How sea and ports turned Kachchh into a veritable melting pot of many migrating communities

Lakhpat Port: Until the Indus shifted course, Lakhpat was a prosperous port near its mouth. Its walls overlooking the Great Rann to the north were built in the 18th century. Inside are the remains of an earlier fort. Kubas of Gaus Mohmmed, Hatkeshwar Temple and Gurudwara are among the notable buildings of Lakhpat

By Hemang Desai

Kachchh is essentially a maritime civilization. Waves of the Arabian Sea wash the long coast of Kachch, dotted with ports since the time immemorial. The life on this land is so deeply linked to the ocean that it calls itself: ‘mitho mehran’, Sweet Ocean. The sea and the ports have turned Kachchh into a veritable melting pot of many communities who have arrived here through the oceanic gateway. The folk stories and myths of Kachchh are replete with legends of many communities settled here.

One such legend pertains to the Jakhs, the mysterious sea people who, according to the story emerged from the ocean sometime in the past to make Kachchh their home. Near the hillock of Bhujia in Bhuj city, stands a place of worship called Nana Jakh. It looks neither like a temple, nor a mosque; it is an open room perched on a raised ground approached by two stone staircases. Within the open room are installed deities which are 73 figures of horse riders; 72 of these riders are male and a lone woman.

Hindus and Jains worship these deities as they are believed to bestow fertility to childless couples. Jakh origins are shrouded in mystery; one theory has it that the word ‘Jakh’ is a corrupt form of the Sanskrit word, yaksha (heavenly being). According to one story, the Jakhs belong to Iran. They were known to treat the poor with medicines which they carried in a box. They also held a lantern while traveling in the night and this too is displayed in their temples. According to a legend, they arrived at Jakhau port of Kachchh following a shipwreck some 600 years ago and hence are known as Jakhs. After landing, the Jakhs apparently resumed their profession of traveling on horseback and treating the sick.

Vasco Da Gama, the dauntless navigator and to Europeans the ‘discoverer’ of India, was drawn to India by the legendary Indian spices and the supposed presence of Christians in India. The European age of discoveries had started unfolding on the watery globe, riding on the shoulders of Renaissance science. Vasco Da Gama set sail from Portugal on 8 July 1497, on board the 120-ton ship San Gabriel with a squadron of three ships. He journeyed via the Cape and arrived in Calicut on 11 May 1498, AD.

Mandvi: Ship-building in progress

Some scholars believe that Da Gama was piloted from Africa to Calicut by a Kachchhi Gujarati navigator, identified as Kanji Malam. The Christians that Da Gama was looking for in India were the mythical Abyssinian Christians of Ethiopia whom Da Gama could never see during his stay in India. Instead, he found and met in Kerala the Syrian Christians; Christianity had already arrived in India before it had gone to Europe.

Kachchh is the place where many communities who live by the sea. Mandvi, Lakhpat, Jakhau, Koteshwar, Narayan Sarovar, Mundra, Tuna, Navlakhi on the Kachchh coast have been famous ports. It is not surprising that the biggest port of the Indian Union, Kandla is right in Kachchh. It was from Lakhpat that Guru Nanak is said to have embarked on his journey to Mecca. The navigators of Kachchh belong to the Kharva and Vagher clans among the Hindus and the Bhandalas among the Muslims.

Sir Alexander Burns had noted in 1834 about the Kachchhi navigators:

“It will strike a European with some surprise when he finds that distant voyages performed by the Cutch vessels and the more so, perhaps when it is added that they are managed with precision and no small skill by pilots who have acquired the use of quadrant, and steer with charts. Some of these latter indeed exhibit originality that would not, I am sure, be disputed by Eratosthene’s [Greek Mathematician] construction of the map whose name had been handed down to posterity.”

Inside of a ship being built in Mandvi

The sailors from Gujarat and Kachchh have largely relied on word of mouth to pass experience and knowledge to the next generation, but a number of manuals exist of which some rare examples are on display at the National Museum, New Delhi. Kachchhis were also expert at making sturdy, swift boats. Some examples of the boats constructed by the Kachchhis, as cited by Dr Makrand Mehta in his “Customs and Trade History of Gujarat”, are:

  • Batela, a 12.8 meters to 13.71 meters long and 3.2 meters to 5.4 meters broad boat with two masts, three sails, and 125 metric ton capacity manned by 4 to 12 men. This type of boat engaged in trade with Zanzibar, Muscat, and other foreign ports.
  • Bagla was a 12.8 meters long and 5.9 meters broad boat with two masts and three sails, manned by 10 to 24 men and of 90 to 285 metric ton capacity. This type of boat too sailed to ports like Zanzibar and Muscat.
  • Ganjo, an 11-meters long and 4-meters broad boats with three masts and 125 metric ton capacity traded in foreign ports.
  • Kotia was an 8-meters long and 5 meters broad boats with three masts, two sails and a capacity of 80 metric ton and sailed to foreign ports.
  • Nandi and Padas were types of boats that sailed to both distant ports and engaged in coastal trade.

The maritime system developed by the Kachchhis was obviously linked to agricultural production; dairy products; woven and embroidered cloth. Kachchhi silk like panchpatta, chant, laltanka, amdawadi, chinai (Chinese), kataria and bilbusaee was the stuff of legend. Masru, a mixture of cotton and silk, was a special type of silk cloth-work created by the Kolis, Bohra and Khoja communities from threads for a ready market within and outside India. Both Rabari and Bharwad communities are legendary for their embroidery work. Their products were exported to ports like Mumbai, Malabar, Konkan, Zanzibar, Muscat, and Mokha.

Interior of a Mandvi ship

Lieut. R. Leech of the British Army has noted in 1837:

“Mandvi port has a population of 50000 souls. It has long held a high place among the mercantile ports of western India, and bears the character of sending forth some of the most skilled pilots, good seamen, adventurous merchants and strong boats that tread our eastern seas. It contains among its inhabitants many lakhpatis or Lord of a Lakh. The Mandvi merchants own 300 batelas and 400 kotiyas. They also use davs (dhows), baglas, dangees. They have a flourishing trade with Zanzibar, Muskat, Muran, Bombay and Malbar. Mandvi’s customs are at present farmed from the Rao of Kachchh, together with the neighbouring port of Moondra for eleven lakh korees. One rupee is 3.8 korees.”

An interesting episode in the maritime saga of Kachchh is the life and career of Ram Singh Malam who has left a profound influence on the art of Kachchh. This Renaissance type of man was born in the beginning of the 18th century at Okhamandal and was a Wagha by caste. He heard the call of the sea from a very early age. Drowning after a shipwreck he was traveling in, he was rescued by a Dutch ship in mid-ocean and taken to Europe.

In Europe, Ram Singh became an expert in tile-making, glass- blowing and enamel work. He also learned about clock-making, building-design, stone-carving and foundry work. On his return to Mandvi, his skills were recognized by Prince Lakho who gave him a workshop in the palace at Bhuj where he produced great works of art. Ram Singh’s masterpiece is the Aina Mahal- the Hall of Mirror — in the old palace at Bhuj.  Ram Singh indeed was a human jewel in the Kachchhi crown.

The great river Sindhu from which the name ‘India’ was originally derived, is very much a part of the mental landscape of the region of Kachchhi people. The changing course of the Sindhu is the subject of a poem of Shah Latif:

“…True, the river has gone dry,
And worthless plants have begun to flourish on the brink,
The elite merchants are on decline,
And the tax collectors have disappeared,
The river is littered with mud
And the banks grow only straws
The river has lost its old strength,
You big fish, you did not return
When the water had its flow
Now it’s too late,
You will soon be caught
For fishermen have blocked up all the ways.
The white flake on the water:
Its days are on the wane.”
(Translated by Prof DH Butani, 1913-89)

Pix: Vatsal Vekaria

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