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Mongols speaking Malayalam – What a sunken ship says about South India & China’s medieval ties

The silent ceramic objects that survive from medieval Indian Ocean trade carry incredible stories of a time when South Asia had the upper hand over China.

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We often think of industrialisation, consumerism and global trade as very ‘modern’ phenomena. The terms conjure up images of conveyor belts, assembly lines, factories churning out smoke, and bustling cities. Many of these aspects, however, could already be seen in China and across the Indian Ocean by the 9th and 10th centuries.

In the 830s CE, a ship tried to make a daring crossing. Navigating treacherous reefs and shoals, it was attempting to move from the South China Sea to the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. After a brief stop there, it intended to catch the monsoon winds to India. This attempt failed, and the ship’s contents — ranging from marvellously carved golden plates to glazed ceramics, from a diplomat’s ink-stone to a small toy dog meant as a gift for a child — sank to the bottom of the sea near present-day Belitung, Indonesia. Today, this cargo and other evidence reveal the incredible interactions between medieval China, India, and West Asia, including multicultural embassies, splendid gifts, and even bureaucratic panic due to India’s overwhelming trade advantage.


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Medieval networks of capital and risk

By far the most striking remains found in the Belitung shipwreck are a collection of over 60,000 ceramic dishes. These dishes were produced in tens of thousands using standardised templates by something resembling an assembly line, with teams of workers dedicated to working the clay, shaping, painting, glazing, firing and packing it. After being finished in Changsha in south-central China, they were packed and shipped to the embarkation port of Guangzhou. This consignment consisted of bulk orders placed by West Asian merchants, as revealed by the decorative motifs used on the ceramics, which were similar to examples from Iraq and the Persian Gulf. There were large communities of these merchants in Guangzhou.

Square-lobed gold dishes from the Belitung shipwreck | ArtScience Museum Singapore | Wikimedia Commons
Square-lobed gold dishes from the Belitung shipwreck | ArtScience Museum Singapore | Wikimedia Commons

Let’s think about how such an enormous shipment could have been arranged. The immigrant merchants in Guangzhou must have had some reliable source of information about ceramic trends in their homelands; perhaps they visited themselves or had relatives and colleagues with whom they corresponded or exchanged goods. Next, there were means of arranging capital for so many ceramics. There must have been some guarantees or surety provided by potential buyers in West Asia, which was transmitted to the merchants in China. Finally, the ship chartered to carry the goods was of Indian or Arab design, crewed by sailors from these regions; this crew must have had considerable knowledge of shipping routes and markets since they were in Guangzhou in the first place. All of this is extremely impressive in a world where international movement depended on the seasons and the ingenuity of sailing technology.

With all these hopes riding on the ship, we can imagine the consternation when it was wrecked. We can certainly relate to all the money lost, but maybe we can also relate to the terrible grief that must have been felt. For instance, by the children of the crew — the toy dog mentioned above, bought perhaps by a now-lost father, that would never reach its little owner.


Also read: Why is a dragon carved on Jain temple in Mangalore? Medieval Africa-China trade holds answer


Embassies and exchanges

Thousands of pottery sherds, discovered in archaeological digs, reveal that the Belitung shipwreck was one among many ships that moved between medieval West, South, and East Asia. Across the South Indian coast, but especially in Tamil Nadu, Professor Noboru Karashima found evidence of Chinese pottery dating to as early as the 9th century. They were highly sought after as luxury goods, owing to their designs and quality and also because they could store food at high temperatures without losing their rich colours or cracking. Excavations at the Chola palace at Gangaikondacholapuram found large quantities of these ceramics, dating to the 11th century and possibly brought back by the embassies of Rajaraja I and Rajendra I in 1015 and 1033.

While we’ve discussed these and similar embassies in earlier editions of Thinking Medieval, the converse is rarely talked about. Chinese emperors sent multiple embassies to South India from the 13th century onwards. At the same time, the archaeological record shows a sudden increase in ceramic sherds found along the coast. Just as South Indian kings and merchants recognised the value of commerce, Professor Tansen Sen shows that so did the Chinese — especially the rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), who were of Mongol descent.

Seeking both military and commercial expansion, Yuan ruler Kubilai Khan sent no less than fourteen missions to India in his reign. The objective of these missions was to secure embassies from the Pandya kingdom as well as from smaller trading cities such as Kozhikode and Kollam on the Malabar coast; interestingly, we know that Kollam’s local Christian, Jewish and Muslim merchants also sent embassies to the Yuan court, joining its ambassadors on their return voyage. In one case, a merchant from Gujarat arrived at Kollam to make submissions to the Chinese embassies. All of these were presented to Kubilai Khan’s court as proof that distant polities acknowledged his supremacy, thus establishing him as a worthy successor to his grandfather Genghis Khan.

Octagonal footed gold cup from the Belitung shipwreck | ArtScience Museum Singapore | Wikimedia Commons
Octagonal footed gold cup from the Belitung shipwreck | ArtScience Museum Singapore | Wikimedia Commons

Also read: India was part of medieval arms race stretching from Russia, China to Iran. All for horses


Merchants criss-crossing the Indian Ocean

Along with these courtly interactions, we see a deepening of the networks of merchants. Chinese traders also began to play a role in trade; they are mentioned travelling to India in large ships, even setting up a large pagoda in the Tamil port of Nagapattinam. The Yuan dynasty’s encouragement of trade was so successful that they began to panic about the outflow of metallic currency being used to buy Indian luxuries like pearls and kingfisher feathers. Despite bans, trade and merchant movements continued to grow; by the time of the Ming dynasty in the 15th century, some Indian kingdoms were even hiring immigrant Chinese merchants to lead their embassies to China.

Unlike the Yuan rulers, who saw the Indian Ocean trade as a means to profit and prestige, the Ming emperor Yongle (r. 1402–1424) was interested in establishing China as a “civilising” power in the Indian Ocean — the culmination of diplomatic and commercial ties built up over centuries. The expeditions sent by his admiral Zheng He to Southern India were a result of its emergence as an important trading partner in previous centuries. Strikingly, the Ming dynasty also interfered in the affairs of the Bengal Sultanate in the 15th century — we’ll explore these and their motivations in a future column.

For now, it is worth remembering that the silent ceramic objects that survive from the Indian Ocean trade contain within them incredible stories of a time when South Asia held the upper hand over China in trade, a dynamic that made the fortunes of merchants and the careers of emperors.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history. 

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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