“…details to reach Ceylon from Bhatkal, sail in the direction of Dhruv or Agasat, towards the eastern rising direction. After sailing two zams, there is one chhog and moving in the same line, another chhog comes in view. From there sail three zams in the direction of Dhruv and again sail two and half zams, you will see the coconut trees. Sail through same canal in the direction of setting Kagada ….”
‘details about the cleverness of malams. He is the one who has faith in the ustad. Malam is one who gets along with others very well. He is one who keeps awake even in the night and keeps faith on the kiyaas that he makes. He is one who looks into water, and sails the ship with utmost care and safety. A malam is one who increases his creditability with good conduct. He is one who does not enter into quarrel with others. He is one who takes care of all on board the ship, although he keeps faith only on his kiyaas when in the high sea …”
— Excerpts from the pothis of Kutchi malam-navigators
If, in the passages cited above, one does not know that zam is roughly the equivalent of 20 kilometers or three hours of sailing, that chhog means the edge of hazardous spots, or that the word malam stands for a navigator, one might find oneself completely ‘at sea’, so to speak. For all these words come from the pothis — records, or log books — maintained by Kutchi sailors who used to fearlessly sail the seas on their home-made ‘ships’ once, from the west coast of our land: now to the eastern coast of Africa, now to Ceylon, now to Zanzibar; setting off from Mandavi for Maldives one day, from Surat for Muscat on another.
It is a remarkable story, that of Kutchi seafaring: something that, sadly, one knows very little about, or cares about remembering. When, together with a colleague, I wrote, long years ago, a book on Painting in Kutch — something that hardly anyone knew anything about at that time — I titled it ‘A Place Apart’. For that is what it was, at least for me. Gingerly, I entered the field, recalling to myself, and for the reader, that the name Kutch came from Sanskrit kaccha, meaning ‘a bank of any ground bordering on water’, or from kachhapa, which means ‘a turtle, a tortoise’, straddling both land and water, slow of movement but remarkable in persistence. But I also drew attention to the reference to Kutch as ‘a cardamom-like island’ in the Mahabharata. Dry and uneven on the outside, but full of fragrant surprises within? This is what it still is, perhaps. For me, at least in the area of painting, the ‘fragrance’ came from the surprising fact that much of it, at least in the 18th century, was inspired by the work and presence of one Ram Singh, a malam or navigator, who landed in Holland around 1715, having been rescued by a Dutch ship after being shipwrecked during a voyage to the African coast. There, this malam, endowed with remarkable natural talent, stayed for 12 years, learning a singular range of skills, and then returned to his native land, carrying in his bag a pile of ‘strange-looking’ European engravings of cities and city squares, which led local painters first to copy them and then, inspired by their new ways of seeing, to take to painting local, sharply observed, landscapes. The first of their kind, one might add, in the history of Indian painting.
But that is another story. What is common between it and what I write about now are the malams, Kutchi navigators. Around the time that the book on Kutch painting was published, it came to light that, now in private possession, was a huge cache of ‘malam ni pothis’ — log books, virtually daily diaries, kept by the malams as they sailed — which was eventually acquired by the National Museum in Delhi. This ‘treasury of data’ under the title, Pre-modern Navigation Techniques and Voyages was later published — jointly by the National Museum and an NGO, Darshak Itihas Nidhi — through the effort of many people, most prominent among them being Hasmukh Shah, distinguished bureaucrat with a passionate interest in the history of Gujarat, especially seafaring Gujarat. The work involved was daunting in its sheer enormity but Ashok Rajeshirke, who transcribed and edited the material, bent himself to the task. What we access in this body of material, running in its present form to just a little short of 1,000 pages, is simply astonishing. Volume after volume, folio after folio, all in the Kutchi version of the Gujarati script, is filled with staggeringly dense detail: accounts of voyages while they were still in progress, navigation charts, astronomical calculations, endless lists of names of malams, tables, observations, even, at places, working drawings. In the context of modern techniques and technology, it might all sound a bit antiquated, even primitive, but when one sees them in the context of their times, and against the background of what was then available, the material takes one’s breath away. Here it all is: a glimpse into those times. Gujarati and Arabic terminologies coalesce; ustads and muqaddams and age-old malams move in and out; prayers to the gods who rule over the hazards on the high seas combine with faith in the instruments at hand. What emerges from the work at the same time is the fact of how profound the observation of these navigators was, how well they understood littorals and ports, dangers and escape-routes, and how keenly they were able to read what was in the skies above them.
One singular example, at the end, of the malams’ sharpness of observation. These Kutchi navigators had learnt to read, and put to remarkable use, the movement of morejas– akind of sea-snake – in guiding their courses close to land. They memorized the colour and physical type or shape of morejas at different nautical points. The density or sparseness of shoals of morejas, the direction in which they moved at different times of day or night, the colours of their skins: everything was grist to their mill of learning. One has only to read one detailed entry from a pothi to be transported to another time, a different place.
[All images, save that of the temple below, are from the malams' pothis]
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