INTRO: The book Oman-India ties: Across Sea and Space takes its readers on a visual journey outlining the rich historical relationship between the two great civilizations of Oman and Indian which goes back more than 5000 years. Published by Oman Observer in association Indian Embassy Muscat and written by Samuel Kutty (Senior Editor of the Observer) and Sandhya Rao Mehta (Associate Professor of SQU), the book is an attempt to document, archive and disseminate this relationship from its historical past to the present time where these relations have taken new wings. Extracts from the book will continue to appear on this space every Saturday.
BODY: Maritime tradition India and Oman share a rich history of maritime trade which embraces a transoceanic network of ports and inland routes. Trade relations between India and Oman are deep rooted in history by virtue of Omani ships becoming an intermediary in the transfer of goods and commodities, to and from, the Arabian Peninsula and India. After the Islamic era, the trade of spices, perfumes and scarce woods thrived between the two regions.
The ports of Qalhat, Sur and Muscat were all significant points of stop on onward journeys as they were the last ports to fill up on fresh water before the longer journeys across the Indian Ocean. While India has been one of the most important points of sea trade in the entire South Asian region since the beginning of maritime trade, the ports of Oman, thanks to their strategic location at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, played a major role in trade including the ancient silk road and spice routes, and they served as a gateway for all ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The maritime tradition of ancient India began with the Indus Valley civilization which saw long-distance voyages by 3000 BCE.
Long before the development of the silk road, the ships belonging to Indian traders travelled thousands of miles crossing the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to find their markets in West Asia, East Asia, South East Asia and East Africa. Omanis have been traditionally sea faring people. Oman was a rich source of copper for developing civilizations in the entire region and Omani sailors were pioneering the development of maritime skills and technology. Because of the difficulties of crossing the mountains and sands, the sea was the easiest way of connecting Omanis with the outside world, and India was one of the main destinations for Omani adventurers. Oman was a hub for trade and commerce before the first century CE, and it is this history as a bastion of trade by land, but especially by sea, that has shaped the culture of the Sultanate, and its trade partners, from the Far East to Europe.
Early accounts by Ibn Majid and Portuguese Duarte Barbosa talk about the various sea routes taken from the coast of Oman which would go to Kutch or Malabar using the south-west winds (the monsoon or ‘mausam’ winds which sailors got to know very early on). Subsequently, these ships would go as far as Canton in China, passing through Malabar, Sri Lanka and beyond.
In fact, Wilkinson notes that, around the 6th century CE, Arab sailors, particularly from the port of Sohar had the know-how to venture on a 2-year, 7,000 km-long journey, trading in spices, textiles, medicines and gemstones26. The ports of Sindh, Kutch, and Gujarat also attracted Arab merchants, but few actually settled there, with the exception of Cambay, Surat, and Karachi during the heyday of those ports, as well as Gwadar (300 miles to the west of Karachi), a dependency of Oman from 1783 to 195827. Historically, Oman was famous for exporting frankincense, dates, copper and Arabian horses to India. On the other side, India exported fabrics, spices and wood used by Omanis to build their ships. Omani ships used to take trade trips to the Indian ports and come back carrying Indian goods and commodities to the peninsula, which would further be taken inland or further to the ports of Basra or Eastern Africa.
Central to this trade was the very important industry of boat and ship making which has its own fascinating history. Dhows in the Indian Ocean The most important connection between the sea coasts along the Arabian Sea has always been the monsoon, from the Arabic mawsim, meaning weather. Knowledge of the timing, intensity and length of these south-west and north east winds was the hallmark of sailors, the people of the dhow.
Although there is no written evidence to prove the origin of dhows, historians trace their roots to Arabs or Indians using them as fishing or trading vessels to transport goods along the coasts of Arab countries, as well as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and East Africa.
Ships that are similar to the dhow have their presence in the 1001 Arabian Nights. As trading became a way of life, building of dhows was also popularised in the ports of the Arabian Gulf by those who saw them as essential to their daily life. Among them were the boat builders and sailors of Majan (modern Oman) who traded copper and ivory with Mesopotamia. At about 500 BCE, the early Arabs introduced the dhow: a broad-beamed, shallow draft vessel with lateen-rigged sails, ideally suited for the coastal waters of the Arabian Gulf and the comparatively mild waves of the Indian Ocean.
Although relatively flimsy, it was light and maneuverable and could speed quickly out of the path of threatening weather. Its triangular sails, moreover, were designed to catch even the slightest breeze. The word dhow generally refers to all traditional wooden-hulled boats which ply along the Indian Ocean, although locals in Oman distinguish between a wide range of vessels of different sizes and styles. The original dhows were stitched, with the planks of their narrow, long hulls woven together with coco nut husk coir, obtained mainly from Kerala. It was only after the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century that dhows began to be nailed together in the European style.
The traditional Arabian dhow, such as the large, ocean-going boom, is curved at both ends, while other types – such as the sambuq and ghanjah boasted a high, square stern, apparently inspired by the design of Portuguese galleons. These dhows used the lateen sails which enabled them to stay close to the wind. According to Chayya Goswami, the baghlah was converted from the Kachchhi kota by altering the head and adorning the stern. Thus the major types of vessels plying across the Arabian Sea were the baghlah, the ghanjah and the kotia, all primarily distinguishable by the ornamentation at the front.
Sur was the major shipyard used by Kutchi shipwrights. Owing to the vagaries of the weather, trade was seasonal but between the months of November and April, even today, the sea comes alive with white cotton dotting the horizons in events which celebrate this ancient seafaring tradition.
The crafting of a dhow is considered an art, passed down from one generation to the next. It is a practice filled with respect to an ancient form that still holds up today. Omanis were known for their excellent skills as sailors, backed up by maritime expertise including the time and direction of the monsoon.
Arabs were masters in construction of wooden dhows and early Arabs who visited Beypore in Malabar to trade in spices taught the techniques of Uru making to carpenters in this coastal town. The Uru is a large dhow with a wooden keel.
The deep waters of Chaliyar River, the availability of a port and the good quality of teakwood in the surrounding Nilambur forest makes Beypore an ideal location for the construction of dhows. Omanis as well as the Hadhrami tribe in Yemen visited Beypore for centuries for their dhows. In the northern port of Sur in Oman, the dhow making industry is still active, as this heritage skill is being passed on to the younger generation. In this historic trading port, the boatyard is centuries old and its dhows have historically sailed to Indian, Arabian and East African coasts.
In the late 19th century, the use of dhows dwindled in the Indian Ocean. Fatah Al Khair, built in 1951 and fitted with a diesel engine, was among the last of the commercial trading ships from Sur. This ‘last Ghanja’ travelled the Gulf and India, before dropping anchor in Yemen, where she remained until coming back to Sur. The system of dhows traversing along the Indian, Arabian and East African coasts had an enormous cultural and economic impact on these areas. It made possible a steady flow and interchange of ideas, goods, religions, flavours, and skills.