Fishermen, sailors and merchants travelled the waters of the Indian Ocean as early as the third millennium BCE, linking the world’s earliest civilizations from Africa to East Asia in a complex web of relationships. The commodities exchanged through these networks included a wide array of objects – aromatics, medicines, dyes, spices, grain, wood, textiles, gems, stones and ornaments, metals, and plant and animal products – and were transported through voyages and sold at markets or bazaars along the Indian Ocean littoral. Many of the commodities involved had multiple meanings and diverse functions. Spices, for example, were not only used as condiments and for preservation of food, but also played a major role in materia medica and ritual practices. Additionally, while trade might have underpinned many of these cross-cultural relationships, the Ocean was also a highway for the exchange of religious cultures and specialized technologies. The expansion of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity helped define the boundaries of this Indian Ocean ‘world’, creating networks of religious travel and pilgrimage. The construction of traditional sailing craft involved trade and transportation of wood for planking and coconut coir for stitching from different regions of the Indian Ocean, enabling the transmission and preservation of ancient boat-building technologies.
How was exchange across the Indian Ocean organized? There are multiple sources that help us answer this question; ranging from archaeological evidence to inscriptions and textual references from a range of time periods. Examples of such trade, exchange and interaction abound in the Indian Ocean world, ranging from third-millennium BCE Harappan ceramics, beads, and seals found on sites across the Arabian Peninsula to accounts of European sailors travelling the seas in the nineteenth century. Another aspect of the maritime networks relates to the visual topography that provided landmarks to sailors and defined the sailing world in antiquity. This visual topography was characterized by coastal structures, many of them religious in nature that created a distinctive maritime milieu. For example, the thirteenth-century Konark Temple on the coast of Odisha in India was known as the ‘Black Pagoda’ to European sailors, as opposed to the ‘White Pagoda,’ the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Similarly, the Buddhist temple at Nagapattinam on the Tamil coast in India, erected for Chinese Buddhists, was a major landmark for ships from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries until it was demolished by French Jesuits. Forts were other important structures that dotted the Indian Ocean coastline and could be seen from a long distance. Additionally, from at least the ninth century onwards, there are references to markets in coastal areas being located in fortified settlements.