[INDOLOGY] sea travel

rajam rajam at earthlink.net
Fri Jun 27 15:13:44 UTC 2014

Dear Professor Jha and other members on this list,

I’d like to provide a southern perspective to the notion about ‘the prohibition of sea travel in ancient and medieval India.’

I’m inclined to accept Professor Jha’s statement that “the prohibition, if any, concerned Brahmans only.” Experts in South Indian brahmanical religious practices might help expand our knowledge in this regard. 

However, purely from literary sources I understand that sea travel flourished in S.India in ancient and medieval times. 

Only in one instance, in the first available grammatical text Tolkappiyam, we hear that ‘seafaring was not allowed for women.’ Other than that there is no prohibitive statements about sea travel for anyone. Thus, seafaring was not prohibited.

Anyway, why would one want to undertake a sea travel one should ask. I understand from literary and other sources that sea travel was mainly for trade and war. 

Evidences are found in the earliest Tamil literature. The south-eastern ports were the points of commerce. Inland merchants were distinguished from people who were sea-traders. 

When Buddhism spread through South India over to the Far East, there emerged an epic called Manimekalai. Whether people would take it for granted or would discard it as a story full of myths … what we read in this text cannot be ignored. If the stories in the Mahabharata and Ramayana are to be believed … the stories found in the Tamil epic Manimekalai ought to be believed as well, I think.

In the story of Manimekalai, women cross the ocean (not by boat but by their ability to fly through the sky). We hear about merchants who went to Java (“cāvakam”) for trading and their ship wrecks. These people were not “brahmans” performing vedic rituals; but, were merchants and buddhists. 


On Jun 26, 2014, at 12:33 AM, Dominic Goodall <dominic.goodall at gmail.com> wrote:

> Dear Professor Jha,
> The researcher you mention will surely be interested to know about Susmita Arp's book, a Hamburg thesis, published from Stuttgart in 1998: 
> " Kālāpāni. Zum Streit über die Zulässigkeit von Seereisen im kolonialzeitlichen Indien ".
> Dominic Goodall
> On 26-Jun-2014, at 8:59 AM, Dn Jha wrote:
>> Dear List,
>> A researcher who is not a member of this list has posed the following problem. While I am generally aware of some dharmashastric injunctions against overseas travel I am not in a position to answer all her queries. Shall be grateful for any response. Here is the problem: 
>> May I ask you one question about the prohibition of sea travel in ancient and medieval India. As I know, it was only in Baudhayana and some minor dharmasastras. In Manu the navigator was not to be invited for sraddha, and that is all. As I understand, this was no obstacle for Hindus to navigate from Aden to China. The prohibition, if any, concerned Brahmans only. Am I right? If so, whence the overwhelming ostracizing of the sea travelers in the nineteenth century? While Banyas in the sixteenth century actively traded everywhere the future Mahatma was expelled from his caste for going to England!
>> Is there any history of the Kala pani concept (in the sense of not the Andaman jail but the mysterious ‘sea border’ that was prohibited to cross?) What was it – a folkloric notion? How did it gain such popularity, and even with the educated elites in colonial times? Or maybe it was an Orientalist invention disseminated by colonial education?
>> D N Jha
>> -- 
>> -- 
>> D N Jha
>> Professor of History (retired), 
>> University of Delhi
>> 9, Uttaranchal Apartments
>> 5, I.P. Extension, Delhi 110 092
>> Tel: + 2277 1049
>> Cell: 98111 43090
>> jdnarayan at gmail.com
>> dnjha72 at gmail.com
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> Dominic Goodall
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