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Garvi Gujarat

Gujarat - From Far And Near *
by Prof. Niranjan Bhagat

Gujarat from far and near (page 1 of total 3)

This essay endeavours to see Gujarat from far and near in terms of time and space, in terms of its history and geography; in other words, to see Gujarat as it was in the past and as it is at present. It is not an attempt to see Gujarat in all its multifarious aspects but only in a few select ones, which those who live in the state may take for granted and others who live outside are likely to miss, or misunderstand. Gujarat is known as the land of the Banias, and rightly so, for it is they who symbolize

Gujarat, form its image and foster its identity. At the outset, it is necessary to clarify that the Banias, like the Vaishyas, are not a caste but a community, a mercantile community which has dominatedGujarat and created a cultural climate - the Mhajan culture - in which the people of Gujarat have lived for centuries.

(History facts -Indus Valley civilization)

The origin of the Bania community can be traced to the Indus Valley civilization. There have been archaeological discoveries and excavations at Harappa in Punjab (1856), Mohenjo-daro in Sind (1922), Lothal in Saurashtra (1954) and recently in Dholavia in Kutch as well as in other regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan (300 sites have been unearthed, of which 50 are located in Kutch, Saurashtra and Gujarat).

They reveal that a pre-Aryan civilization and a pre-Vedic culture existed in the Indus Valley and otherregions of north-west India 1600 km north-south from Oakthan near Peshawar to Ambhore near Mumbai and 1100 km east-west from Dwarka in Saurashtra to Alamgirpur near New Delhi - between 3000 B.C. No documents or monuments have been found and such relics as seals, coins and script still remain undeciphered. Hence, little known about its social structure, except that a predominantly mercantile community inhabited the Valley and that it had evolved a highly civilized society.

The Harappans came down from the Valley in the north to the sea-coast in the south around 2400 B.C. in search of fertile lands and potential ports. They developed Lothal as their most important port and consequently, as a great city -as great as Mohen-jo-dar. These were different from the cities in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The civilization at Lothal survived till 1500 B.C., even though it vanished from the northern regions in 1600 B.C.

Lothal (the mound of the dead), 80 km south-west from Ahmedabad, discovered in 1954 and excavated from 1955 to 1960, is an archaeological marvel. It harbours debris up to a depth of 20 meters. It measures 284 meters north-south and 228 meters east-west. At the height of its glory it must have covered a wider area, as remains of habitation 300 meters away from the mound suggest. Among its many magnificent remains is a huge dock -a 218 x 37 x 5 cubic meter baked brick structure -superior to that of Phoenicians and Romans in succeeding ages. The dockyard for berthing and servicing the ships could hold 30 ships of 60 tonnes each, or 60 ships each of 30 tonnes.

Its many remarkable relics - a mummy, an Assyrian's head, a seal with five ships sketched on it and seals of the Arabian and Sumerian cities and muslin and indigo found in the Egyptian pyramids - suggest that Lothal had overseas trade relations with Abbas, Bushayar, Behrin, Susa and Sumer: Lothal was, indeed, an internatonal trade centre. Its prosperity came mainly from trade in cotton and ivory beads. The ancient sea-farers of Lothal are the ancestors of the Bania community and it is they who have bequeathed the legacy of sea-faring to the people of Gujarat.

Mistress of the Sea

Gujarat has the largest coastline and largest number of ports of all the states of India. It has a 663 km coastline, which is 30% of India's total of 5700 km. Gujarat is surrounded by the sea on three sides. Of its 19 districts, as many as 10 have a sea-coast. It is this geography which has governed its history.

In pre-historic times, the Mahabharata refers to Prabhas and Dwarka, the two oldest ports of Gujarat. Dwarka literally means `the gateway'. Phoenician ships came to the sea-coast of Saurashtra and Assyrian ships want to Iran via Dwarka.

In ancient and medieval times, Gujarat had 52 active ports, of which Bharuch, Khambhat and Surat were the busiest. Gujarat had overseas trade relations with a large number of countries - Sumer, Phoenicia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Arabia, Iran, Maskat and Yeman, Hormuz and East Africa in the west and Lanka, Brahmadesh, Malaya, Burma, Java, Sumatra, Camboia and China in the east. Buddhist and Jain writings and Kautilya's Arthshastra mention the ports of Gujarat, the countries with which they had trade relations and mercandise they exported and imported. Ptolemy's Geography and Guide to Red Sea by an ananymous author provide detailed descriptions of the sea-coast of Gujarat. The latter even gives the Roman names of its major ports - Barik (Dwarka), Barigaza (Bharuch) and Kambayat (Khambhat).

Hsiuan-Tsang's Travelogue identified the sea as a major source of livlihood for the people of Gujarat. On the walls of a temple at Borobudur in Java a sculpture depicts the journey of a few immigrants from Gujarat who settled in Java. On the walls of a cave at Ajanta a painting depicts the journey of Kumarvijay, the son of Sinhbahu, king of Sinhpur to Lanka which he renamed as Sinhaldwipa. History books in Lanka also record this story.

Gujarat was famous in the western world as `the mistress of the sea' and the Saindhava community of Saurashtra as the `lords of the ocean'. From the 11th to the 17th century, Bharuch was at the height of its glory. In the 15th century as many as 4000 ships passed through Bharuch. Next to Bharuch, Khambhat was a prominent port during this period.

In the 17th century, Surat surpassed both Bharuch and Khambhat. Traders from all over the world came to Surat. Muslim, Arab, Turkish, Iranian, Jewish, Dutch, Portuguese, English and American traders had settled in Surat. The Parsis had already made it their home in the 11th century. The Muslim traders were the most outstanding among them -Virji Vora, Mulla Mahammad Ali and Ahmed Chameli. Pilgrims went to Mecca for Haj from Surat. Hence, Surat was known as Meccaidwar, Meccabari, Babul Mecca. In the 19th century the Portugeuese, Dutch, British and the French had factories in these three famous ports. Earlier, a local pilot, Kanji, had guided Vaso da Gama on his way to India. for next page

Prof. Niranjan Bhagat

* Article published in October 1998 SEMINAR 470
- published here with due courtesy from the Author

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