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Beyond the Land

Upinder Singh

By Himanshu Prabha Ray . Series editor Norman Yoffee
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 335, Rs. 1250.00


Himanshu Prabha Ray’s The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia makes a convincing case for the need to abandon an insular view of ancient India. Viewing the subcontinent within the larger world of the Indian Ocean, it replaces the usual episodic view of trade by a nuanced long-term narrative that stretches from the third millennium BC to the fifth century AD. With a primary focus on peninsular India, it swings back and forth between and among the regions lying between the Red Sea and the Indonesian archipelago. Ray weaves her narrative by marshalling an impressively wide range of archaeological, literary, and ethnographic data, questioning a number of prevalent assumptions and hypotheses along the way.      Although Ray has written extensively on trade, The Archaeology of Seafaring is a much more ambitious work than, for instance, her Monastery and Guild or The Winds of Change. Here, Ray’s attempt is “to move beyond land-based concerns such as agrarian expansion and trading networks and to focus on the diverse range of communities within the spheres of trade, religion and politics that contributed to the cultural identity of an Indian Ocean world” (p. 1). She challenges the notion that trade within this world was restricted to luxury or prestige goods. But most important of all, her perspective on maritime history marks an important and decisive shift from the conventional focus on identifying trade routes and collating items of import and export towards an analysis of the social practice of maritime technology.      This involves looking closely at fishing and sailing communities, the links between the availability of fishing grounds and nature of fishing crafts, the relationship between watercraft and social status, the internal hierarchies that distinguished fishing and sailing communities from transporters and cargo-carriers, and the linkages and extent of integration between littoral and inland communities. Further, Ray emphasizes the need to understand the connections between these issues and historical processes such the emergence of urban centres, increasing levels of political complexity and social differentiation, and the impact of belief systems and religious practices. With this kind of contextualization and wider perspective, the history of coastal communities and maritime activities becomes a significant aspect of a broader history.       All this is possible because of the archaeological and ethnographic sources Ray draws on. As she rightly points out, textual sources generally represent the worldview of inland elite groups, not of illiterate fisherfolk and sailors. Unlike ...

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