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The port towns of Gujarat: jewels of the littoral

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A large number of tiny port towns and some more sizeable port towns along the coast of Gujarat have formed a chain in the maritime trade across the Indian Ocean for many centuries. They picture together, and separately, the maritime history of this part of India.
This volume consists of twenty papers presented at a symposium on Gujarat’s port towns in 2012, preceded by two editorials, one by each editor. The contributors are almost all historians. In his editorial, Michael Pearson praises the port towns as bearers of a flexible, cosmopolitan maritime society along the littoral where new ideas are accepted, in contrast with ‘those on land, who are immobile’ and ‘those on the deep sea who are fixed’(xx). Pearson characterizes the port towns lyrically as jewels of the littoral, gems in the necklace of the coast. In her essay in this volume, Adhya Bharti Saxena has listed its jewels in an outline paper: not less than 61 in the period from 1500 till 1800, over a length of 1,600 kms: 11 and 30 respectively along the coasts of the Khachchh and Kathiawar/Saurashtra peninsulas, and 20 in mainland Gujarat. Indeed, the port towns of Gujarat played a role in the trade from South and East Asia via Western India to the Arab world, East Africa and into Europe, and the other way round. The seasonally reversing monsoon winds brought traders to and from these strategically located port towns and formed what the Paul Lunde and the archaeologist Jennifer Craig call a link in the ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (28). This leads to the second introduction. The second editor, Sara Keller puts forth an analytical question: ‘Do the port towns of Gujarat possess a unifying identity?’ (xxiii). She suggests in which direction answers might be found to her question: the riverine location of many port towns, a little away from the coast, but vulnerable to silting; the industrial and agricultural produce of the ‘hinterland’ that could be exported; the entrepreneurship of the population in terms of commerce and seafaring; and architectural elements. Some answers are found in several of the 19 out of the 20 following papers, structured into three main categories (and sections of the book; about a fourth section: see below): functions of port cities, urban communities, and urban morphology. 

Port towns: functions, social structures and urban form
Most of the papers, however, cannot be easily categorized in one of the three sections. They contain often elements of all sections – while other dimensions of Gujarat’s port cities such as silting of the rivers where most are located, the hazards of changing political powers or those of pirates – have been brought to the fore as well. Hence, some papers are clearly thematic, while in other ones a rather monographic approach has been presented. Moreover, the scope of the papers varies. In most papers one single port towns has been examined (either in a more thematic or in a more monographic manner), but in a few others some towns have been compared or a broad picture of Gujarat’s port towns has been given. Most authors stress the importance of maritime trade in the region and hence the cosmopolitan culture in its port towns and a social structure geared towards sailing. Lotika Varadarajan reminds the reader that there is even a specific seafaring community in Gujarat: the Kharwas (14). The contributions in the book on Gujarat’s port towns deal with the past. Roughly speaking: history of a thousand years from medieval trade till the decline of Surat after 1800. There are exceptions; an outline has been given of Harappan coastal settlements and ports of at least 2,000 years BC by the Gujarat State archaeologist Y. S. Rawat, while in some papers remarks pertaining to a less remote past up to the present are given. An exception also has to be made for a paper on past and present climate change in Gujarat by the social scientist Yoginder Alagh in which the century old and ongoing silting of the rivers into the Indian Ocean is discussed. 

Tiny and large port towns: from Mundra to Surat
These preliminary remarks should not be taken as a caution to prospective readers of the book. Its aggregate contents give an interesting picture of the weal and woe of the often tiny towns along the coasts of Khachchh, Saurashtra and mainland Gujarat. And though the book as such displays once more the maritime tradition of the region, its local particularities, brought out many of the papers, add many fresh colours to the painting of this tradition. Much of its contents will therefore be of interest to scholars interested in either the region or in maritime history. The close relationship between the traders of Mundra, Mandvi and other towns in Khachchh, and Zanzibar is for instance told in the paper of Saxena in words but also illustrated by photographs of similar architectural details: carved wooden façades and doors. Mundra appears to be a goldmine for research. Chhaya Goswami and Hideaki Suzuki discuss its trade, social structure and architecture as well, and as their respective accentuations differ, they present an interesting picture of the past of this tiny town along the coast of Khachchh. The same applies to two papers on Bharuch, Gujarat’s prime port till the 9th century but still of some economic importance in subsequent centuries. Meher Mistry analyses the role of the Parsi community in the economy of the city, while Sara Keller shows in many maps, paintings and photographs the magnificence of its city walls (not less than 1,400 m) and fort. Better known port towns such as Diu, Cambay (now Khambhat) and naturally Surat come to the fore as well. The former Portuguese enclave Diu has been presented by the architect Nuno Grancho as a unique town with a ‘formal character that sets it apart from the rest of India, indeed even from the territories held by other European powers’, with unmistakably medieval Mediterranean traits (261). Grancho is no exception; several authors tend to stress the importance of  ‘their’ town. Makrand Mehta writes about the ‘long and illustrious history ‘of Cambay (now Khambhat), to which he proudly adds: ‘longer than Bharuch and Surat’ (123). Others mourn the decline of an erstwhile port town of some importance, such as Mandvi, in an interesting chapter by the anthropologist Edward Simpson. He concludes by observing the: ‘... sleepy cosmopolitanism of Mandvi and the towns global connections that one can see now ...’ (117). There is ample room for similar remarks on some of the other port towns in this book. Mariam Dossal, who writes on Lakhpat, a tiny port town in Khachchh prospering as a gateway to Sindh, nowadays in Pakistan, concludes that actually the 1947 Partition ‘... brought greater tragedy to the challenged town and its busy port’(88). Nishat Manzar, remarks that Ghogha on the Eastern Saurashtra coast was till the 16th century with Khambhat he busiest port of Gujarat. It lost its prominent position in the next century to Surat. ‘Ghogha had lost a bit of its sheen as a haven for ships trading in the region’, writes Khambhat mournfully (68).
Indeed, Surat seems the main ‘omnivore’ of most of the small, port towns, and proved to be the undisputed successor to nearby port towns such as Ghogha, Diu, Khambhat and Bharuch since the EIC chose the town as its main station along the west coast until the advent of Bombay. Aspects of its history are discussed in four papers. Radhika Seshan deals with the growth of Surat in the 17th century at the cost of Cambay, the most important port town in the 16th century, and she compares both port towns, Pearson reflects on the regional position of the town stretching from East Africa, the Arab world and the South Asian sub-continent. It was according to Pearson ‘arguably the greatest port in the world’ in the late 17th century (46), and was said to count 200,000 inhabitants, until it was ‘eaten’ itself by an even more powerful omnivore: Bombay. Douglas E. Haynes presents two centuries of decline of Surat from the mid 18th century onwards, and a similar analysis of the decline of the city is given by Ruby Maloni. However, Surat could maintain its position as a specialised industrial centre, specialising in silk, jewellery, etc. 

Pirates and paintings
A book on Gujarat’s maritime tradition is not complete without a chapter on pirates. Lakshmi Subramaniam gives a thrilling account of the maritime guerrilla warfare among local rulers, and notably since the late 18th century with the EIC. However, Subramaniam argues: ‘Researches on piracy and on regimes of legality have demonstrated the blurred distinction between piracy and privateering, and how maritime agents negotiated laws and operated in conditions of legal pluralism.’ (179). A fourth and final section: ‘The Sea and Paintings’, finally, has not been categorized in any manner in this book and consists of one single paper, that of the art historian B.N.Goswamy on how painters from often faraway picture the sea, a sea they probably never actually saw. Goswamy discusses some paintings from the 16th to the 19th century, but cannot but conclude that: ‘No rules can be drawn up, no firm lines established, and what keeps happening in minds remains impossible to fathom.’(320). This conclusion does fortunately not apply to the port towns of Gujarat.

Hans Schenk, University of Amsterdam (retd) (

Citation: Schenk, H. 2016. Review of Keller, S. & Pearson, M. (eds.) 2015. Port Towns of Gujarat, posted on 22 Feb 2016 on New Asia Books; 


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