parties.
Trading and travelling to distant lands was rarely straightforward and never easy. It was sometimes a means of escape (as it was in the case of David Sassoon, who was fleeing from the Turkish army), at other times it was for trade with a distant, foreign land. People travelled with their own cooks (like some folk even today!) and mingling was restricted to trading with other communities. One personality who is mentioned in this regard is Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish merchant living in Mangalore, who married an Indian slave girl Ashu, but persisted in following the Jewish way of life.
There was a distinct bubble within which traders lived. However, thriving in a port city was reliant on interaction with traders from other communities and cosmopolitanism duly evolved. It induced an expansion of ideas and a broadening in the ways people lived, within some boundaries of interiority. Religious texts also prescribed and proscribed various forms of behaviour that influenced the way traders from different communities would have interacted with each other. This dictation of righteous conduct, especially in case of the Mediterranean region where people from the different faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism were trading in the same markets, would lay down the groundwork for international trade laws.
Whether as traders or invaders, the flagbearers for globalisation have stimulated the diversification of human civilisation. Ibn Batuta might have bumped into a fellow Muslim traveller from Tangier in China, only to realise that he knew him from his travels through Delhi — just as we now stumble upon acquaintances in airports. We have been brought together, as maritime history shows us, just as we once drifted apart, travelling across oceans, moulding our respective cultures and changing the course of human civilisation.