By Dennard H D’Souza, Research Associate, Maritime History Society
While flipping through the pages of history, we hear the stories of great maritime voyages undertaken by brave Indian Sailors. Be it the stories of the Kalingan Sandabha who sailed from the coast of Odisha to the far-flung Bali some two thousand years ago, or be it the great Chola fleet that ploughed through the waters of the Indian Ocean to capture the lofty city gate, Vidydhara Torana of the Sri Vijayans. Don’t we feel the urge to witness those momentous events of Indian Maritime history? Don’t we want to experience the briny sprays that waft through the breeze as the sails hoist high? Many of us pine for that experience but some have managed to recreate nostalgic experience by reenacting such ambitious voyages.
Kon Tiki Expedition
Let me first narrate the story of Thor Heyerdahl who was an adventure seeker and an explorer. As a young lad, Heyerdahl had a great fascination for nature. He would often find himself drawing imaginative pictures of the South Sea Island. Little did he know that he would create history by crossing oceans using ancient ship models and navigation techniques.
Heyerdahl’s first voyage was inspired by this childhood fascinaiton for the South Sea Islands and the stories of Kon Tiki, the Sun King as narrated by the Native Americans. Heyerdahl believed that civilizations were interconnected and the Tiki people of the Incan legend had inhabited the islands of the South Sea and built the enormous stone figurines. Despite much criticism, Heyerdahl made this voyage with a group of experts on a rafter made to design using balsa wood. This vessel did not make it to its destination and capsized mid-way in Raroia atoll in Polynesia on 7 August 1947 after sailing 101-day and 4300 nautical miles. Fortunately, the crew survived the mishap and Heyerdahl survived to undertake another voyage.
Ra I and II Expedition
In the year 1969, John Howland Rowe made a critical remark disproving the contact of the ancient Mediterranean with the ancient American. Heyerdahl decided to put to test the reed boat used by the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Indians alike. He got a reed craft built by craftsmen from Chad and set sail with a crew of seven men from Morocco to Barbados. The expedition was a disaster as the reed boat started soaking in water, causing it to sink before 1000 kilometers away from its destination. This time the crew was rescued only to set on another voyage over the Ra II which sailed the entire course from Morocco to Barbados in 1970.
Heyerdahl also performed a similar expedition on the eastern hemisphere with a reed boat named Tigris. The reed boat sailed the waters of the ancient regions of the Mesopotamia, India, and the Red Sea. Here, it sailed for a period of five months until it was burnt down by the crew for the disturbing the political situation in region.
Heyerdahl was not the only adventure explorer. Philip Beale of the British Navy almost borrowed a leaf from Heyerdahl’s book. He was convinced to undertake an adventurous expedition of the cinnamon route in 2003 after visiting the Borobudur stupa in November 08, 1982 where he was taken in by the bas relief of an 8th century rafter.
In the year 2003, a ship was built to the design of the 8th century Borobudur bas relief and was named the samudraraksa. It was flagged off by the Indonesian President Meghawati Sukarnoputri. The ship sailed from Indonesian through the Cape of Good Hope to reach Ghana on the west coast of Africa. The ship was dismantled and parceled to Indonesia after it successfully completed this voyage.
The stories of these two adventurers could ignite Indian explorers to take up one such voyage and prove the veracity of ancient Indians’ maritime accounts.