Ancient Indian Ocean trade spanned an astonishing period of time in the history of mankind. The cultural diversity of the regions surrounding the Indian Ocean was deep-rooted in four different civilizations: Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian. Trading caravans and voyages embarked every year from Ocean shores for age-old destinations. Chinese were accomplished and daring seafarers since ancient times. Maritime trade flourished in the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea long before the beginning of Christian era.
Ports along Kerala’s Coast, especially the ancient port of Muziris, became an important transshipment port for medieval Chinese, Arab and Roman traders. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161 A. D. -180 A. D.) sent a mission to China and after that, large quantities of goods began to arrive at Muziris. Initially, the transportation of commodities produced in Southeast Asia and China were mainly undertaken by Indian ships or those from the Red sea and Persian Gulf.
By the turn of the century, several Roman ships were arriving at Muziris to collect Indian and Chinese cargo. Chinese documents dating back to circa 500 A.D. refer to trade with Rome and India and the dangers encountered while crossing the western ocean. Chinese trade with India, especially southwest India became extensive. Chinese merchants and junk owners realized about the financial gains to be made from direct participation in Indian Ocean trade. Their heavily planked and multi decked ships, called junks, started to sail towards Southeast Asia and the commercial emporia on India’s West Coast. A burst of ocean trading activities began in China during the time of Song Dynasty (960-1227 AD). The first Chinese oceangoing trade ships were built at this time. Their heavily planked and multi decked ships, called junks, started to sail towards Southeast Asia and the commercial emporia on India’s west Coast.
This trade was founded on economic and social acceptance of four great products of eastern civilizations – silk, porcelain, sandalwood, and black pepper. They were exchanged for gold, silver, horses, and other metal goods. Ming pottery, blue and white porcelain, and Chinese celadon were popular commodities. Many Asians believed the pale sea-green celadon ware of China could reveal poisons in food. The demand for Chinese porcelain was due to an evolving appreciation of their fine shapes, and the color and glazes used to make them. The Chinese brought silk, ceramic pots, camphor, and metals to India. They took back black pepper, cardamom, ginger, coconut, and areca nut to China. More than the other spices, there was a large Chinese demand for the black pepper grown in and around the Malabar Coast. By the early thirteenth century China controlled the bulk of Indian Ocean trade. When rulers from the southern Song dynasty prohibited the exchange of metals and coins, trade continued with bartering of Chinese silk and ceramics.
The centuries-old trade with China left a firm imprint on the Malabar Coast, it lingers still today. At its height, substantial and lasting geographic changes took place. The great flood of 1341 CE totally destroyed the ancient port of Muziris and opened a large natural harbor at the nearby little fishing village of Kochi. One hundred and fifty years later, the port of Kochi gained strategic importance and commercial prosperity.
The fishermen of Kochi knew about fishing in their low-lying lagoons. Then, when their little village emerged as a major port facing the Arabian Sea, the Chinese taught them to use huge nets and fish in the ocean, even during high tide. It is interesting to note that fishermen in this port still don conical hats, another Chinese contribution. Ancient Chinese fishing nets can be seen at the entrance of Kochi harbor and all along the coastline, even today. These hanging fishing nets use an ancient Chinese mechanical method of catching fish. The large, flat nets are set up on teak wood and bamboo poles. They are lowered into the water by a crane-like structure during high tide. It takes three or four men, assisted by primitive counterweights, to accomplish this. The nets are pulled out after a few minutes, trapping fish within. This operation continues through the night, oil lights dangling on the nets to attract fish.
Other remnants of ancient Chinese trade still visible on these shores are Chinese woks and Chinese ceramic jars. In the local language these cooking utensils are still called Cheena chatti and Cheena bharani. These words literally translate to Chinese pot and Chinese ceramic jar. The traditional cheena chatti is made with iron. It is in the exact shape of a Chinese wok and is used to sauté, stir fry, and deep fry foods. Chinese ceramic jars are preferred for storing homemade pickles and milk products such as yogurt and butter milk.
There is an interesting anecdote about Chinese ceramic pickling jars. Legend has it that once a Chinese ship was ruined in the high seas. Some of the men escaped in small boats with whatever they could salvage. The owner of the ship arrived in one such small boat on the shores of Malabar Coast with some of his merchandise. He called on a local house and told them about his misfortune and requested some food. The homeowner was a poor man and was just sitting down with his family for a meager meal of Conjee. He felt sorry for the merchant and invited him to share this meal with him. Hungry and exhausted, the Chinese merchant was happy to accept this invitation. After the meal he told the homeowner, “You have not just given me some food, you have saved my life. I will never forget the taste of this bowl of conjee. God will bless you for your kindness towards a man in distress”.
He asked the homeowner for one more favor if he would store ten Chinese ceramic jars until he came back from China to collect them. The homeowner asked, “I hope you do not have anything valuable in these jars. My house is not a very safe place”. To this the Merchant answered that the jars were heavy because he had filled them with lentils. He sealed the jars in front of the merchant and put them away for safekeeping.
Weeks and months passed by and the Chinese trader did not return. In the meantime, the homeowner was having a very difficult time financially. One day when the children were starving and crying his wife said “Please, let me take some lentils from one of the jars to feed the children. Who knows when the Chinese merchant will return”? The homeowner was an honest man and did not want to steal someone else’s property. Ultimately her tears won him over and he allowed her to open just one jar.
To their surprise when they opened the jar, there were only a handful of lentils there. It was filled to the rim with gold coins. The homeowner took some gold coins, sold them, and bought food for the family. He used the rest of the money to renovate his house. He began to cultivate in his land and slowly but surely his fortunes rose. He lived a happy life. When he had enough money, he bought more gold coins and put them back into that original jar. When it was full, he sealed it and put it way along with the other nine.
Twelve years passed. One day the Chinese merchant did return. Seeing the big house, he thought “Oh God, this man has cheated me and stolen my wealth”. When he approached the front gate, the homeowner recognized him and welcomed him into his house. The merchant could not believe his eyes when he brought out all ten jars in their original form. Then came ten smaller jars similarly sealed. The merchant was impressed by his honesty, but confused about the new jars he said, “Why ten more jars”. To this the homeowner replied, “My friend I must apologize because I was not faithful. I used some of your money to feed my family and farm my land. I must pay you interest. Please accept these small jars filled with gold coins as that interest”.
Touched by his honesty, the Chinese merchant said “I was away for several years and you were safekeeping my jars all this time. You have earned your wealth through hard work. I cannot take it away from you. My money was just a vehicle for it. It is I who should pay you for all these years of safekeeping. Please accept one of these big jars as a token of my appreciation”. He left the jar with a defective mouth for the homeowner and took back the other nine. When taking leave, the merchant said “I am giving you a jar with defective mouth, but it is a blessed jar. There will be no poverty in the house where it is kept. Besides, if you use it for pickling, you will have the tastiest pickles ever”. They parted as good friends.
When it was mango season, the wife decided to use the jar the merchant left. She plucked tiny tender green mangoes from the mango tree, washed, and salted them liberally and put them in the jar. She stirred it twice daily, covered tightly and set it aside. She repeated the process for a week. Another week later, she opened the jar to taste the pickled mango. Her joy knew no bounds – it was the best mango pickle she had ever made. Legend has it that the descendants of this family still use this jar for pickling their mangoes.
During the early years of 15th century, the Ming navy had more than three thousand ocean-going vessels. However, shortly after the last voyage, an imperial edict ordered the destruction of all ocean-going vessels and the arrest any of merchant who continued to sail. Japanese pirates were terrorizing China’s shores.
Many years have passed since the last Chinese trader stepped off his junk to the shores of Malabar. Still one can find a Chinese wok and a few ceramic jars in just about every kitchen in this southwestern state of India. Chinese blue and white pottery still fetches a hefty price at local antique stores. Dangling oil lamps from the majestic Chinese fishing nets along the shores of the Arabian sea linger as reminder of the flourishing ocean trade with China centuries ago. And the legend of the jars filled with gold coins and the wonderful mango pickle from the ceramic jar with a defective mouth linger, as well.