Know how our culture travelled with traders who followed the oceanic trade winds in the ancient times
The Indian peninsula stands fortuitously at the centre of perhaps the busiest international trading route across the ages — be it 5000-6000 years BP during the time of the Saraswati Sindhu civilization or the time of the Mauryans or, nearer to us, the time of the maritime kings, the Cholas.
The basis of these trade routes are the winds which blow towards the peninsula during April to October and away from it the rest of the time, the monsoon winds or the ‘Mawsim’.
It is from these winds that Project Mausam gets its name. It is an effort by the government through the Archaeological Survey of India and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA ) to revive and reawaken the links of the Indian littoral with countries of the Gulf, east Africa and southeast Asia.
A look at the map above will provide an idea of the flow of stories. From the Indian coast with ports such as Bharukaccha (Broach), Surparaka (Sopara) and Muracipattinam (Muziris) on the west and Kaveripattinam and Tamralipti on the east, traders swept out on both sides, towards Africa and the Gulf and also southeast Asia.
The land of Jambudweep has roughly three main story clusters in order of antiquity; the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Badakaha. The first two need no introduction, the third perhaps does.
Put together possibly in the 6th century BCE, the Badakaha is a veritable ocean of stories from all over the subcontinent, a colourful representation of the lives of kings and commoners, pundits and wastrels, queens and courtesans, traders and mariners, the medley that made up society.
The original Badakaha, said to have been written in Paisachi Prakrit by Gunadhya, has been lost, but there are seminal works based on it which have survived the centuries; the Vasudeva Hindi written in Maharashtrian Prakrit in the 3rd century CE, the Tamil Perunkottai and the Sanskrit Kathasaritasagar, Brihatkathaloksangraha (of Nepal) and Brihatkathamanjari.
The most popular is Somadeva’s Kashmiri version, the Kathsaritasagar, written in the 11th century. The Vetaal Pachisi or Vikram aur Vetaal stories , the Singhasan Battisi stories are all found in this compendium of stories, as is the Panchatantra.
The Buddhist Jataka stories are directly inspired from this collection apart from the above-mentioned Jain Vasudevahindi. Such was the reach of these stories that no one — the Jains, Buddhists or any other cult of the time which wanted to gain in popularity — could afford to ignore them as a vehicle for furthering their religious ideas.
The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Badakaha have all travelled across the world and the stories are found in the most unlikely of places.
Apart from the Buddhist and Jain Ramayana and versions in every region and language of India, there are many extant re-tellings in countries of central and Southeast Asia. Java and Bali in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Mongolia, Khotan in Iran, and even Japan, can boast of their own version of the story of Ram.
These can clearly be mapped onto the trade routes with the Indian littoral at the centre.
What happened to these stories as they moved along the trade routes with the people who travelled on them?
The Gamelan orchestra of Java, for instance, keeps alive the memory of the stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; the themes of the Wayang Kulit theatre that accompany it are drawn from these epics and have lasted long after Indonesia itself has been Islamised. It is interesting to note that Odisha was a vibrant centre of sea-ports leading out to the south east and the Wayang Kulit could have developed from Chhau Dance and the Ravana Chhaya puppet theatre of this region.
The Indonesian Kakawin Ramayana is a case in point of the stories being disseminated and finding their own niche as per the culture of the country concerned; the first half is the same story as the Ramayana; it is seen as directly inspired by the Bhattikavya of the poet Bhatti. In the second half, however, indigenous deities of the area, the God Semar and his three sons, who are like the vidushak figures of Sanskrit plays, gain centre stage and offer local and pertinent political commentary. The story and characters of the Ramayana serve as a palette from where colours are used to paint an indigenous picture.
The Thai Ramakien has the story of Thotsarot, Phra Ram the avatar of Phra Narai/Witsanu , Nang Sida and Phra Lak. All the names that are familiar to the readers of the Ramayana story!
In Malaysia, the Hikayat Seri Rama tells the story of Rama and the Hikayat Pandawa Jaya of the Mahabharata. To see influences from Sanskrit literature, one just has to read that part of the latter that describes Krishna coming to Hastinapura as an emissary of the Pandavas. The women of the city rush out in different stages of shringaar in their haste and desire to see the most handsome of the gods. The seventh canto of Kumarasambhavam of Kalidasa, “Uma’s wedding”, comes to mind at once. It has the same description of the women of Himalayan kingdom rushing out to see Lord Shiva as he comes in a marriage procession to wed Uma.
The Burmese Yama Zatdaw, the Phra Lak Phra Lam of Laos, the Khmer Reamker, the Tibetan Ramayana manuscript of Dunhuang, the Nepalese Ramayana, the Mongolian and Iranian Ramayana are all witnesses to the great love and affection this story has enjoyed wherever it has gone.
In the Brihatkatha, there is Muladeva, for example, the clever thief. Also known as Karnisuta, Mulabhadra and Kalankura, he is the master thief par excellence and, as Karnisuta, the writer of the Steyashastra Pravartak or the book on the science of thieving. He is also a charmer, irresistible to women but a rascal, a rogue and a gambler albeit with a heart of gold. As Goniputraka he is said to have mastered the kamashastras and is an expert on them.
His story is found in the Vasudevahindi, the Kathasaritasagar and the Brihatkathmanjari, all versions of the original Brihatkatha.
He meets a woman as clever and feisty as he is; she poses a riddle he cannot answer; she sarcastically ridicules him in public. Our hero vows revenge and pursues her; he succeeds in marrying her. Then, to punish her, he decides to abandon her. He tells her he will accept her back only if she comes to him with his ring on her finger and his son in her arms.
She accepts the challenge and follows him, disguised as a courtesan. So disguised, she seduces him, obtains his ring, becomes pregnant and then returns to her own city. Her son grows up and, being even cleverer than his father, finds out about his father’s vow and manipulates Muladeva into coming back and reconciling with his mother — for a while, at least. Only until the next adventure beckons to Muladeva!
This story has marked its presence in countries along the trade routes including Morocco and Turkey with some variations. The Moroccan version has three children identified by three different places of birth and three different pieces of jewellery. The Turkish version also has the challenge of a foal from a horse taken away by the husband and filling up a sealed box with gold and silver apart from the mandatory son. It also has Old Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and Latin versions.
The most interesting path is the one it followed to reach England. Around 1348 Boccaccio wrote an Italian version of this story (probably coming across the story in Latin versions) in his Decameron using the identical frame story structure of the Brihatkatha. One of the stories being told in a villa outside Florence stars our old friend Muladeva.
Chaucer probably read a French translation of this by Petrarch and put it in his Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare read this, as well as a version by William Painter written in 1566 in his ‘Palace of Pleasures’, and turned it into ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’! From Muladeva, the Indian thief and trickster to Bertram, the son of an Italian countess! Look where the trade routes took us!
Let us now take a look at one of the micro cultural areas of India of the 4th century BCE. The role of trade and the prosperity it brought to the empire was central for the Mauryans. The Arthashastra has details of trade routes by land and sea and the articles traded with each area. West and Southeast Asia and even China find a mention in this compendium.
Both the Uttarapath of the north and the Dakshinapath of the south were interlinked with the seaports on both coasts of the peninsula.
The southern trade routes were so important to the Mauryans that, according to sources from Sangam literature, they intervened in the affairs of the southern kingdoms of the time.
Control of the northern trade route of the Uttarapatha, or the Haimavata Marga, as it is called in the Arthashastra, was one of the causes of the fight between the Seleucus and Chandragupta. The Mauryan-Seleucid friendship treaty that followed saw Chandragupta generously give Seleucus 500 war elephants that helped him win the Battle of Ipsus and reign supreme among the Diadochi. And Hannibal’s elephants famous in Europe were probably the progeny of these Mauryan elephants!
For two centuries, with colonization and its aftermath, and the internalization of the British worldview, we have forgotten our links with the east. Project Mausam and the efforts to revive these links strike at a rich vein of cultural continuity and a shared Indic world waiting to be rediscovered.
This is a modified version of a lecture delivered at the IGNCA, Delhi, as part of a series of lectures organized by Project Mausam. The audio feed is available here.
Sumedha Verma Ojha took a sabbatical from her job as an Additional Commissioner of Income Tax to research and write a book — Urnabhih — based on the Arthashastra of Chanakya and set in Mauryan India. Book 2 in the same series, where trade routes play an even greater role and the reader gets to meet Muladeva and the Mauryan elephants of Central Asia and Italy, will be out next year.
She also works in the area of writing, translating and explaining the epics; bringing ancient Sanskrit and Prakrit texts and stories to the modern reader in English. A Valmiki Ramayana will be out later this year. A gendered analysis of ancient India is also a focus; a book on biographies of iconic women of ancient India will be out next year.
She lives in Switzerland and speaks on ancient India across the world.