“The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History” by Sanjeev Sanyal

Ocean of Churn

A delightful book by an erudite scholar with a penchant for genuine research and a superb style of presentation. Easy to read, easy to understand, difficult to put down. A masterly blend of history, geography, politics, biology, geology, genetics, and archaeology, interspersed with anecdotes and personal testimonies. This book ought to be adapted as a school textbook.

The author eschews the traditional narratives of history presented from the western viewpoint and gives us rare insights into the goings-on in the Indian Ocean rim from pre-history to the present. From the Ranis of Ullal who consistently resisted Portuguese incursions to Marthanda Varma of Travancore who decisively defeated the Dutch at Colachel, and the Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s whose ‘treasure fleet’ visited many Indian ocean ports, the author chronicles the crucial events in India’s history and deftly places everything in perspective.

“When Prithviraj Chauhan, ruler of Delhi, fended off a raid by Muhammed Ghori in 1191, he allowed the invader to return home to Afghanistan! Ghori returned the following year to defeat and kill Prithviraj. This led to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and opened up the rest of India to conquest.” Around 1200 Nalanda University was laid waste by Bakhtiyar Khilji.

The book begins with the fascinating story of Pallava king Nandivarman II whose 65 year reign ended in A.D.796. He was shipped in from a faraway kingdom in south-east Asia at the tender age of 12 to fill the vacant throne. Five generations ago, the brother of the Pallava king had migrated to the remote kingdom, married a princess and inherited the throne. When the time came to send an heir to Kanchi, the youngest of the four sons of the reigning monarch was chosen. And, boy, did he prove his mettle!

Apart from debunking the Aryan Invasion Theory and a host of other myths such as the pacifism of Emperor Ashoka and the patriotism of Tipu Sultan, Sanyal tell us how Britain acquired the island of Manhattan, what they gave the Dutch in exchange, why the merchant Naruttam helped the Omanis recapture Muscat from the Portuguese, how the Bali islanders chose to make their last desperate stand against the Dutch in the chilling style typical of Indian warrior clans, and a lot more. The book is a treasure trove of historical facts that have been painstakingly researched, verified and cross-checked.

Remains of a 23000 year old farming settlement have been discovered near the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Europeans may have acquired their fair skin as recently as 5000 B.C. The Harappans exported ghee and cotton textiles. Many of the so-called ‘Indian spices’ were from Indonesia, e.g. cloves and nutmeg.

The Rig Veda indicates no knowledge of Central Asia or southern India. Its geographical canvas is the Sapta Sindhu or land of the Seven Rivers. The river Saraswathi mentioned in the Hindu texts is the Ghaggar River that rose in the Himalayas in the Punjab-Haryana region and finally flowed into the Rann of Kutch. The Sutlej and the Yamuna were among its tributaries. The Indus also used to flow into Kutch until an earthquake in 1819 diverted its course.

Indian soldiers were a global tribe long before the two World Wars. They had seen action at Gaugamela in 311 B.C. when Alexander of Macedon and Darius of Persia came face to face. The Indian cavalry continued fighting even after Darius had fled the battlefield. In 326 B.C. Alexander massacred 7000 Indian soldiers of the Massagan army because they refused to join his invasion of India. Seleucus Nikator gained an edge over the other generals of Alexander when he acquired 500 war elephants from Chandragupta Maurya (in exchange for Baluchistan and Afghanistan). Not to be outdone, Ptolemy managed to get elephants from Ethiopia and smuggled in Indian mahouts to train them for battle.

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea tells us there were a large number of Indians in Socotra Island (Yemen). Sanyal tells us the name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sukhadhara’.

Nearly half a century after Ashoka’s death, Kharavela of Kalinga sacked Pataliputra and sounded the death knell of the Maurya empire, yet his name is absent from history books.

The Kingdom of Funan in the Mekong delta, the first Indianized kingdom in southeast Asia, was established in the first century B.C. Nalanda University was partly funded by the Srivijaya kings of Sumatra. Roman women used to consult Indian astrologers. Madagascar was colonised by the Indonesians. By the Pallava period there were large Indian communities living in Chinese port towns. One of the largest merchant guilds called ‘The Five Hundred’ was established in Aihole, Karnataka.

Answers to many intriguing questions can be found in this book. How long have the Tamils been in Sri Lanka? Where did the Sinhalese come from? Why does Cuttack in Odisha have an annual fair called ‘Bali Yatra’? Why do the Mohyal Brahmins of Punjab join the Shia Muslims during the ritual mourning during Muharram? Why was Muhammad bin Qasim executed soon after his invasion of Sindh? Who first owned the Kohinoor diamond? And so on.

Observing that humans carry the DNA of Neanderthals and Denisovans in small proportions, Sanyal remarks tongue in cheek, “Given all this mixing, forget racial purity, it seems most of us are not even pure Homo sapiens!”

Overall Assessment: Truly a masterpiece. One of the best books I’ve read in recent years.

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History
AUTHOR: Sanjeev Sanyal
PUBLISHER: Penguin
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: August 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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